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In 1966, soon after the world commemorated the 21st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and made the customary solemn declaration of ‘Never, Never Again’, Hausa-Fulani emirs, muslim clerics and intellectuals, military officers, politicians and other public figures in Nigeria defiled that season of reflection, commiseration and hope. They planned and executed the first phase of the Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide in post-conquest Africa. This genocide became the clearing site for the haunting killing fields that would snake across the African geographical landscape in the subsequent 40 years. A total of 100,000 Igbo were massacred across north Nigeria and elsewhere in the country, with the active support of the central government in Lagos headed by Yakubu Gowon during the months of May-October 1966. Most were killed in their houses, offices, businesses, schools, colleges and hospitals, as well as those who were attacked at railway stations and on trains, bus stations and buses, airports and in cars, lorries and on foot as they sought to escape the genocide for their homeland in east Nigeria.

(Paper presented at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference, Harvard University, Boston, Mass, United States, 22 September 2007)

By Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

The state in Africa demonstrates a glaring inability to fulfil its basic role. It does not provide security and welfare nor does it enable the growth and expression of society’s transformative capacities. It is virtually at war with its peoples, having murdered 15 million in Biafra, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Darfur and southern Sudan, the Congos and elsewhere on the continent between 1966 and 2007. The typical African state, 51 years after the so-called restoration of independence, is essentially a genocide-state. Christopher Okigbo’s incisive scholarship, to the poet’s eternal credit, not only anticipated these developments, but it rigorously interrogated their tragic consequences. This is evident across Okigbo’s works, especially Silence, Limits, Distances, ‘Laments of the Masks’, ‘Laments of the Deer’, and Path of Thunder. Okigbo’s decisive intervention at this historic site of mapping out the tenets of Africa’s renaissance scholarship is his focus on both redeeming the European occupation’s assault on the spiritual embodiment of African existence, in the wake of the conquest, and confronting a ruthless genocide state-in-the-making in Nigeria of the first half of the 1960s. Okigbo must have wrestled intensely with that crucial question posed by the Umuofia interlocutor in Things Fall Apart when the Igbo engaged a representative of the British occupation regime in a brief exchange of ideas on the pressing existentialist subject of the day: ‘“If we leave our gods and follow your god,” asked another man, “who will protect us from the anger of our neglected gods and ancestors?”’ Okigbo surely considered the answer to this question and other girding features related to it as a momentous task that required a rigorous and expansive scholarship of contemplation. For Okigbo, the spiritual is a crucial sphere of resistance and restoration because the ultimate objective of the occupation’s assault is aimed at funnelling a catastrophic fault-line in the soul of the people – to complicate their determined process of recovery on the morrow of the restoration of independence. Evidently, Okigbo responds to this emergency by weaving a multi-layered and panoramic canvass of often-complex fabric of overarching architecture of ideas that meditate on the variegated ensemble, which constitutes the spiritual landscape of the people. This is the creative background from which the ‘poet of destiny’, about whom the distinguished critic Emmanuel Obiechina has discussed so authoritatively, emerges. In the 1960-1966 Nigeria context, Okigbo’s extraordinary interrogative scholarship of resistance pitches its tent squarely on behalf of those who would confront blatantly-rigged election results and imposed parties and leaderships, rigged census returns, arbitrary arrests and detentions, rabid and rampant authoritarianism and, most tragically of all, the Nigerian state-organised genocide against the Igbo people. 3.1 million Igbo people were murdered during the genocide between 29 May 1966 and 12 January 1970.

Bane

Forty-one years on, it is the case that it is the African genocide-state that is the bane of African social existence. It is what constitutes the firestorm of the emergency that threatens the very survival of the African. It is not the ‘debt’, ‘poverty’, HIV/Aids/other diseases and the myriad of socioeconomics indices often reeled off in many a commentary. Africa must resolve the contentious issues that fuel the conflictual existence of its peoples before achieving urgently needed socioeconomic transformation. This is a political question. The widespread feeling of alienation by most constituent peoples in the typical African state is palpable enough. Africans urgently need a principled, unfettered, and unsentimental debate on its genocide-state, with its ultra-centralising and utterly unviable ethos. Forty-one years on, it should be clear to all and sundry that genocide is obviously not a viable option to resolve Africa’s outstanding problems.

In 1966, soon after the world commemorated the 21st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and made the customary solemn declaration of ‘Never, Never Again’, Hausa-Fulani emirs, muslim clerics and intellectuals, military officers, politicians and other public figures in Nigeria defiled that season of reflection, commiseration and hope. They planned and executed the first phase of the Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide in post-conquest Africa. This genocide became the clearing site for the haunting killing fields that would snake across the African geographical landscape in the subsequent 40 years. A total of 100,000 Igbo were massacred across north Nigeria and elsewhere in the country, with the active support of the central government in Lagos headed by Yakubu Gowon during the months of May-October 1966. Most were killed in their houses, offices, businesses, schools, colleges and hospitals, as well as those who were attacked at railway stations and on trains, bus stations and buses, airports and in cars, lorries and on foot as they sought to escape the genocide for their homeland in east Nigeria. Thousands of others sustained horrific injuries, several of whom were maimed for life. No known safe passages for the Igbo (victims or would-be victims) for flight or escape to their homeland from north Nigeria or elsewhere in the country were planned by any of the prosecuting forces involved in the genocide throughout the course of this tragedy.

Just as their German counterparts, the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide would claim to be ‘very cultured’ people: for instance, they read the Koran, Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun, Shakespeare, and other great world literature. Just as their Hausa-Fulani counterparts, the west regional Nigeria-based Awolowoist contingent that joined the genocide prosecuting squad on 6 July 1966 (civilian and military alike) would have regarded themselves as ‘very cultured’ – they surely read the Bible, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Burke, Paine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Achebe, Okigbo, Soyinka. They listened to Dairo, Beethoven, Olaiya, Handel, Benson, Mozart, J. S. Bach, Okonta, Ellington, Onyia, Lawson, Ukwu, Osadebe, Mensah, Armstrong, Basie … Just as in Germany, the Nigerian planners of genocide demonstrated clearly that genocidist ‘theorists’ and colonels and generals were often calm, well-educated, cold-blooded practitioners, who were more likely to be dressed in agbada, babariga, 2-piece suits, dashing military uniform, aso oke or lace, rather than raggedly-attired, barely-educated ‘miscreants’, to quote a word often used in the Nigerian media. They were neither alimajiri nor the dishevelled so-called ‘area boys’ or street boys that abound in Lagos, Ibadan and several other Nigerian towns and cities.

Even though they had strenuously opposed the liberation of Nigeria from the British conquest and occupation, which the Igbo had spearheaded and sustained since the 1940s, the Hausa-Fulani had been assured and rigged into the supreme political power by the supposedly outgoing-British occupying state in 1960. The British intention was quite clear: they handed over power to the anti-restoration of independence socio-cultural grouping in the country that it felt confident would safeguard its vast economic and strategic interests in post-conquest Nigeria in perpetuity. As a result, the main thrust of Hausa-Fulani politics always operated on the premise that the Igbo constituted the principal ‘obstacle’ to the perpetuation of Hausa-Fulani sociopolitical hegemony in Nigeria. Hence, the plan and execution of the genocide.


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