A generation was robbed of its innocence. The war was the seminal event in Nigeria’s modern history, but I learned little about it in school. “Biafra” was wrapped in mystery. At home, my parents spoke of it rarely and obliquely; I heard many stories about my grandfathers’ wisdom and humor, but few stories about how they had died.
By the time that Biafra was defeated, in 1970, at least a million people were dead, including my grandfathers proud, titled Igbo men who were buried in the unmarked graves of refugee camps. My parents lost other relatives, and everything they owned. On the margins of my happy childhood, there was a shadow: the Biafran war. I was born seven years after it ended, and did not experience any material deprivations, I had a bicycle, dolls, books but my family was scarred by it.
In 1967, after massacres in northern Nigeria that targeted southeastern Igbo people, the southeast seceded and formed an independent nation called Biafra. Nigeria went to war to prevent the secession.
I became haunted by history. I spent years researching and writing “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a novel about human relationships during the war, centered on a young, privileged woman and her professor lover. It was a deeply personal project based on interviews with family members who were generous enough to mine their pain, yet I knew that it would, for many Nigerians of my generation, be as much history as literature. In 2006, my publisher and I were braced for the Nigerian publication, unsure of how it would be received. We were pleasantly surprised: “Half of a Yellow Sun” became one of the best-selling Nigerian novels published in the past fifty years. It cut across different ethnic groups, started conversations, served as a catalyst for previously untold stories. I was heartened to hear from readers whose families had survived Biafra and those whose families had been on the Nigerian side.
But the Biafran war is still wrapped in a formal silence. There are no major memorials, and it is hardly taught in schools. This week, the South eastern region had set aside today as a remembrance day for those who died at the war front, and the government is trying to prevent these citizens from their right because, according to them, it might incite violence in the country; it is now up to the State Security Service to make a decision.
Partly the result of an unexamined past and partly of the trauma of years of military dictatorship, a sustained and often unnecessary sense of secrecy is the norm in Nigerian public life. We talk often of the “sensitivity” of issues as a justification for a lack of transparency. Conspiracy theories
thrive. Soldiers are hostile to video cameras in public. Officials who were yesterday known as thieves are widely celebrated today. It is not unusual to hear Nigerians speak of “moving forward,” as though it might be possible merely
to wish away the unpleasant past.
But we cannot hide from our history. Many of Nigeria’s present problems are, arguably, consequences of an ahistorical culture. As a child, I sometimes found rusted bullets in our garden, reminders of how recent the war had
been. My parents are still unable to talk in detail about certain war experiences. The past is present, and we are better off acknowledging it and, hopefully, learning from it.
Ms Adichie is a world celebrated author of many high selling books