Read There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra Online

Authors: Chinua Achebe

Tags: #General, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Africa

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (8 page)


Speed is violence

Power is violence

Weight violence

The butterfly seeks safety in lightness

In weightless, undulating flight

But at a crossroads where mottled light

From old trees falls on a brash new highway

Our separate errands collide

I come power-packed for two

And the gentle butterfly offers

Itself in bright yellow sacrifice

Upon my hard silicon shield.

A History of Ethnic Tension and Resentment

I have written in my small book entitled
The Trouble with Nigeria
that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common
resentment of the Igbo. The origin of the national resentment of the Igbo is as old
as Nigeria and quite as complicated. But it can be summarized thus: The Igbo culture,
being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo
man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement
in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary
religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This
kind of creature, fearing no god or man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities,
such as they were, of the white man’s dispensations. And the Igbo did so with both
hands. Although the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head start, the
Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years
between 1930 and 1950.

Had the Igbo been a minor ethnic group of a few hundred thousand their menace might
have been easily and quietly contained. But their members ran in the millions. As
in J. P. Clark’s fine image of “ants filing out of the wood,” the Igbo moved out of
their forest home, scattered, and virtually seized the floor.

Paul Anber explains:

With unparalleled rapidity, the Igbos advanced fastest in the shortest period of time
of all Nigeria’s ethnic groups. Like the Jews, to whom they have frequently been likened,
they progressed despite being a minority in the country, filling the ranks of the
nation’s educated, prosperous upper classes. . . . It was not long before the educational
and economic progress of the Igbos led to their becoming the major source of administrators,
managers, technicians, and civil servants for the country, occupying senior positions
out of proportion to their numbers. Particularly with respect to the Federal public
service and the government statutory corporations, this led to accusations of an Igbo
monopoly of essential services to the exclusion of other ethnic groups.

The rise of the Igbo in Nigerian affairs was due to the self-confidence engendered
by their open society and their belief that one man is as good as another, that no
condition is permanent. It was
due, as non-Igbo observers have imagined, to tribal mutual aid societies. The Igbo
Town Union that has often been written about was in reality an extension of the Igbo
individualistic ethic. The Igbo towns competed among themselves for certain kinds
of social achievement, like the building of schools, churches, markets, post offices,
pipe-borne water projects, roads, etc. They did not concern themselves with pan-Igbo
unity nor were they geared to securing an advantage over non-Igbo Nigerians. The Igbo
have no compelling traditional loyalty beyond town or village.

There were a number of other factors that spurred the Igbos to educational, economic,
and political success. The population density in Igbo land created a “land hunger”—a
pressure on their low-fertility, laterite-laden soil for cultivation, housing, and
other purposes, factors that led ultimately to migration to other parts of the nation:
“In Northern Nigeria there were less than 3,000 Igbos in 1921; by 1931 the number
had risen to nearly 12,000 and by 1952 to over 130,000.”

The coastal branches of the Yoruba nation had some of the earliest contact with the
European missionaries and explorers as a consequence of their proximity to the shoreline
and their own dedication to learning. They led the entire nation in educational attainment
from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. By the time the Church
Mission Society and a number of Roman Catholic orders had crossed the Niger River
and entered Igbo land, there had been an explosion in the numbers of young Igbo students
enrolled in school. The increase was so exponential in such a short time that within
three short decades the Igbos had closed the gap and quickly moved ahead as the group
with the highest literacy rate, the highest standard of living, and the greatest proportion
of citizens with postsecondary education in Nigeria. The Igbo, for the most part (at
least until recently), respected the education that the colonizers had brought with
them. There was not only individual interest in the white man’s knowledge, but family,
community, and regional interest. It would not surprise an observer that the “Igbos
absorbed western education as readily as they responded to urbanization.”

I will be the first to concede that the Igbo as a group is not without its flaws.
Its success can and did carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening
pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, that can
obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness.
There is no doubt at all that there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behavior that
can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness.

Having acknowledged these facts,
any observer can clearly see how the competitive individualism and the adventurous
spirit of the Igbo could have been harnessed by committed leaders for the modernization
and development of Nigeria. Nigeria’s pathetic attempt to crush these idiosyncrasies
rather than celebrate them is one of the fundamental reasons the country has not developed
as it should and has emerged as a laughingstock.

The ploy in the Nigerian context was simple and crude: Get the achievers out and replace
them with less qualified individuals from the desired ethnic background so as to gain
access to the resources of the state. This bizarre government strategy transformed
the federal civil service, corporations, and universities into centers for ethnic
bigotry and petty squabbles.
It was in this toxic environment that Professor Eni Njoku, an Igbo who was vice chancellor
of the University of Lagos, was forced out of office. An exasperated Kenneth Onwuka
Dike, an ethnic Igbo and the vice chancellor of the University of Ibadan facing similar
bouts of tribal small-mindedness, famously lamented during this crisis that “intellectuals
were the worst peddlers of tribalism.”

One of the first signs I saw of an Igbo backlash came in the form of a 1966 publication
from Northern Nigeria called
The Nigerian Situation: Facts and Background.
In it the Igbo were cast as an assertive group that unfairly dominated almost every
sector of Nigerian society. No mention was made of the culture of educational excellence
imbibed from the British that pervaded Igbo society and schools at the time. Special
attention instead was paid to the manpower distribution within the public services,
where 45 percent of the managers were Igbo “and it is threatening to reach 60 percent
by 1968. Moreover, regrettably though, [the] North’s future contribution”
was credited with only 10 percent of the existing posts.

Of particular dismay to the authors of the report were the situations in the Nigerian
Railway Corporation, in which over half of the posts were occupied by Igbos; the Nigerian
Ports Authority; and the Nigerian Foreign Service, in which over 70 percent of the
posts were held by Igbos. Probably the pettiest of the accusations was the lamentation
over the academic success of Easterners who graduated in larger numbers in the 1965–66
academic year than their counterparts from the West, Mid-West, and North.

By the time the government of the Western Region also published a white paper outlining
the dominance of the ethnic Igbo in key government positions in the Nigerian Railway
Corporation and the Nigerian Ports Authority, the situation for ethnic Igbos working
in Western Nigeria in particular, but all over Nigeria in general, had become untenable.
This government-sanctioned environment of hate and resentment created by self-serving
politicians resulted in government-supervised persecutions, terminations, and dismissals
of Nigerian citizens based on their ethnicity.

In most other nations the success of an ethnic group as industrious as the Igbo would
stimulate healthy competition and a renaissance of learning and achievement. In Nigeria
it bred deep resentment and both subtle and overt attempts to dismantle the structures
in place for meritocracy in favor of mediocrity, under the cloak of a need for “federal
character”—a morally bankrupt and deeply corrupt Nigerian form of the far more successful
affirmative action in the United States.

The denial of merit is a form of social injustice that can hurt not only the individuals
directly concerned but ultimately the entire society. The motive for the original
denial may be tribal discrimination, but it may also come from sexism, from political,
religious, or some other partisan consideration, or from corruption and bribery. It
is unnecessary to examine these various motives separately; it is sufficient to state
that whenever merit is set aside by prejudice of whatever origin, individual citizens
as well as the nation itself are victimized.

The Army

Before I go further an effort should be made to explain the nature of the dynamics
at work within the Nigerian military at the time of the January 15, 1966, coup and
the events that followed. Striking a balance between a level of detail that will satisfy
readers who still feel the impact of these events deeply and that which will be palatable,
if not to say comprehensible, to a less well-informed reader is an impossibility,
but I will strive to do so nonetheless.

Historians have argued incessantly about the makeup of the January 15, 1966, coup
and its meaning. It was led by the so-called five majors, a cadre of relatively junior
officers whose front man of sorts was Chukwuma Nzeogwu. Very few people outside military
circles (with the exception of the poet Christopher Okigbo) knew very much about him.
What I heard of him was what his friends or those who happened to know him were telling
us. He seemed to be a distant, mysterious figure.

Nzeogwu had a reputation as a disciplined, no-nonsense, nonsmoking, nonphilandering
teetotaler, and as an anticorruption crusader. This reputation, we were told, served
him well as the chief instructor at the Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC)
in Kaduna,
and in recruiting military “intellectuals.”

In the wee hours of January 15, 1966, in a broadcast to the nation, Nzeogwu sought
to explain “the coup attempt.” It happened that some journalists had approached him
to clarify the situation. Apparently the plan of the coup plotters was to take control
of the various military commands in Kaduna, Lagos, and Enugu and to make a radio announcement
from Lagos. Unbeknown to Nzeogwu, who was still in Kaduna, the Lagos operation had
failed, and most information available to the population was coming from the BBC.
Nzeogwu hastily put together a speech that became notorious for its attacks on the
political class, bribery, and corruption.

But by killing Sir Ahmadu Bello, Nzeogwu and the other coup plotters had put themselves
on a collision course with the religious, ethnic, and political ramifications of such
an action, something they had clearly not thought through sufficiently.

Superficially it was understandable to conclude that this was indeed “an Igbo coup.”
However, scratch a little deeper and complicating factors are discovered: One of the
majors was Yoruba, and Nzeogwu himself was Igbo in name only. Not only was he born
in Kaduna, the capital of the Muslim North, he was widely known as someone who saw
himself as a Northerner, spoke fluent Hausa and little Igbo, and wore the Northern
traditional dress when not in uniform. In the end the Nzeogwu coup was crushed by
the man who was the highest-ranking Igbo officer in the Nigerian army, Major-General

We were to learn later that Aguiyi-Ironsi was also on the list of those to be murdered.
Ironsi got wind of the plot and mounted a successful resistance in Lagos, ultimately
breaking the back of the coup.

Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi emerged as Nigeria’s new head of state in late May 1966.
In a broadcast to the nation on May 24, 1966, Ironsi banned all political parties
and imposed what he called Decree No. 34 on a bewildered country. The widely unpopular
decree eliminated Nigeria’s federal structure and put in place a unitary republic,
which seemed to threaten more local patronage networks. For the first time in history
a federal military government was in control of Nigeria.

There was growing anger and dissatisfaction among officers from Northern Nigeria,
who wanted revenge for what they saw
as an Igbo coup. Aguiyi-Ironsi, a mild-mannered person, was reluctant to execute
the Nzeogwu coup plotters, who were serving stiff prison sentences. Nzeogwu was imprisoned
at the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison in Lagos. It didn’t help matters that all
the coup plotters were eventually transferred to the Eastern Region, which at that
time was under the jurisdiction of Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, son of Sir Louis Odumegwu

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