The relentless violence in northeast Nigeria continues unabated with the twin challenges of Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) heaping misery upon millions of people. Despite the constant efforts of the Nigerian Army the death toll continues to rise, with 20 soldiers and 40 civilians killed in the latest ISWAP attack a couple of weeks ago.
At the same time, the de-securitisation of Borno state – the focal point for violence in the northeast of the country – has made ordinary villagers more susceptible to traditional threats such as cattle rustling, a recent incident resulting in a staggering 81 deaths.
Whilst the jihadist onslaught understandably captures much of the national and international attention regarding Nigeria, the country’s southeast has remained, on the whole, mercifully quiet. This is the land of the Igbo people, approximately 35 million Christians with a fraught recent past.
Prior to European colonisation, the Igbo had lived in autonomous local communities in what is today southeast Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. As was typical of European administrations in Africa, the Igbo lands were amalgamated into a more conveniently unified colonial state, regardless of traditional structures or inter-ethnic relationships.
A rich culture and history was gradually eroded – although by no means eliminated – first by the slave trade and then by British rule, with local Warrant Chiefs appointed to ensure loyalty to the colonial state. Christianity was introduced by British missionaries and European ideals of education and society impressed upon the Igbo population.
Nigerian independence in 1960 only solidified a distinct ethnic, cultural and religious divide between the Igbo people and their enforced brethren. Ethnic violence began to take hold, particularly in the north of the country where the Igbo were viciously persecuted by the Muslim majority, often with the backing of the federal government.
In 1967, the Igbo and their allies seceded and declared the Republic of Biafra in the country’s southeast. Two-and-a-half years of brutal civil war followed, with up to 100,000 military casualties. To compound matters, the federal government – with British backing – blockaded food shipments into the the nascent state; maybe 3 million people, most of them children, died of starvation, with millions more displaced as refugees. In January 1970, Biafra surrendered and the Igbo once more found themselves a part of Nigeria.
The discontent between the Christian south and Muslim north still persists, though some common cause has been found in fighting the demonic foe of Boko Haram and their deadly affiliates. The Igbo form just a part of this reeling population, yet in times of desperation they have arguably achieved greater unity than they historically possessed, and have recaptured their cultural heritage.
But recapturing and retaining this heritage requires international support. Christie’s auction house has come under fire from a prominent art historian who has claimed that two wooden objects set to go on sale were looted from Igbo shrines during the civil war. Countless other priceless artefacts suffered the same fate.
Unfortunately, as we know, such looting flourishes in times of strife. Indeed, Facebook has recently had to ban the sale of looted antiquities on its platforms, with many objects pillaged from the war zones of North Africa and the Middle East. It is likely that similar events are occurring in northeast Nigeria today.
The Igbo have not fallen silent and many still see the future of their people separate to the Nigerian state. But the memory of bloodshed lingers long, even more than half-a-century after the civil war ended. On Biafra’s surrender, the government declared a policy of “no victor, no vanquished”; i.e. be quiet, go back to normal and, whatever you do, don’t reflect on the past.
How can the Igbo fail to reflect, to look on their past without a sense of burning injustice? Starting with the slave-raiders, through British annexation and colonisation, the pains of de-colonisation and population displacement, ethnic persecution and civil war; it has been a long and painful road and, whilst the northeast of the country burns, the government in Abuja would do well to remember the discontent of the southeast.
As would the international community, who screamed in collective horror at the Biafra blockade of the late 1960s but has now forgotten the civil war and its legacy. As too would reputable auction houses, whose reputations will hopefully suffer immeasurably should they steal a cultural legacy they have no right to take.