Half of a Yellow Sun, Biyi Bandele’s new film adaption of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, explores the effect of the Nigerian civil war on the lives of four characters. It is a subtle movie of a large war, intimate and revealing of the personal tragedies that took place from July 1967 to January 1970.
As I watched those four lives turned upside down – their houses bombed, their children starved, and their mothers killed by the advancing Nigerian army– I began to wonder if my country was ready for such a piercing glance into its past.
In Nigeria we are afraid to look back. History has recently been removed from the standard secondary school curriculum. Subjects like maths, physics and chemistry are indispensable to moving forward and building the 21st century African superpower we aspire to be. But a discipline that looks back over our tempestuous hundred years as a nation, is best left alone. For in looking over Nigeria’s past, difficult concepts such as tribalism and genocide begin to appear: and how does a nation that hasn’t coped with providing electricity for its citizens, that is still racked by ethnic divisions and political instability – how does such a nation cope with that?
There is a scene in Bandele’s movie where an Igbo airport official is shot dead at point-blank range by a Nigerian army officer. It is shocking; it is unprovoked – and it is scenes such as this that my uncles, my aunties and my father who lived through the war will not discuss.
Once in an extended conversation with my uncle, I tried to discover what his experiences in the war had been. He had been a student in south-western Nigeria; he fled the campus at night, afraid he would be murdered in his bed for being Igbo; he became a soldier in the Biafran army; he was shot in the wrist. These were the skeletal details that I knew, and I wanted him to give sinew and tissues to these bare facts. As I asked him questions, he grew increasingly agitated until he shouted: “What good will remembering do? They are still killing Igbos in the north!”
And this is the trouble with history in my country. It is not gone. It is ever present. It is ever with us. Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight died 19 years ago, fighting for their rivers destroyed by Shell oil spills, for their people who saw no benefit from the oil discovered on their land. After nearly two decades, oil still clogs the waterways of the Niger delta and its people continue to cry out for infrastructure. In 1966 Igbos were massacred in Kano in the run-up to what would become the Nigerian civil war. In 2013, Igbos were massacred in a Boko Haram bomb attack that targeted the Sabon Gari bus station in Kano.
The circumstances surrounding these two events were very different but the outcomes were very much the same: Igbo people were dead, leaving many like my uncle to fear that history was repeating itself. History had never receded into the past.
It is important that Bandele’s film has been made. It is important that we look back, if only to say that we have not moved forward. It is important that contesting accounts of our past be brought out into the public space. We must remember and we must do it together.
Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, leader of the Biafran forces, was a visionary, selfless leader. Colonel Emeka Ojukwu was a selfish megalomaniac. Obafemi Awolowo, Nigerian statesman and founding father, was the architect of the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Biafrans. Obafemi Awolowo was justified in every tactic he advocated in what was a total war. We must discuss all these accounts of the past in the open, together as a nation.
Every nation has a consensus account on the defining moments of its past, be it the Holocaust or the battle of Hastings. It is these accounts that build national identity. We must remember together. There is no more space under the carpet. We have swept a mountain of dirt under there and it is time we faced it.
The past is to be feared the most when it is left unconfronted. Thank you, Biyi Bandele, for drawing first blood.
Chibundu Onuzo, a Nigerian writer, is author of The Spider King’s Daughter.