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 realized he was crying because of Biafra. That was 50 years ago.
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 edge of being realized and yet failed so painfully.
I was 2 years old when the war began and 4 years old 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 30th 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.
In response to Biafra’s secession, the Nigerian government, backed by the former colonial master, countered with a brutal war. Millions of Biafrans died, most as a result of the deliberate government policy of starvation. From July 1967 to January 1970, Biafrans fought to free themselves from Nigerian oppression and from the lingering vestiges of poisonous colonialism. Biafra was starved into submission. Biafra was, and still is, a powerful vision of freedom and self-determination.
I have a deep and abiding root in Biafra and the UK. My father studied at the LSE in the early 1960s and his first job as an academic was in England. I was born in the UK and brought up in two different cultures. To me, Biafra is a dream and a shadow. It is a dream of my father. I remember bouncing into the kitchen at the age of 9 or 10, we were living in Norwich at the time and informing my mother that I was Biafran because Dad said so, and she told me quite rightly that Biafra does not exist. I ignored her.
This was 1975, five years after the war had ended but my father still dreamed. He was Biafran and so were we. At least once a week we had to eat fufu, a traditional Biafran meal. As far as my father was concerned, fufu, like our Biafran identity, was both compulsory and necessary and he made sure that we knew this. My sisters and me would hanker after fish and chips!
My father died 17 years ago. We flew his body home to be buried. It went without saying that he needed to be laid to rest in the place that was truly home for him. My father’s tie to the home country was a tie to the dream of Biafra. He never stopped believing in Biafra.
It was a passion and a dream that consumed him. His passion for Biafra shaped the way my two sisters and I were brought up. His passion for Biafra lingers in my life and has influenced the way I interact with the world and the way in which I struggle and thirst for justice.
But Biafra is also a shadow. Not just for me, but for many people. It is the shadow of our past in Nigeria as a nation, whether we acknowledge it or not. The shadow of Biafra exists in the memories of the war and the many stories that are told about it behind closed doors. The shadows and dreams of Biafra are invisible but still very profound.
Dad brought us up to believe in Biafra. He was always deeply passionate about Biafra and our home town of Mbaise. When I was 12 years old, we moved to Nigeria from the UK. Dad wanted us to attend school in Nigeria. We lived in a small town called Idah on the eastern bank of the River Niger in the middle belt region of Nigeria. My father had unwritten rules. We were not allowed to study in the north. We were not allowed to marry anybody from the north and he gave us strict instructions to marry from Mbaise in the South Eastern part of Nigeria.
The furthest we ever got to the north was a town called Jos and I think we drove through Abuja once. As far as my father was concerned, northern Nigeria was a no-go area. He was living in the shadow of Biafra and when we think about the way so many Biafrans were killed in the north before the war and what is happening today with Boko Haram, I can understand why he felt so strongly about this.
Some years after his death I remember rebuking a cousin of mine when I heard that she had moved to northern Nigeria. That fear and the shadow were very much alive for me even though I was living in London. These shadows became part of our day-to-day lives, affecting our choices and decisions. As an adult I can see more deeply how the dream of Biafra has shaped who I am. I am a priest, but I am also a community activist. My thirst for justice and the need for a better world were nurtured by my father and his dream of Biafra.
During the war, my father was away campaigning and trying to raise money for an organization called The Friends of Biafra. His dream was so powerful and the needs of Biafra so urgent that he simply had to leave his family at this crucial time and respond. My youngest sister was born then, but Biafra had to come first. His thirst for justice and his activism shaped my own thirst for these things.
At the age of 8 years old, I was raising money to buy presents for elderly people in a nearby home. At the age of 10 years old, I was joining sponsored sleep outs for Amnesty International. At age of 12 years old I was writing about Steve Biko. The dream of my father continues to shape and influence me in my contemporary social justice activities.