Friday, November 03, 2006

"May we always remember"--a historical view of Half of a Yellow Sun

“May we always remember,” writes novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at the end her Author’s Note, which she places at the end of her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). Thus it’s her last word in the book, and it tells us her reason for writing it. Adichie, who was born in 1977, a decade after the birth of Biafra, was profoundly affected by that short-lived republic and its war with Nigeria, from which it seceded. Both of her grandfathers died in the conflict. An uncle fought with the Biafran Commandos.

Here in America, most of us have forgotten. In Iowa City, where I lived for most of that time, I remember expressions of support for the Biafrans, especially after former Writers’ Workshop instructors Verlin Cassill and Kurt Vonnegut, jr. appeared on national television (I believe it was on the Dick Cavett Show), to ask for aid to the Biafran refugees. But the plight of Biafra was dwarfed by the issue of the Vietnam war, the American civil rights movement, and the “Dump Johnson/Dump Nixon” campaigns.

The book’s title refers to the Biafran flag, which features a rising sun. It centers on twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene Ozobia, daughters of a wealthy Igbo chief. The beautiful Olanna takes a position at Nsukka University to be with her idealistic lover, Odenigbo. Kainene, who calls herself “the ugly daughter,” manages her family’s business in Port Harcourt and takes Richard Churchill, a shy English journalist, as her lover. Churchill takes up the cause of Biafra with all the zeal of a convert. A fifth main character, Ugwu, whom we first meet as a thirteen-year-old, comes from a rural village to become Odenigbo’s houseboy, and forms an important strand in the narrative--though we don’t know how important until the very end of the book.

Adichie assumes her readers have a basic understanding of Nigerian history and geography. While one can appreciate the book without it, it was important for me to do some reading on the history. A map and a timeline would be helpful to the book.

Nigeria was an artificial construct--a creation of the British Niger River Trading Company, whose status as a British colony was ratified by the Treaty of Berlin in 1884. Ken Wiwe summarizes the colonial-and post-colonial situation in his book, In the Shadow of a Saint (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2001):

“Behind Nigerians’ political desire for independence was an economic imperative--to take control of our resources from the colonialists. The British had kept the independence aspirations in check with good, old-fashioned divide and rule. So the majority ethnic groups--the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the east--competed with each other for favors from the imperial master. After the British decided to sail with the winds of change that were sweeping through Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s (by granting us our independence), the majority ethnic groups, popularly known in Nigeria as Wazobia, carried on their pre-independence rivalry, competing with each other for control of economic privileges. The three major ethnic groups contrived to make nonsense of the pre-independence dream of Nigeria as a federation of multi-ethnic nations united for the commonwealth of all its peoples.”

Wiwa is Ogoni--one of the many ethnic groups outside the Wazobia. Adichie is Igbo, and her novel is very much from the Igbo point of view. (Note: Many sources use the spelling Ibo, including Microsoft Works, which puts a little red squiggly-mark under Igbo, but not Ibo. When I heard Adichie use the word, on the Diane Rehm Show, it sounded to my American ears like Ibo. I suspect the problem is one of trying to render an African language into the Roman alphabet.). The Igbo are sometimes known as “The Jews of Africa,” for their entrepreneurial success. But like the Jews of Europe, they were resented.

The following summary of the Biafran war owes much to John Reader’s Africa: A Biography of the Continent (New York: Knopf, 1998):

The Igbo felt they were coming off third-best in the competition. On January 15, 1966, a group of army majors attempted a coup. In Lagos, then the capital, they seized and executed the federal prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Chief Akintola, premier of the Western region, was killed in a gun battle. And the rebels killed the Sardauna of Sokoto, premier of the northern region, at his residence.

The army commander, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, took control of the situation, accepted the surrender of the conspirators, and assumed power. But he did nothing to assuage the fears of the northerners and westerners, who perceived an Igbo takeover. Ironsi went on to declare a the end of the federation, and imposed a new constitution.

In the north, anti-government demonstrations resulted in the deaths of several hundred Igbos. Ironsi tried to assure northerners that no constitutional changes would be made without consultation, but his assurances were too late.

A counter-coup led by northern officers took place in late July. Ironsi was captured, flogged, and executed, and many eastern officers were killed. Another round of killings in the north targeted thousands of Igbo living in the north. Adichie portrays the horror of the massacre through Olanna, who has gone to the northern city of Kano to visit Mohammed, a onetime fiancee. Only because of Mohammed’s protection is Olanna able to escape the slaughter. But she witnesses the gruesome aftermath. Richard, arriving at the Kano airport from London, meets a charming young Igbo man, only to see him gunned down by Nigerian soldiers.

Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, considered a moderate Northerner, emerged as the new leader. Gowon, with the support of the northern and western regions, reestablished the federation. But the Easterners, reeling from the massacres, were unsatisfied. In Adichie’s book, Gowan is accused of reneging on a promise to make Nigeria a confederation at a conference in Aburi, Ghana at the beginning of 1967. Most likely, there was a difference in interpretation. Toyin Falola, in The History of Nigeria (Westport, Coonecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999) that “Gowon thought there would be a weak federation while Ojukwu assumed the country would become a confederation…” In any case, Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern Region, declared the eastern region to be virtually autonomous on March 30, 1967.

By May 30, Ojukwu declared the independent state of Biafra. At first, people in the new republic believed Nigeria would allow them to leave peacefully. But as Kanene says to Richard, when he expresses surprise that the Nigerian government had declared a "police action against the Biafrans, "It's the oil. They can't let us go that easily with all that oil."

Kainene, like people on both sides, believed the war would be brief. Instead, it went on for three years. Initially, it appeared the Biafrans would win. Israel gave them captured weapons from the Six-Day War. South Africa, Portugal, Rhodesia, and France gave them covert military assistance, as they all had reasons to fear a strong Nigeria. A few countries--Haiti, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Tanzania--actually recognized Biafra. But the support was not enough for Biafra, which was facing a Nigerian army armed with new Soviet-made weapons. While the Biafrans continued to win some battles, Nigeria imposed a blockade around the country, and pushed the frontiers back. As the Nigerians advanced, civilian refugees fled into the remains of Biafra. Perhaps 2 million Biafrans died of starvation and disease.

In the end, Ojukwu fled to the Ivory Coast, whild his vice priesident, Philip Efiong, was left to negotiate a peace with Nigeria. It was a generous settlement. Those who fought for Biafra were given amnesty. While the Biafrans who survived lost property and money, and there were some reprisals by soldiers, there was nothing like the mass killing which precipitated the secession. I suspect it was Efiong who made the radio address on Page 412 of the book. Efiong, in my mind, was one of the true heroes of Biafra. I wish Adichie had mentioned him.

Adichie acknowledges that she has "taken many liberties for the puposes of fiction; my intent is to portray my own imaginative truths and not he facts of the war." Still, her story does not deviate radically from the historical record. She did extensive historical research on the subject.

Wheh I heard Adichie on the Diane Rehm Show, I was amazed that there were so many expatriate Nigerians who called in--many of them who spoke fondly about Biafra. And there was one man who accused Adichie of trying to revive secessiionism. And there are organizations today which openly call for the restoration of Biafra.

But in spite of her sympathy for the Biafran cause, Adichie is a personal example of what Nigeria ought to be--in Ken Wiwa's words, "a federation of multi-etnic peoples united for the commonwealth of all its peoples." English, not Igbo, is her first language. One of the most sympathetic characters in her book is the northerner Mohammed, who saves Olanna. Witnessing the aftermath of the killings, he cries out, "Allah does not allow this. Allah will never forgive the people who made them do this. Allah will never forgive this."

Whether or not we forgive, we must always remember.

5 comments:

Sustenance Scout said...

Steve, are you sure you're not a historian in disguise? What a thorough review of the causes of the war. And thanks for the link to the Diane Rehm show that featured Adichie. I am so impressed with her.

Mohammed's quote was powerful. He's one character I would have liked to have seen further developed, though I imagine Adichie had to limit the book to keep it manageable. She certainly did a commendable job of raising awareness about Biafra's brief history and the mistreatment of the Igbo people. I grew up in the 70s and never heard a word about it.

steve said...

Karen--Two years of graduate history does that to a person. I'll try to do a post on why I bailed out of history to work on the railroad.

Amishlaw said...

Enjoyed your review, Steve. Nice to become acquainted with another Central Illinoisan. You're just about 50 miles down I-74 from me.

Patry Francis said...

Thank you for providing some background history, and also for situating the Biafran conflict in time, tragically dwarfed by the Vietnam war, much as the tragedy in Darfur has been eclipsed by the conflict in Iraq.

I also appreciate the way you highlighted the important role Mohammed played in the novel. It was refreshing to see Islam shown as a peaceful, loving religion.

Initially, I thought that Richard was almost a "white stereotype," but after reading your review and listening to her interview, I've reconsidered. Though he enters the story as Kainene's semi-impotent and insecure lover, contrasted by Ogdenigbo's strength and virility, Richard emerges as a strong and steadfast character by the end of the novel. I think one of Adichie's great strengths as a writer is that she gives every character his or her full humanity--for good or for ill.

Now you've got me curious about why you abandoned history for the railroad...though I can definitely see the appeal.

steve said...

Amishlaw--I'm glad you enjoyed my review. I'm currently living in an efficiency apartment near downtown Bloomington (The Closet Over the Stairs) and commuting back and forth to home in Indiana on Wednesday and Thursday (my "weekend," and have a transfer application to South Bend. So I may not be a central Illinoisan for much longer. Your blog is certainly worth reading. I'll check it out more regularly in the future.

Patry--Thank you for your comments I'm glad you appreciated Mohammed. I was also one of the few who liked Kainene. She may not have been demonstrably affectionate, but she did not reject Richard after his impotence. I can only assume their relationship was finally conusummated, though Adichie doesn't tell us.