Nigerian-born American lecturer, Uju Anya, has been in the eye of the storm since her tweet wishing the late Queen Elizabeth II ‘excruciating death’. The professor of Second Language Acquisition, Department of Modern Languages, Carnegie Mellon University, United States of America tells GODFREY GEORGE she spoke from a place of deep pain and is unapologetic about her post
Were you born in Nigeria?
First of all, I would love to say I am Ada Igbo (the first daughter of Igbo land). They cannot deny me (my heritage) because I am a lesbian. I am a child of Igbo land – I am of an Igbo father, and that is who I am. I don’t disown them; they cannot disown me. I am also a child of Trinidad because my mother is from Trinidad. So, I am African and Caribbean. I have lived in the United States for almost 40 years now; I have been here since 1986. I came here when I was 10 years old, and I am now 46. So, I also consider myself American. I am a very proud mother of two intelligent, loving and kind children biologically and I have one stepson. I am also a professor and academic researcher of language learning and multilingualism.
Your tweet wishing the late Queen Elizabeth II an ‘excruciating death’ sparked outrage from many quarters around the world. Are you regretful you made that post?
No, I am not, I have to be very honest with you. I am not. My tweet came from a place of deep pain and deep emotions. It was not something that I planned or calculated. It was spontaneous and was part of my emotional reaction to the impending death of my oppressor. It was spontaneous at the time. However, it is not something I regret or something that I will ever apologise for. I will rest, sleeping every night, knowing that I told the truth.
You mentioned that your ancestors suffered in the Biafran war, for which you hold the British responsible. Can you give some details of the kind of experience your people went through?
It was not just my ancestors, but also my immediate and living relatives. There were family members who died but there are also people who are still alive today who survived the genocide. This is because this is a very recent history and a recent memory. The war ended in 1970, and many people who witnessed it are still alive today. I was born in ’76 and I lived in the aftermath of the war. My family suffered and some died. It was traumatic. My parents are dead now, but I have siblings alive today who went through Biafra as children. They were under the age of 10. Our family also has a war baby. My mother was pregnant during the war and gave birth to my second oldest brother in Biafra. So, this is something that is extremely close to me, and it is in my personal existence and in addition to the overall history of my family and the broader history of the Igbo people.
What stories did your family members tell you about what they went through during the war?
I am not claiming that I went through Biafra because I wasn’t born yet then, but it didn’t end in 1970. There were a lot of issues that we had to deal with. My childhood was filled with the reconstruction of war-torn buildings and sites and projects. My father was involved in such projects of reconstructions. When you think of people who went through a holocaust, then, you can imagine how traumatic it must have been. When I speak of ‘holocaust’, I am not speaking of the Jewish holocaust where we lost over six million people. ‘Holocaust’ itself means a ‘mass slaughter’, and what happened to the Igbo during Biafra was a massacre, where more than three million people were killed. All my family dinner table conversations were always about who ran where, who took cover where, who was buried where, who was lost and where the displaced people went. When people survive genocide and mass displacement, there is always going to be that shadow or spectre above surrounding everyone. To date, we are still mourning and talking about it. Ask any Igbo person, they are going to tell you that they are still affected by the war. This is something that is now a part of our legacy as a people; it was something that was done to us. This is something that the British did to us in the very beginning of how they orchestrated the division that caused the separatist movements or the formation of an independent country and how they supported those who committed the genocide by giving them weapons and military vehicles, hiring mercenaries to come and kill the Igbo people and giving the Nigerian soldiers bombs and military supplies, such as planes and whatever they needed to slaughter civilians. The three million people that died were not armed combatants; these were village people. All my life I have heard stories of my mother running with two children under the age of 10 and being pregnant with a third from village to village after they bombed each village that they ran to.
One of the most horrific stories that I will never forget for as long as I live is one my mother told me. She said the airplanes that were sent to bomb the villages flew so low that one could see the pilot inside the cockpits, laughing as he sprayed people with machine guns. These were villagers who were desperately running for their lives. My mother told me that it was a memory that was a part of her life. That was the grotesque nature of this attack on our lands. Where did they get those planes? Where did they get those bombs? Did Nigeria manufacture bombs and guns at that time? The British gave it to them, because of their interest in the oil that was in Igbo land. I also heard stories from the Ada of our family. She is 14 years older than me. She has stories of her own children, lying in a hole. She would run and jump inside a bunker filled with dead bodies. She would lie underneath dead bodies inside the hole to hide from soldiers. Can you imagine that for a child under 10 years old? This is what my people suffered in this genocide! Some of the people are still looking for their loved ones or where they buried them to date. Go to Enugu; there are still buildings that were destroyed and have not been able to be rebuilt after the war.
Many have said this happened a long time ago and that the Igbo should move above it and forge a better future. Don’t you also agree?
When people say the war happened ‘a long time ago’, I don’t understand what they mean by that. The Biafran war is a part of our modern contemporary history. ‘Long ago’, in historical terms, is not 60 years. That is not ‘long ago’ in the span of history. Not when you have people alive who went through that. So, when I expressed my deep and profound pain in that tweet, wishing the late Queen (Elizabeth II) a painful death, that is the pain I was speaking from – the pain of my people; the pain of knowing that she (Elizabeth II) was the leader of the people that did this to us, together with the Nigerian Army. I am not saying anything that is controversial or not a part of our historical facts. Everything that I am saying is recorded in history today and can be verified. The British involvement is being recorded; the British funding is also being recorded. The Biafrans would have successfully separated and formed their own country if the British had not interfered and supported the Nigerian army, funding them. So, the British caused this genocide by making sure that the people that were trying to separate were squashed.
The arguments with a lot of Nigerians and those in the Diaspora are that the Queen was just a ‘figurehead’ and couldn’t have done much in that situation. Don’t you think this absolves her of blame?
Absolutely not. Firstly, the Queen was not just merely a figurehead. They like to talk about her as though she were a statue or something like that that they have sitting in the palace. She was not just a figurehead. They can make the argument that she wasn’t involved in the day-to-day decisions that were made by her government. However, it is very well known that she got briefed every single day about what her government was doing. That is part of the palace proceedings on a daily basis. This briefing is one of the most zealously guarded secrets of Buckingham Palace. Since no one has access to that briefing, nobody can say what the Queen knew or didn’t know. But we know she knew something because she was told every day. She was not completely removed from the politics. On top of that, she sat on a throne of blood. She was a queen of a nation that has a treasury. Everything, down to the jewels that she wears on that crown, comes from plunder, theft, pillage and blood. Where does the world’s famous and gigantic treasure of the British monarchy come from? It came from the blood of the people they sold, enslaved and exploited, and the natural resources they stole after extracting from people. Even that throne that she sat on is supported and funded by blood money – our blood! So, I will hundred per cent reject any form of an assertion that the monarch of a kingdom is somehow removed or divorced from the actions or the government of that kingdom. She would not be able to live in the palace that she lived in if her government was not doing things to the rest of the world to keep her in that palace.
It is not true that she wasn’t actively involved in colonialism. She was touring everywhere, inspecting, and making speeches on behalf of colonialists and in colonised lands. She was directly there as both figurehead and symbol and as ruler of a very gruesome and bloody regime. I mean, there was a report by PUNCH that the president of Nigeria said the late Queen backed Nigeria during the Biafran war.
Do you take exception to the President’s statement?
I would not like to comment on the Nigerian government or any of the politicians or leaders on what they are doing and what they are not doing. I have not lived in Nigeria for almost 40 years. I am not registered to vote and I am not part of any political movement in Nigeria nor do I get involved in Nigerian politics. US politics is what I know and what I am involved in. Even in the US, I am a registered Independent. I neither support the Democrats nor do I support the Republicans or any of those parties. That is how strongly I believe in political independence and not being part of any party strategy whatsoever. All I can say is that I believe in a unified Nigeria. The wrong that has been done to the Igbo has to be compensated. At least, ‘sorry’ should be said. I expect this of the British government and the monarchy. No matter who you are or how big a government you are, when you have done wrong, hurt people, killed people, especially on a massive scale, I believe they must apologise and recognise that they have done something wrong. I also believe that Nigeria should be for all Nigerians. We didn’t have a choice for the country to be formed in the first place – the British did that, too, forcefully putting independent nations into one. Now that we are together, we must try to accommodate one another so we can thrive and not just one group over the other.
Will the apology by Britain lay the painful memories and emotions of the Biafran war to rest?
Lay it to rest completely? I believe financial reparation will go a long way to do that. We need justice and an apology; it’s very important for justice. Justice is what counts.
What do you make of the fresh Igbo secession agitation from Nigeria being championed by the Indigenous People of Biafra?
I am being unfairly roped into the issue with IPOB. They are impersonating and using my image and name for pro-IPOB comments. I didn’t say these things. They are harming me and putting me in tremendous pain. I am not involved in Nigerian politics. I have no political candidate that I am supporting and I don’t support IPOB. I am an independent person who expressed my personal pain about the injustice that was done by the British government to my immediate family and my people. I also expressed my pain about the global injustice of the British monarchy at the hand of the Queen in the exploitation, abuse, enslavement, genocide that she caused in many other places besides Igbo land. That is what I want to talk about.
You told some foreign media that you are being attacked because you are black and from a sexual minority. How?
Those attacks, especially by Amazon Founder, Jeff Besoz, are laced with racism. Besoz rarely tweets in his own voice, so for him to quote-tweet me to his more than five million obsessed followers was an attack on my blackness. For all his followers, he attacked me. He didn’t say my words were objectionable or things like that but he attacked my profession. He is insinuating that I should not be a teacher because of my tweet, and he did this as the second richest man in the world. This is simply because I told the world how my people suffered under the British monarchy. This is because of racism and misogyny. He knew that his followers would attack me. If you saw what happened to my email inbox after Bezos did that, you will not even think I was a human being with the things they were saying to me.
The Carnegie Mellon University where you lecture dissociated itself from your statement. Aren’t you afraid that the university may sanction you?
Amazon has donated billions of dollars to CMU and that was why Bezos did what he did. Who knows what is going to happen? What I do know right now is that my job is secure. There is no threat against my employment with CMU. The people that I have been talking to, who were in the room with the leadership of the school, when they were talking about me, never told me any word of CMU terminating my employment because of the tweet. I haven’t heard about sanctions either. Their reaction was what they did. The statement that they put out distancing themselves from my tweet was the only they have done. But it should be noted that while they disagree with what I said, they spoke up and defended my freedom of expression and freedom to say whatever I wanted to say on my own personal social media account. I am not a representative or administrator of my university. I don’t even have the name of my university in my bio and on my account. It says very clearly there that the views expressed there are solely mine. The university recognised that, knowing that I wasn’t speaking for them.
First published in Punch Newspapers