By Olu Oguibe
Is that accent from?
He asked politely.
Biafra, I replied
That’s where I’m from.
Biafra, he repeated
And pondered awhile
I’m sure I’ve heard
Of that nation before.
It’s not a nation
Sir, I corrected
Only a notion
In the imagination.
Well, he replied
After much thought
There are no nations
Only the imagination.
The mirror is a window.
It offers a glimpse
Of where we’re from
But cannot return.
We’re all travellers
On this endless road
Condemned to roam
– Oguibe, “Conversation”, 2002
In 1967 I was a two-year old grappling with the terrors and thrills of a child’s new world. I had already been moved from the world of the city into which I was born, to that of a lonely mission station. My country, Nigeria, was on the verge of war, and my father, a young Christian preacher who had dreamed of life abroad and a great future for himself and his young family was now on the run, like most of his kin, his dreams suspended as the country watched and waited with trepidation. He was thirty-four.
Only a few months earlier, in 1966, thousands of our kin from the eastern part of the country had been slaughtered several hundred miles away to the north where they lived: whole families set ablaze by their neighbours in the middle of the night, children hacked to death in their sleep, women violated by men who only the previous day would have doffed their hats or helped them cross the street. Some of the men were burnt at the stake, some decapitated, others hounded through the streets and stoned. Many have estimated that ten thousand men, women and children from Eastern Nigeria were murdered in the streets and in their sleep by their compatriots in the single month of August that year. The background to this atrocity seemed immediate to many at the time, yet to understand it fully one must also understand the amalgam of nations, peoples, sensibilities and interests that had come to be known as Nigeria.
On the morning of January 15, 1966, a year before we fled Aba, the Igbo commercial city where I was born, Nigerians awoke to the news that the country’s fledgling democracy had been toppled, and that a new military government under the leadership of young army officers was in the making. Though the news came as a shock to some, many had indeed expected the event and prayed for it. Since independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria had wobbled from crisis to crisis, from the arbitrary detention of major political figures in 1962 to a general strike by workers in June 1965. Corruption had seeped into the fabric of the new nation, tainting census counts and election results, enriching the political elite. The disaffection of the populace was nearly complete.
The crisis of the new Nigerian state reflected unresolved differences among the country’s regions and culture groups, between predominantly Muslim north and largely Christian south, for instance, and then again between feudalist Hausa-Fulani in the north and Yoruba in the west, and the republican Igbo in the east. Even more significantly, it also reflected a global history of British complicity in the near destruction of all societies formerly under its colonial rule. The north, for instance, had been left largely illiterate for the convenience of the British and the northern oligarchies that worked for them, and had ended up without the skilled and educated manpower to compete with the rest of the country. The west, in contrast, had embraced European-style education and modernity in the 19th century with the result that it produced a highly educated elite and middle-class capable of administration and governance in the event of Nigeria’s independence from British colonial rule. The greater bulk of the country’s administrative and mercantile manpower, however, came from the east where the people were known for their aggressive industry, sophistication, and self-sufficiency. Some have argued that in the poisoned politics of independent Nigeria, the easterners and westerners seemed locked in competition while the northerners felt cheated and insecure.
The British promoted regional and ethnic politics in the false pretence that it would guarantee a robust and dynamic democratic process, but the somewhat predictable result was a culture of ethnic suspicion and distrust that served their purposes even after their departure. Nigeria’s federal constitution, which devolved power to the three regions, decidedly favoured the north which had historically been in the favour of the British. However, the Hausa-Fulani in the north feared the cultural and economic power of the southerners. Although many northern leaders were suspicious of the idea of a united, albeit federated Nigeria, and openly argued for a separate nation for the north, nonetheless they were quick to recognize that an independent Northern Nigeria would be landlocked and mineral poor: the south had abundant mineral wealth, lush arable rainforest, hundreds of miles of navigable coastline, as well as vast oil deposits. With this realization, the northerners settled for the compromise of a confederacy with little power at the centre, with national representatives chosen by regional parliaments in the east (34 seats), west (34 seats) and north (68 seats), the ratio of representatives for each region having been arbitrarily set under pressure from the British.
British suspicion of the southerners – and especially of the itinerant and largely Christian easterners – also played an important role in determining this federal structure. The sophistication and self-sufficiency of the easterners had been remarked on since early colonial times. Writing of the Igbo in 1939, British author Sylvia Leith-Ross observed:
They do not look up to us [the British] resentfully as conquerors but complacently as stepping stones. What will happen when they can, or think they can, mount alone and have no further use for the stepping stones, no one can tell.
Of the different groups that were amalgamated in 1914 to form Nigeria, the groups in the east posed the earliest and greatest challenge to British colonial rule. Unlike those in the west and north, they had no paramount rulers and so, had no ready platform for the colonial strategy of indirect rule whereby Britain converted local rulers into administrative surrogates for the Crown. To pursue indirect rule the British had to appoint and impose municipal rulers on cultures that prided themselves on their republicanism and maintained that everyman was a ruler unto himself. The imposition of municipal figureheads or “warrant chiefs” drew enormous ire, especially from the Igbo who characteristically resisted the new dispensation just as they resisted every other aspect of British colonial intervention in their affairs. In 1929, Igbo women in Aba organized the first known protest against British poll taxes, and for decades, young men’s societies known as Ekumeku among the Igbo west of the Niger did whatever they could to sabotage the colonial administration. It was almost predictable that the most formidable leader of the struggle against colonial rule in Nigeria would be an Igbo who, unlike his generation of young, colonial elite, studied in America instead of Britain: Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s premiere media mogul and founder of the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), later renamed the National Council of Nigerian Citizens. Popularly known as “Zik of Africa,” Azikiwe’s campaign developed under the strong influence of another hero of the struggle against British colonial rule in West Africa; Edward Wilmot Blyden of Sierra Leone, a slave descendant of Igbo ancestry.
As soon as modernization made urban migration possible, millions of easterners, Igbo and otherwise, left the east to live and work in Western and Northern Nigeria as civil servants, merchants, soldiers, and teachers; many of them were ardent nationalists, believers in a Nigerian nation and the promise of a common Nigerian identity. In fact, no figure illustrates the bitter ironies of Nigerian nationalism better than Azikiwe. Zik was the quintessential Nigerian. Born in the northern railway town of Zungeru and educated in Lagos in the west, he spent most of his adult life in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital, after his return from studies in the United States. He was fluent in Yoruba, the dominant language in the west, Hausa, the dominant language in the north, and Igbo; and he named his children in all three languages. Not only did he argue for a united country after colonial rule; he indeed lived it. But Lagos was in western Nigeria, and Nnamdi Azikiwe was Igbo from the east. After several decades leading the nationalist movement to victory, Azikiwe was nevertheless unable to win a seat in the new regional parliament of Western Nigeria in 1953, on the simple account of his ethnic origin in the east. Dr. Azikiwe’s failure to secure election to the regional assembly in Western Nigeria undoubtedly foreshadowed the country’s political future.
After federal elections in 1959, Azikiwe was appointed president in a power-sharing agreement between the major political parties, but his position as president was largely ceremonial. Real power belonged to the majority leader of the federal assembly, and prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, and even more so to the aristocratic premier of the northern region, Ahmadu Bello, who was the Saduana or paramount ruler of the Muslim emirate of Sokoto and served as spiritual leader for the largely Muslim population of the north.
Thus Nigeria arrived at independence ruled by an uneasy coalition of nationalist visionaries, most of whom were strongly Pan Africanist, and ethnic and religious sectarian politicians who believed little and invested less in the country’s survival. The nationalists soon found themselves isolated as sectarian leaders turned national politics into a game of ethnic and religious affiliations. By the third year of independence from Britain, corruption had taken deep root in the growing alienation that this state of affairs fostered, and in regions where political opposition dared rear its head, repression became the norm. Increasingly, political scores were settled through violence, and sections of the country were placed under a state of emergency as the violence and disenchantment escalated. It seemed there was nothing to stem the tide of internecine violence.
Even as the great promises of the emergent nation seemed to disappear, disillusionment fired renewed patriotic enthusiasm among many, and out of this enthusiasm the conviction began to emerge that the only solution to Nigeria’s deepening problems was to wrest power from the corrupt politicians and sectarian leaders, and hand it back to the people. On January 15, 1966, this new nationalism erupted on the nation’s political landscape with the force of a volcano, burying the fledgling democracy and inadvertently setting the stage for the greatest bloodbath Africa has ever known.
The rupture occurred in the form of a military coup d’etat carried out by a small band of nationalist insurgents who would later be known as the Five Majors. Their leader, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was a bright and sprightly officer in his twenties. Nzeogwu was an easterner born and raised in the northern city of Kaduna after which he was named. He and his men were inspired by another group of nationalist military officers, the Egyptian Free Officers Movement who seized power a decade earlier in order to put an end to Egypt’s corrupt monarchy. Youthful, articulate and brimming with patriotism, the Free Officers, led by the charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, rose in July 1952 and deposed the king in a bloodless coup, thus preparing the way for a modern democracy in Egypt. Unfortunately, however, Nigeria’s Five Majors had a greater beast to challenge than Nasser and his men did. While the Five Majors were professional soldiers who rose through the ranks, with immaculate service records and genuine convictions, they were also politically inexperienced. Moreover, instead of a doddering monarchy, they were attempting to topple an unwieldy but legitimate and duly elected, if tarnished, democracy in a country of more than 56 million people with a maze of oligarchies, theocracies, clan loyalties, and complex international relations and interests. Nasser and his men executed a bloodless, palace coup, allowing the monarch to cede power to his heir and depart into exile. Nigeria’s Five Majors could not execute a bloodless palace coup: They executed their head of government instead.
On the appointed day, the young majors, each leading a group of soldiers, turned the Republic on its head. In Kaduna, Major Nzeogwu walked from his command to the residence of the northern premier, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, fetched him from his bed, and summarily executed him, along with his protesting head-wife. In Ibadan to the west, another party executed the cantankerous premier of the region, Chief Akintola, and then headed off eighty miles south to the national capital in Lagos where they dispatched Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and his minister of finance, Chief Okotie-Eboh. Across the country, the scene was replayed with various members of the discredited Nigerian leadership either put to death or stripped of power. At noon, Nzeogwu took to the airwaves to announce the formation of a Revolutionary Council, declaring:
Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in the high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten percent; those that seek to see the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as Ministers and VIPs of waste; the tribalists; the nepotists.
Ruthless and messy though it was, the action of the Five Majors met widespread acclaim: trade unions, student assemblies, church leaders, and traditional rulers gave their support. The “mutiny sharply broke the cycle of escalating suspicion, hostility, and violence,” the London Observer‘s local correspondent, Colin Legum, noted at the time: “It also introduced a new and much more hopeful note into Nigerian politics.”
Nonetheless there were crucial mistakes, what the poet Christopher Okigbo might call “errors in the rendering,” that eventually proved disastrous for the coup plotters and the country at large. Having executed the premiers of the other two regions, the devout Christian officers in charge failed to kill the Igbo premier of Eastern Nigeria, Dr Michael Okpara who was playing host to the visiting Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church and was in effect untouchable. Nor were they able to reach the titular president, Dr. Azikiwe. In Lagos, meanwhile, another Igbo from the east, Nigerian Armed Forces chief John Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, escaped the coup makers and, having rallied loyal troops, proceeded to quell the putsch. Once he regained control of the armed forces, Aguiyi-Ironsi promptly dissolved the Revolutionary Council and arrested the Five Majors. By January 17, what remained of the federal government formally handed over power to Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi as the country’s new head of state.
Popularly known as “General Ironside,” the career officer had served as Field Commander of the United Nations peace keeping forces in the Congo in the early sixties, and was the first African to lead U.N. troops. A forceful leader in his own right, he quickly restored peace to the country, jailing corrupt politicians as well as the conspirators of the January coup.
Aguiyi-Ironsi’s earliest political and military appointments seemed to reassure the north that he did not intend to finish what the coup-makers started. However, like the Five Majors, Aguiyi-Ironsi was himself an incorrigible nationalist, and before long he recommenced the task of uniting the country by undermining regional power bases while establishing a strong centre. Convinced that he had the whole country behind him, he posed a challenge to the authority of the regional politicians and sectarian leaders. In May 1966, Aguiyi-Ironsi made a mistake that proved fatal. He abolished the confederation by executive order, along with the regional parliaments, replacing the tripartite political structure with a unitary state ruled directly from the centre. The response from the northern and western regions was swift. In July, a group of young army officers, all of them from the north, surrounded the General at the home of the governor of the Western Region, Lt. Col. Fajuyi. A decent and conscientious host as well as a professional army officer, Governor Fajuyi refused to give up his guest and commander-in-chief. Both men were taken away by the mutinous northern officers led by Lt. Theophilus Y. Danjuma who then tortured the head of state and his host, and executed them, thus toppling the national government for the second time in six months. The violence had only just begun.
Many noted that four of the Five Majors who carried out the initial coup in January were Igbo but failed to consider the circumstances of timing and history that made this possible, or indeed the fact that the two officers who were directly responsible for foiling the coup, General Aguiyi-Ironsi and another young officer in the north, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, were both Igbo, also. Instead, they claimed that the Igbo had finally set out to seize control of the country and turn the other groups into vassals. The coup against Aguiyi-Ironsi’s government proved to be a signal for the non-Igbo across the country to take revenge on their Igbo countrymen for their alleged mastermind of the failed January coup, and more importantly, to settle old scores born of jealousy and resentment against the group, nay against all easterners. And so they took to the streets, beginning with officers and soldiers of eastern origin who were rounded up in army barracks all over northern and western Nigeria, and massacred. Throughout the north and west, civilians from the east were pulled out of crowds or from their homes and murdered, and their properties seized or destroyed. It was killing time, and when the frenzy peaked and the slaughter began in earnest, no one from the east was spared, whether Igbo or not, man or woman, adult or child. It was late July now, and the long-buried seed of hate had finally sprouted.
The extermination of easterners living in the north continued throughout July and August, 1966. It has been estimated that in nearly a century of tragedy in Northern Ireland, about 3,200 lives were lost. On a single night in Kaduna in August, 1966, that many Igbo were slaughtered and buried in mass graves. British reporter Colin Legum wrote of “men, women and children with arms and legs broken, hands hacked off, mouths split open. Pregnant women (were) cut open and their unborn children killed.” In the west, the new military governor of the region, Major Akahan, expressed his satisfaction. Things had “evened out,” he said.
Eventually, those who survived the nationwide genocide fled to their ancestral homeland in the east to find refuge. In less than two months, an estimated two million refugees flooded back into the region for safety. By the end of that momentous year, almost every family in the east had lost members in the pogroms. Nigeria’s new military government now under a young, northern officer did little to stay the massacres or protect the easterners. The following year, with the lines drawn between them and the rest of the country, especially after numerous reconciliation talks that failed because the national government consistently reneged on its pledges of cooperation and guarantee of safety for all, the easterners determined that they needed a safe haven if they were to survive the onslaught from the rest. Since Nigeria was unwilling to guarantee their safety as citizens, they decided to secede and found a new nation, their own nation. Having been treated like people from another country, and nearly annihilated by their neighbours, they become another country: Biafra.
Determined to bring the secession to heel, the Nigerian government declared it an act of war and set out to re-establish control over the east. War followed; a long and bitter war. On its part, the fledgling Republic of Biafra mounted a defence which at first was sustained by a hastily assembled volunteer militia. Most of its finest career military officers had been murdered in the pogroms, and the defunct confederation did not support regional armies. Over the next three years, the young country fought with crude arms manufactured by university professors working with craftsmen, while Britain and Russia both provided Nigeria with a steady supply of state-of-the-art weapons, advisors, and mercenaries, and Britain gave logistic and international diplomatic support, also. Only months into the war, Biafra was blockaded, cut off from the rest of the world, as Nigeria threw all its resources into a ruthless campaign that, over time, proved to be more difficult than the quick surgical operation that it originally anticipated would be sufficient to bring the secession to heel.
In 1968, Nigeria’s finance minister, agricultural produce mogul Obafemi Awolowo declared: “Starvation is a legitimate weapon of war, and we have every intention to use it against the rebels.” And so, with the approval of Britain’s Labour government, Nigeria’s leaders engineered a policy of strategic famine in Biafra, to maximum effect. Those Biafrans who survived bombing raids eventually starved to death in their own homes, beginning with the children. In October 1968, the International Red Cross reported a death toll of six thousand Biafrans a day, most of them civilians. By December, the Red Cross counted ten thousand deaths a day in unoccupied Biafra, and four thousand in Biafran territory under Nigerian occupation, making a total of fourteen thousand deaths a day. Although the death toll in Biafra topped one million in 1968 alone, in large part due to Obafemi Awolowo’s policy of strategic starvation, the United Nations, urged on by Britain, Nigeria’s primary backer, concluded that the systematic annihilation of Biafrans could not be qualified as genocide. Disgusted by Britain’s role in the war, the singer John Lennon returned his order of knighthood to the Queen.
In 1969, my family moved again as part of a seemingly endless exodus, farther and farther from the battle lines, until we were sandwiched between death and the sea, and the theatres of war were brought home to us. My father was drafted into the dwindling secessionist army, though he had been judged unfit when he volunteered for military service as a youth, and was officially exempt from service due to his calling as a gospel minister. As he left for the training camp, he left behind a small boy and a smaller girl, barely able to walk, and an aging sister who, despite soldiers’ guns and the relentless pounding of mortars and bombs, vowed never to move from the spot she had called home for forty years. And, he left behind a young woman, a mother of two, with no respite or refuge in the midst of war. There is little that a child’s eyes can recognize, yet there is so much that the child’s mind can register. Of all the horrors that I witnessed as a war-child – the unrelenting drone of bomber aircrafts and the mutilated bodies of other children on the sidewalks, all of which left me with five straight years of daily nightmares – I carry with me one memory deeper than all the rest: of the day my mother failed to come home.
As Biafran men departed for the battle front or met their end in battle, women were left to keep families alive. To help raise her children and help her extended family, my mother had taken to trading behind enemy lines; upon securing her goods, she would travel long distances to market them. On this occasion, she travelled several dozen miles to one of the more popular markets outside the county, a long trek that took a whole day, sometimes more. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Air Force decided to bomb the market on its busiest day. We heard about it on the radio: a slaughter had taken place at Afo Ohiagu, pregnant women were cut in half and their foetuses hauled through the air, market women were buried in the rubble of their own stalls, little children were sighted crying beside the mutilated bodies of their mothers. My mother was there. Having no means to reach the market quickly or trace her whereabouts, we waited and wept and prayed for her safe return; then, we despaired. She did not return with the survivors. Suddenly the war was more intimate than it had ever been. If the war was ever distant in any way, now it no longer was. It had become our war, our personal tragedy, my family’s and mine.
Several days after the carnage, my mother eventually returned, a wreck but alive, her mind and soul shredded by what she had witnessed. Inside she bore her wounds; the terror of standing face to face with death, the anguish of imagining that her children might grow up or perish without a mother, the agonizing feeling that she had abandoned us. There is no worse terror, no horror more devastating, no anguish more corrosive than a woman’s fear that she might never again see her young. That she survived the carnage was a miracle for my sister and me, yet I doubt that we ever did survive the acid that the incident left in the crevices of our hearts.
In a poem from his book, Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, Chinua Achebe describes a Mother’s Day in Biafra:
No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon would have to forget.
The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea, of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies. Most
mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s pride
as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then–
singing in her eyes–began carefully
to part it . . . In another life this
would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.
Such was Nigeria’s gift to me as a child. Such was the fate of my mother and of countless others who watched their suckling die at their breasts, whose husbands and teenage sons were taken to the war fronts never to return, who were violated and saw their children violated. Such was the fate of mothers in Biafra. Several years later, as an artist and a man, I returned to Biafra and the traumas of my childhood, but the memory was still too weighted and the wound too fresh to open. What became of my mother’s wound, I would never know.
After thirty months of bitter warfare, what was left of Biafra and its leadership surrendered the dream of a secure homeland, and once again pledged allegiance to the Nigerian flag. At the end of 1969, at the counsel of his cabinet, the Biafran leader General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu fled, leaving a devastated nation with the reminder that, as the Igbo say, “agaracha must come back.” The sojourner will return. Two weeks after his flight into exile, in January 1970, his deputy commander and successor as head of state, General Phillip Effiong called a ceasefire and led a delegation of Biafran leaders to accept defeat and return the defunct republic to Nigeria. One of my immediate kinsmen, Col. David Ogunewe, was on the delegation.
In thirty months of warfare, nearly three million Biafran lives were lost. Around the world, people mourned the death of a dream, for Biafra was more than a nation of starving women and children. Canadian author Betty Nickerson wrote that Biafra was “a dream of Freedom dying, wounded to death by foreign guns in black hands.” In France, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued that the destruction of Biafra summed up the modern experience in the 20th century. “This war,” wrote the young British writer, Auberon Waugh, “will come to epitomize the inhumanity of our age. One day the world will look into the eyes of Biafra and recoil at the reflections of its own image.”
For the Biafrans, however, there was a sense of relief. After the long rendezvous with death, we chose life. The mere survival of a small nation of fewer than ten million, through thirty months of international blockade and vicious, genocidal war, was itself a victory. Across the defunct republic, people nursed their wounded, buried their dead, and searched for the bodies of thousands missing. As soon as they could those who survived returned to the other parts of the country where they had lived before fleeing the pogroms. Upon return most found their properties and businesses either destroyed or seized by locals as “abandoned property”. Those properties were never returned. Across the territory itself, two English words appeared in graffiti on public buildings and private portals: Happy Survival! A pithy song of same title issued immediately after by one of the recording artists became an instant hit. “Happy survival!” the lyrics said, “my kinsmen and women, happy survival!” It was a profound testimony to the inimitable strength of a people and the indefatigable resilience of the human spirit.
As soon as the war ended and Nigeria’s head of state declared that there were “no victors, no vanquished”, the country draped a blanket of silence over Biafra and set about repressing its memory. It became treasonable even to mention the word, Biafra. A childhood friend whose father named him Biafra because he was born immediately after the secession suddenly became the butt of jokes and taunts among other children. Teary as he suffered the daily taunts, he would plead with his mates to desist from calling him Biafra and instead call him by his other name. What once was a mark of defiant pride had become a stigma.
I grew up under that blanket of silence, and thus came to believe wholeheartedly in what I have subsequently referred to as the Nigerian project in spite of what I and others had gone through. As an activist and nationalist, I worked tirelessly for thirteen years on the idea of Nigeria as one great nation, labouring in the vineyard of the movement for democracy, surviving detention and constant anxiety and grief for friends killed or jailed or forced to flee into exile by the country’s long line of corrupt leaders and military dictators, eventually following others into exile. I helped form patriotic groups, organize protests at home and abroad against dictatorships, run campaigns for the release of political prisoners, raise funds and engineer support for civil and political organizations, and lobby and pamphleteer in every imaginable theatre including the corridors of the British Parliament. I helped produce newsletters, conceive an underground radio campaign, and find refuge for political fugitives. I took my place on the very frontlines alongside compatriots engaged in what I thought was a common struggle to build a better and stronger Nigeria for all. And I wrote poetry that celebrated our country and its great potentials while lamenting its despoliation by politicians and traitors.
As time went by, however, I found that many of my fellow “nationalists” and activists in the struggle for Nigeria’s survival in fact harboured the same deep-seated sectarian sentiments that destroyed the nation’s innocence shortly after independence. While some of us pursued the nationalist vision for which many fought and died before and after independence, it was increasingly obvious to me that we were surrounded by people who would, at a moment’s notice, trade the idea of national unity for personal or sectarian gain. It became apparent that it mattered to my colleagues that I was an easterner even as I thought that we were all engaged in a common struggle. In time I began to sense from their actions that I was mistaken, that we weren’t simply all Nigerians, and that the old beast of ethnic distrust and clan loyalty was alive and well.
This realization shook me to the marrow. To find that even among the most progressive members of my generation, anyone from the east was still regarded with residual uncertainty by the rest, was profoundly troubling for me. I could not shake the thought that this sentiment seemed consistent with the fact that over the three decades since the end of the war, Nigerians had always used every opportunity to attack the easterners living in other parts of the country, destroy their homes, and burn down their businesses. No reason was too trivial to call out a blood hunt against them or try to run them across the bridge and out of town in a country in which they were meant to be citizens. It seemed consistent with the fact that whereas other nations have historically embarked on the reconstruction of territories destroyed in war, after the Nigeria-Biafra war, Nigeria left its war-ravished eastern region to crawl out of its devastation by itself.
Gradually, I began to feel the depth and weight of the betrayal that my father’s generation had suffered at the hands of their countrymen and women decades earlier, and I felt alone. It seemed as if not even the blood of three million could buy salvation for an accursed nation. I became increasingly disillusioned with the country that had once denounced my kin, and to which I had devoted a substantial portion of my life. Where passion and patriotism once reigned supreme, now I felt resignation and cynicism. It occurred to me that the country that I was willing to fight and die for, the country that I celebrated in song and poetry, had set out not so long ago to destroy me and my own in order to save its pride. It also occurred to me that I had once belonged to another country, a country that promised the safety and equity that my generation and I have continued to fight for but never could find in Nigeria, a country that, after all, emerged from necessity. And, if the attitude of my friends in the Nigerian struggle was anything to go by, it was clear that what happened once could happen again. Without notice my country could turn into my mass grave.
It struck me that my friends – my compatriots – did not share the burden of memory that I struggled under, and that my history was different from theirs. Whereas my communal memory was of monumental persecution, genocide, and ultimately, forced allegiance to the flag, theirs was of triumphal assertion of Nigeria’s indivisible sovereignty. Whereas my childhood was spent coping with starvation, carnage, and death, theirs was spent in relative safety and calm. Whereas my life was forever marked by the miseries of war, they had no experience of the true nature of war or the permanent scars that it inflicts on a child’s mind. They grew up reading about Nigeria’s triumphal war against “rebels in the east”: I lived through – and lost – a war of survival. They were Nigerian; I was an ex-Biafran. We were not coming from the same place.
When the future holds no promise and the present disappoints, we reach back to the past. As I watched my compatriots, I could not help but wonder: would they do to me what their fathers did to my father? When savage passion stirs awake and the scent of blood rises in the air, will they be their brother’s keeper, or will they take me to the slaughter, and then, gamble for my clothes?
Even more importantly, I wondered anew what patriotism, national pride, or love of God and country could possibly mean under my circumstances. How could I be proud of a nation whose integrity rests on the graves of three million of my kin whose memory was forcibly repressed, and whose blood was never atoned for? How could I commit to defend it with all my might, and my life if necessary? How could I celebrate or mourn it? How could I sing its glory? How could I look at those that I called my countrymen and think; indeed, we are all Nigerians? And if I could not answer these questions with the confidence and innocence and certitude that come with citizenship, if I could not testify to the truth of the declaration that there were no victors, no vanquished, how could I, in all honesty, claim this country as mine? How could I be claimed by this country? Was it the case, perhaps, that in defeating and reclaiming Biafra, Nigeria had also raised a generation with a memory of hurt and betrayal, a generation without nation, my generation, Biafra’s children?
It did not help that my moment of awakening occurred while I lived in exile in Europe. With the rift of blood and history between us, I could no longer consider myself an exile from Nigeria. I was challenged to redefine my exile. Could it be that my exile had lasted much longer than I was aware; that I became an exile not the day I left Nigeria, but the day Nigeria stepped over Biafra and reclaimed its territorial integrity? Was it the case, in fact, that I have been in exile almost all my life? As I remembered three million souls who perished in a struggle to the death to secure a little patch of earth where my kin, my children and I could live in safety like citizens, I wondered; could it be that all along I was an exile from another country?
“When You Kill Us, We Rule” was originally published in print as part of Chimurenga 9: Conversations In Luanda And Other Graphic Stories. Available here.