Nations enshrine mediocrity as their modus operandi, and create the fertile ground for the rise of tyrants and other base elements of the society, by silently assenting to the dismantling of systems of excellence because they do not immediately benefit one specific ethnic, racial, political or special-interest group. That, in my humble opinion, is precisely where Nigeria finds itself today!
Chinua Achebe, There Was A Country, p. 236
In the epigraph to this piece, we have one of the many instances in There Was A Country in which Achebe urges a strong, perhaps even determining link between what he deems, not without considerable justification, an endemic ethnic scapegoating of Igbo people in pre- and post civil war Nigeria and the total collapse of meritocracy in our country. With the possible exception of the subject of mass starvation and the claim of attempted genocide during the Nigeria-Biafra war, I confess that within the comprehensive and capacious scope of Achebe’s new book, nothing startled me more than this particular topic. Let me explain.
Like most self-identified progressive commentators on the civil war and the events and crises that both led to it and came after it, I had assumed that the mass slaughter of Igbo people in their thousands in the pogroms before and after the July 1966 “Northern coup” constituted the core of what had to be engaged, analyzed, understood and positively transcended in that dire, tragic period of our history. In essence, this entails the thesis that dominant elements within the right-wing successor state that came into being after the July 1966 coup not only stood by while Igbo people were being slaughtered but were actually behind the pogroms.
Any state that not only fails to provide guarantees and protection for the lives and properties of large segments of its population but actually oversees the perpetration of such crimes loses both its political sovereignty and moral legitimacy. From this perspective, it is not difficult to see that what we are experiencing right now in the generalized climate of terror and insecurity around life, freedom of movement and safety of possession in nearly all parts of the country – especially in the North – has its distant but effective roots in those pogroms of May and August 1966.
Against this background, the theme of the link between the ethnic scapegoating of Igbo people and the total overthrow of merit and excellence leading to a pervasive culture of mediocrity in contemporary Nigeria constitutes a related but separate topic, one that I personally have never encountered in the extraordinarily controversial manner in which Achebe approaches it in There Was A Country.
In the genuine hope that I am not oversimplifying Achebe’s ideas and claims on this subject in his new book, here’s a succinct summary of what I consider his five interlocking ideas on the topic: (1) in a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria, differences pertain not only to language, culture and customs but, crucially, also to rates and levels of effective absorption of education and currents of modern thought and culture; (2) by the time of the first decade of the post-independence period, the Igbos had surpassed all other ethnic groups in Nigeria (and the African continent) in education, the professions, politics, trade and commerce; (3) this situation led to acts and expressions of thoughtless and exhibitionist arrogance among some Igbos and deep resentment and envy among non-Igbos; (4) the characterization of the January 15, 1966 coup as “an Igbo coup” provided the justification for an organized, systematic mobilization, across nearly all other ethnic groups in the country, of resentment of meritorious Igbo intellectual, professional, commercial and cultural achievements; (5) henceforth, merit was displaced as the benchmark for conducting the business of the nation in all areas, to be replaced by an all-pervading culture of mediocrity that was/is clothed in the garb of “federal character”.
The essential elements of Achebe’s ideas on this topic are contained in a short section of Part One of There Was A Country titled “A History of Ethnic Tension and Resentment” (pages 74-78). But this theme runs throughout all the four parts of the book like a leitmotif that undergirds the comprehensive and compelling ethnographic history of Igbo resilience and achievement under adverse historical and political conditions that Achebe celebrates throughout the book. In other words, though Achebe’s new book also extensively deals with registering the traumas and tragedies that came with war, defeat and post-war crises of reintegration into Nigeria, the central intellectual theme of the book is the loss that Nigeria sustained – and continues to sustain to this day -when mediocrity effectively replaced meritocracy with the purging of Igbos from the intellectual and professional centers of our public life in those fateful months between January and August 1966.
It is important to emphasize the fact that though the essential ingredients of this theme had been expressed in Achebe’s previous writings, notably The Trouble with Nigeria and Home and Exile, the author had been more cautious, more restrained and more comparative in those two previous books. For example, in The Trouble with Nigeria, the essential argument was that though the Yoruba had the advantage of a great historical and geographical head start over Igbos, the latter caught up with the former in education and the professions within three decades of the mid-20th century. And in Home and Exile, Achebe’s extensive reflections on the vigorous and enthusiastic embrace of modernity by Igbo people had been made within the wider framework of a powerful Pan Africanist celebration of the elements within all African cultures that made them sift and choose the good from the bad in the currents and forces of modernity. But in this new book, Achebe takes this same nexus of ideas and makes of them a part of his startling claim that in the crises leading to the Nigeria-Biafra war, the Igbos were made the collective ethnic scapegoat of a nation caught in the paroxysm of an Igbophobia that was really and effectively a mask, a pretext, a rationale for the overthrow of meritocracy.
In the fourth and final part of the book Achebe, as an illustration of the deliberate targeting of Igbo intellectual and professional achievement in the pervasive post-war culture of mediocrity, gives an account of how “a former president” of Nigeria deliberately unleashed on Achebe’s own home state of Anambra “corrupt politicians with plenty of money and low IQs” (p. 248). The “former president” in question was none other than Olusegun Obasanjo and the “corrupt politician with plenty of money and low IQ” was of course the hapless Andy Uba. In his account of this notorious case, Achebe makes much of the fact that this was happening in Igbo land and was connected to the fact that this “former president”, Obasanjo, had a strong and punitive aversion toward Igbo people. But what Achebe ignores, consciously or unwittingly, is the fact that Obasanjo had done exactly the same thing in Yoruba land in particular and, more generally, in the nation at large. For this is the same “former president” who imposed Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu, a professional thug, on Oyo State as the presiding political boss who, just like Andy Uba, had powers of patrimonial control and manipulation over the elected executive governor of the state. And it was the same Obasanjo that made Mrs. Ette, an inarticulate and barely literate hair dresser, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In case the “moral” of this critique of Achebe’s link between ethnicity, meritocracy and mediocrity is missed, let me point it out: each ethnic group in Nigeria has its own “Andy Uba” and “Lamidi Adedibu”. This is because neither mediocrity nor meritocracy is innate in any ethnic group, each one being the determinate outcome of factors that pertain as much to class as to ethnicity. More pertinently, Achebe is grossly mistaken to trace the roots of the culture of mediocrity in our country to the purging of Igbo intellectuals and professionals in federal, regional and local public and private agencies, institutions and enterprises in those fateful months of 1966 before the Nigeria-Biafra war.
For mediocrity preceded the crises leading to the civil war, as Achebe own novel, A Man of the People, powerfully and memorably demonstrates. Moreover, the culture of mediocrity in post-civil war Nigeria got exponentially much bigger when oil wealth replaced the pre-war export crop economy as the primary means of surplus extraction by the political class drawn from all of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, major and “minor”.
I have pondered long and hard on why Achebe in this new book seemed to need to place so much unalloyed triumphalism on the incontrovertible historic achievement of Igbos in education, the professions, the arts, commerce, politics and culture. The immediate historic context and justification for Achebe in this exercise seems to have been the indisputable fact that after the January 15, 1966 coup, there was a widespread but carefully manufactured fear of Igbo domination in all federal institutions and parastatals. This manufactured fear led the right-wing Northern and Western regional governments of the period to begin compiling data and statistics that seemed to reflect an orchestrated Igbo domination. Ironically, what Achebe’s own “list” in his new book does is to retroactively and inadvertently produce that alleged Igbo domination. This observation needs careful elaboration.
Achebe neither refutes nor impugns the accuracy of the figures and data in the Northern/Western lists; he merely “explains” them away by more or less implying that Igbo dominance was justified by achievement, by merit. The problem with this “explanation” is that it conflates class with ethnicity. For if the figures and data released by the NNA parties were accurate, this only reflects the fact that at that point in time, Igbo middle and professional classes enjoyed a clear advantage over the middle and professional classes of other ethnic groups, principally the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani who then used the crises of 1966 to opportunistically wipe out that advantage. End of story? No!
Partly because this intersection of fierce intra-class and inter-ethnic competition was so closely linked to the pogroms of 1966 and partly because the foreign audience that constitutes a large and significant part of Achebe’s intended readership of this book typically thinks of Africa in terms of “tribe” and ethnicity and hardly ever in terms of class, Achebe refuses absolutely to concede this class advantage of Igbo professional and middle classes in pre-civil war Nigeria; he prefers instead to reduce or keep everything to the singularity of “tribe”. In next week’s concluding piece in this series, we shall see how these same factors were deployed far more ominously in the most harrowing issue raised in Achebe’s new book, this being mass starvation and the alleged attempted genocide committed against the children of Biafra.