Geography was once my best subject. I was particularly enamoured with those features that define where the land met with bodies of water. Bays, bights, capes, estuaries, gulfs and promontories.
In the heady days of the civil war, maps, like most other necessities, were a rarity. One young man who was eager to establish a reputation as a go-getter had managed to wangle his way into some place from where a dirty, dishevelled copy materialized. An enthusiastic crowd would gather while he showed them what I thought he called the ‘bite of Biafra.’ This was supposed to be a kind of authentication of the name of the nation we’d just become citizens of.
I must confess I never saw the map in question. Those transactions were happening at heights that denied visual access to little kids like me. Since I couldn’t see, I kept my ears very wide open: my impressionable mind registering every word and nuance. That was how bite of Biafra was safely stowed away until the day I’d have grown taller and older and could get hold of a map.
As a child, I found bite of Biafra a fitting arsenal for a young nation desperate to ward off the formidable foes intent on her annihilation. What better thing than give the enemies deadly bites that’ll send them shrieking back to their enclaves!
Bites were delivered alright, but the advancing legions were merely delayed. Biafra was eventually defeated and every token of her existence summarily dismantled. Maybe if it was possible, her very memory would have been completely obliterated.
It took about ten years after the end of the war for me to come to the disturbing realization that there was indeed a deliberate and determined attempt to keep the issue of Biafra away from public focus.
While the history books said very little about the war, even when they managed to do so, mention of the name Biafra was almost always conspicuously avoided. Either through ignorance or conspiracy, my teachers kept clear of the Biafra saga. Even my feeble attempts at enquiry ran up against a brick wall. It seemed even the mention of Biafra amounted to a felony.
But my greatest discomfiture was to come when I discovered the cartographic angle to this massive act of revisionism. Now that I was old enough to own an atlas, I found out that what I thought was ‘bite’ was actually ‘bight.’ I was to discover, to my chagrin, that bight of Biafra was nowhere to be found. In its place was bight of Bonny.
I was to dig out a pre-war atlas that showed the bight of Biafra. It wasn’t hard to conclude that this bizarre act of cartographic transmogrification bore the unmistakable imprimatur of the government. It was most probably at this point that I became a student of history.
For those who do not know, Biafra is not an Igbo word. It isn’t even a word in any known language. It is thought to have been coined by someone of Portuguese nationality, but even that is at best speculative. But there was a bight of Biafra just like there was and still is the Bay of Bengal, and gulf of Guinea.
There are many who still insist late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu be held responsible for millions who died in the war. It was his personal ambition, they pontificate, that led to that theatre of needless and avoidable carnage.
Even when the facts were not too clear to me, I always considered this claim preposterous. Flora Shaw, the lady that later became Fredrick Lugard’s missus coined the name, Nigeria. Observing that the River Niger traversed a substantial portion of the vast area her boyfriend had just amalgamated, she ‘married’ Niger to area and arrived at Nigeria.
If Ojukwu had envisaged Biafra as his personal fiefdom, he would have done a much better job at naming it. He would most likely have picked a name that reeked eternally of him: like what Sir Cecil Rhodes did in Rhodesia and Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. You can take away many things from Ojukwu and get away with it. But there’s at least one thing you can’t take from him: his smartness. Giving a nation a name of doubtful meaning and indeterminate origin isn’t my idea of smartness.
No, Ojukwu didn’t create the Biafra problem. It was foisted on him by those too short-sighted to see the resplendent horizon and too thick-headed to acknowledge their deficiency. Those who made light of covenants and then turned around to hypocritically champion the primacy of the rule of law. Those who were too eager to abolish healthy competition because in their concept of a woolly unity lay the perfect cover for their stifling mediocrity.
No, Ojukwu couldn’t have created such a wobbly republic. Those who panicked because of his pedigree and suffered palpitations just imagining his unspoken intentions gave him little choice. If it was his original intention, he’d have created a sounder republic with a better name.
It was bad enough that millions of lives were lost and properties of incalculable value destroyed. But to deliberately set out to doctor history by changing landmarks, represents the height of insensitivity and mischief. Those who do such things show they’d have been happier if we’d all drowned in the bight whose name we’d hurriedly chosen to bear. No wonder it was decided that £20 was just enough to ensure they remain stupefied in defeat.
I lost two big brothers in that war; in circumstances I’ll never know. Oge and Uchendu Olugu never returned and the family was never informed about how or where they expired. Very many years after the war ended, we still harboured this stubborn hope that one day, maybe, just maybe, they’ll saunter in with incredible stories of survival. But that never happened. Our fathers all lived with this forlorn hope. That’s why our brothers were never buried. And now our fathers have all died.
This is a scenario that cuts across most families in Igbo land, and the former Eastern Region. We cannot continue to silently grieve forever. We must find an appropriate occasion to bring this sordid past to a fitting conclusion.
Dim Ojukwu is finally dead and I suppose they’re very many who are happy about this development. For them, the whole Biafra saga is about to be put to a final rest. They are perfectly entitled to their enthusiasm. Those who wished he had apologized to Nigerians about his role in the war before his demise will have to go their grave with at least one unfulfilled desire. Those who exploded in ejaculations of joy that he died a Nigerian should take a moment and survey the rickety contraption Nigeria has become. Maybe they’ll come to the sobering conclusion that his being recalled at this point might turn out to be a timely act of redemption.
I watched the Senate debate Ojukwu’s death and funeral arrangements. While some suggested a state burial, others counselled against it, saying it’ll set an unsustainable precedence. I completely align with the later opinion. Nigeria shouldn’t bury Ojukwu. Those who loved him should bury him.
So come Thursday February 2, 2012, I have no doubt Ojukwu will be accorded a burial befitting of his stature and pedigree. Beyond that, I think it’ll be the best occasion for all who lost loved ones in that war to finally lay their memory to rest. There’ll be no better time than then for the Olugu family to fully embrace the fact that Oge and Uchendu will never return.
There’s yet a final matter. Ndigbo are often characterised as incapable of achieving political consensus. And maybe certain happenings in Nigeria’s recent history tend to support this unfortunate assertion. Ojukwu’s funeral presents us a golden opportunity to assert the contrary: that when occasion demands, Ndigbo can and will unite.
That fateful day, here’s what I hope will happen. Ndigbo from all walks of life, all trades and professional callings will close shop, take just one day out of life so they can do the following. 1) Take stock of how far we’ve come with £20, hard work and the grace of God; giving him thanks accordingly. 2) Reflect on how the next forty years will be for us as a people; especially in the context of Nigeria. 3) Beseech the mercies and grace of the Almighty in the arduous journey ahead.
It will be a fitting tribute to a man who went out his way to make a valid statement on behalf of the rest of us. It’ll also send a strong, unambiguous message about our unassailable position in the now and the future of Nigeria.
And here’s how I hope history will title the events of that epochal day.
BITE OF BIAFRA!