My earliest memories of Biafra are the same as my earliest memories of my father. I can remember sitting next to him on a bed and I touched his arm. He turned to me and he said: “Can’t you see your father is crying.” It was many years later that I realised he was crying because of Biafra. That was 50 years ago today. I didn’t see my father cry again. He was mourning the loss of the Biafra dream.
For me and for many of the diaspora, Biafra is a presence that haunts us. It is a part of our history that is not spoken about and yet we try to make sense of it by reading, watching plays and attending lectures. All of this in an attempt to understand this dream that was on the cusp of being realised and yet failed so painfully.
I was two when the war began and four when it ended. This was a civil war in Nigeria fought between the Nigerian government and the eastern region of Nigeria. Predominantly the home of the Igbo people, the eastern region – in response to violence and massacres, as well as political, economic, cultural and religious tensions – declared itself the State of Biafra on 30 May 1967 and seceded from Nigeria.
Nigeria was a creation of the British in 1914. It was established for colonial administrative convenience. It merged three separate cultures into one. To the north were the Fulani and Hausa-speaking people, often nomadic, principally of the Muslim faith. To the west of the River Niger were the Yoruba, largely farmers living under a rigid monarchical system and Christian. To the east were the predominantly Igbo-speaking people, also Christian, but with a strain of Judaism and more republican in their outlook. Nigeria is not (and never has been) a cohesive whole. However, in 1960, Nigeria was granted independence. Violence and coups ensued.