BIAFRA: A Civil War And A Civil Union
After Nigeria won its independence from Britain in 1960, it was divided into three separate territories, consisting of three-hundred ethnic groups. It was a hasty and disorganized arrangement that almost failed.
The northern part of the country was dominated by the Hausa and Fulani people, practitioners of a strict brand of Islam and a monarchal government; the southwest was composed mostly of the Yoruba people, who were also a monarchal government, albeit less despotic; and the southeast portion of the fledging independent country was dominated by the Igbo people, proponents of a political system that was similar to a western democracy. Igbo lands were apportioned between six-hundred sovereign villages. Every Igbo citizen was allowed to participate in the government of their village, and gain political and economic status through acquisition instead of inheritance.
There was severe friction between these three territories. The British government saw the discord as an opportunity to influence Nigerian policy through an alliance with the Emir, the ruling faction — thirty or so people — of the Islamic north. The northern region of the country was allocated a slightly higher population of people — the northerners’ condition to the Igbo and Yoruba for independence from Britain. So, when it was time to vote in the elections, the Hausa and the Fulani were victorious because their population exceeded that of the other two territories.
On January 15, 1966, after accusing the Northern faction of electoral fraud, Igbo army officers launched a coup against the presiding government, which led to General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, becoming a military president. The Northerners launched their own coup in July of that year. These two competing coups ratcheted tensions between the Islamic northerners and the Igbos of Christian faith who called the north their home. In September of that year, tensions exploded and thousands Christian Igbos in the north were subsequently slaughtered by their Muslim neighbors.
On May 30, 1967, the Igbo’s of the southeast, in response to the attack by the northern Muslims, declared its independence from the rest of Nigeria. Igbos would refer to their fledging nation as Biafra, and appeal for aid and recognition from other nations. Only four would recognize Biafra as an independent nation. On July 6, 1967, the Nigerian Government would launch a campaign designed to re-annex Biafra. The Civil War lasted until January 23, 1970, when the Biafrans surrendered to the national army. It is estimated that more than three million people died as a result of the conflict, a huge portion from forced starvation.
After the war ended, the survivors tried to pick up their shattered lives and move on. However, for many Igbo people, moving on in their native country proved to be impossible. The Igbos claimed that their jobs and their property had been robbed from them, and dispersed to Yoruba, Fulani, and Hausa Muslims. Their Biafran currency was devalued, and Igbos fretted over their inability to achieve greater economic and social status. Many of these dejected Igbos, my father and mother included, looked to western civilizations for salvation, and fled the only home they’d ever known.
A Civil Union
On June, 20, 2019, I drove my mother to my aunt and uncle’s recently purchased two- story house in Aurora Colorado. I rang the doorbell and we were greeted with smiles and hugs from my aunt Nancy. She was a short, compact woman who wore no make-up. “Come in, come in,” she said. “You are so welcome here.”
Upon entering the house, I was struck by its grandiosity, the wide girth of the base floor, the stairs that can lead an individual to the next stratosphere, and the impossibly high ceilings, from which a hung a ceiling fan. I turned to face my aunt. “You have a very nice house.”
She was pleased. “Thank you, thank you. Go ahead and sit down.”
My uncle — not by blood — Cletus, a large, caramel-colored, well dressed seventy-year old man with classes sat on the largest living room couch. My other Uncle — not by blood — Joseph, age sixty, bespectacled, short and squat like my aunt, sat on the couch facing Uncle Cletus. Ken, the baritone voiced chairman of the Colorado Amaigbo Town Union sat next to my uncle Joseph. All three faces brightened as I approached the area in which they were situated.
“He has come!” exclaimed uncle Cletus. “Eze! You are here! How are you doing my dear?”
I waved at him. “I’m good uncle,” I said as I went over to shake his catcher’s mitt of a hand. “It’s good to see you again, sir.”
“It’s good to see you too,” said Cletus.
I wheeled around until I was facing Uncle Joseph. He extended a hand in my direction. “Hello Eze,” he said. “Thank you for being here.”
I took his hand into my own. “You are welcome. I am glad to be here.”
And then loud, confident, Chairman Ken and I shook hands. “Hello Ken,” I said.
Chairman Ken was the only one of the three men who was close to my age.
“Good afternoon Eze,” said a smiling Chairman Ken. “It is nice to see you.”
I turned around to wave at the teenagers and the other women who were clustered together in the kitchen area. My mom greeted all three of the men before heading over to the kitchen to be with my aunt and the rest of the women.
My stomach was roiling from the nerves as I sat on the largest sofa. I spread my legs open, reclined backward, and rested my forearm on the arm of the couch. I hoped that I was giving the impression that I was relaxed.
Six years ago I was a stranger to these three men, as they were also strangers to me. Shortly after my father was laid to rest in in Amaigbo, Nigeria — Igbo land — these men, with the tacit approval of my mother, took it upon themselves to educate me about being an Igbo man. I was invited to quarterly ATU (Amaigbo Town Union) meetings, all of which were attended by Chairman Ken and my uncles. I leaned in to observe uncle Cletus — Amaigbo Number One — welcome attendees by leading the opening prayer and blessing the kola nut, and Uncle Joseph and Chairman Ken as they facilitated the meetings.
The first few ATU meetings were difficult for me, for my comprehension of what was taking place beyond the blessing of the kola nut was papery thin. The meeting attendees spoke Igbo throughout, with some English sprinkled in, and I could hardly understand what was being said. When I did hear English words spoken, I became the inept grizzly bear wading through the river trying to catch one of those slippery fish. I’d jump at the English word and grab on for dear life so that I could survive. My grasp would only last until the inevitable segue into Igbo once again. Sometimes I wondered why I was at the meetings at all.
But I was determined keep coming to the meetings, and asked questions of Chairmen Ken, my two uncles, and my mother, who I kept tethered to me during each meeting. The agendas were written in English, and so, I would refer to the agenda items as the other members spoke in order to keep up. As I became more of a trusted regular, I was given more attention, responsibility, and was becoming well-known in the Nigerian community.
And now, five years after my first meeting, I was at age forty-two, single, a non-native of Nigeria, but one of three men chosen to meet and welcome the fiancé, a Yoruba man, of my Uncle Josephs’ eldest daughter.
When it was time for us to meet the groom, I followed the three men as they traveled down the basement stairs.
Uncle Joseph’s basement stole my breath away. It was so large. There was pool table just to the left of the entrance, plush carpeting, a living room set, a widescreen television and a bathroom. Nuts, soda, alcohol, and water had been placed on top of the coffee table. I hope that my momma doesn’t see this place, I thought. If she does see it, then she’ll want something like it.
As we approached the sitting area, a young man inhaled a breath, stood up, and walked over to greet the three of us. He was very lanky and tall, had dark brown skin tone, a mustache, and a high top fade haircut.
The young Yoruba man bowed his head as he shook hands with each man that preceded me. When it was my turn to greet him, he bowed again, introduced himself as Adebiyi and quietly said, “It is very nice to meet you sir.”
I am a native born American, and was not used to anyone bowing before me. My face was flush. I felt the urge to reach for his arms and pull him up.
“It’s nice to meet you too,” I said.
Adebiyi’s uncle was sitting on the couch that faced me. He was dressed in an all-white uniform, a shirt and pants combination that was created in western civilization, though I could tell that the designer of the clothing was influenced by a Nigerian sensibility. And like Adebiyi, the uncle had traveled all the way from Atlanta, Georgia to offer support to his wide-eyed, young — Adebiyi was twenty-three years old at the time of this meeting — nephew.
The Yoruba and Igbo people in the room shared roots in the same country. Everyone apart from me spoke two languages, yet the only language that we all had in common was English, which meant that I could be more vocal and assertive.
Uncle Joseph’s young college-aged son (Ezena) arrived with a plate of Kola nuts, and Uncle Cletus performed the blessing of the delicacy. Ezena then approached each man in the room and offered what was on the plate. “You want one?”
I hesitated when it was my turn to select a piece of Kola, for my mother had warned me against indulging in the delicacy. I, myself, don’t care for the taste of the kola nut because it’s bitter and tough as tree bark, making it a chore to chew and swallow. Nevertheless, all of the other men were rending the nuts in between their molars and bicuspids. I snuck a look over to the stairwell. I didn’t see my mom coming down the stairs.
“Sure I’ll take one,” I said. I collected the smallest nut, dipped it in the sauce, and took a bite.
After two bites of the thing, I slipped the kola nut into my front pocket. I swallowed a can of soda to wash the taste of kola nut from my mouth.
We began with small talk. The Yoruba groom offered the Igbo men information about his background. Adebiyi worked as a customer service representative while endeavoring to earn an economics degree from Clark Atlanta University. Then like water, the conversation flowed into a discussion about the country of Nigeria itself. Everyone except for me — I was the only person who was not born in Nigeria — spoke fondly and critically of the place they called home, reminiscing about growing up in a country that they dearly loved. I had nothing to add to this portion of the conversation, but since they were speaking straight English, I didn’t feel like I was completely left out.
And then we started to talk about politics, and inevitably, the current American president, Donald Trump. I leaned in. President Trump had spoken ill of African countries about eighteen months prior, referring to them as “shithole” countries. The conversation became more animated.
I pounced on the topic. “Can you believe this guy, Trump?” I said, incredulously. “Calling African countries “shitholes? Trump is such a god damn racist man! Africans that come to America make this country better.”
The others nodded.
I continued. “They work hard. These are the type of people that you want coming to the United States. These are smart, enterprising people, who can add value to this country. And this guy is trying to stop them from coming here.”
Chairman Ken made ready to speak. “It doesn’t matter what Trump does. People are still going to keep coming here anyway.”
“That’s exactly right,” I said. “It’s like a locomotive train is barreling down the tracks in one direction, with a flimsy wooden obstruction being the last thing in the way. And that flimsy wooden obstruction resides twenty-years into the future. The train is going to smash through the obstruction, turning it into kindling.” I raised my hands in the air and wiggled my fingers to illustrate. “The train will keep going until the majority of the United States is represented by people with brown, red, and yellow faces.”
Everyone in the room agreed.
I sighed. How exhilarating it was to be able to speak and add to a conversation with my brothers. I was often afraid to come to these types of meetings, but now I was able to see why the others enjoyed attending. It was my first time experiencing the connection that others in this room routinely feel at these things, a connection with other men with whom I share a heritage.
When Uncle Joseph had seen and heard enough from Adebiyi, he spoke directly to him, and offered his approval of the betrothal. However, there was the matter of the bride offering a dowry list to the family of the groom.
“The list should be no problem,” said Adebiyi’s Uncle Geordie. “You can just send the list and we will make sure it goes home. Our families can get together and make the transfer of the goods.”
Uncle Joseph nodded. “All right,” he said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” said Geordie. He scooted forward, his eyes focused on the Verdi. “Now, can we drink some of this good stuff here?”
Uncle Joseph’s daughter and wife brought down plates of shrimp, spinach, and white rice topped with a delicious meat sauce. Joseph’s daughter walked over to the chair where her future husband sat, and rested her bum on the arm of the chair. She looked pleased.
It was a happy ending.
I don’t know if the participants in the Biafran War could have imagined this scene in 1967.
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