‘Biafra is a dream that haunts me – it was a dream that was on the cusp of being realised and yet failed so painfully,’ recalls Ije Ajibade, telling the story of injustice that has shaped her life.
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.
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.
Starvation of Biafrans was a government policy (Sipa/Rex)
I have a deep and abiding rootedness 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 aged nine 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.
The author, left, took up her father’s passion for Biafra (Ije Ajibade)
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.
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 in which I thirst for justice
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, 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 southeast of Nigeria. Needless to say, that was the one time I disobeyed him because I eventually married a Yoruban man from the west 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 was nurtured by my father and his dream of Biafra.
During the war, my father was away campaigning and trying to raise money for an organisation 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 eight, I was raising money to buy presents for elderly people in a nearby home. At 10 I was joining sponsored sleep outs for Amnesty International. At 12 I was writing about Steve Biko. The dream of my father continues to shape and influence me in my contemporary social justice activities.
Biafra is part of who I am and it is part of my family heritage. I remember the stories about the war where my relatives fled from town to town to avoid the approaching Nigerian soldiers. I remember the stories of what they did to survive
Biafra is part of who I am. It is part of my family heritage. I remember the stories about the war where my relatives fled from town to town to avoid the approaching Nigerian soldiers. I remember the stories of what they did to survive.
I had a cousin who went by the name of Surpriser. His real name was Goddy and he fought in the Biafran army. During the war he hid the family’s valuables and property by digging a deep hole somewhere on family land. After the war he recovered everything and from that time onwards he was known as “Surpriser”.
As a teenager, I always thought he was rather odd and often under the influence of something but I think the fighting affected him in more ways than we ever fully understood. I wish he was still alive so that I could speak to him and ask him what happened. As an adult as I look back over my life I can see how Biafra has shaped my life in both dreams and shadows. And I know that many of us in the Biafran diaspora have similar stories and experiences.
It is now 50 years after the end of the war and I think it is right for us to remember, because in doing so we honour our ancestors. We honour those who died during the war often from starvation, and we honour those who fought for Biafra.
I think that there is still the need for answers and dialogue about the war. I think it is a shame that Nigeria has never seen the need to have such dialogue or some kind of public acknowledgement or remembrance of the war. These dreams and shadows will never disappear. They need to be embraced and they need to be acknowledged because these dreams and shadows abound today.
The people waving the Biafran flag today in protest are mostly people who were young children during the war and some were not even born at that time. They wave the Biafran flag because the dreams and shadows of Biafra are as strong today as they were when my father had them. These dreams and shadows affect Nigeria today; the shadows will never disappear and the dreams will never die. The Nigerian government needs to realise that silence is not an answer to the truth.
People take part in a demonstration in Abidjan, on May 30, 2019 during a Freedom March for Biafra (Getty)
There is a passage in the Bible where God asks Cain “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain tries to rebuff God, but God says: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” The blood that was shed for Biafra is perhaps part of the reason why these dreams and shadows still exist. It is important for us to remember Biafra but it is also important for Nigeria to remember Biafra and for the United Kingdom to remember the part it played in the cruel devastation of the Biafran people.
As for me and people like me, we will continue to remember, especially through stories and plays, films and drama, dialogue and reflection and through the activism for Biafra that still continues today. Let us continue to remember. Let us continue to dream. Igbo Kwenu! Biafra Kwenu!
The Reverend Ijeoma Ajibade is a Church of England priest, ministering at Southwark Cathedral and St Philip’s, Earl’s Court.
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