Monthly Archives: May 2013

Achebe on the Nigerian Pogroms of 1966

From: There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1307-1326:

Looking back, the naively idealistic coup of January 15, 1966, 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, I watched horrified as Northern officers carried out 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 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 that Colin Legum of The Observer (UK) was the first to describe as a pogrom. Thirty thousand civilian men, women, and children were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed, and violated, their homes and property looted and burned—and no one asked any questions. A Sierra Leonean living in Northern Nigeria at the time wrote home in horror: “The killing of the Igbos has become a state industry in Nigeria.”

What terrified me about the massacres in Nigeria was this: If it was only a question of rioting in the streets and so on, that would be bad enough, but it could be explained. It happens everywhere in the world. But in this particular case a detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government—the army, the police—the very people who were there to protect life and property. Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. It was not just human nature, a case of somebody hating his neighbor and chopping off his head. It was something far more devastating, because it was a premeditated plan that involved careful coordination, awaiting only the right spark.

Throughout the country at this time, but particularly in Igbo intellectual circles, there was much discussion of the difficulties of coexisting in a nation with such disparate peoples and religious and cultural backgrounds. As early as October 1966, some were calling for outright war. Most of us, however, were still hoping for a peaceful solution. Many talked of a confederation, though few knew how it would look.

In the meantime, the Eastern Region was tackling the herculean task of resettling the refugees who were pouring into the East in the hundreds of thousands. It was said at the time that the number of displaced Nigerian citizens fleeing from other parts of the nation back to Eastern Nigeria was close to a million.

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Achebe on The Cradle of Nigerian Nationalism

From: There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 727-64:

Here is a piece of heresy: The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level of knowledge of how to run a country. This was not something that the British achieved only in Nigeria; they were able to manage this on a bigger scale in India and Australia. The British had the experience of governing and doing it competently. I am not justifying colonialism. But it is important to face the fact that British colonies, more or less, were expertly run.

There was a distinct order during this time. I recall the day I traveled from Lagos to Ibadan and stayed with Christopher Okigbo that evening. I took off again the next morning, driving alone, going all the way from Lagos to Asaba, crossing the River Niger, to visit my relatives in the east. That was how it was done in those days. One was not consumed by fear of abduction or armed robbery. There was a certain preparation that the British had undertaken in her colonies. So as the handover time came, it was done with great precision.

As we praise the British, let us also remember the Nigerian nationalists—those who had a burning desire for independence and fought for it. There was a body of young and old people that my parents’ generation admired greatly, and that we later learned about and deeply appreciated. Herbert Macauley, for instance, often referred to as “the father of Nigerian nationalism,” was a very distinguished Nigerian born during the nineteenth century and the first president of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), which was founded in 1922.

The dawn of World War II caused a bit of a lull in the organized independence struggles that had been centered mainly in the Western Region of the country up to that time. Across the River Niger, in Eastern Nigeria, I was entering my teenage years, bright-eyed and beginning to grapple with my colonial environment. At this time most of the world’s attention, including Nigeria’s, was turned to the war. Schools and other institutions were converted into makeshift camps for soldiers from the empire, and there was a great deal of local military recruitment. A number of my relatives quickly volunteered their services to His Majesty’s regiments. The colonies became increasingly important to Great Britain’s war effort by providing a steady stream of revenue from the export of agricultural products—palm oil, groundnuts, cocoa, rubber, etc. I remember hearing stories of valiant fighting by a number of African soldiers in faraway places, such as Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), North Africa, and Burma (today’s Myanmar).

The postwar era saw an explosion of political organization. Newspapers, newsreels, and radio programs were full of the exploits of Nnamdi Azikiwe and the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC, which later became the National Council of Nigerian Citizens) that was founded in 1944. Azikiwe built upon lessons he had learned from earlier forays in political activism and successfully persuaded several active members of the Nigerian Youth Movement to form an umbrella group of all the major Nigerian organizations.

By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the University of London. When he returned to the Nigerian political scene from England in 1947, Awolowo found the once powerful political establishment of western Nigeria in disarray—sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles. Chief Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue—resuscitated ethnic pride—and created a political party, the Action Group, in 1951, from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, and a few other factions.

Over the years Awolowo had become increasingly concerned about what he saw as the domination of the NCNC by the Igbo elite, led by Azikiwe. Some cynics believe the formation of the Action Group was not influenced by tribal loyalities but a purely tactical political move to regain regional and southern political power and influence from the dominant NCNC.

Initially Chief Obafemi Awolowo struggled to woo support from the Ibadan-based (and other non-Ijebu) Yoruba leaders who considered him a radical and a bit of an upstart. However, despite some initial difficulty, Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared a similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination.

When Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, decided to create the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) in the late 1940s, he knew that the educationally disadvantaged North did not have as rich a source of Western-educated politicians to choose from as the South did. He overcame this “shortcoming” by pulling together an assortment of leaders from the Islamic territories under his influence and a few Western-educated intellectuals—the most prominent in my opinion being Aminu Kano and Alhaji Tafewa Balewa, Nigeria’s first prime minister. Frustrated by what he saw as “Ahmadu Bello’s limited political vision,” the incomparable Aminu Kano, under whom I would serve as the deputy national president of the Peoples Redemption Party decades later, would leave the NPC in 1950 to form the left-of-center political party, the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU).

Sir Ahmadu Bello was a schoolteacher by training. He was a contentious and ardently ambitious figure who claimed direct lineage from one of the founders of the Islamic Sokoto Caliphate—Shehu Usman dan Fodio. It was also widely known that he had “aspired to the throne of the Sultan of Sokoto.” By midcentury, through brilliant political maneuvering among the northern ruling classes, Sir Ahmadu Bello emerged as the most powerful politician in the Northern Region, indeed in all of Nigeria.

Sir Ahmadu Bello was able to control northern Nigeria politically by feeding on the fears of the ruling emirs and a small elite group of Western-educated northerners. His ever-effective mantra was that in order to protect the mainly feudal North’s hegemonic interests it was critical to form a political party capable of resisting the growing power of Southern politicians. Ahmadu Bello and his henchmen shared little in terms of ideological or political aspirations with their southern counterparts. With the South split between Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and Awolowo’s Action Group, his ability to hold the North together meant that the NPC in essence became Nigeria’s ruling party. A testament to its success is the fact that the NPC later would not only hold the majority of seats in the post-independence parliament, but as a consequence would be called upon to name the first prime minister of Nigeria.

The minorities of the Niger Delta, Mid-West, and the Middle Belt regions of Nigeria were always uncomfortable with the notion that they had to fit into the tripod of the largest ethnic groups that was Nigeria—Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo. Many of them—Ijaw, Kanuri, Ibibio, Tiv, Itsekiri, Isang, Urhobo, Anang, and Efik—were from ancient nation-states in their own right. Their leaders, however, often had to subsume their own ethnic ambitions within alliances with one of the big three groups in order to attain greater political results.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Chuckatuck, Nottoway

During my recent trip to see relatives in southeastern Virginia, I got curious about some of the Native American placenames and the languages they came from. Eventually I came across a very comprehensive article in Wikipedia on Native American tribes in Virginia (whose main contributors have the usernames Til Eulenspiegel, Parkwells, and—early on—Sarah1607). In it, I found that those tribes include not just descendents of Algonquian speakers (like the Powhatan Confederacy), but also a few far outliers who once spoke Iroquian and Siouan languages. The area I was visiting was where the three language types once met.

The village of Chuckatuck is now a borough of the city of Suffolk (the “World’s Largest Peanut Market” and home of WLPM-AM), formed out of what used to be called Nansemond County. As an English colony, Chuckatuck dates back to 1635. Chuckatuck Parish church (now St. John’s Episcopal Church) was established in 1642, and George Fox himself established Chuckatuck Friends Meeting in 1672. (Some of my ancestors show up in Chuckatuck Monthly Meeting records, but there is no longer a Friends Meeting there, as I discovered on this visit.) A Chuckatuck grist mill operated continuously from 1676 to 1972.

Despite being a tiny riverport and crossroads town, it has its own Greater Chuckatuck Historical Foundation, and Chuckatuck Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. According to the Foundation’s website, the village name comes from Chuckatuck Creek, “or Crooked Creek as the Indians called it” (a tributary of the James River). Those Indians must have been Algonquian-speaking members of the Nansemond tribe. The Virginia Algonquian language is also known as Powhatan, and was the source of such English words as hickory, hominy, opossum, persimmon, and (corn)pone.

Nottoway Parish was the original name of Southampton County, Virginia. It was named after the Nottoway River, which was in turn named for the Nottoway Indians who lived along it. The name Nottoway appears to come from an Algonquian word for peoples who were not Algonquian speakers. The same name shows up elsewhere in two counties named Nottoway in North Carolina and Louisiana, streets named Nodaway in Iowa and Missouri, and Nadoway Point in Michigan, where it faces Iroquois Island in Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior. The wide-ranging Algonguians had many foreigners in their midst.

We know the Nottoway used to speak an Iroquian language because someone collected a wordlist in 1820 from one of the last elderly speakers and sent it to Thomas Jefferson, who shared it with Peter DuPonceau, one of the earliest experts in the indigenous languages of North America. A few more words were added to the list, but they are the only trace we have left of the language. Nevertheless, they suffice to show that Nottoway was closely related to Tuscarora, which is much better documented but now highly endangered.

Two other groups of Northern Iroquian speakers lived in the area. The Meherrin Nation once lived along the Meherrin River in Virginia, but migrated south to North Carolina during the early 1700s. They signed several treaties with the colony and are now one of the eight indigenous nations officially recognized by the state of North Carolina.

The Tuscarora people once lived around the Roanoke, Neuse, and Tar Rivers in North Carolina, but began migrating north after the Tuscarora War of 1711-1713. Those who reached New York became the sixth nation of the Iroquois who are nationally recognized in Canada and the U.S. But other descendants of the Tuscarora have remained in North Carolina, and some have moved to Oklahoma.

Of the eleven tribes recognized by the State of Virginia, only three groups are not of Algonquian heritage. The Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, Inc. and the Choreonhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe of Southampton County both descend from people who once spoke the same Iroquoian language.

The third group claims descent from speakers of Eastern Siouan languages (also known as Catawban). The Monacan Indian Nation gets its name from one of two historic tribes, the Monacan and Manahoac (or Mahock), who once lived in Piedmont Virginia and spoke languages (now extinct) closely related to Tutelo. The Tutelo fled north in 1740 and were adopted by the Iroquoian Cayuga in 1753. The ethnologist Horatio Hale, working among the Cayuga in Ontario, was the first to discover that the Tutelo language from Virginia belonged to the Siouan family. (He was also the first to identify the Cherokee language as Iroquoian.) So the Siouan language family once extended as far east as Virginia and the Carolinas and as far south as Biloxi, Mississippi.

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Four Notable Slaves and Two Generals

While visiting ancestral haunts and a few more famous historic sites in Southampton County, Virginia, in April, we pulled the car over in front of the Rebecca Vaughan house in Courtland and I got out to take a photo of it. Soon I heard a lady’s voice behind me asking, “What do you think?”

She turned out to be the head of the Southampton County Historical Society, which runs a museum in another historic site I had photographed near what used to be called Jerusalem Courthouse, when the county seat had been called Jerusalem. Perhaps she had followed us from there, because she followed us into Heritage Lane, where the Vaughan house sits, and back out when we stopped to take a photo.

The house is still being restored and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places because it was the last house in which anyone had been killed during the Southampton Insurrection of 1831, more commonly known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion. (I read William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner not long after it first appeared in 1967, the year I moved in with my uncle in Southampton County after finishing high school—in fact most of my childhood—in Japan.)

We two history buffs had a long and enthusiastic conversation that might have gone on even longer if it hadn’t been getting close to supper time. She named four famous slaves born in Southampton County.

1. Nat Turner (1800-1831), who led the slave rebellion in 1831.

2. Dred Scott (1795-1858), who left the County not long after his birth and died shortly after the landmark Dred Scott Decision in 1857.

3. Anthony Gardiner (1820-1885), whose family emigrated to Liberia in 1831, and who went on to become Liberia’s 1st attorney general (1848-1865), 7th vice president (1872-1876), and 9th president (1878-1883).

4. John Brown (c. 1810-1876), who escaped to England in 1850, where he dictated his life story to the president of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which published it under the title, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England (1855). (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had appeared in 1852.)

I hadn’t heard of the last two men, but I had heard of the two Civil War generals she next told me about.

General George H. Thomas (1816-1870) born in Newsom’s Depot, Southampton County, acquired several epithets from his leadership during the Civil War: “Rock of Chickamauga,” “Sledge of Nashville,” and “Slow Trot Thomas.” Until very late in the War, the Union troops never crossed the Blackwater River to invade Southampton County, and my interlocutor suggested that Gen. Thomas may have had something to do with that. (I doubt it, for two reasons: he commanded the Army of the Cumberland in the Western Theater; and Gen. Ulysses Grant held him in low esteem.)

General William Mahone (1826-1895) once lived in Mahone’s Tavern, just across from Jerusalem Courthouse. Trained as a civil engineer at Virginia Military Institute (class of 1847), he was hired to build the railroad between Norfolk and Petersburg. (His wife, Otelia Butler of Smithfield, is credited with naming several of the stations.) During the War, he distinguished himself at the Battle of the Crater during the Siege of Petersburg. He had worked as a teacher before becoming a railroad executive, and after the War joined the biracial Readjuster Party. He was a strong proponent of education for freedmen and free blacks and helped found Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute in 1882 (now Virginia State University), the first fully state-supported four-year institution of higher learning for black Americans in the United States.

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