The Brothers’ War: Biafra and Nigeria (A New Introduction)

To mark the publication of The Brothers’ War: Biafra and Nigeria in Faber Finds, John de St. Jorre has written this new introduction. After five years spent in the British Foreign Service, most of them spent in African embassies, de St. Jorre became a journalist, and was the Observer‘s correspondent in Africa. Among other wars and revolutions, he covered the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict and the Islamic revolution in Iran.


In the late 1960s, the fratricidal conflict in newly-independent Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, mirrored the American and Spanish civil wars. The struggle lasted a similar period of time and killed a similar number of people. Like the American civil war, it was about nationhood and self-determination; and like the Spanish conflict, it involved foreign intervention and great power rivalry. Like them both, it was a desperate affair, fought to the bitter end by determined people who shared a common past. Along with Vietnam, it was also one of the first televised wars where the fighting and the suffering of civilians caught up in it were watched in living rooms around the world. It aroused extraordinary passions overseas and involved massive, and controversial, relief operations. The war ended with a nation intact although the Nigerian government’s victory failed to resolve the country’s myriad political, economic, and social problems.

It may seem like ancient history now, given Nigeria’s subsequent record of almost endemic instability with coups and military government interspersed with relatively short periods of democratic elections and civilian rule. Also, on the broader African stage, other civil wars, brutal and corrupt dictatorships, genocide, and natural disasters have tended to blunt memories of Nigeria’s life-and-death struggle. But that high-energy, teeming, polyglot, pot-pourri of a country has stuck together notwithstanding the many tribal and religious centrifugal forces within it. The war helped to close the deep constitutional fissures by removing the old, unworkable four-region structure, bequeathed by the British, and dividing the country into what became thirty-six federal states. Thus, the conflict’s legacy lives on, helped by a large number of books, monographs, films, and memoirs, and still resonates with Nigerians who remember it and even among those who were born after it was all over.

During the last forty years, I have received many letters about the book from around the world – most, I am relieved to say, in a complimentary vein. They have come from academics, journalists, diplomats, writers, and others interested in Nigeria and African affairs. It is always nice to receive them, a reminder that although the book was long out of print, it had not been forgotten. However, the ones I cherish most are from Nigerians, particularly young Nigerians who can be excused for not showing much interest in a conflict they had nothing to do with and which held no personal echoes. Here is one that had a special impact on me, not only because of its eloquence but also because of the writer’s family.


Sir,

I first read your book as a boy in the 1980s. It opened my eyes to a portion of my own history that is still only spoken about in whispers in my country.

On receiving the book as a gift from a friend, I was overcome with gratitude – to the friend who gave it to me, to my late parents and surviving relatives who told me stories from that time, and to you for writing what is, so far, the best told and most insightful account of the events that defined my parents’ generation.

My daughter turned four years old yesterday. She is the child of an Ibo father and a Yoruba mother and the embodiment of my hope for my country. I’m saving the book for her – even though she can’t read yet! I don’t know if it will still be in print or not, but giving her my copy feels more authentic.

So, thank you, for witnessing what I could not, and for telling the story; your story, our story.

I don’t expect a response, I know that you’re busy and that you probably get a lot of mail. I’ll be content enough to know that you’ll see this and maybe smile when you realise it’s not one of those dodgy letters from my country! Maybe you’ll remember those days, and you’ll enjoy knowing that your words still have the potency to reach and move the next generation, and the next.

Sincerely,
Victor Okigbo

October 13, 2008


The name struck a chord. Further correspondence revealed that the writer was the son of Pius Okigbo, Ojukwu’s top economic adviser and a key figure in Biafra’s secession and its government. Victor’s uncle was Christopher Okigbo, Pius’s younger brother, a talented poet and passionate advocate of the Biafran cause who was killed in the fighting around Nsukka during the first month of the war.

And now my ancient rhythm calls me,
Out of ashes and fraternal death,
Before you, Mother Idoto,
Naked I stand,
A prodigal, lost in your legend …

From Heavensgate by Christopher Okigbo.

Looking back, a striking aspect of the Nigerian civil war was its aftermath. One of the principal factors that stiffened Biafran resistance, especially in the final months, was the government’s powerful propaganda machine trumpeting the threat of genocide if Biafra surrendered. Outside supporters tirelessly used the same argument against giving up although it was then clear that the Nigerian forces were advancing in all directions and the outcome, barring a miracle, was inevitable.

But, after Ojukwu had left on a Super Constellation from the battered airport at Uli – a strip of road turned into a dangerous, improvised runway – the military leaders on both sides worked out a civilized and humane end to the conflict. Gowon, quoting Lincoln, spoke of ‘binding up the nation’s wounds’ and of ‘no victors and no vanquished’. He decreed three days of national prayer, and announced that no valour medals would be awarded to the Nigerian army for the entire war.

I was in Lagos a couple of days after the end and remember the surprising lack of jubilation, just a feeling of relief that, at last, it was all over. I also toured the defeated rump of Biafra and found nothing but compassion for the inhabitants. Both sides were clearly exhausted, and wanted to move on with their lives. There was no genocide, no proscription, no settling of vendettas, no reprisals of any kind.

Within a few years, Ojukwu would be back as a private citizen, and his principal military and civilian advisers re-integrated into Nigerian society. (Pius Okigbo became Nigeria’s first ambassador to the European Economic Commission, later the European Union.) Thus, in the end, the Nigerian civil war broke company with its Spanish and American counterparts: there was no vindictive General Franco perpetuating the cruelties and hatred of the war long after it was over, and no bitter, unrepentant Southerners smouldering generation after generation. In that sense, Nigeria offered the world a remarkably humane model for any such future conflicts.


John de St. Jorre was born in London and educated in Britain and Singapore. After five years in the British Foreign Service he became a journalist. He covered the Nigerian-Biafran civil war and wrote The Brothers’ War: Biafra and Nigeria, which is now reissued in Faber Finds. He lives in New York and works as a freelance writer.

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