The British Empire Library

Half Of A Yellow Sun

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Courtesy of OSPA

Frank Bex (Colonial Administrative Service, Nigeria 1944-56)
This brilliant second novel has deservedly become a best-seller and prize winner. C N Adichie has great gifts for story-telling and character-drawing which she applies in this book to the valuable historical material she painstakingly assembled. While memories were still fresh she interviewed members of her family and many others who were caught up in the civil war in Nigeria. I also had the opportunity to talk to many people in Onitsha and Orlu about their experiences and to Tony Saville who left the Service to help run the relief effort from Isi just east of the Uli airstrip. I can vouch for the accuracy of the account she gives of the failed attempt at secession led by Ojukwu. The author is the latest in the long line of eminent writers in English from the countries of our Empire. Education in our literature and language was arguably the greatest benefit which we provided during our occupation. The Nigerian writers led by Chinua Achebe have been among the most successful in their appeal to a wide audience. That is why this book is so important.

Born in 1977 Chimamanda Adichie was brought up in the University town of Nsukka where Chinua Achebe was a neighbour. But her family were from the country village of Abba and she was therefore versed in Igbo customs and beliefs. This is important because the novel depicts the attitudes and opinions of the academic community and their impact on an intelligent and ambitious country boy who comes to Nsukka as a domestic servant. Her account of the relationships and conflicts between the principal characters gives a fascinating picture of a society at a cross-roads. The dialogue and portrayal of personality are convincing. The story is riveting. In her account of the background to this conflict she captures the feelings of horror and fear induced by the terrible massacres inflicted on Igbos resident in Northern Nigeria. Not for the first time Igbos had reason to fear the Hausa - I was there when a previous massacre occurred. This coloured opinions expressed in this book blaming the British colonial power for the constitutional arrangements they left in place at Independence.

As long ago as 1907 dissatisfaction had been expressed with the artificial division of Nigeria between North and South. Lugard put an end to the discussion and to the proposal to move the capital from Lagos. Later the South was partitioned into West and East. By the time the re-division came to be discussed again in the 1950's the three main political rivals for power had established their bases in these Regions and resisted any subdivision. The Federation of North, West and East was fatally flawed. I think we must share the blame for this. Further subdivision was inevitable and was carried out by the military government of Gowon after the Biafran rebellion.

Chimamanda also blames the British Government for its support of the Federal Government and refusal to recognise Biafra. The criticism is totally unjustified. Every effort had been made by the Federal Government led by a Christian General Jack Gowon to achieve a settlement. Ojukwu the Biafran leader was intent on establishing a Confederation.

Unlike his father Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, whom I got to know well in Nnewi and who became an admired adviser to the colonial government, his son Emeka was a powerseeker with dictatorial attitudes. The Igbo people followed him into war with enthusiasm but were misled into the beliefs that they should secede and had a chance of victory. This book recounts the gradual disillusion which set in as the character of Ojukwu's regime was revealed. In the end he scuttled out of the country leaving others to clear up the mess. In the meantime as the Federal forces advanced the population fled from fear induced by the massacres in the North. The refugees crowding into the Igbo heartland around Orlu caused famine and terrible suffering. There were incidents of brutality and widespread burning and looting but no genocide.

Ojukwu should have realised that a rebellion by a small and poorly armed force could not succeed - he was a Sandhurst trainee. That apart, his rivals in the Federation were never likely to allow Igbos to dominate the oil resources in the Niger Delta and monopolise the wealth beginning to accrue from that source. Moreover, the East was itself an artificial creation and included a number of tribal groups, of which the Igbos were only one. The peoples of the Delta disliked the Igbo.

By the time I revisited Nigeria in 1985 the need for One Nigeria was generally accepted even among the Igbos although suspicions of the Northerners were still strong. Ojukwu's reputation was tarnished by over-ambition.

The British Government could not have supported a breakaway from the Federation in these circumstances - or indeed recognised such an illegitimate seizure of power. The Biafran propaganda at the time caused much anxiety in Britain but in the event the feared genocide did not occur. The initial euphoria and subsequent disillusionment are vividly described in this book. It is also a very good read - even for those who have no knowledge of or interest in Nigeria.

British Empire Book
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Harper Collins Publishers
978 0 00 720028 3


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