Monday, February 19, 2007

Biafra's Half a Yellow Sun

I'm writing a review for the Women's Review of Books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. The book is quite moving and sent me off to relearn the Nigerian history that I experienced as current events in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I first learned of the Nigerian Civil [Biafran] war from shocking television news images. For the first time, I saw images of African children with extended bellies and enlarged eyes suffering from kwashiorkor. I clearly identified with these children; but I couldn't figure out whom to blame for these atrocities. To further confuse me, we had a Nigerian exchange student staying with an extended family member and he was from a minority tribe within the Igbo area. He was distraught because the news seemed to be siding with the Igbo people who had formed Biafra despite the wishes of some of the minority ethnic groups in its region. I believe this was the first African I met and I was completely entranced by him. Of course, now I cannot remember any name or identifying information I could use to Google him. But he the impact of making all stories about Africa more complex for me.

When I went off to Wheaton College (MA), I met a classmate who was Igbo and who suffered greatly from the atrocities visited on the civilians during that led to some 2 million deaths. I suspect that my conflicting loyalties led me to avoid reading too closely about the Biafran/Nigerian Civil War until I was asked to do this review. After many years, I finally read Buchi Emecheta's Destination Biafra and Flora Nwapa's Never Again. I discovered that Adichie wrote into a very fertile literary territory in which many Nigerians had ventured to explain their cataclysmic civil war. Nigeria has produced so many great writers and and many of them had lived through the war at home, like Nwapa, or abroad, like Emecheta. I will have to place Half a Yellow Sun in this context. Well I better get to a write this review now. It was, after all, due on February 10!

Here's a good summary of the war and the lead up to it from Irem Szeman, Zones of Instability : Literature, Postcolonialism, and the Nation. Baltimore, MD, USA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. p 120.

The Federation of Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. A federal system of highly autonomous regions divided primarily along ethnic lines (Northern Region: Hausa-Fulani; Western: Yoruba; Eastern: Ibo) was established with the aim of making the country of Nigeria a workable whole. This close association of region and political party with ethnicity (one of the problems faced by many federations around the world) generated immediate difficulties for the new country: given the structure of the federal government, each election would inevitably result in one political party— and therefore one region and ethnic group— being effectively excluded from government (forming neither the official opposition or the government itself ). The inevitable ethnic tensions produced as a result were further heightened by the ethnic composition of the military: the officer corps were primarily Ibo, while the enlisted men were drawn mainly from the north.

A military coup led by Ibo officers in January 1966 constituted the last straw for the north and led to the eruption of violence against Ibo living in the north. A countercoup led by northern elements of the army led to the brief restoration of the federal system under the leadership of General Yakuba Gowon. This countercoup led to a mass exodus of Ibo from the north to the Eastern Region, and to the secession of the Eastern Region early in 1967 as the independent ‘‘Republic of Biafra.’’ An incursion by Biafran troops into the Western Region in an effort to capture Lagos led to all-out war on Biafra by the remaining regions of the federation; a blockade of Biafra by both land and sea contributed to the death of up to two million Biafran civilians, mainly by starvation, before the surrender of Biafra in January 1970. Only now is Nigeria beginning to emerge from this dark period that has effectively constituted the entire short history of the nation.••

The Biafran flag on which Adichie's
title is based: