By Osmund Agbo
Having spent almost two decades here in the US, every now and then I run into folks who I assume are genuinely curious to know what life was like for me in Nigeria before migrating to the States. This one friend once asked if my family had a living space with all the conveniences or if we had to make a quick dash to the woods each time Mother Nature called. I responded by telling how we lived in a big Tree and that the issue of conveniences was totally out of the question. To his relief, I had assured him how we were blessed with a big Tree since ours was a big family and how lucky I was to even have one big branch to myself. Maybe he was able to see through the sarcasm but one couldn’t help but marvel at this level of ignorance
The picture of Africa in the mind of an average American could often be seen in the compelling images of docuseries aired in National Geographic, usually by an “expert” on Africa. On one end is a pot-bellied kid, too hungry and too weak to fend off the army of flies swarming around his head in a war ravaged country .At the other end is an exotic tribesman, scantily clad and wrestling a big game with bare hands. Just about anything but sophisticated. I too am always fascinated by such a captivating expose curated by no less an African expert than a blue-eyed, blond-hair Caucasian. Before now, I had always erroneously believed that such an expert should be someone that was borne, grew up and maybe lived for years in Africa. But boy, was I wrong! He is often a journalist on a two week adventure of a lifetime in the jungle. In the process, he was rewarded by getting to learn the ways of this hitherto undiscovered bush tribe and was proud to share with the world. We have all seen those and wondered where on earth! But therein lies the dangers of a single story that the award winning author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie profusely talked about
Meet William Townsend. He goes by Billy and the only reason was because he grew up at a time when Rev.Billy Graham was the face of the evangelical movement in America. William himself is the son of an ordained Baptist minister that lived in Jos, Nigeria between the early 50’s to the late 60’s. Unlike his compatriots, he was at the polar opposite end of the knowledge spectrum. Not only was he versed in the culture and politics of Nigeria but was at home with any discussion about sub-Saharan Africa. We met at a local real estate meet up in downtown Houston.
“Hello O..sss…mund! Osmund!” he finished off, as he learned foreword, peering at my name badge through his pair of binoculars
“You are Nigerian correct?”, he queried
Yessir… how did you know? I asked
“Well.. I can spot a Nigeria from a mile away” he bragged.” Its not rocket science my friend. Let me guess, you are Igbo right?” I responded in the affirmative.
“Aha! I told you Osmund.Am a Nigerian but you would never believe me”
His voice went up as he roared in laughter, fingers pointed at me in some form of conquest.
I guess I forgot this is Houston…I said smiling, in a clear attempt to take away from his victory
Everywhere you go in H-town, you can’t escape the ubiquitous presence of Nigerians.
“No no no Osmund! It has nothing to do with that. I told you am Nigerian. You better believe”.., he said with more laughter.
Billy told of the circumstances surrounding his parents move to Nigeria .Just a little over two months after their wedding in August of 1959,the newlywed were posted to Nigeria on an evangelical mission. Bill was born a year later. The Townsends were primarily stationed in Jos but the ministry took them to almost all part of Nigeria. They were there to witness the ugly events that preceded the Nigerian civil war and could still remember how his dad talked a lot about the ethnic cleansing going on against the Igbos in northern Nigeria at the time. John and Mary Townsend were so moved that they opened their house to fleeing easterners escaping persecution.
Oh wow! So you and your family were in Nigeria throughout the war?
“Well, sought of. We came back to the States around December of 1969.The war ended around January of 1970 right? So yes, you could say we stayed the course”.
And what happened with those Igbos.. I guess you could call them refugees staying at your house back then?
“I have no idea Osmund. I was barely ten at the time and all I could remember was the terrified faces of those families that sought shelter in our home. I was very sad because I left behind my friend,Nosa but dad later told me it got so dangerous that we just couldn’t stay on longer in Nigeria “.
Well, thank you so much Billy for taking care of my people, under the most difficult circumstances.
I wonder what those soldiers would have done had they found out your families were sheltering the Igbo.
“Looking back Osmund, It would have been too scary to even contemplate what could have happened to us…But I knew my parents just couldn’t turn down those frightened women and their children fighting for a chance at life. For no fault of their .What had an Igbo trader in Sabon-Gari market got to do with Nzeogwu coup? And come to think about it, the plotters planned to install Awolowo,as head of state. Did that make sense to install a Yoruba as the head of government if the intention was to perpetuate Igbo hegemony” as claimed? The argument just flew in the face”
At this point I was trying very hard to fight back tears. Before then I never heard a non-Nigerian give such a clear and vivid account of the event that cost the life of an estimated two million Igbos.I held his hand and thanked him and his family for such a monumental sacrifice. Every now and then we hear stories about heroes in the struggle. Stories of hero’s like Bruce Mayrock, the twenty-year old Columbia University student that self-immolated in front of the United Nations building In New York. He was incensed that the world watched why genocide was committed against Biafrans.
“How is Nigeria now? Have you been there lately, Osmund”, he continued.
Am sure you know Billy, the whole place is one big mess. And yes, I do visit home quite often. Nigeria with all its craziness is still my home, my country.
“It’s so sad Osmund. I hear all the craziness with Boko Haram and all the insecurities, the economy. I love that country and hope to take my wife and kids someday .Its my birth country and there is a huge part of me that is Nigerian. But am utterly disappointed. Nigerians are such vibrant people and with beautiful culture. How could anyone possibly not like Nigerians! So much potential that is lying waste”.
Am so sorry Billy! I hate to admit it but am ashamed of the direction my country is headed.
“But you know my friend the failure started with the British. They never cared about the future of post-Independence Nigeria while administering it as a British colony. To them, Nigeria was just an economic outpost to be exploited with reckless abandon. All the decision taken by the Brits were for administrative convenience with little or no consideration on how it will impact the future individual colonies. It was the same style they adopted in India. Different countries, same problem. Look at the fight going on between India and Pakistan over the faith of Kashmir .See how many lives have been lost from failure of the colonial government. And come to think about the Nigerian civil war with all the atrocities they committed against the then Biafra.In connivance with the Nigerian government they perpetuated genocide against the Igbo for purely selfish reasons. Its unconscionable Osmund.I heared the Igbos till today are still getting the short end of the stick. Nigeria was a hurriedly concocted arrangement but it’s probably too late now. What is needed is for patriotic Nigerians to work toward, like we say in America, a more perfect union. Anything else will likely spell a lot of disaster”.
It’s unbelievable. The injustice keeps getting worse. During the time your family was in Nigeria, we practiced a three regional structure for the most part though was later modified to four with the addition of the Mid-Western region. The regions were in control of their resources and the period witnessed accelerated economic development across the board .On the eve of the war in 1967,the then military head of state ,Gen.Gowon ditched the regional structure and created twelve states in a bid to whittle down Ojukwu’s control of minority ethnic group within the then Eastern region .Today Billy, Nigerian is balkanized to 36 states and 774 local government areas. We now have a federal government that controls all the resources leaving the states with 13 percent derivation as against 50 percent that accrued to the old regional government .The old Northern region has more States and LGA and therefore gets a bigger slice of all resources. A state like Kano has 44 local government area compared to the more densely populated area like Lagos with only 20
“And why is that?”
Billy those were all creations inherited from successive military administrations that ruled the country for years since independence .Those rulers mostly from the north divided up the country as it pleased them with no reasonableness. A certain state was even created just because the wife of the then head of state married from the area. We are living with the consequences of those ill-advised actions today. The only attempt so far to address the issues was the 2014 national confab by the then President Johnathan.The recommendation were geared towards moving us to true Federalism but the then president didn’t push it forward as it was close to an election year. Needless to say he lost that election and the new man will have nothing to do with it. He said it was one big waste of time and money.
“And then pulled the country backward “, he interrupted “What a shame!
I know. His actions points to one who caters more to tribal allegiance rather than national interest. The more shameful thing is that he carries on along that path with the active support of self-centered politicians from the south. It has gotten so bad to the point that their is now renewed talk about Biafra almost fifty years after the fact. You can Imagine Billy how bad it has gotten for an Igboman to even entertain such thoughts.
Oh no no! That would be the worst move, Osmund.Under no circumstances should the Igbo go that route again. From the present power equation in Nigeria, the Igbo’s wouldn’t have any fighting chance at all. Such move is ill-advised and should be resisted. I heared no Igbo holds any leadership position in the Nigeria armed forces or any security arrangement. How do they plan to fight this war? Who is going to fund it? Another civil war in Nigeria will wipe out the Igbos.Your leaders should bring everybody together and form a united front to demand better treatment within the context of Nigeria. The regional leaders should unleash the indomitable spirit and industrious nature of the people to improve the welfare of Igbos.Well.I hear it’s no more regions but whatever name the people should move toward economic independence”
I listened with rapt attention as Billy within a space of few minutes dissected through the route causes of the intractable problems facing Nigeria. At the same time he offered both far-sighted and practical solutions which I must admit aligns with mine. You couldn’t help but marvel at his intelligent and deep understanding of the issues well above what I have seen with most Nigerians that I have had similar conversations with. It wasn’t hard to decipher that his sympathy lay with the plight of the Igboman but still was pragmatic enough not to let his emotion triumph over reason and so passionately made the case against secession from the republic
As I drove home that day, I reflected on my encounter with Billy. I thought about the Catalonians in Spain and Bavarians in the context of Germany. I wished that Nnamdi Kanu and his men could use their enormous influence to rein on leaders of south East to demand accountability and good governance. How the Igbo ingenuity could be unleashed like the days of M.I Okpara. How we could rekindle the scientific minds that built Ogbunigwe and other scientific wonders. How the region could be a model economic giant for the country and the whole black race
My whole encounter with Billy was surreal .Their was the eerie feeling of finding a kindred spirit in an uncommon place and at an unexpected time. It was like being in a dream where Ojukwu visited and reminded us of what he called the “Biafra of the mind” in the context of one Nigeria. That night I said one more prayer that the God of reason will visit the rulers of Nigeria. That we as a matter of urgency restructure back to True Federalism as the only way to save this grave injustice called Nigeria.