- In Another Life:The Refugee Phenomenon in Two Novels of the Nigerian Civil War
During the latter part of the 1960's as America was preoccupied with Vietnam abroad and its own social revolution at home, the West African Republic of Nigeria was engaged in a bloody civil war in which the federal government fought the secession of the Eastern Region, an area declaring itself at the moment of its revolt, the Republic of Biafra. Some of us may remember Biafra in the context of the sunken eyes and bloated bellies of the starving children whose faces haunted us from the cover of Time magazine—others from the illogical admonitions of over-zealous parents who warned us to eat everything on our plates because children were starving in Biafra. The Nigerian Civil War was one in which hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them children, perished in the thirty months of its duration. It was a war that neighboring African nations, with their own newly-won independence, were saddened to witness. It was a war in which non-African nations, protective of their own economic interests, plied the Nigerian federal government with weaponry to exact a quick, albeit brutal and genocidal end to what they perceived as simple tribal rivalries. Surely, we know from our own nation's history [End Page 445] that simplistic explanations for civil war are suspect, and such was the case with Nigeria.1
Nigeria, during its colonization by the British, was divided into four regions: the Northern Region, the Western Region, the Mid-West Region, and the Eastern Region. Three major ethnic groups dominated the country: the Hausas in the North, the Yorubas in the West, and the Ibos in the East. Some 200 other ethnic groups comprised the rest of the population. Colonial interests had resulted in the amalgamation of these African peoples solely for the benefit of that European power.
These geopolitical lines continued to exist on January 15, 1966, when a bloody coup d'etat ushered in a military government. It ended the young civilian government that had been plagued by an assortment of abuses and a degree of corruption bemoaned by many Nigerians and chronicled in such fictional pieces as Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People. This prophetic novel aptly portrayed the cluster of political events that created the conditions for the military coup of January 1966. Any hope following the first coup was shortlived as the call for a unified Nigeria promulgated by Major Ironsi, the head of the new Federal Military government, led to another military coup and his death. What confronted the new military leader, Lt. Colonel Gowon, were the continued civil and military disturbances that existed.
Rumors surrounding the first military coup alleged that the event had been an attempt by the Ibos of Eastern Nigeria to seize control of Nigeria. In response to the hysteria incited by such allegations, some 30,000 to 50,000 Ibos in the north were massacred, their homes looted and burned, their property confiscated.2 Even more appalling was the federal government's inability and/or its alleged unwillingness to protect the Ibos or compensate the families and dependents of the victims. In the Eastern Region, Lt. Colonel Ojukwu called Ibos home, and what proceeded was the exodus of some two million Ibos from the northern regions of the country. Gowon's intention to split the country into twelve states and the failure to assure the security of Ibo lives led to the secession of the Eastern Region on May 30, 1967, when it declared itself an independent republic. The revolt represented, according to Ojukwu, "the crystallization of the black man's search for independence and recognition" (200). [End Page 446]
The response was a federal "police action" that lasted thirty months. With Nigeria receiving arms from Britain and Russia, one Biafran city after another fell: Enugu, its capital, Calabar, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, Aba, Umuahia, and Owerri, culminating in a blockade that threatened to starve the Biafran people into submission. The extent of the military hardware and the bombing of hundreds of civilians certainly would lead one to question the intentions of the federal government...