By Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe (January 16, 2008)
2007 was a crucial year of remembrance and contemplation for the African World. Africans commemorated the 40th anniversary of the deaths of Christopher Okigbo and John Coltrane, two of the most influential and celebrated artistic geniuses of all time. Okigbo, Africa’s leading poet, was killed in July 1967 whilst defending his people during the Nigerian state-planned genocide against the Igbo. His seminal contribution to African literature, underscored in his works Heavensgate, Silences, Limits, Distances, “Laments of the Masks”, “Laments of the Deer”, and Path of Thunder, was the focus of an historic international conference organised in Boston (United States) in September 2007 by Harvard University, University of Massachusetts (Boston), Boston University and Wellesley College.
Coltrane, the iconoclastic tenor saxophonist, was born in North Carolina in 1926. He also died in July 1967 – in New York. Coltrane was one of the five key figures in the 1950s/1960s who transformed the development of jazz, African American classical music, unto that landmark pedestal of intense and continuing individual and collaborative exchange of creativity. Coltrane deployed his music (compositions, interpretations, instrumentation, stylistics) in support of the African liberation movement on both sides of the Atlantic – in the US itself (Giant Steps, One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note, Coltrane Jazz, Bye Bye Black Bird, Live at Birdland [especially “Alabama”, “The Promise” and “Afro Blue”], The Avant-Garde, Brazilia, Afro Blue Impressions, Impressions, Meditations, A Love Supreme, Live at the Village Vanguard, Transition, Ascension, Live at the Village Vanguard Again, Cosmic Music [with Alice Coltrane – especially “Reverend King” and “Manifestations”], Live in Seattle and Selflessness) and Africa (Africa/Brass, “Dial Africa”, “Oomba”, “Gold Coast”, “Tanganyika Strut”, “Dakar”, “Bakai”, “Ogunde”, “Tunji”, “Africa”, “Liberia”, “Dahomey Dance” and Kulu Sé Mama). Coltrane’s legacy endures … His music contributed significantly in mapping out the extraordinary dialogue of contemplation on African renaissance scholarship. This would contend with the convergence of the ongoing work in Africa of his day, especially that represented by Cheikh Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, Onwuka Dike, Walter Rodney, Ladipo Solanke, Chinua Achebe, Amilcar Cabral, Flora Nwapa and Christopher Okigbo himself, and the one in the US of the late 1960s/subsequently – particularly the work of Maulana Karenga, Molefi Kete Asante, Jacob Carruthers, Toni Morrison and John Henrik Clarke. This was indeed a phenomenal age of immense African possibilities...
Tragically, as coltraneology busied itself, selflessly, in orchestrating and re-orchestrating the vast repertoire of African renaissance sensibility 40 years ago, a pulverising league of African sergeants and brigadiers and corporals and colonels and majors and troopers and politicians and bureaucrats and the like, 4000 miles away, east of the African Atlantic, in Nigeria, were engrossed in the encirclement and the fire-storming of Igbo towns, cities, villages, everywhere, everything, “everything that moves or doesn’t move” – to quote the outburst of one of the most notorious genocidist commanders at the time: murdering, raping, burning, looting, wasting 3.1 million Igbo lives in four long years of genocide not seen in Africa since Belgian King Leopold II’s ravages of the countries of the Congo basin during the 19th century. The British government of the day, led by James Harold Wilson, was centrally involved in the perpetration of this genocide and the personages with the vivid labels of Babaginda, Danjuma, Muhammed, Buhari, Shuwa, Abubakar, Ali, Gowon, Adekunle, Haruna, Enaharo, Adebayo, Bisalla, Yar’Adua (Shehu), Ayida, Awolowo, Obasanjo, Abacha ... bore the visage of those haunting insignia of death and desolation in Igboland. Most of these references of devastation are alive and “thriving” and they must be tried in an international court of justice to account for their responsibility. The so-called “state” Europe created in Africa by Europe but currently led by Africans murders Africans grotesquely – 3.1 million Igbo in 1966-1970 and 12 million elsewhere on the continent since. African leaderships who murder their peoples (their names and careers are known by all and sundry) must be held responsible for their crimes, even if they may have remotely worked on behalf of outside powers. In this New Year, African scholars must throw their weight towards this objective. Without addressing the mass murder of the Igbo 40 years ago, there is no way we can understand, fully, the subsequent outrages against Africans in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Rwanda, Darfur ... and the current revolting scenes played out in Kenya. This unrelenting murder of Africans by African regimes must now stop.
Not Living the Lie
Still on Britain and its unenviable role in Africa, 2007 will be remembered for what was clearly not on the original agenda of the construction (and celebration) of conquest history, nor ever envisaged as a likely consequence of such a portrayal. According to this “history”, 2007 was the 200th anniversary of the British “abolition” of its enslavement of Africans in the Western World. The British government, accordingly, organised a “commemoration” (?) of the event, culminating in a church service (“of thanksgiving”? “celebration”? “defiance”? “penance”?) at Westminster Abbey on 27 March 2007. Little research by the Cabinet Office in London would have shown that very few Africans in Britain and across the world recognise this British “account” that emphatically ignores its cardinal role in the pan-African genocide, which cost Africa the forced removal of 150 million of its peoples to the Americas and elsewhere during the course of 400 years. Britain, following its 16th century marginalisation of the hitherto lead-European enslaver states of Portugal and Spain in this crime against humanity, became the principal enslaver of African peoples. As a result of this holocaust, Britain financed its industrial revolution and emerged as a global power where, in its own words of imperial aggrandisement, “the sun never set”. It is this latter narrative that defines the epoch that the lie of conquest testimony is scared to confront.
So, if Africans do not recognise 1807 and consequently the 2007 event, why did Britain continue in the staging of the latter regardless? Nothing more than to persist to promote the lie of its own narrative. But this was until it was spectacularly interrupted by the dignified, solemn and gracious testimony of Toyin Agbetu during that 27 March 2007 abbey service. As he faced the variegated template of the British establishment, Agbetu rejected the British “account” unequivocally: No! You know, as I know, that your narrative is a lie … I will not be part of this … Africans will not be part of it ... 150 million of my lost ancestors are not part of this … You, yourself, should not be part of this … Own up to your crime against Africans, a crime against humanity … Abandon the lie of a narrative that Africans do not accept and will never accept ...
Agbetu redefined the priorities of the times for Africans in the abbey and outside, across the world; he questioned the direction of so profoundly a state event geared to mislead, to belittle, to hoodwink. Agbetu’s courageous witness is organically linked to Ralph Uwazurike’s own testimony, 3500 miles to the south, in Nigeria, repudiating the diktat and lie of a genocidal state. Uwazurike has refused, adamantly, despite the most brutal and humiliating state detention, to renounce the Igbo people’s inalienable right to independence in the wake of the genocide, itself the focus of the sagacious and exquisite novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entitled Half of a Yellow Sun. Surely, as 2008 dawns, what the Adichie-Agbetu-Uwazurike trio of a reawakened African generation is saying to Africans and the rest of the world is straightforward indeed: “We will not live anybody’s lies … Don’t be a participant in your own subjugation.”
Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is author of Biafra Revisited (African Renaissance, 2006).