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Legacies of Biafra in London

By Obi Nwakanma

The Igbo have great flaws, and the Igbo have great strengths.

And I think that one of the real strengths of Igbo culture is “Ita ukwa, jaa Eze” – to eat the roasted breadfruit, husk and all, and to bare one’s messy teeth thereafter. It is to position one’s self in things without artifice. It is the Igbo metaphor for denoting the primacy of truth-telling and critical self-appraisal. It is the strenght of a people who are not afraid to examine their own failures and weaknesses, accept their own failures and ugliness, in order to better reposition, and chart new courses.

The Igbo are not afraid of critical self-appraisal, and are unrelenting in telling themselves the truth, and thus never make idols of such permanence as to exact a tyrannical hold on the people or the land. Impermanence is the most consistent cultural logic of the Igbo. No condition is permanent. Everything changes. Man makes and follows change in order to cyclically renew himself and regenerate life. This is the central epistemic basis of Igbo life and its engagement with the world. But change and transformation equally requires a steady look at the past – its ontological grounds: those who do not know where the rain began to beat them, the Igbo say, do not know when the rain stops. Achebe, the great Igbo novelist, has made this statement axiomatic.

I think it was, in part a process of self-appraisal that the “Legacies of Biafra” conference took place, two weeks ago organized under the auspices of the Igbo Studies Association and the School of African and Oriental Studies, at the University of London. Two formidable Igbo women – Dr. Louisa Uchum Egbunike of the University of Manchester, and Yvonne Chioma Mbanefo, former Lecturer in IT at the University of Greenwich and currently an IT Consultant in London – are the forces behind this conference, and the Igbo Studies Association of the UK. It is a tribute to their organizing power, relentless spirit, and commitment. With an equally formidable team comprising Dr. Ndu Anike, former Lecturer in Drama at Goldsmith’s College of the University of London, and now a film Director, Ekene Oboko, a young broadcaster, Nnenna Chukwu, also in the Media, and Onyinye Iwu, an Architect and educator, and a very efficient pool of young volunteers, including the Cambridge-educated, Dr. Njoki, a Kikuyu from Kenya (“the Igbos of Kenya”)  they pulled off a magnificent event – a memorial to the acts of war, the victims of war, and the unresolved questions of that great 20th century conflict called the “Biafra War.” It could not have come at a more crucial time, with the recent spike in agitations by a new generation of Biafran secessionist agitators. It was imperative that this conference brought opposing views to the table, and it offered the opportunity to talk about Biafra. This is rather important. One of the great tragedies of the war, and one which has haunted Nigeria, is the great veil of silence imposed on the war. For many years, it was dangerous to talk about “Biafra” in Nigeria.

MASSOB-BIM members on parade

It took just a few of us to begin, in the late 1980s, to ask questions in newspaper articles and columns, and to take the risks of violating the code of silence, and rousing the repressed anxieties and guilt from that war, at great personal risk. The exclusion, from the Nigerian educational curriculum of the History and Literature of the Biafra war tells of a nation attempting wrongly, and vainly, to escape from the past. We woke up the past briefly from its restless sleep at this conference in London.

Elizabeth Bird’s documentary on the Asaba massacres by the Federal forces drew gasps and tears; You could hear sniffling with Christine Locke’s witnessing, as a child of the massacres that began in the North, where he father worked for the Railways, with the killing of her best friend’s father; and her accounts of the traumas of relocation and refuge in the East; Catherine Onyemelukwe’s memory of life in Biafra as a white American Igbo spouse, and her tribute to her husband, Engineer Onyemelukwe, one of those “unsung Biafrans,” who powered Biafra, ensuring the continuous supply and maintenance of Electricity infrastructure as Head of Biafra’s Directorate of Energy. Such stories – the fact that Biafra could supply electricity under war conditions, which Nigeria is unable to do, under peaceful circumstance provides one of the pointed ironies and contradictions that continue to inspire the agitation for a “new Biafra.”  Obiageli Ezekwesili’s conversation with Stephen Chan, brought to bear her sensitivity as a displaced young Igbo woman during the war in Biafra, in her work and commitment to the Chibok girls, in the current situation in North Eastern Nigeria; an insight further amplified by Chinwe Madubuike’s work with those displaced by Boko Haram.

There was Akachi Ezigbo’s “tribute to Buchi Emecheta” and Ebele Obumselu’s tribute to his father, the late Ben Obumselu against a background of visual tributes produced by Emeka Keazor. There was Pat Utomi’s session with Ernest Emenyonu; Ujuaku Akukwe’s documentary, “Afia Attack” which brought important attention to both the tragedy and heroism of Igbo women, often forced to operate behind enemy lines, sometimes with tragic consequences. My conversation with the artist and scholar Olu Oguibe did happen, although it was truncated by defective technology and the mechanics of linear time.

The session on Christopher Okigbo and resistance equally saw the highlight of work done by the poet’s daughter, Obi Okigbo, and her struggle and difficulties to establish, through the Christopher Okigbo Foundation, a lasting memorial for her father. It is an indictment on the Nigerian nation, and the Igbo, that no memorial bust or monument has been erected to commemorate Nigeria, and Biafra’s national poet and arguably, Africa’s most powerful poet of the second half of the 20th century, even fifty years after he was killed in war.

The popular Musician Charly Boy Oputa was on hand to dismiss the new Biafra agitators as no more than “ignorant romantics.” “I am a Biafran, but “Biafran” of the mind,” he declared to varied reaction. Philip Effiong Jr.’s conversation with Tim Modu, whose father was equally, one of those “unsung Biafrans,” and whose letters exchanged in the war must be preserved as one of the treasures of national heritage, as one of the more intimate and sensitive acts that cast insights into the human dimensions of the actors of war. But there is nothing in Igbo land, and all of the East, to hold these memories. No archives of war, except of course the Museum of War in Umuahia, which in my view is badly designed and funded, going by the documentary of that place shown at this conference. It was the lack of such a place of memory that Ndidi Nwuneli rose to talk about powerfully: her Center for Memories project billed to be housed in Enugu for which, sadly, even the Igbo have been rather ambivalent is another example of tragic Igbo ambivalence. For a people whose ancestors knew that one must know where the rain began to beat them, this generation of the Igbo have been remiss in responding to their historical obligations in that regard. It is important to rescue memory from silence and the cobwebs.

It is important to voice trauma – an exercise we saw in the accounts of Unoma Azuah’s account of “double consciousness” as a product of the child of parents from two opposing sides of that war, Onyemechi Kadamawa Okonkwo’s remembrance of his life as a “Child-soldier,”  the ethnomusicologist Ticha Akuma-Njoku’s reconstruction of the War songs, Maurice Nwokeji’s “Ugwumpiti: a child’s story from Biafra to London” – a documentary done with Eithne Nightingale and Mitch Harris, about one of the more tragic, unspoken  aspects of that war: the lost children of Biafra, transported out of Biafra for safety, but who never returned. Maurice, who described himself as “Onye Ighelighe” – the fabulist- is a musician today in London, and in his voice, you may still hear the cry of anguish. He is a survivor of sorts in the air lift of Biafran children that included the likes of Donu Kogbara, journalist and Vanguard columnist, and her sister, whose father, Ignatius Kogbara was Biafra’s High Commissioner in London, who were in this conference, and had cathartic moments as they shared and heard their own stories in the many voices of others. The “Legacies” conference was in a very important way, a means of self-appraisal – a hard look at a very troubled but unrelenting past


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