Writing from the Collective Memories of Others Revisiting Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra

Since the publication of Destination Biafra by Buchi Emecheta in 1982, many Nigerian writers have made contributions to Biafran War literature. Thirty years on, Emecheta’s novel continues to stand out for its ambitious and distinctive approach to transforming collective memory into a fictionalized Biafra story. 

In 1968, when Nigerian troops attacked the residents of Buchi Emecheta’s hometown, Igbuzor in Delta State (formerly part of the Mid-Western region), Emecheta was living in the UK, in a London council flat, and working at the British Museum. When her niece, named after her, died of starvation in a CMS refugee centre in Biafra, Emecheta likely had no idea; she received no communication from her brother over the course of the Biafran war. By 1974, Emecheta was collecting memories from friends and relatives for her fictional retelling of the Biafra War.  

Emecheta was unique among the major Nigerian writers of her generation because of her long-term residence outside the country. When she wrote about Nigerians and Nigeria, she used memory—hers and others’—as a primary source. This process of research and memory farming is most evident in her 1982 novel, Destination Biafra. In the introduction to the book, Emecheta mentions a research trip to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and states that the novel is ‘guided by the memories of living and dead relatives and friends’. Other early Biafran War novels and stories—such as Never Again (1975) by Flora Nwapa, The Last Duty (1976) by Isidore Okpewho, and Girls at War (1972) by Chinua Achebe—drew heavily on the authors’ personal experience of war. Emecheta’s distinctive approach to the Biafra story produced a narrative that is uncommon within the broad tapestry of Biafran war literature.  

The first section of Destination Biafra takes on the monumental, didactic project of explaining how and why the Biafran War happened. Emecheta’s roving point-of-view occupies the perspectives of many power players during the ten years preceding the war. The reader hears from fictionalized versions of several figures including Yakubu Gowon, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Aguiyi-Ironsi, Aminu Kano, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Obafemi Awolowo. Some of these re-imagined narratives are factually incorrect—for instance, Emecheta writes the fictionalized Aguiyi-Ironsi, Ojukwu, and Gowon into the January 1966 coup planning meeting when no record of their involvement exists—but that does not detract from the broader story.  

Emecheta’s central hypothesis is one of British interference and manipulation, and as such, one of the novel’s primary characters is Alan Grey, a British military colonial officer turned post-colonial political string-puller. Destination Biafra discusses the actions, motivations, and opinions of the West far more than typical Biafran War novels. The first scene features British colonial officers discussing their ideal conditions for Nigerian independence (strong economic ties to Britain), and the final scene describes Alan Grey boarding a plane out of Nigeria, satisfied with the completion of his mission to help Nigeria win the war and thereby secure future oil supply to his country. Emecheta centres the conflict within a global context throughout the book with the ease and familiarity of one who during the civil war, spent extensive time discussing the role of world powers in driving the war.  

The heroine who often connects the disparate and diverse cast of characters of Destination Biafra is Debbie Ogedemgbe. In her autobiography, Head Above Water, Emecheta describes Debbie as her dream woman—modern, Oxford-educated, born into an elite political family (her father, Samuel Ogedemgbe, the Minister of Finance, is a fictionalized version of Festus Okotie-Eboh); headstrong, feminist, moral, and idealistic beyond belief. Debbie is the linchpin of Emecheta’s attempt to craft an impartial narrative of the Biafran war. Debbie is also the reason why the story begins to fall apart in its second half.  

Debbie is neither Hausa nor Igbo; she is Itsekiri but displays no tendency toward tribal sentiment or ethnic identity, despite the overwhelmingly frequent appearance of that topic in conversations around her. Her father is a corrupt minister, but her moral backbone is so rigid that she acknowledges that he had to die in the January 1966 coup so that a truly independent nation could be born. She bears no ill will toward the plotters. She is committed to this idea of a new Nigeria/Biafra but maintains a romantic relationship with a British man who is actively working toward opposite goals. Debbie is perfect; Debbie is impartial; Debbie is not a victim. Her commitment to a singular independent Nigeria, built on pure idealism, is enough to bind her to a foolhardy quest across warzones that dominated the second part of Destination Biafra.  

The brass recalls feet, and the image of feet calls to mind Idowu Odeyemi’s from the anthology, ‘& they killed Jimoh Isaiq’ (note that ‘Isiaq’ is misspelled). Odeyemi steals an image from a well-known Wole Soyinka poem—‘Abiku’—and there is no acknowledgement anywhere: ‘as they toss our body inside the mud/ deep into the god-swollen foot.’ The entire line is in fact a rewrite of the Soyinka line: ‘[D]ig me deeper still into/ The god’s swollen foot.’ The fact that the editors failed to note it—as persistent as Soyinka’s poem has been in our culture and in intellectual cum academic circles—the fact that there are so many errors in this book, so much blunder, sincerely makes one wonder if this anthology was ‘edited’ or compiled.

Saka Momoh, the Nigerian head of state, sends Debbie to convince Christopher Abosi, the Biafran head of state, to end the war. Her fictional counterparts recognize that her task is doomed, but Debbie perseveres. Early in her journey, Debbie is raped by Nigerian soldiers. She continues her journey through the Mid-Western Region, travels with Igbos from Biafra and the Mid-West, and witnesses numerous atrocities perpetrated in border towns (including the Asaba massacre). In this part of the narrative, which lies on more familiar ground—the exploration of the hardships and survival of regular people dealing with inhuman, uncontrollable circumstances during the war—Debbie’s perspective still lacks emotional heft. She seems to observe these violent events from an emotional remove, even when she’s in the centre of the scene. When she is unable to convince Abosi to end the war, she returns to Britain to spread word of the suffering of women and children. Abosi attempts to smuggle weapons into Biafra using the food aid planes, and Debbie thwarts his plan. Then, with instructions from Saka Momoh and the British Alan Grey, she brings lethal weapons back to Nigerian-occupied territory and begins working on a book while the war rages on. Somehow, after all this, she feels that Abosi has betrayed her idea of Biafra when he flees, ending the war.  

Debbie’s descent into incoherence is an indicator of the impossibility of an impartial war novel. At its heart, the war novel is about emotions, not facts; its project is organizing collected memories and facts into pre-existing—developing or inherited—emotional frameworks. Emecheta’s embrace of impartiality strengthens the first part of the novel as it deals with events preceding the war, but it weakens Destination Biafra’s exploration of events during the war. Impartiality is difficult to maintain in the face of such violence, and ideology alone cannot sustain the novel’s central character.  

Since the publication of Destination Biafra, many Nigerian writers have made contributions to Biafran war literature. In recent years, a large proportion of these writers have done so with limited personal experience of the Biafran war, from their residences outside Nigeria. From Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Uwem Akpan, the mining of collective inherited memories has become central to the re-telling of the Biafra story. Most stories choose an emotion-laden perspective, usually guided by ethnic identity and the experiences of loved ones; they showcase how the flames of war consumed the lives of ordinary people. With each new addition, we learn more about how the war is remembered by Nigerians of all ages, across different ethnic groups. Still, Emecheta’s Destination Biafra stands front and centre as a guiding light; an incredibly ambitious project from which many ideas should be explored and adapted

Destination Biafra
Buchi Emecheta
264 pp. Heinemann, 1982

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