- Paperback:432 pages
- Publisher:Scribner; New edition edition (2 Jun 2003)
- ISBN-10: 0743207610
Adeyinka Makinde trained for the law. He is a contributor to various websites on topics such as boxing, history, music and culture. His first book, Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal was published in 2005. His latest offering is Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula which was released in 2010.
A political crisis of longstanding duration has been brought to the world’s attention by the actions of a competitor at the recently concluded Olympic Games. Marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa’s gesture of raising his arms aloft in the form of a cross as he was about to confirm his silver-medal position was a politically-motivated one intended to highlight the plight of the Oromo people of Ethiopia who vehemently claim to be perpetually marginalised by the country’s central government. The Oromo also claim to be the primary victims of an escalating crackdown on public dissent. But while the Ethiopian government strenuously contests the facts and figures behind each repeated claim by local human rights groups and international non-governmental organisations of mass incarcerations, torture and extra-judicial killings, the picture emerges of a nation perennially at struggle in the quest towards achieving a genuine democracy and the rule of law. Whatever the merits of the arguments positing the clash of ethnic interests, ideological fractiousness and contestation of social policy, Ethiopia’s political history is one that is replete with episodes of ethnic or ideologically-motivated dissent which have typically been met by violent counter-reactions on the part of those wielding the levers of central power; whether by its overthrown monarchy or by its military and civilian successors. The iron-fisted approach to managing the affairs of state adopted by successive Ethiopian governments has always been predicated on the idea of preserving a multi-ethnic polity seemingly at any cost, much to the extent that the critics of the present administration accuse it of being insensitive to the genuine grievances of its citizens and of being unable to appropriately distinguish between protest and insurrection. This heavy-handed approach, some commentators contend risks plunging Ethiopia into a serious ethnic-based conflict that would not only mirror the violent transformations in its own recent history but which may also undertake the devastating features of conflicts as have occurred in neighbouring Sudan and Somalia and even Rwanda.
When Ethiopian rebels succeeded in overthrowing the hardline Marxist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, the succeeding political framework, that of a federation of nine ethnically-based states, was hailed as a model for the African continent. The constitution granted autonomy to the constituent parts of the country and included a clause providing for the right to secede. The apparent success of this system, apart from the separation of Eritrea, was according to Meles Zenawi, evidence of “the successful management of our diversity.”
Zenawi, the leader of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which defeated Mengistu’s forces, had been speaking as prime minister twenty years later. Under his leadership, Ethiopia’s marked development of infrastructure was accompanied by official data indicating consistent annual economic growth. A poverty assessment provided by the World Bank in 2011 found that poverty had fallen in the country from 44 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2011. The report also stated that average household health, education, and living standards had improved over the same period of time. The regime received a boost in July of 2015 when on a state visit US President Barack Obama had repeatedly referred to the “democratically elected” government of Ethiopia.
Nonetheless the apparent progress made in development and democracy under Zenawi’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has for long been underplayed by the opposition. They charge that the theoretically impressive constitutional arrangements were negated by the authoritarian nature of Zenawi -who died in 2012 after 21 years as leader- and continues to be undermined by his chosen successor, Hailemariam Desalegn. The true state of affairs according to Bulcha Demeksa, an outspoken opposition figure, is that the federal powers designated to the regions have been effectively usurped by the national government; claiming at the time Zenawi was in power that he removed regional presidents “at will”.
There is much in the way of evidence of the authoritarian ways of the Ethiopian government, dominated by the EPRDF, since the deposing of the Mengistu regime. This came into sharp focus at the time of multi-party elections held in 2005. The opposition’s complaints of election fraud were backed by the view of election observers from the European Union and the Carter Center. The elections of 2010, was also mired by claims of voter intimidation while that of 2015, which saw the EPRDF winning a landslide of 500 out of the 547 available seats -with its allies winning the remaining 47- was described by the opposition as an “undemocratic disgrace” and offered proof that Ethiopia is “effectively a one-party state”. The result is that not a single opposition member presently sits in the Parliament of the country possessing Africa’s second largest population.
The EPRDF is also in full control of the security apparatus. The military, the police force and the intelligence services, dominated by ethnic Tigrayans, serve as ultimate guarantors of its survival. The government has also made use of vaguely drafted counter-terrorism laws to clamp down on dissent. An article in the European Scientific Journal published in January 2016 claimed that at least eleven journalists had been convicted and sentenced to periods in excess of ten years since the enactment of Ethiopia’s Proclamation on Anti-Terrorism in August of 2009. Whereas the situation before the passing of the anti-terrorism legislation was that no laws contained provisions overtly criminalising the standard activities of opposition journalists and politicians, Article 6 of the Proclamation typifies the draconian nature of the law by allowing for a broad-brush policy which enables the authorities to interpret all manner of activities as ‘encouraging terrorism’ by direct or indirect means. It is a tool used to diminish freedom of speech, association and assembly by criminalising the role of opposition politicians, journalists and bloggers, as well as the work of environmental and human rights activists. This view is supported by the United States State Department which in April of 2016 called for an end to the government’s use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation law “to prosecute journalists, political party members and activists”.
Another piece of allegedly ‘anti-democratic’ legislation among a welter passed during this period was the Charities and Societies Proclamation of 2008. This restricts Ethiopian non-governmental organizations from embarking on any human rights-related work if they receive their funding from foreign sources.
Critics of the government also point to its brutal handling of recalcitrant populaces in various regions much to the extent that certain external human right organisations such as Genocide Watch and Human Rights Watch have alleged that the consistent use of lethal force and other extreme measures in the provinces are fulfilling a range of criteria which when taken in sum are considered to amount to genocide. This applies to the Anuak people of Gambella province as well as to the inhabitants of the regions of Ogaden and Oromia.
The Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia who comprise around a third of the country’s population, have consistently complained of being marginalised in a country where the exercise of political power is traditionally viewed through the prism of the rivalry between the Amhara and Tigrayan ethnic groups. A 2009 report by the Advocates for Human Rights organisation documented a historical account of consistent human rights abuse against Oromo communities by three successive regimes: that of the Haile Selassie-led monarchy, the Marxist Derg of the Mengistu era and the present EPRDF government. Oromo groups often characterise the treatment meted to their communities as an enduring form of state sanctioned tyranny. In October of 2014, Amnesty International produced ‘Because I am Oromo: Sweeping repression in the Oromia region of Ethiopia’, a 166-page document which asserted that between 2011 and 2014, at least 5,000 Oromos had been arrested based “on their actual or suspected peaceful opposition to the government.” This frequently involved taking pre-emptive action. Dissenters, both actual and suspected, it claimed had been “detained without charge or trial (and) killed by security services during protests, arrests and in detention.”
The Ogaden region, scene of a large scale battle between the armies of Ethiopia and Somalia between 1977 and 1978, is composed of ethnic Somalis, a great many of whom live impoverished lives in an underdeveloped expanse of land which is richly endowed with oil and gas resources. Its people also accuse the national government of severe human rights abuses including enforced displacements from ancestral land, restriction of large groups to camps, starvation and massacres of civilians and suspected militants. The management of a blockade of the region and the camps established for internally displaced person has involved regulating the availability of food and water. It has meant starvation while rape and intimidation are claimed to be weapons used by the Ethiopian military in keeping the people in line who have suffered from dispossession of their lands which have been turned over to Chinese-run oil and gas projects.
The Anuak of the Gambella region, a resource rich and fertile area which is situated to the west of the country on the border with Sudan, have also suffered from government policies. The region does not appear to benefit from the oil and agricultural projects the government has leased to foreign interests. Instead this mainly pastoral people, dark-skinned Africans traditionally treated as inferiors by the lighter-hued Highlanders, have suffered from enforced displacement from their lands and were subjected to a notorious series of massacres by the army and Highlander militias in the early 2000s.
The case made against the Ethiopian regime is both frequent and compelling. Nonetheless, context is required before reaching a final judgement. Ethiopia, is the descendant state of a multi-ethnic empire with a remarkably turbulent history. Although seen by outsiders as an Abyssinian entity with an Orthodox Christian identity, the Amhara,Tigrayan and others of the Habesha ethnic strain amount to no more than 35% of a total population which accommodates over 80 different ethnic groups. Further, although it vies with Armenia for the honorific of the first Christian nation, nearly 45% of Ethiopians practise the Islamic faith.
It is under these circumstances that in the cause of maintaining its nationhood that Ethiopia has arguably inevitably developed a brand of authoritarian leadership; one which is perhaps synonymous with the Russian concept of zheleznaya ruka (or silnaya ruka): rule by the iron fist. Such a rationale will of course be of cold comfort to those groups such as the Oromo who although forming part of the lineage of the imperial family (both of Emperor Haile Selassie’s parents were paternally of Oromo descent) have had to endure restrictions on forms of their cultural expression; a culture based before incorporation into the Abyssinian empire on the Gadaa system which they proudly hold to be an exemplar of traditional democratic social, political and economic governance. The parallel institution of Siqque is claimed to have promoted gender equality.
In 2010, the Economic Intelligence Unit described the Ethiopian government as an “authoritarian regime” when ranking the country in 118th place out of 167 on its ‘Democracy Index’. If the present rulers of Ethiopia do privately admit to the necessity of conducting the task of nation building with a strong hand, they should be aware both of the limits of its severity and of the need to reassure their countrymen by demonstrable policies that their governace is not predicated on the perpetuation of a form of ethnic hegemony. For it is the argument of many of its sternest critics that the EPRDF is dominated by the TPLF which as a guerilla force played the decisive role in defeating the Mengistu government and gaining effective control of the country. They only need to look at their history and that of Ethiopia to be aware of the dialectic of violence that is inevitably unleashed when the hatred and injustice borne of ethnic chauvinism exceeds the limits of tolerance. The Woyane Rebellion of 1943 in Tigray province which was eventually crushed was one which was directed at the Amhara-centred regime of Selassie. And it was a coalition of ethnic militias which conducted the fight against the tyrannical rule of Mengistu.
It would be remiss to fail to elaborate further on the achievements of the EPRDF alluded to earlier in regard to the reduction of poverty as well as improvements in both health and education. High on the list of projects which if brought to fruition would serve to be genuinely transformative in its effect is that of the 4.2 billion dollar Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This 6,000 megawatt gravity dam situated on the Blue Nile will be the largest hydro-electric dam on the African continent. It is being constructed under a longstanding threat of war by Egypt, a country which relies heavily on the waters of the River Nile. But the Ethiopian government is dogged in its pursuit of a scheme which has the potential to bring a great many of its citizens out of poverty.
The government’s Productive Safety Net Programme through which people can work on public infrastructure projects in return for food or cash provides jobs for around 7 million people. The effects of drought are combatted with more effectiveness than previous regimes through a national food reserve and early warning system located in all the woredas, that is, local government districts. There have also been productive initiatives made in relation to tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Alongside the iron-fisted style of governace is some evidence of flexibility. The so-called ‘Master Plan’ aimed at extending the capital city of Addis Ababa was scrapped in the face of protests from the Oromo community who viewed it as a ploy by other ethnic groups to uproot them from their fertile land under the guise of development. In an unprecedented display of independence, the Oromo component of the EPRDF, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO) announced in January of 2016 that it was resolved to “fully terminate” the plan.
The government has also shown a good level of resolve in asserting Ethiopian national interests; its defiance of Egyptian attempts at intimidation over the GERD project being a notable example. And while the legislative stipulation contained within the Charities and Societies Proclamation regarding funding from external sources appears primarily geared towards stifling internal dissent, it can also be viewed as a prudent act aimed at protecting the Ethiopian state from foreign interference of the sort that has enabled intelligence services of certain countries to utilise non-governmental organisations to destablise other nations. The successful rescue by Ethiopian defence forces of Aneuk children abducted by members of the south Sudanese Murle tribe in the Gambella region where groups of Murle had massacred hundreds of people was also a laudable act done in the national interest. The country is shaping itself in a position to be a key player in regional affairs with its expected role as energy supplier to its neighbours as well as through its peacekeeping efforts under the auspices of the African Union.
That said, it is also clear that the heavy-handed approach to governace needs moderating lest it succeeds in triggering an uncontainable level of violence. Violence is of course a phenomenon to which generations of Ethiopians are familiar with.
The pattern of intermittent bloody insurrections and coups against the old imperial regime continued under its successor, a military regime whose initially bloodless coup which overthrew the monarchy in 1974 transmogrified into a train of unceasing violence. Commencing with what came to be known as ‘Black Saturday’, it was followed by the internecine struggles within the junta, known by the amharic word for ‘committee’, the Derg. The assassinations first of General Aman Andom and later Tafari Benti paved the way for the rise of Mengistu as the overseer of the ‘Ethiopian Red Terror.’ During this period, in which between 30,000 and 750,00 were killed, Mengistu fought an internal war against two civilian Marxist parties: the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON). It is worth noting that the Ethiopian Civil War which concluded with the 1991 sacking of the Mengistu regime is officially designated as having started in September of 1974. Since that time, the government has had to cope with a range of low-intensity insurgencies which presently number ten.
The onus is on the government to begin to mould a genuinely inclusive national philosophy which eschews the perennial preoccupation with securing and maintaining ethnic hegemony. The country needs to evolve beyond the present facade of federalism, for there is ample evidence of truth in the cynical interpretation of Zenawi’s words on the “successful management of our diversity” as a euphemism for the successful supervision of a divide and conquer strategy. An inability to tackle ethnic grievances risks plunging Ethiopia into a level of darkness commensurate with or even exceeding that which occurred during the Rwandan genocide. The monopoly of state arms on the part of one ethnic group offers no guarantee of continued peaceful co-existence among Ethiopia’s disparate ethnic groups if those on the receiving end perceive their national army to be an ‘interahamwe’ of sorts.
If not corrected, Ethiopia risks ratcheting the dialectic of violence to a level which would imperil its continued existence.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2016)
Adeyinka Makinde is a London-based writer and Law Lecturer with a research interest in intelligence and security.
This essay puts the present focus on the crisis in Iraq caused by the ISIS insurgency in the context of the historical and contemporary forces that have shaped and are still shaping the conflict in Iraq and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
It falls in line with a policy overseen by the United States which is predicated on the re-drawing of the Middle Eastern map i.e. balkanization and of 'managing' a series of manufactured conflicts which are ultimately designed to protect America's access to the natural resources of the region.
This overarching policy accommodates a confluence of interests that cater to the hegemonic aspirations of the state of Israel, Saudi Arabia & the Sunni Gulf States and Turkey. It pits the United States and these allies against the Shia Crescent led by Iran whose allies are Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Two key points contended here are:
1.The present crisis derives from the decision to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein on a false premise and that the overriding motivation of the influential neo-conservative group within the Bush administration was to destroy Iraq to benefit the state of Israel.
2.The present crisis is an extension of the war against the Syrian government of Bashar Assad which was manufactured by outside powers for the following ends:
To destroy a government with an anti-Israel stance.
To replace the minority Alawite government of Assad with a Sunni one which would comply with Saudi, Qatari and Turkish plans to build a natural gas pipeline from the Gulf to Turkey which would supply Europe with natural gas.
Destroying Alawite power in Syria would weaken Iran (and break its link with Hezbollah in Lebanon); the Iranians being the current existential threat to the Israeli state that Saddam and Nasser once were. The Shi'ite Iranians are the chief competitors of the Sunni Saudis for influence in the Middle East and of course the Iranians do not follow the dictates of Washington.
Evidence is provided of Israel's historical and continuing motivation to break up Arab states and to stimulate turmoil via the policies of David Ben-Gurion and successive Israeli leaders as well as by reference to policy papers such as the 'Yinon Plan'(1982) and the 'Clean Break Document (1996).
Evidence is provided of the United States motive in fomenting sectarian conflicts and supporting extreme Islamic groups as has occurred in Libya, Syria and Iraq. It is based on maintaining American economic and military hegemony and is outlined in a policy paper funded by the US Army and produced by the RAND Corporation entitled 'Unfolding the Future of the Long War: Motivations, Prospects and Implications for the U.S. Army' (2008).
The declaration on 29th June, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, of an Islamic Caliphate by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Dawlah Al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq wa-al-Sham –the jihadist organisation known also as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - marks a watershed of sorts since the commencement of what used to be commonly termed as the 'Clash of Civilizations'.
For in the post-Cold War era, even before the 'catalyzing event' that was September the 11th of 2001, the avowed goal of the Osama Bin Laden-led al-Qaeda movement was to create a Sunni-led Caliphate.
It has been the dream not only of the Islamic zealot but also, perhaps, the latent hope of many ordinary Muslims to have a unity of Mohammedans in a political state on a scale at least equalling those which existed in succeeding epochs during what may be referred to as the golden age of Islamic civilization.
At the helm of such an entity would be a caliph who would command a global empire of the Ummah or believers stretching from the western part of North Africa and even the Iberian Peninsula through the Middle East and south Asia and on to the Indonesian archipelago.
To many Jihadists, the re-creation of the borders of previous Caliphates such as those presided over by the Rashiduns, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids and Ottomans would be an unambitious delimitation of what they feel should ideally cover all areas of the globe.
The ever changing name of the organisation first known the Islamic State in Iraq then as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Levant and as of August 2014 simply the Islamic State has seemingly reflected its geographic aspirations and its latest perhaps reflective of its resolve to escape the limitation to identifiable, colonially national imposed borders.
Certainly, the historical record of the Caliphate is redolent of an irresistible need to expand as far as possible by means of conquest. It was, for instance, the goal of the Sokoto Caliphate located in modern Nigeria and extending to a vast range of West Africa to expand the frontiers of Islam further south in order, the euphemism went, for its warriors to 'dip' the Holy Koran into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The June rampage of ISIS in a murderous Blitzkrieg starting from the eastern borders of strife-ridden Syria through the northern part of Iraq caught the attention of the world. Amid stories of Iraqi army commanders apparently deserting their posts, cities such as Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul fell.
These startling events along with evidence of wanton violence perpetrated against civilian populations saw media outlets reflect the American government's projection of the insurgents as an extreme species of Islamic fanaticism surpassing even that of al-Qaeda which had to be stopped at all costs.
Such 'cost', it was claimed, would even countenance an alliance of sorts with the Iranian state, the arch-enemy consigned to the infamous status of an 'Axis of Evil' nation and presently subjected to the most punitive measures of economic sanctions mounted against any nation-state in recent years.
The crisis of ISIS is, of course, not an isolated, self-incubated phenomenon but rather is the latest instalment in a chain of events that goes back to the decision of the United States to invade Iraq in 2003 in order to effect the removal of the regime headed by Saddam Hussein.
It is also an episode which on closer examination may bear the hallmarks of precise direction and manipulation by foreign powers. It appeared deeply suspicious to some who noted the speed by which the Iraqi army's resistance to ISIS penetration crumbled.
How could an army with vastly superior numbers and equipment be overrun so quickly? Why did the commanders in Mosul and Tikrit reportedly desert their posts and instruct soldiers to leave?
The implication is that they may have been bribed to do so. Of this proposition, no concrete evidence has materialised, although the alternative proposition, that a lack of professionalism and cohesion within a dysfunctional army that is the product of a dysfunctional state suddenly confronted by hordes of battle-hardened and ideologically motivated fanatics is a compelling one.
Many Shia soldiers are reportedly unwilling to fight for the Iraqi state.
Still, there are some analysts who believe that it is a situation which has been manufactured with the specific aim of applying pressure on the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and that it has a medium-term endeavour of reversing the fast dissipating fortunes of the intervention which deliberately fomented a war within the borders of Syria which itself is part of a longer-term objective of redrawing the borders of the Middle East.
The instability that has in recent times befallen Iraq and Syria and which at any time could conceivably combust into a full-blown regional war represents a confluence of interests; a merger in fact of the imperial designs of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.
It is a state of affairs underpinned by the active collaboration of the United States but finds resistance from counter-measures employed by the Islamic Republic of Iran which seeks to preserve the 'Shia Crescent' which extends from the Persian Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which serves as the custodian of the sacred relics of Islam is concerned with asserting Sunni hegemony throughout the region while the Zionist state of Israel has consistently fostered an agenda of balkanisation as a guarantee of its survival.
The motivations of Turkey under the 'soft-Islamist' government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, ostensibly, are less clear-cut given Turkey's longstanding 'Zero Problems with Neighbours' policy. Not least are the implications of what a large-scale amendment to the borders of the region could have on Kurdish nationalist aspirations.
Nonetheless, if the frequently bandied descriptions of Turkish neo-Ottoman pretensions sound banal and analytically lazy, the projection of Turkish influence in the region is clearly at the heart of Erdogan's recalibrations in his relations with both Syria and Iraq.
The United States for its part has largely been concerned with overthrowing regimes which do not toe the line; those of Saddam Hussein and Libya's Muamar Gaddafi being the prime examples along with the attempt to unseat Bashar Assad in Syria.
While a general impression of disengagement from the region is being given by the policies of the Obama administration which has overseen the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall direction and underpinning rationale of United States policy is to continue the decades-long intrigues which have been geared towards weakening the power of Iran; and if possible, to effect the overthrow of the Islamic system of government which has been in place since the abdication of the US-backed Shah in 1979.
Notwithstanding the rapprochement of sorts which has followed the change of leadership and that is primarily evidenced by the continuing talks over its nuclear developing capacity, the sanctions against that country remain as draconian as ever.
Further, the recent announcement by the Obama administration of plans to go to Congress to raise monies for the anti-Assad opposition, confirm the on-going stratagem of attempting to permanently cut off the supply routes from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The demarcation between 'friendly' and 'hostile' nations in the Middle Eastern and North African world is long established regardless of administration, although the most overt expression given to a long term plan remains the document formulated by the neo-Conservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in the 1990s.
This called for the systematic overthrow of a select number of regimes adjudged to be hostile to the "interests and values" of the United States.
The removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq formed the initial phase and this was to be followed by countries including Sudan, Libya and Syria, with Iran serving as the finale.
While the neo-Conservative influence on the administration of George W. Bush favoured intervention using the direct resources of the United States military, the present administration favours the path of effecting destabilisation through a technique of supporting a cast of dissidents involved in the prosecution of asymmetric warfare.
These belligerents ironically have tended to consist of Sunni extremists cut out of the same cloth as al-Qaeda; of which ISIS is.
Is ISIS the latest actor on a stage involving militarized Islamist groups who have done the bidding of the United States; effectively functioning as what has been cynically termed a foreign legion of America?
There is evidence pointing to the answer being firmly in the affirmative.
As is well documented, the United States through its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported the Mujahedin during its guerrilla campaign against the forces of the Soviet Union when they occupied Afghanistan.
Prior to this, the United States had developed a complex but enduring relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood which dated back to the 1950s during the Eisenhower-era. The aim was largely to influence the brotherhood in the context of containing the spread of communism.
Among the band of kindred Islamists waging the anti-Soviet insurgency with huge inputs of United States funding and training was Osama Bin Laden who of course later formed al-Qaeda.
The protestations by official CIA historians that aid was only directed at indigenous Afghan insurgents is reminiscent of the disingenuous distinction postulated in the present Syrian crisis between so-called 'moderate' and 'extremist' elements of the militias opposing Bashar Assad.
In any case, both native Afghan and foreign fighters shared the same Islamist sentiments. While they were fighting for nationalistic reasons as well as for Islamic aims which were to remove the foreign and 'atheist' invader from Afghan soil, they were also unknowingly fighting to fulfil an American foreign policy agenda; namely that of weakening the Cold War-era Soviet foe.
The attack of September 11th 2001 to which responsibility was affixed on Bin Laden's group has not precluded a resumption of similar mutually beneficial relationships.
A "re-configuration" of American foreign policy priorities according to the Pulitzer award winning writer Seymour Hirsch occurred about five years later during the second tenure of the administration of President George W. Bush. This involved aiding pro-Saudi Sunni militants in the Lebanon against the Iranian supported Shia militia group, Hezbollah.
With the dawning of the so-called 'Arab Spring', protests against the regime of Muamar Gaddafi transmogrified into a full blown insurrection in the city of Benghazi from where militant Islamists including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group emerged to fight pitched battles against Gaddafi's forces until he was overthrown.
This would not have been possible but for the use of NATO's airpower as well as the logistical and instructional help such as that provided by the special forces of the United Kingdom.
The United States aided by its NATO allies were again involved in fomenting a military opposition against Bashar Assad's government in Syria. And as confirmed in June of 2013 by the former foreign minister of France, Roland Dumas, this intervention was conceived and prepared for at least two years in advance of the commencement of the insurgency which developed a few months after what appeared to be genuine protests occurred in cities such as Damascus and Aleppo.
The rebels were given staging posts in the US-allied surrounding nations of Turkey and Jordan to serve as training quarters and to mount raids.
And as reported by both the UK Daily Telegraph and the New York Times in March of last year, a large cache of arms and equipment was airlifted to the rebels in a transaction co-ordinated by the CIA and paid for by the Saudis.
But who are the Syrian rebels and what ideological underpinnings do they have?
During the early period of the uprising, much reference was made to an organisation with the designation of 'Free Syrian Army'. The background to this 'body' suggested that it had a unified command structure with a solid amount of numbers which would continue to grow as it would absorb an envisaged amount of defections from the army of Assad.
The germ of the FSA was created by a Syrian army colonel defector who, along with a number of commanders and foot soldiers, was based at Apaydin Camp in Turkey.
Despite headlined press reports of assassinations and defections of several high-level military officers, this scenario failed to materialise. Indeed, a compelling argument was made with little or no disputation that the Free Syrian Army did not exist and has never come into existence.
Instead, the name was used in reference to a range of anti-government militias fighting in different regions of Syria. Most appear to have a Salafist agenda and cannot be objectively described as being 'secular' or 'moderate'. Prominent among them are the Islamic movement of Ahara Al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Liwa al-Twhid and Liwa al-Yarmouk.
Indeed, a report by the Times of Israel in June of 2014 quotes the Israeli Defence Force's head of Military Intelligence Research and Analysis Division as estimating that over eighty percent of the opposition fighters "have a clear Islamist agenda".
After the initial barrage of reports on the FSA, the genuinely powerhouse opponents to Assad's regime began to be acknowledged in the Western press. These militias composed largely of foreigners included the Jabhat al-Nusra Front and ISIS; both well-funded and more effective than the local ones.
It is hard not to conclude that weapons earmarked for rebels under the auspices of the CIA and Saudis would get into the hands of the Islamist groups, along with the benefits of the training they have received.
It is a scenario which was painted by Michael J. Morell, a former deputy CIA director who in a CBS interview stated that the battlefield effectiveness of the Islamist factions drew the so-called moderates to their camps. In his words:
Because they're so good at fighting the Syrians, some of the moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them.
A proxy war of the sort fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union has been apparent for some time, and the United States is at the heart of it. It would appear that the United States is pliant to the goal of a fragmentation of the Middle East, although, of course, such a policy has never been publicly averred to.
Nonetheless, some have referred to a map prepared by a retired army colonel of the United States War Academy and which was published in the Armed Forces Journal in June of 2006 as evidence of a US-NATO objective of reconstituting the map of the Middle East.
Among the significant alterations to the Sykes-Picot agreement which created the modern nation states of the Middle East as we know them today are an Arab Shia state, a Sunni state and a Free Kurdistan being carved out of Iraq with the Kurdish state acquiring territory from Syria, Turkey and Iran.
Balkanisation has clearly been at the heart of the policy of assuring the survival of Israel. Indeed, it was a pre-condition of the emergence of the Zionist state that the Ottoman Empire be broken up and that the succeeding power in the region of Palestine, the British, would then take the steps which would lead to the establishment of what was initially termed a Jewish homeland.
Early Israeli policy under its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, was geared towards bolstering the power of the Christian community in the Lebanon. It involved employing cynical strategies aimed at fomenting inter-communal strife among the Christian and Muslim groups in that country and even a plan to acquire territory up to the Litani River.
Indeed, the diaries of Moshe Sharett, an Israeli premier during the 1950s record Moshe Dayan declaring that Israel needed a Christian military officer to promulgate a Christian state which would then cede Lebanon south of the Litani River to Israel.
Both Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, the early Zionist leader, had proposed this northern boundary in an early map depicting a state of Israel which was presented to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference after the First World War.
The strategy of balkanisation in the Arab and Muslim world has a simple rationale. Israel has always been wary of the emergence of any nation from these lands which is nationalist in outlook, that possess a high degree of social cohesion along with an economic and military capacity which could be directed against it.
While Gamal Nasser's Egypt and his Pan-Arabist philosophy presented the earliest visible form of what Israel perceived to be an existential threat before destroying it in the war of 1967; Ben-Gurion's vehement opposition to Charles de Gaulle's decision to grant Algeria independence provided ample proof of this permanent quality of sensitivity.
After Nasser, Saddam Hussein's Iraq emerged as the threat, and following the 2003 invasion, Iran is viewed as the pre-eminent Muslim nation which poses the greatest menace.
When in the early part of 2003 the Bush administration was preparing for the invasion of Iraq, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon called on the Americans to also "disarm Iran, Libya and Syria".
This long time strategy is encapsulated within a policy document produced in 1982 by Oded Yinon, a journalist who had once been attached to Israel's foreign ministry.
Formally titled A Strategy for Israel in the Nineteen Eighties' the 'Yinon Plan' is predicated on Israel achieving regional military and economic hegemony while working towards the division of its neighbours into ethnic and sectarian based mini-states.
The "far reaching opportunities" referred to in the document alluded to the range of weaknesses and stress points in the various countries on its borders and further afield which could be exploited by Israel so as to ensure their weakening and eventual fracture. These included religious, ethnic and sectarian rivalries as well as economic grievances among the population.
Iraq was a priority with the desired outcome being a three-state division into Kurdish, Sunni and Shite states. Egypt would in the best scenario be split into "geographically distinct regions" encompassing a Coptic Christian state and a range of other Muslim states while Syria was identified as been essentially vulnerable because it "is fundamentally no different from Lebanon except in the strong military regime which rules it".
For Yinon, Lebanon formed the template for the fracture of Arab states and as the paper continued:
Syria will fall apart in accordance with its ethnic and religious structure, into several states such as in present day Lebanon, so that there will be a Shi'ite Alawi state along its coast, a Sunni state in the Aleppo area, another Sunni state in Damascus hostile to its northern neighbour and the Druzes will set up a state, maybe even in our Golan, and certainly in the Hauran and in northern Jordan.
Such a state of affairs Yinon was convinced would serve as "the guarantee for peace and stability in the area in the long run".
While Yinon's work has often been quoted in recent years in relation to the contemporary wars in the region, it is not the only document of record offering an authentic account of such a strategy being at the heart of Israeli strategic policy.
For instance, Livia Rokach's Israel's Sacred Terrorism published in 1980 relates Moshe Sharett's diary recollections of the machinations of both David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan during the 1950s in regard to a range of tactics and policies designed to acquire territory as well as to sow the seeds of discord within Arab nations.
An updated version of this formula forms the explicit rationale underlying what is known as the 'Clean Break Document'.
In 1996, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm was produced during the first premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu by the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, an Israeli political think tank.
Led by Richard Perle, a key contributor to the aforementioned Project for the New American Century, the document put forward the argument that Israel should renounce all intentions towards achieving a comprehensive peace settlement with Arab nations and instead should work together with Turkey and Jordan to "contain, destabilize and roll-back" those states which pose as threats to all three.
And as with the PNAC document, Syria features as a state in regard to which Israeli policy should be geared towards "weakening, controlling and even rolling back".
The means by which such destabilisation and containment would occur were not always explicitly addressed in the paper, but in practical terms it is clear that these goals are effected through a panoply of methods including Israel's use of direct military action, its support for actors in proxy wars, and its use of the military resources of the United States through the huge influence wielded in that country by the Israel-Jewish lobby.
There is of course sensitivity attached to the terminology used in this regard and a debate in regards to the true scope of power American Jewish groups possess in terms of influencing United States foreign policy.
Yet the war declared on Saddam's Iraq, the effects of which have led to the present crisis involving ISIS and the threat of a permanent dismemberment, was influenced by the likes of the aforementioned Richard Perle, as well as Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.
All are designated as neo-conservative in political outlook and were signatories to a letter written by members of PNAC to the incumbent President Bill Clinton calling for the military overthrow of the government of Saddam Hussein.
The Israeli state lies at the heart of any serious analysis of the reasons why America declared war on Saddam's Iraq as well as the later war manufactured by external powers in Syria.
In the year before the US attack on Iraq, the Guardian newspaper quoted the retired US Four-Star General Wesley Clark as saying that the so-called 'hawks' within the Bush administration who were lobbying for the war had been doing so well before the events of September 11th 2001 and privately acknowledged that the regime of Saddam Hussein did not pose a threat to America.
"But", said Clark, "they are afraid at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel."
Carl Bernstein, the veteran journalist and himself Jewish when referring to what he termed the "insane war" in Iraq, asserted in 2013 that it had been started by what he described as "Jewish neo-cons who wanted to remake the world (for Israel)".
The 'reconfiguration' of American policy as alluded to by Seymour Hersh has at its heart the state of Israel. According to Hersh:
The Saudi government, with Washington's approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria. The Israelis believe that putting such pressure on the Assad government will make it more conciliatory and open to negotiations.
In a continuation of his revelation of the preconception of the anti-Assad revolt, Roland Dumas provided the following:
In the region (i.e. the Middle East) it is important to know that this Syrian regime has a very anti-Israeli stance...and I have this from the former Israeli prime minister who told me "we'll try to get on with our neighbours, but those who don't agree with us will be destroyed".
The pretence of Israeli non-involvement in the present war in Syria or even its purported interest in maintaining the status quo with Assad remaining in power is belied by actions and pronouncements.
A report last year in Debka, a website staffed by Israeli journalists providing news on intelligence and security issues, revealed that senior IDF officers had criticised Moshe Ya'alon, the defence minister for misleading the Knesset when he gave an estimate that President Assad's forces controlled far less territory than it actually did and as a consequence, the Israeli armed forces were acting on the basis of inaccurate intelligence.
"Erroneous assessments...must lead to faulty decision-making" the report concluded.
An explicit statement from a government insider concerning Israel's attitude toward the Assad government came from Michael Oren last September. He said the following to the Jerusalem Post when leaving his post as Israeli ambassador to the United States:
The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. That is a position we had well before the outbreak of hostilities in Syria. With the outbreak of hostilities we continued to want Assad to go.
Publicly disclosed operations such as those involving the bombing of pro-Assad storage depots and convoys claimed to be part of a logistical trail leading to Hezbollah in Lebanon, while portrayed as surgical in nature were likely made with the overall desire of weakening Assad's forces in his campaign against the insurgents.
For instance, in June of 2014, when a missile fired from Syrian territory killed an Israeli citizen on the Golan Heights, the Israeli Air Force responded by mounting sorties on nine positions belonging to the Syrian Army including a regional command centre.
This mission was undertaken, a Times of Israel report noted, despite the fact that "some Israeli (intelligence) experts said the area from which the anti-tank rocket was fired is under the control of Syrian rebels, not the Assad regime".
The present crisis generated by the gains of ISIS in Iraq and speculation as to whether the United States should intervene on the side of the Maliki government revealed the age long thinking and strategy of Israel's leaders and policymakers.
Speaking on NBC TV's Meet the Press in June, Benjamin Netanyahu's stated that "We must weaken both". "Both" of course was referring to the Sunni and Shia divide.
When your enemies are fighting each other, don't strengthen either of them, weaken both.
Furthermore, Netanyahu has recently called for the establishment of a Kurdish state.
But the conceptualisation of a reformatted Middle East is not solely the concern of the Americans and the Israelis. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has for long harboured ambitions to be the undisputed leader of the Arab and Muslim world, and to this end battled with the secular, pan-Arab philosophy as espoused by Gamal Abdel Nasser for the soul of the Arabs, and, in more recent times, it is contending with the Shi'ite bastion of Iran for regional influence.
Saudi Arabia along with its Gulf emirate neighbours, most notably Qatar, have been involved in the financing and organising of the revolts against the secular regimes of Colonel Gaddafi and President Assad, and the stripe of the beneficiaries such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the Jabhat al-Nusra Brigade and ISIS is clearly Islamist.
It is a history which goes back some time and includes providing funds to the Mujahedin in Afghanistan in the 1980s which many historians would argue provided the germ for the development of al Qaeda and now ISIS which is a more extreme offshoot of the former.
But quite apart from pinpointing the instances of the documented funding of groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS is the responsibility arguably borne by the Saudi state for the rise of Islamic extremism in modern times.
The pivotal moment in history, according to the case compellingly put by the Middle East affairs journalist Yaroslav Trofimov, was the siege of Mecca in 1979. On November the 20th, which was the first day of a new Muslim century, a large group of gunmen numbering in the hundreds seized control of Mecca's Grand Mosque, the holiest shrine in Islam.
Led by a preacher named Juhayman al Uteybi, the insurgents declared that the Mahdi or "redeemer of Islam" had arrived in the form of one Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani.
The insurgents also had the objective of overthrowing the House of Saud on the grounds that they had compromised the strict tenets of the Wahhabi creed originally imposed on the country after it had been formed by Muhammad Ibn Saud.
The grievance stemmed largely from the policy of Westernization and amongst several demands, Uteybi's insurgents called for the expulsion of Westerners, the abolition of television and the ending of education for women.
The two-week siege was ended after the Saudis obtained the blessing of Wahhabi clerics to storm the Mosque with the aid of French Special Forces and flush out the rebels.
But this came at a price. The Saudis clamped down in areas where 'liberalisation' had strayed such as the media and the school curriculum.
The decision was also made at the behest of the powerful fundamentalist clerics for the Saudis to pump money into the coffers of Sunni missionary organisations to spread of the ideas of the Wahhabi strain in Islamic universities and madrassas around the Muslim world. This purist brand of Islam lays particular focus on Jihadist sentiment.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan provided the opportunity for both the United States and Saudi Arabia to tap into the Saudis rededication to Wahhabism.
President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, saw in the Soviet move a chance to exploit outrage in the Muslim world, and the Saudis, following a fatwa declared by Abdelaziz Bin Baz, later the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, provided funding for the local Mujahidin as well as the bands of non-Afghan Jihadis who became the template for the contemporary multi-national Jihadis operating in both Syria and Iraq.
The aforementioned airlift of arms from the Balkans at the direction of the CIA which was paid for by the Saudis follows a mutually agreeable pattern for both nations.
A key player in Saudi strategy in its power play with Iran and the manipulation of Islamist militias in both Iraq and Syria has been Prince Bander Bin Saud, until recently the chief of Saudi intelligence as well as the head of the Saudi National Security Council.
So far as funding ISIS is concerned, there are reports that Prince Abdul Rahman Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal and a graduate of Sandhurst Royal Military College, serves as the conduit through which Saudi policy is driven and that he even influences the tactics of the group.
The prince is the brother of Prince Saud al Faisal, long-time foreign minister and Prince Turki al Faisal, ambassador to the UK and the US. However, this specific allegation has yet to be officially corroborated.
One clue as to the inclinations of the Saudi state towards this marauding army of homicidal Jihadists may have been their issuing of a statement calling on the United States not to begin a bombing campaign in ISIS.
The Iraqi government has publically accused the Saudis of supporting ISIS and Prime Minister Maliki has saddled them with the responsibility for what he describes as the "crimes that may qualify as genocide: the spilling of Iraqi blood, the destruction of the Iraqi state institutions and historic religious sites".
Aside from the sectarian-ideological motivations which lie behind the decision to attempt to unseat the Assad regime in Syria is one with a specifically economic dimension.
This relates to the decision of the Assad government to reject a proposed pipeline project through which natural gas would be pumped from Qatar to Turkey via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.
The reason Assad is said to have turned down the plan is that such a pipeline, which by extension would be able to supply European markets, would undermine the interests of Syria's ally Russia which is the premier supplier of natural gas to Europe.
Instead, he pursued an alternative pipeline project which would emanate from Iran and run to Syria via Iraq.
This would explain the volte force on the part of the purportedly neutral Turk's after initially cultivating cordial relations with Assad. Turkey cherishes the idea of serving as what has been described as the "ultimate energy bridge between east and west."
It also explains Turkey's use of a crucial natural resource as a weapon of specific retaliation and one that it will continue to use as a source of leverage in his dealings with Assad in Syria and the Iraqi government of Maliki: water.
This increasingly globally scarce resource in regard to which the Turks sit on one of the world's largest reserves has of course formed a very underplayed yet significant backdrop to a number of conflicts including the seizure of the West Bank by Israel in 1967 and the overthrown of Gaddafi in 2011.
In May of 2014, the Turkish government cut off the water supply to the River Euphrates having started a process of a gradual reduction in the pumping of the river. It has led to a drastic shrinkage in the water levels of the man-made Lake Assad and is causing hardship to communities.
The rationale for the United States overseeing a sectarian based war in Syria and Iraq also has a basis in terms of accessing the natural resources of the Middle East on which the West remains reliant for its energy needs.
The need to foment such conflict; what in fact was described as a "long war" was bluntly put in a United States Army funded report by the RAND Corporation in 2008.
Entitled, Unfolding the Future of the Long War: Motivations, Prospects and Implications for the U.S. Army, the paper crucially identifies the geographic area of proven oil reserves as coinciding with what it terms as "the powerbase of the Salafi-Jihadist network".
"This", it continues, "creates a linkage between oil supplies and the long war that is not easily broken or simply characterized".
The following more detailed excerpt explains how sectarian fault lines can be exploited in order to serve the interests of the West:
Divide and Rule focuses on exploiting fault lines between the various Salafi-jihadist groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts. This strategy relies heavily on covert action, information operations (IO), unconventional warfare and support to indigenous security forces...the United States and its local allies could use the nationalist jihadists to launch proxy IO campaigns to discredit the transnational jihadists in the eyes of the local populace...US leaders could also choose to capitalize on the 'Sustained Shia-Sunni Conflict' trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shi'ite empowerment movements in against the Muslim world...possibly supporting authoritative Sunni governments against a continuingly hostile Iran.
The report is clear about the need for the United States to simultaneously shore up the regimes which it classifies as 'friendly' to its interests such as Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia while working to weaken the influence of Iran; a strategy which it admits could serve to strengthen Jihadi groups, but which at the same time would bog them down in sectarian conflicts that would divert their energies from targeting the West:
One of the oddities of this long war trajectory is that it may actually reduce the al-Qaeda threat to US interests in the short term. The upsurge in Shia identity and confidence seen here would certainly cause serious concern in the Salafi-jihadist community in the Muslim world, including the senior leadership of al-Qaeda. As a result, it is very likely that al-Qaeda might focus its efforts on targeting Iranian interests throughout the Middle East and Persian Gulf while simultaneously cutting back on anti-American and anti-Western operations.
The document is certainly prescient so far as developments in terms of the Syrian uprising and the tumult in Iraq are concerned.
At the same time, it is worth noting that the fomenting of sectarian antagonism in order to fulfil an objective for the United States is not new to the region; a specific example being the use made of Shi'ite death squads made up of personnel recruited from militias such as the Badhr Organisation and the Mahdi Army to nullify a Sunni-led insurgency which had been claiming the lives of a great many American soldiers.
Thus the bolstering of Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Brigade and later ISIS in a series of pre-conceived US military intelligence operations that are pursuant to America's long-term geo-strategic interests is not merely plausible but is actual reality.
It fits into reports during the early stages of the Syrian conflict of claims that British and French military advisers were stationed at the borders of Syria and offering Syrian rebels as well as prospective insurgents including those arriving from abroad military training.
The existence of training camps run by NATO officials and well as by former US Special Forces mercenaries who operate private security consultancies in the Gulf has been alluded to in reports via the mainstream press including the German Der Spiegel.
In March of 2013, it reported that around 200 men had received training over the previous three months in Jordan and that the Americans planned to train a total of 1,200 members of the Free Syrian Army in two camps; one in the south and the other in the eastern part of the country.
While unsure as to whether the American trainers were serving US Army personnel or were working under the auspices of private firms, the magazine did note that some organisers wore service uniforms.
A report by the British Guardian newspaper, also in March 2013, confirmed the presence of US, British and French military advisers who were giving Syrian rebels what was termed "logistical and other advice in some form".
While the article claimed that such training was been given to elements described as being "secular" so that an effective military militia would serve as a bulwark against Islamic extremist brigades, such a claim cannot be taken at face value.
The report alluded to the presence of CIA-led training camps in deeper locations within Jordan, and just how the Western operatives can distinguish between those who on the one hand are "secular" and those who on the other are "Islamist" remains unclear.
Given what is known about US policy via the RAND report and the actions of NATO in aiding Salafists in the Libyan uprising against Colonel Gaddafi, such professed distinctions are likely disingenuous especially when the accepted view is that the overwhelming majority of Syrian and foreign insurgents view the fight against the 'apostate' Alawite government of Assad as a Sunni crusade.
And so far as the training of ISIS is concerned, several news outlets are disseminating claims from Jordanian officials that members of ISIS were among those insurgents who received training from Western military advisers.
Even if it was accepted that prospective insurgents were not specifically coloured by an ideological allegiance to militias bearing an overtly Islamist agenda, and they were being readied to serve in the ranks of the putative Free Syrian Army, it is quite clear that as argued above, such an entity is non-existent.
After all its purported commander, General Salim Idris, whose organisation represented the supposed counter-weight to the Al Nusra Brigade and ISIS, relocated to Qatar in February 2014, his right hand man to Sweden and the number three figure is apparently residing in the Netherlands.
It is also more likely the case that a person nominally trained as a vetted FSA candidate guerrilla would leave for one of the better funded Islamist groups who offer their fighters more remuneration thanks to the largesse of wealthy donors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
All of this is done with the apparent acquiescence of the United States and is in line with the thinking behind the report conducted by the RAND Corporation.
What also falls into sync with the series of rationales behind that report is the role played by former American internees in conflicts involving Islamist insurgents.
Many of these figures, incarcerated in the context of the so-called 'War on Terror', did not turn to the business of perpetuating acts of terror against Western military or civilian targets but involved themselves in insurrections which happened to be mutually beneficial to the Islamist causes and the United States.
Consider for instance the case of Abu Sufian bin Qumu. Qumu was renditioned from Pakistan to Camp Guantanamo Bay sometime after the NATO conquest of Afghanistan. He was released from US custody despite the conclusion of analysts that he represented a "medium to high risk, as he is likely to pose a threat to the US, its interests and its allies".
He was transferred to a Libyan jail in 2007 at the time when the US and its allies were cooperating with the Gaddafi regime in a policy aimed at containing Islamists but released in 2010 under an amnesty.
However, when the insurrection against the Gaddafi regime commenced in 2011, Qumu, in the words of the New York Times article in April of that year had somewhat perversely become "a U.S. ally of sorts".
Another Libyan figure Abdelhakim Bel Hadj, like Qumu was renditioned by the United States government and under the auspices of the British MI6 was placed in the detention regime of the security services of the Gaddafi regime.
As with Qumu, he was released under the 2010 amnesty by the Libyan government but joined the militias which with the help of NATO overthrew Gaddafi.
The head of ISIS and proclaimed caliph of the declared Islamic State, Baghdadi, was himself held in US detention between 2004 and 2009 at Camp Bucca in Iraq.
He, like the others, represents the 're-direction of energies' thesis postulated in the context of the "long war" predicted by the aforementioned paper.
It might be going too far without any incontrovertible evidence to suggest that men such as Qumu, Bel Hadj and Baghdadi are double agents 'turned' by US intelligence during their periods of detention.
But it is worth noting that that the dark arts as practised by intelligence agencies including that of NATO military intelligence in its Cold War-era manipulations of terrorist organisations of the extreme political Left and Right in Italy are capable of refinement and readjustment.
During that period, the techniques of infiltrating the leadership positions of political terror groups and steering them toward pursuing certain course of actions, as detailed in the infamous manual produced by Yves Guerin-Serac's Aginter Press, were successfully practised.
These Islamist figures have effectively had 'presented' to them a series of conflicts which have been tailor-made to assure the active participation of men of their ideological disposition.
The emergence of ISIS, barbaric acts and medieval-like edicts including the announcing of the institution of the dhimmi system notwithstanding, plays towards the prescribed US agenda in promoting its short and long-term goals.
It is also not unconnected with the turning of the tide gains made in the Syrian conflict by the forces loyal to President Assad and their foreign allies, namely Russia, as well as their co-denominational brethren from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The war against Assad has defied the expectation that his minority-led government would be toppled in a short period of time as had happened with the Gaddafi regime.
The covert strategies devised by General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Quds Force which is often described as been analogous to a combined CIA and Special Forces, has succeeded in stabilising the a situation which for a time was looking very dire from the perspective of the Assad regime.
The shoring up of this 'Axis of Resistance' against America and its Middle East allies, most notably, the Sunni powers, has been critical given the high stakes suggested by these words in a speech delivered by an Iranian cleric:
If we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.
The stabilization of the Syrian front has been interpreted as a defeat by the Sunni powers and the surgent ISIS in Iraq presents an opportunity for the Americans in its continuing quest to weaken Iran.
After all, bombing ISIS targets in Iraq could conceivably lead to bombing parts of Syria under the pretext that such operations are being directed at ISIS. It could provide a back door opportunity to carry out the bombing of Assad's forces which in the wake of the chemical attack at Ghouta last August had been the intended course of action.
The motivation behind the calls by made by 'hawks such as senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for the United States to bomb ISIS likely matches this.
These men after all must be aware of the overwhelmingly Islamist stripe of the vast majority of rebels fighting in Syria who were the eventual beneficiaries of the monies released by the US Congress in bills which both have strenuously championed.
This support, including their calls for President Obama to bomb and weaken the military capability of the Assad government last August, is designed to create the circumstances which would lead to his overthrow and the creation of a vacuum which, as happened in Libya, can only be filled by those who would be chosen by the likes of the al-Nusra Brigade and ISIS.
Yet, the policymakers and the engineers of the covert operations enabling the continuation of this 'Long War' must have in their calculations the possibility, even inevitability, of what is termed 'blowback'.
This is the suspected backdrop to the murder by Islamists of American personnel at the Benghazi 'consulate' which allegedly served as a conduit for the shipment of weapons to anti-Assad jihadis via Turkey.
For some time now, security officials from the Western European nations whose radicalised Muslim citizens are participants in the wars in Syria and Iraq have warned that returning jihadis would pose significant threats to peace and order.
President Obama himself admitted in June that the spread of ISIS-led conflicts to neighbouring states could pose a "medium to long-term threat" to the United States.
The sponsors of the ISIS such as Saudi Arabia could also be imperilling their long-term survival.
Like a frankensteinian creation, an independent and emboldened Islamic State with pretensions to controlling a Caliphate which does not recognise national borders would not stop at Iraq and Syria but could attempt to overthrow the Saudi regime on the basis that the Caliph is by Islamic tradition the designated Custodian of the two holiest mosques in Islam: the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina.
Certainly the threat to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan appears to be the more immediate. A video posted on Youtube in April of 2014 described King Abdullah as "despotic" and a "worshipper of the English" and vowed to "slaughter" him.
While President Obama has in August of 2014 finally caved into pressure to order air strikes against ISIS positions, sight must not be lost of the greater picture; that of a 'Great Game' and a 'Long War' in which the United States is bound to continue its long-term strategy of protecting what it perceives as it national interests including maintaining its access to the natural resources of the region.
Its continuation was evident in Obama's recent request for $500 dollars from the US Congress to train the so-called "Syrian Opposition". According to the Washington Post, "money for the assistance would expand a CIA covert operation's training program".
Developments within the context of this long-term foreign policy objective continue to present obstacles and also opportunities for the United States to exercise leverage.
So even if the recent gains of ISIS were not deliberately manufactured by Washington's covert arm, it nonetheless provides an opportunity for the United States to put pressure on Prime Minister Maliki who the Americans view as being largely compliant to the dictates of Tehran and even to effect his removal in favour of someone who would follow the American line more willingly.
Some analysts suspect that the United States does exercise an undisclosed covert influence on ISIS; with even the suggestion that they are directed at field level by Western mercenaries or Special Forces embedded within their ranks much in the manner as members of Britain's Special Forces were among the rebels who overthrew Libya's Colonel Gaddafi.
And that because the Americans created the political structures presently governing Iraq including the supply of military weapons, that they are effectively controlling both actors in the crisis.
If this is the truth or at least close to the truth, it is fulfilling the template of the "long war" outlined in the RAND Corporation's policy document. The United States will then seek to 'manage' this situation for as long as it can.
The ability of outsiders to effect instability of the Middle East owes much to the arbitrary border demarcations of imperial draughtsmen as represented by the Sykes-Picot agreement, the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia, the miscellaneous tribal affiliations of its peoples along with the relative economic and environmental fortunes of its sub-regions.
Oded Yinon was being far from off-handed when pointing out in his paper that the Arab Muslim world was "astonishingly self-destructive".
The latent fault lines cutting across the swathe of lands from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been exploited by non-Arabs who have enabled the Arab nations to be willing accomplices in the coups, insurrections and wars which have brought havoc.
Very few can fail to see that the present crisis as being causally linked to the overthrow of the regime of Saddam Hussein by a war of aggression waged by the administration of George W. Bush which was based on a false premise.
And as General Sir Michael Rose, a retired British soldier put it earlier this year, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is self-deluded and "remains in complete denial over the disaster he inflicted not only on the people of Iraq, but also on many millions throughout the Middle East as a result of the 2003 invasion".
Further, despite the protestations of Richard Perle made last month about the use of the term 'neo-cons' as what he emotively described as a "hateful" word directed at Jewish Americans, the evidence clearly demonstrates that the invasion had at the heart of the motivation of its principal proponents the destruction of an Arab state which presented a modicum of a military threat to the regional hegemony of the state of Israel.
It is also disingenuous to deny the fragmenting of Iraq as a state, whether by peaceful or strife-ridden circumstances as been the inevitable consequence of the invasion.
Few who understand the historical foundations of the policy of the Zionist state cannot fail to appreciate the requirement that its survival has always been predicated on the weakening and balkanization of its neighbours.
Also, few who are aware of the policy agenda of the United States in promoting and 'managing' sectarian conflict as a means of assuring its continued access to the natural resources of the Middle East will fall into a constricted analysis of ISIS as a stand-alone phenomenon unrelated to the cynical quality which underlies American strategy in the region.
It is but merely one troublesome episode within a wider saga; that of a twenty-first century version of the "Great Game".
(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)
Adeyinka Makinde is a Lecturer in Law with a research interest in Intelligence and Security matters. He is based in London, England.
The importance of the pen, the brush and the voice of the artist as a social critic and as an interpretive lens to focus on the intricacies as well as the banalities of inter-human conflict may or may not carry less weight than they did in distant and not so distant past.
This of course is a question of perspective; but even in the age of the saturation coverage of wars and insurrections by the apparatus of the mass media, the nuanced touches provided by the evocative poet and the erudite writer can give new dimensions of insight into the background, the evolution and the effects of the wars waged by mankind.
Certainly those artists whose works have profoundly captured the imagination and which have been indelibly marked in human memory thus becoming part of the general narrative of historical consciousness have consistently spoken of the inherent baseness of wars: its infliction of mass suffering and its capacity for unleashing the demonic qualities that lie dormant in men.
The destructiveness inherent in war; the anti-thesis of the creative impulse of the artist has frequently cast the artist as being anti-war. But while Pablo Picasso’s monumental Guernica, the depiction of a Nazi air raid on a Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, projects the pacifist’s angst at the evident traumas induced on a wretched and defenceless civilian populace, the role of many an artist has not been confined to one of conscientious neutrality. There are those who have used their talents to extol the virtues of patriotism and the valour inherent in sacrificing self in the cause of the nation. There are those who have taken unambiguous stances for both belligerence and for resistance.
The Nigerian Civil War fought between 1967 and 1970 was a war which engaged a number of figures drawn from the nation’s cultural life. The dramatist and later Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, made efforts geared towards creating what he termed a ‘third force’ for compromise as the fractured nation hurtled inexorably towards a military showdown. He was jailed for his troubles by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon.
Another figure, one not widely known outside of literary circles, but whose status has grown in succeeding decades, the poet Christopher Okigbo, was not content to remain in civilian life and joined a regiment of the secessionist army of Biafra. He met his death at the age of 37; an ending which inspired the Kenyan academic Ali Mazrui to indict Okigbo for “wasting his talent on a conflict of disputable merit” in his work The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. “No great artist,” he argued, “has a right to carry patriotism to the extent of destroying his creative potential.”
For Chinua Achebe, author of the seminal work Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian Civil War was one in which he had no choice but to involve himself. As he explains in his book There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, the integration of art with the community in traditional African society formed the basis of his war time ambassadorial role in promoting an international awareness of the plight of the short-lived Biafran state which was composed in the main of people of his Igbo ethnicity; a people who had endured a series of pogroms in the lead up to the war.
Achebe was in the vanguard of those artists who although initially absorbed with writing about the effects of colonial society on the African psyche would later become pre-occupied with the events in post-colonial Nigeria, events which took on increasingly dysfunctional turns.
Indeed his fourth novel, the unerringly prescient A Man of the People, ends with a military coup, an event which for the first time took place in Nigeria at the time of the book’s publication and which served as a trigger that would lead to a concatenation of violence: communal massacres, a second army mutiny and finally an armed conflict replete with the brutal instruments and cynical policies of warfare.
It is a war which was widely covered by Western correspondents and produced books by the likes of John De St. Jorre and Frederick Forsyth, who in contrast to De St. Jorre’s attempts at an even-handed approach was an unabashed polemicist for the Biafran cause.
The writers Arthur Nwankwo and Samuel Ifejika also contributed an important book during the war, and later in the re-united Nigeria, as taboos associated with dredging up the past began to relax, a plethora of books authored by former stalwarts of the Biafran military machinery created an industry of memoirs.
Younger generations of Nigerian writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have used the war as a backdrop to their work. Achebe for his part although far from reticent about the ills which continue to plague Nigeria confined expressions of his war time experiences to poetry writings; twelve of which are interspersed at intervals in this his long awaited memoir of his wartime experiences.
The war of course remains a sensitive issue in Nigeria for a great many reasons; the narrative remains a contested one, but in the minds and the hearts of many Igbos who have for long claimed to be marginalised from the centres of power and influence, it signified more than physical and material defeat: It was a wholesale destruction of the spirit; of the post-Independence-era zeitgeist of optimism and aspiration in a society still operating with some semblance of meritocratic values. Defeat represented the extirpation of all that they considered to be morally right and just.
Achebe’s book works around this central thesis: The Igbos were the willing acquirers of Western culture and that the synthesis with their pre-existing cultural mores of what he considers to be their ‘individualism’, democratic ethos and competitive spirit enabled them to supersede other ethnic groups in the British created colonial order. This led to tensions and their subsequent removal from positions of leadership by forcible means which included a strategy of ethnic cleansing.
For Achebe, the importance of the civil war had profound consequences which went further than the territorial borders of Nigeria. It was he argues “a cataclysmic event which changed the course of Africa.”
In his typically direct, uncluttered style Achebe weaves a compelling literary reportage of roots which were embedded in an ancient society existing within a colonially imposed order and how that cultural dialectic shaped him and the wider destiny of his people within the multi-cultural potpourri of the conglomerate state of Nigeria.
The dramatis personae of the era, their backgrounds their motivations and his critique of their respective roles at this most critical of periods are laid out: The rival colonels Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu-Ojukwu; the leader of the Yorubas, Obafemi Awolowo, as well as key military and political figures on the Nigerian and the Biafran sides.
Achebe also considers the role of the wider world in a conflict which in his view was influenced foremost by the necessities of realpolitik and not by the objective application of moral standards.
But for all the moral weight behind it and sympathy that the plight of the Igbos engendered, one of the key criticisms of the Biafran enterprise was that its leaders did not provide a clear and distinct idea platform to serve as a template for the rest of Nigeria and the African continent other than one which was dominated by a tribal group seeking self-determination.
The Nigerian Civil War has been typically viewed as one permeated by the ultimate reality of naked tribal interests in conflict and not as a battle of ideas. Achebe attempts to redress this by addressing the motivation behind the Ahiarra Declaration of 1969 which he describes as an attempt aimed at expressing the “intellectual foundation” of the new nation of Biafra.
The effect of the declaration on world opinion at the time was limited and in certain quarters, it was derided as an ill-sorted hodge-podge of ideas and intentions. But the task of evolving a fundamental core of ideas and precepts aimed at transforming an ex-colonial, multi-clan group into a self-constructed modern nation deserves the sort of considered attention Achebe’s book is not able to fully explore.
Granted, Achebe’s explorations do take account some of the philosophical and cosmological constructs of the pre-colonial Igbo and the effect these have had on the Igbo psyche in the modern world. But a consideration of the efficacy of Igbo nationalism and the collective identity of the people must acknowledge to a greater degree the historical record.
From the Igbo-Biafran perspective there have been few if any truly introspective works which have considered the viability of a Biafran state from the point of view of the historical reality that there was never a united Igbo nation which operated as a cohesive national entity. A study of the period before colonial conquest reveals not a united kingdom of Biafra but an aggregate of disparate villages and hamlets whose communities became steeped in the conduct of the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The argument that by the dawn of the colonial era, the Igbos had not evolved to a feudal level of social organisation and developed attendant indigenous institutions of governance, akin to say to that of the neighbouring Edo people, may of course be met with a riposte that the social organisation practised by many Igbo communities manifested a form of ‘republicanism’ and ‘individualism.’
But whatever the interpretation given to the underlying nature of the relative sophistication of these descriptions, the reality was that tensions arose during the civil war between Igbo-Biafrans based on their places of origin as indeed they did with the non-Igbo minorities within the borders of the former Nigerian Eastern Region without whose acquiescence the Biafran project was doomed to fail.
The unity of the Igbos based on their collective fortune as a successful people in the post-colonial order as well as their ill-fortune through the trauma of pogroms and abuse, understandably provided the strong, emotionally grounded impetus to create a separate nation. Nationalism, a concept that is inherently grounded in the practice of self-invention, can be a force for self-transformation. But while emotion may serve as an excellent form of petrol, it is, in the final analysis, a poor engine.
That said, Achebe has produced an extremely readable personal history in which he provides a masterful series of vignettes that greatly sensitize the reader to the struggles, the triumphs and the tragedy of the artist and his people during an era of rapid change and great turbulence.
Adeyinka Makinde is the author DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal, the story of a Nigerian world champion boxer of Igbo ethnicity who became embroiled in the Biafran War. His latest book is JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.
The defeat of Italy by Spain in the finals of the recently concluded European Championships tournament in Kiev has, if any doubts existed, confirmed the current Spanish national football team of one of the greatest football squads in history.
They are the first team in the modern history of the sport to win consecutively, three major tournaments; namely the 2008 Euros, the 2010 World Cup and now the 2012 Euros.
No team before, not even the formidable West German machine of the early to middle 1970s, had ever accomplished the stunning feat of securing back-to-back European Championship trophies, or were able to have won a final in such an emphatic manner. The 4-0 trouncing of the Azzurri is the widest ever margin of any final match.
The appellation of greatness is the preserve of but a few national sides. In Europe, the Dutch side of the early 1970s, purveyors of the system known as Totaalvoetball, immediately springs to mind, as indeed do their West German contemporaries.
But until the emergence of this particular Spanish side with its peculiar brand of football, for many the apotheosis of footballing brilliance was attained by the Brazilian World Cup-winning side of 1970.
That side, emblematic of the romantic notions assigned to the Brazilian style which combined attacking flair with a capacity for improvisation, represented the culmination of a golden age of international dominance stretching back to their World Cup triumphs in Sweden in 1958 and in Chile in 1962.
Although acknowledged as a bastion of excellence in the sport, the Spaniards for decades represented an exemplary case study in perennial underachievement at international level.
It was the enigma of Spanish football that after the European Nations Cup win of 1964, which followed the European Champions Cup dominance of the legendary Real Madrid clubside of the 1950s and early 1960s, no further international honours followed.
While La Liga continued to be an esteemed football league producing a successive pool of very capable players and even exceptional ones such as the strikers, Emilio Butragueno and Raul Gonzalez; and even while Real Madrid and Barcelona remained perennial powerhouses within the sphere of European football, success continually eluded a national side which as hosts endured the embarrassment of a futile campaign for the 1982 World Cup.
To whom or what circumstances can this ascendancy to apparent dominance be assigned? To answer this, a story of migration along with the cross-pollination of footballing philosophy and culture requires telling.
The roots of the methodologies employed by the Spanish national side and its style of play lie interestingly in the aforementioned Totaalvoetball, the brain child of Dutch coach Rinus Michels who led Ajax Amsterdam to European Champions Cup victories in 1971, 1972 and 1973.
It is a tactical theory which is guided by the premise of all outfield players being able to assume the role of any other player. It was a style of play which Michels, for a time also the national manager, used to great effect at the World Cup finals in 1974. That team, influenced by the brilliant skills and technique of Johan Cruyff, of course, lost the final to West Germany.
Cruyff transferred to FC Barcelona in the middle 1970s where during his lengthy association with the club, both as a player and later as a manager, he remained a proponent-in-chief of the philosophy of Totaalvoetball, which Michels had brought to the Catalan side.
The Dutch connection with Barcelona, which continued over the years through the tenures of Cruyff, Louis Van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard, ensured the enduring influence of the style; the tenets of which were inculcated by Josep 'Pep' Guardiola whose imposition of the Spanish-derivative labelled Tiki-Taka has brought the club an astounding level of success.
History provides much compelling evidence that the successes of several of the great national teams have been predicated on the acquiring of key manpower of a dominant clubside along with an adaptation of the playing systems guiding such clubs.
This was true of the West German national team which had a 'spine' of Bayern Munich players consisting of goalkeeper Sepp Maier, defender Franz Beckenbauer and striker Gerd Muller, and which played the sweeper system at the heart of which, as at club level, was the sweeper himself Beckenbauer.
It is certainly borne out by the Dutch side which was composed of Ajax players like Johan Neeskens and Cruyff alongside a contingent of Feyernood players who operated under the premise of Totaalvoetball.
The Spanish national side has followed this path. It is composed of many players from FC Barcelona, from which it has also appropriated the methods of Tiki-Taka; the underpinning factor in their recent monumental successes.
This evolved version of Totaalvoetball retains a strict adherence to the rigours of team effort and the physical demands involved in the interchanging roles of players who have to be constantly aware of the use of space.
At a fundamental level it focuses on ball possession; close and sustained possession along with precision passing which ensures their domination on the field of play. The possession and passing provides the basis of both defensive as well as offensive capabilities.
It can be used to stifle and frustrate the opposition, as part of the process of preserving a score advantage, but at the same time it can be used to create openings for attacks.
The style of play can be misleadingly referred to as being 'defensive' or as 'counter-attacking'. Its proselytisers prefer the term 'pro-active'. The constant possession of the ball is somewhat analogous to the effect of a bullfighter on his prey; luring the opposition into a state of despondency or desperation before the sword is administered. It allows them to slow down a game or, quick as a flash, to transform the activity into an attack from any part of the field.
The sense of team effort is palpable. Composed of many gifted individuals, none stands out to a great degree from his teammates. The sum of the individual's skill is sublimated to the overall machinery of collective effort.
Deprived of the services of David Villa, and wary of the suspect marksmanship of Fernando Torres, it meant that the team was able to score goals and win without the services, for long stretches, of a recognised striker.
In keeping with the spirit of totaalvoetball and its disavowal of fixed positions and the interchangeability of players, midfielders and defenders are capable of stepping into the relevant attacking positions to score goals as was demonstrated by the goals which were contrived against the Italians.
This is as distinctive a system as has ever been invented and perfected in the sport of football, but it has a history extending further back in time than Michels' exposition.
For Michels was himself influenced by tactics developed in Hungary which were utilised by that nation's groundbreaking team of the 1950s and an even deeper link posits the elemental origins of Tiki-Taka/Totaalvoetball to the Austrian 'Wunderteam' of the 1930s.
Whether it is in essence an 'unbeatable' system is a contentious matter. The Catenaccio system which emphasised a defensive strategy aimed at stifling attacking play and goal scoring opportunities was successfully applied by a number of Italian sides in the 1960s.
But football is a creative sport capable of tactical innovations and developing counteractive formats of play. It was Totaalvoetball which definitively unlocked the 'door bolt' of Catenaccio in the 1972 European Cup final when Ajax defeated Inter Milan.
It remains to be seen whether a countervailing system can be formulated in order to disrupt the Spanish style of play and be capable of consistently overcoming Tiki-Taka.
It is argued, with much logic, that teams cannot adopt the system overnight because most of the Spanish players have had its nuanced techniques drummed into them from youth level, so on a long-term basis, the possibility exists that other countries may decide to adapt the system into their youth development programmes.
For many, the romance of the Brazilian style of play, epitomised by the grace and the intuitive brilliance of the 1970 side, will remain the definitive rendition of how the game of football should be played and won. But there are of course many difficulties in comparing teams from different time periods.
If that Brazilian side played the 'Beautiful Game' beautifully, the contemporary Spanish team play a pragmatic game replete with its own aesthetically pleasing features which see the merging of a high level of physical fitness with spatial ability and technical adroitness.
History, while acknowledging the part played by aesthetics in assessing greatness, will ultimately judge them on their record. And what a record it is, and what a record it threatens to become if they can retain the World Cup due to be held in Brazil in two years time.
Muhammad Ali, the ring legend and inspirer of a multitude of words; some intensely vitriolic but most fulsome in praise and admiration continues to attract the attention of books, articles, films and documentaries. This has happened with unceasing regularity since the denouement of his career in a Bahamanian ring over twenty years ago. During this time we have had various retellings, assessments and revisions of the man born Cassius Clay sixty years ago in Louisville Kentucky. The facts of the Ali tale, so familiar even to the most casual observer needs little in the manner of detailed recounting to fans of boxing. For a figure like Ali who lived in the glare of media attention, many facts of his life are beyond dispute. But what does remain disputed and will continue to remain a focus of contention is the interpretation given to his true level stature.
Is he a bona fide hero-figure of the civil rights movement who should rank alongside Martin Luther King and Malcolm X? Or a dupe to a charlatan like leader for the cause of black American separatism? Is he the greatest heavyweight ever to have laced on a pair of gloves? Or simply the most hyped about boxer and sportsman in history? The answers to these and other questions would presumably not be difficult to find since Ali, the most photographed, talked about and written about sportsman in the history of mankind is far from being the proverbial ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’
The overriding perception of Ali since he overcame the hurdle of being convicted for refusing to be drafted into the United States Armed Services during the Vietnam War and the other hurdle of regaining the heavyweight championship that was stripped from him is that of hero status. There have always been dissenters but this has always remained so.
‘Ali,’ the film by Michael Mann falls into this category. It is absorbing in its vivid recounting of its subjects most dramatic life and career episode’s. And as befitting of the director is under girded with atmospheric music and colourful and detailed attention to the sites and sounds of the era. From the sweetishly, gut wrenching hollering of Sam Cooke live on chitlin’ duty at the Harlem Club Square to the densely compacted electronic riffs which accompany Salif Keita’s ‘Tommorrow’ the film is stylishly evocative. Many a review has often made mention of this or that "missing" incident or theme. But this merely confirms the futility inherent in any attempt to compact the Ali saga in two or three hours of movie making. The scope and sweep that is the life of Ali is simply not amenable to this.
The Michael Kram book ‘Ghosts in Manilla’ released last year attempts authors point to reassess Ali, forming at its fundamentals the argument that the significance of Ali has being grossly over exaggerated by a fawning coterie of American journalist’s who have somehow brainwashed the succeeding generation of writers and thence the public into a state of mind much too reverential. Ali it would appear to Kram is an overblown personage who may have been but nevertheless has not been subjected to the appropriate degree of critical scrutiny. There is of course truth in several of Krams observations and interpretations. The negative aspects of Ali, dealing with his womanising, his abominable treatment of Joe Frazier, his excursions into cruelty with Floyd Patterson and Ernie Tyrell, his lack of intellectual acumen and a propensity to be duped by certain people and causes; have all being accounted for in previous books and articles. The difference of course is that while Kram makes little cause for diminishing his status of a fighter, his conclusion is that Ali’s reputation as a force for social change is considerably overblown, misplaced in point of fact.
The recent book and documentary, Muhammad Ali continues with the tradition of treating Ali as a figure whose importance transcended the ring. It is not uncritical but does purvey a general feel that Ali is a figure deserving of much of the praise and reverence that has come his way.
And so it should be.
Muhammad Ali is indisputably a great figure of boxing and indeed sports history. But he is also without doubt a substantive figure in the generality of history because even though he did not initiate events he nonetheless reflected the cataclysmic changes occurring during his times in race, sports and politics in bold and innovative ways. There will doubtlessly continue to be revisions and reassessments, of the sort offered by Kram, but the trend will likely continue to follow a more balanced path as offered by the Mann film and the documentary entitled ‘Ali: Through the Eyes of the World.’
All simply prove one point: The eternal fame of the one known as Muhammad Ali.
The question of sport and national identity and achievement is one which should not be underestimated. Certainly at various junctures in history, there have been events and policies linked to the perpetuation and consolidation of national spirit as well as a grandiose means of national expression in order to advertise a nation's ascent to presumptions of grandeur.
Consider for instance the resurgent German nation under the banner of Hitlerian Fascism and its use of the 1936 Olympics as the means not only of granting a certain legitimacy to the Nazi regime among the community of nations but also as the battleground to prove the putative supremacy of the 'Aryan' race. Consider also the reality of the American Joe Louis and the German Max Schemeling; boxers used as hefty metaphors in a heavyweight battle between the forces of democracy on the one hand and totalitarianism on the other. The tracks, fields, rings and arenas of Olympic games would also be used as one avenue in the battle for ideological supremacy waged by the Soviet Union and America during the 'Cold War' years.
Nations have utilised sports as an important fulcrum for building 'national character'. The French very deliberately appropriated and transplanted the game of Rugby into its national fabric after studying and reflecting on the reality of the Anglo-Saxon dominance it found so threatening. The British public school system placed an emphasis on the Grecian ideal of healthy body and healthy mind and trained its elite with a view that the expansion of their Empire and pre-eminence among the imperial powers would be predicated on such ideal. Further back in history, the newly crowned emperors of Rome sought to inaugurate their reigns by staging gladiatorial spectacles that were designed to surpass those staged by their predecessors. Such was his thirst for recognition that the despotic leader of the then Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko spent close to twenty million dollars in staging the famed 'Rumble in the Jungle' between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa. Ali would later justify the expense by noting that while many nations had "got onto the map by going to war"; Mobutu had wisely chosen to stage one of his fights.
So sports matters. Whether as curriculum or as spectacle or as a focus of national pride, recognition or redemption, sports and sporting figures have been viewed and accepted as an important part of any nation's resources as well as a reflection of its place in the world.
If it can be argued that sporting endeavour can provide a barometer of sorts in relation to the health and wealth of a country and can truly be a reflection of national character and ambition, where does this place Nigeria? Should Nigeria, with its vast human resources, not be rivalling Brazil in football, the United States in athletics or China in table tennis?
Boxing, as with other modern sports, was introduced into Nigeria via the institutions of colonialism. The military, church and the education system played their parts. Key to this development was the involvement of specific individuals who acted to develop particular brands of sports out of their love of the sport. Jack Farnsworth, an insurance manager at BEWAC for instance earned the moniker of 'Father of Youth Clubs' for his energetic devotion to the setting up of a system of youth organisations and amateur sporting associations through which many of Nigeria's earliest sports stars progressed. Farnsworth was for many years the chairman of the Nigerian Olympic and Empire Games Committees overseeing the country's efforts in international athletic competition. Farnsworth had connections with Hogan Bassey and Dick Tiger, both of whom he part-sponsored when they embarked to Liverpool and into the managerial hands of Peter Banasko, a handler of Ghanaian descent. Apart from Farnsworth, Douglas Collister, a manager at the United African Company also played a huge role in organising Nigerian amateur and professional boxing culminating in the establishment of the Nigerian Boxing Board of Control.
Upon the granting of independence, the Nigerian nation was expected to be in the forefront of economic development and political stability among the newly decolonised African nations. Things looked promising on the sporting front. The country had produced two British Empire (later commonwealth) boxing champions; the immortals - Hogan Bassey and Dick Tiger. Both fighters became undisputed world champions, Bassey at featherweight and Tiger at middleweight and light heavyweight. They were two individuals among hundreds of Nigerian born fighters who plied their trade in the boxing halls and arenas of the British Isles during the 1940's and 1950's. The nation seemed to be on the threshold of something remarkable. But this sense of promise was not built upon. Few Nigerian boxers have come close to emulating these feats. Why has this been the case? The reasons are multifaceted. One relates to the policy developed in the late 1960's and early 1970's to discourage amateur fighters from entering the professional ranks. Thus, Eddie Ndukwu, a two-time Commonwealth gold medallist at bantamweight and featherweight categories, was unable to make the impact that he arguably could have made had he turned professional at an earlier age. The other reason, which forms the basis of recurrent national underachieving in all sport, is linked to the unsatisfactory state of the infrastructural and financial underpinnings within which boxing talent must struggle to find success.
Boxing at the amateur level requires finance from the youth to Olympic level but the standards achieved from the 1960's to the middle 1970's have regressed. Support has dwindled in terms of the amounts previously offered by larger companies while aid from the government has tended to be inconsistent; based on the whims and fads of incumbent politicians and apparatchiks. Not surprisingly, the professional game has failed to thrive. A promoter who wants commercial sponsorship, despite public interest, has to work within the prevailing economic constraints. As for finance from television, the mentality here is that the promoter must pay the television company for the privilege of covering his bouts and not the other way round.
While Nigerian boxers have made inroads in world boxing, several of their campaigns have ended in disappointment and even tragedy. Dele Jonathan defeated a future world champion, Scotland's Jim Watt, for the Commonwealth lightweight title in the middle 1970's but his career was cut short by an eye injury sustained in a motor accident. 'Kid' Akeem Anifowoshe's promising career as a super flyweight ended in 1991 after a loss to Robert Quiroga. Anifowoshe sustained a blood clot and had to fight for his life which although ostensibly saved after an operation, would come to an end three years later in Nigeria.
Although the Nigerians Herbie Hide and Henry Akinwande have both temporarily held the WBO heavyweight title, neither had what could be described as distinguished reigns. The fighter who did present Nigeria with her best chance of a potential dominating force in the heavyweight ranks, Ike Ibeabuchi, today languishes in an American prison cell serving a five to thirty year prison sentence for sexual battery and false imprisonment. Known as 'The President,' Ibeabuchi is an imposing six-foot-two-inch 240 pound figure of unbridled menace. He stopped Chris Byrd, a current world champion, in five rounds and defeated the formidable David Tua in twelve highly exciting rounds during which a record number of punches were thrown in a heavyweight boxing contest. Likened to Charles 'Sonny' Liston, both for his capacity to intimidate as well as his power of punch, Ibeabuchi was being earmarked to fight Mike Tyson before taking on Lennox Lewis, then the champion.
Those fighters who have carved up relatively successful careers have had to do so away from Nigeria. In many ways the 'brain drain' in relation to professionals is mirrored by the 'brawn drain' in sportsmen. While it could be argued that many fighters regardless of nationality have to go to boxing citadels in Europe and particularly in the United States, this does not obscure the painful reality that as is the case with other sports, Nigeria does not have the financial, administrative and institutional framework to nurture talent within a stable and self sustaining environment.
There must be a reformatting of values. This must involve investment that is not merely governmental in source. There is too much reliance on the state in Nigeria and other African nations. Companies must play a part and must be convinced of the mutuality of interest between a promoter and an advertiser - albeit that things must be worked out within the context of the wider economic malaise. The mentality must also change. The mindset which elevates the European football leagues to a level of importance far exceeding that of the home grown league as well as the practice of exporting talented youngsters to far off lands at the expense of developing critical infrastructures and investing at home negates the possibility of advancement. The stories of Jack Farnsworth and Douglas Collister, although British figures from the colonial era, provide a lesson in relation to the ability of individuals possessed of the requisite zeal and work ethic to make a difference. It brings to mind those Nigerians who have amassed large amounts of wealth, legitimately or illegitimately acquired, who can redeem themselves by investing in the national sports infrastructure.
It would be inaccurate to refer to a renaissance or resurgence of sporting excellence since Nigeria, in its relatively short spell of nationhood never presided over a classic period of sporting dominance. And this notwithstanding the world title reigns of Hogan Bassey and Dick Tiger. What there was, was a sense of promise, of potential. There was progress; stultified but not irreparably stunted so long as there is a dedicated elite of persons who are imaginative, enthusiastic and courageous enough and available to nurture dormant talent and to build the institutions necessary for sustaining such talent for years to come.
Copyright 2005. First published in 'African Renaissance' (March/April Edition)
The following is an adaptation of the substantive aspects of a private response to Mr. Ozodi Osuji's rejoinder to a lecture that I delivered to an audience of the Jewish Museum in London. In it, I attempted to pick up on a number of points and observations of Mr. Osuji; many of which have added alternate perspectives and further depth to my knowledge and understanding of the topic.
I embarked on this topic fully cognizant of the controversies and sensitivities attendant to it. It was in anticipation of your query: "Why do black men always want to be associated with white folks when white folk do not want anything to do with them?", that I took the trouble to highlight genuine reservations that a black person would have about the premise of proposing a consanguineous link between a black African people and Jewry, which as I specifically mentioned are a people who in modern times are identified as white skinned Caucasians. Indeed, I referred to one particular comment posted on the messageboard of a website which I visited in the course of my research. The poster referred to a fellow poster who had postulated such a link as "indulging in a brazen expression of inferiority complex and self devaluation." And in the same vein, towards the end of the talk, I had referred to the issue of the black descendants of Sally Hemmings and their claim to be formally recognised as part of the extended family of Thomas Jefferson.
I can't remember which side of the fence Jefferson stood over the issue of the status of Africans in America. Some delegates to the constitutional convention felt their humanness should not be acknowledged while others thought it should and the compromise was the infamous declaration of blacks as being three-fifths human. Yes, your experience at his estate demonstrates the racism inherent in his treatment of the slaves that he owned. But I thought it prudent to put forward another view that the facts be put squarely in the faces of the white descendants, and that this should not be automatically referred to as kow-towing. Otherwise we get into that emotionally satisfying but not too helpful attitude of blacks describing themselves as "Field Negroes" and "House Negroes": There should be a penumbra of views.
I also recognised the fact that there are Jews, probably a sizeable number of them who would be hostile to the premise of a genetic link between an African people and Jewry. There are no particular records of salient episodes of disharmony between Blacks and Jews in the United Kingdom, but this is not the case in the United States where there was rioting in the Crown Heights district of New York between Blacks and their Orthodox Jewish neighbours sometime back in the 1980s.
Louis Farrakhan's infamous comment denouncing Judaism as being a "gutter religion," the publication of a book by the Nation of Islam detailing their claim of heavy Jewish involvement in the slave trade, and Farrakhan's perceived influence in the Black community led to an examination of Black-Jewish relations.
So while mutual antipathies between U.K. based Black/ African and Jewish communities have not been obviously played out, I prepared the talk mindful of the fact that there are Jews with racist attitudes towards blacks, and that there are blacks who view Jews in an unfavourable light. It would not have escaped your keen eye the post talk comment by a Jewish lady in the audience who stressed that she felt that many of her fellow Ashkenazi Jews are in denial about the fact that they were "originally a people of Colour."
Of course, being a people of colour does not mean that the Jews were originally black in the sense of having being a Nubian people with Nubian features, it is perhaps more likely that they were a dark skinned Caucasian people. There is the school of thought which believes that the Semitic peoples were an admixture of Negroid and Caucasian strains. But if we are accepting of the thesis that the Jews of ancient times were 'non-white', then the premise of whether the Igbos are a lost tribe of Israel takes on a whole different meaning. Put another way, there would be less unease among black skeptics if the link postulated was between Igbos and say, the Ancient Egyptians who are widely understood by blacks to have been of black African origin, even though the image of the modern Egyptian is that of a darker hued Caucasian.
Your elaboration on possible vistas of Jewish migration into the hinterland of Alaigbo is most welcome. I appreciate your reference to the possibility of certain Hebrew sounding words as having possibly come from avenues other than Trans-Saharan migration such as from Jews who perhaps were of Portuguese origin. The time scale of about 300 years for certain words to become imbibed into the lexicon of the language of a community is compelling. On the other hand, one must question how a miniscule number of Jews among a small population of Portuguese could have spread certain words and customs which are seemingly congruent to that of the Jews. Surely, there would have been a similar or proportional acquisition of non-Jewish Portuguese customs and elements of the language in Alaigbo.
The interpretation of evidence, even when there is universal agreement of evidence is a crucial factor and I am in essence sympathetic to your wariness about the interpretation that could be given to a future consensus view which formally identifies the Igbo with Jewry, and specifically one which would permit the 'enemies' of the Igbo to maintain that the Igbo would therefore constitute an 'alien' group in West Africa.
You are right about persons seizing upon a theory that the Igbos are Jews as a weapon to incite say the masses of the Moslem North of Nigeria—the 'Talakawa'— to take up arms and unleash pogroms against the Igbo. This is why I categorically stated in my lecture that one: The Igbo language is a West African language belonging to the KWA linguistic group, and two: The Igbo people are a West African people who are of 'Bantu' stock. They have flat noses, thick lips and woolly hair. Of course, Igbos have a high rate of albinoism and in many instances appear to be lighter hued than their Bini or Yoruba neighbours. This tendency to light skin has also been a source of supposed 'pride' on the part of the Igbos. Other than instances of albinoism, is this a distant reminder of intermarriage with Portuguese or Semitic elements or even related to the texture of the earth on which they reside? I also did speak of the dangers which political or rabbinical "recognition" of Igbos as Jews would pose in the political context of Nigeria.
So far as the reference you made to my mention of the Khazar theory as giving the Arabs the justification to overthrow a putatively 'alien' and non-Semitic state of Israel (and by analogy, a justification for the Igbos to be swept into the Atlantic for being a non-authentic African people), I would offer that the Arabs do not use the thesis of the Jews being mainly of non-Abrahamic lineage as THE justification of sweeping the state of Israel into the sea. Remember that much of their antipathy stems from the Mohammedan policy of hating Jews since the time when they refused to offer the prophet aid in his time of need. This level of hatred, enshrined within and encouraged by the Koran is enough reason to oppose the state of Israel and even if every single Jew in Israel could account for the veracity of the Semitic origins of their genes, it would make no difference.
I made references during the course of my lecture to similarities between certain Hebrew words and customs and that of the Igbo. I did not refer to one Professor Alaezi's contention that the name of 'Eri', a son of Gad, appears in as a suffix to certain words in its original form or as a corruption in, for example, Aguleri, Umuleri, Nri and Nkwerre. Neither did I refer to the purported discovery by archaeologists of a stone in the town of Aguleri which had the name 'Gad' etched in the Hebrew language. Much of this need not be accepted at face value and should be forensically examined and corroborated by reference to empirical standards. There perhaps is a whiff of desperation in the references relied upon by some Igbos who subscribe to the premise of their being a lost tribe of Israel. For instance, the writings of early British travellers whose referrals to 'Heeboes' is interpreted by that as evidence that the word 'Igbo' is a corruption of 'Hebrew.'
There is something inherently disturbing and dangerous when a people believe that their fortunes and misfortunes are pre-ordained by biblical injunctions and prophesies. It is apparent that some Igbos believe that the Old Testament words, attributed to a fearsome God that he would, "scatter" the children of Israel among the nations and that their neighbours and other tribes would "hate" them relates to their experiences of being hated and of being targeted for pogroms in Nigeria.
As a people who pride themselves as been adaptive to modernity, it is crucial that they resort, as has been the standard of enlightened peoples, to the application of reason—as opposed to emotion or metaphysical traditions—when assessing the trends of their existence. If, for instance, as you say that there is a commonly held perception among their neighbours that the Igbos are an 'arrogant' people, then this must be cause for some form of internal analysis of the patterns and traits of the group culture. Nations and peoples have changed over the course of time and such change can be effected by the calibre of the intellectual leadership that they possess.
The quotations by Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chinua Achebe to which I referred as indicative of the Igboman's belief in his special-ness was in essence a form of a rebuke. As to your allusion to have been on a life-long mission to "save the Igbos from themselves", I would tend to interpret this as an implied critique of a lack of leadership from the elites within the Igbo society. Goethe was on a mission to save the German people from themselves. He knew that they were an aggressive sort of people prone to chauvinist thinking and expansionist ideologies. And he spoke against such tendencies to the extent that he did not support his people in their quest to be freed of Napoleonic control when the French were on the retreat from their ill-advised attempt to subjugate the Russians.
The Germans—remember there was no corporate entity at this time called Germany—vilified him for thinking that way. Goethe foresaw the militarism inherent in the Germans which was later bourne out by the rise of Prussia and then of Hitlerism, which would lead their people to disaster in the 20th century. His advice to them was to "invest" their prodigious talents into what he termed "The culture": in the arts, the sciences, and in trading which would serve as a means of pacifying those aggressive impulses which he was convinced inhabited the German psyche.
This is what leadership entails—not only in the obvious sphere of the political classes, but from the intellectual elite of a people—people who while they are the embodiment of the best of their people are nevertheless understanding of the foibles and weaknesses of their people and are not afraid to say so. The Igbos, by implication, do not appear to have such persons. It is arguably an indicator of an underdeveloped and unenlightened pattern of leadership where a leader indulges in superfluous aggrandizement of his ethnic group at the expense of being a more imaginative contributor to the development of an understanding of the psyche of his people. The role of the novelist, poet and. intellectual par excellence is to do just that. This is the task for all African peoples, and not only the Igbo. But this will surely change with the passage of time as the political and intellectual culture becomes more sophisticated.
I mentioned that one cultural similarity between the Jews and the Igbos was their sense of being special and that this has had widespread ramifications in the fate of each people. One critique of Jews—and one which has not been limited to what one might refer to as the "racially conscious" extreme right of the political penumbra—has been to accuse Jewry of a form of racial supremacy and exclusiveness. The extreme right claims that the Jews are hypocritical in their stances as purveyors of liberal values and of being in their view the main proponents of equality of races and citizens in Western societies, when they practice this sort of racial exclusiveness which finds a particular ugly corollary in the neo-apartheid policies of the state of Israel. They also claim that the Jew was at the forefront of the American Civil Rights movement, or at least providing sustenance and encouragement for the movement as part of their grand scheme or unconscious policy of undermining the culture of the dominant populations were they live. To the racist right, civil rights means integration and race mixing which the Jew "forces down the throat" of the white majority while he himself does not condone such race mixing.
As you mention, there were those historical injunctions not to marry non-Jews and today there are these stipulations by conservative rabbinical authorities on who should be considered a Jew. You will note, as I explained in my lecture, that most Jews of western and eastern European origin (Ashkenazim) would fail the test. You will also note the stringent tests for obtaining Israeli nationality contained in The Law of Return which was covered during the question session that followed my presentation. A member of the audience referred to the case of an Igboman whose legal argument that he be categorised as a returnee Jew by virtue of his Igbo heritage, was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Israel.
There are those who will argue that the Talmud makes derogatory references to non-Jews, i.e. Gentiles as been little more than "animals," while of course there is the insistence that the book does not denigrate Gentiles by refusing them the possibility of salvation and condemning them to eternal damnation. Those who are termed 'Ethical Monotheists' have souls which are apparently salvageable. There are further categorisations depending on which scholar you read, but the fact that even those who receive a favourable classification can never be accepted into the Jewish community or society merely confirms for some the 'apartness' of Jews.
A straightforward comparison with Igbos in this vein is not possible. There is no specific canon of the traditional Igbo religious system, at least of which I am aware, with commensurate stipulations although it is worth noting the practice of the Osu system; a system which mandates that Igbos cannot marry certain people who are categorised by reasons of descent as being of lower caste. One of the core precepts pertaining to the age of enlightenment and reason is that concerning the equality of human beings. And given that a fundamental assumption of today's world is that all humans are entitled to the gamut of human rights, it amounts to a moral stain on the cultural mores of the Igbo if they continue to perpetuate a system which condones a practice which categories groups within them as being virtually sub-human.
One of the themes which I mentioned in my lecture was the perception which the neighbours and host communities had of the Igbos and the Jews and it is fair to say that this perception has often been unfavourable. Even today, and this is not confined to the obviously racist far right, there are those who believe that Jews are selfish and only interested in promoting their own ends. I stress that I am not saying I agree with such views but that they are a reality of the perception of many in the Western world for centuries. The Igbos too, have been viewed as selfish and arrogant. Both peoples have suffered immensely from violent uprisings during which they were targeted. As with all sorts of phenomena it is a matter of cause and effect.
But while it is easier to achieve unanimity in assessing the effect of the destruction and humiliation of human beings, it is harder to achieve consensus on what the causes were. Should we merely stop at a finding that Jews and Igbos have been attacked solely because of the 'jealousies of their neighbours and their neighbours needs to find a 'scapegoat' in times of specific societal crisis? And if it is postulated that other causes abound which relate to the conduct of and the characteristics of Igbos and Jews, does that bear the connotation of blaming the victim, and further, of being anti-Semitic or anti-Igbo? I believe not. Not if we are embarking on a genuinely objective enquiry into the nature of man.
I, for instance, would welcome 'genuinely objective' and purposeful enquiries by black and African intellectuals into whether there is a common thread existing within the black African psyche which has contributed to the poverty and mistreatment of his kind over the ages. An enquiry which does not overwhelmingly keep blaming others for his misfortune, but instead asks why black Africans sold their kind as slaves, first to Arabs and then to Europeans, and whether the destructive and self defeating tendencies of that sort have contributed to the corrupt misrule of African nations and the maladies suffered by African descended communities in the Americas are related to some transmitted cultural facet.
Such enquiries must be purposeful and be active in presenting points of action which over the course of time will eradicate what you, Mr. Osuji, refer to as "negative" tendencies. It will involve the conception of new philosophies and shared precepts aimed at re-socializing African peoples with new values to replace old ones while maintaining and promoting those positive cultural traits.
You deduced from my lecture an overt as well as a subtle insinuation that the "sense of specialness and tendency to look down on other people" has played a part in generating anti-Jewish and anti-Igbo sentiments. The Igbo found themselves friendless inside Nigeria during the turmoil of 1966. They were the victims of large scale injustices. But is it not ironic when you consider that the murderous acts within the ranks of the military in 1966 could not have taken place without the participation of Christian soldiers of middle belt origin who formed the bulk of the foot soldiers in the Nigerian Army? Is there no truth in allegations that some Easterners in the North including, but not limited to market traders were openly and overbearingly triumphal in their attitudes about the rise of Ironsi? Is there no truth to comments made by certain Yorubas of some Igbos indiscreetly asserting at the time of Ironsi's administration that they would obtain greater 'living space' in the West and other parts of Nigeria?
You also mentioned my note on the frequent accusation of Jews and Igbos being involved in the unholy pursuit of money. The Igbo are often made the face of Nigerian '419'; this, the art of swindling foreigners, usually North Americans and Western Europeans of large amounts of money. Igbo names such as Ajudua and Nwude are referred to as being the most successful of these 'scammers'. The backdrop to this of course is that Nigeria presently is a very corrupt state and society, and if a thesis of a preponderance of Igbos in this form of financial crime is accepted, the rationale could be based on the matter of the marginalisation of Igbos from the corridors of political power such that many of them have not been in a position to steal from the Nigerian treasury as have the leaders of other ethnic groups from the North, Middle Belt and the West. So for many, the route to acquiring equivalent massive forms of money is through executing these scams.
As for the Jews, there are those who assert that the face of the Russian oligarch, who epitomizes the wanton rape of the Russian treasury and acquisition of state assets by crooked means, is represented by that of a Jew. Berezovsky. Gusinsky. Freidman. Khodorkovsky. These oligarchs were supposedly aided by Jewish financial figures in the West in the transfer of assets out of Russia in that chaotic period following the fall of communism. So too is the face of what is referred to as the 'Russian Mafia.' The Jewish gangster Simone Mogilevich is often cited as the quintessential Russian 'Don', although the fact is that such 'mafia' is composed of a range of ethnic groups.
While it is the case that the first portion of my lecture dwelled on certain similarities in terms of cultural traits and experiences in history, at no point did I mention that this was indicative of a lineage between Igbos and Jews. In fact, I was at pains to refer to the other possible comparisons such as the Armenians and the Chinese who live outside of their homeland in other Far East Asian countries. They, like the Japanese, are noted for their industry. But let us face it, almost every group which demonstrates traits of industry and resourcefulness are likened to Jews. Love them or loathe them: they are the standard. And what standards they have set. When one considers their relatively miniscule population and matches that against their achievements and their influence it is obvious that all comparisons with other peoples are in essence superficial—a description which I used in my lecture.
The Jews have played an important role in the constructing of Western civilization. They can boast of numerous philosophers such as Maimonides and Spinoza; of scientists like Einstein and Oppenheimer, who was the lead scientist in the Manhattan Project which oversaw the development of the atom bomb; of bankers like the Rothschilds and so on. They practically invented Capitalism—and because Karl Marx was of Jewish origin, some would say they also invented the idea of Communism.
There are recent studies propounding the theory that Ashkenazi Jews are the most intelligent form of the human species and have attained such levels of intelligence by virtue of their having to improvise and contrive the strategies which were required to cope with the vicissitudes of societal exclusion, pogroms and expulsions from various lands. However, there are no available studies which would permit a similar view in regard to the Intelligence quotient of Igbos.
The Igbos are a black African people, labouring under the accusation, like other Africans and peoples of black African descent, that they have not been significant contributors to the development of civilizations. They, like other African groups, had not developed a comprehensive written system by the time of the arrival of the Europeans and as with other Africans were subjugated and pacified by European powers.
There are of course two ways of looking at the level of social and political development among the Igbo when the Europeans came across them. One view tends towards that of them having primitive, stateless underdeveloped polities, while the other is to view them as ruling themselves in autonomous enclaves. Where the Igbo sees the evidence of a meritocratic, "republican" heritage, his critics see a chaotic, malformed political heritage based on the fact that they existed as a "stateless" people.
It is perhaps as you argue that because of the achievements of the Jews, that some Igbos will want to push all they can to become associated with Jewry; analogous to the human psychological condition whereby persons wish to be associated with those who are successful. When I devised my lecture on Igbos and Jews, I was wary of people misconstruing it as an attempt of black people trying to link themselves with a people perceived as white for the purposes of obtaining a shaky, self esteem by association. I am mindful of the fact that Africans and African descended persons should preferably display the qualities associated with being inspirational and not merely being aspirational.
You do not copy or imitate—you adapt knowledge, precepts and modes of behaviour to suit your own cultural needs.
I devised the lecture in a manner by which I presented evidence so that a debate—with reference to cogent evidence—may ensue and the theory can be proved or disproved. It was conceived on basis that while the Igbos have discernible traits and a history which can be adjudged as being similar to that of the Jews, there is in existence certain linguistic and cultural points of reference which demanded further investigation. This is simply a result of what I consider to be a natural and healthy sense of intellectual curiosity.
One which finds, say, the proposition that the Japanese language is somewhat related to the Magyar and Finnish languages fascinating in the extreme and worth exploring. I
would find it abhorrent for anyone to dismiss a link between Jews and Igbos for reasons other than those based on empirical scrutiny. It would be abhorrent for a Jew to dismiss it out of hand on the basis that he considers himself "white" and "superior" to an African people just as I would abhor the situation where an Igbo is accepting of such a link merely to be associated with what he perceives to be a successful white ethnic group.
Are the Igbos specifically a "lost" tribe of Israel? A reading of the text of my lecture clearly shows that I describe them as a black African people who speak a black African language. If Jewish elements migrated to what is now Igboland, they would have been a miniscule amount and would have merged with an indigenous people already existing there. That much was alluded to in my talk.
I am fairly agnostic about the whole thing, but enjoy the process of forensic enquiry. What motivates others in terms of their interest in the proof or disproof of the subject at hand is another issue. One vista of enquiry which has so far not been pursued is the undertaking of large scale blood testing in the manner in which the Lemba people of Southern Africa subjected themselves. If the Igbo are related to Jewry, they will bear the traces of Semitic chromosomes which with the passage of time and intermarriage would doubtlessly have mutated, but would be present.
The results might just settle this matter.
Transcript of a seminar delivered by Adeyinka Makinde as a special Black History event for the Jewish Museum on Monday, October 22nd 2007 at Cecil Sharp House, Camden Town in North London
Good evening everybody. What I hope to do first is to give us a general introduction into the Igbo people who are from the south eastern part of Nigeria. The Igbos came to world attention in the middle part of the 20th Century; in the 1960s to be precise, when they attempted to secede from the federation of Nigeria, and in doing that, prompted a large scale interest in them. Contemporarily, at the time, you already had these expressions of the Igbo being 'The Jews of Africa' and in a sense, those analogies tended to be superficial. They were based on their (commercial) acumen, the way in which they had risen during the era of colonialism.
And I say superficial in the sense that by same token, you might as well have compared the Igbos to the Armenians. You might have compared them to the Chinese Diaspora. But (after) we go through that, we'll come onto to the archaeological and historical evidence that says there is an actual link. And we'll look at them in terms of history, culture and linguistics.
So in other words, our enquiry relates to the Igbos being more than merely LIKE the Jews and that they may in fact be OF the Jews. I will do it in two halves. The first thing to do in the introduction is we'll look at the history of the Igbo in the 20th Century and at various junctures compare their experiences with the experiences of Jewry. At the time they [Igbos] fought the Biafran Civil War, they'd just concluded the Six Day War in the Middle East, and there was a connection even then between Biafra and the state of Israel. Then after that, we'll look at the history of how there is that link which goes beyond observations.
How did I get to do this presentation? I should tell you that I'm Nigerian but I'm not Igbo. And I'm not Jewish. But, I grew up in Nigeria—we're going to look at an excerpt of the tragic events of Nigeria due to the inter-ethnic rivalry—but even as a child, you'd have these arguments. I come from the Yoruba side of Nigeria and often times as young men or adolescents, we'd have these arguments and I would probably say something like "You know that the Yoruba people came from Egypt; from the Nile Valley", and there's all that evidence (such as) the hieroglyphic-like designs, the bronzes of ancient Ife and the political systems of the Yorubas.
Then the Igbo person would say, "Do you know that we are of Jewish lineage?" We wouldn't necessarily be listening to each other. And then somebody would interject—because the face of Jewry as many would admit is of a white Caucasian—and so people would say, "Why are you trying to link yourselves to what essentially are 'foreign' people?" And then the other drift would be: "Hang on, that part of the world was once black or at least brown." I don't want to go into deep seated arguments of that nature because there's a lot to go through, but that is the starting point.
I posted (notice of this event) on the Internet and one particular gentleman, his name is Rocky Alkazoff, he's Armenian-American, he pleaded with me—he was a young man in the 1960s, and he was very moved by the plight of the Igbos. He feels a kinship with them. He actually feels that they have more in common with the Armenians than the Jews. In other words, that they were a Christianised people who were put to the sword by Islamic political entities and the world stood by and did nothing. And he profoundly feels that way. I sent him a copy of my book on the late world (boxing) champion, Dick Tiger, and he (told me): "Look, I read that book three times." It really meant something to him. Although he followed the news in the 1960s, he was astounded by what he considered to be the parallels between the way in which the Igbos were persecuted in Nigeria in the 1960s and what happened to the Armenian nation in the early part of the 20th Century.
This aspect of African Judaic claims: the Igbos are not the only ones in Africa to make such claims. There are a number of ethnic groups in Africa, such as the Sefwi of Ghana. Some of you might be familiar with the Abuyudaya who are part of the Buganda (people of Uganda). Now the Abuyudaya don't profess to have any sort of blood links with the ancient Israelites. They became Jews simply because one of their elders converted and there was a mass conversion. And I think that we are all familiar with the Falasha people of Ethiopia, and they were recognised by the rabbinical authorities as being Jewish in 1975, and they came to prominence again in 1984 with 'Operation Moses' to airlift them to Israel.
And there's also the case of the Lemba of Malawi. There was a trade route from the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East with the eastern part of Africa. So they've done these genetic and chromosomal tests which demonstrate that they have a genetic link to the Semitic peoples of the Middle East. So there is more or less some acceptance that there might be a connection there. And it is that sort of connection with the Igbos that I'd like to explore this evening.
Well, who are the Igbos? I thought that it would be good to introduce you to who the Igbos are. This is a map of Nigeria. Nigeria's a very large country in West Africa. It was colonised by the British and like most modern African nations, it was created by imperial draughtsmen who divided up the spoils and regardless of ethnic tongue or shared history, they just divided up the African continent. The Igbos are one of the three major tribes of Nigeria. You have the Hausa-Fulani in the northern part; largely Islamic and feudalistic.
Then in the west, you have the Yorubas and in the east, the Igbos. Now, these are the three major ethnic groups, but they are by no means the only ethnic groups because you have at least 250 different ethnic groups in Nigeria which as you know is a recipe for 'tough governance.' Who are the Igbos? They are black African people. And when we talk about Africa, as being synonymous with black; certainly in regard to 'sub-Saharan' Africa. But Africa is composed of diverse elements.
Just like when we speak about Asia; the Chinese, the Indians, the Turkic peoples all inhabit Asia. So the same way in Africa, you have black people as well as Caucasian people; particularly in the northern part, and in regard to Caucasian people, I am not necessarily referring to Arabs, but to the Berbers for instance. But essentially a black African people; this is what the Igbos are.
They had an oral tradition which meant that there wasn't a developed system of writing although among the secret societies they had, and this is also true of the Yoruba aristocracy, the Igbos had what was called the N'sibidi Script, which was something only those involved with the priesthood could understand. Linguistically, they are part of what is called the 'Kwa' language group. This is important, because later on, I am going to go through a list of words in the Igbo language, and compare it with what you find in Hebrew and assess the similarities.
So we'll look at that and see whether it is just by happenstance, by chance or whether there is something more substantive to it, but essentially it is of the Kwa language, that means that it is of the same language group as other West African nations such as the Ashanti of Ghana, as well as the Yoruba and the Bini. They also consist of a disparate group of communities united by language and customs. The thing to mention here is that when we later start talking about how the Igbos may be composed of some elements of Jewish migration, a lot of the time when you talk about people migrating in history, they often come, whether it is males or females, and then intermarry with a so-called indigenous group. Nothing is ever 'pure.'
So even among the Igbo people, the word 'Igbo' to some people from the Northern part of Igboland, they consider it a derogatory term. I'm referring to people from a place known as Onitsha and Asaba. These people are said to have migrated and are said to have had connections with the nearby kingdom of Benin. And so they met the indigenous Igbo people and although they speak the same tongue and same language, there's a little bit of a distinction between them culturally.
The same thing with the Yoruba people. Whether they say they came from the east, they also met an indigenous people who they also called 'Igbo.' The other thing about the Igbos is that they tended to have ruled themselves autonomously in their village enclaves, so they didn't have traditions of kingship. It was more of a meritocratic set up. Although, as I said, the northern Igbo are slightly different. They had chiefs and they also did have kings.
So very multifarious in their origins. One final thing to mention is that when the British conquered Nigeria, they tended to disregard the Igbos when it came to matching the different ethnic groups, because they were impressed by materialistic things. In the Benin Empire, they had roads, underground water systems. And these are things that were documented by the Portuguese when they met the Binis. Before the era of colonialism and imperialism, they actually exchanged ambassadors and dealt with each other as equals.
And they were also impressed by the Yorubas and their complex system of governments and religious rites. With the Igbos, they couldn't make much out of them. But that changed in the 1930s when they discovered a site which they called Igbo Ukwu. And Igbo Ukwu, which I'll make another reference to when I start exploring the link between Jewry and the Igbos, what they found were these cemeteries in which they found these ornately designed bronze ornaments, which appeared to be associated with the burial of a ruling priesthood. So they were probably operating a sort of theocracy.
They are an African people and they had traditional religions. They believed in a supreme god whose name is Chukwu, but there were also subsidiary gods: god of the forest, god of yam—yam is the staple diet, and interestingly, they also believed in the concept of destiny; that each one has a personal god they called a chi, which basically determines your good fortune or lack of fortune in your life. So we'll bear all of these in mind when we come on to the links with the Hebrews.
When we talk about Jews, we are not necessarily talking about one people—even though that is the tendency, because we all know that there are Sephardic Jews, there are Ashkenazi Jews. Are we talking about Zionists or non-Zionists. In another instance, we could be talking about secular Jews and talking about Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox Jews. So even within Jewry itself, there is that disparateness in a sense. But there is that unity of cultural norms and a shared sense of history.
It's an important point to mention—harking back to these adolescent arguments I had that some people are uncomfortable among Igbos or black people who feel, "Well, so what?" Whether or not there is that link. I got something off the Internet. There was this argument by this Igbo person, and his words were, "Why indulge in such brazen expressions of inferiority complex and self devaluation?" It's as if to say: "Do you want to force yourself on to them?" So it brings up these issues of identity and who determines who is who. And what happens if someone feels they are been ostracized or have not been accepted?
I mentioned the Falashas as an example of Jews and in more recent times the Menashe of India have been accepted. And that took a long time. Some people feel that it is only a matter of time before the Igbos are accepted in this way, but when I come to our conclusion, we'll see that they are probably some misgivings about that, for instance given the political context in which Nigeria is. But this whole idea of lost tribes and lineages, I'm sure we're all familiar with through our history.
You've probably heard of the Israelite societies here in Britain who believe that the Anglo-Saxon 'race' was descended from these lost tribes of Jews. Just to remind people—I don't need to remind most of you, but some of us; you had 12 tribes of Israel plus two others. The twelve tribes were the sons of Jacob, and two of Joseph's sons were also given the status. And what happened was that when the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern state of Israel, they had this dispersal and they were never together again.
So ten tribes roamed the earth and to this day, nobody probably knows where they are. But there are always people in the four corners of the earth staking their claim. One of them was the Anglo-Saxon race. It's not just a question of the lost tribes of Israel but also people who've 'lost' that lineage. In other words, they were Jews but, what happened was that through forced conversions, and other situations, they've 'lost' that connection to Judaism. I think in recent years, there was this issue in Latin America of those—they must have been Sephardic Jews—who went over to the New World and due to the Inquisition didn't retain their Jewish faith.
Some of them did it in secret (retained their faith) over long periods of time, it must be said and that is why some can trace it hundreds of years later. A number of them are re-discovering their lost lineage but they've been layered with Catholicism. Is that the same thing with the Igbos? A Jewish people now identified as being Christian.
So those are the issues raised. Before I show you a clip, I just want to say how we going to look at the Igbos. I put it in six different headings. First thing I'll look at is a belief in being a special people and having a special mission. Secondly, the Igbos had this drive in academic, professional and commercial endeavours. What was the perception, thirdly, of the host communities or their neighbours. Fourthly, the suffering of pogroms, fifthly, genocide, and finally the issue of nationalism and war. And through that, I'll be linking them with Israel in modern times as well as with the Jews in history. So I just want to first of all show you an eight-minute clip of a BBC documentary Timewatch called 'Biafra: Fighting a War without Guns." What this does is it gives you an idea of Nigeria and how it was created and we'll stop it when we get to the creation of the state of Biafra.
Audience watches an 8-minute video clip.
The first point that I mentioned before we showed that clip was this belief in being a special people and having a special mission; I think that when that is the case, it is almost like a double-edged sword in the sense that you are praised for being a hardworking people. You are very adept at creating things etcetera, but then there's the other side of people being envious, or people feeling that you are being too prideful—and the Igbos suffered that. I'll give you a number of quotes.
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was Nigeria's first president—an Igbo—but he was mostly associated with Nigerian nationalism and I remember quoting this to a man who is now fairly elderly. He was the in-law of 'Zik', and he was surprised that he had ever made a statement like this. What Zik said in 1949 was that "it would appear that the God of Africa has specifically created the Igbo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of the ages."
And then Chinua Achebe, I don't know if you've heard of him. Any one heard of Chinua Achebe? The writer of Things Fall Apart, probably the most famous African novel. He said the following: "Unlike the Hausa-Fulani, the Igboman was unhindered by a weary—that is a Moslem—religion. And unlike the Yoruba, he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing neither god nor man was custom made to grasp the opportunities of the white man's dispensation."
So that was Achebe's explanation for why the Igbos rose. As I said, remember the attitude of the British. And their attitude wasn't that good whether it was to their Celtic neighbours or to the French or Continental Europeans or the black or brown peoples who they conquered; in the hierarchy of things, the Igbo were right at the bottom there. But this was Achebe's explanation of why they rose up in the era of colonialism.
By no means an intellectual but a very decent man—I wrote a book about him, Dick Tiger, the world boxing champion in the 1960s. During the height of the Nigerian Civil War, he used his prestige in the United States to support the Igbo in the secessionist cause of Biafra. And he told an American journalist, "Our opponents call the Igbos the Jews of Africa. It is meant as an insult. I interpret it as a high compliment."
So they had that belief in them. And I'll just run through a few facts and figures to show that. In the early 1920s, Nigeria—just a new nation, newly colonised. It had 15 barristers and 12 physicians. Now 20 of these were from the Yoruba ethnic group, and the rest were so-called Native Foreigners. Absolutely not a single Igbo doctor or lawyer. By the middle (1950s), Nigeria had 300 doctors and lawyers. 76 were ethnic Yorubas but the Igbos now numbered 49. So they were gaining pretty rapidly.
In education, the Igbos, prior to the Second World War, only had one studying in the United States: Nnamdi Azikiwe, who I mentioned earlier on was the first president of Nigeria. After the Second World War, half the students in the United States were of Igbo origin. One thing that I mentioned in my book was that the Igbos had what was referred to as the 'Onitsha Chapbook Culture.' In other words, the thing that was responsible for their drive; you could see it in this literature that developed. It developed from the market city of Onitsha in the north of Igboland but spread all over to the urban proletariat.
And what that culture was, was a mixture of traditional values, Christian and entrepreneurial precepts. If you struggled hard, remained sober: You could reach for the stars. And so many of them were imbued with this zeal which probably lasted until the shattering events of the Nigerian Civil War. You had these chapbooks (with titles) like 'Determination is the Key to Success', or 'How to become Rich'. People fed of this sort of thing. You'd find it in market places, in bus stations. They were very into self development and the development of the community.
The third point that I mentioned was the perception of the host communities and the neighbours. Well, I don't want to go into the epithets that have been used against Jews, but with the Igbos, there's a name in Nigeria that originated in the North: 'Nyamiri.' And that referred to something akin to being a money lover.' They would do anything for money; sell your mother for money. That was the way in which the Igbos were viewed: as a people with an unbridled lust and love for money.
So there was all this suspicion, envy, antagonism. The other thing we could compare with the situation of Jews, was a certain ghettoization. As the clip mentioned, the Igbos spread across Nigeria. They were in the Civil Service—the higher echelons; the lower echelons. The northern part of Nigeria, I should remind you: Islamically orientated, so they didn't adapt to western education and the professions in the way that southern people like the Yorubas and the Igbos did. When people lived in the North, they lived in what were termed 'Strangers Quarters'; Sabon Garis. Everybody did. But again, when the pogroms started, they knew where to head to.
And on that issue of pogroms, in Nigeria, you could say that there were three pogroms against the Igbo. One in 1945 in the northern city of Jos; or what you'd call the 'middle belt' in Nigeria. In 1954, in the northern city of Kano and in 1966 there was a prolonged series of pogroms. What happened as that clip hinted at was that (in) Nigeria, the six year-old civilian regime was stalemating into absolute corruption and (it was) a mess. There was a coup d'état. That coup was led by middle ranking officers, most of whom were Igbos.
The actual coup did not succeed, but the person who took over, was the army commander who was Igbo. And a lot of the other ethnic groups, particularly the Hausa—because a number of their leaders were killed during that coup—felt that this was the Igbos trying to establish a form of hegemony over the rest of Nigeria. It's part of a lengthy story—can't go into details but that is it. Later on there was a counter coup and the slaughter of many of the Igbo (within the) officer corps. There were pogroms against Igbo civilians.
Now I'm not Igbo. I'm not a propagandist trying to stir up hatred (against) Moslem northern Nigerians or Islam in general, but you saw a few of the propaganda clips (in the T.V. excerpt). We don't have pictures of how Jews were dealt with at the time of the pogroms in Tsarist Russia, but you can imagine how they were punished. These are pictures released by the Biafran secessionists on what was happening. People had their eyes gouged, people were turned into refugees in their own country, this picture which is folded, contains the image of a beheaded corpse, so if you don't want to look at it, don't open it. But that was the whole effect of Nigeria's problems.
So you had a political revolution, and once they started the communal violence, the Igbos fled to their own Eastern Region. And in doing that, many of the people who witnessed this made an analogy with the situation of the Jews, because the Eastern Region now began to look rather overpopulated with over a million people coming from all over Nigeria (who) had to be absorbed in one region. This is a statement from Colin Legum of The Observer, October 16th 1966. He wrote for his readers that "after a fortnight, the scene in the Eastern Region continues to be reminiscent of the ingathering of the exiles into Israel after the end of the Second World War. The parallel is not fanciful."
And it wasn't fanciful because what was going to happen was secession and from their perspective, a war of independence, which of course the Jewish people had before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. From the pogroms, the issue of genocide raised its head. For Jews, the image of genocide is the camps of Belsen, Auschwitz: emaciated figures liberated after the Second World War. For the Igbos: starving children in Biafra. I have two quotes for you that (are) linked to this issue (of genocide). While I read this out, I have pictures of Jews rescued from one of the concentration camps and the rest are (of) Igbos.
Once Nigeria blockaded them during the civil war, that was their means of warfare. They didn't want to do much hand-to-hand fighting; they just blockaded Biafra by land, by sea, by air and basically wanted to starve them into submission. Well, I'd mentioned the boxer Dick Tiger earlier on who did a large amount of propaganda work on behalf of the Biafran cause, and he was interviewed by a Western journalist during the war. And here's a quote from him. He said, "If we don't fight back. If we don't protect our rights, it will be what's the word? Genocide. Like what they did to the Jews. They are out to kill us."
And Frederick Forsyth in his book, The Biafra Story—Frederick Forsyth of The Day of the Jackal fame. Before that he was a journalist who had covered the assassination attempt on General DeGaulle and various other European news stories, then he became a war correspondent, then resigned that to propagate the Biafran cause—this is what he wrote in his book The Biafra Story in 1969. He said, "One can no more explain the present day attitude of Biafrans to Nigerians, without reference to the anti-Igbo pogroms than one can account for contemporary Jewish attitudes towards the Germans without reference to the Jews experience in the Nazis hands between 1933 and 1945."
So yet another analogy being made there. So far we haven't yet spoken about Judaism and the links with Igbos, but this is what I said I wanted to do just to show why there was this analogy been made. And the final thing that I wanted to look at was this issue of nationalism and war, because there's a similarity here in the sense that an horrendous experience was the prompt for Jews to go back to the Middle East; the land of Canaan; of Palestine and form the state of Israel in 1948. Of course, there was the pre-existing school of Zionism as espoused by Theodore Hertzl, and that had been something that had been there for much of the century and Jews were migrating to Palestine. But the impetus that led to a final resolution to form a Jewish state was the Holocaust. And so much in the same way that the Jews formed the state of Israel, the Igbos reacted to what they felt was the attempt to exterminate them as a people, to form the independent republic of Biafra.
So some similarities there, but I will remind you about the differences, because it looked like a 'David and Goliath' situation. Looking at what is known as the 'War of Independence' to Jews and Israelis but (as) 'The Calamity' to Arabs, you had two more wars; one in 1956 at the time of the Suez Crisis and then the Six Day War in 1967. Now before the Six Day War, it looked like a classic case of David and Goliath. You've seen the map of Nigeria and how small the area inhabited by the Igbos was compared to the rest of Nigeria.
Much the same way people would have looked at things in a superficial sense and seen the state of Israel and look at these large Arab nations: Syria, Egypt and Jordan around them. A lot of people in the world did think that the state of Israel was in peril. Just looking at things it would have taken a swift set of pincer movements, and Israel would be swept into the sea, and God knows what would have happened to the people who were left there. But the reality was different as people know now. The Israeli General Staff were very confident of victory. There are all these stories of the indecisiveness of the Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol and Yitzhak Rabin, the army commander was said to be smoking heavily and had a nervous breakdown.
But the only thing that was perplexing the Israeli state was what would be the nature of their victories. They couldn't take any of the Arab capitals, and it was a question of how much territory they could take and then see if the world could accommodate that. With the Biafrans, same David and Goliath scenario, but the Igbos did not have much in the manner of weapons to fight the Nigerians. So what I was going to show you on the projector: here's a picture of some little Jewish girls in Golders Green holding up a placard saying HELP ISRAEL—but essentially, the Generals, there's General Dayan, Rabin and the Air Force commander; they knew they were going to win that victory.
More or less; it needed an effort and they did just that. These are battle scenes and famous thing at the Wailing Wall where Israeli soldiers were pictured by a photographer from (Life magazine). This is a picture of Colonel Ojukwu, who led the Biafran secession. Now there was a connection at this time as I hinted in my introduction between the state of Israel and Biafra in the sense that the Six Day War had been concluded in June of 1967.
It would have been impolitic for Israel to recognise Biafra at that stage but what happened was after the spectacular successes against the Arab armies—I have some pictures there of abandoned Egyptian armour from the Mitla Pass—a number of those tanks and armour, well I don't know about tanks, but light weaponry, were airlifted to Biafra. So the state of Israel did send some aid to them. That connection existed. It ended in defeat (for Biafra) so a vastly different situation from what we have with the situation of Israel.
Well, I come on to the aspect of the link between the Igbos and the Jews. So far we've looked at those analogies which were made. People would make these phrases: "The Jews of Africa." Aid workers or people who were flying aeroplanes when Biafra was blockaded in order to bring in food because the Nigerian government wouldn't allow food to pass through unless it was inspected, and the Biafrans felt well they're going to poison it. So the way Biafra was kept alive was through these constellation flights between Sao Tome and Portugal.
So people were making these analogies. But they were just saying that these people were like Jews; analogous to Jews. But we want to look at what this connection is that appears to have transpired. Just to remind that the history of the Jewish people has been one of dispersal. I referred earlier on to how biblical Israel had been destroyed by larger empires: Assyrian and Babylon. And we know that there were these migrations to different parts of the world: Egypt, southern parts of Europe, the Iberian Peninsula. But what of sub-Saharan Africa? We know of Jews existing in China. And this was as a result of the trade route through the Silk (Road). And the traditions have been suppressed but today they are trying to reinvestigate that past.
I mentioned Latin America before, and why not sub-Saharan Africa? What are these possible routes? There are 3 areas in which we could say that there was a form of Jewish migration. We'll also look at (whether such) migration was just of the Jewish faith or of people with the DNA of the people of the Middle East. One would have been through the North East of Africa; through the Nile Valley. Historically, remember there was an Arab conquest of North Africa and southern Europe. There were trade routes, and it is quite possible that some of these conquests and the traders came down via that north eastern element. A second route would have been right up here in North Africa.
Everybody knows where Tunisia is? There was a Jewish community there destroyed in the first-second A.D., but there are still elements of them there (in) Djerba. Remember the Sahara desert wouldn't have always been as vast as it is because it's constantly expanding. It would have been onerous to cross it but there were these trade routes. Also, in West Africa, there were three great kingdoms. Not right down on the coast and not right up at the northern tip. These empires were known as Ghana; and then from Ghana, you had a larger empire called Mali.
In history, there's a famous King of Mali known as Mansa Musa. He made a pilgrimage to Mecca—they were Islamic—and on his way—gold was plentiful in those days—he would make gifts of gold bars as he went along the route. That succeeded in devaluing the value of gold, and I think he was broke by the time he finished his pilgrimage. But he made it back to Mali. And then after the Mali Empire, you had the Songhai Empire. We know about Mali through oral traditions. We also know of it through written testaments.
One of them was through a famous Arab traveller called Ibn Batuta. You have to remember that these were Islamic states—perhaps not in the 'fundamentalist' mould as we would understand it, but rather if you think about the Islamic caliphate; the Islamic presence in Spain before they were pushed out of Spain where it was one of tolerance etcetera. You had Jewish traders and soldiers there at that time. So that would have been another means by which Hebrews; Jewish people might have made their way into sub-Saharan Africa.
Lady in Audience: These are speculations really...
Adeyinka Makinde: We're going a bit deeper. We're going a bit deeper. When you say speculation, it starts off as speculation but it ends up as historical enquiry, because as I said, the (Lemba) people were tested for DNA, and their rites were pretty much congruent to ancient Hebrew rites, so hold your horses madam. We're coming on.
Lady in Audience: Yes, I could walk out or hold my horses. I know that.
Adeyinka Makinde: Much of history is (as) you mentioned speculation. Yes. But the reality of the fact that there were Jewish people, who came along with conquering Arab armies, is not speculation. In fact in Mali which I just mentioned, there is an ancient Jewish community there. And rather as we mentioned Spain at the time of the Inquisition, people were either put to the sword or were forced to convert (to Islam.) And rather as I mentioned Latin America, the Far East in China even, people are now re-investigating the past. So absolutely, that aspect isn't speculation.
Lady in Audience: What is your point? I know you are a lawyer, (but) what do anthropologists say about this.
Adeyinka Makinde: If you don't mind madam, I can take some questions at the end.
Steward of the Jewish Museum admonishes the lady to leave questions for the end of the seminar.
There are aspects where people might say it is speculation, but I've just mentioned some actual historically documented facts. There was a Jewish presence just as there was an Arab presence through trade. Let's come on then to the traditions of the Igbo people. And I want to look at it in terms of those aspects which are somewhat congruent with the Hebrew faith. There are the lores, that is, the oral traditions of three clans of the Igbos which do say that they are descended from three tribes. One is the B'nei Manashe. (Another) one is B'nei Gath and the other one is B'nei Zebulon. Those are the three specific tribes which in Igbo folklore, there is a connection with Jews.
This is pre-dating any contact with Christianity or the bible. I will read out a collection of words which tend to (demonstrate similarities between Igbo and Hebrew.) First is 'Adah', a female name. The daughter of Elon. That name exists in the Igbo language; the name of a first daughter. The second word 'Udu'; to certify or attest in Hebrew. In the Igbo language, they refer to it in 3 areas: Where it has to do with fame or popularity; where it is as a reference to a clay pot, or a pot like musical instrument. A third (word): 'Ani'. In Hebrew, 'everlasting' or 'unending'. In the Igbo language, that means 'land' or 'ground or the earth.'
In Hebrew, 'Ush' is the name of a town or the name of a male. In the Igbo language, it is the name of townships within the cities of Owerri and Ideato. In the Hebrew faith it is also the name of a male. That same name is the name of a male among the Igbos. A fifth one: 'Addar'. A town. Where? A town in Judah. That's from (the book of) Joshua. There's a town called Adda in a place known as Arochukwu. Sixth: 'Asa'. A Hebrew king, The son of Abijah and father of Jehoshaphat. In the Igbo language, it is the name of a beautiful female, and it also appears as the name of a town. 'Ezer'. What does Ezer mean in Hebrew?
Was there a chieftain among the Israelites who fought the Gadites sent to support King David at the battle of Zitlag against Saul which is the last record of the activities of the three Gadite brothers: Eri, Arodi and Areli? That was from (the book of) Chronicles. So that was a Chieftain. In Igbo 'Eze' is the (title) of a king or chief. 'Ewe'? That's a goat in Hebrew. (Member of the audience offers that it is spelled E-Z). In Igbo it is either 'Ewu' or 'Eghu'. 'Am'. What is Am in Hebrew? (Two members of the audience respond that it refers to a "nation" or "place") A nation. A place. There are a number of prefixes in the Igbo language which also mean 'place'. 'Ama'.
The fellow I wrote that book on, Dick Tiger, he comes from a place called Ama-Igbo. Amaigbo. Now that means compound of the Igbos. Compound. Place. (Member of the audience states it could refer to 'mother country.') That's what the Igbos recognise it as; as a certain territory. My understanding of Amaigbo is that it means compound of the Igbos. So a bit of a similarity there. 'Ol'. In Hebrew is said to be servitude or slavery. (A member of the audience refers to it as a Yoke around the neck). Igbos have 'Olu', and that means labour or work. And then 'Maaz'. In Hebrew what is that? Is that the name of a male? M-A-A-Z. The name of a male in Israel. Maazi in Igboland is a male name or a title.
And the final one I have here is 'Ikkar'. I-K-K-A-R. (Member of the audience mentions 'a farmer.') Tiller of the ground. In Igbo, 'Iku-ugbo', so the first 'Eee-khh' sound; it means to till the ground or to farm. So as I said, (Igbo is part of the Kwa language group) but there are these terms. How did they get there? Were they from migrations or from Jewish elements who converted them? Unlike the Lemba on whom they have done genetic testing, I'm not sure that there's been any large scale testing on the Igbos. That's something (on which) they'll work on in the future.
A mention also of the religious practices. The Igbos have a traditional religion. I had mentioned that they believe in a god, one god—Chukwu, and certain subsidiary gods. And also the concept of the god of destiny. And some of those, apart from the personal god, are congruent with other traditional African religions. Where does traditional, that is pre-Christian Igbo religion merge with Judaism. Before Christians arrived or the bible in various guises and versions was brought to that part of Africa, the Igbos had a tradition and still have a tradition of circumcising of the male born eight days after birth.
The Igbos also have a tradition of separating men from women during female menstruation. There are other issues. They refrain from eating meat that would be referred to as being 'Un-kosher'. So in other words, if a ritual prayer has not been said over a dead animal, you can't eat it. And also, it depends on how the animal was killed. If it was destroyed by another animal, you cannot touch it. The Igbos also have that as a tradition. The sounding of the ram's horn. I didn't have any video clips to show you but according to Rabbi Howard Gorin, who went there and established this B'nei Igbo, the Igbos also have a tradition of blowing the rams horn. Apparently it sound like, if not identical to the manner in which the Shofar is blown.
And also the tradition of mourning, Shiva, there is a similar Igbo ritual whereby, for instance, a husband dies and the wife stays and weeps for 7 or 8 days in the house. There are also some similarities with some Jewish festivals. For instance, (although) I didn't find reference to this one, I thought it was implicit. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. In the traditional Igbo society, when they begin their New Year, there is a month of sacrifice, which they call the Onwa-Eja, where you fast and try to do good deeds. Similarity? Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. The Igbos place a particular emphasis on the New Year. They call it the Ikeji-Aro.
So a few things to chew on there in terms of the migratory aspects, and the linguistic similarities and the traditional. I have some pictures of Rabbi Gorin who has gone to Nigeria (distributing photographs of Rabbi Gorin and Igbos practicing Judaism.) Those are pictures of newly established Jewish faith groups in Igboland. There are 40,000 practicing persons. Nigeria is a nation of 120 million and the Igbos anything from 20 to 35 million. What this means is that a lot of Igbos may acknowledge that there is some connection, but on mass, they are a Christianised people and most of them are Roman Catholic.
Most of them are not interested in converting to Judaism, but they do tend to find the analogies as well as any archaeological, historical (or) cultural link to Hebrews pretty appealing. There are different attitudes in this regard. To conclude, what are the implications of this? Is it a question of if you could establish, rather like the Falashas of Ethiopia or the Menashes in India, that they were a branch of the lost tribes of Israel, what would be the consequence of that? Would it entail that they would want to be recognised by the state of Israel?
There would be a big problem in Nigeria. As I mentioned before, the state of Israel did help the Igbos during the civil war by sending equipment which had been taken during the Six Day War. However, to recognise the Igbos (as a branch of Jewry) when the whole idea of their secession is still fresh in history might be considered a provocation. For that reason, even if there was compelling evidence and it was accepted, it would be a big problem whether it was political recognition or rabbinical recognition. Yitzhak Rabin, when he was prime minister, did send a fact finding (team) to Igboland between 1995 and 1997. So there are a number of people in the Jewish Diaspora who are aware of this.
I mentioned Rabbi Howard Gorin. There's also a producer by the name of Jeff L. Leiberman. He's Canadian-born and based in Los Angeles. He's also just made a film called 'Re-Emerging: The Jews of Nigeria'. It's just been produced, so it may be available as we speak. So there are some problems (recognising the Igbos as Jews) politically, religiously. Also there's that wonder, some people feel in Black Africa that the experience of the Ethiopian Jews in Israel has not necessarily been plain sailing. There've been allegations of racism. I think there was one particular instance of (Falashas) been refused as blood donors. And people felt, is this what you want? Also, there's this uncertainty as to how long recognition would take.
As I mentioned at the beginning, this issue of identity and recognition. Who has the power? It's almost (like the situation of) Thomas Jefferson who is said to have sired children with a black slave—mixed race slave, Sally Hemmings. And down the generations, I think it was in the last decade or so, the (black) descendants of Sally Hemmings wanted recognition as being part of the wider Jefferson family, and there were arguments for and against. Some people felt "That's a good thing! They acknowledge." But others would say, "Why are you trying to force yourself on them. If they don't want you, why force the issue?"
In some instances, that's the attitude on both sides. There are other attitudes, the less conservative attitudes among the Jewish faith, the Rabbi Gorin's of this world, who feel, "Look a lot of the Jews feel that population wise, we're diminishing through inter-marriage and issues like that. If you can have people with a connection to Judaism whether they're in the Far East or the Near East, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America: We should embrace them." There are others who presumably don't feel that way.
As I said, I think that it is something to think about because even the Jewish—80% of those who are termed Jewish are Ashkenazi Jews, and in terms of when we refer to casting doubts—which are valid—in regard to certain peoples being connected to Jews, remember there was the Khazar Theory which reared its head in the 1970s which was that you can't account for the large amount of Jews in eastern Europe who would have been descendants of migrants from the Middle East and that this was as a result of the mass conversion of this medieval Turkic people.
The person who first (postulated) that was actually pro-state of Israel, but others have seen that as an attempt to de-legitimise most Jews by saying, you do not have a connection to Israel, therefore you are imposters and you're colonists. As I told you, I'm not Igbo, I'm not Jewish—I'm just a student of history. These are the arguments in terms of fashioning something for the future. Some people are confident that eventually there will be enough evidence for the Igbos to be given acceptance as a lost people of Judaism and that they will be accepted much in the way of the Falashas and the Manashe.
But as I said it's not a vast majority of Igbos—who are willing to acknowledge that connection but it's a relatively smaller, but growing number of people who are interested in exploring more of the Judaic faith. So that's were I end things. I hope that was thought provoking and slightly stimulating.
Question and Answer
Does anyone want to ask any questions?
Member of Audience: Just two points. Firstly, I don't know if you are aware, there was a case before the Israeli Supreme Court in about 1993—because there are a large number of foreign workers from Nigeria working in Israel—so a Nigerian who was Igbo tried to petition the Supreme Court to be granted permission to live in Israel permanently on the grounds that he was Jewish. And secondly, I remember reading a couple of years ago in the Jewish Chronicle, there was a rabbi from Nigeria, living in the UK who had been asked to go on a fact finding mission to Nigeria to (inaudible).
Adeyinka Makinde: Right. Do you know what the result of that Supreme Court petition was?
Member of Audience: It was rejected. It was decided that he had no rights under the Law of Return which grants every Jew the right to (live in Israel.)
Adeyinka Makinde: I must say that apart from the Igbos who consider themselves to be Jews who've rediscovered their faith—Judaism is not a proselytising religion as we know—there is a messianic aspect to (the spread of) Hebrewism which is not linked to the Igbos in Nigeria. They practice Judaism because they believe it is the purer form of what was then (developed into) Christianity and Islam. And I remember that there was a soldier fighting in the Israeli army who died, and he had a Yoruba name. So how he could be accepted into the Israeli army but not into the constituency of being recognized—I don't know how that occurred. That's interesting! I'll look that up.
Member of Audience: Have you read about the rabbi?
Adeyinka Makinde: I know (of) a few of them through my research of people linked to Mr. Gorin
Member of the Audience: He's based in Manchester. I'll see if I can dig out the article.
Adeyinka Makinde: That'll be good! I'd like to find out about that.
Member of Audience (2): There was also at one time I think a lecture on the Jews practicing—a cult actually—in Uganda. I don't know much about it, but their practice is very similar to that of (mainstream Jews).
Adeyinka Makinde: Not the (Abuyudaya)? Because as we mentioned, they do not say that they have a genetic or migratory connection with Israel, it's just that an elder was converted in the early part of the 20th Century and they all adopted it.
Member of Audience (2): Oh, O.K.
Adeyinka Makinde: There is that issue of conservative rabbinical thought that first of all you have to be born of a Jewish mother and have a rabbinical court confirm that. But if you look at the migration of Ashkenazi Jews, they found in the DNA that most of them were males who married presumably Slavic females. So where does that leave them? It's full of convolutions and can be highly political. So it's one of those issues where you have to treat people, really, the way you want to be treated. That's the only way one can look at it as a neutral observer.
Member of Audience (3): There are also the Israelites in the (United) States who are black who (claim to) derive their (descent) through slavery from Africa to the United States and Caribbean. Also, there is some theory linking Rastafarianism to Judaism. So what goes around comes around. Also from a commonsense point of view, to me, it must make sense that there was dispersal to sub-Saharan Africa. Why should it be uniquely to Northern Europe? It's just that people have got lost and there hasn't been much research into how the communities dispersed.
Adeyinka Makinde: Absolutely. As I said, I'm not here as this big expert. There are other (topics for which I could claim a greater level of expertise). I am a discoverer as much as you are. I am not professing an ultimate, supreme knowledge of it.
Member of Audience (3): Jews are originally people of colour. I'm of Ashkenazi descent but a large number of Ashkenazi Jews just don't want to accept that. It's just a fact. It's a fact that they were a people of colour. And as you say through intermarriage, through rape...
Adeyinka Makinde: So many ways it could have happened. I think the interesting thing whether it's in Europe (or) in Africa; was it through conversion or was it through this genetic link? And the (Lemba) people of Malawi which is in southern Africa (have established) this link. Genetic mutations of Jews and Arabs are, I would presume, relatively the same. (Reference to Arab trade and presence in the eastern and south eastern part of Africa. Jews from the Arabian Peninsula may have come via this route.) They (genetic historians) do claim that the (Lemba) bear traces of Semitic genes which would tend to confirm that they practice of what looks like Judaism for a long time before Christian missionaries arrived.
Member of Audience (4): Just a comment on Mr. Makinde's lecture. I find it very helpful Mr. Makinde is neither Jewish nor Igbo and it gives his position a form of credibility. I am Igbo myself and I've picked up a lot of things that I didn't know from what he's said so far. About the connection between Igbos and Jews. I've heard that from day one. Long time. I'm not so sure as to the reality or the scientific connection, so I'm very interested in what he is saying now. This is the first time that I've been exposed to any possible scientific or historical connection—besides rumours, of course.
But the Igbos, in any case, although we have similarities with the Jewish people, most of us are not interested or pushing for any recognition at all. Most of us are quite settled where we come from in Nigeria. What we are looking for is our own nation state back there in Africa. What I think is important in our connection with the Jewish people in terms of forging connections is we share similarities in terms of democracy, enterprise and the rest of that. If we can build on that, I think we'll probably go a long way.
Adeyinka Makinde: Yes, I would think that much the attitude. Even Rabbi Gorin who's the head of Benai Igbo, he basically felt that this could be a long process. First of all do we have something in common so that we can say we are brothers in the sense of human brotherhood. And then (they could) further delve into connections: scientific, anthropological, scientific. As I said, 40,000 practicing out of a Nigeria population of 120 million and Igbo population of around 35 million. Most of them are happy being Roman Catholics. It's caused problems; people supposedly rediscovering their Jewish roots. You can imagine what it's like "Oh, you've just joined a sect!" People want stability. You've always been this. And for people, whatever the issues of being a Jew historically—just the upheaval—if you were say a Latin American (and) you never knew you were Jewish; just like you never knew who your real mother was—it's such an upheaval, so that there isn't this big movement that we all suddenly want to be Jewish. It's a relatively minuscule amount. But in the discourse of knowledge and the imparting and sharing values; that's the whole idea of why I've picked upon it.
Member of Audience (4): Why? What's basically your interest in this subject?
Adeyinka Makinde: Well, I heard the Jewish Museum was presenting some boxing seminars, and I said, "God, I've got to do something about that. What could I do though? I thought of Dick Tiger who was Igbo and thought about the connection (between Igbos and Jews.) I thought why don't I explore this, which as I said has been a part of my life since I was a child, you know in terms of how we would argue among ourselves in terms of our roots. Where do we come from? And occasionally we would bring up Egypt. The Israelites. So I would say it is a continuation of the exploration of things I heard of while growing up in Nigeria.
Steward of the Jewish Museum: Well you've certainly given us a lot to think about. Thank you. And we look forward to welcoming you back to the new museum. Thank you very much.
Adeyinka Makinde: Thank you very much.
Reviewed by Adeyinka Makinde
The name Sam Langford has loomed large in many constructions of boxing history. From the oral discourses of the old timers to the pictorial digests of the glossy coffee table offerings, Langford’s tale is often summarised by his rivalries with contemporary black fighters Joe Jeannette and Sam McVey, his unrequited hopes of attaining the heavyweight championship of the world –a slender chance rendered impossible by the decisions and indiscretions of Jack Johnson- and his later descent into a private hell of blindness and poverty. It is of course true that while historians have consistently alluded to his masterful style and his dexterity of skill, his story nevertheless has tended to be portrayed in short, consumable stanzas –never writ large, and only as a ‘supporting act’ in the often repeated saga of Johnson.
Why this is so is not at all hard to fathom. The writing of history, particularly as it relates to boxing, can often be dictated by the commercial viability of a project. The tried and tested paths of explorations into a select band of personages are comfortable if ultimately stultifying enterprises when over the course of time very little of valuable discovery and enlightened interpretation are the proceeds for the discerning reader. There have been innumerable projects on Jack Johnson and the era of the ‘white hopes’; of Jack Dempsey and the ‘roaring twenties’; of Joe Louis and the breakthrough in American race relations as well as of Muhammad Ali and his career set against an age of tumult. Yet Langford lived during an age as marked and as interesting as any other in regard to boxing and the wider society. His reputation as a puncher was not far off those of both Dempsey and Louis, his technical proficiency as a boxer rivals that of any other in any chosen age of the sport and his personality, while not skirting on the boundaries of outrage that were the hallmarks of Johnson and Ali, was distinctly colourful.
Clay Moyle’s ‘Sam Langford: Boxing’s Greatest Uncrowned Champion’ is the first large scale attempt on the life and career of the man famously, or infamously, nicknamed the ‘Boston Tar Baby.’ The moniker itself is as revealing as it is not. ‘Tar Baby’ alludes to the obsessive zeal with which fighters were dispensed with sub-titles for names and in particular how the sportswriters of the day emphasised what they perceived to be his typical African features and the link that supposedly had to his physical prowess and the ‘primitiveness’ of his being. The reference to Boston is indicative only of where the first rumblings of his talent was put on display and is not reflective of the peripatetic drift of a career that took him across many cities in North America, Mexico, England, France and Australia.
Langford, who in fact was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, was the descendant of African slaves who opted to fight for Britain against the revolutionary forces of George Washington in return for their freedom. He rarely returned to his hometown of Weymouth Falls and his career, as Moyle tenaciously recalls, was a continuum of movement; an ever restless search for money, the glory of the heavyweight championship and finally, for sanctuary.
As a fighter, the book details his encounters inside and outside of the ring with luminaries such as the original Joe Walcott, Joe Gans, Jack Johnson, Stanley Ketchel, Harry Wills and Tiger Flowers. Coverage is given also to his visits to London for showdowns with the British heavyweight "Iron" Hague and the Australian Bill Lang, both of whom he dispatched with consummate ease. There is also a whole chapter of an extended sojourn in Australia which accommodates recapitulations of his contests with Sam McVey, his testy relationship with the promoter Hugh MacIntosh, which led to a confrontation in the courts and the delicate negotiations conducted by MacIntosh with Jack Johnson aimed at getting Johnson to defend his crown against Langford.
Moyle’s work cannot ignore the backdrop of the contemporary attitudes to race. It was a factor which all boxers of African descent contended with in their daily existence as human beings and as fighters. It was all encompassing and not only dictated where they could live, walk and sleep when they travelled, but also defined the manner in which they fought Caucasian opposition. While the received wisdom of the day postulated the composite black fighter as possessing a hard skull which was immune to pain or sense of feeling, a stomach that was vulnerable to punches as well as a psyche which lacked courage and had a propensity to lose heart once the going got tough, the reality was altogether different. “If ever you hear of a man drawing the color line,” John L. Sullivan once mused, “you can bet your life there is some Negro he is mighty afraid of”. As one scribe put it: “Like a number of great fighters of his race, Sam had no choice but to put on the brakes occasionally to keep hay in the bar.” This needs to be borne in mind when making comparisons of his punching effectiveness with the likes of Dempsey and Louis. There were bigger men no doubt, yet Langford could “stretch a guy out colder” than other heavyweights according to ‘Fireman’ Jim Flynn.
He was the giant slayer of the sort which Bob Fitzsimmons was and Mickey Walker would be. The peaks in his career are faithfully covered by Moyle who reconstructs his mastery over Joe Jeanette and Sam McVey, and his victory over the younger, powerful Harry Wills in the second of their encounters before advancing age, and a creeping blindness began the irreparable slide in his effectiveness as a fighter.
He would never ascend to the peak of glory his talents merited. It was a career littered with much in the manner of unrequited hopes: not only would he never get the re-match with Johnson or stab at other heavyweight title holders, he would not get to face Stanley Ketchel for the middleweight title or subsequent middleweight champions who like their heavyweight counterparts, drew the so-called ‘colour line’. The light heavyweight championship also, remained out of his grasp, being not sufficiently delineated to make a claim. Thus it is that the only ‘title’ affixed to his name was that of heavyweight champion of Mexico. Thus it was that the titles affixed to his name including brief recognition as the champion respectively of England, France, Australia and Mexico as well as the threadbare appellation; 'Coloured Heavyweight Champion' all served as scant consolation for his been denied the opportunity of becoming a world champion.
Nothing of course will resolve the argument as to whether he would have defeated Jack Johnson in a heavyweight battle. Johnson, much the larger man and a wily foe, was the unquestioned victor in their only encounter. Yet, the argument, and a compelling one at that, persists that Langford, at only 20 years of age had yet to reach the peak of his fighting powers.
Langford, as Moyle relates, was a thinking fighter. He was one who ruminated a lot on what he could garner from the likes of Walcott and Gans, and was often strategic in assessing how to confront his opponents, many of whom invariably were taller than he. It was such admixture of skill and cunning that enabled him to ‘carry’ fighters for the benefit of promoters wishing to give their customers value for money or others who would only meet him in round-limited, ‘no decision’ matches for which newspapers awarded their own verdicts. While his physical features –Langford’s head was once described as flat “as the plains of Nebraska”- earned the mocking derision of many white sportswriters of the time, he was apt at eloquently displaying a basic sense of decency, as exemplified by his actions after knocking out an opponent. Langford it is recalled “always stayed around until the poor bum opened his eyes.”
There are also intriguing glimpses into his personal life with his love of fine clothes, automobiles and cigars; his jocular humour and his use of humour as a tool for diffusing combustible situations. At the same time Moyle does not spare the reader the unflattering allegations of domestic abuse and financial irresponsibility.
There is much to commend about this work: the author’s efficient sourcing of his references; his dedicated zeal in collecting and arranging a vast array of varied and interesting photography of Langford -many of which have not before been in the public domain- and his objectivity in highlighting those anecdotes and factual disputes of which a consultation of the records cannot presently provide a definitive resolution. All of them are hallmarks of his punctilious attention to detail in what no doubt will remain the definitive biography of Sam Langford for a long time to come.
Adeyinka Makinde is the author of Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal. His forthcoming book, Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula is due to be published in 2008.
In Black and White By Donald McRae
Reviewed By Adeyinka Makinde
There are few biographies that opt to feature a parallel chronology of the lives of two people. Such are the demands placed on the author to deliver a meaningful enough summation on one character that the addition of a second seems at once a daunting, near impossible concept. In many ways such an undertaking will lack a central focus unless both protagonists are linked inextricably in their raison d'etre or their rivalry or other binding phenomena as were say Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. Both of the subjects must be similar yet paradoxically they must be sufficiently dissimilar, if not discordant, in order for the author to wax and weave grandiloquent on coincidences and ironies which will litter the narrative.
Award winning sports author, Donald McRae chooses this format for his recently released treatment of the life and meanings of two of the greatest sporting icons of the twentieth century; Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. For if Muhammad Ali and Pele bear the mantle of greatest athletes in the second half of that century, then as surely Louis and Owens bestride the first fifty years.
Joseph Louis Barrow and James Cleveland Owens were born eight months and a few miles apart in the southern state of Alabama. They would die a year apart, Owens in 1980 and Louis in 1981. Both had antecedents enmeshed in the brutal history of slavery and the painful world of sharecropping. Both men rose virtually from the depths of nothingness to ascend the dizzyingly, rarefied heights of world fame by virtue of their athletic prowess, Louis with the crushing fury of his fists and Owens with the velocity of his legs. One quiet and seemingly diffident, the other ebullient and never complete without a trademark smile. One was a phenomenal boxer while the other was a peerless athlete but both were linked in the maelstrom of the social and political evolution of African-Americans for they both transcended the veneer of being mere sportsmen to bear the burdens of and inhabit the sort of status reserved in the past for political figure's. Although McRae does not mention it, both men were known better to the white American public than black intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois. What McRae reminds us of, is just how important these men were.
But although McRae's title refers to the 'Untold Story,' there is little here that the discerning boxing aficionado does not already know about Joe Louis. From his glorious, record setting title reign to his inglorious descent into tax difficulties and mental maladies. It is Owens who probably is the lesser known of the two and McRae does well to focus, diary style, on both men's highest points in the 1930's. For Owens, it was his extraordinary performance at the summer Olympic games held in Berlin in 1936 where before the Nazi elite, then in the midst's of fashioning an idealized racial state, he conquered all opposition to win a then unprecedented four gold medals. Louis, who just weeks earlier had been shockingly defeated by the German fighter Max Schmeling, would vindicate himself two years later by battering Schmeling in a single round. By their deeds both men finally put to rest Hitlerian notions of Aryan superiority and Black inferiority. Yet as McRae, a man of white South African origin recounts, both lived in a racially segregated America, which perpetuated and reinforced assumptions of Black inferiority. It was Louis and Owens, we are reminded, who paved the way for the unbanning of blacks from baseball, basketball and American Football. Yet, these truly revolutionary figures were not revolutionary enough for their sporting descendants of the 1960's who derogatorily labelled them as 'Uncle Toms;' pacified stooges of the white establishment never mind that the circumstances of the times in Louis and Owens heyday dictated that militant stances within the sporting field were virtually impossible to contrive.
If by 'Untold Story' McRae is referring to the personal friendship between both men, then only few would be impressed by the revelation that Louis introduced Owens to his high class tailor or that both men were inducted simultaneously into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, it is as a sympathetically written record of the lives of both; sporting gods on the one hand and fallible men on the other, that McRae's book succeeds. There is Owens, impecunious even after his Berlin victory, and hounded out of amateur athletics by the despotic machinations of Avery Brundage, the patrician chairman of the International Olympic Committee and aptly referred to as 'Slavery Avery.' Owens was forced over the next few years to race trains and horses in a series of grotesque exhibitions. Which reader can fail to travel in time forty years ahead and then weep at the thought of lesser men earning million dollar cheques? Read about Louis combating the American Inland Revenue for a spiralling amount of income tax back payment and empathize with the man who donated whole portions of his ring earnings to an Armed Service of the United States military which employed persons of his race only as cooks and mess boys. The reader, however, can hardly fail to chastise Louis for his childlike ineptitude in taking care of his finances when his earning power was at its zenith. There are anecdotal vignettes like where Owens steps in front of Louis who is being confronted by a redneck who wants to add the 'Brown Bomber' to his self-styled 'Hit-a-Nigger-a-Week' list. It is Louis who has to hold his friend back when the normally calm Owens takes umbrage at his slurs and smashes a bottle on a table in anticipation of 'glassing' his foe.
'In Black and White: The Untold Story of Joe Louis and Jesse Owens' ultimately is an expertly crafted narrative of the lives of two of the foremost sportsmen of recent times and although it unearths little of which is unknown about both subjects, it melds the stories of two icons from a bygone age whose excellence in their chosen professions and wider importance in terms of the development of race relations in the United States cannot be dimmed by the passage of time.