Author: Alan Titley
Alan Titley spent two years in Africa (1967-69) as a young Irish teacher during the Nigerian Civil War. He also traveled throughout West Africa in those years and witnessed much of what was going on in the regions politics and social life. These brief essays attempt to tell some small part of his experience and his reflections on African, specifically Nigerian politics today.
When I went to Nigeria in the summer of 1967, I knew that there was a war on. I can’t say I had the least clue as to what it was about. A very nice priest from the Society of African Missions spent half an hour with me talking about Igbos and Yorubas and Hausas and other names which meant precisely nothing. I tried to read a few books and some articles, but I had nothing to link them to. There was a map in my head but it did not correspond to any places I had ever known. To me, it was ‘A Journey without maps’, as the title of a Graham Greene travel book through Liberia put it.
I was barely twenty years of age, with no baggage. One never quite knows why one has certain political leanings rather than any other. Even at this stage, I was passionately interested in Irish Gaelic literature, and this gave a perspective on the world which was certainly not mainstream. My leanings were heavily anti-colonial, and I was proud of the fact that Ireland was one of those very few western European countries that never had an empire. I never pretended that we were a haven of holiness or that we could have been as brutally dominant as any other power given the opportunity. On the other hand, I had witnessed the ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs on English guest houses, and had been refused lodgings for the night, because my strong Irish accent upset the quaint sensitivities of landladies. But going further back than this, when watching Westerns, as we called cowboy films, for some reason I was always ‘up’ for the native American. It was the same with the Tarzan films. I could never understand why this muscley brute could outrun and outjump and outfight a bunch of ‘natives’ who were usually depicted with bones through their noses screaming and hollering in a language which never existed.
I have no explanation for why this was the case. But in Nigeria, my mentors certainly reinforced this view. To the Irish Catholic missionaries, the Igbos were the victims, and had been done down by the Muslim north, and by the Yorubas who were mixed in their allegiences, but who had a vested interest in the status quo. I quickly succumbed to this viewpoint, and with much adding of subtleties, and with a bigger dose of realpolitik, and a greater understanding of the pressures of the time, I still think it is basically true.
Let me put it as bluntly as I can. The lines drawn by the European colonial powers on the surface of Africa are a mess. Far too often a bloody mess. Bloody in their drawing, and bloody in their retaining. Coming from a country like Ireland, it was easy to see how the crude bludgeon of colonialism had wreaked havoc. We were once unwillingly part of The United Kingdom, and we seceded. To me there was no good reason why Biafra, or any other part of a hammered-together polity should not break away, if they had a good reason for doing so.
It is not, of course, as if Europe should be a model for anybody else. Europe has screwed up the world more than most, and the nation state is not the only possible form of government, as we know. The nation state can be a narrow and a bigoted place with stupid and thick ideas about purity and unsulliedness abounding. But if the choice is between the nation state, and the savage horrors of empire whether Aztec, or Mogul, or British, or French, or Spanish, or Portuguese, or Dutch, or Russian, or Japanese or whoever, then give me the silliness of the nation state which attacks nobody else never, every time. On balance, it is probably better for the Finns that they have their own country instead of being part of Sweden or Russia, and I would not like to stand in the middle of Hanoi and proclaim that they would be better off being run by the Japanese, the French or the Americans.
Africa, as the cradle of humanity, does not need lessons from anyone else. My idea that the contours of the African states should be torn up and radically re-imagined is probably unrealistic. There are vested interests now in every African country, and we don’t need no more wars to decide how power should be distributed. But conflicts and wars will continue between and amongst African states as a result of the great European carve-up. The African wars are ethnic with a strong dose of religious excuses, also largely the result of both European and Arab influence.
Look at a map of Europe of three hundred years ago; or a map of Asia. Go back further if you like. Jump with a spring of the imagination forward a few more hundred years. Africa ain’t going to be as it is now. We need poets and writers and historians and people with a mad understanding of humanity to begin to re-organise it, and now. Remake history before it remakes you, and clobbers millions in the process. There are many kinds of constitutional arrangements which validate national or local or ‘tribal’ (a word I do not like) identities, but which also defend the rights of minorities. There are many precedents in African history, a study of which might not be a bad beginning for many politicians.
In my first weeks in Nigeria, we got the standard arguments. On the one hand, the Catholic priests told of the persecution of the Igbos, while the national media was aburst with talk of ‘territorial integrity’. The newspapers were heavily censored, and the radio spewed out what was obviously the government line. We occasionally heard a crackly BBC World Service, and had access to Time magazine. I always had an eerie feeling, that the truth was nowhere; it was bigger than anything that we had heard or read. The truth of the eyes, of the ears, of the rumours, of the imaginings was never the same, and there was little enough that could reconcile them.
Alan Titley is a writer and a scholar from Ireland who was Head of the Irish in St Patrick's College, Dublin City University, and held the Chair of Modern Irish in University College Cork until he retired late last year. As a younger man he taught in Nigeria during the war there and travelled extensively in West Africa. Two of his seven novels (in Irish) deal with the African experience, the latest Gluaiseacht ('Moving') recounts the attempts of two young refugees to enter Europe from their home somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. He has also written plays and stories, and some of his literary and scholarly essays have been published in Nailing Theses (Lagan Press, Belfast 2010). Alan can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
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