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H/histoire(s) et résonances de guerre(s) : témoignages littéraires et représentations ‎cinématographiques

Ethnic “Betrayal”, Mimicry, and Reinvention: the Representation of Ukpabi Asika in the Novel of the Nigerian-Biafran War

« Trahison » ethnique, imitation et réinvention : la représentation d’Ukpabi Asika dans le roman de la guerre du Biafra
Nikolai Jeffs
p. 280-306


Ukpabi Asika était un éminent intellectuel Ibo qui, après la chute de la capitale biafraise, Enugu, tombée sous le contrôle de l’Armée nigérienne, devient administrateur du nouvel État du centre-est. Nombreux furent les Biafrais, dont la majorité était des Ibos, à percevoir Asika comme un traître. Certains, au contraire, décidèrent de traverser la frontière et de le suivre. Nous examinerons la lutte d’Asika à travers trois romans de guerre — The Road to Udima de Victor Nwankwo, Behind the Rising Sun de S. O. Mezu et The Siren in the Night d’Eddie Iroh — qui mettent en lumière la dynamique de la représentation de l’ennemi mais aussi les limites, les potentialités et la diversité de la conscience nationale des différentes ethnies.

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1In 1966, waves of extensive massacres of the migrants who had moved from Nigeria’s then Eastern region to other parts of the country, especially to the North, forced nearly all of those who were fortunate enough to have survived the killings to return to their homes back in the East. Increasing polarisation between the Federal Military Government of Nigeria and the military government in the Eastern region then led the East to declare its independence as Biafra on May 30, 1967. The majority of the new republic’s population was Igbo, and although there were exceptions, particularly among members of Biafra’s ethnic minorities, many welcomed secession. Biafra was seen as a guarantee of the security of the population in the East, a renunciation of the Nigerian society and state and their travails, a promise of more equitable economic development and political stability and, finally, a reversal of the effects of British colonialism, which had given birth to these hardships in the first place. The novelist Chinua Achebe put the case for Biafra thus:

  • 1 Chinua Achebe, “The African Writer and the Biafran Cause,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day, London: (...)

Biafra stands in opposition to the murder and rape of Africa by whites and blacks alike because she has tasted both and found them equally bitter. No government, black or white, has the right to stigmatise and destroy groups of its own citizens without undermining the basis of its own existence. The government of Nigeria failed to protect the fourteen million people of its former Eastern Nigeriafrom wanton destruction and rightly lost their allegiance [...] Biafra stands for true independence in Africa, for an end to the 400 years of shame and humiliation which we have suffered in our association with Europe. Britain knows this and is using Nigeria to destroy Biafra.1

2However, not all Igbos welcomed secession. One of the most important among those opposed to Biafra was the social scientist and lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Western Nigeria, Ukpabi Anthony Asika. Not only did he remain within Federal territory throughout the massacres of 1966, and throughout the duration of the Nigerian-Biafran war that broke out on July 6, 1967, but with the fall of Biafra’s capital Enugu to the Nigerian Army on October 4, 1967, he became the civilian administrator of the East-Central State, one of the twelve new federal components the Nigerian Military Government had created out of the four regions that had comprised the country before its break-up.

Asika’s battles for hearts and minds

  • 2 John de St. Jorre, The Brothers’ War: Biafra and Nigeria,Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972, 381.

3Asika’s task was to establish a Federal administration in the East-Central State and to take care of its population and refugees, something he was not exactly complimented on for carrying out. Indeed both the Nigerian Army and the International Red Cross were critical of him and his assistants, who “spent too much time in Lagos or away from their district and outside Enugu and had become too dependent on the army for transport, supplies and technicians.” John de St. Jorre, who covered the war as a correspondent for the British newspaper The Observer,adds that while he was reporting from Enugu in the autumn of 1968, Asika “refused to see the visiting head of the Nigerian Red Cross or the Swedish Secretary General of the League of Red Cross Societies”.2

4From Lagos and Enugu, Asika would make a number of speeches addressed to Biafra through which he called upon its population to lay down its arms and cross over to the Federal side, where it would it find safety as well as amnesty, thus bringing about an end to the destruction caused by the war. Asika’s first such speech was Enough is Enough (10 November, 1967); in it he called upon his fellow Igbos:

  • 3 Ukpabi Asika, No Victors No Vanquished, Apapa: East-Central State Information Service, 1968, 3-5.

Come forward now and let us stop this war. This wanton destruction of lives and property. Enough is enough. You have seen the contrast between the security and the prosperity which Ojukwu promised you, by seeking to cut the cords that tie you with the country, and the destruction, the waste and the insecurity in which you now live. I am speaking to you as a fellow Nigerian, an Iboman, who has also suffered. Even as I speak to you I do not know the extent of the waste, the damage, the destruction that has been done to my home at Onitsha, to my family and my friends and to all those very, very dear to me. Can you imagine that I do not care? [...] To those of you who fled your homes, in Enugu and the areas of Nsukka I wish to make a special appeal that you now return. Your protection and security are assured [...] The rebels, in arms, are invited to lay down their arms, or better still turn over the arms to the Nigerian Army. All rebels who do so will be treated with clemency and understanding. Already the Federal Military Government has stated that all soldiers, no matter on which side they fought, would [sic] be fully rehabilitated. 3

  • 4 Ukpabi Asika, “Why I am a Federalist,” Transition,n° 36, 1968, 40. A fuller version of the same int (...)

5For Asika then, the security of the Biafran population was based on a renunciation of Biafran sovereignty as opposed to being predicated upon it. His calls to the Biafrans to lay down their arms and his assurances of clemency and rehabilitation were in line with official Nigerian policy, and he also saw no contradiction between being an Igbo and being pro-Nigerian. When asked in an interview for the continentally and internationally influential Uganda-based cultural magazine Transition whether Nigeria was not “a figment of the British imagination”, a question that was loaded with implications concerning the authenticity of Nigerian nationalism and Britain’s neo-colonial instrumentalisation of the country, Asika merely replied with a terse “Not really.”4

  • 5 Bruce King, “Is There a Nigerian Literature?” Bayreuth African Studies Series,n° 6, 1986, 53.

6As a pro-Federal Igbo, Asika was both the subject and object of Nigerian propaganda, since he literally embodied the Federal claims that Nigeria was still a multicultural state defined by the rule of law, a state in which members of one ethnic group were not treated differently than members of any other group. To be sure, such positive blindness to ethnic difference, and one that motivated popular as well as official forms of transcendent pan-Nigerian nationalism, did not seem to affect merely those Igbos on the Nigerian side of the front line, but also extended to Igbos within Biafra. Literary critic Bruce King thus reported that while he was in Nigeria during the war “no one at the University of Lagos questioned, as they might have done at the time, whether [the writers] Achebe, Ekwensi and Okigbo were Nigerian. The government’s ideology during the war said they were. The war was being fought to keep them Nigerian.”5

7Indeed, since Nigeria had not recognised Biafran secession and claimed to be fighting the “rebel clique” led by Biafra’s head General Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Biafrans were de jure Nigerian citizens in the process of being liberated from the rule of their secessionist leadership. De facto, however, the process of their liberation not only resulted in full-scale military actions against the Biafran Army, involving instances of war crimes against its soldiers and of massacres of the civilian population, but also in the indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilian targets, including market places and hospitals, and a policy of starving Biafra into submission. These actions left at least one million dead.

8In this sense then (leaving aside the fact that Achebe, Ekwensi, Okigbo, and many other Biafrans had no desire to be Nigerian any more) both the example of Asika and the official Nigerian policy of considering all Biafrans as Nigerians could be seen as an ideological smokescreen behind which the Nigerian Army could actively pursue a policy, the implementation and effectiveness of which ran quite contrary to postulations of a difference-blind and transcendent Nigerian nationalism. Simultaneously, and at the expense of more radical forms of social transformation, the Federal Military Government could also cast the pursuit of reunification as the only short- and long-term task necessary in order to bring about a new era in the history of Nigeria, a sentiment reflected in the official slogan of the time: “To keep Nigeria one is a job that must be done.”

  • 6 Ali A. Mazrui, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, London: Heinemann, 1971, x.
  • 7 Ibid., 144.
  • 8 Ibid., 108.

9Two opposing views of the worth of Nigerian nationalism, the means by which unification was pursued, and the degree to which they were justifiable, as well as the question of who bore ultimate responsibility for them, also touch on the figure of Asika. In his novel The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971), begun in 1968 while the war was still raging, but only fully finished after its end, Kenyan political scientist Ali A. Mazrui admitted that, although his “sympathies were with the Ibo” whom he “loved”, he also “hated Biafra,” and that his “moral support was for the Federal side.”6 Furthermore, Mazrui charges all those who actively defended the Biafran cause (including Okigbo who died on the Nsukka front in 1967) of being “guilty of a tragic miscalculation” because the number of Igbos who died in the war far exceeded those that could “conceivably have died in three decades of rioting in the North.”7 In contrast, and albeit he is mentioned just in passing, Asika is referred to as one of Africa’s “integrationist heroes [able to] transcend their ethnic affiliations for bigger causes.”8 In other words, responsibility for the Biafran tragedy lies primarily with the Biafrans themselves, while the greater cause of national unity justifies the means by which the reunification of Nigeria was pursued.

  • 9 Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, London: Vintage, [1972], 1994, 120.
  • 10 Ibid., 19.

10A radically different estimation is put forward by Wole Soyinka who spent the war in a Nigerian prison for crossing over to Biafra and then back to Nigeria in an attempt to bring about a radical socialist “Third Force,” which would have transcended Biafran secession, Nigerian policies of reintegration, and the respective regimes that stood behind them. In his prison memoirs The Man Died (1972), fragments of which were written while he was still incarcerated, Soyinka makes a passing reference to Asika’s characterisation of the massacres of 1966 as “a state of anomy”, referring to it as a “gem” among examples of the ways in which these events were dismissed as minor detail that could be glossed over and forgotten, without either admitting the full extent of the atrocities that took place, punishing the perpetrators, or recognising the need for the radical socio-political reform necessary to prevent such massacres in the future and to bring about a meaningful transformation of the country.9 Soyinka, for whom the war could not be justified, locates culpability for it with “the genocide-consolidated dictatorship of the [Nigerian] Army which made both secession and war inevitable.”10 Asika’s take on the massacres is again alluded to in the title of Soyinka’s war novel, this also begun while in prison, Season of Anomy (1973).

  • 11 John de St. Jorre, op. cit., 189–190. See also 381.
  • 12 In turn, the Federal side used the same nickname for Okokon Ndem, a Radio Biafra ethnic minority br (...)
  • 13 Ken Saro-Wiwa, On a Darkling Plane: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War,Port Harcourt: Saros Inter (...)

11On the Biafran side of the front line, there were conflicting views on how to respond to Asika. John de St. Jorre reports that Asika “appeared as a hated quisling to most loyal Biafrans and was treated as such by the full weight of the Biafran propaganda juggernaut.”11 In addition, it is claimed that Biafrans applied the nickname “Lord Haw Haw” to Asika, a reference to William Joyce, the English- language Nazi German radio broadcast announcer of the Second World War.12 In contrast, in his memoirs on the war, On a Darkling Plain (1989), Ken Saro-Wiwa reports that Radio Biafra “studiously ignored [Asika …] since any mention of him by their powerful propaganda machinery would, without a doubt, have served to promote him and his alternative ideas to the Ibos” and thus that the Propaganda Directorate’s answer to Asika “was a sullen silence.”13 Furthermore, of the most important internationally published English works to come out of Biafra during the war, Arthur A. Nwankwo’s and Samuel U. Ifejika’s Biafra: The Making of a Nation (1969) and Ojukwu’s Ahiara Declaration (1969) do not mention Asika at all, while Ojukwu’s Biafra: Selected Speeches and Random Thoughts (1969) and Frederick Forsyth’s The Biafra Story (1969) refer to him only in passing.

  • 14 Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo, Fact and Fiction in the Literature of the Nigerian Civil War, Ojo Town: Un (...)
  • 15 Bernard Odogwu, No Place to Hide: Crises and Conflicts inside Biafra,Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 2002, (...)

12When it comes to estimating the practical effects Asika’s addresses had on the Biafran population, and on how individuals privately, rather than publicly, responded to them, opinions are not in the least uniform either. On one hand, literary critic Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo argues that it is “doubtful whether these speeches made any appreciable impact at all, for it appears that many people preferred to die in the areas held by the secessionists than risk trying out the promises made by Asika.”14 On the other hand, even though they were not motivated by Asika’s calls, one cannot ignore the fact that the Biafran regime was beset from the very onset of the war by the crossing over of notables to the Nigerian side. Indeed, soon after its outbreak, the then commander of the Biafran Air Force, Lieutenant-Colonel George Kurubo, defected and became the Nigerian ambassador to Moscow. Popular musician Rex Lawson was another example. Following the proclamation of Biafran independence, he released a song called “Hail Biafra,” but after the fall of Port Harcourt to the Nigerian army on May 19, 1968, he too changed allegiances, then authored a song praising the Nigerian Commander-in-Chief and Head of State General Yakubu Gowon.15

  • 16 Abiola Irele, “Ken Saro-Wiwa,” inYemi Ogunbiyi (ed.), Perspectives on Nigerian Literature 1700 to t (...)

13Of course, since Kurubo and Lawson were not Igbos, their actions could be dismissed as merely an enactment of that treachery towards Biafra which was understood to be part and parcel of a larger anti-Igbo ethnocentric complex, which was motivating the Federals anyway. Once within Federal territory, non-Igbos from Biafra could expect to be treated differently and much more positively than Igbos as a whole. The same dismissive argument could also be applied to two other prominent escapees from Biafra, already established Ekwere novelist Elechi Amadi, and then budding Ogoni author Ken Saro-Wiwa. Yet, such attitudes of repudiation did not mean that Biafra did not take such instances of crossing over seriously, or that it was willing to forgo any attempts at their neutralisation. Commenting on Saro-Wiwa’s function as the Federal Civilian Administrator for Bonny Island, which was captured a week into the war, literary critic Abiola Irele notes, “It was said at the time that, next to Ukpabi Asika [...] Saro-Wiwa occupied the most dangerous post in the world.”16

14Moreover, one cannot overlook the fact not only that many former, but otherwise quite ordinary, Igbo Biafrans nonetheless found themselves in Asika’s care after the fall of Enugu, but that some actually responded positively to his calls as the war progressed. In his Transition interview, given in May 1968,Asika relates one instance of crossing over which remains extremely telling despite the probable exaggeration of the final numbers involved:

  • 17 U. A. Asika, “… Federalist,” op. cit., 44.

A young boy of twenty in one village was an apprentice motor mechanic. He took risks with his life, at an age when you could have been in the Biafran army, to cross the line, through the Federal troops, and secure their guarantees for the safety of his village. They gave him a guarantee. Within a week he had ninety families back. When I saw him he had a thousand families, and this small boy of twenty was the leader.17

15All these contrasting views of the importance of Asika necessitate a reconsideration of his figure and the claims he personified. Indeed, a more complex estimation of him can be found in three novels on the war by former Biafrans of Igbo origin: Victor Nwankwo’s The Road to Udima (1969, 1985),S. O. Mezu’s Behind the Rising Sun (1971),and Eddie Iroh’s The Siren in the Night (1982). These deploy strategies of representation that signal a certain critical distance towards official nationalist discourse, not only from Nigeria but also from Biafra and, precisely by attempting a reversal and/or resolution of the figure of Asika, underline the extent of his impact on Biafra. That he could be neither easily dismissed nor accepted suggests a heterogeneity and complexity of individual experiences of war, otherwise not found in official discourse. Such diverse responses to him testify against a priori static and totalising views of the self, and also against the seemingly unanimous views of who is a friend and who a foe in wartime. In the course of this article, some of the revisions and subversions of various other historical figures and forms of discourse connected to the Nigerian-Biafran war will also be touched upon, so as to further illuminate the polyphony of, and the general condition of intertextual struggle between, various discourses of the war.

The subversion of official texts in The Road to Udima

  • 18 Hans M. Zell, “In Memoriam: Chief Victor Nwankwo,” Bellagio Publishing Network Newsletter, n° 31, N (...)

16After the war broke out, Victor Nwankwo, a student at the University of Nsukka, joined the Biafran Army’s “S” Brigade. There, he first worked for the publication The Biafran, and then became a member of the brigade’s engineering unit where he served on the front as an officer.18 While composing the The Road to Udima, Nwankwo was a script writer in the Biafran Propaganda Directorate. The novel thus occupies a unique place among others written on the Nigerian-Biafran war, as it is the only one which was fully completed and published during the actual conflict. It is also a rare example of what can be dubbed the novel of Biafran ethno-national affirmation, the other two examples being Cyprian Ekwensi’s Divided We Stand (1980), the manuscript of which was written during the war and, where it touches upon Biafra, Fredrick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1974). These works propagate the assumption that the people and the elite were actually more ethnically homogenous and organically connected than they in fact were. The nation and state are therefore united in a common struggle to maintain independence or, in the case of The Dogs of War, the realisation of Biafra by other means.

  • 19 Like the majority of novels by former Biafrans, including Behind the Rising Sun and The Siren in th (...)
  • 20 The original manuscript was lost in the course of the war and the English version published in 1985 (...)
  • 21 Katherine Salahi, “Talking Books, Chief Victor Nwankwo in conversation with Katherine Salahi,” Bell (...)

17In contrast to the other two novels, The Road to Udima is open to the discussion of threats to Biafra from within. Thus, although it glosses over contradictions of ethnic and gender relations in Biafra, these being seemingly successfully subsumed under Biafran nationhood,19 it nonetheless still treads a potentially very thin line between what was and was not acceptable to the authorities. When Nwankwo showed his manuscript to West German journalist Ruth Bowert, who was in Biafra at the time, she liked the manuscript and, in conjunction with Franz-Joseph Stummann, arranged to have it translated and published in West Germany as Der Weg nach Udima (1969).20 For Bowert, the appeal of the novel lay in the fact that “it tackled corruption and other burning issues unmentioned in all the official propaganda.”21 Of course, by opening up controversial issues which were otherwise not publicly addressed in Biafra, The Road to Udima inadvertently reveals the degree to which official Biafran discourses on the war could be constituted by silence on, or rather an excision of, thematic and descriptive elements, the inclusion and extensive discussion of which would otherwise threaten the coherence and effectiveness of their political intent.

  • 22 Victor Nwankwo, The Road to Udima, Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1985, 30. Subsequent references are ind (...)

18The Road to Udima includes such troubling elements, but sets them in such a context that Biafran society is seen as more unanimous than it actually was, thus effecting closure upon them. Indicative of this approach is the way in which two minor characters, figurative of Biafran subaltern consciousness, tell the protagonist Daniel Chimezie Umeadi how individual members of the elite hide their own cars and use commandeered private cars and free petrol instead, and how when “the government gives salt for the poor people like us, the big people carry it away in sacks and give it to their wives to sell to make money.” Crucially, however, this critique is accompanied by an important qualification: “only a few of the big people do things like that [...] the people who do these things do not amount to more than two percent. The remaining ninety-eight percent make sacrifices for the country [...] these two percent are causing the devastation and are making us lose the war.”22

19In other words, although The Road to Udima admits to the existence of corruption and war-profiteering in Biafra, and although it also acknowledges the negative consequences these practices have on the Biafran war effort, a possible general and structural class critique of Biafra is relegated to the background, while Biafra’s affirmation remains in the forefront. Biafra is thus a society predominantly united by the effects of war and under the representation, authority, and protection of Ojukwu, to which The Road to Udima pays a passing but still highly symptomatic homage:

Hail Biafra, land of freedom.
Odumegwu Ojukwu, we hail thee.
Whatever the enemy may do,
Biafra has come to stay. (14)

20Nwankwo started writing The Road to Udima in 1968 and the time he spent on it “probably spilled into early 1969.” (Prologue) The novel was thus conceived and finished in a time of transition in which questions as to how individuals responded to the relationship between security and sovereignty; the example of Asika, and the possibility of crossing over to the Federal side, became even more pressing for the Biafran regime than they were initially.

21This urgency arose out of the fact that the regime was confronted with the issue of high-profile defections to the Nigerian side and the negative example these then presented to the rest of the Biafran populace. In September, 1968, former Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe, at first sceptical of Biafra but then authoring the text of its national anthem and becoming Biafra’s key international representative, crossed swords with Ojukwu (who saw Biafran sovereignty as non-negotiable) on the question of continuing to advocate Biafran independence, rather than seeking accommodation with Nigeria, by which the continuing loss of life and suffering could be averted. After this clash of opinions, Azikiwe went to live in London and did not return to Biafra for the duration of the war. Then, in January, 1969, Asika travelled to London as a member of the Nigerian delegation to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting and was contacted by Azikiwe. The two met and then maintained a correspondence after Asika, who mediated for Azikiwe’s return to the Nigerian fold, returned to Enugu.23 In August 1969, Azikiwe was warmly embraced by the Nigerian Federal Military Government in Lagos and even went on to attend the O.A.U. meeting in Addis Ababa in September as part of the Nigerian delegation, at Gowon’s side.24 Moreover, Bernard Odogwu, who was Director of Biafran Military Intelligence during the war, has noted that after Azikiwe’s defection it was an “open secret” in Biafra that at least some ten percent of the Biafran population followed Azikiwe’s lead and crossed over to the Nigerian side.25

  • 26 Raph Uwechue, Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: A Call for Realism, London: O.I.T.H. Internati (...)

22Another prominent Igbo who gave up the Biafran cause was the country’s top professional diplomat, Raph Uwechue. Before the war, Uwechue had been Nigeria’s chargé d’affaires in Paris, but then became Biafra’s representative in France, later being decorated by the Biafran government for his services to the state on the first anniversary of its independence, May 30, 1968. In December, 1968, however, Uwechue resigned his post for the same reasons as Azikiwe. Needless to say, examples of such dissenting Biafran notables, as well as the defection of a far from insignificant percentage of the Biafran population to the Federals, severely undermined Biafra’s legitimacy as the sole political form that could guarantee self-expression and safety to the Igbo. In relation to this, Uwechue’s Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: A Call for Realism (1969) called attention to the relationship between security and sovereignty as one of the most crucial issues around which ongoing justification for Biafra turned. For Uwechue, Biafran nationalism and independence were but one of the means through which the country’s well-being and the population’s security could be attained. If such conditions could be achieved without Biafran sovereignty, and if the ongoing death and suffering of Biafrans could be thus further averted, it made no sense to uphold the principle of an independent Biafra at all costs: “Sovereignty or mass suicide is an irresponsible slogan unworthy of the sanction or encouragement of any serious and sensible leadership.”26

23The Road to Udima resolves the wider socio-political questions, contexts, and motivations of defection to the Nigerian side by both openly addressing and also decisively reversing them. Chimezie wants to join the Biafran Army, but instead takes up work in the Directorate of Mineral Research, where his immediate superior Menkiti is not only an incompetent slacker, part of the corrupt two percent of the Biafran population, but also wavering in his support for Biafra. Indeed, Menkiti made his way into Biafra only after the country had proclaimed its independence, and only after he had narrowly escaped being killed by a murderous military mob in Lagos. Through this, the novel suggests that, despite official claims to the contrary, life for the Igbos within Nigeria was not at all secure.

24Moreover, after the fall of Calabar to the Nigerian Army, an event that took place on October 19, 1967, Menkiti openly questions the point of continuing to fight such a superior adversary. Chimezie refutes Menkiti’s argument, expresses his desire to take revenge for the massacre of two of his brothers in the North and states that he himself aspires “to secure that my mother and brother and sisters have a place under the sun where the security of their lives and property is guaranteed. I believe that if I have to die for this, my life will not have been wasted.” (30) Chimezie’s position further substantiates the assumption that the only chance for the safety of the people lies within a victorious Biafra, rather than outside and/or beyond it. A minor character, the refugee camp director Mr Edem, repeats and amplifies the same argument, another signal as to how crucial the issues of security and sovereignty, and the debates surrounding them, were in Biafra and why, therefore, The Road to Udima counters them: “I am concerned with only one thing, the safeguarding of life, food and happiness. That is why I am really thinking of one thing only, and that is first of all to win this war.” (63) Differences between Menkiti and Chimezie flare up into an openly violent confrontation, after which Chimezie is fired. Without any means of survival, and on the edge of starvation, Chimezie decides to return to his home village of Udima where he hopes to find food. On his arrival, however, he is caught by a Nigerian army detachment led by Major Smith, a British soldier whose presence signifies Nigeria’s use of mercenaries and/or direct British neo-colonial involvement in the war.

25In the words of the Code of Conduct,which was to be read and practised in conjunction with the Geneva Conventions and was issued in the autumn of 1967 by Gowon, civilians were not to be mistreated in any way and surrendering soldiers were to be regarded as prisoners of war. This document can be seen as forming, along with Asika’s guarantees of the safe passage for those who lay down their arms renouncing both secession and the Biafran leadership, yet another enticement for defection from the Biafran side. But, after Chimezie is taken prisoner by Major Smith’s detachment, we learn that Menkiti was one of those Biafran civilians who took Federal claims seriously and thus crossed over. He was, however, killed by Nigerian soldiers after he did so. In contrast, and thanks to Major Smith, Chimezie’s life is spared, not because Smith is more humanitarian than his Nigerian subordinates, but because he first wants to use Chimezie as an instrument of propaganda warfare. So, Chimezie is first beaten, then drugged and thus forced to read a radio broadcast calling on Biafrans to surrender:

My people, you all know me well. I have fought side by side with you. I know your aspirations. I have advanced together with you. I do not want to enumerate the parts I have played in the struggle I thought just and right. But today I implore you to lay down your guns because I am one of you and have taken up your cause. My people you are being cheated. The good will waiting for you here is overwhelming. Your interests are mine. Stop fighting and you shall have peace. Stop fighting and you can employ the talents God has given you so plentifully. Stop fighting and you can save yourself this unnecessary suffering. (70)

26Chimezie’s address reveals the degree to which calls to cross over were seen as a potent threat within Biafra which could not be fully ignored, and displays The Road to Udima’s creative ambition to overcome this threat by engaging with it narratively.

27But, if Chimezie’s broadcast echoes some of the sentiments, rhetorical strategies and ambitions of Asika’s Enough is Enough speechquoted at the beginning of this article, the context in which this broadcast is made is such that it reverses and thus subverts Asika’s claims. Within Biafra, Chimezie’s speech is received with some scepticism as to whether or not it is a true representation of his actual intentions. Indeed, Chimezie is disowned in a statement signed by his younger brother. In other words, while The Road to Udima wants to thus “show” that the possibility of heeding Asika’s calls was not a serious option in Biafra, a further inference of the novel is that interventions such as Asika’s were not authentic political statements, precisely because they were made under physical and psychological pressure, similar to that endured by Chimezie. Moreover, The Road to Udima further demonstrates the falsity of the actual Asika, the calls for surrender issued by the Federal side, and the rules of engagement it set down. These are but ploys with which to lure Biafrans to their deaths: not only was Menkiti foolish enough to have believed them, thus getting himself killed, but, when the Biafran Army is to re-enter Udima, Chimezie is to meet the same end, as all the prisoners held by the Federals are to be shot. And yet, Chimezie is liberated and becomes a fearless Biafran guerrilla leader.

Behind the Rising Sun as a critique of Biafran officialdom

  • 27 Janheinz Jahn, Ulla Schild & Almut Nordman Seiler, Who’s Who in African Literature: Biographies, Wo (...)
  • 28 Within the opus of the war novel as a whole, only two other novels, albeit written from a non-Biafr (...)

28During the war, S. O. Mezu was of a member of the Biafran diplomatic mission to Paris. He was also a Biafran representative in various West African states and at the peace talks which took place in Niamey and Addis Ababa.27 The fact that the war ended on January 12, 1970, and that Behind the Rising Sun was published in 1971 testifies to the end of political constraint concerning the public nature of Mezu’s criticism of Biafra. The reason is that as a novel of disillusionment with the course Biafra had taken under the helm of its ruling elite, the contents of Behind the Rising Sun, the first and the most radical work in this genre, to which the majority of other novels on the Nigerian-Biafran war belong (albeit in a more reformist manner than Mezu’s work), are such that it hardly could have been published while Mezu was still in Biafran employ.In addition, Behind the Rising Sun is the first and only revolutionary novel to be written by a former Biafran on the subject of the war.28

  • 29 S. O. Mezu, Behind the Rising Sun, London: Heinemann, 1978, 25. Subsequent references are indicated (...)

29The scene opens in the Biafra Historical Research Centre, the name of the actual office the new country had in Paris where Mezu worked for a time. A substantial part of the novel describes the activities of head of the French office, Obiora Ifedi, and his associates: lawyer Peter Afoukwu, professor Chancellor Obelenwata, former cabinet minister Chief Tobias Iweka, envoy Pat Odoro and Biafra’s special representatives to Europe, Ruddy Nnewi and Everly Nwomah. Behind the Rising Sun notes how this section of the Biafran elite used independence as a means of consolidating and even expanding its economic, cultural, and political power, as well as increasing its distance from the rest of the population. For instance, leading businessmen responded to a study which proposed that state transportation and shipping companies be established by forming a monopoly: “The Board of Directors of the companies included Obiora Ifedi, Chief Iweka, Pat Odoro and Ruddy Nnewi. Their legal advisor was Lawyer Afoukwu.”29 This group’s prime motivation is cast as self-aggrandisement in terms of accumulating both cultural and actual capital, the latter also in the form of what Ifedi explicitly refers to as the “transportation cake.” (6) Holding important offices in Biafra, the group was effective in mobilising the people to the cause of independence, but once the war broke out they left the country, no longer interested in contributing materially to the struggle at home even with the resources they had left behind in Biafra.

  • 30 For some background on these figures see J. de St. Jorre, op. cit., 1972, 113, 193, 195, 214.

30At the same time, the “Ifedi squad,” as the novel dubs it, is patently incompetent regarding the task it has been entrusted with carrying out abroad. It is constantly outplayed by unscrupulous arms dealers and mercenary pilots who take money from the Biafrans, but fail to provide the military equipment necessary for Biafra’s defence. Similarly, the squad is also unsuccessful in exchanging Biafra’s Nigerian currency reserves at a satisfactory rate, or before the deadline announced by the Nigerians, up to which point such currency would still have been considered legal tender. On the other hand, the squad practices nepotism (Ifedi’s relation Samson Anele is Biafra’s special courier to Europe), fritters away funds by living in all the luxury access to Biafran accounts can afford, and has a vain self-image of the contributions it has made in relation to the struggle. Importantly, these characters and their missions abroad can be seen as being based on real-life Biafrans: Raph Uwechue (the actual head of the office in France), C. C. Mojekwu (the former Solicitor-General of the Eastern Region, Ojukwu’s cousin, and Biafra’s Interior Minister), Dr. Kenneth Dike (former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, later roving ambassador for Biafra), Francis Nwokedi (former head of Federal Ministry of External Affairs, afterwards a special advisor to Ojukwu and a foreign envoy), and some other historical figures who were active on special missions abroad.30

31In this respect, and given that the Ifedi squad is led by the novel’s fictionalised version of Uwechue, the iconoclastic nature of Behind the Rising Sun severely questions the benefit of Uwechue’s input into the Biafran struggle. It problematises his motivations, holds him complicit for Biafra’s defeat and thus, although his renunciation of the Biafran cause is not mentioned in the course of the novel, implicitly raises questions as to whether both this renunciation and his Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War that came out of it were not actually the products of a similarly self-aggrandising desire that otherwise motivates Obiora Ifedi in his support for Biafra.

32Opposed to the Ifedi squad stand two junior members of the Parisian mission, Jeff Edu and the novel’s protagonist, Freddy Onouha, as well as others who are not only more competent than the Ifedi squad, but also see Biafran independence as an opportunity for decisive socio-economic and political change. Thus, the interests of the people and the elite, the nation and the state, are no longer shown as united, but opposed to each other. Edu frames part of this problematic situation in the following way:

I am in a way happy that our government did not score a four-day victory as they hoped they would. Such a victory would have heralded the greatest tyranny in the history of our people, because the politicians advising or running the government once they had won the war without the people would also have ruled without the people, or with the outspoken ones amongst them in jail. (44)

33Optimistically, the Biafran scientist Dr Clinton Okeji holds that the soldiers who survive the war will also be able to “overthrow the coalition of corruption and nepotism with the new techniques and ideas they have been taught”. In an indirect reference suggesting what Behind the Rising Sun sees Ojukwu as not being, precisely because he could not bring about such change during the war, Okeji states that for decisive social transformation to occur one needs:

a leader courageous to enough to stand firm for justice and to stamp out inequity, a leader sensitive enough to feel the pulse of the people as he guides them with his creative imagination [...] such a leader for this unleashed power to be channelled into scientific progress, human happiness, and peaceful prosperity. (44)

34From Paris, Onuoha travels to Abidjan and Dakar where he meets the Igbo expatriate student Titi Duru, with whom he continues his journey. After stops in Libreville and São Tomé, Onuhoa and Titi finally reach Biafra. There they learn that Aba has just been taken by the Nigerian Army (which took place on September 4, 1968) and are given some of the details regarding the fall of Port Harcourt: the Nigerian massacre of four hundred wounded soldiers in the city’s General Hospital, the deliberate shelling of civilian refugees leaving Port Harcourt, the killing of some male returnees to the city, and the castration of others. (155) In a wider intertextual context in which the novel can be read, such details again severely challenge the claims made in Federal discourses and documents such as the Code of Conduct as to how the war should be conducted by showing how it was actually pursued.

35Onuoha and Titi meet and become friends with Captain Tudor Opara, the leader of a guerrilla formation called Behind Enemy Lines, a fictional version of the existent Biafran Organisation of Freedom Fighters, whose contingent Onuoha and Titi join. The contingent crosses the front line over to Nigerian held territory to operate in Enugu where, so as not to blow their cover, Onuoha and Titi pose as refugees, Titi being actively involved in deception and the killing of Nigerian soldiers. In a minor but still important scene, Onuoha and Titi meet and talk to Mr Oti, a teacher from Onitsha, who, after being captured by the Nigerians, was “taken to Enugu and used as an interpreter for the villagers, and for the Igbo broadcasts from the Nigerian radio station.” Oti had thus “become a sort of middle-man between the government and the local refugees. He became an example of one of those Igbo leaders who refused to collaborate with the secessionists and had crossed freely over to the Federal-controlled territories.” In the meantime, however, Oti has changed his mind and would like to return to Biafra, but fears that this would prompt retaliation against the refugees: “You must remember that though under the control of our enemies, these refugees are still our brothers and sisters. We should not increase their misery.” (180)

36Of course, Oti’s hometown of Onitsha, references to the refusal of collaboration with the secessionists, and Federal broadcasts from Enugu all reinforce the impression that he is the novel’s attempt to deal with Asika. Again, and similarly to The Road to Udima, Behind the Rising Sun plays on a possible identification with Asika, but uses the strategy of fictional recasting so as to subvert the import of the example. Oti is thus characterised as being pro-Biafran, all the more so after he has tasted life on the Nigerian side, and experienced the reality of the promises made by the existing Asika. Behind the Rising Sun then goes a step further in suggesting how refugees in his care were “actually” treated and how they could be instrumentalised. As a delegation of foreign journalists and international monitors of the conflict are to visit Enugu, the Red Cross distributes welfare to the refugees while the Nigerian army makes them more presentable, an indication as to how refugees were neglected when outsiders were not present. Onuoha and Titi are made to give an interview to a British TV crew and Titi, who is made Secretary-General of the Igbo Women’s Association of Enugu on the spot, reads out a statement of thanks to the International Red Cross, the Nigerian and British governments, affirming belief in a united Nigeria and its 12-state federal settlement, condemning “the mad ambitions of the ruling clique in the so-called Biafra” and expressing “absolute confidence in the good judgement and honesty of the Head of the National Liberation Council and the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian forces.” In a repeat of the findings of the actual group that visited the country in 1968 to gather data on the conflict, whose conclusions were published as the Federal pamphlet No Genocide (1968), the leader of the International Observers, British Admiral Timothy, asserts there is “absolutely no evidence of genocide in the Nigerian war” and substantiates Britain’s involvement in the war: “Great Britain, faithful to her commitment to defend freedom everywhere, was giving Nigeria most of the arms to make victory possible.” (182-183) Mezu’s fictional reworking of the manner in which the International Observer Team came to its conclusions reinforces the view that these were very superficial indeed, that the treatment of refugees was subordinate to political rather than humanitarian interests, and that the publicly expressed opinions of former Biafrans could actually be diametrically opposed to their privately held views and ambitions.

  • 31 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture,London: Routledge, 1994, 86. Original italics.

37In point of fact, the examples of Onouha, Titi, and Mr Oti can be productively considered in the light of Homi K. Bhabha’s concept of mimicry that arises out of a condition in which the coloniser seeks cultural replication in the colonised in a process through which the effective power of dominant discourse actually comes to be substantially undone. Officially, and like other Biafrans, Onouha, Titi, and Mr Oti are Nigerian subjects. Nevertheless, they are acknowledged as such only to the extent that they “freely” and publicly affirm their acceptance of Nigeria. However, the more such affirmation is carried out, the more its very act undoes the principles of single nationhood and equal citizenship that this gesture is supposed to prove, as only former Biafrans are called upon to make it. From the standpoint of official Nigerian nationalism, affirmation of a united Nigeria demonstrates mimicry as, to borrow Bhabha’s words, “the desire for a reformed, recognisable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite.31 From the position of Onouha, Titi and Mr Oti, however, this same mimicry offers a possibility through which the falsity of official Nigerian nationalism is revealed and the military apparatus of this nationalism is subverted.

38Such mimicry does not, however, presuppose some kind of immutable Biafran self as necessarily motivating it, nor an acquiescence in the tenets of official Biafran nationalism. This is evident in the way Behind the Rising Sun resolves the security/sovereignty issue in its concluding portrayal of an otherwise fictive revolutionary and fully autonomous anarcho-communist society comprised of Onuoha, Titi, Clinton Okeji, Tudor Opara, Yvette Okonkwo, and Biafran refugees, which arises out of the end of the war and that is thus cast as an alternative not only to the Nigerian state but also to the Biafran one.

The Siren in the Night and the liminality of peace

  • 32 Eddie Iroh, The Siren in the Night, London: Heinemann, 1982, back cover. Subsequent references are (...)

39Eddie Iroh spent the war as the desk editor of Biafra’s War Information Bureau and came to write a trilogy of thrillers on the conflict after it was over.32 His works mark a shift from a condition in which the genre was first dominated by non-Nigerians, Francis Clifford’s The Blind Side (1971), Charles Kearey’s Last Plane from Uli (1972), and Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War (1974), to an indigenous Nigerian tradition in which the domestic war thriller enables a deeper and more critical exploration of the social and political issues raised by the conflict, albeit within a popular and accessible format. The ideological resolution of these issues is then contained in the political equivalent of the literary act that motivated the whole exercise in the first place: an exploration of the forms and possibilities of nationalism within the postcolony.

40In this light, Iroh’s Forty-Eight Guns for the General (1976)is a novel that is, in contrast to Kearey and Forsyth, highly critical of mercenary involvement in Biafra. His Toads of War (1979) is a more explicit novel of disillusionment with Biafra, while The Siren in the Night (1982) is overwhelmingly set in the post-war period, and can thus also be seen as a novel of the liminality of peace, in the sense of describing a period in which, although formal hostilities had ended, individuals and collectivities were still decisively marked not only by the past conflict but also by its ongoing consequences, inclusive of forms of individual and collective violence. The title of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace (1976), the first novel of the Nigerian-Biafran war to describe the liminality of peace, illustrates the uncertainties of this historical period well. But, in contrast to Survive the Peace’slargely pessimistic appraisal of post-war society, its implicit critique of postcolonial hybridity, as arising from interethnic relationships, and its desire to keep the ethnic groups that comprise Nigeria equal, but nonetheless distinct, The Siren in the Night is a positive exposition of pan-Nigerian nationalism as a blindness to, and transcendence of, ethnic difference.

41The protagonist of the Siren in the Night, Ben Udaja was a committed pan-African Igbo socialist who rallied to the cause of Biafra, became a member of its army, an associate director of Military Intelligence responsible for counter intelligence and covert actions, and the co-founder of the Biafran Organisation of Freedom Fighters (BOFF). And yet, as the war unfolds Udaja witnesses the graft and hedonistic betrayal of the Biafran elite. With the fall of Umuahia on 22 April, 1969, his doubts concerning the country turn to full disillusionment and reappraisal as to how much the security of the nation could still be predicated on the sovereignty of the Biafran state: “Old men, women and children died by the dozens every day; the territories shrank. Still the pursuit of happiness in the midst of mass misery became an obsession with the men who claimed to run the nation’s affairs.” In an echo of the theme of the Biafran diplomatic elite’s practices as portrayed in Behind the Rising Sun, Udaja has access to news from abroad which reveals that high-ranking Biafrans are “diverting considerable contributions made by patriots and philanthropists to their personal pursuit of pleasure and borrowed peace.” At the same time, Udaja knows that military commanders in Biafra are no different. Instead of going to battle, “[t]hey commandeered the food rations of their starving troops and headed for the rear haven of women, wine and music.” (27)

42Udaja also has intelligence reports that show an increasing number of Biafrans crossing over to the Nigerian side, and has “not a single piece of proof that the Federals’ promise to treat returnees ‘with clemency and understanding’ ha[s] been a false bait”. Moreover, The Siren in the Night then goes on to offer an extensive quote from a speech made by the Federal Administrator in Enugu (the fictional equivalent of Asika):

Don’t be dead when peace returns. Yes, peace. Your special envoys are now talking and seeking peace. They may yet find it. Why not wait and find out before you decide if you should die? It will be too late if you are dead. Come on over. Don’t retreat from the advancing Federal troops. Just show them you are no longer fighting. Show your hands. You may even hand over your weapons to them. You will be quite safe. It may not be fun at first being a captured person but you are not really a prisoner of war. You have three meals a day. You will see a doctor any time you need one. You will rest and sleep soundly at night. We will try to make it more comfortable for you, but anyhow you are better off alive than dead. At least you can judge for yourself. Yes, come on over and be a living witness to peace. (29)

43Udaja’s appraisal of this speech casts it as having a simultaneously double effect inasmuch as Udaja understands that “parts of the message seemed like bland propaganda” while also noting “its intrinsic promise of peace and security.” In this, The Siren in the Night thus notes the ambivalence, rather than outright rejection, with which Asika’s claims might have been received in Biafra. Significantly, Udaja starts planning his own defection and undertakes this action on June 1, 1969, the day Ojukwu made his Ahiara Declaration. The document was supposed to launch the Biafran revolution but in actual fact had no practical effect on the texture of Biafran society, nor did it placate the levels of discontent within it. Udaja sees the Declaration as a belated and merely rhetorical intervention anyway, one that conjures up “a picture of a herbalist driving away a roaring, hungry lion with incantations.” (30)

44Udaja crosses over to the Nigerian side, joins Asika’s administration in Enugu, works towards the welfare and rehabilitation of former Biafrans and, after the end of the war, marries a Northern woman, Miata Malari: “inter-tribal marriage, he knew, was tacitly endorsed in high quarters as a means of fostering ethnic tolerance and national harmony.” (106) Thus, with the characterisation of Udaja, with Asika as both his immediate superior and a minor character in the novel in his own right, The Siren in the Night deals with both the actual Asika, the general figure of the Igbo who has crossed over from Biafra to the Federal side, and the possibility of pan-Nigerian transcendent nationalism blind to ethnic difference in positive terms. Indeed, although Asika may have been criticised for the practical way in which he carried out the tasks entrusted to him, reconciliation was nonetheless an area in which he has been seen as playing a crucial role. Ken Saro-Wiwa evaluates Asika’s key contributions thus:

  • 33 K. Saro-Wiwa, op. cit., 232.

What made [reconciliation] fairly easy was Asika’s brilliant formulation for the end of the civil war: “No Victors, No Vanquished”. It was not a mere play on words. The Federals had all along argued that they had taken action to restore the Federation to unity. If so, argued Mr Asika in his formulation, those on the Federal side could not claim victory and treat the Ibos as a conquered people. If they did so, they would be validating all Ojukwu’s lies to the Ibos. At the same time, the notion that they had not been “vanquished” was of a great psychological importance to the Ibos. It proved indeed to be a very welcome message and the Ibos latched on to it tenuously. [sic] So much so that they tended to forget that there had been any war at all, a war that had serious consequences for themselves, their neighbours, and the rest of the country. At some point, Mr Asika had to apply the brakes, reminding his fellow Ibos that “Amnesty does not mean amnesia.”33

45But The Siren in the Night also significantly reframes the question of amnesia so that the question of who is to remember what is also derived from the suspicions, inequities, and violence faced by former Biafrans in the post-war period. In this respect, and given that some of the Federals’ promises do turn out to be false bait, the novel cannot cast Asika as the full integrationist hero he is supposed to be. Furthermore, and precisely because the novel turns on the variance between the proclaimed spirit of reconciliation and the actuality of the policy of amnesty for former Biafrans as manifested by certain powerful sections of the Nigerian state, which the novel’s version of Asika has neither power over nor knowledge of, he is not a mere cog in the wheel of a seemingly consolidated Nigerian genocidal military machine.

46Udaja has a hidden antagonist who is unknown to him, Nigerian Army officer Mike Kolawole, whose actions during the war were particularly ruthless and are thus illustrative of the way in which Federal soldiers could be involved in war crimes. After capturing Enugu, one of Kolawole’s soldiers kills a Biafran civilian while Kolawole shoots the civilian’s wife dead, and then one of his own subordinates for not wanting to kill her baby in turn. Kolawole becomes famous for his successes on the battlefield and rapidly advances up the ranks to join a pantheon of other similar heroes of the war: “Thus a few psychopaths had literally machine-gunned their way into the history books.” (40) After the war, Kolawole is a military intelligence officer for whom former Biafrans such as Udaja are a contradiction in terms: they are deploying mimicry and thus declaring their lack of involvement in the Biafran cause while biding their time before launching its rebirth. Moreover, as the officer responsible for covert operations and the founding of BOFF, which operated clandestinely within Federal territory, Udaja is also responsible for various terrorist activities preceding the war, in which innocent civilians were killed, and the war crimes committed by BOFF. Kolawole does not believe in the “No Victors, No Vanquished” principle, but holds that, as one of his superior officers puts it, “[that] we should give the former rebels crumbs of peace [is] a position that is totally contrary to that of most of us who fought to re-unite the country.” (81)

47Arbitrarily imprisoning a group of former Biafrans who have returned to Lagos and gather in one of its bars, Kolawole homes in on Ulo Amadi, has the other four detainees executed and uses Amadi to implement his covert operations against Udaja. Udaja fears that reconciliation policies may not be genuine and that former members of BOFF may want to take revenge for his treachery. After Kolawole and his men engage in covert actions against Udaja (including assassinating his bodyguards, placing a hand grenade and a coffin in his house and abducting his daughter), which amplify his fears regarding BOFF retaliation, Udaja complains to the novel’s version of Asika that he may be the target of a BOFF conspiracy. But, the Administrator does not believe him, does not want to appear to be victimising Igbos anyway, and the possibility that Udaja may be the object of a sub-Federal plot does not cross his mind. Through this, the novel suggests that the actual Asika may have been, either consciously or unconsciously, less willing to act on the anomalies of the Nigerian side than he should have been.

48The larger framework within which Kolawole can conduct his operations against Udaja, and within which certain sections of the Nigerian state can be differential rather than deferential in their treatment of former Biafrans, depends on the understanding of Gowon’s amnesty speech Dawn of National Reconciliation made on 15 January, 1970, containing the crucial assertion, “I solemnly repeat our guarantees of general amnesty for those misled into rebellion” while also promising to “guarantee the personal safety of everyone who submits to the Federal authority.” (67) But, as The Siren in the Night establishes, the speech was actually a proclamation rather than a decree with the force of law (66) and is the product of a compromise between two distinct factions within the military government. The first, represented by Gowon himself, wants full and unqualified amnesty. The second faction, and here the amnesty formulation for all “those misled into rebellion” is crucial, wants to exclude all those who led others into Biafran secession. Thus, not only would Ojukwu not qualify for amnesty, but nor would other former top Biafran officials such as Udaja. The non-legally binding nature of the speech, smacking of compromise, leaves it open to differing interpretations and discretions, which in turn allows Kolawole to pursue his aims. Kolawole’s operations finally push Udaja into a paranoid mental breakdown in which he mistakes Amadi for a BOFF assassin and kills him. Simultaneously, however, Kolawole’s subordinate Ola Dele uncovers Kolawole’s conspiracy and in the course of this a wider coup attempt against Gowon is also discovered and thwarted.

49Through all this, a final important effect of The Siren in the Night is the process of ethnic heterogenisation and dehomogenisation. Before they are picked up by Kolawole’s men while drinking in a Lagos bar, Amadi and the other former Biafrans discuss the reasons that led to the war and responsibility for it, (“Every Nigerian adult has his share of blame for what happened”) and there is mention that the war was tragically motivated by interests in Biafra’s extremely lucrative oil reserves. (54) They then turn to post-war interethnic relations. One discussant casts them thus: “I see the Northerners, our primary enemies during the war, becoming our best friends in the future. I feel a lot safer with them; their friendship seems clearly more genuine.” (49) Another points to how relations with the Yoruba are much more difficult and there is concurrence that Igbos are unwelcome in Lagos anyway.

50And yet, through its characterisation of Udaja and deployment of Asika, The Siren in the Night reveals contrasting appraisals of Biafra, so that the state is not in the least cast as a naturally organic extension of Igboness, as it were. It also shows the degree to which attitudes for or against post-war reconciliation were not at all coextensive with, and predicated upon, a particular ethnic identity. Namely, although Gowon – himself a Northerner – is cast as desiring full amnesty, it is part of the Araba faction of the Federal Military Government, a faction of Northern hawks, that insists on a qualified, and thus essentially meaningless, amnesty. Similarly, while Kolawole and Ola Dele are both Yoruba, the junior officer does not at all share his superior’s views of former Biafrans or of the post-war settlement. Such narrative strategies also work towards the heterogenisation and dehomogenisation of the Nigerian state, an effect also achieved by the way in which Asika is perceived as a key architect, rather than mere instrument of state policies. Thus, one of the hawks in the Nigerian army sees the novel’s version of Asika as “less the interpreter of the General’s [i.e. Gowon’s] thoughts than the articulator of them.” (91) Finally, although The Siren in the Night acknowledges external determinations, both in the course of the war and in the pursuit of post-war policies, there is no question of the domestic actors in the conflict being fully manipulated by them.


  • 34 Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War, Oxford: Oxford Universi (...)

51The pursuit of war is frequently enabled by, and gives further rise to, forms of thought in which individuals are essentialised and homogenised, assimilated into, and made representative of, the mutually exclusive collectivities of Self and Other opposing each other across the front lines. Cultural historian of war, Paul Fussell comments: “Looking out upon the wartime period, soldiers and civilians alike reduce it to a simplified sketch featuring a limited series of classifications into which people, in the process dehumanised and deprived of individuality or eccentricity, are fitted.”34

52The example of Asika, however, prises open the reductions of war and the forms of binary thought connected to them. As we have seen, opinions on, and responses to, Asika were divided not just outside Biafra, but within it as well. Importantly, these differences do not necessarily follow ethnic lines and, like the example of Asika himself, preclude reified understandings of ethnicity and nationhood, as well as simplistic dichotomisations in the estimation of the Nigerian-Biafran war.

53On one hand, the example of Asika triggers a crisis of pro-Biafran Igbo ethno-nationalist consciousness. That is to say that if the full realisation of Igbo ethnic identity is contained within the Biafran nation-state, then a pro-Nigerian Igbo, such as Asika, points to the possibilities of an alternative realisation of individual as well as collective aspiration. Despite their opposing political visions, reformist The Road to Udima and revolutionary Behind the Rising Sun both share a similar strategy, by which the “betrayal” of Asika is reversed, subverted, and resolved. This is achieved by suggesting that the private identity and allegiance of Asika was precisely the opposite of his public actions and proclamations. Paradoxically, such an intertextual reworking of Asika shows him in a favourable light. This is because the process through which he is defamiliarised displays some latent sympathy for his figure precisely because it suggests that his motivations may have been much more complex than otherwise immediately discernible from the outside. In both cases, his fictionalised counterpart is presented as a hostage of the Federal side and his decisions and actions are portrayed with much more consideration, and thus with much greater ambivalence, than those of some of the other characters in the same novels (Menkiti, the Ifedi squad…). Moreover, the fictionalised versions of Asika are not figures of betrayal, but of the mimicry by which Nigerian nationalism is undone, precisely because behind the seeming assimilation of the subject, this subject nonetheless retains a mark of difference and Otherness.

54Crucially, and although they are separated by their manifestly varying estimations of Asika, the situation of mimicry, heterogeneity and reinvention is also the underlying condition from which both Mezu and Iroh write, subverting the simple equation of Igboness with Biafran nationalism which Asika was supposed to have betrayed. Both Mezu and Iroh were part of the Biafran state apparatus during the war, but both display their opposition to the dominant discourses and practices of the Biafran state. If this opposition was fully born during the war itself, then Mezu and Iroh were already exhibiting mimicry at the time, in the form of a divergence between privately held opinions on Biafra and their publicly declared and enacted counterparts in the form of the reproduction of official Biafran nationalism. If this at first privately held opposition to the actually existing Biafra was not born during the war, then its manifestation still proves that the postcolonial subject is constantly strategically reinventing itself both within and beyond various ethnic and national collectivities, within which this subject is otherwise supposed to be fixed.

55This reinvention, enabled through a substantiation (albeit not an unqualified one) rather than the defamiliarisation of Asika, is the crux of The Siren in the Night, where the belief that Udaja is exhibiting mimicry, behind which a pro-Biafran essential self is hiding, motivates Kolawole in his actions against Udaja. And yet, as the novel shows, there is no pre-existent fixed and singular identity actually motivating Udaja’s public reinventions. Rather, this reinvention is the irreducible feature of identity itself and is formed out of a response to the different contexts in which the subject finds itself. Politologist Achille Mbembe has drawn attention to the general reason as to why this should be so:

  • 35 Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, 104.

The postcolony is made up not of one single “public space” but of several, each having its own separate logic yet nonetheless liable to be entangled with other logics operating in certain specific contexts: hence the postcolonial subject has had to learn to bargain in this conceptual market place [...] subjects in the postcolony also have to have a marked ability to manage not just a single identity, but several, which are flexible enough for them to negotiate as and when necessary.35

56A similar point, but one turning on the more specific issues of national self-determination, and thus especially pertinent to the discussion here, has been made by Benyamin Neuberger:

  • 36 Benyamin Neuberger, National Self-Determination in Postcolonial Africa, Boulder: Lynne Reiner, 1986 (...)

In Africa, as elsewhere, there is no permanent national self. Someone’s primary identity may be [...] Nigerian, Southern, Eastern, or Ibo in Iboland. It will be a function of time and context [...] The identity of the self, which is so crucial to the establishment of self-determination, may vary in time. Different times and conditions may lead to different identities and to different perceptions of “us” and “them.36

57Such a situational condition in the deployment of several possible identities arises in conditions of war, precisely because the preservational stakes for individuals involved are much higher than in times of peace, despite the reductive fixations that practices of war can otherwise make use of. In addition, a not insubstantial motivation of the novels discussed here arises out of the possibility of intertextually addressing certain other discourses connected to the war by pointing towards their alternative motivations, effects, and possible interpretations, hence subverting any sense of their intrinsic and singular meaning so that official nationalism, both Biafran and Nigerian, is challenged on this level, too. Both the situational nature of identity and the polyphony existent both within and among various forms of discourses of war relativise the mutually exclusive categories of ally and enemy that are usually mobilised in war. Asika is a figure that embodies such relativisation.

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ACHEBE Chinua, Morning Yet on Creation Day, London: Heinemann,1982.

ASIKA Ukpabi, No Victors No Vanquished, Apapa: East-Central State Information Service, 1968.

- - - , “Why I am a Federalist,” Transition, n° 36, 1968.

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- - - , Toads of War, London: Heinemann, 1979.

- - - , The Siren in the Night, London: Heinemann, 1982.

IYAYI Festus, Heroes, Harlow: Longman, 1986.

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1 Chinua Achebe, “The African Writer and the Biafran Cause,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day, London: Heinemann,1982, 83–84.

2 John de St. Jorre, The Brothers’ War: Biafra and Nigeria,Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972, 381.

3 Ukpabi Asika, No Victors No Vanquished, Apapa: East-Central State Information Service, 1968, 3-5.

4 Ukpabi Asika, “Why I am a Federalist,” Transition,n° 36, 1968, 40. A fuller version of the same interview can be found in Asika, No Victors No Vanquished, 59-72.

5 Bruce King, “Is There a Nigerian Literature?” Bayreuth African Studies Series,n° 6, 1986, 53.

6 Ali A. Mazrui, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, London: Heinemann, 1971, x.

7 Ibid., 144.

8 Ibid., 108.

9 Wole Soyinka, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka, London: Vintage, [1972], 1994, 120.

10 Ibid., 19.

11 John de St. Jorre, op. cit., 189–190. See also 381.

12 In turn, the Federal side used the same nickname for Okokon Ndem, a Radio Biafra ethnic minority broadcaster. Nowa Omoigui, “Nicknames, Slogans, Local and Operational Names Associated with the Nigerian Civil War,” <>, accessed on 30 August, 2010.

13 Ken Saro-Wiwa, On a Darkling Plane: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War,Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1989, 231.

14 Theodora Akachi Ezeigbo, Fact and Fiction in the Literature of the Nigerian Civil War, Ojo Town: Unity Publishing Co., 1991, 59.

15 Bernard Odogwu, No Place to Hide: Crises and Conflicts inside Biafra,Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 2002, 5-6.

16 Abiola Irele, “Ken Saro-Wiwa,” inYemi Ogunbiyi (ed.), Perspectives on Nigerian Literature 1700 to the Present Volume 2, Lagos: Guardian Books, 1988, 336.

17 U. A. Asika, “… Federalist,” op. cit., 44.

18 Hans M. Zell, “In Memoriam: Chief Victor Nwankwo,” Bellagio Publishing Network Newsletter, n° 31, November 2002, <>, accessed on 30 August, 2010.

19 Like the majority of novels by former Biafrans, including Behind the Rising Sun and The Siren in the Night, The Road to Udima dramatises Biafran nationhood but makes this fully coextensive with an Igbo ethnic core and thus fails to discuss the large social presence of, or the issue of self-determination for, the ethnic minorities within Biafra.

20 The original manuscript was lost in the course of the war and the English version published in 1985 is, in fact, a retranslation from the first German edition of the novel.

21 Katherine Salahi, “Talking Books, Chief Victor Nwankwo in conversation with Katherine Salahi,” Bellagio Publishing Network Newsletter, n° 23, October 1998,  <>, accessed on 30 August, 2010.

22 Victor Nwankwo, The Road to Udima, Enugu: Fourth Dimension, 1985, 30. Subsequent references are indicated in the text.

23 Ukpabi Asika, “ZIK: A Tribute from Ukpabi Asika,” <
>, accessed on 30August, 2010.

24 J. de St. Jorre, op. cit., 363–364.

25 B. Odogwu, op. cit., 158.

26 Raph Uwechue, Reflections on the Nigerian Civil War: A Call for Realism, London: O.I.T.H. International Publishers, 1969, 48.

27 Janheinz Jahn, Ulla Schild & Almut Nordman Seiler, Who’s Who in African Literature: Biographies, Works, Commentaries,Tübingen: Horst Erdmann Verlag, 1972, 224.

28 Within the opus of the war novel as a whole, only two other novels, albeit written from a non-Biafran perspective, deploy similarly radical perspectives on the conflict: Wole Soyinka’s anarcho-communist Season of Anomy (1973) and Festus Iyayi’s more conventionally socialist Heroes (1986).

29 S. O. Mezu, Behind the Rising Sun, London: Heinemann, 1978, 25. Subsequent references are indicated in the text.

30 For some background on these figures see J. de St. Jorre, op. cit., 1972, 113, 193, 195, 214.

31 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture,London: Routledge, 1994, 86. Original italics.

32 Eddie Iroh, The Siren in the Night, London: Heinemann, 1982, back cover. Subsequent references are indicated in the text.

33 K. Saro-Wiwa, op. cit., 232.

34 Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behaviour in the Second World War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, 115.

35 Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001, 104.

36 Benyamin Neuberger, National Self-Determination in Postcolonial Africa, Boulder: Lynne Reiner, 1986, 59.

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Nikolai Jeffs, « Ethnic “Betrayal”, Mimicry, and Reinvention: the Representation of Ukpabi Asika in the Novel of the Nigerian-Biafran War »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. X – n° 1 | -1, 280-306.

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Nikolai Jeffs, « Ethnic “Betrayal”, Mimicry, and Reinvention: the Representation of Ukpabi Asika in the Novel of the Nigerian-Biafran War »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. X – n° 1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 13 mars 2012, consulté le 26 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nikolai Jeffs

Nikolai Jeffs is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Primorska, Koper, Slovenia. Together with the late anthropologist Borut Brumen he co-edited the first Slovene reader in contemporary Africanist studies (Afrike, 2001). He himself has edited a Slovene postcolonial studies reader (Zbornik postkolonialnih studij, 2007), and he is the author of many articles on issues both cultural and political.

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