Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Igboland – Freedom, survival, future

The major preoccupation of an aggressor/conqueror state is to seek to effectuate a process of memory erasure over its overrun nation and land. This is the opportunity for the conqueror to begin to construct a bogus narrative of possession and control of the targeted society that arrogates it to the fictive role of primary agent of the course of history.

The enduring success of Chinua Achebe’s Things fall Apart is that the classic not only anticipates this conqueror’s predilection but it subverts the triumphalism of the latter’s Pyrrhic victory. Despite the District Commissioner’s bombastically-captioned anthropological treatise at the end of the novel, heralding the latest European “possession and control” of another region of Africa, this time Igboland, the future direction of history here neither lies with the administrator nor his evolving occupation regime – nor indeed with his conquering capital back home in Europe!

To locate the source for change and transformation in Igboland, subsequently, we need to examine, carefully, the import and circumstance of historian Obierika’s address to the administrator on the life and times of his friend and people’s hero, Okonkwo, who had recently committed suicide. We are reminded that as he speaks, two full sentences into a third, Obierika’s voice “trembled and choked his words”, trailing off into gasps and silences of deep contemplation. It is precisely within the context of these kaleidoscopic frames of Obierika’s recalls and introspection that we discern the sowing of the Igbo nation’s regenerative seeds of resistance and quest for the restoration of lost sovereignty. It is therefore not surprising that Okonkwo’s grandchildren would spearhead the freeing of Nigeria, to which Igboland had since been arbitrarily incorporated by the conquest, from the British occupation – beginning in the 1940s, just 40 years after the so-called formal inauguration of the conquest.


For the aggressor state with a clear genocidal goal, memory erasure of the crime scene at the targeted nation is even more frantically pursued. On the morrow of the conclusion of its execution of the second phase of the Igbo genocide in January 1970, Nigeria wheeled out pretentious cartographers to embark on erasing the illustrious name Biafra from all maps and records that it could lay its hand on! During its meetings, the genocidist junta in power banned the words “sun”, “sunlight”, “sunshine”, “sundown”, “sunflower”, “sunrise” or any other word-derivatives from the great sun star that unmistakably reference the inveterate Land of the Rising Sun. This task and symbolism of sun-banning and sun-bashing were of course bizarre if not daft as the junta itself was to discover much sooner than later – and from a most unlikely source indeed…

At the time, a British military advisor to the junta, who was out dining with a senior member of the council in Lagos, unwittingly compared Igbo national consciousness and tenacity with that of the Poles. The advisor, who had studied modern history at university and was a great admirer of the exceptional endurance of Polish people in history, stated that the Igbo had demonstrated similar courage in the latter’s defence of Biafra and that the “rebirth of Biafra is a distinct possibility in my lifetime” – this was unlike the 123 years it took the Polish state to re-appear in history after its disappearance from the world map! The advisor was then in his early 30s and the obvious implications of his Igbo-Polish analysis were not lost on his host. The junta member co-diner was understandably most outraged by the advisor’s crass insensitivity on the subject which he readily shared with his junta colleagues. Predictably, the immediate consequence of the hapless advisor’s impudence was an early recall home to Britain.

There were other bouts of farcical treats on display in Nigeria during the period aimed at erasing the memory of the Igbo genocide. Junta and other state publications and those of their sympathisers would print the name Biafra, a proper noun, with a lower case “b” or box the name in quotes or even invert the “b” to read “p”, such was the intensity of the schizophrenia that wracked the minds of the members of the council over the all important subject of the historic imprint of Igbo resistance and survival.

The Awolowoists and Awolowoids (supporters of Obafemi Awolowo – junta deputy chair, genocidist “theorist” and head of finance ministry) on the junta even toyed with the idea of abolishing money altogether in the economy of the soon occupied-land of the resourceful and enterprising Igbo. They reasoned that this would deliver the “final solution” that had eluded them during the “encirclement, siege, pounding and withering away”-strategy of the previous 44 months… They ended up with the “compromise” pittance of £20.00 sterling (twenty pounds sterling only) per the surviving male-head of the Igbo family – a derisory sum, which, they reckoned, stood no chance of averting the catastrophe of social implosion they envisaged would occur in Igboland subsequently. We mustn’t fail to note that the £20.00-handout excluded the hundreds of thousands of Igbo families whose male-heads had been murdered during the genocide… Dreadfully, the accent placed by Nigeria on this third phase of the genocide, starting from 13 January 1970, was the economic strangulation of the 9 million Igbo survivors… 3.1 million Igbo had been murdered in the genocide between 29 May 1966 and 12 January 1970. This is the foundational and most gruesome genocide of post-(European)conquest Africa.


Igbo survival from the genocide is arguably the most extraordinary feature for celebration in an otherwise depressing and devastating age of pestilence in Africa of the past 51 years. Few people believed that the Igbo would survive their ordeal, especially from September 1968 when 8-10,000 Igbo, mostly children and older people, died each day as the overall brutish conditions imposed by the genocidist siege deteriorated catastrophically.

The Igbo are probably the only people in the world who were convinced that they would survive. And when they did, the aftermath was electrifying. In spontaneous celebration, the Igbo prefaced their exchange of greetings with each other, for quite a while, with the exaltation, “Happy Survival!” Igbo survival, at the end, does represent the stunning triumph of the human spirit over the savage forces unleashed by Nigeria and its allies that had tried determinably, for four years, to destroy it.

Forty-one years on, first and second generations removed from their parents and grandparents, respectively, who freed British-occupied Nigeria in 1960 and survived the follow-up genocide, Okonkwo’s progeny are once again tasked and poised to restore Igbo lost sovereignty. Everyone knows of their firm resolve and ability to achieve this goal. The Igbo can feel it; they feel it; the rest of the world feels it. Surely, the successful outcome of this endeavour is one of the most eagerly awaited news developments in contemporary Africa.

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