January 15th marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of Nigeria-Biafra war, a conflict fought for close to three years following Biafra’s secession from Nigeria. In 1966, members of the Nigerian military staged a coup which, while unsuccessful in achieving its aims, killed a number of key political figures from Nigeria’s Northern and Western regions. The coup would later be framed by the media as an ‘Igbo’ coup on the basis that a number of the coup instigators were of Igbo heritage (from Nigeria’s Eastern region). A second coup followed, led by military men from the nation’s north, and after they took power, Igbo people living in Northern Nigeria north were targeted and killed en masse. This sparked an exodus, as Igbo people living in the north and the west of the country returned to their ancestral homes in the east. After a series of failed negotiations with Nigeria’s military government, noting that civilians from the Eastern region no longer felt safe in Nigeria, Biafra declared itself an independent nation. Nigeria, backed by Britain, retaliated to Biafra’s secession by waging war.  

Thousands of people died in the fighting while some estimates suggest two million Biafran civilians died of starvation or starvation related diseases during Nigeria’s military blockade. Press coverage of the war circulated images of starving children in Biafra around the world, offering unprecedented visibility for a humanitarian crisis of this scale, and leaving a deep legacy in international perceptions of war and famine. After the war, members of the French Red Cross who were dissatisfied with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Biafra formed Médecins Sans Frontières, citing lessons learnt from the conflict. Biafra — and by extension, Africa — became inextricably associated with suffering to an international audience residing outside of the continent.

People awaiting food aid at Ozu-Akoli during the war. Via International Committee of the Red Cross.

Whilst many writers and artists have examined the war in their works, there has not been a broader public reckoning with the history of Biafra. In contemporary Nigeria, Biafra is largely regarded as a regional rather than a national concern. The state’s engagement with Biafra centres on the contemporary political situation in relation to securitisation, focussing primarily on separatist movements as localised destabilising forces. The fractures visible in 1960s Nigeria remain, and continue to shape the dynamics of contemporary politics and social interactions. The renewed call for Biafran independence in recent years by the secessionist group the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) demonstrates that the effects of the war still need to be reckoned with. 

1970s Nigeria benefitted from an oil boom, resulting in a period of national economic growth. Many survivors of the war buried their trauma, and focussed their energies on rebuilding their lives and livelihoods. Whilst the government’s official line after the war had been ‘no victor, no vanquished’, the Nigerian bank accounts of former Biafrans were emptied of their funds, and each person was left with only £20. A deep sense of loss about Biafra — both loss of life and the loss of an ideal — weighed on the collective consciousness of a people. In spite of this shared experience and emotion, a collective silence on Biafra ensued.

View of the Niger delta from NASA Space Shuttle, 2005. Public domain image via Wikicommons.

One of Nigeria’s most celebrated authors, Chinua Achebe spoke about the importance of breaking the silence and engaging with the war in a meaningful way: ‘I believe that if we are to survive as a nation [Nigeria] we need to grasp the meaning of our tragedy. One way to do it is to remind ourselves constantly of the things that happened and how we felt when they were happening.’ Achebe was countering the dominant stance within Nigeria that suggested to remain silent on the war equated to healing or ‘moving on’. Drawing inspiration from Achebe, I wanted to work to create the space Achebe called for ‘to grasp the meaning of our tragedy.’ His articulation of the centrality of emotion in this endeavour made me consider the importance of empathy and a space for conversation when engaging with the war. 

In 2014 I observed the extensive programme of activities to mark the centenary of the First World War in the UK. There were television programmes commissioned, large art instillations (most notably the poppies at the Tower of London), commemorative coins issued, and exhibitions held. The scale of commemoration meant that whether or not you sought out these events, there was a significant chance that you would be aware of the anniversary anyway. It was with this in mind that I began to consider ways of engaging different publics in a conversation on Biafra.

‘Flare’ by Hassan Aliyu; ‘Legacies of Biafra’ exhibition, Brunei Gallery. By permission of the artist.

At the ‘Igbo Conference’ — an annual event that I co-convene — in 2017, we focused on ‘Legacies of Biafra’. With a programme extending over three days, the conference brought together academics, artists and members of the community to reflect on the lasting effects of the war both locally and globally. Whilst attended by over 350 participants, most of whom were members of the general public, it was clear that providing a number of different entry points into a developing conversation about Biafra would enable more voices to be heard.

The following year I curated a multimedia exhibition on the ‘Legacies of Biafra’ at the Brunei Gallery SOAS, working closely with the Nigeria Art Society UK. The exhibition offered people the space to enter a discussion, engage with the artistic works, and develop their own readings of the war and its after-effects. I also worked as a producer on the documentary film, In the Shadow of Biafra, which has sought to move engagement with the war away from the histories of ‘big men’, considering instead the war’s ongoing impact through a number of lesser considered perspectives. Told through the eyes of creative writers, topics engaged with include post-traumatic stress and the intergenerational transmission of trauma in post-war Nigeria; changes to cultural and spiritual practice in the wake of the war and how Biafra is remembered in contemporary Nigeria and the wider world.

Biafra flag on a combat vehicle, Nigerian National War Museum, Umuahia. Via ICRC Archives.

Anniversaries provide an opportunity to stop and reflect on key episodes in the past, and consider how their effects continue to shape our contemporary realities. The arts offers an important avenue in foregrounding the human account of the war, so that behind the figures and historical episodes we see what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has described as the ‘emotional truth’. The story of Biafra must be remembered and the lives lost must be commemorated. To paraphrase the Igbo proverb, we need to identify where the rain began to beat us so that we can begin to move forward.

Dr Louisa Uchum Egbunike is Lecturer in English at City, University of London. She is an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker, and curator of the Legacies of Biafra touring exhibition. You can follow her on Twitter @LouisaEgbunike.

‘In the Shadow of Biafra’ launches at the Curzon Bloomsbury on 25th January. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.

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