One of the characters in A Song from Dead Lips is Sam Ezeoke, a passionate supporter of Biafran independence.
The Biafran War has receded into history, but at the time it was a hugely important moment for the post-colonial world. For my own family too.
My family left Enugu, Nigeria, in the year before the Biafran War broke out. I was a child; I remember we took the long road journey to Port Harcourt. The airport must have already been closed. We returned in 1970, the year the war finished. In the years in between, an estimated three million people died.
The Biafran War was a catastrophe, the beginnings of the end of the liberal, post-colonial dream. Africa’s riches and new found independence had been going to transform the continent into a wealthier, freer, more progressive place. The opposite happened.
Britain had ruled the vast ethnically diverse country using the age old principle of divide and rule. Companies were siphoning wealth out of the country. Nigeria was set up to fail.
In post-independence Nigeria the Moslem northerners quickly came to hate the politically savvy Christian Igbos who increasingly took power. Cynically, the northerners’ leaders stoked up those fears.
By the time our family left Nigeria, thousands of Igbos had already died in pogroms in the Muslim north of Nigeria. Thousands more were to die in coming months. In self-defence, the Igbos seceded in May 1967, calling their new country Biafra.
The capital was Enugu, where we had lived for three years.
Britain followed the oil, as it always does, backing Federal Nigeria in the hope of securing access to the riches in the Niger delta. Cabinet papers of the time reveal the stark cynicism of their motivation: “The sole immediate British interest is to bring the economy back to a condition in which our substantial trade and investment can be further developed.”
Without outside support, Biafra’s leaders committed their people to a stupid, unwinnable war. The Biafrans faced slaughter and, even more lethally, starvation.
Officially, Britain pretty much turned a blind eye to the Federal state’s blockade of Biafra. In 1970s we returned to a very different city. Of the estimated millions who died, up to a million were children.