On Oct. 7, six days after the official Oct. 1 anniversary, thousands gathered on Manhattan’s East Side to celebrate Nigeria’s 57th independence day. After several hundred years of British presence in the area and official colonial control since the late 19th century, Nigeria won its independence from the U.K. in 1960, though it remained part of the British Commonwealth. The New York City area is home to about 36,000 Nigerian immigrants, many of whom came out to celebrate this weekend, 26 years since New York’s first Nigerian Independence Day Parade.
A dozen-plus floats made their way down 2nd Ave. in midtown Manhattan to end near Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, around the corner from the United Nations headquarters. Along the plaza, crowds milled about, eating suya and jollof rice from vendors lining the space, listening to positive words from various dignitaries and dancing to a short lineup of local Afrobeats artists. The floats, largely sponsored by a variety of local church associations or groups like the Nigerian Nurses Association of America, were blasting Afrobeats, r&b and hip-hop as their passengers danced and waved Nigerian flags.
One of the most exciting floats was hosted by the Council of Cherubim and Seraphim Churches in the U.S.A. The group was decked out in all-white robes with frills and played a nonstop set of high-tempo gospel juju music, driven by a drum machine, talking drum player and guitarist. The group sang praise songs, sometimes to tunes of familiar Nigerian melodies like “Sweet Mother” by Prince Nico Mbarga, often joined by onlookers in song.
Several Nigerian and Nigerian-American dignitaries were present for the festivities, including Ude Chukwu, the Deputy Governor of Nigeria’s Abia State, Ugo Nwaokoro, the Deputy Mayor of Newark, N.J., and the Acting Consul-General of Nigeria in New York, Nicholas Ella. They took turns at the microphone, making rosy, positive remarks lauding the Nigerian-American community for their accomplishments in the U.S., for projecting a positive image of Nigeria to the world and for remaining united despite differences.
However, at the end of the parade route, it was made clear that unity is not necessarily the name of the game when it comes to Nigerian communities in the U.S. (or in Nigeria, for that matter), and that, beneath the largely positive celebrations is a simmering, highly contentious issue. Across the street from Dag Hammerskjold Plaza, where the festivities were taking place, a group of protesters had set up camp to call for Biafran succession and to call out the Nigerian government for alleged bloody and inhumane crackdowns on pro-succession protests and leaders in Nigeria’s southeast in the past month. This conflict has been on a simmer since the ’60s, when the massive, brutal and strongly ethnically and religiously divided Biafran War decimated the southeastern area of Nigeria claimed by a largely Igbo Christian separatist movement. This year, 50 years after the Asaba massacre left hundreds dead in the region, Biafran separatist sentiments are again stirring. The issue is not clear cut, however–some Igbo leaders and governors in the region are calling for a unified Nigeria and siding with the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. At the parade protest, demonstrators sang a song which carried a sharp message to Buhari, paraphrased as, “If all you want to do is kill people, here we are–kill us.”
Across the street from the protest, the vibe was laid-back and dominated by music, food and pro-Nigerian speeches.
On the stage in the middle of plaza, we heard from several local Afrobeats singers, including Otunba and Chief Dejjy, interspersed with words from officials in the Nigerian-American community and city officials like Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Deputy Mayor Richard Beury.
Keep your eyes out here on Afropop.org for a short video recap of the event!