• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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Onyeama, slavery and African agency

Dillibe Onyeama

A fortnight ago, the British Broadcasting Corperation (BBC) did a story on Dillibe Onyeama’s experiences at Eton College, one of Britain’s most storied boy’s school founded by King Henry VI in the 15th century and which has educated generations of British royals and statesmen. Onyeama was just the second black person to be enrolled in the school and the first to graduate. He published a book in 1972, “Nigger at Eton” just three years after graduating, detailing his experiences of racism during his time at the school. Eton subsequently banned him from visiting the school.

Shortly after the story was published the Headmaster of the school, Simon Henderson, offered an official apology. According to the headmaster, although the school has made “significant strides since Mr Onyeama was at Eton but – as millions of people around the world rightly raise their voices in protest against racial discrimination and inequality – we have to have institutional and personal humility to acknowledge that we still have more to do.”

Mr. Henderson went further: “I will be inviting Mr. Onyeama to meet so as to apologize to him in person, on behalf of the school, and to make clear that he will always be welcome at Eton.” Onyeama accepted the apology and invitation, saying he would return to Eton to personally accept the apology as long as Eton covered the cost of his travels and accommodation.

Onyeama, a journalist and author, has written about 28 books, including a biography of his late grandfather, a powerful and influential slave trader and later, ally of the British colonial government. When he was asked whether he would like to apologise for his grandfather’s role in slavery, he demurred. According to him, his grandfather was ignorant and possesses little agency unlike the Europeans and Americans who knew what they were doing.

“My grandfather had no rudiments of any form of education at all and he knew nothing beyond the ‘kill or be killed’ way of life in those days,” Onyeama said. He was not done justifying his grandfather’s actions.

“It wasn’t done as a means of oppression. It was a means of livelihood and a demonstration of power and might. It was the way of life in the old Africa before the white man brought civilisation, so to speak.”

This is a classical African attitude – the refusal to accept responsibility for just anything and always playing the victim card.

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For context, Dillibe Onyeama is the brother of the current Minister of External Affairs, Godfrey Onyeama. Their father, Charles Dadi Umeha Onyeama, studied at Oxford, mixed well with the top of British society, worked as a judge in Nigeria and rose to the position of a judge at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. With his wide connections in the British society, the senior Onyeama was able to register his second son, Dellibe, at Eton, at birth – the first black boy to be so registered in the elite institution. His entire family’s education and privileges was built on the back of their grandfather’s resources accumulated from selling his fellow humans as slaves. Yet, Mr Onyeama feels no need to apologise to victims and is still denying his grandfather’s agency. The same Onyeama wants to travel to the UK on Eton’s bill to receive an apology for the racism he suffered while in school.

Also, the Igbo society in which the senior Onyeama lived was not the “kill or be killed” society Mr Onyeama described. Yes, there were constant internecine wars, and there was slavery, but it was not an anarchic society. Adaobi Tracia Nwaubani, in a piece for the New York Times last year described the Igbo society as composed of three categories: the diala, ohu and osu. The diala, of course, were the freeborn and enjoyed their full status at all times, except when they are captured in war or commit heinous crimes. The ohu were war captives from distant communities, enslaved in payment for debts or as punishment for crimes. Equally, “a diala who wanted a blessing, such as a male child, or who was trying to avoid tribulation, such as a poor harvest or an epidemic, could give a slave or a family member to a shrine as an offering; a criminal could also seek refuge from punishment by offering himself to a deity.” This person then becomes an osu. “He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart—a taboo forever, and his children after him.” The diala often kept the ohu as domestic servants, sacrificed them in religious ceremonies or buried them alive at their masters’ funerals. When the transatlantic slave trade started, the diala started selling the ohu to European merchants. The love of lucre pushed some, including Onyeama’s grandfather, into becoming full-time slave traders. Of course, with increasing demand for slaves by European and American merchants, the wars and the rate of enslavement increased.

But they clearly had agency. They knew what they were doing. They manipulated tradition for their pecuniary gains. The osu that were once consecrated to the gods and seen as untouchables were not spared in the slave trade. Even the Igbo process of appeal to the gods was abused. In Igboland generally, all criminal offenses and appeals to judgements were taken to Chukwu Abiama (The Greate and All-Knowing God) to hear and pass judgement through the oracle. Those found guilty were either condemned to slavery or put to death by judgement of Chukwu (hence the river of blood).

The people of Arochukwu took full control of the hidden locations of the cave temple complex and turned it to their economic and political advantage. They caused all other smaller shrines to send all appeals to Chukwu Abiama and all those sentenced to slavery or death (most times unjustly too) were sold to European/American merchants.

Absence of formal education can also not be an excuse or justification for Africans selling their fellow men and women for mere pecuniary gains. In fact, formal education at the time could justify European/American involvement in the slave trade. Virtually all knowledge that existed then denied the humanity of blacks or placed them as inferior beings. In the United States, blacks were seen as three-fifths of a person. Even the Holy Books, to which the white merchants subscribed to, also justified slavery. What’s more, the Supreme Court of the United States recognised the rights of slaveholders to keep slaves.

At a time many in Europe and America are coming to terms with their heritage, their family wealth and privileges acquired as a result of their ancestor’s trade in humans, Africans are still living in denial of their agency in the despicable trade. At a time statues of slave traders and racists are being pulled down in Western countries, we continue to live in denial here, celebrating our African collaborators as heroes of their various societies. We are and have always been the victims. Shame!!!