“There is a calculated effort by the Nigerian federal government to expunge the memory of Biafra from the Nigerian experience.” Rudolf Okonkwo
As a 25-year-old Nigerian-American, I’ve long had an insatiable appetite for information regarding Nigeria- the land far removed from me in physicality, but attached at my hip in spirit. I’m especially intrigued with its history and when it comes to the Nigerian-Biafra Civil War, there lies an acutely personal interest.
With well-contrived questions posed to my parents for the sole purpose of trying to get into the heads of my ancestors who may have held rifles pointed at Nigerian soldiers; who may have hid in bunkers and pressed their hands against their ears to silence the deafening echoes of thunderstorms of bullets; who may have buried their lovers in makeshift grave pits; who may have abandoned their dinner table when soldiers rampaged through their homes. Of course, the mythical figure himself, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, translated in my mind, as larger than life, handsomely bearded and all.
And as a hoarder of truth and an advocate for Africans to tell their own stories, Nigerians must tell its story. The white man has been doing it for far too long. I sought the conversation of a friend, columnist Rudolf Okonkwo, to get his insights on the practicality of a Nigerian state-sponsored national museum for the preservation of artifacts from the war. I’m aware that many have voiced similar proposals and I’m also aware that many Nigerians, would say I’m foolish for taking this matter seriously when there are immediate needs in the country: regular electric power, cheaper fuel prices, jobs, a corruption-free democracy, etc. But I wanted to candidly ask about a national museum. So, Rudolf and I sat down for a conversation recently, recorded what was said, and here is what transpired.
Chika: There is a pressing need for a national physical commemoration commissioned and sponsored by the federal government to memorialize the Nigerian-Biafra Civil War and the passing of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu is another timely sign. With his death, some of his stories, memories, triumphs, failures and internal fears may forever be lost in the dimension of time. The younger generation of Nigerians, such as myself residing in Diaspora communities throughout the space we call Earth, are lacking vital information about our homeland. Where can one go to find these stories of national importance? Where can visit to get a sense of the collective recollection…
Rudolf: …Amnesia, that’s what we have, not a recollection.
Chika: OK. That as well! A collective recollection and amnesia of what happened between 1967 and 1970?
(Related: Few Traces of the Civil War Linger in Biafra http://www.nytimes.com/1987/07/14/world/few-traces-of-the-civil-war-linger-in-biafra.html?pagewanted=all )
Rudolf: You know there is one museum in Umuahia. The Umuahia war museum, where there are a lot of the equipment used during the war. After I read “Half of a Yellow Sun” I wrote a review and what I wrote was that my uncles and my father should keep their oral stories which they were never interested in telling because they were too traumatized to tell it. Now, after reading the novel “Half of a Yellow Sun,” I know the story of what happened during Biafra. In fact, there are a lot of books out there about the war, both fiction and non-fiction. There are a lot of books written by actors involved in the conflict that led to the war. So for someone who is looking for information, they have books to read. And that’s where to start, really. They are a lot of newspaper articles and interviews by actors in the conflict. And they must not stop seeking to hear the stories from people who experienced the war. I have not stopped interviewing people. Each story adds to the sum. You will be amazed at the stories that are out there that nobody knows about. I recently conducted a series of interviews with Professor Chika Ifemesia. He was at the center of the Biafran war theater. I don’t think the books we have today have scratched the surface of what really happened.
For your own generation, you guys must demand to know the story from all perspectives. Because the approach, the position of the federal government is that ‘we don’t want to revisit this; we should forget about it.’ Even though I didn’t experience the war, I saw the signs. I have an uncle for instance whose left hand has only 4 fingers. I have classmates who lost their fathers during the war.
For some people who grew up in other parts of the country, the war was just a story. All they know are things they were told. But for me and my generation, the manifestation was all around us. It makes a great difference in how we see the same historical event.
For you, for the young generation, you have to demand to know the full story. You cannot accept the government position, which is that we should forget- forget about it. We have to revisit it and know what really happened. In fact, your generation must revisit what led to the war and deconstruct it.
(Related: The Biafra Bunkers http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/ArtsandCulture/Travel/5419651-147/story.csp )
Chika: You mentioned that the government’s stance is to forget it and move on.
Rudolf: Unofficial stance, because the government will deny it.
Chika: Unofficial stance. And to forgive, is that also part of the unofficial position?
Rudolf: No, there’s no forgiveness. The government wants the Igbo to stop mentioning Biafra. They want the Igbo to be apologetic about Biafra. Essentially, they want the Igbo to plead for forgiveness for fighting to stay alive. Of course, that will never happen. And because it will never happen, the government is taking a stubborn stance on Biafra. You know the Nigerian stubborn lingo – ‘if you keep being stubborn, then I will show you.’
Chika: I think it is foolish to believe that having a physical memorial, a museum in Nigeria constructed by the Nigerian government would arouse feelings of resentment. Having such would actually help calm and bring a sense of healing to the people. I think you have to confront these realities in order to move foreword.
Rudolf: To make that happen in the Nigeria of today, probably the generation that fought the war and saw the war will have to die off first. Because someone like Obasanjo cannot be alive to see something like that built.
Rudolf: Well, to some extent most of them are still fighting the war.
Rudolf: It’s not over. There are still policies in place that are geared toward the completion of the war, on both sides. I’ve listened to some actors in the war talk and they sound as if they are still in that period. They still use the language. If you follow the administration of Obasanjo when he was president, the comments he made about the Igbo, the only person that can make such comments is somebody who is still in the mood, in the war frame of mind. And of course, on the other side too, if you listen to some Igbo actors, too, you’ll see that they still feel that the war is going on. So for that to happen, it has to be something that the generation far removed from the conflict will have to be the inspiration behind it and demand that it should be done otherwise we will still be moving around in a circle.
I think it was Ojukwu who said that the concept of Biafra is to always provide that alternative. Even in this country [USA], they fought a war and for the section of the country that wanted to break away from that country, it really didn’t end. It doesn’t really end because for generations, when things go bad, people see it as a default, a fall back plan. If things aren’t going well, you have a fall black plan. Maybe if we had Biafra that would have been better, we would have been better off. So it’s going to be there. In American today, the confederates, the Southern States, there are still elements, more than 100 years after the war, there are still elements that believe that one day they will have their southern confederate states. So it’s not going to end and the thing is that Nigerians, they have to accept it. You can’t wish it away.
There are young kids who are being born today and they will grow up having a romantic attachment to Biafra as a solution to what they see as a Nigerian contraption- the abnormal structure of the country.
The day when Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Day, some people in the South celebrate Robert E. Lee Day to remember the person who lead them into that war
Chika: Of course, I studied about Robert E. Lee in school, since I was raised in the Southern part of the U.S. And that’s what Nigerian needs.
Rudolf: I’m recommending it as well.
Chika: Days of remembrance.
Rudolf: I’m recommending that they should put the Biafran flag next to the Nigerian flag at the state house in eastern Nigeria. So they don’t forget.
Chika: I don’t know if they should go that far but I see what you mean.
Rudolf: Remember the war was not about being independent the way Americans fought the Civil War. This is a war that was started because some people, the people of the East were being killed in other parts of Nigeria and they had to run home. So, if there is any war that can be called a just war, this is one of them. And they have to, especially the people of the East, they have to remember the people that died. They have to, everyday, fight to make sure that it doesn’t continue. The killing of the people from the East in the North should not continue. But it has continued. Just imagine if the war had not been fought. If the war had not been fought, if nobody had drawn the line and said you cannot continue to kill us to this point, people believe that by now people from the East could have been wiped out. Those left may be Muslims, worshipping Allah, facing Mecca everyday to worship. They would be-
Rudolf: Yeah…When Gowon says that he’s happy that Ojukwu died a Nigerian, if Ojukwu should talk now, Ojukwu would be looking at him and laughing because now Gowon’s own people in the Middle Belt are fighting the core Northerners to stay alive. And what is Gowon doing about it? He is going about praying for God to save Jos. In the meantime, the killing continues.
Chika: Nigerians born after me, especially those in the Diaspora, may not know much about these historical figures. It goes back to my original point. You cannot move forward as a nation until you remember your past. U.S. has been able to heal since its Civil War because they have memorialized it. There are so many Civil War commemoration museums throughout America. Robert E. Lee may still be controversial to some, but he’s not a devil. No one is going kill you if you honor Robert E. Lee Day. The same thing should be able to happen in Nigeria.
Again, I grew up in America so I had to read these stories in books and articles, many of them- but not all- told from the perspective of white scholars. I heard accounts from my parents only when they were willing to talk. It’s going to be very sad 20 years from now, to have an entire generation of Nigerians in the Diaspora who don’t know a thing about the Biafra War or the Nigerian Civil War or the Nigerian-Biafra Civil War, whatever you choose to call it. It needs to be thoroughly documented in Nigeria’s history books from as many angles as possible and incorporated into primary and secondary school curriculums. Biafra is a story that Nigerians need to tell…openly.
Rudolf: If people in the Diaspora want to learn about Biafra, they can. But in regards to history books, I don’t think I was taught about Biafra while I was in school. I don’t think so because it is not written in the history books we used in school. What is sad is that the history in the mind of many Nigerians is nothing but war propaganda they heard or the one their parents told them. What Radio Nigeria said about Ojukwu during the war is what many people who lived outside the East know about Ojukwu. The same for Biafra. They are stuck in that gear. But in the Eastern side, more people have forgotten what Radio Biafra said about Gowon and the then-enemy state, “Nigeria.” That is why they have been able to return to the rest of Nigeria as if the war never happened. But sadly, the killings, especially in Northern Nigeria, continue- you may say- again, as if the war had never happened.
Chika: The pain is still there. Wounds have not yet healed.
Chika: Just like in the US., the pain of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, for many Americans is still there. The pain hasn’t gone for some Nigerians, especially Igbos. Which is why some of my relatives told me not to write this piece.
Rudolf: The main thing for people of your generation is to find out what happened independently, because if you listen to any side, they will tell you their own side of the story. I don’t think a national memorial will happen right now especially if you listen to the debate in the National Assembly about what kind of honor to give Ojukwu, what to do about his death. You see the line of division. I don’t think it’s gonna happen. Not with many of the players still alive. But the most important thing is to get the stories right. In meetings with Ojukwu, I kept asking him, ‘when are you going to write a book?’ There was a time that he told me the book was written and there was a time when he said he was not going to write it. So, no one is sure whether he wrote anything. Nobody is sure whether the documents are anywhere. So we don’t know.
Chika: It would be a shame if this museum were outside of Nigeria. Like I can imagine it being in Washington, D.C.
Rudolf: Whatever is there that can be recovered should be preserved in a museum. I don’t care much about where it is housed for now. Let us just recover as many papers as we can. But our people are not good at preserving memories. Our people are not good at attaching importance to stuffs like that. We are still fighting for basic things: food, shelter, clothing, basic things. So probably that’s why people who live outside Nigeria have a role to play because they understand these things more than people at home.
Chika: I’ve talked to a lot of young people my age who want to have some type of memorial and are already talking about documentaries and things of that nature.
Rudolf: OK, that’s good. I say kudos. The young people can push it and they have to get through opposition from their parents and people they know. But if they team up, they can do it. I think it’s something that must be done. It’s going to be done whether Nigeria likes it or not.
Chika: It is going to be done. I’m sure.
Rudolf: There’s no doubt about that but the earlier the better, because most of the people who saw the war are dying. I have a friend from Nnewi whose father died this year. The father died at the age of 90-something. He kept diaries for the last 60 years, and I told his son that those entries in the diary covering the period of the war should be preserved. So there are still documents out there but no one is collecting them, paying attention to them.
Chika: A white anthropologist or historian just may do that.
Rudolf: Yeah. So it should be done and someone can champion that.