A REVIEW OF IKECHUKWU ORJINTA’S THE DEATH OF BIAFRA
Book: The Death of Biafra (Genocide in Nigeria 1967-1970).
Authors: Gills Caron and F. Bonneville.
Translator from French: Rev Fr Dr Dr Ikechukwu Aloysius Orjinta.
Genre: Memoir, History.
Imprint: Nsukka: University of Nigeria Press Ltd, 2012.
There is no basis for unity: this is, perhaps, the most unforgettable – and broadly insensitive – statement in the lead-up to the 1967-70 Nigerian Civil War, not so much because it became a statement pursued to realisation with vigour but because it came from the supposed leader in whose hands nestled the lives of millions of people who had already seen genocide. What the French journalist-authors so passionately capture is the atmosphere of Biafra midway into the war (around 1968): the fierce struggle between psychological conviction and impending reality for the possession of the human belief faculty: the Biafran populace’s assurance of victory due to all they have suffered, and the stark realities of famine, destruction and death threatening to usurp that belief in a natural law of justice. But most scalding was their conviction that it was the world against them.
Divided into three parts, the account traces the roots of the war – the British policies to keep the South and North as ‘divisions’ rather than ‘parts’ of the country, the handing over of political power to the favoured North, and the political and social unrest that continued into the military era. The opening is drenched in pessimism:
A whole population is being exterminated…blacks are being
exterminated…by their fellow blacks. Biafra has lost her war
of independence…with each new assault [their] territory
continues to dwindle… (pg 1).
Port-Harcourt, Biafra’s only airport town has just fallen, relief planes were being shot down, and the death toll stood at one million.
So the gory spectacle continued under the Biafran palm
trees while hundreds of thousands of vultures hovered
above. Children, then women, were slowly dying in
thousands…I am not asking you to imagine the situation. It is
unbelievable (pg 4).
It is this emotionally-charged and close-detailed narration that runs through the book and keeps the reader enchanted. The commentary itself is accusing.
These Biafrans, no doubt, will be dead for nothing except for
claims to her right…Nigeria will definitely occupy what
remains of the people and country of Biafra…as for the West,
she will rejoice at the fortunate end of this conflict which she
will quickly qualify as tribal, forgetting the astronomical
figure of victims who she will finally decide to send millions
of dollars in aid. What an unrepentant friend! (pg 8).
Occasionally, one reads threads of desperation that is not exactly sociologically accurate:
Two races that are as different as the German is from the
Italian. The Hausas of the North and the Igbos of Biafra
could no longer ever live together. Never! (sic) (pg 11).
Was Biafra a victim of a planned genocide? (pg 135).
For the average Igbo survivor, the answer would be a heavy yes. General Yakubu Gowon, whose image would always haunt most of them, argues to the contrary. One wonders why did he did not oppose his finance minister and vice-president of the Federal Executive Council, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s justification of starvation as a legitimate instrument of war. And the virtual robbery of the Igbo by seizing their bank accounts and paying them a flat rate of twenty pounds.
The description is of novel quality and reads like the craft of an eagle-eyed fiction-writer, the kind reminiscent of creative writing classes:
About 15 vultures perched on the roof of what was a
school. Suddenly rushing they attack their victim; a child. A
small, black, skeletal child…extinguished by hunger like a
candle. Unblushingly, the fifteen vultures were quarrelling
over the small shrivelled corpse, tearing it in a flight of
feathers and flesh in the presence of family and neighbours.
These people who did not even have more energy of
reacting, of crying, of understanding (pg 11).
But more than these, the account is intensely personal, mentally and physically. Its dedication to a colleague who died during the war, Marc Auerbach, shows how much it is. One of the authors, Gills Caron, who had reported wars in Vietnam and the Middle East says that he “never thought war could amount to such savagery, atrocity and inhumanity.” Their work includes interactions with mostly refugees who are even named: three-year-old orphans, Patient and Onwunaibe, whose parents had either died or left them; a woman, Catherine; and a white priest, Father Louis, who goes searching for starving people in forests and admits: “I bury twenty-seven children every week!” There are also tales of carnage – two hundred children burned alive and four hundred and thirty elderly women whose breasts were chopped off are some of the most striking. The passages are inter-spaced with pictures of the dead and the dying, the living but hopeless, the hungry and kwashiorkor-ridden, and the strong-willed but mentally drained. The book ends with a prologue by Otunba Shobowale Benson subtitled “Ndigbo: Forgive and Forget”, and a review by Professor I.T.K. Egonu.
Many writings have emerged to build on the tragedy and hopes of Biafra and Nigeria respectively, yet this one has its place ideologically and artistically. While not incendiary, it serves as reminder that what preceded the war was genocide in its entirety – something most Nigerians have forgotten or prefer to forget. The translator, Rev Fr Dr Dr Orjinta, has more than paid his dues, namely, contributing, from a unique perspective, to the eternal memory of Biafran hopes. As Professor Egonu writes, The Death of Biafra is no death but the birth of a new ideal. The book is a major foil for such classics as Alexander Madiebo’s The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War as it places emphasis on the battering emotional experience of Biafrans, something which has only been adequately covered by fiction texts like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets. The book forms a locus of the discussion of the role twenty-first century Nigerian literature plays in a new normalisation of our country’s silenced history: a normalisation to herald the building of a solid future on that heartbreaking past.