Revisiting History: Presaging The Igbo Genocide – OpEd


By Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

In his recently published book, ‘Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British’ (London: Viking, 2011), Jeremy Paxman allocates just 12 lines of the total 272-page study to British-occupied Nigeria. But the pithy commentary undoubtedly speaks volumes of the mindset of the occupation regime on the very eve of its presumed departure from Nigeria in October 1960. This is clearly a regime that is not prepared or willing to abandon the bounty harvest or lucre that is its Nigeria. Instead, it is exploring across a spectrum of strategies to subvert the goal of the restoration-of-independence movement for the peoples, which the Igbo had led since the 1940s.

Using archival material, Paxman presents the crux of the panoramic conversation on the subject in Lagos in January 1960 between James Robertson, the outgoing occupation governor, and visiting Prime Minister Harold Macmillan:

Macmillan: ‘Are the people fit for self-government?’
Robertson: ‘No, of course not.’

According to Paxman, James Robertson reckons that it would take ‘another 20 or 25 years’ for Nigeria to be ‘fit for self-government’. Interestingly, this is the same Robertson who had by the time of his Lagos meeting with Macmillan ‘concluded’ the ‘terms’ of the British ‘exit’ from Nigeria in ‘negotiations’ with the country’s restoration-of-independence movement – begun 15 years earlier and had been successively chaired by two previous occupation governors, including sessions scheduled and held in England. This is the same Robertson who had just rigged the December 1959 countrywide elections in Nigeria (part of the restoration-of-independence ‘package’) in favour of the Hausa-Fulani north region, Britain’s local clients, vehemently opposed to African independence – and, therefore, the British exit! (This northern Nigeria region has the unenviable accolade across the entire southern sorld of being home of one of the few peoples who wanted the occupation of their lands indefinitely by one of the pan-European powers of global conquest since the 15th century CE.) Furthermore, this is the same Robertson whose predecessor in Lagos had earlier rigged the countrywide census results – again in favour of Britain’s Hausa-Fulani north regional clients.

Macmillan then asks Robertson for his advice on the way forward for the British continuing occupation of Nigeria: ‘What do you recommend me to do?’ Robertson: ‘I recommend you give it to them at once.’

Really? What? Why? Doesn’t Roberston’s suggestion to his boss sound wholly contradictory to the tract that this conclave had trodden so far? Well, no, not really… Both prime minister and governor have no disagreement, whatsoever, on holding onto British ‘interests’ in Nigeria in perpetuity; they do not believe that they are necessarily bound by the ‘terms’ of the envisaged British ‘exit’ from Nigeria ‘negotiated’ since 1945 even though, ironically, these had largely preserved British ‘interests’, thanks to the veto-power that its Hausa-Fulani north region subalterns would exercise in the ‘new’ dispensation; most crucially, both men do not subscribe to the inalienable rights of Africans to recover their conquered lands.

It is the case, though, that if the British officials were to renege on their ‘exit’ from Nigeria at this 11th hour, they would have to contend with a serious crisis – at least in the short-medium term – right there on the ground in Nigeria: ‘The alternative [is] that most talented people [read: the Igbo and those others elsewhere in south Nigeria who demanded and supported the drive towards unfettered restoration-of-independence for the peoples] would become rebels and the British would spend the next two decades fighting to stave off what [is] inevitable, while incurring the opprobrium of the world’.

As the Lagos deliberations end, nine months before the designated British departure date, both prime minister and governor needn’t agonise too much over the future prospects of their country’s Nigeria stranglehold. After all, despite the ‘talented people’, Britain is aware that it holds the trump card to defend this stranglehold via its Hausa-Fulani clients. Twice in the previous 15 years (significantly, it should be noted, during the very years of British ‘negotiations’ of its ‘exit’ from Nigeria with the ‘talented people’), the clients organised and unleashed pogroms against Igbo people in the north-central town of Jos (1945) and northern city of Kano (1953). Hundreds of Igbo were murdered during these massacres and tens of thousands of pounds sterling worth of their property looted or destroyed. No perpetrators of these murders were ever apprehended or punished by the occupation regime.

Six-and-half years hence, from 29 May 1966, these same British clients would unleash the genocide against the Igbo people. During the course of 44 months, 3.1 million Igbo children, women and men are murdered in this foundational and most gruesome genocide of post-(European)conquest Africa. The Igbo and the world suddenly realise that those anti-Igbo pogroms carried out during the years of the Anglo-‘talented people’ in Nigeria doubtful restoration-of-independence negotiations were indeed ‘dress rehearsals’ for the 29 May 1966-12 January 1970 Igbo genocide.


Britain plays an instrumental role in the perpetration of the genocide – politically, diplomatically, militarily. A new Harold the prime minister, this time Harold Wilson, has no qualms about the ‘opprobrium of the world’ considered by the other Harold during those January 1960 talks with occupation governor Robertson. Wilson’s reasons are obvious: the architecture of control and execution of mass violence in Nigeria have altered, somehow, since January 1960, and the forces on the ground spearheading the Igbo genocide are the trusted Hausa-Fulani subalterns of old and their since locally expanded allies – not Britain, directly; precisely, what Macmillan and Robertson had sought to avoid!

So, as the slaughter of the Igbo intensifies, particularly in those catastrophic months of 1968-1969, Harold Wilson is totally unfazed as he informs Clyde Ferguson (United States State Department special coordinator for relief to Biafra) that he, Harold Wilson, ‘would accept half a million dead Biafrans if that was what it took’ Nigeria to destroy the Igbo resistance to the genocide. Such is the grotesquely expressed diminution of African life made by a supposedly leading politician of the world of the 1960s – barely 20 years after the deplorable perpetration of the Jewish genocide. As the final tally of the murder of the Igbo demonstrates, Harold Wilson probably had the perverted satisfaction of having his Nigerian subalterns perform far in excess of the prime minister’s grim target.

Jeremy Paxman, a senior journalist at the British Broadcasting Corporation who anchors the BBC2 ‘Newsnight’ programme, has a three-minute follow-up video where he explains why he has written ‘Empire’. Two reasons are quite striking: ‘Why did the British go out (sic) to conquer the world?’; ‘What did it do to them [the British, that is]?’ For the Igbo of south-west-central Africa, the savagery of that conquest is palpably incalculable. It is now clear that the contemporary British state cannot continue to ignore its responsibilities in embarking on a comprehensive re-examination of the history of its relationship with the Igbo people and make the long-overdue restitution.

Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe is the author of ‘Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature’. (Dakar and Reading: African Renaissance, 2011)

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