In 1972, two and a half years after the end of the Biafran War, I made a second post-war visit to Nigeria. I had hoped that the New York Times Magazine would print it, but “with genuine regret” it declined. Eventually (March 1973) it appeared in World Magazine, but badly cut. Here, slightly modified, is what I wrote:
The Igbo have survived the peace. After suffering terribly in the war of Biafran secession, they are slowly regaining their former eminence in the country from which they tried to break away. Measured against the dreaded anticipation of genocide, or something akin to it, The Nigerian scene is now bright indeed; viewed. more closely, however, it is a decidedly mixed picture. The Igbo have indeed survived, but they and their fellow Nigerians are wrestling with massive difficulties--some created by the war, some long antecedent to it.
The bright side may be seen by driving through the Igbo homeland, where the scars of battle are rapidly fading. The log-holes and diagonal ditches in the roads have been filled in, the last remains of ambushed cargoes dragged away. Wrecked houses have been rebuilt or become so overgrown with tropical vegetation that they seem part of the landscape. In the city of Onitsha, the burned-out market, once he largest in West Africa, is being cleared for reconstruction, and a contract has been let for permanent repairs to the great, war-damaged bridge that spanned the broad River Niger. The towns vibrate with life, especially Aba and Enugu, which have swelled dramatically since the end of the war. The highways are full of resurgent enterprise. A van chugs by, proclaiming “Modern Progressive Bread.” Joe’s Beauty Saloon is open in Nsukka, as is Decency Tailors. In Awka you can take your clothes to the Ever Jolly Dry Cleaner and your car to the Doctor of All Engines. Lodging places have blossomed with pseudo-French names: Hotel de Blue Spot, City Palace de Hotel Executive, Hotel de Lox. And inevitably, in one of the most shattered towns of all, the Happy Survival Bar and Hotel.
Yet images of liveliness and prosperity can deceive. The farther one gets from the main roads, the harder life seems to be. The reappearance of Mercedes-Benz limousines on city streets must be small consolation to hard-pressed villagers. The big complaint, of farmers and banks alike, is lack of capital. Many people lost all their possessions in the war, and their heavily-inflated Biafran currency was redeemed at a flat £20 each. Millions of former secessionists had to re-start from scratch. It proved easiest for those who had been rich or prominent. After being in detention more than a year, Pius Okigbo, one of Biafra’s best-known envoys and economists, now heads a prosperous consulting firm. Ifegwu Eke, who as secessionist Information Minister thundered broadsides against the Nigerian government, quit his university post soon after the war and went to the federal government to start a transport company. I heard a businessman ebulliently describe his attempt to hide escape from federal troops: “I tried to hide under the bed, but my tummy would not permit me.” Unharmed, he has now bought land for a luxury hotel in Onitsha. In contrast, the same day I saw a girl of about ten in the crowded Mbaise area. She seemed healthy enough, laughing and playing, but friends fear her mind has been affected by war-time food deprivation. She is the only survivor from her family; the rest died of starvation.
The war has impoverished the country--and the poverty is not confined to the former war zones. In one’s understandable anxiety about the fate of the Igbo, it is easy to overlook both non-Igbo war victims and the harsh life of many Nigerians not directly involved in the conflict at all. Although relatively well off by West African standards, Nigeria remains desperately poor, with a per capital gross national product under $100, a child mortality rate of perhaps 40% and a terrifying shortage of doctors, particularly in the bush areas where they are needed most. A sadly typical report: last summer in Ipetu-Ijesha, a town far outside the former battle regions, a two-year-old girl died of marasmus--a total wasting away even more devastating than the kwashiokor that afflicted so many Biafran children. The country does have considerable wealth--Nigeria is among the world’s top ten oil producers--but it takes a long time for the revenue to trickle down to the peasantry, when it reaches them at all. Many unauthorized hands snatch at the money, despite government and newspaper campaigns to “crusade against corruption.” The whole country is gripped by a fierce inflation, with prices fast outpacing wages. Road travel from Warri, an important oil town, to Onitsha, 15 shillings before the war is now 25. Garri, a cassava-root staple food, has almost doubled in price. Nigeria’s problems will have to be solved by the nation as a whole. Thus conditions in what used to be Biafra have double significance: they measure both the degree of local recovery and the progress of the reconciliation essential to the health of the entire country.
Insight into current conditions may be gleaned from the University of Nigeria--Nsukka as it is known, after the hilly bush town that is the site of its main campus. Before the war it was the only one of the country’s five universities located in and largely funded by the old Eastern Region, which in May 1967 seceded to become Biafra. The university was renamed after the breakaway nation but, along with a nearby Biafran army base, was quickly captured by federal troops. Faculty who retreated inside Biafra’s borders, although paid their academic salaries, were employed in other areas, like propaganda, administration, and the army. There never really was a University of Biafra.
And as the war ended in January 1970 there was reason to fear that there never again would be a University of Nigeria. The most remarkable thing about the place today is that it is open at all. More than any other institution, Nsukka was regarded by influential federal officials and army officers as the center of the Biafran rebellion; some would have liked to see it closed permanently and the faculty dispersed. The university had undeniably buzzed with secessionist agitation long before the event, and many of Biafra’s most important figures were culled from the Nsukka staff. The head of the famous Science Group, which improvised weapons and oil refineries for the secessionists, was an Nsukka Physicist, Dr. Ben Nwosu, while the university’s head became a leading Biafran diplomat. The Biafran officer corps was swelled by Nsukka graduates. Nevertheless, thanks to the farsighted federal authorities whose views prevailed, the university was permitted to reopen within a few months of the Biafran surrender. The decision lifted morale throughout the defeated area and was a major stop toward reconstruction.
It was not easy, however, to resume academic life after nearly three years. Initially damaged in the fighting, the Nsukka campus had been gradually looted during the war, when it served as a federal military base. The Social Studies Hall had no roof and the Continuing Education Center, the hub of campus life, was a burned-out ruin inside. The buildings that remained structurally intact lacked lab equipment, desks and chairs--even windows and doors. The library had lost nearly 45% of its 125,000 volumes. The whole place was a shambles; estimates of repairs ran up to $14,000,000.
Emerging from their long battle, Nsukka staff and students were accustomed to hardship and improvisation. The engineers helped restore a few hours of daily electricity and got the creaky waterworks going again. Faculty houses were cleared of debris, which included dead and living rats and their droppings, and rendered inhabitable, if hardly inviting. The luckier students slept on raffia mats, the rest on the floor. Classes resumed for a brief re-orientation session with cinder blocks substituting for chairs and rain blowing in through paneless windows.
Today [summer 1972], hardly two years later, there is little to suggest that Nsukka was once a battleground. Classrooms and labs have been largely refurbished and new staff housing is going up, with startling speed, on the edges of campus. The Continuing Education Center has been so thoroughly rebuilt that no visitor could guess at the charred hulk it had been as recently as a year earlier. Only the shattered wreck of an auditorium and an outdoor museum of armored cars hint at the disaster that overtook the university and the region around it.
But for all the reconstruction , Nsukka is not back to full health. Only 30% of its regular funding comes from the federal government; the rest has to be provided by two of the three states that compose the war-torn area that was Biafra. Last summer an official from the university bursar’s office had to go to Lagos, the federal capital, for cash to assure the next staff paycheck. The faculty has been depleted. Some ten teachers died during the war, and many others--especially foreigners who made up 25% of the pre-war staff--have not returned.
To compound its difficulties, since March 1971 the university has been led by H.C. Kodilinye, whose inflexible behavior has kept the campus in turmoil. Kodilinye, a sixty-ish Igbo professor of opthalmology, soon revealed a quixotic plan to turn Nsukka into a “Collegiate University, based on the Oxbridge model. He called for construction of eight to ten residential colleges, each with its own library, common rooms, dining hall, bar and snack bar, offices and classrooms. Teaching would follow the traditional English tutorial methods which, Kodlinlye wrote, “is undoubtedly the most efficient ever devised.”
Although Kodilinye intends his collegiate proposal to bring staff and students into closer contact, the danger is that it will draw them both farther away from the impoverished society around them. There is no hereditary student aristocracy in Nigeria, but the university is a place of privilege in a country of 60 million people with scarcely 10,000 undergraduates. Even at Nsukka, most egalitarian of the country’s universities, students will not condescend to carry suitcases on their heads. Local boys do that job, for pennies. And the very students who slept on stone floors after the war now complain, in a newspaper editorial, that the hall porters aren’t making their beds properly.
Kodilinye’s collegiate plan has an uncertain future. It made it through the faculty senate, but became encumbered with crippling amendments: The plan must not limit expansion, put added financial strain on the students, or “negate” the rather unclear “original philosophy of the university.” Many critics are sure the plan will die of its own weight. At a time when Nsukka cannot afford to replace the library books it has lost or paint all its houses, where will it find the cash for a fancy rebuilding of virtually the entire campus? “The university will have to try and raise considerable sums from its own resources,” Kodilinye has stated. Despite substantial reconstruction assistance from AID, the Ford Foundation and West European governments, Kodilinye’s colleges will have to be built to be believed.
Collegiate system or not, Kodilinye is putting an English tone on Nsukka. He has hired a number of British faculty and has Anglicized staff titles: Associate professors have become “readers” and teaching assistants “junior fellows.” He would like students to wear jacket and tie and pass entrance exams in Latin or Greek. Although he comes from the Igbo village of Obosi, he has spent most of his adult life in Britain.. His university degrees, wife, accent and citizenship are British. He claims to speak no Nigerian language. His distrust of American education helps explain the diminution of U.S. staff at the university, from a pre-war high of more than 60 to only two last spring. In addition to contract teachers and a Peace Corps contingent, there was once a large AID team, mainly from Michigan State, on the Nsukka faculty. For its first six years, even the Vice-Chancellor was provided by AID. The reduction of American participation cannot be ascribed solely to the university administration. Federal officials retain resentment toward the overwhelming pro-Biafran sentiment in the United States during the war and are currently dismayed by the Nixon administration’s failure to halt imports of Rhodesian chrome. The AID team, whose contract was interrupted in 1967 with three years to run, has not been permitted to return.
There is suspicion that Kodilinye was selected to quiet down the notoriously obstreperous Nsukka community. If so, he has had only partial success. Although most faculty now shrink from national controversy, a few have attacked their own Vice-Chancellor. In his first full year he was saluted with a prickly new campus periodical, Nsukkascope. Edited by Chinua Achebe, the country’s most famous novelist and also a senior research fellow at the university, its opening issue proclaimed itself, without irony, “devastating fearless brutal & true.” Written out of “strident desperation,” it alleged favoritism in faculty appointments, unequipped science labs and lamentable staff housing. The hottest item was the editorial aimed at the Vice-Chancellor and “the boot-licking buffoons in the place, whose idea of duty seems to consist in cutting ridiculous capers to catch his eye or falling over themselves in their speed to hold open the door of his car.” Kodilinye, the indictment continues, had failed to show leadership and had set an unbecoming style of personal extravagance by expensively decorating his official residence while faculty went short on furniture and space, thus creating “a Taj Mahal in a slum.”
Modestly mimeographed and on sale for two shillings, Nsukkascope produced an instant storm: Police rushed onto campus one morning and took four faculty members to Enugu, the state capital, where they ordered to report for daily questioning. One of the four, a woman, collapsed and was hospitalized, with police still in attendance. After 16 mysterious days the affair ended without charges, much less a trial.
Response to the police action was sluggish. number of faculty dismissed it as a “security matter” in which they must not meddle. Achebe later remarked that “some people here have become cautious and cowardly.” There were no public protests, no boycotts of classes, no mention of the episode in the student newspaper. But if the police had been summoned to suppress irreverence and dissent, they failed. Nsukkascope went right on publishing. One of its editors, Emmanuel Obiechina, a lecturer in English whose gentle manner belies the toughness of his prose, considers the magazine’s persistence a cause for optimism: “Had we stopped after that first issue we would have had occasion for gloom.” Although sometimes marred by dogmatism and a derisive, even sophomoric tome, Nsukkascope has furnished a needed choice for campus discontent. Its second issue featured a detailed critique of the proposal for a collegiate university written, appropriately, by two Cambridge-educated Nigerians.
The Nsukka faculty have been busy with other publications as well. They have produced books and initiated journals, ranging from Ikenga, a glossy scholarly publication of the Institute of African Studies, to Omaba, a mimeographed poetry monthly edited (and sometimes typed and assembled) by Osmond Enekwe, an energetic member of the English Department [and also my former student], who has just left to take up a writing fellowship at Columbia. Since the war there seems to be a great deal to say, and a compulsive need to make up for those three lost academic years. The young captain of the university soccer team, who was killed in a car crash last spring, left behind three unpublished books, including his autobiography. Almost everyone seems to have a manuscript tucked away somewhere.
Student life has maintained a surface continuity. Some of the disputes cited in the student newspaper The Record could have occurred years ago. A recent issue carried a letter decrying “vile, lying, pernicious and malicious” cartoons posted in the dining hall (local humor concentrates on the sex habits of undergraduates and professors). The lead item described a student government squabble over the alleged “illegal seizure and sale” of Christmas cards. What is new is the obsession with work, the pressure to catch up with the rest of the country and the world. Last session, study rooms were busy all night (chalked notice on blackboard: “Lovers, do not disturb us in this room again. It is for preps”). Many undergraduates collapsed under the strain and had to be hospitalized.
It is strange to think of students giving way to academic stress after surviving the ordeal of war. Many undergraduates are ex-soldiers. I talked with one, a former high-school teacher who joined up early and soon became a Biafran captain. After suffering a bad stomach wound late in 1968, he was forced to stay away from the front lines for the duration. A History major, he has completed his first university year. He was sorry his side had lost, he said, but at least he had been freed from military life to be a student again. Calm and soft-spoken, cloth wrapper around his waist, the seemed more like a choirmaster than a soldier. He had just received his grades--above a B average for seven courses. He would have to do better next time. Study was a particularly serious matter: Because the banks had been reluctant to help, he had borrowed the $500 tuition and fees from kinsmen and friends. Graduation will bring more responsibilities than repayment; like most educated Nigerians he will have to help educate and support a procession of townsmen and relatives.
The most striking aspect of the Nsukka student body is that it is more truly Nigerian than it has ever been. In June 1967 only 3 of the country’s 12 states had students at Nsukka; now 11 have. To be sure, the representation is unequal, with the vast but educationally laggard northern states furnishing the fewest undergraduates. But at least they are providing some, giving hope that University of Nigeria may one day fulfill the ambitions of its name. Likewise, Igbo students have entered other universities, and Nsukka graduates have spread out over much of the country. Jobs are scarce in the overcrowded and still impoverished Igbo homeland. Many ex-Biafrans have returned to the northern states--scene of terrible anti-Igbo violence before the war--and to Lagos, the teeming federal capital where the jobs are, or are imagined to be. This hectic, steamy port is a lure to the young and ambitious. Many habitants claim to hate it, but few leave; more crowd in every day, arriving in Peugeot taxis and jammed mammy wagons to try their luck with the fast, ruthless urban life of modern Africa.
The very presence in Lagos of so many Igbo must seem extraordinary to a world that in 1970 braced itself for a terrible slaughter. It never happened. Numerous Igbo headed for Lagos the minute the war ended, in search of work and sustenance. Some expected to be killed and were amazed that they were not. An Nsukka professor explains: “We felt as though we were already dead, as though nothing worse could happen to us. It was better to take our chances than do nothing.” Igbo discovered that although they were not mistreated in Lagos, unemployment was a problem there, as in so much of the country. Many positions that they had vacated before the war had been filled by other Nigerians. Yet jobs did come, if slowly, and now there seem to be as many Igbo in the city as there were in 1966, before the crisis began.
Not all cities have been so receptive to the returning Igbo; Port Harcourt, capital of the Rivers State, has been distinctly hostile. Although the fact was little noted by outside commentators, Biafra was composed not only of Igbo but also of a variety of smaller groups--“The Minorities”--that accounted for about a third of the population and much more of its land. Relations between Igbo and the Minorities, tense for years, were embittered by war-time conflicts. Although one of the two Minorities states, the South-Eastern, is on reasonably good terms with its Igbo neighbors the other, the Rivers State, is not. The South-East co-operates in the running of Nsukka; its capital, Calabar, is to be the site of a new campus of the university. The Rivers State, however, has opted out of Nsukka altogether and is building a technical college in its capital, Port Harcourt. This industrial town has been the focus of bitter resentment: Igbo and Rivers people alike regard it as their property. It is built on Rivers land but before the war had an Igbo majority, who fled when federal forces arrived in May 1968, less than a year after fighting began. Rivers residents in Port Harcourt have been slow to re-admit Igbo, whom they hold responsible for much of their war-time suffering. Quite a few Igbo have returned, but rarely to high-ranking positions. The city remains tense. The hottest issue is housing abandoned by their owners, mainly Igbo, and now occupied by Rivers people, who owe their rents to the local Abandoned Property Authority. After some delay the state government has ordered the return of some 1300 houses to their owners, but few seem actually to have been repossessed. The Property Authority is reluctant to discuss the issue, which with its attendant uncertainties is impeding a full recovery of commercial life.
The war has bequeathed Nigeria an army far too large for its needs--perhaps a quarter million men, 25 times its strength in 1966. It seems better to keep them in uniform than dump them into the bulging labor market, so soldiers they remain. They are especially visible in the East-Central State, an almost entirely Igbo area: every ten or twenty miles its main highway you pass a garrison, with a uniformly-ignored injunction to slow down to ten miles an hour. (There is said to be one commander who insists that cyclists dismount when passing his house.) Yet the much-feared federal occupation has propped up the shattered economy of the region, because soldiers spend their salaries where they are stationed. Some have spent rebuilt the homes of their Igbo girlfriends. With scattered exceptions, relations between troops and civilians have greatly improved since the violence and looting of the first post-war month. Soldiers twice surrounded the Nsukka campus in the year after the war, searching houses without seeming to find anything. They have kept away since, except for occasional visits by officers to the faculty club and soccer and basketball with the local infantry brigade. (The matches are described as “friendly”--the customary adjective for a Nigerian sports event, even if it ends in a brawl.)
Nigeria’s military rule began in January 1966, when the first of two coups put an end to a tottering civilian regime. The head of government since before the war has been General Yakubu Gowon, an underrated man vilified by Biafran propaganda. A Christian from a small tribe in the predominantly Moslem north of the country, he has skillfully balanced the volatile and ambitious figures, civil and military, who surround him. His visit to Nsukka in January 1971 was a tumultuous success. The Igbo have not turned their former adversary into a popular hero, but they respect him and k now he is preferable to any plausible alternative. The last thing they want is another unscheduled change in government, with its dangers and economic disruptions. The military has pledged a return to civilian rule by 1976; to some Nigerians, many Igbo among them, this seems too soon.
The war probably changed few minds. Most of those who fought for Biafra still believe in the rightness of their cause, although not all think it made sense to keep fighting so long against nearly hopeless odds and at enormous cost in lives. While some Igbo intellectuals recall “the struggle” in glowing terms, others express dismay with a Biafran leadership that failed to negotiate realistically to salvage some kind of compromise with Lagos. Nobody seems eager to fight again, least of all the young workers and schoolboys who made up much of the Biafran infantry. Many had been told that the war would last no more than two weeks; nothing in their experience suggested the endless hunger and bombardment that they ignored.
As for Nigeria: No summation can do justice to its complexity. By far the largest country in Africa, it remains one of the most troubled. Yet for all its problems it is in better condition today, more hopeful, than almost anyone would have guessed during the terrible civil was that nearly tore it apart.
Gowon was deposed in a military coup in 1974. Kodilinye remained head of Nuskka until 1975. His collegiate system was never put into place.
Return to travel page.
Return to home page.