by Megan Toomer
Okey Ndibe is a 57-year-old Nigerian political columnist and novelist who is most famous for his novel Foreign Gods, which was declared one of the ten best books of 2014 by the New York Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mosaic magazine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He obtained a PhD from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and was a professor at several universities. His opinionated writing regarding ethnic conflict and reconciliation in Nigeria has landed him on the Nigerian government’s most wanted list several times. He was detained as an enemy of the Nigerian state for teaching history and demanding accountability from the Nigerian government for their oppressive actions. Despite these fear tactics employed by the government, he continues to share his story and hopes for Nigeria through his writing.
Ndibe began his talk by describing Nigeria’s prominence on a global scale through statistics. He stated that one out of every seven black people in the world are Nigerian and one out of every five Africans are Nigerians, making this country extremely important and prevalent for many individuals in the world. He also described the translation of Nigerian and various African cultures into American hip hop. The rhythms and melodies that provided the foundation for the blues, gospel, hip hop and R&B originated from slaves that were brought to North America from Africa. Consequently, Africans played a pivotal role in the evolution of American music. This information served as a way to remind the audience that Nigeria and other African countries are important outside of colonization and violence. Ndibe’s introduction painted a multi-faceted picture of Nigeria, rather than only discussing conflict and corruption.
After introducing facts about Nigeria, Ndibe transitioned into the British colonization of Nigeria, which began in 1914 as a direct result of the Berlin Conference in 1885. The Berlin Conference gave European powers control over African countries and free reign to establish colonies. He explained that the British used indirect rule in order to colonize Nigeria, meaning the British did not send colonists to Nigeria and, instead, let Nigeria retain some of their own customs. The British developed a dependence on traditional structures of government to transform the existing Nigerian political system into a British government structure. British rule began to implement itself into Nigeria effectively, which made Nigerians second and third class citizens. This oppression led to occasional violent responses from Nigerians. Nigerians who attended western schools began to insist for autonomy from the British. In response to these demands, the British justified their colonization by stating that Nigeria could not be a nation due to its ethnic diversity. The British elaborated on the diversity by stating that there was not a sense of one Nigerian people within the country and, instead, was composed of groups of people that identified differently. The British rendered the multiplicity of ethnicities as ‘backwards’ and saw Nigerian people as unsophisticated due to these various ethnic groups. As a result of the vast amount of ethnic diversity, the British believed that Nigeria could not be self-governing. The British further justified their colonization by arguing that Nigeria did not use its own resources and did not have history and, because of this, needed to be enlightened. After discussing British colonization, Ndibe began to transition into the effects of World War II and Nigerian independence.
World War II became the turning point for Africans who were colonized and their colonial masters. The British emphasized that Nigerians were second and third class citizens because they indulged in sinful activities such as sleeping with prostitutes and drinking. Despite what the British claimed, Nigerians saw that colonial powers were subject to the same vices they condemned. The British’s indulgences showed Nigerians that the British were not racially superior as a result of their hypocrisy. Thus, Nigerians began to come together to overthrow their British colonial masters. On October 1st, 1960, four hundred different ethnic groups gained independence in Nigeria. Independence led to each group desiring their ‘fair share of the ethnic cake’ meaning each group wanted dominant political control and regulation of Nigeria’s wealth. This ethnic divide eventually led to the Biafran war, a war that directly affected Ndibe and his family.
The Biafran War was a direct result of the mass amount of foreign aid given to Nigeria, which led to political corruption. Two million people died as a result of violence and starvation. This violence directly targeted the Igbo people, the ethnic group that Okey Ndibe identifies with. His family lost their home and wealth, and were forced to stay in various refugee camps for extended periods of time. The effects of the Biafran War have greatly impacted the way in which Ndibe carries out his own life. His struggles have also shaped his opinions regarding present day Nigeria.
Nigeria is currently divided between two predominant religious groups and one major ethinic group: Muslims, Christians, and Igbo people. These groups, along with many other groups, are implicated in the violence in Nigeria. In his talk, Ndibe, when asked about the solution to the violence, stated that peace will reign on Nigeria when Nigerians begin to see themselves aligned with anyone in Nigeria who has similar values with them, rather than seeing themselves as individuals. He also mentioned the importance of education when deterring violence. Nigeria stopped including history in its schools’ curriculums, which leads to the repetition of past mistakes rather than learning from these errors. I do agree with the importance of education, but Ndibe seemed to point to the idea of assimilation rather than living peacefully amongst one another while embracing each other’s differences. Although it is important to align with those with similar values, it is equally as imperative for one to not lose their sense of self. It is possible to act peacefully while acknowledging that we all have traits that create the foundation of who we are and, in turn, make us all unique.
Ndibe concluded his talk by leaving the audience with an extremely powerful message. When asked if he fears for his life because he writes articles condemning the Nigerian government he stated, “A story that must be told never forgives silence.” This quote underlines the power that one’s story can have. Stories give a voice to the voiceless, and provide the foundation for change. Ndibe implicitly emphasizes that a story that goes untold is dangerous. Untold narratives lead to cycles of violence, which perpetuate systemic oppression. Similar to the novels our class has read this semester, Ndibe is using his accounts to provide a platform of visibility which urges outsiders to acknowledge the plight of the silenced. Those outside of the situation can, in turn, become aware of their role in this systemic oppression and work toward creating an environment where oppressed people can express their concerns without others filtering and drowning out their voices.