Hustler literature sheds light on the world of internet fraud in Nigeria


Internet crime has become attractive as a form of ‘hustle’ to many young Nigerians.
Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Daniel Chukwuemeka, University of Bristol

Hustler narratives have emerged as a genre in world literature since the mid 1960s. It is an expansive genre, but deals broadly with the shortcomings of any given political economy as seen from the perspective of characters who position themselves as both victims and villains.

There have been groundbreaking hustler narratives from the US – like The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) written by Malcolm X and Alex Haley, and Donald Goines’s Dopefiend (1971). In recent times, critics have described the work of African American writers in this field as a type of crime fiction. They carry the expressions of people’s response to inner city problems such as de-industrialisation and police repression. The books represent individuals who operate outside the bounds of what American society might consider acceptable, just to survive.

Nigeria has made its own contribution to this field with its stories of political and religious hustle, sex worker narratives and many others about roadside hawkers, destitution, petty theft, and internet fraud. Notable examples include Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s Trafficked (2008) and Igoni Barrett’s Blackass (2016). Other African entries include South African novelist Niq Mhlongo’s Dog Eat Dog (2004) and Congolese author Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses (2017).

African hustler narratives represent the way people survive at the margins of postcolonial African economies. A distinct kind of African hustler narrative is the Nigerian e-fraud story, portraying characters who engage in cybercrime trying to make scam e-mail recipients part with their money – locally called “Yahoo Boys”. The narratives show how people attempt to overcome geographic and economic disadvantages by creating alternative networks.

In a recent paper, I analysed some of these e-fraud novels – and one in particular, I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani – to show that they fit the literary canon of hustler novels and to find out what they have to say as a critique of the Nigerian state and its economy.

Between Afropolitans and hustlers

In my study I looked at Nigerian hustler narratives in relation to another common trend in African literature today: Afropolitanism.

Afropolitanism describes the experience of African subjects who attain the status of global citizenship. They do this by connecting to other non-African expressions of identity, community and sense of belonging.

Both hustler and Afropolitan narratives highlight the possibility of migration as a way to move socially. But whereas the privileged Afropolitan has a real chance of migration, the African hustler can only access it through a backdoor channel.

For example, In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ifemelu’s migration to the US is through a legally documented process. In contrast, the female hustlers in Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street pay a pimp to smuggle them from Lagos to Antwerp.


Hachette Books (2009)

However, instead of physical migration, the hustlers (e-scammers) in Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance resist poor economic conditions by creating an alternate digital universe. This they navigate by e-mail, for access to global locations of capital.

Nigerian hustler narratives establish e-fraud practice as an alternative economy and show how and why such economies emerge. They can also be a potent critique of young Nigerians’ exclusion from the postcolonial economy.

I Do Not Come to You by Chance

The protagonist of Nwaubani’s book, Kingsley, turns to e-fraud as a way out of poverty.

After independence in 1960, Nigeria continued to adopt the colonial model of an extractive economy, with its dependence on crude oil. Following the fall in global oil prices in the 1980s, Nigeria adopted a neoliberal economic policy called the Structural Adjustment Programme. But this failed to improve the lives of ordinary citizens and encouraged them to engage in capitalist pursuits.




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Meet the ‘Yahoo boys’ – Nigeria’s undergraduate conmen


Kingsley yearns to perform the traditional duties of a family’s opara (firstborn son), which include taking care of his siblings and widowed mother. He applies for work at Nigerian oil companies but none employs him. So he joins his uncle, Cash Daddy, in the informal economy of online fraud. He declares:

I was not a criminal. I had gone into [internet fraud] so that my mother could live in comfort and my siblings have a good education.

E-fraud and the Nigerian state

But in embracing e-fraud as an alternative to his economic exclusion, Kingsley recreates the same exploitative economic landscape that he seeks to avoid.

In one of his scam letters, he exploits the decadent image of Nigeria’s political economy and positions himself within it as a victim. He pretends to be the widow of former Nigerian head of state, General Sani Abacha, describing the persecution of the widow’s household following his death:

I have been thrown into a state of utter confusion, frustration and hopelessness by the current civilian administration. I have been subjected to physical and psychological torture by security agents in the country…

What Kingsley has done above is to weave his personal experience of economic deprivation into a scam e-mail. Terms like “hopelessness” and “psychological torture” serve to appeal to the scam target’s pity and earn their trust. But they simultaneously hold true about Nigeria’s economic uncertainties and Kingsley’s economic vulnerability. In this way, readers are introduced to the degenerate world of Nigeria’s postcolonial economy, one that emasculates the postcolonial subject.

In another scam e-mail he writes:

There is a lot of corruption in Nigeria and people get up to all sorts of devious things.

Kingsley’s class-climbing manoeuvres are therefore a by-product of a failing Nigerian economic system in which a parasitic state exploits the masses. It does so by privatising government assets and converting the common wealth to its advantage, excluding most citizens.

Kingsley’s story forms a critique of the Nigerian economic culture in which he is allowed first to starve and then to prosper.The Conversation

Daniel Chukwuemeka, PhD Candidate in African Postcolonial Writing, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a mass suicide by slaves caused the legend of the flying African to take off



Like the best myths, the tale of Igbo Landing and the flying African seems to transcend boundaries of time and space.
Victor_Tongdee/iStock via Getty Images

Thomas Hallock, University of South Florida

In May 1803 a group of enslaved Africans from present-day Nigeria, of Ebo or Igbo descent, leaped from a single-masted ship into Dunbar Creek off St. Simons Island in Georgia. A slave agent concluded that the Africans drowned and died in an apparent mass suicide. But oral traditions would go on to claim that the Eboes either flew or walked over water back to Africa.

For generations, island residents, known as the Gullah-Geechee people, passed down the tale. When folklorists arrived in the 1930s, Igbo Landing and the story of the flying African assumed a mythological place in African American culture.

Though the site carries no bronze plaque and remains unmarked on tourist maps, it has become a symbol of the traumatizing legacy of trans-Atlantic slavery. Poets, artists, filmmakers, jazz musicians, griots, novelists such as Toni Morrison and pop stars like Beyoncé have all told versions of the tale.

They’ll often switch up the story’s details to reflect different times and places. Yet the heart of the original tale, one of longing for freedom, beats through each of these retellings. The stories continue to resonate because those yearnings – whether they’re from the cargo hold of a sloop or the confines of a prison cell – remain just as intense today.

Sourcing the story

As an academic trained in literary history, I always look for the reasons behind a story’s origins, and how stories travel or change over time. Variations of the flying African myth have been recorded from Arkansas to Canada, Cuba and Brazil.

Yet even as the many versions cut across the Black diaspora, the legend has coalesced around a single place: St. Simons. An entry in the Georgia Encyclopedia makes a direct correlation between the 1803 rebellion mass suicide and the later, literary folkloric tradition.

Why? One reason is geographic.

St. Simons, part of the archipelago that stretches from Florida to North Carolina, long remained separate from the mainland United States. This isolation allowed African customs to survive, where elsewhere they were assimilated or vanished. Historian Melissa L. Cooper describes the Gullah-Geechee people as cultural conservators, tasked in popular culture with the duties of preservation.

A sticker celebrating the Geechee heritage is seen on a pickup truck as passengers board a ferry.
The Gullah-Geechee are descendants of enslaved people who reside on the Southeast coast of the U.S.
AP Photo/David Goldman

Serendipity also played a role in siting the story. When a causeway from mainland Brunswick to St. Simons was built in 1924, folklorists literally followed a paved route into the past. During the New Deal, the Works Project Administration funded an oral history project that involved interviewing formerly enslaved people, and the flying African story was recorded in “Drums and Shadows,” the classic volume that published interviews from the project.

One Works Project Administration interviewer recorded St. Simons raconteur Floyd White asking, “Heahd about Ibo’s Landing. Das duh place weah dey bring duh Ibos obuh in a slabe ship.”

They “staht singing and de mahch right down in duh ribbuh” – Dunbar Creek – and “mahch back tuh Africa.” But they never get home, White adds: “Dey gits drown.”

Floyd White is a key source on the flying African, though as the hackneyed written transcription of his interview suggests, questions linger. The Ebos, by his account, walk, rather than fly, across the water. White allows that he does not personally believe the myth; he says they drowned.

Stories change, song remains the same

The flying African, despite a genealogy rooted in St. Simons, has no single point of origin. A shifting present continues to rewrite the past. These differences across versions only underscore the strength of the myth’s central core.

Take how music is used. In almost every account of Igbo Landing, the Africans sing before they fly. They chant in a dialect of Bantu, one of Africa’s 500 languages: “Kum buba yali kum buba tambe, / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe.” Those words don’t have a direct translation; the words, more often, get described as secret, magical or lost.

But since the 1960s, in many retellings, the Bantu has been updated to the hymn “Oh Freedom,” an anthem first recorded after the Civil War and later popularized during the civil rights movement.

The storyteller Auntie Zya recounts the Igbo Landing legend in a YouTube post. To make the tale more relevant to children today, she launches into the familiar refrain, “And before I’d be a slave,” using the hymn to bridge the myth and a long struggle for civil rights.

And then there’s Toni Morrison’s novel “Song of Solomon,” the very title of which links music and flight. In the story, the novel’s main character, Milkman Dead, pieces together mysterious lyrics to recover a hidden past. Once he understands the song, he leaps from a Virginia cliff and flies away. Or is it suicide? The ending is famously ambiguous.

Toni Morrison talks about how, as a child, she was inspired by stories of enslaved African people flying home to their freedom.

Healing through flight

Like all powerful myths, Igbo Landing and the flying African transcend boundaries of time and space.

Experimental filmmaker Sophia Nahli Allison perceives memories from Dunbar Creek as an “ancestral map.” In a poetic narrative she lays over a dance montage, she muses: “Dreams are reality, time is relative, and the past, present, and future are melding together.” Allison suggests that the cross-generational continuity of the myth nurtures her, sustaining her voice through centuries of violence.

Children’s author Virginia Hamilton, likewise, offers the flying African as a script for healing. Her most famous story, “The People Could Fly,” broaches the difficult subject of the Middle Passage, the leg of the slave trade in which Africans, tightly packed in slave ships, were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

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Hamilton explains why some Africans had to leave their wings behind when forced to America. “They couldn’t take their wings across the water on the slave ships,” she writes. “Too crowded, don’t you know.”

How does a culture get those wings back?

Where some storytellers linger over haunting images, such as the chains supposedly still heard in Dunbar Creek, artists such as Morrison, Allison and Hamilton look forward. Their stories lay the groundwork for recovery.

Hamilton presents “The People Could Fly” as a direct form of hope. In a preface to her collection of that title, she explains how tales “created out of sorrow” carry Black America forward. She reminds readers: “Keep close all the past that was good, and that remains full of promise.” A painful past must be summoned in order to be redeemed.

Igbo Landing starkly illustrated, in 1803, how the choice between slavery and death was not a choice at all. Slavery, sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote, was also social death.

But it’s important to remember that joy doubles as a form of decolonization. Music threads through every version of the flying African legend. Magic words propel fieldworkers into the sky, “Kum yali kum buba tambe.” In song, our spirits lift.

And who among us does not dream of flight?The Conversation

Thomas Hallock, Professor of English, University of South Florida

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A tribute to J.P. Clark, Nigeria’s nature poet



J. P. Clark was one of Nigeria’s most eco-conscious writers.
Ommoclark2020/Wikimedia

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, University of Nigeria

Everyone dies. Everything that has life must someday relinquish it. But that exit is never final. Plants and animals are generally converted into new states and reabsorbed into nature. Human beings remain alive in people’s memories for varying degrees of time. And if you leave a legacy behind, your life will truly begin after your physical death.

The passing of Nigeria’s foremost poet and playwright, Professor J.P. Clark on 13 October, 2020, has reinforced this belief.

Thousands of scholars and and readers who encountered him through his literature retain him in their memories. They also transfer his existence to future generations looking for excellence in the arts.

Throughout his exemplary life, Clark touched on various issues affecting the globe. He displayed a thorough knowledge of his world through his poems.

His writing explored politics, arts and the socio-cultural character of humans. His intimacy with nature, conveyed via his poems, has made him a favourite of eco-conscious readers.

Rich ecological imagery

Clark’s exploration of the intersection between our natural environment and literature is an inspiration to writers and critics. He often found ways to accommodate nature, even when he addressed the mundane issues within politics and academia. His viewpoints can be found in his poetry collections The Casualties and Incidental Songs for Several Persons. His poem, The Usurpation, is a great example.




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J.P. Clark: the ‘pepper’ of the Niger Delta activism stew


Clark’s constant ecological imagery shows great knowledge of, and strong attachment to, natural entities. In all their dealings, human beings operate within the natural realm, interacting with other non-human entities.

I read Clark’s poems in the 1980s. My favourites were Night Rain, Streamside Exchange and Abiku. The stories in those poems often excited feelings of empathy with the human characters.

I revisited those poems 35 years later and realised the crucial influence of the natural environment in his work. Many of his poems set in the riverine areas of Nigeria’s Niger Delta, “embody environmental metaphors, capable of projecting authentic African eco-lit” according to a study of “natural trajectories” in the poems.




Read more:
John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Nigeria’s bard, playwright and activist


His exploration of nature in his poems stimulates a romantic awareness of the African ecosystem, that goes beyond the current agitations of environmental justice in Nigeria. They project 21st century African literary traditions beyond the domains of activism.

Clark’s works are multifaceted. His attachment to his home region, coupled with his training in the arts and the humanities may have conditioned him towards exploring nature in his works. And he did so alongside other nagging socio-political and economic themes that he equally projected.The Conversation

Chinonye Ekwueme-Ugwu, Lecturer, University of Nigeria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

African science fiction: rereading the classic Nigerian novel The Palm-wine Drinkard



Shutterstock

Nedine Moonsamy, University of Pretoria

In 1952 The Palm-wine Drinkard became the first West African novel written in English to be published internationally. That it was written by Amos Tutuola, an unknown Nigerian clerk who took to writing to alleviate boredom, meant the book caused a stir. To this day, it’s celebrated as a key example of African fantasy.

But more recent analysis suggests that the Western view of Tutuola as a fantasy writer is slightly patronising, because it overlooks how seriously his work engages with African reality on its own terms.

Similarly, my reading of the novel explores how it is more suitably classified as a pioneering work of African science fiction than of fantasy. And a lot of that has to do with the way Tutuola uses language. Fantasy deals in the mythic and supernatural. Science fiction is an invention more grounded in reality. I suggest that the lazy appeal to African fantasy and folklore is in line with a longstanding dismissal of Africans as technological beings and, by extension, writers of science fiction.

What the book’s about

The Palm-wine Drinkard introduces us to the Drinkard, who passes his time drinking palm wine with his friends. The alcoholic drink is made from the sap of palm trees, collected by a tapster.

Then his beloved tapster dies after falling from a tree. No longer able to access palm wine, the Drinkard soon loses favour with his friends.

He resolves to bring the tapster back from the place where all dead souls go – Deads’ Town. He passes through many strange towns, meeting bizarre creatures on his journey before finally reuniting with his tapster. Only to learn that a dead person cannot leave Deads’ Town.

In black and white, a balding dark-skinned man looks frankly and openly at the camera.
Amos Tutuola.
Marcoslampert/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Bereft, the Drinkard returns home. Having matured on his journey, he is no longer a nonchalant drunkard and demonstrates his newfound sense of civic duty by bringing an end to a famine in his village.

Western critics hailed The Palm-wine Drinkard as inventive and avant-garde. But Nigerian critics were puzzled and even embarrassed by Tutuola’s use of English. They argued no such English existed, even in a purely spoken form.

Putting the debate of literary quality aside, Tutuola’s striking use of language is undoubtedly sublime, able to transport the reader in ways that are necessary and expected for science fiction. He takes great pains to place his narrative within lived and believable African experience that is more in line with science fiction than fantasy.

Creating a sci-fi world

Samuel R. Delany is a luminary African-American science fiction writer and critic. For him, science fiction is able to “generate the infantile wonder” of the reader through language.

In his hallmark essay About 5,750 Words, he gives an insightful explanation of how science fiction is distinct from other types of fiction. Where realism tells what “could have happened” and fantasy explores what “could not have happened”, science fiction opens up space for events “that have not happened” yet.

An older man with a huge white beard sits looking at camera, behind him a study and shelves of books.
Samuel R. Delaney, a self-portrait.
Samuel R. Delaney/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Fantasy can travel anywhere, but science fiction approaches the world with an inventive attitude rather than a fanciful one. Science fiction can stretch outside our current world, but never to the extent of fantasy. As Delany explains, science fiction writers very carefully use language as part of a process that helps the imagination make the leap from our world into an alternative one.

Tutuola is invested in this balancing act: he stretches the limits of realism but also reins in the unlimited possibilities of fantasy. For example, the Drinkard explains that he and his wife became immortal because they “had ‘sold our death’ to somebody at the door for the sum of £70: 18: 6d and ‘lent our fear’ to somebody at the door as well on interest of £3: 10: 0d per month, so we did not care about death and we did not fear again”.




Read more:
Science fiction offers a useful way to explore China-Africa relations


Tutuola imagines a refreshing option where states of existence like death and anxiety – much like everything else in our consumerist culture – can be traded or rented and “worn” like clothing. Giving the exact amounts in British pounds marries something as familiar as shopping with the wondrous potential that we may one day discard existential inconveniences as easily.

A swirling orange and gold graphic book cover. In the background, African women's faces, with green lettering reading 'The Palm-wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola.'
The 1952 edition.
Faber and Faber UK

For every fantastic suggestion, Tutuola provides a real-world equivalent. He places the most bizarre creatures within the limits of our current experience.

In the forest the Drinkard meets a creature whose two large eyes “were as big as bowls” and feet as “long and thick as a pillar of a house”. This reliance on similes or mundane comparisons is part of an effort to weave the fanciful into the reader’s reality.

The Palm-wine Drinkard uses language in ways that critics like Delany insist are universally crucial to science fiction.

African sci-fi and fable

Some contemporary appraisals of science fiction in Africa argue that the genre is rooted in indigenous fable and folklore and should be read on unique – exceptionalist – terms.

A dense graphic book cover featuring an African figure with high tech glasses on shooting out beams of coloured light, the title reading 'Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century'

The Ohio State University Press

Yet reading African science fiction as an exclusive – and even resistant – form of science fiction, we lose sight of the globalising spirit that’s central to understandings of popular culture in Africa.

Wielding language as the ultimate form of technology, Tutuola has reassembled it and built a vocabulary for his pioneering work of African science fiction that can easily be read as a worthy participant on the global stage of popular genre fiction.

This article is based on Moonsamy’s chapter in the new book Literary Afrofuturism in the Twenty-First Century from The Ohio State University Press.The Conversation

Nedine Moonsamy, Senior Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Giving back to English: how Nigerian words made it into the Oxford English Dictionary



Photo by Bruce Milton Miller/Fairfax Media via Getty Images.

Kingsley Ugwuanyi, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Nigeria was recently in the spotlight when the Oxford English Dictionary announced that its January 2020 update included 29 Nigerian English words.

The reception, in both the traditional and new media, was nothing short of sensational. Most Nigerians expressed a great sense of pride in the fact that the unique ways in which they use English were being acknowledged internationally.

The Oxford English Dictionary said in the release note:

By taking ownership of English and using it as their own medium of expression, Nigerians have made, and are continuing to make, a unique and distinctive contribution to English as a global language.

Interestingly, the idea of Nigerians owning English is the fulcrum of my doctoral research. In it, I found that increasingly Nigerians are demonstrating a strong sense of ownership of the English language, and in particular their use of it.

The inclusion of Nigerian English words in the Oxford English Dictionary is, in a sense, a recognition of the tremendous efforts by scholars of Nigerian English many of whom have produced discipline-shaping research. This has included four published dictionaries of Nigerian English.

These developments indicate that Nigerian English has indeed come of age. They also validate the concentric circle model developed by Professor Braj Kachru, the father of world Englishes research. This avers that the ‘outer-circle’ varieties of English (where Nigerian English belongs) is ‘norm-developing’. In other words, that Nigerian English is adding to the norms of English.

I think the English, indeed the English-speaking world, should be thankful to Nigeria for this historic gift.

So how were the words chosen?

As the Nigerian consultant to the project which saw the inclusion of the words, I have insights into the process the team underwent in adding them. These include the rationale for adding them, and the enormous significance the inclusion holds for the English language.

How, and why, new words are added

The Oxford English Dictionary has a wide variety of resources to track the emergence of new words and new senses of already existing words.

The Oxford English Corpus is one. This is an electronic database of different types of written and spoken texts specifically designed for linguistic research. In the case of Nigerian English and other World English varieties, for instance, suggestions of new words and senses come from the corpus, reading books and magazines written in the English varieties in question as well as looking at previous studies, and the review of existing dictionaries, if any.

Once there is a list of candidates, a team of expert editors at the Oxford English Dictionary looks closely at the databases to ensure that there are several independent instances of the words being used. And how they are being used.

Other factors that are considered include the time period over which words have been used, as well as their frequency and distribution. But there’s no exact time-span and frequency threshold. Some words – such as Brexit – are relatively young but were included quickly because of the huge social impact they had in a short space of time. Others are not used frequently but are included because they are of specific cultural, historical, or linguistic significance to the community of their users. An example is ‘Kannywood’, the word describing the Nigerian Hausa-language film industry, based in the city of Kano.

It’s clear therefore that the editors don’t simply select the words or senses that appeal to them. Instead, they are guided by use, which links in with the prevailing thought in lexicography and linguistics more generally: that the remit of dictionaries and linguistic research is not to prescribe how languages should be used but to describe how languages are being used.

Words are added because the Oxford English Dictionary recognises that English is a universal language. It believes that including words from varieties of English all over the world enables it to tell a more complete story of the language.

These varieties also reflect the unique culture, history, and identity of the various communities that use English across the world. Nigerian English is a good example. Like other English varieties, it is a living ‘being’ with its own unique vocabulary, encompassing all sorts of lexical innovations. These include borrowings from local languages, new abbreviations, blends and compounds.

Failure to capture such words would deny English an opportunity to grow. It would also deny the flavour of what the speakers of these varieties contribute to the development of English.

What does it mean for English?

One of the reasons previous world languages such as Egyptian and Ancient Greek ceased to exert dominance internationally was their inability to keep pace with developments around the world.

Perhaps this is one factor that clearly distinguishes English. It has demonstrated a capacity for growth by keeping its borders open, helping it to develop from a West Germanic dialect spoken in a small island into a world language. English is now spoken by about 1.75 billion people – a quarter of the
world’s population
. This includes first and second language speakers.

One way English grows is by admitting new words and senses not just from other English varieties but from virtually all languages of the world. For instance, English has had the word ‘postpone’ since the late 15th century, but it was through India that its opposite ‘prepone’ entered English in current use during the 20th century.

Similarly, Nigerian English is reintroducing the verb meaning of ‘barb’, which existed in 16th century British English.

This is how English maintains its dominance. In addition, the Internet has given today’s Oxford English Dictionary editors wider access to non-traditional sources of linguistic evidence. This has enabled them to widen and improve the dictionary’s coverage of world varieties of English, affirming Oxford English Dictionary’s claim as “the definitive record of the English language”.The Conversation

Kingsley Ugwuanyi, Lecturer/Doctoral Researcher, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nigerian writers compare genocide of Igbos to the Holocaust


File 20190208 174864 ldpkgf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Biafran refugees flee federal Nigerian troops on a road near Ogbaku, Nigeria in this 1968 photo. Between one and three million people are estimated to have died.
(AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf)

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, University of Winnipeg

During the massacre of Igbos in Nigeria between 1966 and 1970, one to three million people died. In the decades since, writers have worked to make sense of the immense human tragedy.

These literary representations of the massacres use the Holocaust as an important point of reference.

The war in Nigeria, with its associated mass atrocities, is arguably one of the first major moments in postcolonial Africa when accusations of genocide were made. Following military coups in Nigeria in 1966, the military and ethnic extremists systematically targeted and killed Igbos across the then Northern and Western regions of Nigeria.

Massacres of Igbos and other Easterners across the country led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions.

The massacres led the Eastern Region of Nigeria to declare its secession from Nigeria. The region was renamed the republic of Biafra. Nigeria invaded Biafra in July 1967, leading to a protracted war. The federal government used starvation tactics which led to upwards of three million civilian deaths in Biafra. Biafra officially surrendered to Nigeria in January 1970.

After its genocidal war, the Nigerian government proceeded to engineer a culture of denial.

To counter that propaganda, writers reflecting on that past have often framed the war as genocide. A common feature in the writings is the comparison of Igbo experiences of atrocities to Jewish ones during the Holocaust.

The Holocaust as cultural icon of genocide

During the Biafran War, U.S.-based Igbo poet, Onwuchekwa Jemie, compared the murder of Igbos in Nigeria to the Nazi German murder of Jews during the Second World War. His poem, “Requiem” (from his 1970 poetry collection, Biafra: Requiem for the Dead in War) reflects this:

Once in 53 
Three times in 66 
Nigerians shoot civilians
through the ears
rehearsing all known tortures
murdering all males
and raping old women
forcing teenage girls in leper clinics
hundreds butchered…
the 30,000 innocents
mowed down Nazi fashion
a final solution
that failed again. 

In “Requiem,” Jemie catalogues the systematic persecutions and murders of Igbo civilians, which he considers similar to the Nazis’ “final solution.”

The lines “a final solution / that failed again” encapsulate the poet’s defiant view that Biafra will survive the genocidal onslaught from Nigeria.

Global history scholar Lasse Heerten has explained in his work on Biafra, that such comparisons of Igbo suffering to the Nazi genocide of Jews reveal the growing awareness of the Holocaust in African conflict zones at the time.

The comparison of Igbo suffering to the Holocaust offers a way for the writers to internationalize Igbo experience in Nigeria. In so doing, they are sharing a moral message about the universal condition of human cruelty.

The cruel human condition

Similarly, the 1971 poem “Vultures” by Chinua Achebe reflects on the troubling realization that humans possess simultaneously a capacity for human care and a vulture’s inhumane savagery. The poet imagines a Nigerian military commander as a vulture and compares him to the Commandant of the Nazis’ death camp at Belsen:

Thus the Commandant at Belsen 
Camp going home for 
the day with fumes of 
human roast clinging 
rebelliously to his hairy 
nostrils will stop 
at the wayside sweetshop 
and pick up a chocolate 
for his tender offspring 
waiting at home for Daddy’s 
return… 
‘Christmas in Biafra and other Poems’ by Chinua Achebe was published in 1973 and includes ‘Vultures.’
Anchor Books

Achebe’s reference to the Holocaust evokes the Nazi death camps as a site of savagery: “fumes of / human roast.” He seems to be alluding to Paul Celan’s 1948 poem, “Death Fugue,” which describes the cremation of Jewish victims in the Nazi camps as a “grave in the sky.”

Reference to the Holocaust in Achebe’s poem provides a way to meditate on the ironic condition of human cruelty.

Another writer who used the Holocaust as a metaphor for moralizing about the human condition is Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who was jailed for his attempts to mediate between Biafra and Nigeria. His 1972 prison memoir The Man Died expresses his frustration over the unending cycles of brutality and the pattern of genocidal murders taking place in Nigeria. Soyinka’s other books, plays and poems on the 1966-1970 crisis equally draw on the Holocaust as a way to comment on cruelty.

‘And the World Has Remained Silent’

Half of a Yellow Sun.

Such comparison between Igbo suffering and the Holocaust intending to convey a moral message on human condition can be found in several other writings, including Flora Nwapa’s Never Again, Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004), Nnedi Okorafor’s fantasy novels, Who Fears Death (2010) and The Book of Phoenix (2015), and notably too in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).

In Half of a Yellow Sun, there are several instances comparing the experiences of Igbos to those of Jews under the Nazis.

For example, the title of the character Ugwu’s story, ‘The World Was Silent When We Died,’ echoes the original Yiddish title of Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, (“And the World Has Remained Silent”).

Universalize can also mean generalize

I believe these literary analogies between Jewish and Igbo experiences have helped to make the atrocities public and known. However, these analogies can also overwhelm the particulars of the Nigerian context of the crisis.

Because the political contexts of such historical mass atrocities being compared vary significantly, these comparisons may come at the cost of our understanding of genocide in African states. Both African and European historical contexts within which these atrocities occurred may become de-territorialized and depoliticized.

In the meantime, local suppression of political questions of Igbo self-determination and justice in the war’s aftermath remain unaddressed.The Conversation

Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba, Assistant Professor, University of Winnipeg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.