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Civil war and voices of minority in Omatseye’s novel


Mr. Sam Omatseye,

Mr. Sam Omatseye,

In spite of abundance of prominent writers others from the minority areas in the south of the country, none seems to remember the Nigerian Civil War in their writing much less engage it. In fact, while the war could be said to have been between the Igbo and the Hausa/Fulani, with the other tribes inevitably drawn into it, minority areas of the then Midwest and those in the riverine areas, now Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross Rivers states were also the battleground of the war with many casualties.

Indeed, there was double occupation of minority areas and their people, especially in Midwest State, with capital in Benin City – first with Biafran soldiers in their ambitious drive to capture Lagos and later, occupation by Nigerian military to push Biafra back and launch full-scale war. But while many from the Igbo extraction who fought and lost the war took it upon themselves to remember in writing what happened to them, the minority who also incurred war brutalities to varying degrees chose to remain silent. Only the late Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote a tangential story about the war titled Sozaboy.

But a writer from the minority, Mr. Sam Omatseye, has undertaken to lift the veil of silence among minority people in his moving account of how the minority areas and their people also suffered from both warring sides. His new novel, My Name Is Okoro, raises questions about identity during ethnic strife and how innocent people get sucked into the depths of a crisis they have no control over. ‘Okoro’ is a name that is Igbo as it is easily Urhobo, Itsekiri, Isoko and Edo. To bear ‘Okoro’ during the murderous madness of 1966 up north was as good as death certificate. This is the situation Omatseye’s main character finds himself in Kano and how he escapes and traces his Igbo wife to the heartland of Biafra. It’s the basis for this novel that is also a retrieval of the silent minority voices during the war.

As Omatseye puts it, “It’s about association, about connection to race and tribe. My father, when he was in Lagos here, was interrogated because he was light-skinned and could easily be regarded as an Igbo man. He was saved by an Urhobo man because he could speak Urhobo. That was how he escaped.

“Later, I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. her rendering of the pogrom, among the civil war literature, is with greater details than any other writer, but they all (including Adichie) hardly mentioned the killing of any other ethnic group apart from the Igbo. Good as her novel is it does not tell the minority angle except to play down their roles. I thought that there should be greater nuance to the telling of the story.

“I thought too that other than Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, which is only tangentially a tale of the minority, there should be a story that would tell the minority perspective. The minorities’ role in the civil war was too crucial to be left out. The minority areas were battleground for many years till the end of the war. The minority areas were also places where both sides conquered. The stories of those people needed to be told with all the pathos, with all the ideological underpinnings, with all the human narratives, with all the prejudices and so on. I felt like I had the obligation to review my own side of the story.

Emeritus Prof Ayo Banjo(left); Managing Director, Book seller, Kunle Musoro; Prof Femi Osofisan; Prof Olu Obafemi and Prof Niyi Osundare at the Niyi Osundare International Poetry Festival held in Ibadan on Thursday PHOTO: NAJEEM RAHEEM

Emeritus Prof Ayo Banjo(left); Managing Director, Book seller, Kunle Musoro; Prof Femi Osofisan; Prof Olu Obafemi and Prof Niyi Osundare at the Niyi Osundare International Poetry Festival held in Ibadan on Thursday PHOTO: NAJEEM RAHEEM

“During the war I was in Lagos. I always heard stories about what went on in the Midwest during the war and also in Calabar and Rivers. And then I also came across Brig.-Gen. Alabi Isama (rtd) who gave me a scoop. He has given some perspective on the war, and till date no book has beaten Isama’s book, The Tragedy of Victory, about the deep stories of the war, not from the Biafran perspective, but from the Nigerian perspective, and I felt there should be a minority rendering to the war as well”.

Omatseye is saddened that the minority story has yet to find a space in Nigerian war literature. He sees it as a sort of discrimination and even creative oppression on the part of minority writers who have kept mum about it over the years.

And he says, “The story of the minority during the war has been discriminated against even in our literature which is a challenge to the minority writers who have remained silent over the years. The story is about the silenced voices of the minorities who have been psychically, psychologically, creatively oppressed because you think your story will not be interesting because you need the majority to endorse your stories or probably you don’t want to tell the story of what the majority did to you. That is the only way I can describe it. Minority writers like JP Clark wrote The Casualties, but it says nothing about the minorities in the war. It’s so universal that the Igbo man, the Hausa man, anybody can claim it”.

And the novelist effectively links the war occupation of minority areas to current conditions where the big ethnic powers feed off the wealth of the same minorities they brutalized during the war. According to him, “The occupation of the minority areas by the bigger ethnic groups has persisted even till modern day Nigeria because power belongs to those who control the economy and the arms. It has always been so in all of history. The minority continues, even in spite of their wealth, even in spite of providing wealth for everybody, to bear the brunt of nationhood.

“The 13 per cent derivation is the reason that we don’t have true federalism in terms of controlling resources in your area. If you said every state should control their own resources, the riverine areas would have been too rich and the others would not have access to the oil money.

“So, the reason you don’t have true federalism in terms of resource control is because most of the resources that account for our wealth as a country come from the riverine areas. So, the occupation of the minority areas is still on. So, this story of the civil war tells us in its raw form how this has been manifested”.

On the charge that his novel, My Name Is Okoro, though a work of fiction, might open up wounds over forty years after, Omatseye counters, “We’re not opening up any wounds because the wounds were never healed in the first instance. Up till today, we have Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) still fighting. We have them because the wound was never sealed or healed. So you cannot reopen a wound that is already open. It is a sour. So, we should engage these agitating groups rather than just say, ‘get out’”.

Omatseye also captures the futility of the Nigerian Civil War in Udeze’s inability to live up to his mother’s expectation thus, “Nneka lost her mother and Udeze cannot find her grave; he fought the war to impress the mother whose grave he never saw and whose approval he never got and for which he went to war. The mother is a metaphor for motherland, for Biafra in a sense. But Biafra does not even know him. Udeze cannot even say a salute to his mother’s grave for whom he went to battle and shot only two bullets – one kills his friend and fellow Biafran soldier and the other took him to hospital.

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