Bight of Biafra, 1841
King Bell's house, Cameroons; king sitting in front of his house being entertained by dancers. Source: Bight of Biafra, 1841

The Politics of Memory

The April 20-21 “Remembering Biafra” conference will explore the history, memory, and legacy of the Nigeria-Biafra war from a variety of different perspectives, varying in their methods and in their political perspectives.

Half of a Yellow Sun
“Half of a Yellow Sun”, First Edition

When Chimamanda Adichie first published Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), her ground-breaking novel of the war, she told the New York Times that her family described her as an “old soul” – someone who carried the memory of a war she was too young to have lived through but which had marked her parents and family for generations. In another interview, Adichie said that she wanted to “honor the collective memory of an entire nation.” Of course, she realized that there is no one memory of Biafra. Her novel included characters ranging from relatively privileged Igbo intellectuals and business people to a poor houseboy. But she spoke self-consciously to the process of remembering, which also means learning and teaching a history that has been too often forgotten.

Adichie is one of many scores of Nigerian novelists, writers, artists, historians, and others who have written about the history of the war. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the start of the war, it seems an appropriate moment to explore not only the events of the war itself but the international response that made “Biafra” a signifier of humanitarian crisis. In this blog, we will also explore the construction of memory about Biafra and some of the current legacies of the conflict.

We hope to use the blog to address a broad range of perspectives, highlighting the legacies and memories in media, literature, and public life. Our posts will be written by several different people at GW; what we share is not so much a political perspective as a determination to resist the politics of forgetting. Biafra’s history is part of Nigeria’s history.

Things Fall Apart
“Things Fall Apart”, First Edition

Perhaps the most famous of Nigerian writers, Chinua Achebe, wrote one of the most powerful novels of colonialism we have, Things Fall Apart (1958). Achebe was writing almost a decade before the war, but he was describing the life of Igbo people in eastern Nigeria, marking the moment of colonial encounter when traditional culture is about to be irrevocably changed. As Ruth Franklin pointed out in the New Yorker on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart, Achebe believed that Africans must tell their own stories, refusing the colonialist narratives that positioned them as backward, ignorant, or savage. In the 1960s, other African writers, notably Ngugi wa Thiong’o, argued that “decolonizing the mind” required that postcolonial writers shed colonial languages. Achebe, no less interested in the right to a voice, saw it differently. He told the story of a village on the cusp of missionaries’ arrival, describing the morally complex Igbo world of the generation of Africans who would face European power in its military, political, and religious forms. Achebe did not overly idealize traditional culture – there was cruelty and inequality, as well as richness and community in the world he described. He insisted only that the story of that complexity should be told, and told by Africans.

Yet Achebe was also well aware of the global ties that linked people in Nigeria to the rest of the world. He titled his masterpiece Things Fall Apart; both the title and the book’s epigraph are drawn from Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Yeats was writing at the end of the first world war and the beginning of the Irish revolution against British colonialism in Ireland. Achebe knew what Yeats could not have known – that the Irish would gain independence for Ireland at the cost of many dead, ultimately dividing the land into Ireland and Northern Ireland, which would then face its own decades-long sectarian battle between Protestants and Catholics. But Achebe saw in Yeats’ poem a statement of the anxiety and ambivalence of fighting against empire, the price that would be exacted, and yet the necessity of demanding freedom.

Yeats was far from a revolutionary, but he was a chronicler of Ireland, and in his poem Achebe found an assertion of the necessity to speak a complex reality. He saw the requirement to remember – to tell stories that are multilayered and difficult, and to do so with as much truth as possible. When the Nigeria-Biafra war began, Achebe became a partisan of the Biafran cause, an important spokesperson who helped draft the Ahiara Declaration (“Principles of the Biafran Revolution”). But his most important legacy was literary – the powerful poems he wrote during the war, and ultimately, his influence on writers like Adichie, who says that his novels allowed her to know that she could write about her life, the world around her. “It was Achebe’s fiction that made me realize my own story could be in a book,” she told an interviewer.

The goal for the Remembering Biafra project, and for this blog, is to support the telling of many stories, many perspectives. The only view that cannot be represented is one that argues for refusing to grapple with the history and legacy of the war, which also means unpacking the history of colonialism, decolonization, oil, ethnocentrism, religion, and global state power politics. The layers are there. After all, Adichie herself grew up in a house in Nsukka formerly occupied by Chinua Achebe. She knows as well as anyone the truth offered by William Faulkner on the powerful force of memory: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Our task is not to be chained by memory, but to commit ourselves to knowing, unpacking, debating, and making use of the history that shapes us all.

 

Melani McAlister is Associate Professor of American Studies and International Affairs at GW. She is the primary organizers of the Remembering Biafra conference. She can be reached at iafsevents@gwu.edu.