Archive for November, 2012

War, relief and a novel

November 28, 2012

This week marks the first anniversary of the death of Lt-Col Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Between 1967 and 1970, he led a state that started to shrink almost at the same time it declared its independence. It was a national tragedy, prolonged and compounded by a deadly mix: an intransigent local leader (the man we remember today) and foreign supporters with an insidious agenda of their own. The name of the country was Biafra, predominantly but not exclusively inhabited by Igbos. Biafra’s story is at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s breathtaking novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

There’s a large crowd in this book. None of them will remain untouched by the events that are about to unfold. At the beginning, it’s all fairly calm. We’re in the house of Odenigbo, an intellectual, a university lecturer and a revolutionary. His girlfriend is Olanna, who is described as “illogically pretty”. Try to work your head around that delicious phrase. Olanna has a twin sister Kainene and these two characters are poles apart. Like Ojukwu himself, they have been born into a wealthy business family. Kainene has an English boyfriend called Richard. He is one of those rare escapees from a thoroughly incestuous and racist expatriate scene, who will belatedly find out that he belongs nowhere.

The drama of these and other lives unfolds while Nigeria, barely seven years old, begins to tear at itself. “A collection of fragments held in a fragile clasp,” is a memorable description of the country the British left behind. A number of quick blows in 1966 lead to war. A coup. A counter coup. Accusations as to who are behind these moves. A pogrom against Igbo people in the mainly Hausa North. In the city of Kano, Olanna gets caught up in the violence as she visits family. As she rides back on a train to safety, she sits opposite a woman who is clasping a calabash. It contains the severed head of her murdered child.

Then: The proclamation of Biafra’s independence, by Ojukwu, on May 30, 1967, followed by the Nigerian response and a war that will leave one million dead in its wake.

As a kid, I used to walk to school in a village near Amsterdam. Before leaving home, there was breakfast. And the radio brought news from a world that was definitely less protected as the working-class bubble I grew up in. Two names kept coming back time and time again: Vietnam and Biafra. Terrible things were happening there. But why? And how?

Reading up on the Biafra war, one is struck by how (already!) some of these deadly and sinister patterns of local dynamics plus foreign interference established themselves. In his book La Françafrique, le plus longue scandale de la République, the late François-Xavier Verschave details French involvement in the Biafra conflict, which served to prolong the war in the same way that the “international community” made things worse in Vietnam, Sudan, Iraq, Congo and Afghanistan, to name but a few.

Large quantities of French arms were sent to Ojukwu’s war effort, often mixed with relief supplies. Relief supplies were financed by an international audience, whose heart and purse strings continue to be pulled by pictures of starving children. The relief effort was also taxed by the receiving government, which proceeded to use these funds to buy more arms, according to Verschave. Here’s a quote from Jacques Foccart, the architect of France’s Africa policy in the 1960s”: ‘Journalists have discovered the Biafran suffering. It’s a good story. The public is moved and asks no further questions.’

 

Some of that relief ends up in places where Kainene is trying to prevent people from dying. Her sister sees a poster in the relief centre. It reads: WCC. World Council of Churches. But someone else has scribbled: War Can Continue. Adichie could not have been more poignant.

Odenigbo, ever the intellectual, is fond of using the word “ignoramus” when people don’t share his sharp but ultimately rather pointless analyses. I wonder what he would make of all these help-the-people-telethons. Biafra set the pattern that has led us straight to Band Aid, We Are The World, Bono, Save Darfur. Plus ça change…

Like Biafra itself, the houses where Odenigbo and Olanna flee to as the war progresses, get smaller and smaller until they live in a crammed room, amidst other refugees, while those who have managed to get themselves into positions of influence do rather well. Kainene, who is the most observant (and acerbic) character, is not so sure whether an independent Biafra would have resembled the promised land. Socialism? Here? As per Odenigbo’s wishes? Pull the other one. There are hints of illicit enrichment and Ojukwu is not particularly tolerant of people who disagree with him.

In January 1970, it’s all over. Nigeria’s leader at the time, General Gowon, is careful and uses the phrase ‘neither victors nor vanquished’. Ojukwu flees to Côte d’Ivoire, France’s staunch ally in this war. He launches two unsuccessful presidential bids in 2003 and 2007. Tellingly, this is Gowon’s comment on the death of Ojukwu, according to New African: ‘I’m happy he died as a Nigerian and not a Biafran.’

There are many more characters and strands in Half of a Yellow Sun. There’s love, infidelity, family intrigue and there’s my personal favourite: Ugwu. He is a young village boy whose family brings him into Odenigbo’s household at maybe thirteen. In a few short years he learns to grapple with all the unbelievable thunderstorms life throws at him and somehow manages to retain that original wonderment that you need to become a true philosopher. No, I’m not going to tell you more. Read this book, all of you.