The repression of Igbo by the British and Nigerian State
By Prof Olu Oguibe
History is a most fascinating thing, as I’ve often said in the past. That’s why rulers and the people they represent do everything to discourage digging into history. A people without good knowledge of even their own history are easy to manipulate, deceive, repress and rule.
On November 18, 1949 a firing squad of “native” troops from Mushi in what was then Northern Nigeria, along with the British assistant police superintendent in Enugu, shot and killed 26 unarmed Igbo miners striking for proper wages at the Government Colliery. The first of the dead miners was shot point blank by the British officer, who had his troops shooting steadily into the crowd of miners for over two minutes straight. 6 of the dead miners were shot in the back while they tried to flee.
Following the miners’ massacre, leaders of the colony’s Independence movement announced that it was time for a full-scale uprising against the British. Throughout Eastern Nigeria, the Igbo heeded that call and rose in all the major towns. However, across the rest of Nigeria nobody else joined the “uprising”. In fact, even in Eastern Nigeria outside Igbo land, the Igbo protests against the British were violently put down by their Efik neighbors who also used the secretive Ekpe society to target Igbo civic leaders and communities living among the Efik.
The Ekpe society, which the Efik had previously used extensively to kidnap and sell Igbo men, women and especially children into slavery, along with their own people, is, of course, the source of the Nsibidi script, now laundered of its iniquitous role in the slave trade, and much admired as the basis of work by artists like Victor Ekpuk. It’s like using the secret codes of the Ku Klux Klan to make art, much to everyone’s ignorant delight.
As the Igbo uprising against the British was savagely put down, not without the collaboration of other Nigerian groups, Chukwuwunka Ugokwu, a young, 20-year old Igbo civil servant, attempted to assassinate the British Chief Secretary for Nigeria, Hugh Foot, in response. Even more bloody colonial reprisal swiftly followed. Foot would survive and soon become Governor of Jamaica, then, Governor of Cyprus, then, British permanent representative to the United Nations. A most odious piece of excreta, he’d previously been resident officer in Nablus, British-occupied Palestine.
In a 1968 speech that I’ve cited severally in the recent past and which is part of my Biafra Time Capsule, the Biafran leader Emeka Ojukwu reminded his audience that no other group had done more or paid nearly as high a price for Nigeria’s Independence from colonial rule as the Igbo had. From killing the British resident officer in Mbaise in 1906 to Ugokwu’s attempt to kill Foot in 1950. From the so-called Aba women’s revolt in 1929 to the miners strikes and massacre in 1949. Again, and again, and again, and again.
It’s no wonder that the last thing Britain was going to see happen in 1967 was a new, dominantly Igbo nation. After all, Ugokwu’s assassination attempt on the colonial secretary had occurred barely 16 years before Major Nzeogwu and his colleagues shut down Balewa’s corrupt government. It was those troublesome, irrepressible and utterly disagreeable Igbo all over again.
Mushi. Efik. Nsibidi. These are not words that anyone today associates with the violent repression of the Igbo. Nor are there many who even know the names of the 26 brave Igbo mine workers who were massacred at the Enugu colliery, or their courageous leader who was subsequently jailed, and then consigned to the dustbin of history.
It’s worth reminding the reader here that Independent Nigeria has spent the past full half century sinking deeper and deeper into underdevelopment and primitive regression because the last Igbo effort to save Nigeria for Nigerians was not only violently rejected, but 3 million innocent Igbo women, men and children were made to pay for it with their lives. Nigerians are still waiting for the Igbo to save Nigeria for them by giving their blood once more.
OLU OGUIBE’S BRIEF PROFILE
Olu Oguibe (born 14 October 1964) is a Nigerian-born artist and intellectual. He attended University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Professor of Art and African-American Studies at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, Oguibe is a senior fellow of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School, New York City, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. He is also an art historian, art curator, and leading contributor to post-colonial theory and new information technology studies. Oguibe was honored with the State of Connecticut Governor’s Arts Award for excellence and lifetime achievement on 15 June 2013. First published on July 24th 2017