By Lasisi Olagunju
There was a time in Nigeria’s media history when a certain Ebenezer Williams was arguably one of the country’s best newspaper columnists. But that popular name was a pseudonym, a fictitious identity. The masquerade donning that beautiful costume was Abiodun Aloba, colonial and post-colonial Nigeria media genius. He died in 2001.
In the Daily Express of April 18, 1970, three months after the Nigerian civil war ended, and thirty-one years before the man died, he did a post-mortem of the Nigerian civil war and a character portrait of the Ibo (now called Igbo). Read him slowly, carefully: “They are too ebullient in victory, too sullen in defeat. They are too mechanical in a technology world …They are too bookish; they are too much of crowd, jumping just where the leader had jumped…”
Ebenezer Williams believed that if the Igbo had won the civil war, all, and that included their friends and foes, “would have all had it.” Three weeks after Ebenezer Williams wrote the above, the quote was deemed too instructive that it found its way into Tai Solarin’s Nigerian Tribune column of Monday, May 11, 1970. Solarin, whose piece carried the title, ‘I’ll speak for the Ibos’, declared that Ebenezer “was dead on” in his assessment of the Ibo and that thousands of non-Ibo Nigerians shared Ebenezer Williams’ belief of how the Ibo would have behaved if they had won the civil war. Solarin noted that when other non-Ibo Nigerians “do not have the courage of Ebenezer Williams to write it down, they sip their beer or palm wine over it as they rub their hands together prayerfully and in self-congratulation.”
Solarin was a friend of the Ibos; he wrote several articles on the Biafran war, its aftermath and the imperative of a proper re-integration of the Ibos if Nigeria would progress in peace. In February 1970, a month after the war officially ended, Solarin went to the then East Central State. He came back to his base in the West and wrote in his column in the Nigerian Tribune of March 2, 1970: “I saw a lot of things, but it seems I remember more the things I did not see. A single lizard, I did not see. A single rat, mouse, our bush rat, I did not see. I did not see a single snake. I did not see a single goat or sheep…” Where did they all go? A proverb should explain it: When what one eats is not available, one shifts to that which one does not eat. Solarin, however, saw many other things. He saw bicycles without tyres: “Half of the bicycles in the town of Owerri had no tyres on. When I saw a man pushing a heavily loaded bicycle that moved on the bare metal wheels, I was sure he would not go on top of it. I was wrong. He sprang on it as soon as the hill tapered off…” (see Nigerian Tribune, March 2, 1970, page 5). That was war. May we not see it again. But we should stop scratching our nose with the adder’s head. Those who think the Nigerian question must be answered with war should examine the ramifications of their project. History is there to guide every road taker.
You would think that a people who went through all that experience of horror would learn. No. If the wise taunts you to a fight, respond with tact and wisdom and patience. If you don’t, he will send his fox to ensnare you. The Igbo believe that Nigeria regularly trims the stems of their Iroko. Why? Everyone suffered Buhari but the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria believe that it was not just Buhari but Nigeria itself that has not been fair to them. They call what they suffer from the rest of us marginalization. But I soon learnt that even among themselves, they discriminate; they marginalize. I had thought they were one until the news of the appointment of new service chiefs broke last week.
Given what they suffered while Muhammadu Buhari was in power, the question on every sensible lip was whether an Igbo person made the list. The initial answer to that question was negative. From their names, it was not difficult to determine the ethnicity of the heads of the army, the air force, the police and the Chief of Defence Staff. The internet soon caught fire that there was no one from the South-East on the list. That was not good enough after eight years of Buhari’s exclusive government of northern Nigeria. But a certain Rear Admiral E.I. Ogalla was announced as the Chief of Naval Staff. Who is he? Where is he from? It turned out that he is Igbo, from Enugu State. His full name is Rear Admiral Emmanuel Ikechukwu Ogalla. But while Nigerians from other parts of the country rejoiced with the East, Igbos were loud on the social media; they said Ogalla is not an Igbo name. I told an Igbo man online to stop following the monkeys of that narrative to plunder the farm of reason. I told him that the man’s middle name is Ikechukwu. He politely told me to stay off the discussion.
The appointee, he said, is from Enugu-Ezike, the northernmost part of Igboland, and therefore was not of the stock of his super race. I felt utterly disappointed. I called another Igbo friend who hails from that Enugu-Ezike but currently lives in Enugu town: “Jude, is it true you are not Igbo?” My friend answered in anger that I should not mind them. “We are more Igbo than them.” He told me he had been tackling the narrative and those pushing it “since the CNS appointment was announced.” A Tribune reporter from Ebonyi State told me that “even me, they say I am not Igbo enough. They call us Wawa.”
Chinua Achebe is the Igbo greatest of all time. His daughter, Nwando, did her doctoral work on the people of northern Igboland. She later published ‘The female king of colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe.’ That king was of Enugu-Ezike; she was not a man, she was a female but history speaks of her as king, not queen; Nwando Achebe describes her as a female man. Her recorded exploits enrich Igbo history and culture; scholars say materials written on Ahebi and her people have helped grow the field of Igbo studies. That is the community that produced the new naval chief whom the ethnic purists are rejecting. It is interesting.
When Bola Tinubu announced his security appointments, the first narrative was ‘he did not give us anything’, but when an Igbo was identified among the chosen, the tale became ‘the person he gave us is not one of us.’ No matter how good you are, you cannot satisfactorily sweep the home of the witch. The Igbo, in this instance, is that witch. Where I come from, dialectical differences do not put the knife in alájobí, our common Yoruba identity. Even circumstances of birth don’t. From the northernmost part of Yorubaland in Kogi State to the coasts of Lagos, there are variants of Yoruba language that I do not understand but that would not make the speakers of those dialects less Yoruba. What binds a family together should be enough armour against base divisive tendencies. We do what Toyin Falola described as “cooperation for integration” and I will add integration for strength and survival.
When a man is more sinned against than sinning, let that man reexamine himself. First, the blame was colonialism. The Igbo man said he could no longer act like one because the white man has “put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart” (see Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, page 166). The same Achebe would, in later works, acknowledge what he described as his people’s “hubris, overweening pride and thoughtlessness which invite envy and hatred…” Yet, he would accuse other Nigerians of harbouring deep-seated hatred for his people and that they would “probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo,” because of Igbo’s “unquestioned advantage” over other Nigerians “in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society.” Today, the Igbo accuse Nigeria of treating them as a peripheral group in national affairs but the greatest cause of their organ failure is the sepsis of the self-hate that defines their in-group interactions. Within their walls, they choose original and fake; the significant and the insignificant among the various clans. That is what we’ve just seen in the appointment of the new Chief of Naval Staff. They say the man’s Igbo is too close to the borders with the Igalla. It would appear that it didn’t start today. Indeed, 14 years ago, Achebe railed against it. As the guest lecturer at the 2009 edition of the annual Ahiajoku Lecture series, Achebe spoke forcefully against any form of division among his people. He spoke particularly against discrimination along the lines of tongue and dialect: “Igbo is Igbo,” Achebe cried out and added that “that is what unites the Igbo anywhere they are. We are not allowed to tell anybody who is speaking in a different dialect that they are not Igbo. Igbo people have spoken their languages for centuries and millennium without going to war. It is these languages, though the same meaning but different dialects, that keep the people together among the Igbo speaking people of Nigeria.” I do not think anyone listened to the giant from Ogidi. There was a disconnect between the hunter’s flute and the hunter’s dog.
It is true that there is no one who does not like soup with meat in it but a child of the house does not crave that soup at the expense of the family’s health. The senate presidency was zoned to the Igbo in 1999. That opportunity soon became a crabs-in-a-bucket struggle; a war of depletion. Occupiers of the post got changed in per-second soil like baby diapers. Fish must eat fish to get fat. That was the philosophy. The other parts of the country watched with interest and horror. A number of concepts come to mind here: Cultural anthropologists would say it is self-marginalization; social psychologists would say it is self-sabotage; they would also say it is self-denigration and self-destruction. You appreciate the appropriateness of these tags when you remember that for about two years now, the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria have been staying off work every Monday. You remember what the Wagner gunmen did in Russia at the weekend and the mayor of Moscow’s no-work-on-Monday declaration. Imagine that disruption as the permanent feature of a people’s life. That has been happening in Igbo land month after month and there is no end in sight. They call it sit-at-home; a ruinous daylight curfew imposed on them by their homegrown Wagner group. They are softly killing themselves while claiming that they are protesting the detention of their Mazi Nnamdi Kanu by the Nigerian state. I look at the situation and see that these people are addicted to being the victim of the self. Good people among them are helpless; even the governors and their governments are powerless in the face of the regional acquiescence to arrogant evil. The new governor of Enugu State, Peter Mba, recently took some steps to unlock their Mondays. The consequence was a reported fire attack on his petrol station last week.
Fifty-three years after the civil war, the Igbo have remained what Ebenezer Williams said they were in 1970: “too ebullient in victory, too sullen in defeat.” Buhari ran a regime that saw and pronounced the Igbo an insignificant dot in a circle; a mere five percent. Then it set up and took off with a war cabinet. If we were not going to fight a war, why would the heads of the army, air force, police, SSS, NIA, Customs, Immigration, Prisons, etc and etc, and the NSA be chosen from the Commander-in-Chief’s backyard? That era has happily ended with the belligerent regime worsted. Tinubu’s appointment of security chiefs was fair enough. He is a Yoruba man. There is a Yoruba lineage with an oríkì that emphasizes equity and fairness in the sharing and distribution of communal goods and privileges: pín in re, làá a re; ìkan ò gbodò jù kan… (share it well; divide it equitably; one must not be bigger than the other).
There was a government in Nigeria between 2010 and 2015, the Igbo elite enjoyed it. While the axe of that regime unjustly did injustice to the Yoruba tree, the victim did not spend eternity remembering, sulking and whining. If I were the Igbo, I would see the very exit of the Buhari regime and its tendency as my victory over disease and death. I would doff my gab of “hubris, overweening pride and thoughtlessness.” I would celebrate my elevated sons and daughters in today’s fresh air. I would then draw a line, get properly united as a people and reappraise my engagement with the Nigerian state in a decisively strategic way.