This is the power of folklore, especially on young and developing minds; and the difference between the truth and a notorious fact will only get smaller.
We moved to the University of Lagos campus as I was about to start my secondary school education. The first thing my father did was to take me to the study, where he said “this used to be Chike Obi’s study”. For those who don’t know the importance of those words, Chike Obi is believed to be the first person from Sub-Saharan Africa to obtain a doctorate degree in Mathematics. At the time we moved into Professor Obi’s old house, he was working on a solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, reputed to be the most difficult mathematical problem, at that time. I studied Mathematics twice as much as any other subject, because I lived in a house that was inhabited by Nigeria’s greatest mathematician. It didn’t matter that Andrew Wiles, not Chike Obi, eventually solved Fermat’s Last Theorem. To me, Chike Obi was the greatest mathematician ever.
This is the power of folklore, especially on young and developing minds; and the difference between the truth and a notorious fact will only get smaller. On the 2nd of October, The Guardian published excerpts of Chinua Achebe’s much awaited memoirs, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. At the time of writing this, I have read eight passionate reviews of the book, and countless comments in both mainstream and social media. It is clear that Achebe’s book stoked tribal fires, and delivered the headaches he hoped to cause. The excerpts published by The Guardian included an accusation that Obafemi Awolowo championed a policy to deliberately starve inhabitants of Biafra, which is not entirely incorrect. The response from certain Yoruba commentators has been laughable; from Achebe’s envy that an Egba man won the Nobel Prize for Literature his pathological hatred of Yoruba people, it is clear that Nigeria remains as divided as it was in 1967.
Despite the advent of the internet, this generation will not bridge the tribal division. The story of how our nation has survived several harrowing wars and battles is still not part of the learning curriculum. Social Studies classes traced the history of Nigeria till independence, discussed the 1966 coup and counter-coup in 1967, before jumping to the assassination of Murtala Muhammed. It felt like the period between 1967 and 1970 did not exist. After reading Festus Iyayi’s Heroes, I remember asking my secondary school teacher a question about Biafra. She seemed flustered, and asked me to come to the staff room later to discuss my question. That meeting never happened, and my question remained unanswered.
This is why many young people do not know the origins of the Ife-Modakeke or Zango-Kataf crises. Our knowledge is limited to biased opinions of older family members, and in many cases, factually incorrect opinions in the media. Our libraries will stock books on the American Civil War, but I’m yet to see a school library that owns ONE copy of Max Siollun’s Oil Politics and Violence, a book I consider the most comprehensive and unbiased review of Nigeria between 1966 and 1976. It is amazing that a balanced and accurate book on a touchy subject (paraphrasing Kaye Whiteman) has eluded most till date.
It is clear from the emotional outbursts of the last two weeks that many young Igbo people still bear the hurt from the war they never experienced. Hopefully, this will be the first step in acknowledging that the fabric that binds us together is about to rip at the seams. For decades, we have pretended that wars have not been fought, community clashes did not happen, and we are a happy family of 160 million people. Hopefully, the consciousness that a literary icon like Achebe can bear such hurt and emotion for four decades will awaken a desire in many of us to understand the history of our country.
The only place Achebe and Awolowo seem to agree is that Nigeria remains a mere geographical expression; the comments resulting from an old man’s memoirs were just painful reminder.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.