(This is a two-part interview about Uwem’s novel, New York, My Village (Norton, U.S., November 2021 & Parresia Nigeria, March 2022). His first book, Say You’re One of Them, was the winner of 2009 Oprah Book Selection, 2009 Commonwealth Prize, 2009 Hurston-Wright Prize, etc. The following questions are from fans and cancelled interviews—questions which were deemed too incendiary for publication)
…American vs Nigerian Catholicism
…What my mother thinks of New York bedbugs
…Tribalism vs racism
…Racism in American publishing
…Why Nnamdi Kanu must be released immediately
…Why I endorse Peter Obi
Uwem, welcome back to Part Two of Literature Meets Politics!
Before we return to Biafra, let’s get into other aspects of your book, New York, My Village.
You write so beautifully about different things, different worlds, layers and layers, in the same book. In 2009, Oprah, on selecting Say You’re One of Them for her powerful book club, promoted each of the five short stories as a full book before your Oprah interview which was streamed live on CNN/Facebook. She said you captured each African country as though you had grown up there. Toun Gabi-Williams of Bordersliterature.net also said each story had the weight of a full book and that your second book should be seen as a sixth book. How do you do it?
Thanks. It’s a gift to write like that. Toun actually wrote me that gracious compliment while I was struggling with this novel. And it was wonderful to hear, because I was so depressed that New York, My Village wasn’t coming together, and that the years were piling up. She was one of the few people who knew what to say.
What else motivated you in those 13 long years?
Well, some frenemies were already singing my nunc dimittis, mocking me that I might be a one-book author! So be careful: some people are just excited about your success, not you. Learn to distinguish these people from friends. But I was on my knees begging God for mercies, for courage, for serendipity, for grace.
How big is your faith in your writing?
Very big. It’s part of my worldview. Struggling with this book, I got to a point where I was basically telling God that I’d stop writing altogether if New York, My Village didn’t come together, if I couldn’t get the world to read my Biafran story, if I couldn’t show how racist publishing itself was.
Is that not blackmailing God?
Hahaha, call it what you like. It’s a version of Jacob’s “I will never let you go unless you bless me.” Yes, my relationship with God can get very personal. I recognize the gifts he has given me, so I’m not starting from zero. Iya uwei, he helped me with my first book, so why not this one? He is my muse. He’s big enough to handle my frustrations. And remember I wasn’t just dealing with 13 but 30 years. I was bleeding and afraid I might run out of blood.
Yes, you did say in Part One that your novice master had given you this mission about Biafra writing in 1999/2000.
There was something to my struggle to get this book together. Waking up daily, for months on end, enveloped in the darkness of Biafra, shredded my confidence.
Okay, you have brought your unique layering style to your Biafra book. It feels like ten books in one and you manage to give each theme such depth — the Annangs, the Ogonis, the Tivs, Biafra, Nigeria, America, Argentina, Australia, Israel, American embassies, soccer, race, tribalism, anti-semitism, bedbugs, Catholicism, Nigerian food, American publishing, war trauma, a critique of Achebe’s There Was a Country, African vs African American tensions… just so much. How did you bring these things together?
I don’t know. That’s how the books come to me or that’s how I discover or develop the books. The “Acknowledgments” in my novel also allows me to bring in the Ijaws, Ibibios, Isokos, Binis, Ikwerres, Vietnamese, etc.
We find the maps very helpful, too.
I’m just glad I can literally, literally put Annangland on the map—one of the few maps that have us! My editor Alane Mason and another editor Nneoma Amadiobi came up with the idea.
Uwem, your scenes about the Catholic Church in New Jersey are epic! That’s the longest day in the novel—four chapters of intrigue and heartbreak. Why such attention to the Church?
Do you know any problem in the world that isn’t present in religion?
Perhaps, I understand the Catholic world in a way only few writers do, and religion is still important to a big chunk of the world. It gave me a frame to explore racism and tribalism in our dear Catholic Church. This will help the faithful—because these evils must be attacked everywhere. My understanding of our deep Catholic symbols means I could use them effectively in stories, the way Isaac Singer writes Judaism, the way John Updike writes Anglicanism, the way Naguib Mahfouz writes Islam, and Wole Soyinka his native Yoruba religion. I wanted the readers to see how far our religious institution has veered from the key symbols of communion and diversity and love and sacrifice. I wanted also to show that, yes, the Church in New Jersey can be in conversation with the Church in Ikot Ituno-Ekanem. Also, I’d always loved the baptism scene in the movie, The Godfather. I wanted to create something as iconic, as epic. You judge whether I’ve succeeded.
Were you ever afraid the Church would attack you?
Sometimes… but listen, it was also a chance for me to come up with good and bad models of the priesthood, to help our Church. And I think people are paying attention. The Catholic Imagination Conference, for example, has invited me to do a keynote at its summit this September in Dallas.
That’s sounds exciting because in Part One, you talked about a Nigerian Catholic priest threatening you on Facebook and what it was like to struggle with tribalism in the Jesuit novitiate.
He wasn’t representing the Church or the Jesuits! And his anger wasn’t from how I represent the Church. He was rather overwhelmed by seeing the evils of his beautiful Biafra being paraded by a major publisher. He had always seen himself as a victim. He wasn’t ready to see himself, in the words of Professor Frank Abumere, a former Jesuit, as both “a victim and a perpetrator of injustice,” which is the true story of Biafra.
But this wasn’t even the first time I was facing this. Some years ago, I was almost beaten up in a Nigerian restaurant in Mableton, Georgia, by another angry Biafran. This guy didn’t even know I was already depressed from trying to dig through and write the atrocities of Biafra. I was quietly drinking my peppersoup when he and his Igbo brothers walked in talking about the new Biafra. When they asked for my opinion and I said I didn’t know how any Biafra would favour minorities, he rushed to my table to call me “saboteur,” “uncivilized” and other unprintable names. His fellow Igbos had to restrain him, warning that this wasn’t how to convince minorities to join Biafra. When I left for my car, this angry man followed me outside, to rain more abuses on me. I had to drive away quickly. I felt violated, as though an ancient generational curse had followed me all the way from Nigeria to America. And just like that my day flooded with evil memories of childhood dreams of being raped and called “Saboteur, saboteur” by Biafran soldiers.
Our minorities are facing these sorts of harassment all over the world. Maybe Igbo people need to discuss this at their big conferences. We, your closest cousins, are tired.
But are you planning to write a memoir about your time with the Jesuits, especially as it relates to the Biafran “conversations”?
Why? It sounded quite interesting, intense.
I would have to mention names and really tell on guys, you know. I have no desire to hurt anybody. I feel it’s my place to protect those whom I lived with. Besides, some of them have already begged for forgiveness. What am I supposed to do? I’m more comfortable with fiction. I believe it gives me more freedom, to escalate the issues, to do whatever I like with the characters in pursuit of my goals.
The themes of tribalism and racism are big in New York, My Village. What is the difference between them?
First, I hate both. When you’re a minority, sooner or later, you realize that white people aren’t your only problem, that even the bigger black ethnic groups may not spare you! It’s difficult to be a super minority no matter where you go, which is Ekong’s existential situation in my novel. This Annang man is a super minority in Nigeria and is also a super minority in America. Think of the tiny, tiny minority groups in northern Nigeria whose names we don’t even know. Members of the big ethnic groups like the Igbos, Hausas, Yorubas don’t suffer this!
That’s also a salient point in your book: the shame of not knowing how many ethnic groups we have in Nigeria!
The British rigged the first census and elections to favour the north. We’ve continued this stupid practice of rigging everything. And who even told you we are 200 million?
Key differences between tribalism and racism?
I believe tribalism may be an older affliction than racism, because different kinds of white people were fighting and enslaving each other long before they encountered Blacks. We Africans were also conquering other African kingdoms and carting away slaves. You can say the same about other races. You may need to ask the experts about this distinction.
But I’m conscious of the unbelievable weight racism carries and how being forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean adds to that weight. I’m conscious of the fact that a place like America has shaped its entire system to lock out Black people and people of colour. We must also remember that the Enlightenment political philosophies of Immanuel Kant and George Hegel and the Catholic Church were essentially racist. They gave the intellectual and spiritual blueprint for slavery, colonization, etc. (Read Emmanuel Eze’s Race and Enlightenment, Charles Mill’s The Racial Contract, and Pope Alexander VI’s papal bull, Inter Caetera which even predates Kant and Hegel). I don’t know any philosophies of tribalism in, say, Africa that are as comprehensive or systemic. Remember that African-Americans have been struggling with this yoke for 400 long years and it’s not over yet.
In your acknowledgments, you referred to France still charging Francophone countries colonial tax.
Yes, wouldn’t you call this racism? I mean, why is France in 2022 still forcing us to pay colonial tax, for the supposed civilization, the Enlightenment, they brought us? When I was in France in 2013, I tried to raise these issues with young white French people. They either quickly changed the topic or think they can debate their way out of it! Why would someone defiantly argue that this endless colonial tax is like “delayed” tuition for the civilization France brought Africa? Look, It wasn’t a moral problem for them at all.
How much is this colonial tax?
I understand it’s worth 500 billion dollars annually.
How are these shaky countries supposed to grow?
The idea is to make sure we don’t!
How come this kind of thing is not discussed at the United Nations?
I’m not as disappointed in the UN as I am in the French Catholic Church… Where are the French bishops? They only show international grief and give teary interviews when Notre Dame Cathedral is burnt down? Can’t they wear sackcloth and denounce this racist colonial tax?
Tomorrow France will turn around to tell you they’re sending aids to Africa! Isn’t it pure evil to steal so shamelessly and then sponsor coups to kill off African leaders who refuse to comply? When will France take its knee off the neck of African countries? It’s this same French colonial tax that has destroyed Haiti till today—the first black nation to get independence! America backed France, to discourage African-Americans from dreams of freedom! (Please, watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2q98odZz2U) So, yes, the wounds of racism are deep, and it’s not enough to return looted artefacts to Africa.
We love Ekong Udousoro, your main protagonist, this Annang man from fictitious Ikot Ituno-Ekanem…
I like that word fictitious. Because many readers, including the New York Times reviewer, think it’s a real village!
Because your world-building of that village is superb…take it as a compliment! Okay, the uncle-niece relationship Ekong has with Ujai, Usen’s nine-year-old daughter in New York, is deep, fascinating, tender, electric. It could be said that these two characters mirror each other in being sweet, intelligent, bold, mischievous, disruptive, iconoclastic, etc. They bring “disorder” to any place they show up.
I believe they force you to see what minorities go through. They force you to make room for diversity, to think differently. One of my friends has even said that with Ekong I’m doing the reverse of Heart of Darkness with New York City!
How did you come by Ekong and Ujai?
I knew that as an adult, Ekong could carry the load of being a super minority in Nigeria and then of being an adult newcomer in America. I needed Ujai to bring us the pain of the African diaspora, of a child being born and raised in America. A third-second generation Biafran War survivor, she’s a child who is fiercely proud of her Annangland though she has never been there. But she’s also proud of her American heritage. She’s dying to visit Akwa Ibom, because she thinks for the first time she would be in a majority black space. Of course, she’s heard so much about Ikot Ituno-Ekanem, her village, from her parents that she wants to swim in the river. She wants to do cashew nut tattoo, which we used to do as kids. She crams the names of the tropical flowers of Ikot Ituno-Ekanem, the topography, the history, etc. How are our Africans helping our children survive racism and bullying in America?
She helps you show the village of Ikot Ituno-Ekanem to the reader. But, Uwem, it’s amazing, too, how you also use her to show racism in America. Ujai complements what Ekong sees as an adult! These two characters are totally unpredictable, just what you need in a novel like this.
I need my readers to feel the torture of black diaspora children. What does a nine-year-old make of all these killings of Black people by American police? Away from the adults, how does she process it with her schoolmates? What are her fears? How does she want to protect the brother, once she learns that black boys or men are at serious risk in America?
That’s ironic, because it’s usually men or boys we think of as protectors!
I wanted my novel to do new things!
Some of us completely broke down in tears as Ujai’s parents prepared her for their murder when the cops pursue them to the train station. It’s really intense, but it’s unputdownable!
That’s been the reaction of many fans to that scene… There are too many stories of cops killing parents in front of their kids. I always wanted to get into the minds of those poor kids in fiction. And as a parent, what do you say to your child as you know these may be your last minutes? What’s the goodbye like?
The book is full of suspense, but, still, we long and long for the Ujai scenes!
It is one thing this book carries over from Say You’re One of Them, which was full of powerful child characters, isn’t it?
Part of it is that I am able to imagine what I would have done or thought at that age. If you want to know what a child is thinking, go on your knees and play with them and their toys.
That’s so true about our children… but you’re crazy to write all these bedbug scenes.
Someone had to capture this part of beautiful New York City at some point, no?
They felt so real we were scratching ourselves as we read, pseudo itches. But are there really bedbugs in New York City?
My mother also didn’t believe that there are bedbugs in America! Hence, when I called to ask for the Annang word for bedbugs, nnang ikuk, she was puzzled. She only believed when I said her son had bedbugs in New York City and that my New Yorker editor helped me search for the genuine chemicals. “Oh, so they have fake chemicals over there, too?” she said, getting more and more worried for America.
That scene in your novel about bedbugs finally going airborne in Ekong’s apartment can grace any movie!
From your mouth to God’s ears!
But what was having bedbugs really like, Uwem?
For me, the most frightening thing was the sense that I might be spreading it around NYC! The fear that they might hide in my clothes and climb out into the New York Public Library where I was working and compromise tombs and tombs of rare books! This fear really wrecked my mind. For example, like Ekong, I kept going to the toilet to remove all my clothes and check while people banged on the door and cussed me out for taking too long!
That was my first and only time of having bedbugs. They bit me on two left ribs, before I realized what it was. I used this experience to create all the bedbug scenes. Once my mother believed this, she felt very sorry for NYC, wondering who brought bugs to America. I assured her USA has its native species! Then she became very sad about the ravages the bug bites would have on white skin!
Your poor mother!
While she liked my portrait of NYC, she scolded me for going to expose white people and their shameful bedbugs! She quickly said they wouldn’t love this book the way they “enjoyed” Say You’re One of Them, my book of African tragedies. Some other old woman wondered why (President Barrack) Obama didn’t cure America of bedbugs. But I said racism and tribalism in America, which the recurring bedbug infestations in my novel signify, actually grew because Obama got into the White House. I explained that Trump was a rebuke from white America, a pushback, an attempt to remove this “black stain” on the White House! So, yes, in many ways America has become more racist and divided today.
What’s your mom’s thoughts on your depiction of Biafra?
For sure, she’s happy that I’ve taken on such a big task on behalf of the 30+ minority ethnic groups of the Niger Delta! This isn’t to say I’m the first one to write about minority Biafra.
But she was very intrigued by stories of my research all over the Niger Delta and Igboland in these very insecure times, how I managed to get so many people from different ethnic groups to open up to me, how I tried to include many voices. I think she’s more forgiving now about why I’d come to Nigeria but preferred to visit so many remote places instead of spending time with her. Her only worry is that her “big-mouthed” son might be one of the few exposing what went down in minority Biafra. She’s not sure where I would run to if the Biafrans come for me and white people don’t like my critique of their country. But I told her literature is one place you can win big wars ALONE or in exile. I don’t tell her about the threats I’m receiving.
Your mom hints that white people would not like this book—or, at least, not as much as Say You’re One of Them. And you’ve said in your acknowledgments that getting a publisher was difficult. Do you think it has to do with your brutal criticism of publishing itself?
The book isn’t an easy read for many reasons. For example, I never knew I would have so many Americans angry at my bedbugs portrait of New York. I still get people at readings fighting to save New York from “my” bedbugs. An agent even complained, ‘New York isn’t that bad. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill about bedbugs. Let’s talk about real issues…nobody will publish this novel!’ She sounded so humiliated, so hurt, but I told her God will find a way even if I didn’t know how he would do it. I told her that in my research I’d met many New Yorkers who abandoned everything and fled their beautiful homes due to bedbugs. They gave me superb insights into bedbugs and NYC housing mess, but they got me to promise I won’t mention their names because of shame! Mbok, why is it a taboo to show a bedbug bite on an American kid? Is there any big hotel in NYC that hasn’t suffered multiple infestations?
Were they expecting you to totally change your style to please America?
Yes, I didn’t see this kind of pushback when I wrote about street people or child trafficking in Africa. No American ever berated me for writing “Baptizing the Gun” (New Yorker, January 2010), a story about a good priest who was so scared of dangerous Lagos he couldn’t recognize the Good Samaritan he prayed for. And no New Yorker batted an eyelid when in “The Megacity: Decoding the Chaos of Lagos” (New Yorker, November 2006), prolific George Packer focused on a Lagos refuse dump as the seeming “irreversible” microcosm of Nigeria. And now they’re humiliated or angry that Uwem Akpan is showing that their iconic New York is an “irreversible” bedbugs capital of the world, that it’s one of the dirtiest of western cities and full of rent racketeers and 419ers? Is literature then the great leveler? I laughed so hard when an American at a reading, on failing to convince me that New York had solved its bedbugs wahala, vomited that my novel wasn’t even plausible because she didn’t believe people had WhatsApp in Africa!
But, luckily for me, I’ve also had many New Yorkers who’ve searched me out, to thank me for how I depict their city. An example is the ambulance paramedic who quickly thanked me on Facebook; she said she could relate with my book because she’d seen the city in all kinds of circumstances. Another is a police veteran, who served in the NYPD for 25 years. He said he had to slow down towards the middle of the book, because he didn’t want it to finish. He became my friend, though I’ve critiqued police brutality in America.
Yes, in fact, recently when the New Yorker asked me to write a true story about road trip for their special edition and I chose to focus on police brutality, I turned to him for advice…
Are you talking about “Night Driving” set in Las Vegas?
Yes, he calmed me down because at some point I’d become afraid of telling this story. The “Night Driving” harassment happened in 2011 while I was a Fellow in Las Vegas. So, yes, New York, My Village is eliciting all kinds of reactions and connections.
Almost like Ekong, you were remarkably calm in “Night Driving”!
Maybe I felt I was already dead!
How helpful was that 2011 incident in writing the police harassment scenes with Ujai’s family in New York, My Village? Or maybe it wasn’t?
Absolutely helpful, because I know firsthand what it means to be subjected to the mind games of American police. I understand viscerally what it means to be harassed till you lose yourself and things begin to escalate. I know what it means to be forced to think about your cooling, bleeding body on the road that night.
What do you like most about Ekong?
My book is markedly Swiftian, Gulliver’s Travels-like. Perhaps this allows Ekong to read America with utmost conviction in this satire. He seems to arrive in NYC like a fully formed anthropologist. He’s not here to augment his humanity, which I think is the way some immigrant fiction is written—home is bad, America is good, some hierarchy of humanities. I wanted a character who could go beyond talking about race, culture shock, homesickness, etc., someone who could take on, say, the architecture of America, like the lack of elevators and shabby housing near iconic Times Square. I wanted someone who would cause “good trouble” and disruptions wherever he went. For example, because Ekong is already Catholic, he can teach the white Catholics of New Jersey a lesson, a better catechesis of why the universal Church should be welcoming to all races. Because he’s already an accomplished editor in Nigeria, he can also challenge the white editors why he’s being restricted to editing black books while they’ve been editing books from all races forever. Because he’s eager to return to his beloved Ikot Ituno-Ekanem, he can call out his employers and their bullshit. If any of us in real life acted like Ekong, what are the chances that the American employers would file that green card for us?
Were you afraid to call American publishing racist?
As I’ve said before, it was like writing a play about dictators and handing it to General (Sani) Abacha to stage for you! Yes, I was afraid of my portrait of American publishing, just as I was afraid of that of Biafran atrocities. When you’re afraid of both white and black people, you’ll understand what it means to be a super minority.
Lord, your portrait of the editorial meeting in Chapter Seven is ruthless. You’re not pulling punches at all. Reading it, we had goosepimples and dried throats and anger—just seeing the casual and racist ways decisions are made about minority books by this all-white publishing house. You did real havoc with Ekong’s black presence at that meeting. We felt for him. It’s a kind of war!
No, publishing has waged a serious and dirty war against minorities forever!
It’s beautiful how you layer this with the Biafran War…
I had to come up with the drama of white people who don’t want to give up power. They understand the power of stories, which also means whose stories get published. Books have been used to do irreparable damage to peoples and cultures. So, it’s a key industry for white people to control.
What has been the response since the book came out?
Positive. Many are telling me, Uwem, you got that Chapter 7 and the award night, later on, right. Uwem, we may not like your portrait, but this is what we do. Uwem, the system is brutal, insular, racist. We can’t remain 90% white forever.
I’ happy there’s a big fight these days, a good fight, by young white people who mostly populate these huge publishing empires; they want to see more minorities! Some weeks ago, HarperCollins’ workers protested and downed tools. (See Marcela Valdes’ recent “Inside the Push to Diversify the Book Business” in the New York Times Magazine).
So, you’re saying the risk you took to criticize publishing is worth it?
Yes, yes, yes. I usually tell my students, ‘the canon of literature you read—this thing that forms you, this thing you read and ponder like scripture—is decided by agents and publishers long before it gets near the universities. Universities don’t get to see unpublished manuscripts, agents and publishers do.’ Is it fair then to leave such enormous powers in the hands of one race? If minority books aren’t being published and promoted, how would the “canonists” see them? Would you like your culture or gender to be left out of these important canons? Do you know how excited I was when I saw Things Fall Apart for the first time in Norton Anthology of World Literature? I mean the WHOLE novel. Getting to Nebraska for college in the mid-1990s and seeing something so familiar meant so much to me. Mind you, the book was already a worldwide phenomenon, a classic, and I had read it so many times already.
How was it personally for you working in publishing?
I’ve never worked in publishing!
So how did you research all this because it sounds so real? That’s why the New York Times mistook Ikot Ituno-Ekanem for a real place!
Yes, my writing can feel memoirish. I want you to feel it’s a real place. I love it that way. I see places as characters, too.
You write as though you have personal experience of the encounters, as though you have been each of your characters. How did you achieve that?
The legal adviser to Norton, my publisher, told me that my book sounded so real she thought I was writing about one of her relatives. But when she called up this relative to “fact check,” the relative assured her they didn’t know of any Uwem Akpan. It was the ultimate compliment. It’s a gift but I also work hard for that feel.
Of course, I’ve visited publishing houses before. I just felt minorities in publishing were having a hard time and that they were invisible. For such a white space, I felt Black editors would find it difficult. I could imagine them even feeling lucky to have a publishing job, to break the glass ceiling, as it were! But I could also imagine their powerlessness and insecurities. In a few publishing houses, I was shocked to see one or two black folks—but they always looked even more shocked to see me. Once, there was a moment of discomfort as though we weren’t even supposed to be here, or we had become too many! It got me thinking. I’m so glad the ‘George Floyd Effect’ has suddenly shown how racist publishing is.
Some of my white friends in the system also helped me with research. Many of them are tired of this racism nonsense!
Why did you take such a swipe at book agents?
I’m able to take a lot of swipes because my book is also a satire. Almost at every reading, my audience wants to know how to get an agent, what happens when an agent gets your book, what does an agent do, who makes the final decision to publish a book, etc.
Agents can give you joy. They can calm you down and help you build a career. You know there are writers who speak with their agents daily? Is that not worse than marriage? I’m kidding. But that also shows you how tense publishing is. This being the case, I figured there must also be backstabbers and double-crossers and racists among agents, like the Chad character in my book. Do they steal writers from each other? Do they hang their clients out to dry? What does a nasty agent-writer breakup look like? What’s the portrait of a good agent? Publicists? Marketers?
This will help people who want to write, won’t it?
Knowledge is power and more and more people are writing fiction. And I’m glad so many Africans are jumping in. But I also want to add, my friends, come into these blue and beautiful waters, but be warned, too, that there are sharks…! I don’t understand publishing’s reluctance to diversify. How can people so educated, schooled in the classics, people who read so many books, be so bent on excluding others? Like the Church, shouldn’t they be leading the fight for inclusion? How do we reach the human spirit, if education, “Enlightenment,” won’t get us there?
You left the priesthood, right?
Yes, I got out completely in 2015—to write.
Tell us, how much did your priesthood help your writing? Or didn’t it?
The Ignatian Contemplation has really helped to make my work vivid. The priesthood also got me to travel. In 20 years, I lived, studied, and worked in 10 cities, 13 communities, five countries, two continents. This kind of exposure to diverse cultures and human geographies and different landscapes is a blessing to anybody, but to a writer it’s priceless. My stability became prayers and my diverse friends. The priesthood showed me how to be inclusive, which is a key thing in my writing. Listening to confessions for long hours in Lagos taught me how to listen without judgment during research and interviews. And over the years, my prayers have become more and more instinctive, direct and personal, again a real balm in those long bruising times when writing isn’t going well or when dealing with ruinous frenemies.
Okay, let’s go back to inclusion or lack of it in Biafra. In your considered opinion, do you think our dear country could have avoided this war?
Yes, our last chance was the Aburi Accord—but General Yakubu Gowon, Nigerian head of state, shat on it! They say he didn’t understand what he signed in Aburi. Was it written in Greek? Didn’t this country pay his school fees at Sandhurst? Why do we keep burdening this country with incompetent leaders? But it was clear that Gowon was a puppet of northern Nigeria and both had no interest whatsoever on implementing any item in the accord. What has hurt me the most in this accord fight is the federal government’s delay or refusal to pay the backlog of owed salaries to genocide survivors who’d escaped back to the East! Why couldn’t they be supported till things calmed down as the accord said?
You could see the pain and humiliation in (Emeka) Ojukwu’s countenance from then on. Remember he was the governor, the chief mourner of 35,000 dead people from the 1966 genocide—30,000 Igbos, 5,000 minorities. The north and Yorubaland had descended on ordinary Igbos—who knew absolutely nothing about the “Igbo Coup.”
Why do you call it “Igbo Coup?”
I think it’s called “Igbo Coup” because no Igbo leader was killed in a coup mostly planned by Igbos… I hate the excuse by some northerners that they killed us minorities because they thought we were Igbos!!! Why kill anybody at all? Even in terms of proportion, how do you avenge the assassination of 42 people, the total casualties from the “Igbo Coup,” with the killing of 35,000 innocent people?
From your interviews of genocide survivors, what was the mood back in Eastern Nigeria in 1966?
Whether minorities or Igbos, the wounds are still too fresh for many…how do you mourn 35,000 dead people? Do you want to be in a country that has just killed your people like this? Do you want to be in a country that withholds your salary but hasn’t guaranteed your safety if you returned to work in the north? If Nigeria condemns the killing of Prime Minister Balewa, why doesn’t Nigeria condemn the killing of General Ironsi? If Ironsi was beaten comatose and wasted for not trying the coupists, why did Nigeria reward his killers with oil wells and powerful government positions?
How did Ojukwu react to the dishonoring of the accord? His next moves?
Iya uwei, he systematically unlocked the East from Nigeria, refused to engage Gowon and asked the oil companies to pay to his government. They said he seized or attempted to seize federal oil allocation to pay the genocide survivors! (Please, you can check this with your historians; I’m just a storyteller!). But you can imagine the threat and gut punch Ojukwu’s “oil move” was to the rest of Nigeria! He got them really good, as the Americans would say; in fact, so good that for decades now northern Nigeria is still frantically searching for their own oil—totally mortified by any talks of “Restructuring” today’s federal CONTROL, though “Restructuring” would favour the north most!
But don’t also forget it was minority oil that Ojukwu used as the leverage here. Yes, we’d become the beautiful bride because oil had just been found in mainly minority lands. Our lands and coastlines and continental shelf were (and are still) priceless.
But how come nobody remembers these 5,000 minority casualties?
Even if you cry, who will hear you?
Did the Igbos—who experienced the same genocide—not turn against us once we said no to Biafra because of how we’d been treated in Eastern Nigeria? Did Ojukwu not block the creation of our minority states of Rivers (and Bayelsa) and Cross River (and Akwa Ibom), to corner the oil? This was where this Igbo hero started going crazy!
Did Ojukwu not force our minorities to turn in their weapons, just like General Buhari is doing now to give the bandits and Fulani killers the upper hand? Did the Igbos not colonize and kill and disappear our genocide survivors? Why rape our women and then jeer they’d give birth to Igbo children, because we’re a patriarchal people? How many minorities needed to be buried alive for Biafra to thrive? How many of our villages needed to be razed? How many of our stubborn youths who refused to join Biafra needed to be thrown down oil wells? Why force our minors into your army, ply them with drugs, and rape or kill those traumatized boys who tried to escape? And even if the angels heard the cry of minorities, has it stopped our Biafran brethren—even today—from listing our minority lands on their map without any consultations whatever? Would Blacks or People of Colour accept any of these injustices from white people?
Minorities didn’t trash the Aburi Accord. We didn’t invade Igboland. We didn’t send Elephant Nigeria to attack Elephant Biafra. My extensive research in different minority lands reveal systemic atrocities and violations too grave to pour out here. You don’t know what it means to be minorities.
Are you saying the Igbos needed to court their minorities?
We’re not their minorities!
Sorry…to court minorities?
Iyo, the Igbos were never, never going to appeal to us… Haven’t you seen the same inhumanity today in how the neo-Biafrans, neo-colonialists have commandeered our ethnic groups for their Biafran project, without consulting us?
These neo-Biafrans argue that when they get Biafra, minorities would have the right to get out. How do you view such promise?
Hahaha, and they really consider this smart thinking? Why insult our intelligence?
See, colonization is built on arrogance, the supremacist belief that you’re smarter, better, more humane than the colonized! Colonial masters, no matter their colour, have this outsized sense of being better than their victims. Did Isaac Adaka Boro not attempt to to break away from Nigeria, to create the Republic of the Niger Delta in 1966? Who stopped him? Ironsi and Ojukwu! So when the Igbos realized a year later that THEY wanted out in Biafra, wouldn’t the humane thing have been to approach minorities cap in hand? But Ojukwu, the great orator, showed up in Uyo Stadium and peed on himself by announcing that in Biafra we minorities would be like wives in a polygamous household while his Igbos would be like the husband!
Dictators and colonizers must be seen to be smarter than their victims, who must twist and bend to accept this arrogant foolishness. Let me give you another example: do you not see how much Vice President Osinbajo twists and bends so he can sound less intelligent than Buhari? Isn’t it Pastor Osinbajo he sent to the United States to lie to the international community that Nigeria was safe? See the number of usually intelligent people in this government who’re sounding less and less coherent by the day, just so that they don’t upstage General Buhari? You can’t be more intelligent than a dictator or colonial master. But someone humbly allowed Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to use her considerable genius to manage the Nigerian economy, keeping prices within the poor’s reach, despite all the official corruption. Do you want to compare this with someone who banned Twitter for saying he shouldn’t threaten the Igbos with another genocide…? What I’m saying is that as soon as the Igbos knew they needed our oil and coastlines in Ojukwu’s dangerous brinksmanship—they should’ve humbly reached out to the minorities, addressed or apologized for how they ran Eastern Nigeria. Instead, they chose to invade and crush us because we’re nothing—they preferred to fight two wars, one against Nigeria, another against minorities! Who fights like this for other people’s lands and oil and coastlines?
When then were the governors of the minority states installed?
During the war. Yes, Cross River—then actually called Southeastern State—could only get its governor in February 1968 when Nigerian forces finally broke into Biafra from the sea and quickly installed Governor Esuene in Calabar. Three months later, they installed Governor Diete-Spiff of Rivers State in Port Harcourt when the oil city fell.
But then the Nigerian army settled in to kill their own fair share of “minority saboteurs,” raped and committed all kinds of atrocities, LIKE BIAFRA! So, please, tell me, to whom should we cry?
Many Igbos argue that Biafra was already inclusive because Col. Philip Effiong, a minority, was Ojukwu’s deputy.
Ask them when minorities voted for him to represent us in Ojukwu’s cabinet? I’ve already said in the novel what most minorities feel about him.
But they didn’t vote for Ojukwu either, did they?
The difference is that Ojukwu is their ultimate “unconquerable” hero, which means he was representing, even without a formal vote, the aspirations of most Igbos. Who sees Effiong as a hero in minority lands? Even the Igbos puke on him for tendering the Instrument of Surrender to Nigeria, as agreed before Ojukwu fled into exile. Suddenly, Effiong became a saboteur even in Igboland for obeying their Ojukwu!
They also insist minorities supported Biafra because the best Radio Biafra propagandists were minorities, Okokon Ndem and Okon Atakpo. They were the steady voices of Biafra and deployed all their creativity to keep Biafran morale afloat, even when the war wasn’t going well. They’re heroes, household names in Igboland to this day!
Another bad argument. First, are you reducing the population of minorities to just two men? Is this how we count Igbos who support Biafra?
Second, Ndem and Atakpo were civil servants at Radio Nigeria before the Igbos blocked the creation of minority states and forced us into Biafra. Do you know what happened to minority civil servants who showed any signs they didn’t love Biafra? Do you know anybody who disobeyed or dared Ojukwu and lived? If Col. Emmanuel Ifeajuna, an Igbo hero and first Black African to win gold at the Commonwealth Games, could be executed on charges of treason, how could these minorities disobey Ojukwu…? Please, ask the same Igbos making this Ndem-Atakpo argument how they learnt of the fall of Biafra. Weren’t they smashing their radios in shock and frustration when they heard the voices of these same propagandists suddenly announcing from Radio Nigeria that Biafra had fallen? Ndem and Atakpo were just doing their job.
Let’s revisit your critique of the shading of minorities and Igbo-saviour complex in Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun…
I warn you: you’re dragging me there against my will!
Are you saying minorities should never ever be critiqued in literature?
Hell no, minorities can be critiqued. I repeat, I believe writers should be free to write about anything, everything. In my college fiction workshops, I challenge students to write cross race, gender, culture, etc.
What are the best practices?
There are no set standards…but there are ways to critique minorities, especially if your people are directly responsible for their suffering the way the Igbos were directly responsible for our Biafran woes and are still making plans to enslave us. If I remember correctly, the only good minorities in our sister’s novel seem to be those who were good Biafran soldiers…!
But isn’t this another genuine attempt to signal that Biafra was inclusive?
Well, isn’t this good-minority-Biafran-soldiers thing just like white people saying the only good black folks are those who actively participated in their enslavement? Colonial masters always have collaborators among the local victims. Perhaps, Chimamanda didn’t truly understand how evil or barbaric Biafra was in our lands because the Nigerian army put her own parents and grandparents through hell in faraway Abba…and even if I get any of this wrong, my excuse would be you dragged me here under duress!
Look, some of you my fan-interviewers are Igbos, possibly neo-Biafrans. I don’t understand why you—a huge and dynamic and progressive and prosperous world-brand of an ethnic group—would insist on defending this evil history of Biafra or your new yearning to enslave our tiny groups again. Please, don’t sound like the French who can’t see why colonial tax is wrong! Have mercy on us. We can be victims together. Biko nu, we’re not trying to usurp your 50-year-old victimhood.
Like your mom, we’re intrigued that a lot of people seem to open up to you. They seem to want you to tell their stories. The story of the Tivs who “harassed” you to include what Fulani herdsmen were doing to them in your book is a good example of this!
My Fulani friends bemoaning how frustrated they are with Buhari is another example! Many are too afraid to speak up.
You also mention white people in publishing who volunteered to help you on their coded language of racism. How do you feel about this trust people seem to have in you?
I’m grateful. I’m happy they think of me this way. If someone believes in my project, they usually want to help. But there’s also a lot of pressure. I’m tired of listening to painful stories! And it still frightens me whether I can tell their stories from the inside, whether I can convince the reader I really know their cultures. But the more difficult one is when I’m on a research trip, how to get to the information I need. Once, I was really scared in an exclusive Muslim part of Kaduna. I’ve learned to disappear quickly once I sense hostility.
A few more “incendiary” questions before we go…. You risk a lot travelling all over today’s Nigeria, sometimes in disguise. You write so passionately about Nigeria—its history, food, inter-ethnic relations, the diaspora, Buhari government, etc. What are your thoughts on the current political situation in Nigeria?
I love to meet my compatriots, especially the less privileged. Today, so many people are losing their lives in the villages to pure hunger! I’ve seen first-hand the disaster General (Muhammadu) Buhari’s government has been. The country is quite tense now, because he’s abysmally failed in the three main things he promised—security, economy, fighting corruption. Nigeria is in intensive care. As killer Fulani herdsmen, his own people, began to massacre others across the country, the presidency came on TV to tell us, Your land or your blood. The man appears more inhumane and insensitive than General (Yakubu) Gowon.
I personally believe he has been treating the whole country the way Nigeria treated “conquered” Biafra—with so much disdain, hate, abuse, Janjaweed-impunity, willful destruction of people’s livelihoods, and official lies. Any dignified leader with a modicum of patriotism would have resigned by now. His insincerity is such that he’s refused to try 400 Boko Haram sponsors. If you want to understand this government, listen to Commodore Kunle Olawunmi on YouTube.
In April, you made a plea in your AfricanWriter.com interview that Nnamdi Kanu, the founder of Indigenous People of Biafra, a Biafran pressure group, should be released by the Nigerian government. Is this still your position?
Today, even more than before, I insist that there’s no basis for abducting Nnamdi Kanu and torturing him in Kenya and continuing to torture him in Nigeria—according to his lawyers. His case calls out for fairness. If we can’t offer this, we can certainly offer compassion. I hear he’s sick in detention. I ask General Buhari: if your only son was sick or offended you, what would you do?
I was happy the other day to hear Buhari say “we” lost so much in the war and that “we” suffered so much as a nation. I celebrate this tone because it’s inclusive, unifying, honest—quite different from gaslighting and threatening to deal with the Igbos and calling them a “dot,” branding all of them as IPOB members.
Thanks for capturing this shift in tone! Perhaps, we can find more lights in Buhari’s Nigeria?
The whole world is happy he signed the electronic voting bill into law! But will Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) have a free hand? Won’t they rig the elections like in 2019? More importantly, will this government’s intentional, intentional promotion of insecurity allow these elections to hold?
What about the government’s infrastructural developments?
Many Nigerians are beginning to think that the building of roads and railway tracks and bridges might actually be to transport bandits and Fulani cows everywhere…ordinary Nigerians aren’t safe on these roads or trains or airports or even prisons! Why must a leader lie to the whole world that there were cattle routes in southern Nigeria and vows to reopen them in 2021, instead of encouraging ranching? Didn’t you hear Femi Falana and Inibehe Effiong and other eminent lawyers say cattle routes never existed in law or in reality? And Nigerians in diaspora have started joking that for years now our embassies aren’t able to replace our passport booklets because Buhari is too busy trying to figure out how to give passports to cattle!
Anyway, on a more serious note, the government said Kanu committed treason, for wanting Biafra and for calling Nigeria a zoo. But what do you call a place where cows graze on the premises of the national assembly or a country where planes can’t land in an airport because of cattle? What do you call a country where 300 well-armed terrorists on motorbikes ride for miles and miles to disrupt flights at Kaduna airport and kill and yet the army says they couldn’t arrest them because they only made a mistake to stop by the airport on their way to their real destinations? Are these real destinations looting and razing villages? Abducting school children? Imposing tax on large parts of Nigeria? Bombing trains? Breaking into prisons to free the few Boko Haram members the government mistakenly jailed? How does it make sense to move heaven and hell to arrest Kanu on accusations of having guns? Governor El Rufai says Aso Rock knows where the terrorists live, knows about their plans before they attack high security targets—but does nothing. How then is Aso Rock in any position to accuse anyone of treason? The most atrocious accusation is that Kanu jumped bail, but why wouldn’t he flee when this same government sent soldiers to kill 28 people in his house before his court date? Was there a court warrant to arrest him (or Sunday Igboho)?
I worry Buhari might bungle this whole Kanu situation, allowing the terrorists to kill him in detention. Please, let this guy off. Let the believers in “What Buhari cannot destroy doesn’t exist!” be proven wrong!
Do you have a preferred candidate in next year’s election, or would you rather not say?
My vote is for Peter Obi—as the best of the lot. You can read my little prayer for him and young Nigerians by my Facebook photo.
He’s very capable and progressive and healthy. I wish all the young people in Nigeria would rally around him, to redeem the country from all of us old termites and practised thieves. Is it all the fault of the leaders? Make no mistake, all of us have failed you, our young talented people. I’m ashamed to say we didn’t fight enough for your future. Obi isn’t perfect. Don’t canonize him yet, but this is someone who would invest in your education and welfare. PDP has failed you. APC is driving you into a bigger widening ditch. Whatever your vote at the local level, vote for Peter Obi as president. In fact, I encourage the young to contribute to his campaign, to invest in it, no matter how small—instead of asking Obi to bribe or buy their votes.
Please, remember, remember we’ve not won the election yet o! So volunteer, mobilize in large numbers, employing a caring, humble, unifying, intelligent, friendly rhetoric—like Datti Ahmed, Peter Obi’s running mate. Peter Obi doesn’t need you to attack anybody. Come on, you knew how to talk to each other and to the world during the #EndSars Protests. He needs you to go door to door explaining respectfully to fellow youths and rural dwellers, to our parents and grandparents that we can’t be rewarding terrorists and drug pushers who’ve already stolen your future. And insist, insist, insist that every candidate must publish an account of their wealth and health. Our children can bury the foolish culture of our cash-and-carry politics!
Finally, the Kashim Shettima and Rabiu Kwankwaso tribalistic comments that Peter Obi can only rule in Igboland is an attempt to continue to exclude and punish the Igbos for the war!
So let me remind us here what we already know: the Igbos voted big time for Obasanjo, a Yoruba, in 1999 and 2003. They voted big time for Yar’Adua, a Fulani, in 2007. They voted big time for Jonathan, an Ijaw, in 2011 and 2015. They voted big time for Atiku, another Fulani, in 2019. Please, when will the rest of the country vote for an Igbo? There’s something wrong with that picture. Let us keep an open mind. Let us treat Peter Obi and his people as part of Nigeria. I go with Pa Ayo Adebanjo, the Afenifere leader, that this is the turn of the Igbos. Having said this, Obi needs serious security around him.
What are your last thoughts on New York, My Village?
My novel is a plea for inclusivity. Minorities are struggling in Nigeria, we’re struggling in America, we’re struggling everywhere. We didn’t create ourselves. Accept us as we are!