Ten years ago, when I was a 19 year-old fresher at the University of Hull, I met Ify. She was at that time, probably the most beautiful girl I had ever set my eyes on. I immediately tripped, hit my head and went into an infatuation coma. Ify was the quintessential social butterfly – witty, friendly, distinctly intelligent and culturally Nigerian, with a few notable modifications like her South London accent and a slight tomboy streak.
I think my eyeballs actually turned into heart emojis everytime I saw her, and within a week of starting university, my mission in life was to get Ify to be my girlfriend. The problem was, it didn’t matter how much time and attention I dedicated to her – Ify was not interested in me. We were very good friends, but as time went on, it became clear to my great dismay that she and I as an item, was just never going to happen. Eventually, I gave up on Ify and retired to lick my metaphorical wounds, completely assured in my 19 year-old wisdom that I would never love again.
Same Country, Different Worlds
Then one day, I happened to stumble into a conversation with our larger group of Nigerian friends, about what brought their families to the UK. Unlike the others, I was not an immigrant, so as a full fee-paying international student, I was effectively not part of the conversation. Our friends with names like Timilehin and Tunde all had similar stories – born in Nigeria, parents wanted more out of life, family moved to the UK. It didn’t occur to me or anyone that Ify – normally the life of the party – was not talking.
Then Ify spoke.
She was also born in Nigeria – Kaduna to be precise, and she lived there until 2000. That year, a religious crisis broke out in the city, and the Hausa natives embarked on a frenzied pogrom of their Igbo neighbours. According to her, a Mercedes-Benz lorry filled with the dead bodies of slaughtered Igbo people was dispatched from Kaduna to Onitsha. Ify and her family had to hide from their neighbours whom they grew up with, until her dad was able to sneak them out of Kaduna and on a flight to London, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. That was her “immigrant” story.
When she finished her story, a kind of dead silence followed as our small group of 17 – 20 year-olds tried to process probably the heaviest thing our ears had ever listened to. Suddenly I understood why Ify would never be interested in me, despite seemingly sharing every interest and identity in common – we came from two different worlds. I came from a Nigeria that I spoke of with pride, based on a privileged background and a Lagos-centric worldview. She also came from Nigeria, but her Nigeria was a place of fear, darkness and dread where the kids you grew up playing hopscotch with could at a moment’s notice become your executioners for an offence none of you understood.
I remember hearing of the corpse-filled truck incident in Onitsha as an 11 year-old, but it seemed as distant to me as a bombing in Lebanon. “Kaduna” and other exotic places like that were just names I heard in the news. Listening to Ify’s story was the first time any of it felt real. It was the first time the word “Igbo” – pejoratively thrown around in Lagos as a sort of light-hearted insult took on a new meaning to me. It was the start of my struggle to engage with the word “Biafra.”
Biafra is a very dirty word
Prior to meeting Ify and a number of friends whose experience in Nigeria substantially broadened my worldview, my only knowledge of the Biafran war was a book called ‘Sozaboy’ by Ken Saro-Wiwa, which I found in the family library. The book was written from the point of view of a barely pubescent protagonist thrust into a war he did not understand, and forced to witness acts of incredible violence. He returns home at the end of the war, only to discover that his hitherto innocent sweetheart now has a child conceived through rape. Amidst all the death and carnage, this for him, is the biggest tragedy of the war. I grew up thinking of the Biafran war as this huge, avoidable playground fight between two sets of silly boys who have now learnt their lesson.
My parents – like many other Nigerian parents – hardly ever spoke about the war. Occasionally, when someone like Ralph Uwazuruike, the MASSOB leader, appeared on the news, one of them would drop a dismissive comment about “omo Ibo” and that would be that. It never occurred to me that Uwazuruike and his group were not just some asshats on the TV talking about something that happened in 19-gboboro, or that the “omo-Ibo” thing, was a term that carried a certain weight with it.
When you grow up and go to school in Lagos, you and your mates all wear the same clothes, speak only English – because your parents won’t speak their language to you at home – listen to the same music, watch the same movies and read the same books – “Igbo,” “Yoruba” and “Hausa” are just annoying subjects at school taught by frustrated teachers with anger issues. You also learn nothing about Nigerian history beyond a few vague soundbites about Herbert Macaulay, Ahmadu Bello and Obafemi Awolowo. The word “Biafra” is completely absent from your syllabus from Primary 1 through to SS3.
Even the maps on the wall of my dad’s study which had a water body called “Bight of Biafra” were later replaced with maps labeling the same body of water as “Bight of Benin.” Absolutely nobody wants to talk about Biafra, what came before, what happened next, and how it connects to our modern Nigerian reality. This goes to the heart of Nigeria’s cultural problem – a belief in using silence and hope as a strategy instead of engaging in the messy process of working out a solution. As a country and as a civilization, we believe that if we not-look at a problem hard enough, it will get tired and go away.
As we know all too well, that is never going to happen.
Civil War or Genocide? Why It Matters
Why is our awkward silence on the subject of Biafra extremely problematic? There are several reasons, but to begin with, I think it feeds into our lack of historicity, which manifests itself in our national decision making. If it was general knowledge for example, that a certain Muhammadu Buhari was involved in the so-called counter coup of 1966 – essentially a horrendous massacre of Igbo army officers that directly led to the general pogroms that started the war – even the best efforts of marketing communications agencies in Lagos back in 2015 might not have sufficed to convince Nigerian voters that he was a suitable presidential candidate for the 21st century.
But I digress.
The Nigerian civil war took place between 1966 and 1970. The Kaduna pogrom mentioned at the outset happened in 2000. What connects the two events and why is it important to break the suffocating silence and delineate what happened as a war or as a genocide as many now say? Well for one thing, it’s the same people who died in both cases – innocent civilians whose crime was being born within an ethnicity called “Igbo,” which didn’t exist 200 years ago. Assuming these “Igbos” as a group genuinely did something to warrant furious retribution – that included having their children poisoned with rations laced with rat-killer – were they again doing that something – whatever it was – in Kaduna in 2000?
Since the evidence would suggest not, that points to another motivation for the constant and continued need to massacre a specific group of unarmed civilians. Whatever that motivation is can only be identified by those who hold it – a harmless, eyeglass-wearing Lagos yuppie like myself cannot possibly answer that question. The point however, is that to begin with, “Igbos” did nothing as a group to warrant their wholesale slaughter – both before 1966 and after 1970.
If a group of five army majors including a man named Adewale Ademoyega carried out a coup, and the response was to slaughter Mama Nneka the rice seller in Sabon Gari market, along with her entire family and thousands of others, then the question is not “What did Mama Nneka do?” (And for the love of God, don’t say that Mama Nneka allegedly sang a song about somebody shooting somebody because if that is a capital offence, then we might as well just throw the whole country away.) The proper question is “Who felt a need to kill Mama Nneka and why?” It is a similar situation to that of a rape victim in Nigeria who is asked what she did to provoke the aggressive penis, rather than directing a question to the penis-owning rapist. Victim blaming is a product of our toxic cultural silence – which has been fed by our 49-year silence about Nigeria’s most momentous national event.
When we ask the right questions and determine that Nigeria’s historically dreadful treatment of one of its three biggest ethnic groups is neither deserved nor justified, but is actually genocidal and irrational, then we can start making progress in our national discourse. If we admit that something is not fair, then that makes us commit to changing it. If we forever continue rationalizing stuff like this, we are merely ensuring that Nigeria will never change the record and dance to something new.
The usual saying makes it seem as if when two elephants fight, they get to walk away unscathed while the grass groans in distress. In reality, grass regrows rapidly, but the elephants sustain severe injuries when they use their tusks on each other. In Nigeria’s case, one such severe injury is the moribund, obsolete and miserable Ajaokuta steel mill. At the planning phase, consultants recommended siting the steel mill just outside Onitsha for reasons of proximity to iron ores, cutting down the need for imports.
The Nigerian elephant delivered what it thought was a huge blow to the Biafran elephant by moving the mill to Kogi state for purely political reasons. That was over 30 years ago. Today in 2019, Ajaokuta steel mill remains as unused as the day it was commissioned, but with thousands of salary earners and pensioners on its books who have sat there for decades without a single productive day’s work. Nigeria still imports every kind of steel product it needs, and the technology used at Ajaokuta is at least 20 years out of date, making Chinese steel imports cheaper than whatever it could theoretically produce today.
Oh, and guess which group of people control that import industry? Yes.
Clearly, it wasn’t only the grass that suffered.
Now let’s do a quick mental experiment. Inside your mind, picture the map of Nigeria. Shade the parts of the map where Igbo pogroms have been commonplace over the past 70 years. Now select a different mental colour and shade the parts of the map that are currently suffering from near-total breakdown of security due to violence from non-state actors. Notice how you end up shading the second colour almost exactly over the first. Precisely.
This is not because of some dead-mans-curse/karma hocus pocus. There are of course numerous political and economic factors contributing to the toxicity of such spaces which cannot be explored in this article. However, a key reason is that after decades of the Nigerian state allowing human beings to be slaughtered at the drop of a hat in those places – because said human beings are named “Chukwuka” instead of “Aliu” – the people there have internalized and normalized such violence. Long after Chukwuka and Odinanka have fled or died, the sense of total impunity and the feeling of power associated with unpunished violence remain firmly rooted in those places. Inevitably, such people turn their weapons on each other and continue acting out what they first practised on “Igbos.”
Southwestern Nigeria, which has managed by and large to restrain itself from such orgies of violence is unsurprisingly Nigeria’s safest, wealthiest and most stable region. This is not rocket science. As Chinua Achebe eloquently put it: “We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own.”
An Igbo proverb expresses this thought more starkly as “Onye ji onye n’ani ji onwe ya,” which means “He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.”
Pain Gives Birth to Strength and Resilience
Back when I worked in Marketing, I had a boss, Ayeni Adekunle who was fond of the Yoruba proverb “Ninu ikoko dudu l’eko funfun ti’n jade,” which means “White eko comes out of a black pot.” After 49 years of painful, injurious silence about Africa’s biggest-ever genocide, the cleansing effect of finally speaking up will be a great thing. These conversations will be painful. My good friend Charles Isidi is a good person to talk to if you want to get an insight into how raw, pervasive and real the pain still is, after all these years.
I remember being gobsmacked when he informed me that he knows people whose birth certificates read “Republic of Biafra,” because they were born during the war in a country called Biafra. “Nigeria” to them, was simply this big bully next door trying to kill them for no reason – which by the way, is pretty accurate. So what do we do when confronted by stories that we don’t really want to hear, and that we don’t know what to do with?
The first thing is probably to listen. Just, listen. Really listen. Don’t interrupt with “Ehn. but you know they couldn’t have known that…” It’s not your story, and it’s not about you. Listen and let people tell their story. Nigeria is not going to fall down and die if we listen to one-third of our population telling us “You know, dropping bombs on my daddy’s head because some guys we never met did something that had nothing to do with us in a place we never saw wasn’t really called for.” It’s a difficult conversation, but not a world-ending one.
Ultimately, the Igbo ethnic group is now probably Nigeria’s most widely-recognised and diffused ethnicity, with the vast majority still holding on to their Nigerian identity. My friend Ify whom I mentioned at the outset still identifies with Nigeria and visits from time to time. Despite all that has happened, what binds us all together is still more powerful than what sets us apart. We may have a troubled relationship across ethnic lines in Nigeria, but it can still be salvaged.
Like all troubled relationships however, the first and most important step is to have the conversation.