Nsibidi: Education in Nigeria Before Colonisation

The Unknown Nigeria Blog: Nsibidi

It is the simplest thing in the world to assume Sub-Saharan Africans were illiterate and uncivilised before the coming of the White man. Such is well-embraced by the African – if you are well educated. Empire Day celebrated throughout the Commonwealth colonies reminded Nigerians that the King or Queen of England liberated them from bondage. The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, one of the best-loved works of Western literature describes the African as a savage and languageless, communicating with grunts like apes. The Father of Modern Social Anthropology, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, swore that Africans had no institutions until the White man arrived – Africans had no marriages, kingdoms, trade, hierarchies, architecture, alphabet, medicines etc. of their own. All these facts are false but very rarely challenged by African scholars. Literacy and education did exist in South-Eastern Nigeria, for a millennium before colonisation. Let us talk about Nsibidi.

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Understanding Akpunwaism

Akpunwaism is a cultural reaction to defeat and the subaltern status of an ethnic or regional group within a state. Akpunwaism is unique to the Igbo ethnic group but its manifestation is not exclusive to it. The Japanese and Germans have their unique forms of Akpunwaism as a reaction to their defeat and domination by the Allied Forces during and after World War II. Many wars have produced the same in other parts of the world but with varied approaches and circumstances. Misunderstood, Akpunwaism is often portrayed by other Nigerians as a composite of greed and domination by the Igbo man and woman. To the Igbo people, on the contrary, it is a necessary and peaceful approach to both survival and prosperity. One then wonders what Akpunwaism is after all.

Akpunwaism [derived from Akpunwa meaning “tough one” or “hardwood”] is an attitudinal or behavioural form of the partial exit from the state. Peace within the state of peace in exit from it, it does not matter. Peace is what matters incomparably for the flourishing of Akpunwaism. [Partial] exit from the state means not being reliant on or connected to the government. We have often seen an Igbo trader confidently state “the federal government cannot tell me anything because it knows I need nothing from it”. Such is the mark of an exit from the state, a firm almost passive repudiation. What makes the exit robust are the reliable socio-economic networks created which facilitate trading and enterprise.

The Igbos have to work through and compensate for the aggression they suffered and that lingers with their psychic cum historical heritage with non-aggression. That requires the innovation of character. We must remember Akpunwaism is a reaction rather than a preferred way of life. On an individual level, it is an attitude that hollers, “I will not be left behind”. It is only when considered collectively can it be a step towards the partial exit. What is most interesting is that while some Igbos see it as a long term partial exit strategy others see it as just living the life. 

After a major loss, there is the necessity to rebuild by storing up as many capacities, strengths and resources as possible peacefully and legitimately and this only stops when all subaltern limitations are overcome within the state [Nigeria]. Like the mythical sukube tree which standing in isolation bears no fruit but when cut or burned down regrows bearing irresistible-tasting fruits and only dies when its descendants start growing all around, so is the Akpunwa. It then becomes a responsibility for survival.

Akpunwaism has an invisible side; caution and circumspection – aggression is never far away. Yet, synonymous with Akpunwaism are the virtues of determination, focus, strength, shrewdness, adaptability and tact. This is backed up by a keen self-awareness, internal structures of reliance, competitiveness, risk-taking and sacrifice. Never mind Nollywood. Akpunwaism is potentially a very productive state of being and a robust approach to self and community development when practised without deficiency or excess. The moment vices are introduced into the manifestations of Akpunwaism, it ends up giving it a bad name. Akpunwaism by itself is not greed, violence, selfishness, subversion nor wickedness, those are just vices that can be mixed in with it. 

Even the harshest critiques of the Igbo attitudes towards earning a position or income would occasionally in moments of reflection admire Akpunwaism. Some even wish their ethnic group had such an approach to doing things. However, when we look beyond the stereotype, you will find Igbos that are not rich, not successful, not educated and not high-flyers in their careers but they still practice Akpunwaism just as much as their richer, more successful, better educated and high-flying kinsmen. 

A necessary question is, was it the Civil War that triggered Akpunwaism in the Igbos or was it always there? I do not know the answer but I will offer speculation. Weak people never really start wars, civil or external. This would suggest that the Igbos felt or were able to fight a war and win. Nevertheless, the Civil War did create a “peaceful reaction” of rebuilding among the Igbos in the aftermath. The brief phenomenon of Nnamdi Kanu as Igbo leader did show that the potential of an exit from the state exists but it will take a lot more than demagoguery and ‘cause celebre‘ to actualise it. It also proved that Akpunwaism does not seek full exit but partial exit.

Though not the focus of this article, the other two major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Yorubas and Hausa-Fulanis, have done well but largely within the embrace and facilitation of the state. Such is a more secure and inclusive approach to survival and prosperity. Whether exit from the state is better or worse than the embrace of the state for the building of an ethnic group as contributors to society is not for me to judge. My concern has been the misunderstanding of the phenomenon called Akpunwaism and I have attempted to address it in a simple and clear style.


Grimot Nane

Obasanjo is neither Fulani nor Igbo

In 2012 an Odua Peoples Congress (OPC) operative intimated to me very intensely that the then President Olusegun Obasanjo was a traitor to the Yoruba race citing many things he did as military and civilian head of state as proof. One accusation was the nationalisation of Western region-owned assets to the federal government dominated by the Hausa-Fulani. Another accusation was the initiation of the transfer of the Nigerian capital from Lagos in the South-west to Abuja in the North. There were other accusations mentioned and they were supposed to persuade me and others that Obasanjo was a thoroughgoing agent extraordinaire for Northern hegemony or imperialism. In the 1960s and 1970s, the nationalisation of major industries was a global vogue and blaming Obasanjo as one head of state in a thoroughly global trend is harsh. Continue reading

Nigeria in Pieces: Biafra & Kanu


It was a grievous mistake on the part of the Government of Nigeria (GON) to arrest the Biafran secessionist activist, Nnamdi Kanu (See; The Government Has Jumped Up “Biafra” http://wp.me/p1bOKH-pt). Apart from Kanu’s new status of cause celebre due to his arrest and the risk of his martyrdom, the GON has continued to escalate the problem for itself. Many said Kanu’s arrest was a “non-event”. Now a peaceful protester has been shot dead by the police in Port Harcourt. As Ghandi famously proclaimed “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. Kanu was ignored, laughed at and now he is being fought by the GON. The question is, will Kanu eventually win? Continue reading

Wole Soyinka and Traditional Forgiveness?

After innumerable citizens indigenous to Lagos and the South-West region in Nigeria roundly criticised traditional ruler Rilwan Akiolu, the Oba of Lagos, for his unfortunate ‘warning to the Igbos’, one should be impressed that there is hope in Nigeria even though not immediately convincing. The warning the Oba meted bordered on vicious tribalism and tribal cleansing. It provided an opportunity to witness social and political maturity and sensibility in the entire South West that is alive, sensitive and robust. Wole Soyinka, a South Westerner himself, and  Nigeria’s most influential intellectual cum human rights activist – did not say a word.

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