Nigerian war survivor, human rights activist and refugee, author of three poetry collections and two novels, recipient of the 2001 PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the 2001 Prince Claus Award and a 2003 Lannan Literary Fellowship. His poetry appears in the film "Voices in Wartime."
The model of African wars
Inteviews with Chris Abani excerpted from the Voices in Wartime film.
America is a very insular country in a sense and I think a lot of what happens outside of America is unknown to Americans. I think to Americans Africa largely remains a dark continent; a place that is just where stereotypes run rampant, in a sense. But, I think the Biafran War is very present in America in the 1960s American consciousness, because this was a war being fought at the same time that the Viet Nam war was being fought, and there was already a sort of sensationalism to it.
But when the consciousness moved from the 1960s to the 1970s and to very different areas, the subsequent wars that have happened have been glazed over with the beauty of people like CNN who offer you almost a video-game reportage of wars.
Even within Africa as well, the sad thing is that a country like Nigeria, which is at the forefront economically, (outside of South Africa we are the richest, most populous sub-Saharan country) and with Rwanda, we would stand back and watch it happen knowing they shared a history 30 years after the war, people talk about it like it was last week. They will stand back and watch Sierra Leone happen.
And I know that we sent troops into it but it was more of a PR exercise than it was anything else. But I think there is always a tendency in human nature to justify our current actions with historical precedence. Rather than a war serving as a warning, the war becomes a way to justify the current war in a way. Any sort of tenuous gains made by it are trumpeted out of proportion and none of the real impact is discussed in any sort of way. Wars sadly serve as models for other warys to be based on. And you look at the Pentagon, where they are not looking for a way to end war, but for a way to fight a war without any loss on their side.
It’s about the myth of war. In the book I talk about the journey through and how you see all this devastation until after a while you realize the war is nothing but a self-perpetuated state. After a while everyone forgets what it’s about because it’s about nothing but itself.
And if you really went in to ask the Tutsis or the Hutus what was really the issue, nobody would be able to tell you. And that’s what’s really sad. It seems to me that all the darkness in our souls seems to be channeled into this one moment and we hang on to grudges and all sorts of things that don’t make any sense or even mental problems are hung on this need to dispense with the other.
And so wars always require the creation of others. The Palestinian not as person but as a bomber. The Israeli not as an invader but as a long-suffering person. And the difficulty of course with a lot of narratives is if you have suffered any great tragedy yourself, it seems that people use that to deny their impact on a thing.
So, for instance, Israel. Because of the terrible, terrible holocaust that happened to Jewish people that the moment you call Sharon or anyone else to say “Listen, look at what you are doing,” the Holocaust argument is thrown in your face as a way to prevent you from having that conversation. The Igbos in Nigeria will use the Civil War and the pogroms used against them as a shield not to discuss why there needs to be dialogue between us and the Northerners to ease tensions. Then the Hutus claim that the Tutsis had oppressed them in the past. There always seems to be a narrative of previous suffering.
What was the effect of this on the civilian population in Biafra, during the war and afterwards?
On the Biafran side it was very hard to have a civilian life. We had no army, the army was a civilian army, so civilians signed up and a lot of the people were students, university students. There were so many women who fought in this war, whose own story has not even been scratched. It’s always talked about: the heroic way of men, and I think I resisted that in my portrayal of it.
Similar to Vietnam where children were used as decoys, it’s very hard to separate a civilian population sometimes when you are fighting a guerilla war.
But for those who were there, there were women who cut off parts of their body to cook and feed to their children. This is not imagined. This is true. If you are a woman and your children are dying, there are women who killed and helped suffocate their children because there was no way they would have survived the war. These women just couldn’t deal with this trauma anymore for their children. Within the war there was the hunger, the starvation, the women who had to enter into prostitution on both sides with both their supposed attackers and defenders in order to negotiate a life.
There were also men who sold each other out, people who enacted their own darkness on other people. If you look at the Second World War, there have been a lot of writing and movies and things made about it, you see that darkness all the time. Seemingly nice, normal people will turn on their neighbors for no apparent reason if it can be justified in a larger context. These are some of the effects the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War had.
In every war there is cannibalism, and nobody talks about it. One of the most amazing things that has emerged recently is tales of the concentration camps in Germany, and of how people would eat each other and not talk about it afterwards.
For me there is no subject, if we are to regain any kind of internal moral landscape, there can be nothing that is not be confronted. So, in the civilian population as you were being done to and in order to survive, you begin to enact in your own small way little violences on each other. There are stories of people who would lead soldiers to where other people were hiding out watch them be executed. There was the pretext of taking bodies away to be buried: there is no meat, you make meat.
These things happen, and in order to not to have the Western population point at you as a savage, you cover these stories up. This is not right because we know stories from Vietnam where soldiers would mutilate bodies in Vietnam and wear garlands of ears. This is what war does. There is nothing pretty about it. There is nothing heroic about it. And on that level in the war, this is what happens to the civilian population.
People lost their property when they had to move out of certain parts of the country and that property was occupied by other people. People lost all their money. They would come back and try to start a new life after the war. You notice petty little hierarchies emerging where some people can deal with the invader better than others, so they begin to play off their own population.
It’s not unique and this is what’s really sad about it, is that it’s not unique to any war situation. It’s the same and has been the same since Julius Caesar invaded the Celts. It’s the same story and it’s the one story we just can’t seem to learn the lesson from. We seem to do well in every other field, but in this need to enact violence on each other we just don’t seem to be able to figure out what the narrative is.
Inteviews with Chris Abani excerpted from Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
What made you decide to be a poet?
Trying to express my period as a political prisoner. That experience. Because I started off as a fiction writer, and just the intensity of that experience was better portrayed in poetry. Partly because [poetry] allows people to come into a really profound and gut-wrenching experience, and stepping out of it almost like frames of still photography rather than the full-length feature a novel gives.
So that’s what really drew me. I had always read poetry as a child. I had poetry read to me. In terms of writing, the first time I really took that on seriously was in writing “Kalakuta Republic.”
What really drew me to poetry, I suppose you could say, is the brevity in it. It is a distillation, but really it has more to do with the fact that you have a smaller palette you’re working with. A smaller palette, and therefore you can not begin too many emotional directions. It’s a form that resists sentimentality. And when you are dealing with a difficult subject, sentimentality is a problem because you’re sign-posting how people should feel.
You want to create essentially almost religious icons that hang in a cloister and one meditates on it and brings the emotional baggage with the reader rather than providing it for them. You are providing access at so many different levels. That aspect to poetry is really beautiful.
Tell us a little about Christopher Okigbo story. What happened?
Christopher Okigbo died during the Biafran war. He was a poet who decided it was not enough to write or to work for the broadcasting service. So he went on to the front lines and he was murdered. Essentially by betrayal.
He wrote a book a year before the war happened, in 1965. And there were poems prophesizing the war. He knew this war was coming. There’s a particular poem called “Come Thunder” and you can just see this war coming. It’s like reading “The Second Coming” by Yeats. It’s as if the portents are always there and the portents are there now.
Chris was an intriguing character. He, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe all came out of the same arts movement in the 1960s when there were visual artists and all of that. But, But Chris was one of the most amazing poets ever produced, not just in his ability to reach back into traditions, the European and Yeats, but also in his ability to see into the heart of the matter.
And he believed that poetry was powerful enough to affect some kind of change or to halt some kind of progress. And I think for him, (and this is entirely my perception of it, Chris died before I was born,) I think the moment he lost faith was when the war happened anyway. In spite of all the warnings. He lost faith in the power of poetry and I think for him that’s when he became a full -fledged soldier. He felt that the gun was possibly the only answer.
For me it’s kind of a conflicted thing. For me to be an artist means to be immersed in a thingk but also to stand away from it. To have some kind of objective distance, to observe what is happening in the moment. And to be absorbed in the moment makes it difficult to be anything more than polemic. But also there are questions of what does an artist owe to the society in which they live. Chris is dead and all they have are fragments of poems that maybe fill two or three collections.
There is an interesting book by Ali Mazrui which is called “The Trial of Christopher Okigbo” where he puts him on trial in heaven, where he has to defend the reason why he gave up on his art in order to take up the gun.
Wole, who is not an Igbo, publicly decries on the BBC the government’s policy of starving children to death, and gets arrested and spends three years in prison in solitary confinement. Wole Soyinka and was the first official political prisoner we had ever had. But, that whole generation not only believed in the power of art to change things but also felt that the artists had a responsibility to society. I think Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe in that way sort of represent the possibility of transmutation.
What is your motive for writing the poems? Is that to remind us of the concrete reality?
The book is split into two halves. The first half is a long 80-page epic poem, which is more about a personal odyssey of this war, and so a lot of it plays on an interior landscape rather than what’s gong on outside. But in a war where millions of people have died it would be remiss of me to write only that section, because after a while we are so engaged with one character’s journey it becomes sort of a romantic quest.
With the next section I wanted to bring out the real devastating concrete realities of a war, but create them in such a way that there is no emotive landscape in the poem. It’s simply what one brings to the poems as a way to really find out if the thing, if the moral center is in us--this which has been called many names, we can call it love--whether it still responds to that. And it’s interesting what happens: that even a first reading of that poem in that last section will not elicit something, but a revisitation suddenly triggers this thing. The cynicism we’ve coated over our lives suddenly begins to disappear. So the poem itself processes us not to engage with the poem or the realities of war, but to engage with our own moral landscape. That’s what I was trying to do.
Let’s talk about the Poem “Break A Leg”.
The poem “Break a Leg” comes from two places and several photographs taken by an American photographer from Life magazine who was murdered, who was killed in the Biafran War and never came back from the Biafran War. There is a photograph he took of a young soldier, who has no leg, with an AK-47 with Jesus taped to the stalk of his gun barrel. But also I have an older relative who fought in the war who was 12 years old, a soldier, and his whole foot was torn off by a claymore mine.
So it was a combination of those kind of moments where you have received a narrative. I have the visual images from books that have been written, analytical books and also family anecdotes and then people you grew up around.
I went to school, primary school at six or seven, with people who had been soldiers during the war. They were 13, 14 and their school had been interrupted, but they had killed men. If you had any money you could give them a little bit of money and they would cut themselves. I saw the effects of this growing up all the time. It’s a result of perception, some kind of latent genetic memory. Who knows what you see when you are two? How it layers into your emotional make-up, received narrative, and research? “Break a Leg” came from that, and several other poems in the book that enact themselves in the same way.
One of the things we’ve been discovering is that nobody comes out of a war unaffected. Can you talk a little bit about this?
As a human being I am made up of all my experiences; I’m the sum of that, in a way. Before I wrote this book I had been a young political activist and I had spent some time in prison. It was a very difficult time and I wrote a book of poems to attempt to explore that. Being placed in that kind of extreme situation forces you out of your usual easy judgments of what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s black, what’s white. And you begin to realize that the very fabric of the being who is oppressing is disrupted and damaged even as the oppressed is being destroyed.
Look at America for instance: you don’t need a better example than the impact of slavery. It doesn’t matter how liberal or not liberal or how right-wing or left-wing you really are, there is nobody who is white or black who that experience has not scarred in some way. The defense of that is actually nothing more than trying to defend what is really breaking up inside of the person and this is the truth with every kind of war.
Even if you go in there as a war correspondent, if you go in as a soldier, as a refugee, everybody, even if you’re just watching the flickering images on your screen and you pretend not to see it, even it if it’s being constructed by CNN to give a certain light to it, you will still always be affected by it.
There’s an amazing thing that Wole Soyinka said in a book called “The Man Died”. He said every moment we are silent in the face of tyranny, that which is human in us dies a little bit. So you are either enacting it directly or by acquiescence, or it is enacted upon you and there is no way that can happen that you cannot be scarred by it.
What separates us as human from the rest of the life forms on the planet is that elusive thing that we are trying to pretend away which is called a conscience. It doesn’t matter what arguments you make for it, damaged childhood whatever, the point is there would be no need to create defenses against violence if violence were a natural state for us.
The Nigerian-Biafran Civil War
Inteviews with Chris Abani excerpted from
Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Can you tell us a little bit about the background of Nigeria and how that has affected its politics?
Nigeria is about four times the size of the United Kingdom, which is maybe about half the size of the United States. It’s a huge country. It’s a very populous country we’re talking about, around 150 million to 200 million people. But it’s a Nigeria that doesn’t really exist. It’s a phantom.
In the late 19th century when the Western powers coalesced the colonial experience, Africa was divided up into countries. Whole nations and ethnic groups were cut up into a shape to suit whatever territories were being negotiated in this way. So what you have is 250, possibly 300, ethnic groups jammed together in one landmass who’ve never had to live together as a nation before, with about the same amount of languages: 250 languages, 2000 dialects. Also distinct levels of religious practice, as well as the various levels of animism through Islam and the Catholic Church and whatever is jammed together in this entity called Nigeria.
Nigeria’s only 30, maybe 40 years old. It’s a country that is wealthy, that produces so much oil; that has gold, uranium, and diamonds. But it is not located equally across the country. When already the issue of ethnicity is so much on the razor’s edge, when you then add economic conditions, so that some groups seem to be better off than others, you really create a melting pot for trouble.
It really has more to do in many ways with Britain’s negotiated withdrawal and who they handed power to as a way to maintain instability in the region. That region that would allow neo-colonials and global capitalism to still operate.
Can you tell us how the civil war arose, and what happened?
The conflict, the particular war, which I suppose has been the model for wars in Africa, (and that’s not a good thing to say), was the Nigerian-Biafran War. Its roots are way back in pre-independence.
We got independence in 1960. The country was divided up. The politicians were in power. And soon enough the issues of ethnicity and who controls what begins to create a lot of trouble. So around 1963, 1964 the assembly, the house of the senate, people are pulling guns on each other in the house of the senate. These are politicians.
So the military steps in and declares a state of emergency and attempts to sort of contain things to allow democracy to find its feet. Well, when the military pulls out, the problem continues. So a group of young officers in the army, primarily southerners; Igbos and a few from the central part of Nigeria, organize a coup against the incumbent government. And in the process of the coup, (coups are never bloodless), a lot of Northern politicians were murdered.
A military government was set up to create the peace which was then run by an Igbo, an adjutant, he’s a supposedly a young Northerner, Yakubu Gowon. And six months after this coup, there was pressure from Northerners, of which Yakubu Gowon was one, to retaliate, which was considered an Igbo-incited coup. There was a coup against the military government and this head of state was murdered by his own adjutant over dinner in front of his children.
That’s the story. I don’t know if this is urban legend or actually what happened, but then the country begins to experience this problem where in the North, under the guise of religion, the Igbos are targeted in a program of ethnic cleansing. In six months, over 200,000 Igbos are murdered. Their bodies are cut up and their body parts are put in trains. The trainloads of dead Igbos are being sent back down to the South by Northerners.
The then-governor of the East/Central region where the Igbos lived, Lt. Col. Ojukwu, asked the government to step in and asked “Why aren’t you sending soldiers to contain this?” When the government wouldn’t say anything, he demanded that all Southerners return back to the Eastern region. He then seceded from the rest of Nigeria and declared us an independent republic called Biafra.
And the Northerners went along with this originally. In Ghana there was something signed called the Aburi Accord that allowed us to secede. But when they return the Nigerians realize that all the oil is suddenly going away with the Republic of Biafra, and they declare a war against us and say you can’t secede. And of course then all the power interests around the world who want the oil begin to back Nigeria.
And I think that Lyndon Johnson was president at the time and he backed Nigeria. He’s alleged to have said we cannot afford to have a Japan in Africa: Biafra must be crushed. And there are reasons behind this. The Biafran’s invented the things now being used in Brazil, where we have cars run on sugarcane fuel. This was invented in the Biafran War. All this sort of stuff was happening during this war period and it seemed important to crush us.
So you have the fledgling state with no guns. A lot of the people fought with clubs and machetes against a fully armed government that had troops that were trained by everyone. The only people who supported us militarily essentially were France and a little bit from Israel.
And we had no airplanes. We had these little piper two-seater planes and someone would hang out the side with a machine gun. We were fighting big jets. And so the resistance was still strong and we managed.
The Biafrans pushed very close to the capitol of Lagos and would have succeeded but over the course of time the government of Nigeria changed tactics and began to use hunger as a way to win the war. And so orders were given to shoot down the Red Cross planes, which were largely funded by the Portuguese under a Catholic emergency system.
All the planes that brought in food and medical supplies were being shot down. They were killing all the missionaries that had stayed back to help. They were killing all the Red Cross officials. So essentially what happened is that the Biafrans began to starve to death.
And during that three-year war over three-million children starved to death, that have been accounted for. We can’t begin to talk about the bodies that have never been found. That essentially brought the whole thing to a close: starvation tactics.
So you can sort of see the arc of how it happens. And you read about Rwanda 20 or 30 years later or even Sierra Leone happening now and it’s remarkable how we never seem to learn from anything that goes on prior to us. The same tactics are being employed, which are starvation and mutilation of people.
Which is another thing. The Northern soldiers would get pregnant women and cut them open and drag out the fetuses. Everything, all the conflicts, have been manufactured as ideas of ethnicity and religion. But of course there are deeper issues at play here.
And often the silent players who are outside the continent are never seen. Who really instigates wars. The role of the CIA. But not as a way to apologize for what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what someone engineers, you’re the one killing your own people and so there are things to be accounted for now.
How old were you when the conflict this happened? What process of discovery have you gone through to write these poems?
I was born just as the war was starting in 1966. For much of the war I was a toddler. My particular family made our way out as refugees and much of that narrative of what happened during that war was received from parents, and from elder brothers.
My eldest brother was actually detained and they were going to turn him into a boy soldier. He was nine or ten. I am actually bigger than him physically and he talks about lugging me on his back for miles and miles and miles.
We came back to Nigeria when I was five. This was about 1970, 1971. After the so-called peace and the “No Victors No Vanquished” treaty, the federal government instituted cantonments of soldiers all across the Igbo hinterlands to make sure that there would be no recurrence of this rebellion.
And so all of us grew up with the shadow of soldiers around us, with guns. There would be road blocks. You would be in the car coming home from school with your father or mother or whatever or whatever and they would be humiliated. It’s like if you watch what’s happening in the West Bank now. Israel is humiliating the Palestinians. It’s not even about security anymore. It’s about eradicating a human being’s right to any kind of dignity as a kind of way to quell any kind of rebellion against you.
And the war stayed around. I remember one particular time, the army, the guy who ran the particular cantonment near the house I grew up in lived about five miles away. He had this beautiful house on a hill. And he was known for picking young girls up on the streets and raping them and this kind of stuff. So finally, some people set fire to his house one day. And I remember coming home from school to watch this blaze, and with a whole group of people who were laughing. This was their only sort of revenge.
And so it builds into your psyche in that way. From the first coup in 1966 right up to even now with what we call pretend democracy in Nigeria the military have overshadowed every form of government and politics. The gun has been the way which we are run. So we have become a brutalized people.
And of course no one has ever dealt with the trauma of the war. The Igbos just wanted to put it behind them and get ahead. But all the time it begins to surface and surface and people who are born who are just 16 years old talk about waging another war.
It’s kind of frightening how much this has been internalized. I grew up playing in burnt-out tanks, in front of my primary school, picking up bullets that were still live, playing footballs and running into hamlets that still had skulls in them and things like this. As a child you don’t realize until you’re an adult and can contemplate this in a way, how much this impacts your thinking.
I think there’s a lot of callousness and brutality in Nigeria in general which is a result of that war and that has never been talked about. And the real problem right now is that you can see the portents of another war coming.
Through gaps in trees, moonlight
veins night with the remembrance of
dawn. Among ferns stubbling the forest
floor a mother squats, watching the child in
her arms losing its grip on life,
its hacking breath, a suffering hanging on.
Gently she closes her eyes as her fingers
pincer its nose and mouth,
easing the passage across.
What detail can be true of the remembered life;
Place, event, lost like a flower's scent
stolen by a bee leaving only the itch of its sting
Break A Leg
His foot, torn off at the ankle,
Half wrapped in corrugated iron
Held the promise of a gift.
Jesus smiled sadly from the
Photo taped to his gun’s stock.
Blood, like the rain, soaked everything.
The medic, impotent,
Suspicious, like God, lied.
Chris Abani's Speech at Ted