What Nigeria is to me

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NIGERIAN nationality was for me and my generation an acquired taste like cheese or better still like ballroom dance. Not dancing per se for that came naturally, but this titillating version of slow, slow, quick, quick, slow performed in close body contact with a female in rivalry with an elusive beat.


I found however, that once I had overcome my initial awkwardness, I could do it pretty well. Perhaps, these irreverent analogies would only occur to someone like me born into a strongly multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multi-religious somewhat chaotic colonial situation.

The first passport I ever carried described me as a British protected person. An unexciting identity embodied in a phrase that no one was likely to die for. I don’t mean it was entirely devoid of emotional meaning. After all, British meant we were located somewhere in the vast flaming red portion of the world map that covered a quarter of the entire globe in those days and was called the British Empire where the sun never set.

It had a ring to it in my childhood ears, a magical fraternity, vague but vicariously glorious. But I am jumping ahead of myself. My earliest awareness in the town of Ogidi did not include any of the British stuff, nor indeed the Nigerian stuff. That came with progress in school.
Ogidi is an Igbo town, one of a thousand or more towns that made up the Igbo nation, one of Nigeria’s and indeed Africa’s largest ethnic groups. But the Igbo numbering over 10 million are a curious nation. They have been called names like stateless, acephalous and such terms by anthropologists, argumentative by others, especially those who were sent to administer them.

But what the Igbo are, is not the negative suggested by such descriptions, but strongly positive in favour of small-scale political organisation, so that as they say, every man’s eye would reach where things are happening; so every one of the thousand towns was a mini state, with complete jurisdiction over its affairs.

A sense of civic attachment to their numerous towns was more real for pre-colonial Igbo people than any unitary pan-Igbo feeling. This made them, the Igbo people notoriously difficult to govern centrally as the British discovered but never appreciated nor quite forgave. The British dislike was demonstrated during the Biafra tragedy when they accused the Igbo of threatening to break up a nation state they had carefully and laboriously put together.

The paradox of Biafra was that the Igbo themselves had originally championed the Nigerian nation more spiritedly than other Nigerians, perhaps. One proof of this – the British had thrown more of them into jail for sedition than any others during the two decades or so of pre-independence agitation and trouble making. So the Igbo were second to none in the nationalist front when Britain finally conceded independence to Nigeria in 1960; a move that in introspect seems like a masterstroke of tactical withdrawal to achieve a supreme strategic advantage.
At the time we were proud of what we had achieved as Nigerians.

True Ghana had beaten us to it by three years. But then Ghana was a tiny affair, easy to manage compared to the huge lumbering giant that is Nigeria. We Nigerians did not have to be vociferous like Ghana, just our presence was enough. Indeed the elephant was our national emblem; our airline was a flying elephant. Nigerian troops soon distinguished themselves in a big way in the United Nations Peace keeping operations in the Congo.

Our elephant was defying aerodynamics and flying. Traveling as a Nigerian was exciting. People listened to us; our money was worth more than the dollar. When the driver of a bus in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia in 1961 asked me what I was doing sitting in the front of the bus. I told him nonchalantly that I was going to Victoria Falls. In amazement he stooped lower and asked me where I came from. I replied, even more casually, Nigeria, if you must know. And by the way, in Nigeria, we sit where we like in the bus.

Back home, I took up the rather important position of Director of External broadcasting, an entirely new radio service aimed primarily at our African neighbours. I could do it in those days because our politicians were yet to learn the uses of information control and did not immediately attempt to regiment our output. They were learning fast though.

But before I could get enmeshed in that, something much nastier had seized hold of all of us. The six-year old Nigerian federation was falling apart under severe strain of regional animosity and ineffectual central authority. The transparent failure of the electoral process to translate the will of the electorate into recognisable results at the polls led to mass frustration and violence.

While Western Nigeria, one of the four regions, was going up literarily in flames, the quiet and dignified Nigerian Prime Minister was hosting the Commonwealth Conference to extricate Harold Wilson from the mess he got himself into in far away Rhodesia. But so tense was the local situation in Nigeria that the visiting heads of government had to be airlifted by helicopter from the Lagos airport to a secluded suburb to avoid the rampaging crowds.

Nigeria’s first military coup took place even as those dignitaries were flying out of Lagos at the end of their conference. One of them, Archbishop Macarios of Cyprus was in fact still in the country when the coup happened.

The Prime Minister and two regional Premiers were killed by the coup makers. In the bitter suspicious atmosphere of the time, a naively idealistic coup proved a terrible disaster. It was interpreted with plausibility as a plot by the ambitious Igbo of the East to take control of Nigeria from the Hausa Fulani North.

Six months later, northern officers carried out what was perhaps a revenge coup in which they killed Igbo officers and men in large numbers. If it had ended there, the matter might have been seen as a very tragic, very sad interlude in nation building, a horrendous tit for tat. But the northerners turned on Igbo civilians living in the North and unleashed waves of brutal massacres, which Colin Legum of the Observer first described as a pogrom, the first time many people in Nigeria, heard that word. It was estimated that 30,000 civilians, men, women children died in those massacres. Igbos were fleeing in hundreds of thousands from all parts of Nigeria to their homeland in the East.

I was one of the last to flee from Lagos. I simply could not bring myself at first to accept that I could no longer live in my nation’s capital although the facts clearly said so. One Sunday morning, I was telephoned from Broadcasting House and informed that armed soldiers who appeared drunk had come looking for me to test, which was stronger – their gun or my pen.

The offence of my pen was that it had written a novel called “A Man of the People” a bitter satire on political corruption in an African country that resembled Nigeria. I wanted the novel to be a denunciation of the kind of independence we were experiencing in post-colonial Nigeria and many other countries in the 1960s. And I intended it to scare my countrymen into good behavior with a freightening cautionary tale.

The best monster I could come up with was a military coup d’Ztat, which every sane Nigerian at the time knew was rather farfetched, could never happen in Nigeria. But life and art had got so entangled that the publication of the novel and Nigeria’s first military coup happened within two days of each other. Critics abroad called me a prophet.

But some of my countrymen saw it differently. They saw my novel as proof of my complicity in the first coup. I was very lucky that Sunday morning. The drunken soldiers, after leaving Broadcasting House, went to a residence I had recently vacated. Meanwhile, I was able to take my wife and my two little children into hiding, from where I finally sent them to my home in Eastern Nigeria. A week or two later, unknown callers asked for me on the telephone in my hideout. My host denied my presence. I knew then it was time for me to leave.

My feeling towards Nigeria was of profound disappointment. Not because mobs were hunting down and killing in the most savage manner innocent civilians in many parts of Nigeria, but because the Federal Government sat back and let it happen.

The final consequence of this failure of the state to fulfill its primary obligation to its citizens was the secession of Eastern Nigeria as a Republic of Biafra. The demise of Nigeria at that point was only averted by Britain’s spirited diplomatic and military support of its model colony. It was Britain and the Soviet Union, which together crushed the upstart Biafran State.

At the end of the 30-month war, Biafra was a vast smoldering rubble; the cost in human lives was a staggering two million souls, making it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history.
I find it difficult to forgive Nigeria and my country men and women for the political nonchalance and cruelty that unleashed upon us these terrible events, which set us back a whole generation and robbed us of the chance clearly within our grasps to become a medium range developing nation in the 21st Century. My immediate response was to leave Nigeria at the end of the war having honourably, I hope, stayed around long enough to receive any retribution due to me for renouncing Nigeria for 30 months.

Fortunately, the Federal Government proclaimed general amnesty and the only punishment I received was the general financial and emotional indemnity that war losers pay and some relatively minor harassment like the denial of passport.

I went abroad to New England, no irony intended, I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and stayed four years, and then another year at the University of Connecticut.
It was by far my longest exile ever from Nigeria and it gave me to reflect and to heal somewhat.
Without setting out consciously to do so, I was redefining my relationship to Nigeria. I realised that I could not reject her but neither could it be business as usual. What was Nigeria to me?
Our 1960 national anthem, given to us as a parting gift was a British housewife in England, had called Nigeria ‘our sovereign motherland’ the Mother image.

The current anthem, which changed that first one, was put together by a committee of Nigerian intellectuals, and in my view is actually worse than the first anthem. This second one invoked the Father image. So Mother image in the first one, Father image in the second one.

But it has occurred to me that Nigeria is neither my mother nor my father. Nigeria is a child, gifted enormously talented, prodigiously endowed and incredibly wayward. Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting. I have said somewhere that in my next reincarnation, I want to come back as a Nigerian again.

But I have also in a rather testy mood in a book called ‘A Trouble with Nigeria’ I dismissed Nigerian travel advertisements with the suggestion that only a tourist with an addiction to self flagellation pick Nigeria for a holiday. And I mean both. Nigeria needs help; Nigerians have their work cut out for them, to coax this unruly child along the path of useful creative development. We are the parents of Nigeria, not vice versa. A generation will come if we do our work patiently and well and given luck; a generation will come that will call Nigeria Father or Mother, but not yet.

Meanwhile, our present work is not entirely without its blessing and reward. This wayward child can show now and again great intimations of affection. I have seen this affection flow towards me at certain critical times. When I was in America after the Biafran war, an army officer who sat on the council of my university in Nigeria as representative of the Federal Military Government pressured, questioned why I was not back home.

And finally, the university had to invite me to return. Now this army officer who campaigned for my return was not known to me in person. In fact he fought against people like me in the Biafran war and he was wounded in the fighting. He had every right to be bitter against me and people like me. I had never met him as I said, but he knew my work and was himself a poet.

More recently after a very serious motor accident that left me with serious injuries, I have witnessed another outflow of affection from Nigerians from every level. I am still totally dumbfounded by it.
The hard words Nigeria and I have said to each other begin to look like words of anxious love not hate. Nigeria is a country where nobody can wake up in the morning and ask ‘what can I do now?’ Nigeria has work for everybody. Thank you.

*** Nigeria’s literary giant, Prof. Chinua Achebe delivered this keynote address at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria, when The Guardian marked its Silver Jubilee. He was not ‘physically present,’ to deliver his address, but for over 30 minutes, the NIIA auditorium resonated with Achebe’s voice. The dignitaries on the high table made way for Achebe, as his image, projected on the screen behind the table spoke of “What Nigeria is to me.”

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