To the Editors:
The current situation of the Ibo-speaking people of the East Central State of Nigeria, the former heartland of Biafra, remains obscured by government propaganda, impressionistic reports, and the discreet silence of the Ibo themselves. There is a good deal of activity—mostly hand-to-mouth petty trading—but the over-all situation can be described as bearable only in comparison to the desperate condition of the people in the months following the civil war. The policy of the Federal government is, and has been, clear enough. That policy is one of immobilizing the social and cultural energies of the Ibo, who made up the majority of Biafrans. It will be recalled that in 1967 the central government made an arbitrary, and probably illegal, decision to divide Eastern Nigeria into three states. This was the immediate occasion for the Biafran secession, which, in turn, led to the civil war. It was designed 1) to isolate the Ibo from the important commercial city of Port Harcourt (the region’s major outlet to the sea) which had been built and largely run by the Ibo and 2) to gerrymander the oil reserves of the Eastern region to the particular disadvantage of the Ibo. The goal was to ruin the Ibo potential, set their Eastern congeners against them by granting special favors, and let the Ibo survive as best they could in a diminished area, deprived of capital, resources, and opportunities for growth.
The Federal victory was the first step in achieving these ends. But it was probably world opinion that inhibited the military government of Nigeria (which had taken no action when Eastern Nigerians had been slaughtered in the North in 1966) from attempting the more brutal and obvious forms of repression. In any event, they were not needed to subordinate an exhausted people, and did not constitute the most efficient means of putting the victory to further effect.
Two of the major tactics used in the further effort to execute the policy of immobilization were the enforced retirement of all Ibo civil servants over the age of fifty immediately following the war, and the continued occupation of the East Central State by approximately 100,000 Federal troops. One hardly needs to pursue the implications of these here. Rather I turn to a third tactic, or rather, strategy, which is far more odious.
In recent months, a Public Education Edict has gone into effect, under the direction of the federally appointed administrator of the so-called Ibo State, putting all schools under centralized state control. This has occurred only in the East Central State. The expressed purpose of the edict is to “combat sectionalism, religious conflicts, and disloyalty to the cause of a united Nigeria.” Further, “the takeover is for the efficacy, order, stability, and good government of the state in its relationship with the other states in the Federation.”
The edict goes on to reaffirm the pre-civil war and colonial definition of a school as a group of ten persons or more—and here the language is unprecedented—“assembled for the purpose of receiving regular instruction in a form of education of whatever kind….” Any such group must now become part of the government apparatus or it will be illegal; and anyone who sets up or teaches in such a school becomes subject to prosecution by the state.
One must understand the meaning and function of education among the Ibo in order to grasp fully the peculiar repressiveness of the new Public Education Act. The school, in the modern era, became the major vehicle for Ibo prestige, individuality, and self-development. Moreover, the schools were, above all, local institutions, whether established by missions, private persons, or local government councils. These will cease to exist and in their place will emerge state controlled and regimented schools, as clearly spelled out in the edict, whose function is to destroy the Ibo sense of nationality, deprive them of their history, and control both the definition of education and the uses to which it can be put. The recent cancellation of the West African school certificate program for Ibo (and only Ibo) secondary school candidates in both the East Central and the Mid-West States is one case in point. Another would seem to be the decline in the number of secondary schools in the East Central State—prior to the civil war the area accommodated approximately 290; at present only 190 are functioning or contemplated.
The Federal military government thus seeks to reduce Ibo society to its own ends, after, as the edict puts it, “the vast destruction and damage suffered by existing schools in the course of the Civil War.”
New York City
February 24, 1972