Professor Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa is an Emeritus Professor of History, and a foremost researcher and a lover of arts. In this interview, Professor Alagoa talks identity, Biafra and the Niger Delta.
How did you start Onyoma Research Publications?
PROF ALAGOA: I started it a year after I retired from the university. That was when I completed my academic career and left the university. I did that because, I saw that inside the universities, it was and still not easy to get your work published in the press, or in the manner that will satisfy academic standards. The British or European publishing houses were there- Longman and so on. But, it’s very difficult to get published by them. So, I decided to establish our own publishing house that will be completely objective in the standards, but will be more attuned to the local environment and encourage budding authors to get their things properly published and marketed. And, I was working with a group in Oxford, who were sort of selling and presenting the books outside of Africa. They also helped us to see that our standards were international. So, that was how I started in 2005. Like the young lady’s book on Oloibiri. It took us some years to get it out, when I read the manuscript, I knew she had talent. But it needed a little work on it. It took us a few years to get to the point that, where I said, yes it is now right to bring it out. That’s the sort of thing we do to promote talents.
Because in Nigeria, the Yoruba’s have captured the media and publishing houses. We need our own set ups. But of course our government doesn’t have it, to encourage these types of efforts.
What has been the most striking revelations about the Niger Delta after all of your years of researching and writing about the Niger Delta?
PROF ALAGOA: Have you read J. P Clarks Ozidi Saga?
It’s a story that comes out of the community, and it is a real epic story. He recorded it on tape and video and so on, and we have a film of it. And then he published the translation of the Izon and English. Nengi has written a play out of it.
Through that, he has shown the world that we have a level of traditional literature right up to the level of the epic. And I know that, that is not the only one on the Niger delta. I know of others which have not received the same treatment. So, we are behind in our exposition of what we have. The depth and strength of our literary traditional reparium is really great. Gabriel Okara who just passed on, wrote a small story called “Ogboinba”. The story is so beautiful, I keep reading it over and over. It’s about the creation, the Izon creation. I asked Gabriel, where he got that story. He told me that there was a Nembe person who used to go about telling that story. I asked, do you remember the name? He said No, because the story is about a lady named Ogboinba – and that a man was telling the story so much that he became known as Ogboinba. So, we have just touched the tip of it. We haven’t. The Yoruba’s have done so much more with their oral traditions. The Yoruba’s have done so much more with theirs, it’s a great challenge to all of us. When it comes to our identity we need to properly document ant tell it more to understand it. The lesson from that is, I am quite sure that, within your own community, you’ve not gone down yourself to learn from the old people – oral traditions, proverbs and the literature that lives in the communities. If you take time to do it, you will be astounded by the quality of material that you will get. I think we have been brainwashed by this European and western thinking through colonial rule that everything traditional is fetish and barbaric. Our minds have been taking far from our deep relationship, study and understanding of our own cultural identity. We have gone far to the extent that we don’t want to even raise our children here. So, with the Niger Delta, in as much as I have done research there’s a blankness on the stories that have been told about us.
From what you’ve said, it means that all of your years of researching and writing about the Niger Delta points to the direction of literature and arts.
PROF ALAGOA: Yes. That’s where our identity lies. These forms tell you who you are.
The history can’t be anything if it doesn’t come from these forms.
If the Late Adaka Boro had been successful in his agitations where do you think the Niger Delta would be?
Isaac Boro was a very deep person. All the militants of today, 90 -95% are not in the same category at all. That was why after his first outburst with the youths for the first action (the twelve days revolution), where he was taken away and incarcerated. Luckily before the outbreak of the war, he was taken out of the East to Lagos. Before the civil war broke out, the Rivers State Governor, Diete Spiff and Gowon brought him out. Also academics like Amangala (historian) and Nyanayo(mathematician) joined Boro in Lagos and fought. They fought and died in Bonny. That’s why the scholars and academics were able to join him because of the level of realization of who we were and the level we were in the federation. His understanding of it was very deep. He was a real nationalist. And, if you read the only thing he wrote, his book, you’ll feel his nationalist spirit. Nobody writing about him has gone beyond it.
So, these agitations had seen a first phase of success with the creation of Rivers state.
Some of the Ibos couldn’t t understand why Boro did what he did, because they believed that Boro fought against the Nigerian government and why would he come out and fight for the same government that he fought against. But Boro and his people had never changed cause. They fought against the military government of Nigeria, which had killed Tafewa Balewa whom Boro believed was working for the Niger Delta people. So, it wasn’t the Nigerian government, it was the military people who had seized power illegally from the Nigerian government to do harm to his people and now Yakubu Gowon’s government had set the thing right by creating Rivers State. So they had to fight to establish Rivers State.
So, Boro was fighting to keep Rivers State? He wasn’t fighting because it was the Nigerian government against Biafra and geographically, we were part of the Biafran territory, is that right?
Yes, and the Biafrans were proclaiming that we were part of them and believed in what they were doing and so on.
Were there no people that wanted to fight on the Biafran side?
Of course there were. There were our own people who remained behind to fight in the Biafran army.
In every community, after the war there was division.
But our priority was to establish our Rivers State?
Was Rivers State enough?
(Prof Alagoa laughs at my question and says, you mean could it have been bigger or what?)
It was the first time that the people of the Niger Delta were given a chance to be masters of their own lives.
So, it was politics?
It was politics and identity. We were been accepted for who we were, and given the opportunity to develop ourselves.
So, what would you say now, have we used the opportunity well?
PROF ALAGOA: No. we have failed our people. But it’s not just us, virtually in all of Nigeria, all of the people who were given the opportunity to run the affairs of their people have failed their people.
So, how does it feel to have lived through all these, seeing the gradual decline, year in year out?
PROF ALAGOA: You know, when we were in the University College Ibadan and looking towards independence, the atmosphere, at the time when Soyinka, J.P Clark grew up, it was one of hope, the College was the sickbed of nationalism. We did not think of ourselves as inferior to Oxford or whatever. We did not expect our own independence to be dictated to us by any European power. But sixty years after and the hope has dimmed so much.
So, do you believe that things will get better, especially for the Niger Delta?
PROF ALAGOA: Yes, of course. When I see you, young people and my son David Alagoa. You are the hope we have.