‘Why civil war narratives will continue to thrive’

Omatseye signing his book for students after the reading at the University of Lagos, Akoka… in Lagos

Omatseye signing his book for students after the reading at the University of Lagos, Akoka… in Lagos

In 2012, octogenarian author, famous for his novel, Eze Goes to School, co-authored with Michael Crowder, came out with his novel based on the Nigerian Civil War, Troubled Dust. It was published 40 years after the war ended. A combination of factors, including finding a publisher, he explained, caused the long delay. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, too, published Half of a Yellow Sun decades after the same war and it generated resonance with the reading public in refreshing memory about the tragic war.
 
Journalist, poet and novelist, Mr. Sam Omatseye, too, has added his own fictional voice to the civil war narratives that seem unending in his latest novel, My Name Is Okoro. It is the account of the often forgotten minority people of the Niger Delta, whose area was a theatre of war, but whose people do not surface in the war narratives in spite of their tremendous suffering during the war. And Omatseye was taken up on the subject recently when he read to students and lecturers at Faculty of Arts Boardroom, University of Lagos, on the persistence and resurgence of civil war narratives, why the war refuses to die in literary imagination.
 
In response, Omatseye stated matter-of-fact, “Narratives about the war will continue to be an issue of national resonance until we sit down to resolve the Nigerian problem. It’s a matter of national significance until we sit and resolve it. That is why distrust continues to riddle our national psyche. At the end of the war, nothing is resolved for Udeze, (a character in the novel who wanders through the war just to impress his mother with his bravery, but shoots only two bullets and does not get to see his mother’s grave to pay her homage). What does he learn from the war? Just the futility of the war; it reflects the ambiguity that has come to characterise Nigeria. Where are we as a people after the civil war?”
 
He continued, “At the end of the war, Yakubu Gowon declares ‘No Victor, No vanquished!’ But we know who lost the war. So, the title is identity metaphor for the recurring persistence and resurgence of war literature and the war becomes a part of our historical imagination”.
 
Therefore, Omatseye asserted that to suggest that stories about the civil war have been over-flogged is incorrect, and noted, “The issues of the civil war have not been resolved. We have not even flogged the civil war issues enough, not to say over-flogged. Every year, there is something about the American civil war – in fiction, films and non-fiction”.
 
Omatseye also took Half of a Yellow Sun’s author, Adichie, to task and insisted that she is as guilty of the single story narrative about the civil war, just as western authors who write Africa’s single story of wars, famine, disease and poverty. He accused her of being silent about the killing of minority people but amplifies the plight of her Igbo folks in the pogroms in the north in 1966 and 1967. Also, he said, Adichie created caricatures characters of Hausa and Yoruba in Half of a Yellow Sun, describing them as being effeminate and garrulous.
 
His novel, My Name Is Okoro, Omatseye argued, is about bridging the gap in the narratives about the plight of Niger Delta minorities in the war – Edo, Delta, Ibibio, Calabar, Ogoni, etc. “There is still that gap in the narratives about minorities in the war,” he stated. “I wrote the story about minorities’ experiences given the silence about them in the major narratives of that war. If you read Chinua Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike and Adichie’s books, you’d think of only Igbo, who were killed in the pogrom in the north. But that narrative is stereotyped and narrow. Adichie talks about the single story, but she writes a single story herself”.
 
In an earlier interface, Omatseye lamented the forgotten and marginalised minorities during the war and how the continuing occupation of their areas till date by the majority ethnic nations has unleashed political and economic sufferings on them. It is the sort of occupation that has triggered revolts in the form of militancy.
 
As he pointed out back then, “The Biafrans first conquered the minority in the Midwest and they occupied cities, towns and villages, and installed Okonkwo as governor in Benin City, and then the Nigerians flushed the Biafrans out and then occupied the Midwest yet again.
 
“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 control 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.
 
“It is the reason we don’t have true federalism in terms of controlling your own resources. 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”.
 
Head of Department, English, University of Lagos, Eghagha recalled the civil war saga in the then Midwest (now Edo and Delta States) and also lent his voice to the story of the marginalised minorities during the war and how, in frustration after what they suffered in the hands of Biafran soldiers, some of them led federal soldiers to point out homes of Igbo residents in their midst to trigger a new wave of brutalities.
 
According to Eghagha, “There were ambiguities during the war. There was instant hatred of Igbo as soon as the war broke out. People from Asaba were also targeted as Igbo. There was animalistic behaviour; it is still there with us. We must continue to tell the war story”.For Prof. Karen King-Aribisala, also of English Department, said, “Books like this (My Name is Okoro) are stepping stones to understanding ourselves among other groups”.
 
Dean of Arts and professor of philosophy, Muyiwa Falaiye, who sat through the entire reading and interaction, noted the importance of writers to society and how absorbing the worlds they create can be. He also shared a common experience he had with Omatseye, his Lagos’ experience of the war, especially the bombing of a cinema in Yaba. He shared the same view with Omatseye, on the non-objectivity of fictional or humanistic undertakings, or other experiences for that matter, science included.

Falaiye noted, “Can history really be objective? Should history be objective? I don’t think so. It is ‘his’ story, a personal thing, something subjective. I’m fascinated by literary writers, and their ability to turn simple things into fascinating objects and experiences. That is why I was able to sit through this reading”.
 
Eghagha explained the reason for the reading session thus, “This is part of our efforts towards developing creative writing and entrenching writing among our students. We believe in sharing ideas and to bridge town and gown relations. Creative writing is one of the strongest areas in the Department of English. Professors Wole Soyinka and JP Clark were one time part of this department. Very soon, we will produce another Soyinka and Clark in the department. The name ‘Okoro’ resonates with persons of different nationalities and backgrounds – Urhobo, Igbo and Edo”.
 
He read a poem ‘Afternoon smiles.’ Dr. Chris Anyokwu did an excellent review of My Name Is Okoro. A student of the department, Mr. Onome Enakerakpo performed ‘You, love.’ Also, Omatseye read two of his poems ‘Faraway love’ and ‘Orlando.’ Management board chairman of The Nation, Mr. Wale Edun, purchased several copies of the book for all the students present, which Omatseye autographed.

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