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The Jews of West Africa?
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There has been much talk here about Chanda Chisala’s article “The IQ gap is no longer a black and white issue.” Much of the article focuses on the Igbo (known also as Ibo), a people who live in the Niger Delta and “are well known to be high academic achievers within Nigeria.” In the United Kingdom, their children do as well in school as Chinese and Indian students:

The superior Igbo achievement on GCSEs is not new and has been noted in studies that came before the recent media discovery of African performance. A 2007 report on “case study” model schools in Lambeth also included a rare disclosure of specified Igbo performance (recorded as Ibo in the table below) and it confirms that Igbos have been performing exceptionally well for a long time (5 + A*-C GCSEs); in fact, it is difficult to find a time when they ever performed below British whites. (Chisala, 2015)

The Igbo have long been known as achievers, particularly in business. Whereas trade is largely women’s work in the rest of West Africa, it is dominated by Igbo of both sexes in Nigeria.

[…] In study after study, it has been documented that the Ibo, through conflict and mobility, have been very successful in enterprise. Indeed, a major study argued that the Ibo have a very high need for achievement in the business world. Still another study showed that the majority of entrepreneurs in the sample were Ibo.(Butler, 1997, p. 178)

Sabino and Hall (1999) describe them as being “competitive, individualistic, status-conscious, antiauthoritarian, pragmatic, and practical—a people with a strongly developed commercial sense.” In colonial-era literature, they were often called “the Jews of West Africa” (see note).


How did the Igbo become so entrepreneurial? It’s possible that their location in the Niger Delta predisposed them to be go-betweens in trade between coastal and interior peoples. Similar assemblages of glass beads, many of Egyptian origin and dating to the 9th and 14th centuries, have been recovered from the Niger Delta and eastern Mali, indicating that the Niger acted as a conduit of trade from the Atlantic coast to the Sahel and thence to the Middle East (Davison,1972; Insoll and Shaw, 1997).

Archaeological sites in the Niger Delta show that advanced economic development began much earlier there than elsewhere in West Africa. This is seen in early use of metallurgy. At one metallurgical complex, dated to 765 BC, iron ore was smelted in furnaces measuring a meter wide. The molten slag was drained through conduits to pits, where it formed blocks weighing up to 43-47 kg. The operating temperatures are estimated to have varied between 1,155 and 1,450 degrees C (Holl, 2009). Some radiocarbon dates for iron smelting in this region go back to 2000 BC (Eze-Uzomaka, 2009).

This production seems to have been in excess of local needs and therefore driven by trade with other peoples:

One aspect which can be inferred from the cylindrical slag blocks left behind is that the Lejja smelters must have had excess production of iron, and this may have led to extensive trade to far and distant places, sustained over a long period of time. (Eze-Uzomaka, 2009)

This metallurgy is unusual not only in its early date for West Africa but also in its subsequent development, which reached a high level of sophistication despite a lack of borrowing from metallurgical traditions in the Middle East and Europe. This may be seen in more than 700 artefacts of bronze, copper, and iron recovered from the Igbo-Ukwu site and dated to the 9th century AD:

They are the oldest bronze artifacts known in West African and were manufactured centuries before the emergence of other known bronze producing centers such as those of Ife and Benin. The bronzes include numerous ritual vessels, pendants, crowns, breastplates, staff ornaments, swords, and fly-whisk handles.

The Igbo-Ukwu bronzes amazed the world with a very high level of technical and artistic proficiency and sophistication which was at this time distinctly more advanced than bronze casting in Europe.

[…] Apparently the metal workers of ancient Igbo-Ukwu were not aware of commonly used techniques such as wire making, soldering or riveting which suggests an independent development and long isolation of their metal working tradition.

[…] Some of the techniques used by the ancient smiths are not known to have been used outside Igbo-Ukwu such as the production of complex objects in stages with the different parts later fixed together by brazing or by casting linking sections to join them.(Wikipedia, 2015)

Contact with European traders

Thus, even before the first European contacts in the 16th century, the Igbo were already the focus of a network of trading relationships that extended outward from the Niger Delta. European traders became integrated into this trade network, thereby enabling the Igbo to emerge as valued middlemen in the slave trade:

The peoples of south-eastern Nigeria have been involved in trade for as long as there are any records. The archaeological sites at Igbo-Ukwu and other evidence reveal long distance trade in metal and beads, as well as regional trade in salt, cloth, and beads at an early date. The lower Niger River and its Delta featured prominently in this early trade, and evidence is offered to suggest a continuity in the basic modes of trade on the lower Niger from c. A.D. 1500 to the mid-nineteenth century. An attempt to sketch the basic economic institutions of the Igbo hinterland before the height of the slave trade stresses regional trading networks in salt, cloth, and metal, the use of currencies, and a nexus of religious and economic institutions and persons. It is argued that while the growth of the slave trade appears to have been handled without major changes in the overall patterns of trade along the lower Niger, in the Igbo hinterland a new marketing ‘grid’, dominated by the Arochuku traders, was created using the pre-existent regional trading networks and religious values as a base. (Northrop, 1972)

British colonial rule

Great Britain took over Nigeria initially as part of its effort to outlaw the slave trade. Lagos was annexed in 1861 and a sphere of influence over the country was recognized in 1885 at the Berlin Conference, although a protectorate would not be proclaimed until 1901.

This new political environment favored the Igbo, whose initiative, self-discipline, and future orientation predisposed them to succeed not only in their homeland but also elsewhere in Nigeria, where they soon became dominant as merchants and civil servants. They thus took on a role like that of middleman minorities elsewhere in the empire, such as the Parsis in western India, the Chinese in Malaya, and the South Asians in East Africa. By the 1930s, one Igbo boasted that “the Ibo domination of Nigeria is a matter of time” (Ibrahim, 2000, p. 56). This trend even affected the army. By independence, 24 of the 52 senior army officers of the rank of major and above were Igbos (Ibrahim, 2000,p. 55).

This dominance led to jealousy among Nigerians in the north and west, who accused the Igbo of unfair business practices:

In the private sector they [the Hausa Muslims] are open to the exploitation of the Ibo control of the modern sector of private business activities. Ibos fix prices unilaterally by which Hausa money is siphoned daily. The Hausa are reduced to utter poverty and a large percentage of them rendered street beggars. (quoted in Ibrahim, 2000, p. 52)

According to Arthur Nwankwo (1985:9) “Nigerians of all other ethnic groups will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo”, a phenomenon that Chinua Achebe had dubbed “the Igbo problem”. They argue that the Igbos are more cosmopolitan, more adapted to other cultures, more individualistic and competitive, more receptive to change and more prone to settle and work in other parts of the country but the myth persists that they are aggressive, arrogant and clannish. (Ibrahim, 2000, p.55)

Independence, civil war, and the aftermath

Independence came to Nigeria in 1960, and with it growing disillusionment among many Igbo, particularly with the perceived instability and corruption of the political process. In 1966, Igbo officers staged a coup and seized control of the country, killing the prime minister and the premiers of the northern and western regions. Northern army officers then staged a countercoup, and Igbo began to flee northern cities in the wake of persecution.

The next year, in 1967, the Igbo seceded and formed their own country, the Republic of Biafra. They lost the ensuing civil war at the cost of a million civilian deaths and a devastated homeland. Nonetheless, they are today building on “the remarkable Igbo economic and commercial élan that has occurred since the end of the civil war” (Ibrahim, 2000, p. 56).

Yet mistrust remains: “the North and the West have a deep-seated mistrust of the Igbo and so are bent on restricting, containing, and denying the Igbo their political right. Added to this is their subtle message to other minority groups: the Igbo, as a group, are not to be trusted!” (Abidde, 2004). This mistrust is founded on a not unjustified perception that the Igbo will prevail on any level playing field:

Collectively, the Igbo are wealthy, educated, and intelligent. These are people with global influence, strength of character, élan and self confidence. The Igbo nation has attributes most other Nigerian nations can only dream of; and are what most other nations are not. The Igbo made and makes Nigeria better. Any wonder then that the Igbo can do without Nigeria; but Nigeria and her myriad nationalities cannot do without the Igbo? Take the Igbo out of the Nigeria equation, and Nigeria will be a wobbling giant gasping for air! (Abidde, 2004)

Today, there is growing recognition in Nigeria that the Igbo can and should be given more political and economic power, but there is still a fear that they will use such power selfishly and not for the good of all Nigerians.


Chanda Chisala uses the Igbo example to refute the “hereditarian-HBD” argument. In doing so, he comes closer to the HBD position than he may realize. Recent work on gene-culture coevolution has shown that the average mental makeup of human populations can change significantly over a short span of historical time. This notably seems to have happened with the Ashkenazi Jews and the English between the Middle Ages and the 19th century (Clark et al., 2007; Cochran et al., 2006).

Why couldn’t a similar process have happened with the Igbo? Why assume that sub-Saharan Africa is a monolith whose diverse populations have evolved in exactly the same way? We know that human genetic evolution didn’t slow down with the coming of culture. It actually sped up (Hawks et al., 2007). For the most part, we humans have diversified genetically in response to differences in cultural environment and not to differences in natural environment. It is therefore plausible that the different cultures of Africa have had different effects on the gene pools of their respective populations.

I can hear the answer to my question: “You guys are the ones who think all blacks are alike!” Well, that isn’t what I think.

On a final note, I couldn’t help noticing the many commenters who complimented Chanda on sticking it to the HBD crowd. Don’t they understand the logical contraposition? If it can be shown that some African groups have higher cognitive ability, doesn’t the converse become plausible and even expectable?


It may be that a similar sort of nickname had evolved into the word “Igbo” itself: “[…] some Ibo claim that the word “Hebrew” must have been mutilated to “Ubru” or “Ibru,” then to “Uburu,” and later to “Ibo.”” (Butler, 1997, pp. 177-178). This is plausible, given that the Igbo initially had a weak sense of collective identity and may not have had a native name for themselves, thus inclining them to take a name given by outsiders. There are examples of this sort of thing elsewhere in Africa. The Tukulor of Senegal, for instance, were originally called the “two colors” by European travellers because some of them were light-skinned and others dark-skinned.


Abidde, S.O. (2004). The Nigerian Presidency and the Igbo Nation,Gamji

Butler, J.S. (1997). Why Booker T. Washington was right. A reconsideration of the economics of race,” in T.D. Boston (ed.) A Different Vision: African American economic thought, Volume 1, (pp. 174-193), Psychology Press

Chisala, C. (2015). The IQ gap is no longer a black and white issue,The Unz Review, June 25

Clark, G. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Cochran, G., J. Hardy, and H. Harpending. (2006). Natural history of Ashkenazi intelligence, Journal of Biosocial Science, 38, 659-693.

Davison, C.C. (1972). Glass beads in African archaeology: Results of neutron activation analysis, supplemented by results of X-ray fluorescence analysis, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, University of California

Eze-Uzomaka, P. (2009). Iron and its influence on the prehistoric site of Lejja, World of Iron Conference

Hawks, J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H.C. Harpending, and R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution,Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences U.S.A., 104, 20753-20758.

Holl, A. F.C. (2009). Early West African Metallurgies: New Data and Old Orthodoxy, Journal of World Prehistory, 22, 415-438

Ibrahim, J. (2000). The transformation of ethno-regional identities in Nigeria, in A. Jegga (ed.) Identity Transformation and Identity Politics Under Structural Adjustment in Nigeria, (pp. 41-61), Nordic Africa Institute.

Insoll, T. and T. Shaw. (1997). Gao and Igbo-Ukwu: Beads, interregional trade, and beyond, African Archaeological Review, 14, 9-23

Northrup, D. (1972). The growth of trade among the Igbo before 1880, The Journal of African History, 13,217-236.

Sabino, R. and J. Hall. (1999). The path not taken: Cultural identity in the interesting life of Olaudah Equiano, MELUS, 24, 5-19.

Wikipedia. (2015). Archaeology of Igbo-Ukwu

(Republished from Evo and Proud by permission of author or representative)
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