Chinua Achebe and the flag of Biafra

Biafra existed as a pre-colonial state in what is now the South-Eastern corner of modern day Nigeria.  It is the home in the majority of the Igbo tribe.

In 1960 Nigeria attained independence from the United Kingdom and became an independent nation formed artificially by the British from a hodge podge of different tribal areas.  In the North mainly Hausa and Fulani, Sahel region semi-nomadic pastoralists who are predominantly Muslims.  In the South the Yoruba in the West and the Igbo in the East, Christians living in Tropical Coastal regions.

Five years after independence the new “nation” descended into coup and counter-coup replete with proscriptions along the lines of what happened in Ancient Rome when Sulla and Marius battled for control of the city.  To destroy Igbo cohesion the federal government gerrymandered the tribal area to split voting power.  Biafra elected to secede from Nigeria.  But it happens to be the region that contains all the oil.

What followed was a genocidal war against the Igbo by the Nigerian Federal Forces, supported by the United Kingdom.  It is only now emerging from British State papers how deeply the oil interests of Shell and BP were served by the Labour Government of Harold Wilson.  British arms suppliers also had an interest in the war, on the Federal side.  The British helped to starve the Igbo into submission.  Over two million people died from starvation over a period of two and a half years from mid 1967 to January 1970.  That is a genocide very similar in size and scale to the Irish Potato Famine.

Médecines sans Frontiéres (MSF) was founded as a reaction to the suffering in Biafra.  The Irish Spiritan Father Aengus Finucane, a Catholic Priest, organised food flights into makeshift airstrips to relieve suffering.  He put together a relief airforce of superannuated cargo planes with volunteer pilots.  His efforts led to the creation of the charity “Concern Worldwide”.  As a child in school in Ireland the suffering of the Biafran Children was top of mind to me, a constant cause and the subject of much fundraising activity.

The father of modern African Writing, Chinua Achebe, was caught up in the political turmoil of that era, and is himself an Igbo.

He twice refused the Nigerian honour Commander of the Federal Republic, in 2004 and 2011, saying:  ” I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boasting its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the brazenness of this clique and the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.”

On Nigerian Independence he “found that the independence this country was supposed to have won was totally without content … The old white master was still in power. He had got himself a bunch of black stooges to do his dirty work for a commission”

Today, Nov 16th is the birthday of Achebe, born 1930 and who died in 2013.

Non-commitment; by Chinua Achebe

Hurrah! to them who do nothing
see nothing feel nothing whose
hearts are fitted with prudence
like a diaphragm across
womb’s beckoning doorway to bar
the scandal of seminal rage. I’m
told the owl too wears wisdom
in a ring of defense round
each vulnerable eye securing it fast
against the darts of sight. Long ago
in the Middle East Pontius Pilate
openly washed involvement off his
white hands and became famous. (Of all
the Roman officials before him and after
who else is talked about
every Sunday in the Apostles’ Creed?) And
talking of apostles that other fellow
Judas wasn’t such a fool
either; though much maligned by
succeeding generations the fact remains
he alone in that motley crowd
had sense enough to tell a doomed
movement when he saw one
and get out quick, a nice little
packet bulging his coat pocket
into the bargain—sensible fellow.

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