Published Date

May 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “Biafra, Nigeria, the West and the World” by David Trask. 

This reading appeared in 1972 [soon after the failure of Biafran secession]. The following questions underscore some of the major issues of the reading:


Content of the reading

  • How well did Europeans understand events in Biafra, according to the author? What statements by the author support your conclusions?
  • What factors stood in the way of a fuller European understanding of these events?
  • What did the British want from Nigeria/Biafra?
  • What did Africans learn from their European/Western educations?
  • Can you intuit any attitude or traits of the author of this piece?

From: Joseph Okpaku (ed.), Nigeria: Dilemma of Nationhood An African Analysis of the Biafran Conflict (Westport, Connecticut, 1972).  Selections from pp. 3-7.

Turning a Nation against Her People—Nigerian Aspiration to Western Expectation

Joseph Okpaku

The Myths of Western Objectivity, Expertise, and Scholarship

  1. Suddenly one morning newspapers break forth with a headline “CRISIS IN THE CONGO” or “COUP D’ETAT IN GHANA–NKRUMAH OUSTED” or “MILITARY TAKEOVER 1N NIGERIA–DREAMS OF DEMOCRACY ‘SHATTERED,'” and the poor reader begins yet another exercise in unsuspecting misinformation as a reporter flies in from London to Lagos to come up, the next day, with a profound insight into the “deep-rooted causes of the present conflict.”

Western scholars, some of whom may have spent a week or two in a suburban hotel as far from Nigeria as Cairo, and others, who may have flown over Africa sometime during World War II and by so doing qualified as “experts” on all aspects of African life from rural culture through sexual behaviour and industrial development to literature and philosophy–these scholars immediately go to work churning out authoritative proclamations. Most such proclamations, whether from academicians or reporters, have one thing in common–the profound simplemindedness of their interpretations, the often highly creative falsity of their “facts,” and the uniform, boldfaced, arrogant ignorance. Somehow, the qualities of an educated man, such as the modesty of scholarship that used to be the mark of sound minds and the subtle qualifications and reservations that should characterize an honest reporter, are ignored or summarily dismissed. In the rush to pontificate on matters which these men are incompetent to comprehend, as much because of their embarrassingly minimal knowledge of the place and the people as because of their inability or unwillingness to understand the depth of the African mind, simple, easily consumable interpretations are presented to the innocent reader whose access to Africa is wholly dependent on these scholars and reporters. As if the survival of their culture were incompatible with the simple truth, these men desperately and almost viciously refuse to consider the possibility of the fact that the African mind is not just at least as complex as the Western mind, but in all probability perhaps far more so, because of the fact, all too easily ignored by the West, that the African mind derives from a cultural history that predates Western civilization.

Somehow, the opinions of the Africans, the Nigerians, the people who are the actors in the situation, are not sought after. And when they are nevertheless expressed, they are either ignored or dismissed. No one seems willing or able to consider the simple fact that a Nigerian born and bred in Nigeria and having grown up in that historical context of which the crisis is a phase, is perhaps likely to be more competent to offer the presumably nonpartisan and open-minded American or European public a more meaningful insight into the crisis. It has never occurred to those who run the bastions of international communications, such as the Associated Press, United Press International, The New York Times, or the television networks, to employ the services of African reporters in order to provide their public with more knowledgeable information and more sophisticated and more sensitive interpretation of the dynamics of a situation the Africans are more acquainted with. On occasions when this issue is raised, the response is that the African, being “emotionally involved” in Africa, is unlikely to be objective on African affairs. When one points out that by the same token American reporters, who exclusively cover American affairs, are similarly emotionally involved in American politics and therefore should be regarded as equally unlikely to be objective, one is accused of being argumentative. To point out that this same prejudice (which is actually racist, or at least ethnocentric) is extended to America where white reporters may cover all stories while black reporters may only cover black stories–more as a public relations concession, since only whites cover the big black stories–to point this out is to hate white people. And if one goes further to question the mythical objectivity of white scholars and reporters that one hardly finds in Western scholarship and reporting anyway, one is either branded a “revolutionary,” or it is immediately remembered that the cocktail glasses are empty and need refilling. …

Somewhere what seems to be forgotten or perhaps deliberately ignored is the fact that since participants in a given situation will act in accordance with their comprehension of the situation, that comprehension remains the most important insight into the given situation. Thus, Western prejudices notwithstanding, the most important opinion on the Biafran crisis was and remains that of the Nigerian people themselves. Yet it is precisely this opinion which was not sought in all the international centers of concern. With rather great amusement, Nigerians all over Europe and America–and there are thousands of them–sat back and read the presumptuous proclamations of what in the American idiom would be called “quickie” experts who overnight had come to understand perfectly every element of Nigerian life. …

2. The foregoing is crucial if we are to understand the extent of the anger Nigeria and Nigerians felt about the reaction of the world press to the outbreak of fraternal hostility that was soon to be called the “Biafran war.” For years Nigeria took a humble and open-handed attitude to her development. She was told that there was a certain glorious and perfect state of existence called “Western democracy,” and she believed it. She was told further that that democracy had certain rules which, if she observed, would make her reap luscious fruits of that glory, and she believed it. Then she was told that Nigerians, even those educated in the West, were not qualified to guide the country in the development of her public, scientific, industrial, political, and social life. Even that she believed. Thus it was only a matter of logic for her to believe the next argument, namely, that the only people who could give her expert advice were people from that so-called Western democracy. …

So in the late 1950s British foreign policy, as expressed through Nigerian policies on education, encouraged the study of law and the classics while discouraging training in the sciences and technology. While this worked to provide jobs in Nigeria for British engineers, little did Britain know that from the study of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero would come the call for political freedom. Little did Britain know that in the study of law lay the beginnings of the knowledge of the law that was later to lead to the demand for constitutional changes that were to lead to the demand for full independence.