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Afam Akeh    

Memorial for Biafra

Afam Akeh is a poet, essayist and editor of .


I’ll introduce him as Enoregbe, a name I derive from his real names. He was an early lesson on mortality and the fragility of human relationships. He must have been around ten years old, a classmate and close friend until a tennis rivalry erupted in open hostility, spewing not-life into our relationship. We no longer spoke to each other. I can’t speak for him but I think I began to enjoy our quarrel. I craved the rush that came with knowing I had this one person around me whom I had the power to ‘kill’ or ‘bring to life’. I could cancel him out, simply by decision. If I decided he was not there then he was not. And all I had to do was walk up to him and say something conciliatory and he would be back in my reckoning. You could say I enjoyed watching him wilt under the simple terror of my gaze or presence – no words uttered. And, sometimes, there was the maniacal laughter intended to deride and cause discomfort, or silence, all the malevolent, crushing weight of it.

Enoregbe probably gave as well as he got. But I am concerned here with my own guilt. I was his monster and I let my horns grow wickedly. I let opportunities for reconciliation pass repeatedly, holding out for the power of non-commitment, or, perhaps, because of an all-consuming indignation, the sense I had that he was wrong and I was right and nothing else mattered, not even our friendship or earlier sacrifices for each other. The first school holidays of our pre-teen years came. If we returned we would be in secondary school year two, older and perhaps wise enough to have outgrown our silly little boy quarrel. But Enoregbe did not return. During that vacation he was riding his bicycle on a busy Benin City road and a big truck drove its tires over him. I remember crying. I think I felt cheated again, this time not at tennis. My friend had gone and taken every opportunity for reconciliation with him.

I will confess now to withholding important information regarding my tragic quarrel with Enoregbe. It was about our tennis rivalry but it was really some other matter that would make it the quarrel of my lifetime – a word, an ethnic insult. Enoregbe was Bini or Edo. I am an Igbo from the Nigerian Mid-West, one of a people who also claim significant ancestral links with the old empire of Benin. In the Nigeria of the early 1970s if you could be identified as Igbo by any stretch of association or imagination, you were marked for special ridicule. A civil war had just ended in which all of federal Nigeria had fought the secessionist Igbo. The bitterness of the war, and its prejudices, floated about the place, looking for its Igbo victims. In Benin City, 1973, as in most parts of urban Nigeria then, to be Igbo was to be feared and also scorned. There was still bitter resentment in Benin City towards the Igbo for the brief period of their military occupation of Edoland before they retreated from the advancing federal Nigerian troops. ‘Igbo’ was a curse word in those early post-war years. It was deployed as a weapon, like ‘nigger’, to injure and insult.

The wounding word Enoregbe flung at me was “Ow’Igbo”. I think it roughly translates as “Igbo person”. The Igbo equivalent would be Onye Igbo. Ow’Igbo was the favourite insult in school playgrounds around Benin City then. Even non-Igbo people were sometimes called Ow’Igbo just to offend them if it was considered that they had cheated in some way or were too keen on profit. Or simply because they were judged to be disagreeable like the Igbo, whatever that meant. Many Igbo people had business interests in other parts of Nigeria, and were mostly connected to other Nigerians through commercial transactions. Many of these other Nigerians would thus have derived their first and lasting impressions of the Igbo from these business deals. When we quarreled over a Tennis game, Enoregbe dismissed me as yet another profit-hunting (meaning greedy) Ow’Igbo, and was so continuously dismissive during the course of our quarrel.

This tragic tale of a boyhood rivalry is useful reference for the following ride into personal history. It is a journey of many deaths. In the end we fall, all casualties of history, each one undone by some lived lie, each death avoidable and yet so predictable. But death is an untidy moderator of human conduct. It leaves us shattered and vulnerable to memory. I travel the lives of my past without zeal, with abiding unease. Caution prevails. The life of my past was a serial killer. The sense of death abides, awareness that I grope as in a midnight alley peopled with demons, ancestral spirits, blood feuds and oaths, lives that go bump into the future because they have never learnt from their past. This memorial is for Enoregbe and others now silent.

Issele Remembered

An early memory is of a baby being passed over the fence at a hospital in my hometown. He was just some hours old. There was the sound of shells exploding and the rumour in Issele Ukwu was that the dreaded soldiers of the federal army were at Onicha Ugbo, the town at the Western border of Issele Ukwu. Some wars are so ill-mannered they have no respect for hospitals. No one who could move away to a safer place wanted to stay exposed at the Pilgrim Baptist Hospital, so there was a hurried evacuation of patients. This was why the baby, my brother, was being passed over the fence. Ayaegbunam – ‘War, don’t kill me’ – survived. But I have sometimes wondered about those who had no helpers, or who were too weak to be moved. War is damage – like no other human activity can be. It ensures there will be babies who begin their lives seeking refuge from burning streets, artillery fire and the illogic of people-killing.

Before 1967 Nigeria and the politics of its unmaking did not feature dominantly in the rural moments of Issele Ukwu. What became known as the Crisis had really started with intensity a year earlier, in 1966. By 1967, however, it had become impossible to be isolated from the air of uncertainty in the country. Educated Issele indigenes, fleeing their employment in the strife-torn cities, brought home details of the national politics as sectarian violence swept through the land killing with impunity. When the East seceded, renaming itself the Republic of Biafra, Issele people saw Biafra as the underdog. Many had heard about the killing of Easterners, especially Igbos, in the North, the most persuasive reason given by the East for abandoning the federation. Our iconoclast regent, the then Obi of Issele Ukwu, was certainly not in two minds about the crisis. It was said that he was so aggrieved about the treatment of ‘his people,’ the Igbo, that he volunteered for the nascent Biafran army. He was later persuaded away from that adventure. You couldn’t accuse him after that of failing to uphold tradition. Here at last was one principle or tradition he was willing to stake his life for. If you are a king and your people are attacked, you go to war. You lead from the front.

But not all Issele people had their hearts as definitely set on this matter. For many it was about staying alive from day to troubled day. People did what they had to do in order to survive the times. If you encountered the Biafrans you raised two Churchillian fingers signifying victory. If on the other hand you were required to show your loyalty to Nigeria, you only had to wag one raised G-O-W-O-N finger, as in the Nigerian war slogan, ‘Go On With One Nigeria’, derived from the name of the then Nigerian military ruler, General Yakubu Gowon. Often in war you do what you have to do. The moral questions come later. It is not just the dead in graves that are killed by war. Among the survivors are many who frequently had to die to the pleading of their own hearts. Early in the conflict when an invasion force of Biafran soldiers passed by in battle dress, singing and advancing westwards towards Benin City and Ore, I remember that Issele people lined the streets, waving their goodwill and raising two celebratory fingers.

O my home, O my home
O my home, O my home
When shall I see my home
When shall I see my native land
I’ll never forget my home

One of the songs they sang. Threnodic, resigned perhaps, but ennobled also by a certain courageous beauty. Perhaps one of those songs of encouragement borrowed from the old soldiers of the unified Nigerian colonial contingent to the Second World War. An uncle, who must have been in his late teens then, got carried away by the carnival atmosphere that marked this early passage of troops from the East. He enlisted in the Biafran army. Then he saw war and returned home quietly one night. The second passage of the Biafran army was not so glorious. This was a retreating army. No songs. There was heaviness all around, and overwhelming terror because soon after, for the first time, we would hear the fearful sounds these soldiers were fleeing from.

I think it was the coming of the federal troops that began my self-definition as an Igbo. They entered Issele Ukwu crouching with guns at the ready, advancing along the main road. But much of the town centre was already deserted. I remember late night movements through bush paths to inland hideouts belonging to some friend or member of the extended family. And then further inland movements as even these first hideouts became inconvenient or were considered too exposed. This would generally be the situation for the duration of their passage through my hometown. After some time, during which the feared massacre did not happen, people returned to their own homes. But life was always on edge and the best place to be found was indoors. These federal soldiers advanced eastwards, moving on to Asaba, then Onicha, where they encountered some resistance from Biafran soldiers. Issele Ukwu was never at the war front but there seemed at that early stage to be an endless coming and going of soldiers. They were never quite there and never quite gone. It became part of the survival strategy to organize the communal life around these uncertain troop movements.

These were very tall, very dark soldiers, who spoke neither Igbo nor English. They seemed to be permanently barking orders at each other and at my people. I met the departed Nigerian poet Idzia Ahmad about two decades later. Before that meeting, which blossomed into a close personal friendship, Nigerian Northerness was defined for me by the wartime troops in Issele Ukwu, their illiteracy, extreme tallness, extreme blackness of complexion and extreme darkness of behaviour. Before my close friendship with poet Ahmad, this sense of the North as the inscrutable Nigerian other prevailed over whatever new sights and sounds of northerners and northern life I may already have become aware of from my travels and from other sources, including the media.

It did not take long for Issele Ukwu to understand what it meant to be under the boots of an occupying army. There were reports of arrests and sundry harassments of some Issele dignitaries. Rumour travels fast and very far in wartime. We soon learned there had been a mass shooting of some townspeople in Asaba and that added to our insecurity. The nights belonged to owls and the explosions of war. The miracle of electricity was yet to arrive Issele Ukwu. Those were the darkest and deadliest nights of my life but the oil lamp and folktales were also there to bring some life to all that death.

One night there was a knock on our door. At that time we lived with my mother’s extended family in their family home. Two of the three men in her life, her husband and her father, were separated from her by war – my maternal grandfather trapped in the war-torn East and my father in Lagos unable to join us in Issele Ukwu until after the war had moved further East and the roads of the West became safer for Igbo civilian access. I was mother’s errand man about the house, the third ‘man’ in her life, as she would sometimes say in my praise to encourage my weary legs. In the circumstance of that late night knock on our door, however, my mother needed more help than her five-year-old ‘man’ could offer. We had heard stories of these late night calls by soldiers and had no doubts about what it could mean for us, especially for my young and nursing mother. But she was not waiting to find out. She grabbed at us, arms outstretched like a hen gathering her brood from the onslaught of a swooping hawk, and fled with us into an inner room. Then she stuffed a ready nipple into baby Ayaegbunam’s mouth. Crying? It was not the time to allow a baby do that baby thing.

“Wo-man …wo-mon? A pair of drunken hands, cupping some imaginary breasts attempted a mime of the female form. They reeked of death – the owners of those hands and his comrades. Their English was poor, their guns very present.

“Get wo-mon … wo-man … wo-m-o-n …” That crude mimetic act again.

Between mother and rape the two brave elderly aunts who had answered the door were making lazy smoke with their pipes, their wiry hair white, teeth missing or browned by tobacco, shamelessly naked to their twin baps. Age is not without its honour but the wasted human body is a great passion killer. Mother’s aunts answered the door ready with their armoury of natural weapons – their decrepit female forms exposed to waist. There was also mother’s younger brother, about fifteen then, himself in danger of being dragged off into conscription or forced labour. But he possessed the power of English, that is, he could make passable conversation in the language. Aunties at the ready, acting as a protection squad, ready to pinch and bite and curse to the death if that was required, he opened the door and offered a negative response to the soldiers. No, there was no woman in the house – except the two at the door.

“No get wo-mon? … No get…?”

The threat was weighty in their voice: You lie to us boy and you are dead.

“No … No get woman”, responded Boy, my uncle.

Even in their drunk state the soldiers could tell the difference between the women in front of them and the kind of woman they were looking for. Perhaps they were too inebriated or high on some substance, perhaps it was my mother’s good fortune, perhaps God. But they did not search the house. They did not often miss their targets for they were usually directed in their nocturnal terrorism by paid village gossips and sometimes forced guides. However, mother was spared and they staggered away perhaps to a less fortunate house. Long after they were gone, when it was certain they would not come back, we were ushered out of our hiding place to be told the story.

My grandfather was not so fortunate. Father’s father. He was the only grandfather I knew then because mother’s father was in the East with most of mother’s siblings, fleeing rogue soldiers, Biafran as well as federal, suffering aerial bombardment and mind-bending hunger. Mother’s father had served the colonial police in the disputed territory that became part of Cameroon Republic, where he met the woman who would produce my mother. In Issele Ukwu some village gossip had informed the federal soldiers my paternal grandfather had a son who once served the Biafran army. It suggested family disloyalty. If the offending ex-soldier could not be found – because he had been spirited off to Lagos – my grandfather had to be punished for the sins of his son, He was then in his sixties but they beat him without care. Thereafter, he was frequently ill till his death several decades later. I remember seeing his wounds some days after the beating. He groaned each time he turned. At the time I was too young to fully understand such a powerful emotion as bitterness. But the experience of seeing my grandfather in that poor state added to the growing sense I began to have of some kind of divide between my people and the rest of Nigeria. This feeling would be strengthened when soon after the war the family moved to Onicha and I saw devastation on a scale my hometown did not experience. The soldiers were not really in and around Issele Ukwu for as long as our difficult experience of them suggested. The war moved rapidly east and took the warriors with it.

Onicha, 1971

I remember that noon and its sun. I was walking the long distance home from school. Chest bared, shirt unbuttoned. Ezenwa Street always had that familiar smell of mother and hot soup. One more junction and the house I wanted more than any other would be within view. I must have laboured at the thought because I did not at first notice the arrival of the army truck. Ezenwa Street was not in the usual military route round and about Onicha, so this was a bad sign. They were pursuing someone. They were pursuing someone in a white Peugeot wagon and that someone was – my father! I had wondered why he did not come to take me home from school. Now I understood. For the first time, father saw me waving by the roadside and drove past. He waved back but drove on. Something was desperately wrong. Why were the soldiers pursuing him? What had he done? Or, more important to me, what could he do now, with that killer posse after him? A roadside crowd had gathered, almost lining the route of the car chase. But no one in Ezenwa Street that noon could help the man in the white Peugeot. Post-war Onicha was familiar with this kind of blood sport and knew exactly what it was expected to do. If it involved soldiers, look the other way. Stay alive.

Nigeria’s bitter war ended in 1970. In 1971, father arrived the great market city of Onicha with his young family determined to settle. We had lived there before the war. I was born there. Before everybody began to hate everybody, Onicha drew settlers from all over Nigeria and the West African coast. We were returning to our city by the river, to the family memories represented by such landmarks as the Niger Bridge and the historic Main Market. But Onicha after the war was a battered city. War makes amputees of not just people but also places. Where the Bridge and the Market had been there were now charred and mangled steel frames, ugly reminders of the violence before.

This was what Onicha looked like after it had been declared safe enough for civilians – explosives removed: There were still many of these devices lying about and blowing off the legs of children. There were street gangs of beggars living off some horrific war wounds. A frequent sight was the parade of the mentally unbalanced – so many alone and undone by their losses to the war. These were paraded by putative healers and minders with horsewhips. The whips were frequently employed to keep those in their care in orderly formation along the roads. I remember their sad songs. They sang about the inequities of life and the wickedness of war, begging as they went, these people of lost minds. Sometimes on invitation, they would stop by and sing specially for a fee.

Disability and the grotesque were the great gifts of war to the nascent entertainment industry of post-war Onicha. There were weapons everywhere, often in the wrong hands. All kinds of extortionists and local mafia organized themselves with serious ambitions to control trading and harass communities at night. Father sometimes had a cutlass in his car and it wasn’t there just for cutting through the thickets of thorny bush that had taken over the roads in parts of the city. Especially if you drove towards Ugwu-ndi-Ocha, or if you were anywhere near Nkisi Stream, you would need to stop your car at intervals, get out your cutlass and cut your way through to the next clearing before driving on. You cut through opposing thickets as you hoped you would never have to cut your way through human opposition at an illegal road bloc some night in a lonely part of the city. But many of the roads in Onicha then were not really roads. Like some of the houses abandoned then or being rebuilt, they bore evidence of the countless explosives and incendiaries that had burnt their rage at one of the princely cities of the Igbo.

My fleeing father and those pursuing him were soon out of sight, dashing into New market Road from Ezenwa Street. I ran the gamut of impossible emotions and possible outcomes, worrying about him. Would he run into a slow traffic and be forced to stop? Or would he race the soldiers to a safe place – the Holy Trinity Cathedral, for instance? But those soldiers? Could they be trusted to respect even God and His priests? One of the senior officers of the military command in Onicha was my father’s friend. But how could that help his immediate situation? I knew what would happen if he was caught by the uniformed guns in the truck. There would be a feeding frenzy, punishment beating of the most savage kind. I had seen others suffer like that. I hurried home to Mother with the bad news and we began the desperate wait for Father’s return. We were desperate for the knock at our door but also afraid of what or whom we might find there.

But Father returned from his misadventure with a smile on his face. I quickly noted that he had no wounds - so he had not been beaten and had not crashed his fleeing vehicle. I listened through a late lunch to his remarkable tale. Pursued by angry soldiers, he had weighed his limited options and taken the decision to stop running. He judged what he thought was a safe distance from the closest military vehicle, then put a strong foot down on the vehicle controls, and stopped suddenly by the roadside. He was quickly out of his vehicle before the first soldiers could come out of theirs. Eyes red, rapidly firing the most formal English possible, he demanded an explanation from whoever was the responsible officer among the soldiers. He had noticed for some time that they were following him. Why? He was a responsible citizen and Major So-and-So, Military Commander in Onicha, was a personal friend, so why was he being pursued like a criminal? He was quite happy, he said, to be taken before the Major or any other superior officer regarding any matter. No need to use force.

Was he just lucky, or was it the manner of his approach? His preemptive action probably saved him. And Father, a Francophile, was wearing his regulation French suit, the military green one, and had with him the little polished wooden command stick senior Nigerian military officers had then made fashionable in the post-war period. He could have been a visiting officer unknown to those soldiers. He certainly looked the part and talked a good fight! All these factors must have made the soldiers stop to reflect on the consequences of their actions. They informed him he was guilty of some traffic offence – something to do with excessive speeding or wrongly overtaking their own vehicle. Instead of falling over each other to break his bones, they entered dialogue with him regarding his alleged offence.

Life in post-war Onicha was dominated by the violent presence of soldiers. But their presence had a purpose. In the immediate months or early years after the war they continued the business of pacifying Igboland. No one I knew in Onicha really believed the ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ slogan of the triumphant central government. And everyone grumbled there was little evidence of the special development programme for the defeated East known as ‘The Three Rs’ – Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. The war was over but there was still an occupation force in Onicha and everyone understood that.

Fear of these soldiers was a reason for some memorable acts of survival after the war. Many of these involved the destruction of records. One incident I remember always returns me to that brutal past. Father had a set of mostly media, including, I think, foreign media, photographs of the riots and atrocities against Eastern Nigerian settlers in the North of the country, one of the reasons for the war. Some period soon after the war these photographs and others recording the Nigerian crises were on sale by street vendors. You could find yourself trapped in a long traffic queue at a petrol pump or on the road traveling out of Onicha, and some vendor would attempt to interest you in a displayed photograph of a decapitated and bloated body, pushing his or her wares around and into your vehicle, letting you know there was more to show if you wanted to see them. You could buy them to keep for your children, and their children. You could even buy them, the vendors would suggest, as gifts for friends and Nigerians in other countries for whom the war was a distant story. Take a copy. Take many copies.

I suspect it was from one of these vendors Father got his many copies for the record. There came a time, however, when rumour, and that was all the evidence I had, indicated that possession of these publicly sold photographs and other war memorabilia was considered evidence of continuing disloyalty to the central government. The rumour at school was that house searches had already begun. I remember going into Father’s room one day after he had traveled. I searched and found the bundle of offending photographs. Then I took them downstairs to an unremarkable part of the compound, dug a hole and began to bury them. Didn’t think of tearing them up or burning them, just buried them. Perhaps I hoped to retrieve them some day when the danger was over. I did return on a later date, moved more by curiosity, to where I imagined was the burial spot. But I dug in vain. Perhaps I had chosen the wrong spot. Perhaps what had been buried wished to stay buried.

I did not fully understand all I saw and heard then as a boy but I was left with the lasting impression that at least for some people a war may never end because it changes their lives permanently. They have survived with their lives scarred beyond the possibilities of cosmetic repair. I cannot now remember how the conversation with Pele began but we were at the school field kicking a soft ball. I was nine. He was almost nine. Everyone called him Pele, after the great footballer. My Pele was also clever with the ball. He knew a lot about the great players and teams of the world. His other favourite subject was the War.

“Your brother’s name is Emeka?”

I think I may have offered a quizzical “Yes…?”

”Nnaemeka or Chukwuemeka?”

I could not answer that question. I had always known my brother as Emeka – never asked about the full name, never thought it necessary to ask.

“Emeka, just Emeka”.

There was silence after my answer. When he spoke again I understood the reason for his earlier reluctance. He was about to share a family secret with me. Pele said his father and his uncles had decided they would not name any other male child of their families ‘Emeka’. Their extended family had lost a lot of Emekas, including children, in the sectarian killings of the North and also in the war fields of the East. He said Emeka was a bad name for their family – ‘bad’, meaning unfortunate, luckless, accident-prone. Years pass and mysteries are revealed, but the ‘Pele’ family saga is one childhood mystery that continues to elude me. Beyond the reaches of my own experience there is evidently a place of smoldering grief that commits its victims so fiercely and finally to their sense of loss.

A civil war, a war among brothers, a war in the family, is the worst of all wars. Its hatreds are easily transferred. Its dead inhabit the living and make them deadly. Onicha after the war was a lasting education on these difficulties of recovery and reconstruction. I got to know that my pain was nothing compared to the pain of many others. There was always a more terrible story than the last. But post-war Onicha was also a testimony to the human power of recovery and renewal. There was even then a vanguard of lawyers, doctors and other professionals committed to the task of rebuilding the city. But the Igbo trader, that irrepressible optimist, was the symbol of an Onicha defiant en route recovery. These traders were offering near universal employment, or, more accurately, apprenticeship, to all who were minded to work without or with little pay – forgoing proper salaries for free business training, accommodation and meals. Children who had survived the war to discover they now had to cater for themselves and their remaining family committed themselves to learning a trade.

These traders had made Onicha one of the more famous commercial cities in West Africa before the war. They were again rising to the new challenge of leading the charge for their adopted city. These traders fought as one, forming vigilante groups, against those who would rather steal than sell in the city. Some took their workmen into overgrown lots and laid foundations for apartment blocks and business tenancies. I watched these traders turn rubbish into gold, turn around so many corners but kept on going. At first most of them walked or cycled to their shops. Then they went ‘crazy’ over the ‘latest’ Honda motorbikes. When they began to buy their cars they bought them in series, initially going for the Peugeot family car vintage 1970s series, then moving on to the Mercedes Benz series. I watched them bitterly compete with and also assist each other to wealth, and then great wealth. And as they prospered Onicha grew with them.

We moved from Onicha in 1979. By then I had been out to other parts of Nigeria and lived in Benin City as a student. I was older and better informed on the agony of my country. The different versions of what happened where and who did what to who were by then already controlling minds all over the land. 1979 did not sound or look like 1971 – in Onicha or anywhere else. The later year had heard all the stories of the former but had no own experience. It did not know war. It did not know hunger. It did not really know death. What the life of 1979 may have heard about those grievous experiences was quickly smothered in the conflict of its many voices and choices. Indeed in 1979 life had again become so abundant there was little hesitation in the heated national debates about sacrificing some of it. Onicha 1971 had no such ambition. There was not even enough life to go around then. Death was in every corner, available, cheaply, even freely, but no one wanted any of it.


To tell all one has known, enacting history as testimony, plumbing the severity of hidden narratives, to fully regret all that was justified so that one may gain the peace one had lost – that was the intention. There is no glory in the telling, only duty, and the freedom of the unburdening. There is no clarity, only definitions, such facts one may live or die by, and be guided with through a deadly past into an uncertain future.

One tells what one can of what one knows, but to every griot there is certain defeat. The past is veiled by its multitude of tales. There are always others – other voices, other narratives. And what is remembered is remembered in snatches, like shards of light in a darkened room. So much that is precious rests on an unstable instrument, so little recovered from moments preserved in memory. One goes to peace as one goes to war, assured of loss, ultimately of defeat.

Still there is honour to the honourable, medals richly deserved. To take one moment and make it mean is a death worth living. So celebrate, those who can. One must capture the sun and live as though one has never known death. The human, the human, the human is the story. Not just the victor or vanquished, or the battles and their dates. The human, naked and unmade, the madness of the corrupt blood, the infinite futility of its days, then the stubbornness that hopes and believes and survives, the human alive in the grip of death.

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