A Fresh Biafran Song

A Review of Diliorah Chukwurah’s Last Train to Biafra

Many books have been written on the Nigerian civil war, which has turned out to be the greatest impetus to national literary creativity. The factual and fictional accounts of the war are in the hundreds. Established authors wrote some. Others are the works of those who never thought circumstances would force them into the drastic action of putting pen on paper.

Two of the best known Nigerian writers, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, wrote profusely on the war; Achebe as an instant participant, and Soyinka as a distant but no less interested party. It’s difficult to fully appreciate Nigeria’s civil war without gleaning from their writings. But it doesn’t end with the duo. There is hardly a pre-war Nigerian author that didn’t end up producing a volume – whether drama, poetry or prose – on the conflict. Most of the second generation of Nigerian writers honed their craft writing on the war.

There are two interesting aspects to the country’s war-induced literature. First, it appears timeless. Which is why Chimamanda Adichie, who was not even born when the conflict took place, has written Half of A Yellow Sun (2006). It is also the reason Onuorah Nzekwu, a first generation author now into his 80s, had published in 2012 a novel on the war entitled Trouble Dust. Secondly, it insists that telling the story of the war cannot be the exclusive preserve of professional writers. This is where factual accounts of the war weigh in. Two of the better-known combatants, Olusegun Obasanjo and Alexander Madiebo, had published during 1980 their war accounts. Colonel Obasanjo, as General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Third Marine Commando Division, wrote My Command. Major General Alexander Madiebo wrote The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War as the Commander of the Biafran Army. The war turned these soldiers into best-selling authors. In 2013, Brigadier-General Godwin Alabi-Isama reinforced the undying interest in these war stories by former officers with his authorship of The Tragedy of Victory.

The common attribute of most of the war books is that, within their covers, every writer’s subjectivity is easily located. Thus, Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s On a Darkling Plain, both biographical, eloquently announce their Biafran antipathy. On the other hand Chukwuemeka Ike’s fictional Sunset at Dawn and Achebe’s biographical There Was A Country underscore their Biafran partisanship. But reading Last Train to Biafra: Memoirs of a Biafran Child, (Constellation Publishers, Ibadan, 2014), affords one a deep look into the circumstances of the secessionist republic that is bereft of obvious partisan justification. This fresh Biafran song by Diliorah Chukwurah, a mere child at the beginning of the civil war, is a priceless jewel, worthy to be read by every Nigerian.

lttb_DVOn seeing the book, I was somewhat put off by what appeared like wild adulations on its blurb. Dr. Onyebuchi Ile, who teaches English at the Nigerian Turkish Nile University, Abuja, called it “… the most touching account of the pogrom against the Igbo after the 1966 counter coup as well as their civil war experience that I have ever read.” Hon Noel A. Chukwukadibia, a former Speaker of the Imo State House of Assembly, pronounced it “… the only unadulterated story of the Biafran war told with the passionate rigours of the voice of innocence which impinges on our collective guilt in that avoidable war…” As for Dauda Abubakar of The Booksellers Ltd., Abuja, Last Train to Biafra is “A very brilliant and gripping account of the Nigeria-Biafra war perfectly rendered without politics or prejudice.”

On reading Last Train to Biafra, however, I found to my pleasant surprise that it more than deserved the encomiums showered on it. Without fear of contradiction the book is one of the very best on Biafra. How did the author achieve this feat? Well, Achebe had taught from 1958 that good story-telling was different from the employment of polysyllabic jargons, the aim of reading being to understand whatever is on offer. Now again, Diliorah Chukwurah has strongly made the same point, telling a complex tale with delightful diction and explaining the seemingly mysterious with an exemplary economy of words. The achievement is tremendous.

Now, what is the story in this book? It starts in Jos in 1966, when the author was a nine-year-old pupil. By September of that year the Chukwurahs, like most Igbo in Jos and the rest of northern Nigeria, had fled to Eastern Nigeria, to escape orchestrated pogroms induced by the coups of that year. Months after their return to what was considered a safe haven, the war started. The family lived first in their hometown of Enugwu-Ukwu. From there they started hopping from one town to another, one step ahead of advancing Federal troops. By the war’s end 30 months later, they had stayed in Port Harcourt, Emekuku, Imerienwe, Ekwolobia, Ifite-Dunu, Isu, Achala, Otuocha, Oroma and back to Ekwulobia. A projectile in the opening battles of Port Harcourt had killed a child of the family. The civilian father of the house had taken a hit from artillery fire, and narrowly missed the amputation of an arm. The five children of the house came under the care of Diliorah, who was not even 12 years old, when both parents disappeared into thin air.

The children fed largely on rodents and slept on bare floor or on bedbug infested bamboo beds. During the day they passed time scavenging for food and dodging bombing and strafing by the Nigerian Air Force. Suddenly the war ended and, fortunately, both parents returned days later to the Ekwolobia refugee camp. The trek back to Enugwu-Ukwu followed.

That was, more or less, the lot of most Biafrans. What makes the story both terrible and heroic at the same time is the sensitivity and fidelity of the telling. This recommends it to general readership. The book also cautions warmongers, to please explore alternatives other than warfare for settling political disputes. The posthumous tribute to the late Chief Rwang Pam, the traditional ruler of Jos and the Berom people, who opposed the killing of Eastern Nigerians in his domain, is touching.

Yet, the author misdirected himself when he got to summations. From page 171 where he dealt with Entrepreneurship, he blamed Ndigbo for not maturing to the ownership of conglomerates 40 years after the war, despite their business proficiency. He missed the point, of course. If Ndigbo are shy of business conglomeration, it cannot be their fault. The blame resides in negative national politics. There were Slok Air and Sosoliso Airlines in this country. Both were shot down through presidential fiats. There was Savannah Bank. It was shut down on a morning it was still solvent and doing roaring business. These businesses were killed because Ndigbo owned them. All South East states are endowed with crude oil deposits. But they are not being mined, they being in “strategic” reserves! The South East has the largest gas deposits anywhere in Africa. No one is discussing their exploration and exploitation. Oil blocs hardly go to Ndigbo; they belong mostly to lucky guys from areas unable to boast even cashew nut oil. If those sworn to keeping Ndigbo suppressed fail to realize that they are trapped in time wasting, it is not our place to salve their consciences by blaming the victim rather than the victimizer.

Chuks Iloegbunam was formerly a special assistant to ex-governor Peter Obi of Anambra state on Media and Publicity. He is the author of Ironside: The Biography of Thomas Johnson Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi, Nigeria's first military head of state. Read other articles by Chuks.