The Looting of Igbo Culture: the Nigerian Civil War and the Forgotten Southeast

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.

A village burnt by ISWAP militants in northeast Nigeria

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.

Igbo women in traditional dress, early 20th century

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 territory of the short-lived Republic of Biafra

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.

The objects in question: representations of Igbo deities

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.

A starving Igbo woman during the civil war

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.

New Pyramids in Egypt & King Tut’s Centenary? Don’t look; Sisi doesn’t want you to

You might imagine that there couldn’t be many of Ancient Egypt’s wonders left to discover given the amount of effort devoted to revealing the hidden secrets of this most amazing of civilisations over the past century. One American researcher, however, claims to have done just that. Using no more sophisticated a tool than Google Earth, she claims to have identified two previously unknown ‘pyramid’ sites, one being almost three times the size of the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Three of the purported new ‘pyramids’

Perhaps unsurprisingly this ‘discovery’ has been treated with a fair bit of scepticism by archaeologists and geologists alike, the general consensus in the scientific community being that these ‘pyramids’ are actually easily-explainable natural features. One archaeological geologist was fairly withering in his assessment of the research:

Her Dimai and Abu Sidhum ‘pyramids’ are examples of natural rock formations that might be mistaken for archaeological features provided one is unburdened by any knowledge of archaeology or geology…In other words, her pyramids are just wishful thinking by an ignorant observer with an overactive imagination.

The fact that there has been such a backlash to this questionable theory shows that the appeal of Egyptology has not dimmed as we approach the 100th anniversary of its most significant find; that of the tomb of Tutankhamun (1342-1325 BC) by Howard Carter in 1922.

The world’s most famous tomb

Indeed, we should now be in the middle of a ‘world tour’ of the ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’, with more than 150 precious artifacts from the tomb being cycled across famous museums and galleries worldwide as part of the centenary celebrations.

In a rather nationalist pronouncement, Egyptian authorities are claiming that this is the last time that King Tut’s funerary splendours will be shown off to the world “before they return back to Egypt forever”.

Carter’s discovery in 1922 coincided with Egypt achieving nominal independence from the British, with the restoration to power of an indigenous monarchy. Whilst Carter and his patron, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, had funded and executed the discovery of Tutankhamun – with substantial help from Egyptian archaeologists – the newly independent Egyptian state saw an opportunity to unite its people around this overwhelming source of national pride.

The astonishing catalogue of items recovered from the tomb testified to a civilisation arguably without equal in the history of the world. Even now, it is hard to comprehend how such intricate finery was crafted more than 3,000 years ago.

Over 5,000 pieces were found in the tomb, despite evidence of looting

The current Egyptian regime is a poor successor to such a wondrous legacy. Strongman leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi spends most of his time suppressing internal dissent with the support of the military, having ruthlessly overthrown the leadership of Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood that rode to power on a wave of popular euphoria after the Arab Spring ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. 

Sisi has tried, without much success, to forge a new Egyptian identity, whilst hoping to recover a more significant geo-political role for his morally and economically bankrupt state. He has generally refrained from trumpeting the glories and virtues of the old pharaohs, content for the pyramids at Giza and the Valley of the Kings to serve their purpose as a welcome attraction for tourist income.

After all, pharaohs were often overthrown, killed even, whilst Sisi is terrified of stirring nationalist sentiment because of its association in Egypt with pan-Arabism and Islamism, the latter allowing the Brotherhood – his sworn enemy – to win power in the first place.

The first anniversary of Morsi’s death has brought protesters back onto the streets of Cairo

That Egypt seldom makes international headlines today – particularly when compared to the monumental events on Tahrir Square in 2011 – shows the success that Sisi has had in solidifying his rule, a new Mubarak overseeing a worn-out and frustrated population.

No doubt the 2022 anniversary of Carter’s discovery will prompt some kind of celebration in Egypt don’t expect Sisi to use the occasion to stir the pot of nationalism. For him, the currently-postponed ‘world tour’ serves the purpose of displaying the glories of Egyptian culture whilst blinding the global public from the activities of his repressive regime and the frustrated aspirations of those that took part in that inspirational revolution almost a decade ago.