Louis Chude-Sokei narrates a story of Nigeria, of splintered identity, of exile, and of the Biafran War and its godfather – his godfather – the military strategist, strongman and celebrated hero, General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
I remember thinking how much I looked like him. So much so that, had I been told he was really my father, I wouldn’t have doubted it even as I denied it. It was the beard. At the time I wore mine like one of my Rastafarian heroes, though my dreadlocks had been unceremoniously shorn the day after I landed in Lagos. It was only my second trip back to Nigeria since the war and apparently no one was willing to accept a Jamaican symbol of African origins. For Igbos dreadlocks were isi dada, grown on children for ritual purposes or for reasons now deemed superstitious, though still common. Or they were the sign of madness, dreams unshared. Only America made sense. It needed to be clear that that was what I had to offer.
On this trip all I could think about was the last time I’d seen my godfather – in 1985, on my first trip back. The great man had summoned me. It was also his first time back, because he’d been exiled for almost 15 years in the Ivory Coast. I’d returned because my mother finally felt comfortable with me travelling to Nigeria.
She thought his presence would somehow protect me from the government or even more so, from my family. Many people hadn’t forgiven her for escaping with me during the war, just after the hesitant nation of Biafra had collapsed. After my father’s death we’d made it out of the country on one of the last airlifts to Gabon. Rumour had it that my godfather had arranged our escape. To the elders of the village, however, it was kidnapping. She had no rights to me, as a woman and as a foreigner. Upon my father’s death she’d been forced to become what she’d been before she’d married him: a Jamaican.
Arriving in Nigeria to rapturous crowds and high military alert, my godfather had been placed under house arrest. It was unlikely he could do much for me. We drove in my uncle the Barrister’s well-worn Peugeot 504, “Nigeria’s Prestige Car”. I remember a long, jagged red dirt road that led to a wide house in a narrow compound filled with family, fans, well-wishers and stern-eyed old men. They were there to support, defend and celebrate the return of the Ikemba (Strong Man) of Nnewi, Eze Nd’Igbo (King of the Igbos), Dikedioramma (beloved hero), first Biafran head of state, the General, the Warlord, Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu – my godfather.
I was staring into a face that I’d seen on numerous book and magazine covers, not to mention the avalanche of photos my mother kept of the Biafra war, of her time lost in its midst and of our time shuttling between refugee camps. Perhaps it was just arrogance that caused me to see a resemblance to someone that famous. There was, certainly, awe. This was, after all, the man who had led the secession that officially started the Biafra war in 1967, the year I was born. He told me it was my father who had suggested Biafra as a name for the Igbo nation that they had rapidly invented in response to brutal pogroms in Nigeria’s Muslim north. That secession had led to a four-year civil war in which the much more numerous and far better equipped Britishbacked Federal Government laid siege to the Igbo lands of the East.
Biafra was Africa’s first televised war and it made my godfather and his beard internationally famous. People in the US and UK may have been vague about its location or its political details, but there was one thing few in the international community could escape as the war dragged towards its brutal conclusion: kwashiorkor – a disease made famous by that war, where starving bodies swelled past irony and heads doubled in size. Images of such children were everywhere, taken by journalists and aid workers who broke through the blockade established by a government that had proclaimed starvation a legitimate tactic of war.
I’d grown up with these images, also those of the pogroms, beheadings and disembowelments and corpse-littered villages. My mother had carried many of them with us in the hope of getting them to the international press. Like many of the pictures from Vietnam, some became iconic. Celebrities and activists used them to drum up support and attention for Biafra. There were charity concerts like the “Operation Airlift Biafra Benefit” in New York, featuring Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez. Beatle John Lennon famously refused his MBE from the Queen, partly because of Britain’s support for the Nigerian Federal Government.
Biafra became more than just a fashionable cause in an era with many to choose from. A white woman in Paris burned herself to death in front of the Nigerian embassy in protest against the war being waged on the Igbo people. Bruce Mayrock, a US student at Columbia University, immolated himself, with a sign on his body reading “Stop Genocide, Save Nine Million Biafrans.” Things went so global that then US president Lyndon Johnson reputedly told one of his aides to “get those nigger babies off my TV set”. As many as two million people are estimated to have died. This was the man responsible.
That he’d insisted on seeing me mattered a great deal, considering how many people were clustered around the house and compound in the hope of catching a glimpse of him or eager to obtain his political sanction. Those sterneyed old men seated in his presence were clearly ex-soldiers. They now wore the garb of old men, not only because that was what they’d become but because the compound was staffed also with soldiers of the current Federal Government. Armed and tense, both groups monitored the General’s every move and the people who visited him.
It wasn’t our first meeting. He’d visited us in California when I was too young to know anything other than the fact that he was famous and had been very close to my father. Of course I’d seen the pictures and books, our house was littered with them. Friends had even asked if he was my father, to which my mother never responded well. But I hadn’t yet begun to think much about Nigeria, much less Biafra. We’d left Biafra for Jamaica under cover of night and journeyed through a kaleidoscope of refugee camps. When we landed on the island it was with stories of an Africa they weren’t yet ready to hear. Jamaica had finally become proud of its African roots, so stories of genocide were unwelcome. It was best to become as Jamaican as possible as quickly as possible. This may have been easier for me than for my mother. I had as yet no identity, whereas she had developed too many.
Then there was the US a few years later.
There I lived in fear of anyone noticing cracks in my mask. I’d learned that the one thing that guaranteed ostracism from the African- American world was to be identified as an African. It was best to sound like them and disappear into their understanding of skin. On that visit my godfather arrived without security or entourage and was dressed like any uncle arriving to spend a few days in sunny California. Sandals even. I had no idea that he was in exile, and would return to the Ivory Coast after leaving this small bungalow in a largely black working class neighbourhood just east of the Pacific Ocean. Had I known, the contrast would have embarrassed me, because I had yet to learn that that very contrast between an epic past and a mundane present was the story of many immigrants and refugees. He insisted on spending a great deal of time alone with me, and what I remembered more than anything was that he moved with the kind of elegant self-confidence my friends would have called effeminate. This stayed with me. It suggested that fame was even more liberating than I’d dreamed. He also taught me how to throw a knife. We used an empty shoebox as a target. I think I wanted him to marry my mother. For him to do so would somehow have been appropriate. It would have maintained the sanctity of my father’s memory and freed me from the ever-present sense that she existed solely for me.
He told me to ask him anything, about the war, about my father, about Nigeria. Did I want to learn some Igbo? There was nothing I could think to ask. I hadn’t even begun to make sense of my childhood in Jamaica. I was still a few years from exploring back beyond the island and had only gotten as far as the symbols most recognisable to my peers here in California, which, to be honest, were few and are too embarrassing to recount. It wasn’t New York or London or D.C., where black Americans were familiar with other types of blacks. Black Americans had been calling us African Booty Scratchers or Jungle Bunnies or Ooga Boogas for so long that I thought it best not to provide them with ammunition.
He asked about life in California, my friends, my world. Perhaps in an attempt to feel worthy of the epic past and the violence that came with it, I told him about the street gangs in our neighbourhood. I thought these stories would impress my godfather, and when he nodded his head silently, clearly moved, I felt as if my proximity to this violence made me worthy of my past. I knew he’d led an army and fought a war and that my father was also a hero of that war. I’d been seeing the images of that war my whole life, of my father’s training in Britain and my godfather standing poised next to men whom I’d next encounter in history books when I went to college.
More than anything else he wanted me to return to Nigeria. I was the first son of the first son and the country needed me more than the US did. I was still young enough to respond with a desire for adventure and fantasy. The long lost son, the heir, would return. Blood would make deeds unnecessary. There would have to be a quest, no doubt a princess or three. And it was Africa, so there would most certainly be need. The irony of him telling me to return to a country he couldn’t return to didn’t occur to me until I began writing this.
That first meeting between us in Nigeria was much less private. When it was announced who I was – or who my father was – the people around him began to stare at me with a portion of the reverence my father had commanded. The ex-soldiers all froze, leaning forward with interest and surprise. Eventually my godfather sent everyone away so that he and I and my uncle could be alone. The government soldiers, however, refused to leave the room and began to cluster by the door. Apparently my godfather was not to be left alone. Not a tall man, he stood up from the settee and began barking orders in a combination of Oxford English and what I assumed was Hausa, though it could have been Yoruba. At the time I couldn’t tell the difference. The men quickly fell into line. Their eyes faced rigidly forward, but with that slight military tilt upwards. When he ordered them out they marched in file, and their leader closed the door behind them apologetically. That a prisoner could command his guards was a staggering notion, as was what seemed a sudden easing of tension as the roles were reversed. It was as if he had done them a favour.
Six or so years later, I was summoned again. My newly shorn scalp was sensitive to the heat, but I was grateful for the haircut. I looked like my father, he said happily. That resemblance was the only gift I could give him. We met at one of his remaining properties, on the posh Victoria Island. There were no red dirt roads, just incomplete highways and bridges ravaged by age. He’d spent the years after exile reclaiming all that had been stripped from him during and after the war. He was the son of Africa’s first millionaire and had much to regain. As with the previous visit, he greeted my uncle with great affection. After a brief kola nut ceremony and beer, they spoke in Igbo, first incantatory and then broken with occasional laughter. Then my uncle left us. There were no ex-soldiers about. Later one of my uncles said that the government so feared my godfather that he was forbidden to associate with soldiers or ex-soldiers.
At that point in my life I was sure that I’d be returning to Nigeria, and I expected to ask him many things about the country, about being Igbo, and about his plans for Nigeria. This was a culture where my father’s memory could still translate into power. My father’s name grounded me so deeply here that my lack of cultural authenticity wasn’t an issue. But it seemed indecent to ask a man still recovering from political exile about my future, even if he was my godfather.
Chude-Sokei is a Jamaican-born writer and critic based in the US. His book The Last Darky: Bert Williams, Black-on-Black Minstrelsy, and the African Diaspora was a finalist for the 2005 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award