Books that tell the story of the Nigerian civil war

On July 6 1967, the guns of the Nigerian army opened up in Garkem near Ogoja in present-day Cross Rivers State in the secessionist enclave of Biafra. That military activity, otherwise described as a ‘police action’ by the Nigerian government was the beginning of a war which sent over a million Nigerians to their graves and left a huge scar which is yet to fully heal since the war ended in January 1970.

It was Ben Okri, the notable Nigerian writer, who said that a people are diminished by a nightmare they do not come to terms with. Perhaps it is the effort to come to terms with the awful Nigerian civil war and the agonies it unleashed that has led to the impressive spawning of books about the conflict and the circumstances that led to it. During and since the war, books have been written about the fratricidal conflict; books that tell a tale that seems inexhaustible.This article focuses on a few of the non-fiction that deals with the war and the political crisis that ignited it. A future article will be devoted to the immense and varied civil war fiction.

‘The Biafran Story’ by Frederick Forsyth: First published in 1969 by Hutchinson, a leading publishing outfit in Britain, the book was the outcome of Forsyth’s years as a journalist covering the war in Biafra. Forsyth, who eventually became a globally acclaimed thriller novelist, was a close friend of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Biafran head of state.

The writer does not hide his pro-Biafran sympathies in the book. In the introduction he wrote: ‘I may be accused of telling the Biafran story.’ He portrays Biafra as the underdogs and oppressed victims of the Nigerian behemoth who had no option but to quit the country and fight for their lives.

‘The Biafran Story’ is well written, with the graphic simplicity and factuality that foreshadowed Forsyth’s literary career. The book gives a heart wrenching account of the 1966 coups; the massacres of Eastern Nigerians; the pulsating operations in the theatres of war and the kwashiorkor that brought Biafra to her knees. Forsyth is unsparing in his searing criticism of his home (British) government’s support for Nigeria which he concludes as being rooted in economic interests, a plain anti-Igbo bias that dates back to the colonial era and a gross misreading of the political situation. Although the author’s sympathies question the objectivity of the book’s contents, ‘The Biafran Story’ is helpful in understanding that troubled time for a number of reasons. First, it was written by an eyewitness who brought fresh perspectives, not being a Nigerian or Biafran. Then it was one of the earliest, if not the first, non-fiction about the war out of Biafra. Finally, it has served as the basic introductory text to the war for many Nigerian writers who went on to write gripping fiction about the war. Eg. Sefi Atta, in an interview shortly after the publication of her novel ‘Everything Good Will Come’, admitted that it was Forsyth’s book that gave her an insight into Biafra. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie acknowledged her debt to Forsyth by loosely basing Richard Churchill, one of the major characters of her war novel ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, on the British journalist.

‘Why we struck’ by Adewale Ademoyega: The book was published in 1981 by Evans Publishers, Ibadan. What strikes one about the book from an esthetic point of view are the lucid prose; the gripping presentation of facts and the connotations behind expressed accounts. This is not surprising given the background of the author. Apart from being an officer of the Nigerian army, Ademoyega was a graduate of History from the University of London. Thus he was blessed with the true historian’s flair for presenting facts in unblemished prose.

‘Why We Struck’ is the account of an eyewitness. Ademoyega was an active plotter and participant in the January 15 1966 coup which many students of that troubled times believe was a major factor that led to the war. Although a Yoruba, Ademoyega fought for Biafra and was a key operator in the brief but highly controversial Biafran invasion of the Midwest. He was detained by the Ojukwu regime till the end of the war when, after a short spell of freedom, he commenced another spell of detention till 1974.

The book is significant because it is the first account of Nigeria’s first coup by a participant. It dispels many myths about that putsch and provides insights into developments that would eventually pitch brother against brother in July 1967. But though the book answers many questions, it leaves one hanging on many points. For instance, did Ademoyega really know the genesis of the January coup despite his claims that he and Majors Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna initiated it? The book does not give us a deep insight into the Biafran military and administrative machinery. Till his death in 2007, Ademoyega justified the January 15 ‘revolution’ and argued trenchantly that it was the mishandling of its objectives by the soldiers who aborted the coup that laid the foundation for the subsequent crisis that led to Nigeria’s civil war.

‘The Brothers’ War’ by John de St. Jorre (1972): At first glance, the size of the book might be intimidating to some readers. But if you summon the courage, you might get lost in pages that are as spicy as any Tom Clancy novel. The writer, like Forsyth, is a British journalist but unlike his contemporary, he tried to be even-handed. Die-hard supporters of either side might have reservations about this approach but younger readers seeking the truth need such objective accounts, if at all objectivity can be attained in such highly combustible historical drama.

St. Jorre traced the origin of the war. He reconstructed the crises from 1966-1970 and delved into the personalities who shaped Nigerian and Biafran policies. His revelations about the internal politics of each entity are the struggle for supremacy between the ‘hawks’ and ‘doves’ in the Biafran government. One outstanding point about St. Jorre is his ability to paint personal portraits away from the power figures of both sides; the war commanders and the politicians. For example he portrays Biafrans still trying to live a normal life despite the screams of bullets and bombs; going to church, playing football. The photographs scattered in the book are eloquent testimonies to an era many Nigerian youngsters may consign to the period of moonlight tales unless there is visual proof.  St. Jorre writes with empathy for both sides and at times he finds it difficult to morally justify his country’s wartime policies though he understands the cold-blooded interests that define British diplomacy. Through this book the reader gains a ‘feel’ for the nationalistic fervour of the young intellectuals of that period such as Chinua Achebe and how the war torpedoed their pan-Nigerian idealism.

‘The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran Civil War’: Written by Alexander Madiebo, the commander of the Biafran army and published in 1980 by Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, the book is a gripping account of what transpired in Nigeria between 1966-1970. Madiebo was major dramatis personae in the play: he actively scuttled the first coup by, in his own words, putting ‘a quick and tidy end to Nzeogwu’s revolution’; he was an active player in Ironsi’s government and nearly lost his head to the July 29 coup plotters. In Biafra he participated fully in major military operations and tasted the bitter pills of intrigue and ‘sabotage’ politics. The book, unlike the ones mentioned earlier, is a first-class manual for anyone who wants to understand the Biafran military machine and why it eventually collapsed to the Nigerian onslaught. Madiebo writes in a manner that will make reading easy for a non-military man. But what stands out about the book is the author’s critical perspectives about the conflict. Contrary to expectations he doers not lionize his commander-in-chief; he analyzes the power plays in Biafra and how Ojukwu covered his unpreparedness for the war with subtle and overt manipulations of the Biafran war hysteria. At times one begins to wonder if the personal relations between the commander-in-chief and the army commander were fractured and how it affected the war effort.  Madiebo has good words for some top Nigerian officials and strives not to malign their humanity where appropriate. E.g. He portrays General Gowon’s laudable efforts to save him from the rampaging coup plotters and acknowledges Colonel Shuwa’s efforts to protect the Igbo in his domain despite official censure. The impression one gets from the book is that Madiebo was a dedicated Biafran but no fanatic. Interestingly, Adichie also draws on the book and its author to develop the character, Colonel Madu, in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun.’

‘Sunset in Biafra’, published in 1975, is an evocative and highly personalized account written by Elechi Amadi. Unlike other books mentioned above ‘Sunset in Biafra’ is not a history, a journalistic account, a war diary nor political propaganda. But it does not avoid the heated polemics of the period.

Amadi was a Nigerian army officer. An Ikwerre man from Rivers State, he fought on the Nigerian side as a Captain with the fearsome Third Commandos under the command of the ‘Black Scorpion,’ Colonel Benjamin Adekunle and his successor, Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo. Amadi portrays himself as a convinced believer in One Nigeria and an advocate of the rights of the minority groups who had to contend with the dominant Igbo of Eastern Nigeria, later Biafra. At first glance one would expect an outright anti- Biafran stance. But while Amadi does not believe in secessionist Biafra he clearly has a humane disposition towards the average Biafran who bore the brunt of the conflict. The book is not a justification of the excesses of the Nigerian side.

‘Sunset in Biafra’ is important because unlike most non-fiction on the war, it does not flow from ‘top down’ i.e. from principal actors/witnesses in the war. The writer’s personal insight into some of the personalities who shaped the events of the period is interesting. Eg. Ifeajuna, the author’s contemporary at the University of Ibadan and co-tennis player, is described as ‘charming’ and ‘dignified.’ The book is one of the early pacesetters for civil war non-fiction by non-principal actors in the crisis.

The 1990s and 2000s have also witnessed continued publications on the civil war by surviving eyewitnesses and their descendants and supporters who have access to inside information. E.g. ‘A Gift of Sequins’ by late Colonel Victor Banjo’s daughter and Max Silloun’s historical writings. Although points of view cannot be ignored, it is obvious that these latter-day works have elements of revisionism, probably because of the writers’ access to new information and the passage of time which might have mellowed tempers and given fresh insights.

But with the avalanche of histories, biographies, autobiographies, diaries, memoirs, political accounts, journalese, etc, one question remains unanswered: when will Generals Gowon and Ojukwu release their own accounts? Both men are well into their seventies and Ojukwu’s recent health condition screams of approaching mortality. The closest he came to releasing such an account was in 1989 when he published ‘Because I am involved’, a book which leaves more questions than answers. In a 1997 interview with ‘The Source’ magazine the Eze gburu-gburu indicated that he was writing an account of the war but due to its volatile contents it might be published posthumously. So far Gowon has been silent on the subject. Though much has been written and published by their close confidants about their war-time activities, these authorized accounts are not the definitive accounts Nigerians and non-Nigerians yearn for. But it just might be that these statesmen, having been tempered by those dark days and age, have gazed into the crystal ball and decided to let their secrets remain exclusively theirs for the sake of national stability.

5 thoughts on “Books that tell the story of the Nigerian civil war” by henry c.onyema (@ezeakwukwo)

  1. Illuminating…Thanks for this. Waiting for the next part!!!

  2. Food for thought. I have ‘Why We Struck’ somewhere in my library…and I don’t mind Frederick Forsyth.

    Nice one man.

  3. This is good. You did your home work well. I appreciate.

  4. very nice. i hope you will review, the Last Duty and Surviving the Peace

  5. Wow!!! Great research. You’ve done a good job.
    I feel like writing my own account too. My father was a soldier (just kidding).

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