Senior colleagues in Africana Studies have been asking me to explain if it is true that Africans sold their own people during the Trans Atlantic slavery as alleged by Henry Louis Gates in his BBC series, Wonders of the African World.
This renewed interest follows the historical fiction by a Nigerian writer, Adaobi Tricia Obinne Nwaubani, who published a story in New Yorker, ‘My Great-Grandfather – the Nigerian Slave Trader’ and another on the BBC website, ‘My Nigerian Great-Grand Father Sold Slaves’. The BBC presented her as a ‘journalist’ to legitimise her invented stories but she is better known as a novelist who makes things up.
I blogged a response to her New Yorker article but I was told off for going soft on her supposedly because she is a fellow Igbo. Here is my slightly tougher but hopefully shorter response to her imaginary BBC story: For full disclosure, Adaobi advertised on her own website that while growing up in the 1980s, she had the strange saboteur dream of becoming a CIA or KGB agent presumably to work against the interests of Africa. She may still be looking for such jobs by writing eagerly like a character witness for European enslavers of Africans against the pending legal writ for reparative justice by people of African descent.
First of all, she keeps calling her notorious great-grandfather a famous Nigerian but he pre-existed the invention of Nigeria by the British. Secondly, Africans were not slaves but kidnapped people being trafficked. She is not a historian, so I will not go hard on her.
Adaobi correctly translated the Igbo word, ohu as slave but being neither a sociologist nor an anthropologist nor a historian, she did not know that the context and contents of igba ohu or slavery in ancient Africa were nothing like chattel slavery. As a matter of fact, there was no slave mode of production in Africa, said Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. That was why Amanyanabo Jo Jo Ubani, King Jaja, could rise to be King of Opobo and Joseph became Prime Minister in Kemet. They were servants or odibo and not slaves or ohu.
Adaobi may also be right that some cruel families like hers insisted on burying their dead patriarchs with living human beings but that was never part of Igbo culture. During the World Court case over the disputed Bakassi peninsula that was allegedly ceded to Cameroon earlier by Nigeria to blockade and starve the Igbo in Biafra, a Calabar ruler, Obong of Calabar, was a witness for Nigeria around the year 2005. He told the court that there was a similarity in the culture of the Efik of Nigeria and the Bakassi of Cameroon who were one people, in his view, because they buried their King or Obong with four human heads. Nigeria promptly lost the dispute to Cameroon who may have rebutted that such barbarity was not allowed in Cameroon. Neither is it part of the radically democratic Igbo culture where all heads are equal and the Igbo say that they know no king!
I responded in detail when Adaobi displayed ignorance about Igbo language and mistranslated her family name in an earlier version of her historical fiction for the New Yorker. The proverbs that she mistranslated for the BBC would say servants or odibo and not ohu, when referring to the ability of servants to learn from the instruction of sons by fathers.
The Igbo may say that a man who owns no servant owns himself since inwe onwe is self-ownership or freedom. Yes, the word slave means ohu in Igbo but the Efik still call civil servants the white man’s slave or ntop mbakara while the Igbo call them those who do the white man’s work or ndi olu bekee. Even when the word ohu is used to warn children about slave-traders, everybody knows that Europeans warn their children that there is a monster or bogeyman under every bed ready to devour naughty children but it is the pervert uncles, priests, and parents that the children should beware.
If Adaobi’s great-grand father was a slave trader, then he was obviously a lumpen scum bag who must have been shunned by the masses that resisted the kidnappers whom she said that her great-grand father hired to go and kidnap people from distant places for sale by him. That may have been why the colonisers made him their paramount chief and tax collector, a deplorable role that led Igbo women to declare war against colonialism in 1929 and force the abolition of Warrant Chiefs among the Igbo who still believe that all heads are equal and boast that the Igbo know no king. Notice that Adaobi ignorantly reported that her great-grand father did not appear to have an extended family, friends, age-grade members, in-laws, or community supporters that rallied around him when his possessions, including 10 wives and slaves, were seized by the colonisers who only returned them when he showed the certificate issued to him as a trader by the Royal Niger Company. He was surely a sad lonely figure in a society that valued people more than wealth and still name their children Nwakaego or Ndukaku meaning, child is greater than money or life is greater than wealth. No wonder his name was also Oriaku – a pejorative title by the Igbo for a parasitic wife who only consumes wealth, a title that Igbo women rejected in preference for Odoziaku or wealth manager.
In the New Yorker, Adaobi exposed her motivation for her hagiography when she wondered if Africans deserve reparations given that her great-grandfather was a highway robber and kidnapper. Fallacy of the straw man. She also claimed that her family was facing mysterious disasters attributed to the sins and abominations committed by her great-grandfather, forcing the family to contemplate changing their name, to chant psalms annually and pray for forgiveness, and to destroy some family juju pots, perhaps to attract rich wives and husbands for their beautiful children (the thinly disguised theme of her debut novel about 419 fraud, I did not Come to You by Chance).
I advised Adaobi in my earlier blog response to tell her wealthy family to set up scholarship funds for her cousins who descended from those that her great-grandfather oppressed instead of simply praying to be washed as white as snow for as she reported, schooling is a great leveler of social statuses – school children make friends without being constrained by ancient claims to status, wealth or caste.
In the BBC story, Adaobi quoted the eminent historian, Adiele Afigbo, to give credibility to her amateur psychoanalysis of her dysfunctional family by suggesting that the residues of the slave trade continued until the 1950s before the British finally ended the crimes against humanity that they themselves initiated and ran for hundreds of years without apology or reparations, charged Chinweizu in The West and the Rest of Us.
Not being a historian, Adaobi failed to interpret this riddle from Afigbo who was obviously inviting scrutiny of the fact that Africans were to blame for their inability to mobilise and end the slave raids by themselves for more than 400 years. Look how long! For that, Mathew Kerekou, president of Benin Republic, rightfully took a knee at an African-American church and apologised for the despicable roles that some African chiefs were forced to play in the inhumane crimes against humanity but Rodney insists in The History of the Upper Guinea Coast that Africans were mostly warriors against slavery. Afigbo was reminding us that since Africans were conscripted as enslaved people to fight for the British during the European tribal wars as if they were slaves, the British cannot claim to have ended slavery. When unarmed African women demanded not to be taxed without representation in the colonial government, the British massacred dozens of them as if they were homo sacer or slaves whose lives could be taken with impunity, wrote also Afigbo in The Warrant Chiefs. And when coal miners demanded for a living wage in Enugu, the colonisers massacred dozens of them in 1949 to prove that it was never their intention to end slavery in Africa, they only wanted to transform it into colonial slave labour and Africans continued to resist, wrote Du Bois, Azikiwe and Rodney.
How can the British claim that they ended slavery and barbarity in Africa when they orchestrated the genocide that took 3.1 million Igbo lives in Biafra? All I know is that my great-grandfather was not a slave trader, he was a resistance warrior for justice quite unlike Thomas Jefferson who raped little African girls and then sold his own children for money.
When will Adaobi write about American Founding Fathers who were perverts like her great-grandfather and who raped children and called them his ten wives like Boko Haram? Maybe I should write that book in answer to the bewildering question repeatedly posed by African Diaspora colleagues: were you not the ones who sold us? No.
•Agozino is Blacksburg, Virginia, United States Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. He is the author of the following books – Critical, Creative and Centered Scholar-Activism: The Fourth Dimensionalism of Agwuncha Arthur Nwankwo (2016, FDP); ADAM: Africana Drug-Free Alternative Medicine, 2006; Counter-Colonial Criminology, 2003; Pan African Issues in Crime and Justice (co-edited), 2004; Nigeria: Democratising a Militarised Civil Society, (co-authored) 2001; Theoretical and Methodological Issues in Migration Research (edited), 2000; and Black Women and the Criminal Justice System, 1997.