Why my book on Biafra is generating discourse – Uwem Akpan

Uwem Akpan, author of New York, My Village,

By Nehru Odeh

The book New York, My Village, is currently receiving rave reviews and generating heated debate and discourse across the globe. Nigerian award-winning writer, journalist and academic Okey Ndibe described it as a magisterial read and “one of those rare novels that – because they are bristly, unsparing, challenging, and capacious—are bound for timelessness”. Another award-winning writer, Chika Unigwe listed it as one of the best four books ever in Le Monde, France’s most powerful newspaper.

However, Uwem Akpan, winner of the 2009 Commonwealth Prize for Literature and author of the critically acclaimed novel, New York, My Village, has been receiving scurrilous attacks for pushing the narrative in that book that the Igbo were not mere victims during the Nigerian civil War, as people have been made to believe, but were also oppressors and colonizers. According to him, during the war the Igbo oppressed the minorities in the Southern part of Nigeria, killed, raped and subjected them to inhuman treatments.

Akpan stated this in an interview published in The Cable on 7 August 2022 entitled Literature Meets Politics: Uwem Akpan takes fan question. ”Well, it hasn’t been easy for me. I’m still getting some threats and persona-non-grata messages,” Akpan said.

Asked to state the nature of those threats, Akpan, citing one of them, said last February a Jesuit priest and former colleague of his threatened him for bashing Achebe’s book, There Was a Country.    

“Yes, he went on Facebook to assure me of a huge backlash and wished me “condolences.” Is he going to kill my family? I don’t know. Why must my family blood be used to cover Biafran iniquities? Is he going to hurt my friends? His Facebook friends were also already threatening that there’d be no hiding place for me…

“Please, I’ve no problem with negative critique of my work, but this Catholic priest’s ethnic baiting has been a difficult thing for me—just because I’ve revealed to the world that his precious Biafra was as evil as Nigeria. Just because I’ve said extremist Biafrans like him are claiming minority lands AGAIN in their new Biafra dreams without dialoguing with us,” Akpan also maintained.

Akpan also said his friends and family had warned him to stay away from Nigeria. The writer said he couldn’t attend the recently held Ibom Arts Festival he was supposed to headline because of fear of being attacked.

“Yes, some were saying if a priest could go this far, God knows what others…They’re afraid Biafran War II might break out at my readings. This year, though I got a semester leave from my university, I couldn’t travel to promote my book in Nigeria because of angry readers. I couldn’t make the recent Ibom Arts Festival—the first such festival in my state, organized by Kate Ekanem Hannum. I was supposed to headline it, but I couldn’t read in my beloved Akwa Ibom or Annangland or other minority lands on whose behalf I wrote this book.

In that interview, Akpan gave graphic details of how Biafran soldiers oppressed the minorities whom they accused of being saboteurs and subject them to inhuman treatments. According to him, he grew up not only listening to blood-curdling stories his parents had told them about their experiences at the hand of Biafran soldiers but also saw physical signs of the war everywhere.

“I was born after the war. We ate and played and laughed a lot in our childhood, so it was difficult to understand all the horrible war hunger, and rape stories our parents were telling.  We used to be very mad hearing that Biafran and Nigerian soldiers had even harassed our grandmothers!  You just felt something huge had happened to our people, something they couldn’t really convey to you. These were heavy and painful stories. Though they told these stories during the day, they were still very frightening—quite different from the enjoyable fables they told us at night.

“Yes, yes, in 1977, when I began primary school at age six in Ekparakwa, I learnt a lot about the war. There was a mass grave of Biafran soldiers behind the classroom block, soldiers who’d used our school as barracks in 1967. We heard Nigerian forces killed them.  By 1977, that place had sunk in.  And as children we would play on that surface and, sometimes, someone would rip a bone from this thing and scream…so, yes, physical signs of the war were everywhere.

“Sometimes it was unused bullets in the bushes or Uncle Itiaba’s atimeukwak, some metal bar he brought home from a crashed war jet.  When my family relocated to Ikot Ekpene, we even had more war “memories.” Look, as a ten-year-old, I was really frightened by stories of Biafra abducting young minority boys for their army and killing or raping those who escaped and were recaptured. They’d been branded as saboteurs.

“Ikot Ekpene was a sad warfront. That was when I first learned that men could be raped. It was quite frightening to us kids because of how the adults whispered about it as absolute humiliation. We even heard whispers of a woman who rejected the husband rape victim till he went for cleansing in the native shrine,” Akpan said.

Asked to tell the difference between his novel and Chimamanda Adichie’s most celebrated historical novel. Half of a Yellow Sun, given that “there’s a huge conversation brewing between these books,” Akpan said though he was aware of the mooted comparisons, it was tricky to compare one’s book to another. He however went further to say that the two books are different in terms of politics and style.

“My politics is totally different from hers in the portrait of Biafra. As Brittlepaper.com review of my book said, while Half of a Yellow Sun is set during the war, mine transcends that period into the angst of the first and second generations of war victims and the diaspora. We get to see how war traumas affect both people who saw or didn’t see the war. Her book also highlights the rape of women while mine focuses on the rape of men. Many younger Nigerians tell me this is the first book that’s helped them to emotionally understand the history of Nigeria.

 “But I think the biggest difference between both books is that my work hails and celebrates the existence of Nigerian minorities: it sees Nigeria and the war through the eyes of minorities while Chimamanda mainly deals with the Igbos, Yorubas and Hausas, the three majority ethnic groups. In her world, the Igbos are the victims. In mine, they ARE the oppressors and colonizers of minorities even as they themselves are being victimized by the crazy Nigerian army.

“I also show how this same Nigerian army turned around to also abuse minorities.  Simply put, we minorities don’t exist or barely exist in Half of a Yellow Sun. It’s worse, because her portrait of Igbos spitting on Dr. Inyang, “the saboteur,” is needlessly gaslighting of minorities.

“Also, the portrait of Colonel Ojukwu is that of a wonderful soldier, the orator, the protector of Igbos, the freedom fighter. But the characters in my novel and the interviewees in my acknowledgments (Nigerian edition) can’t deodorize Ojukwu.

“They see him as a crazy dictator who, with General Ironsi, first blocked the secession of minorities from Nigeria in 1966, a year before the Igbos wanted Biafra. They see him as the one who gambled with the lives of millions of Igbos and minorities in a war about the oil and coastlines of the minorities. Who fights like this for someone else’s property? Why block us from having minority states?

“Based on this action, I think it’s the Igbos who should’ve been called saboteurs. My characters and interviewees also see Ojukwu as the dictator who sent his goons to rain terror on minorities in Biafra and other minorities in today’s states of Edo, Delta, Kogi and Benue. And, in my novel, you’ll also learn how he lost the plot totally by invading Nigeria and ordering the spray-bulleting of 11 Italian oil workers and burying them in a mass grave in May 1969 and collecting ransom for 19 more Europeans he put on death row. In revenge, the white folks, “the Owners of the World,” winked at Nigeria to destroy Biafra in six months.  Ojukwu had made the mistake to treat them like minorities! That’s how Biafra lost the war, Akpan maintained.

However, the author of Say You’re One of Them also commended Adichie, whom he said he was happy to meet in New Zealand in 2009, for her writings, interventions and insights in and outside of literature.

“In 2009, I was very happy to meet Chimamanda in New Zealand.  She signed my copy of Half of a Yellow Sun. As I told her then, I wouldn’t be able to read it until I’d finished my own Biafran War novel.  I didn’t want hers to interfere with my thought process.  I finally read it and used it for my fiction class last year, as soon as I finished writing my novel. I had to be patient for 11 long years to read this important and majestic book. God bless her for all her writings and interventions and insights in and outside of literature.  And it was a real blessing for her to rally her spirits, amid mourning her mother’s death, to write so powerfully in the New York Times about the killing of young, Nigerian EndSars protesters in October 2020,” Akpan said.