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Cyprian Ekwensi: Survive the Peace

Like civil wars in other countries, the Biafran War has had a profound effect on the literature of the country in which it took place and there are many novels about it. This novel starts at the end of the Biafran War. James Odugo is a journalist. He has had to travel around, as the war pushes further on, and is currently working for a radio station in Umunevo. His wife and children have been moved to a rural area, away from the fighting. At the start of the book, he is having a tentative affair with Vic Ezenta, who, thanks to James, is also working at the radio station. She is not his first affair. He had previously had an affair with Gladys Nwibe. There had been a passionate one-night stand but then they had got separated and he has no idea where she is. However, unknown to him, she has an idea where he might be and is looking for him. As the book starts, James is in the market, where various women try to sell him a chicken at a very inflated price. Reluctantly, he eventually buys one. However, as he is doing so, he hears bombing and sees Biafran soldiers running into the market square. Many of the soldiers discard their uniform and guns and don civilian outfits. In short, the Biafran army is in full retreat and it rather looks as though the war is coming to an end. Despite this, the radio station still continues to broadcast propaganda about the glorious victories of the Biafrans and the heavy losses of the Nigerians.

James has a car and realises that it is time to flee. He takes Vic, who is initially reluctant, as James suggests that they might go to the village where his family is staying but eventually she comes, along with a few of her room-mates. The roads are jammed with others fleeing and there are frequent road-blocks. They have various near escapes and a crash. They see the last plane leave Biafra, carrying primarily bigwigs and leaving the ordinary people behind, including Vic and James. Eventually, they manage to get to the village of Obodonta. He leaves Vic in the car while he goes to look for a friend, with whom they can stay. While she is waiting, Vic sees looters at work. Vic’s friend, Pa Ukoha, as he is known, is able to put them up.

The war really does seem to be ending, as the Nigerian forces move in. We start to see the inevitable consequences. Looting takes place and the victorious Nigerians want one thing – women. The Ukohas have six sons and one daughter, as well as a nephew whom they treat as a son. Most of their sons have gone on to higher education and moved abroad. Samson did not and worked as a trader. He has now been conscripted into the army, where he leads a platoon. One other son, Claytus, has returned to work as a relief worker. Captain, the nephew, is also in the army, fighting. His wife, Benne, is staying with her in-laws. She does not get on with them, as she seems to be less than devoted to her children (who subsequently died) and is frequently out on the town. Indeed, it is through her and her connection with the occupying Nigerian army that the family manages to get supplies. There is one daughter, Ngozi, who is married but lost a hand in a bombing raid.

James and Vic stay there for a while but it is clear that things are not going well for them and that they are not well matched. James starts a casual affair with Benne, while Vic starts one with a Nigerian army officer. Eventually, both decide that it is time to move on. With the assistance of the Nigerian officer, Vic heads off to Lagos to try and find her mother, while James set off for Ifitenu to find his wife and family. He will find his wife and family, but also both Gladys’ and Vic’s father. More particularly, he will find endless problems: a shortage of supplies, bandits masquerading as army officers, stealing and killing, infrastructure damaged or destroyed, hepatitis and cholera, people struggling to put their lives back together and bemoaning the war. James himself will struggle to find a role and place in this new Nigeria.

In every country’s history there has to be a civil war, Ekwensi states and while that may be something of an exaggeration, there is certainly an element of truth in it. Equally, there is no getting away from the fact that a civil war destroys families, causes major disruption and major bitterness and takes a long time to heal. Ekwensi describes the aftermath of the Biafran War very well, with all its attendant problems but leaves us in no doubt that it was a war not worth fighting.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by Heinemann