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Igbo (Biafra) - Tamil Parallels

by C. Ponnuthurai Sarvan, November 27, 2010

At the end of the war, Biafra was a vast smouldering rubble - as is the North of Sri Lanka.  

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

       (T. S. Eliot)

Rudyard Kipling said that someone who knows only England doesn’t know England:   in order to understand one place and situation, England, one must know other countries, other histories.  With this attitude, I draw attention to the Biafran War. The Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War) began in 1967 when the Igbo of the South-Eastern provinces broke away and proclaimed the Republic of Biafra.  It ended three years later (1970) in defeat.

In 1914, the Governor, Lord Lugard, amalgamated the North and the South of Nigeria. This was not done in the perceived interests of Nigeria but in the interest of imperial Britain. The (so-called) “natives” were not consulted: Frederick Forsyth, The Biafra Story, Penguin Books, UK, 1969. Almost a hundred years earlier, Britain had acted in similar fashion in Ceylon. Under Portuguese and Dutch rule, the traditional homeland of the Tamils had been administered separately but this “distinctiveness” was lost under the Colebrooke and Cameron reforms (1833).

Prior to this a variety of kingdoms co-existed side by side on the island. Multiplicity rather than unity was the norm. Sri Lanka’s unitary state is a purely British invention made to satisfy colonial administrative convenience. It “made no pretence of being in response to the wishes, express or implied, of the governed. The British were well aware that two wholly disparate [...] were thus yoked together under their rule but administrative convenience was all that mattered.” (Adrian Wijemanne, War and Peace in Post-Colonial Ceylon, 1948-1991, Sangam Books, London, 1996.)

Having once taught in Nigeria, my impression is that the Igbo tended to be (are?) looked upon by other groups as intelligent but over-industrious, the latter being the product of an over-reaching ambition: the Biafran War taught them to “know their place”.  The Igbo (like the Tamils) placed a premium on education as the avenue to advancement. Thanks to the work of Christian missionaries, when Nigeria became independent (1960), the North had 41 secondary schools against the South’s 842 schools (Forsyth, p. 16). Similarly, at independence, the North of “Ceylon” had several schools of excellent repute.

The combination of intelligence and industry, plus ethnic antagonism and suspicion, led Northern Nigerians to the conviction that the covert, long-term, aim of the Igbo minority was to take over Nigeria, colonize the North, and use their talents and energy to run the whole country (Forsyth, page 49) So too, many a Sinhalese, consciously or not, thinks that the Tamils, unless subordinated, will go out of control, and take over the whole Island. Invasions from India in ancient times, the presence of millions of Tamils in the South of that country, fuel this unrealistic, irrational, fear.

Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart and other novels, internationally recognised writer) says that the paradox of the Biafran War (during which Achebe worked for the Biafran government) was that ”the Igbo themselves had originally championed the Nigerian nation more spiritedly than other Nigerians,”  (The Guardian newspaper, Saturday, 23 January 2010, page 18). Among several writers, H.A.J. Hulugalle, himself a Sinhalese, notes that several Tamils were in the forefront of Ceylon’s struggle for independence: see, Selected Journalism, Colombo, 2004. He records that when he became a journalist in 1918, Sri Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Tamil, was still the leading politician in the Island. A leading Sri Lankan historian (a Sinhalese) writes as follows: “In 1925-6, when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, as leader of the Progressive Nationalist Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka and made this the main plank of the political platform of his party, he received no support from the Tamils (K. M. De Silva, A History of Sri Lanka, Colombo, 2003, p. 513). In 1952, S. J. V. Chelvanayagam (the Gandhi of Tamil, if not of Sri Lankan, politicians) contested the Kankesuntharai as a member of the Federal Party, and was defeated by a UNP candidate.

Colonel Ojukwu, who later led the breakaway nation of Biafra, was originally a staunch believer in one Nigeria. Even after the first anti-Igbo riot, he calmed his people, and went so far as to encourage them to return to the North and other parts of Nigeria where they had lived and worked. The deaths, he argued, were part of the price that had to be paid for the ideal of ‘One Nigeria’ (Forsyth, p. 49). Ironically, it had been the long-standing wish, not of the Igbo, but of the Northern people of Nigeria to quit ‘Nigeria’ and have their own, separate, state. (Of course, Northern attitudes changes with the discovery of oil in “Igboland.  Similarly, it was not the Tamils but the Kandyan Sinhalese who, at one stage, demanded a separate Kandyan kingdom.       

The massacre of the Igbo caught up (like the Tamils) outside their traditional homeland was appalling both in terms of number, and in the savage nature of the violence unleashed. In a “blame the victim” syndrome, the responsibility was laid on the Igbo themselves (Forsyth, p. 41). So too, after the pogrom of 1983, the Tamils were blamed: They started it (by killing thirteen soldiers). They asked for it. They got what they deserved. The speed, precision and uniformity of the killing of the Igbo refute the argument of spontaneity (Forsyth, p. 54).  It was not a “riot” but a “pogrom”. In Sri Lanka, the pogrom was prepared for by the introduction of emergency laws.  Lists of voters (revealing “Tamil identity) and address were made available, as was transport for the mobs, often in army and police trucks.

The Igbo received no expression of remorse or regret; no compensation, “no offer to make good the damage in so far as it could be made good. So far as is known, not one soldier was ever given a day’s ‘confined to barracks’ punishment, not one officer was court-martialled, not one policeman was ever retired, and not one civilian faced a court of law, although many had been identified” (Forsyth, p. 82.)  

One could think Forsyth was describing not Nigeria and the treatment of the Igbo but Sri Lanka and the Tamils.

Forsyth writes (p. 78) that one can no more explain the present feelings of Biafrans without reference to this massacre than one can account for present Jewish attitudes and conduct without reference to the Nazi holocaust.  Similarly, the pogrom of 1983 has left an indelible mark on Tamil minds; a permanent scar on the Tamil soul

“Far more important, and often overlooked, was a complete volte-face in Eastern thinking on the question of the future form of Nigeria. Previously [that is, before the massacre] the Easterners had been the foremost advocates of One Nigeria, had put more effort into the realization of this concept than any other ethnic group, and had constantly promoted its cause…” (p. 71)

So too, it took a while for Tamils to see federalism as the solution. Later, that turned to separatism.   

The defeat of Biafra (as of the Tamil Tigers) is due to a complex of factors. One of them identified by Achebe in the above-mentioned article is foreign intervention:  “It was Britain and the Soviet Union that together crushed the Biafran state.” So too, with Sri Lanka: some countries openly helped the government, indifferent to human-rights violations, while others contented themselves with pious protestation.  At the end of the war, Biafra was a vast smouldering rubble - as is the North of Sri Lanka.           

The future is not known and, there being so many variables, prediction is difficult, risky and even foolish. The Biafran movement is not dead and, what with an assertive Islam in the North, its aims and efforts have, in recent years, gained momentum: see, for example, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra.  Two significant differences between the Igbo of Nigeria and the Tamils of Sri Lanka are those of number and, even more importantly, that the traditional homeland of the Tamils is under total occupation.


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