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Memory, Nationhood and Belonging in Literary Representations of Biafra

Project Overview

An academic paper and conference presentation exploring the multigenerational literature of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War.

Identifying the Problem

Biafra was a secessionist state located in southeastern Nigeria, the ancestral home of the Igbo ethnic group. Biafra was led by Chuwuemeka Ojukwu, whose 1967 declaration of autonomy was the most direct cause of the Nigerian Civil War. Two and a half years and at least one million lives later, Biafra was reincorporated into federal Nigeria under a policy exemplified by the slogan of then Nigerian head of state, Yakubu Gowon: “No victor, no vanquished.” Despite Gowon’s intended magnanimity in victory, feelings of marginalization persist amongst the Igbo and other southeastern ethnicities.

Emmanuella is a Nigerian American, and Biafra is very much part of her cultural legacy. Her initial interest in the subject began with informal questions of her parents and family friends, as well as weeks of interviews and participant observation of and among Nigerian Americans who identified either as former "Biafrans" or as parts of the ethnic or geographical groups invested in the unconditional unity of the Nigerian federation. Yet when she turned to the academic discourse on Biafra, she found it to be dominated by political history and hagiography. She also discovered that current academic work struggles to fully capture the humanitarian catastrophe of the war while also rendering a balanced reconstruction of the conflict.

Emmanuella hypothesized that literature on the war would offer a unique understanding, and that there are insights to be gained from observers whose heritage is entangled in some notion of cultural connectedness to Biafra, however distant, complicated or tenuous. The persistent centrality of the Nigerian Civil War as subject or background for Nigerian literature is significant, considering the diversity of triumphant and challenging periods that Nigeria has faced since colonial independence. Emmanuella believed that the fixation of contemporary literary figures on Biafra is evidence of generational desire to engage with the unfinished story of Nigerian nation making. As the years have passed, contemporary Nigerian and diasporic writers have been even more successful at focusing on the human dimensions of the conflict and have placed Nigerian voices on the forefront of that rendering, demonstrating the continued relevance of Biafra and its legacy to the Nigerian national question. Emmanuella wanted to determine whether the Biafran community of suffering in a Nigerian context could be more completely understood by exploiting the dialectic relationship between literature and other more empirical expressions of memory.

Creating A Solution

In preparation for this project, Emmanuella read over 40 years’ worth of Nigerian literature whose subject or background was the Nigerian Civil War. To address the shortcomings she identified in previous academic work on Biafra, Emmanuella developed an interdisciplinary methodology. Historically-themed fiction is at once primary and secondary, clearly a re-narrativization, yet still in a voice that makes truth claims from the perspective of direct participants. Her project was thus indelibly both a literary and a historical endeavor, concerned both with the texts and their context.

Emmanuella completed months of archival research at the British National Archives at Kew, sourcing newly-available archival records on the war, as well as at the British Library in London, hunting down rare works of fiction authored by ordinary Nigerians during and immediately after the war. She read Biafran literature as both source and subject. It provided a rich depository of information, the factual validity of which could be scrutinized and compared to newly available archival records. She found that it is through Nigerian literature that indigenous and diasporic Nigerian actors have told and continue to tell the story of Biafra on their own terms and in a way that gives voice to the complexity of the experiences of scores of anonymous individuals. “Literature is intentional, dramatic and emotional, and in doing so, conveys the Biafran community of suffering with a lucidity that an exclusively empirical account cannot match,” says Emmanuella. “In this way, literary representations of Biafra become more salient than the sum of their individual narratives.” She proposed that these narratives point to an open-ended and unfinished relationship between Biafra and the Nigerian nation. Biafra, the secessionist state, is long gone. But Biafra as a variable in Nigerian notions of belonging is ever present.

Emmanuella presented her preliminary findings at the Third Annual Igbo Conference hosted by the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. While only one other panel dealt explicitly with Biafra, several panel discussions turned into very impassioned debates on Biafra and its continued relevance. While the conference served as an opportunity for Emmanuella to contribute to this dialogue, it also demonstrated the need for more projects allowing Nigerians to make sense of the legacy of Biafra. Her written findings were presented in the form of a Master's dissertation to the African Studies department at the University of Cambridge.

Emmanuella hopes to continue and expand her project by pursuing ethnographic research in Nigeria and potentially other locations outside of the country with a significant diaspora. Interviews would provide a platform for narrating the memory of the conflict and its continued salience in a country where no real political will to create a national dialogue for this memory exists while also adding dimension to the historical and literature research for dialogue around memory and reconciliation after ethnically-charged violent conflict.

Lessons Learned

With no formal background or training in literary analysis, the biggest challenge for Emmanuella was learning to be an Africanist scholar-in-training. Adjusting to a new academic culture was also a surprise adjustment. Having completed all of her previous education in the United States, it took time to get accustomed to scholarly norms in the United Kingdom. Emmanuella confidently confronted both of these challenges head on, motivated by her deep and personal interest in the subject matter of her project. She advises others in similar situations not to hesitate to ask for help, as she herself found it immensely helpful to go out of her way to seek mentorship.


The only costs associated with this project were travel expenses. Emmanuella applied for, and received, a grant from Cambridge to cover these expenses, which amounted to $350.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2012

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