In 2005, a former diplomat from the Republic of Biafra, named Godwin Alaoma Onyegbula reflected in his memoir on what being Nigerian meant to him: “I was born in this country, over seventy years ago, and know no other country better than I know Nigeria. I have lived through colonial Nigeria, independent Nigeria, Biafran Nigeria, and present Nigeria.” Onyegbula continued, “We think we have lived through [this], [as] one country, but experience suggests otherwise. It is becoming more difficult to find an ‘authentic’ Nigerian; that is, someone whose ‘Nigerianess’ is obvious, and clearly distinguishable, to himself and others.”
In the last 50 years, hundreds of people like Onyegbula who supported Biafra or fought against it have written their memoirs, ranging from small hand-printed pamphlets to thick, heavily-footnoted volumes. In various ways, all address what it means to be Nigerian in the wake of the Nigerian Civil War. In the long period of military rule that followed the end of the war, closed archives and an officially enforced silence meant that few historians openly reckoned with Biafra’s legacy.
Fiction was one site where Nigeria worked through the meanings of the war, especially in the work of well-known novelists, such as Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and Cyprian Ekwensi. Today the younger fiction writers, Chinelo Okparanta, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sefi Atta are helping to bring debates about the war back into public discussion.
But by volume, the most significant body of writing on Biafra is neither history nor fiction, but memoir. A vast number of memoirs on Biafra circulate in Nigeria, and only a fraction of them are available outside of the country. The topics they address vary, from fiery political screeds on the causes and consequences of the war to intimate recollections of suffering and loss. Many, though not all, are written by people who supported the Biafran side. Some blend genres, mixing rumor with recollection, and a few take liberties with the war’s plot. As Onyegbula candidly warned in his own memoirs, “biography becomes boring when entirely true.”
Virtually every important military figure on both sides wrote accounts of their lives (some, like Olusegun Obasanjo, wrote more than one). A fair number of these were ghostwritten or “as told to” someone else; penning memoirs for prominent people has become a cottage industry for Nigerian historians and journalists. The recollections of well-known figures in the war – government officials, officers, scientists and intellectuals among them – are widely read and discussed in Nigeria today. Some are hawked in bus stations and taxi ranks, alongside self-help books and prayer manuals. The contents of one unpublished autobiography by Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a 1966 coup-plotter turned Biafran officer, generates enormous speculation about the conspiracies leading up to the war.
But what is most remarkable about Biafra’s autobiographical literature is the number of ordinary people who wrote their memoirs. Most are privately published in tiny editions, intended for personal distribution rather than sale. They contain greater moral shading than most writings on the war – far more than the records of international humanitarian organizations and foreign governments, which are quickly becoming the go-to source for historians of Biafra. Their authors include market women, rank-and-file soldiers, farmers, bureaucrats and teachers. Deserters and small-time war profiteers wrote them too, suggesting that there is more than self-aggrandizement to the war stories that ex-Biafrans tell. Their anger is often tempered with regret, and few are tales of unmitigated bravery or heroism. As a Biafran private named Thomas Enunwe recalled of his time in uniform, “going to fight in the battle field was like going to be tied up for the firing squad.”
Enunwe and others like him wrote to instruct future generations, to stake claims (political and otherwise), and to set the record straight about their actions during the war. They argue sharply with one another, and with the versions of events that both the Nigerian government and new Biafran movements like the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) would prefer to tell. As Biafra comes back into the headlines, it is worthwhile to look at how those who experienced the war accounted for themselves in its aftermath. Both sides of the debate will likely be surprised by what they find there.