Professor S. Elizabeth Bird interviewing Chief Esananjo Awolo in Asaba. Image: S. Elizabeth Bird
S. Elizabeth Bird is University of South Florida's Professor Emerita in Anthropology. She has authored many books and published numerous articles. She has been a visiting Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communications, University of Pennsylvania, and served on several editorial boards. She was awarded an American Council for Learned Societies Collaborative Fellowship with Fraser Ottanelli, to fund research on the Asaba Massacre of the Nigeria-Biafra War, in which over one hundred witnesses and survivors were interviewed. The book, "The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War," won the 2018 Book Award from the Oral History Society. She most recently co-wrote "Surviving Biafra: A Niger Wife's Story" with Rosina Umelo. In this interview, she gives account of her work and research project on The Pogrom, and other related events emphasizing that the Nigerian-Biafran Story "should be told primarily by Nigerians."
Ambrose Ehirim: How important is your research and endeavor especially the in-depth work on the facts and logic about the Biafra-Nigeria War, from around which you developed the idea and publication of two books--one after the other--and I'm quite sure there's more to come.
Prof. S. Elizabeth Bird: I think the major importance of my work is its focus on the experiences of civilians in the war, an area that is neglected in “big picture” studies. At the same time, we tried to put that experience in context. For instance, the work on the Asaba Massacre (with Fraser Ottanelli) is not just about the suffering of the people in Asaba (although that is of course the center of it), but also about how an understanding of this awful event sheds light on the way the war developed, the role of Britain and other outside powers, and the long-term impact of such traumatic events.
In terms of Asaba especially, the Nigerian government has always taken the position that their troops were well-trained and disciplined, and that civilian casualties were rare and unfortunate. Asaba shows that this is not at all what happened on the ground – innocent civilians were killed in large numbers, by ill-disciplined troops. At the same time, the picture is more nuanced than that – not all the soldiers in Asaba participated in the atrocity, and some tried to stop it, or save civilians. These were honorable professionals. It is a complicated story, and that is what we wanted to show. Many accounts of the war, especially those written by former military and government people, are biased and unreliable, intended to show the writer in the best light. As far as possible, we aimed to understand what happened from the ground up, using as many sources as we could, so that our account would be seen as trustworthy. While we worked with people in Asaba, who helped us gain access to find witnesses and survivors, we never sought or accepted financial help, because we wanted to maintain our independence as researchers.
At this point, I am not sure if I will write more about Nigeria/Biafra. This history has become very important to me, but I would need to have something new to say.
What had influenced the project?
Growing up in Britain, I was aware of the war, and about the starvation in Biafra, but knew little about the details. And my academic research since moving to the U.S. was mostly about media and popular culture, with some work on local history. I came to the work in Nigeria somewhat by chance, through a colleague who was doing some unrelated work there, some years ago. I did not plan to spend 10 years working in Nigeria! However, the more I found out (through the interviews my colleague and I did, and the extensive archival work and background reading), the more we realized there was an important, untold story here. Like many other non-Nigerians, I realized how little I had known, and I grew more and more engaged, especially as I heard first-hand the terrible stories of what happened in Asaba in 1967. More broadly, I believe that Asaba was a pivotal moment in the war that was not previously understood, as we describe in the book.
The second book spun off from the first, and I was able to use some of the same background work. The Asaba work does not really address the war as it unfolded from mid-1968 until the end in 1970. Surviving Biafra: A Nigerwife’s Story, is based on the first-hand account of Rosina Umelo, which takes the story to the end and beyond. It seemed to be a natural progression.
What's the most interesting you have learned from the research work on Biafra and the Pogrom including the face-to-face interviews and encounter with the survivors and the natives who witnessed the Asaba Massacre?
It’s really hard to say what is most interesting, because everything fits together. What will stay with me are the first-hand accounts of what happened in Asaba. For some people, this was the first time they had spoken publically, and it was clearly hard for many. The pain of losing multiple family members is still fresh. It became very important to preserve these accounts.
One of the most striking things I learned was that many Nigerians know very little about the war. I have spoken to younger people who were stunned when they heard some of these stories. I have also spoken to former military people who deny that such things ever happened. I attended the Ake literary festival in Lagos last year, and spoke with a former army officer, who told me that the Asaba Massacre never happened, or at most was greatly exaggerated. He also said that the numbers who died in Biafra were exaggerated. Evidence apparently meant nothing to him.
You have written thrilling masterpieces on a conflict you had nothing at all to do with but based on research and investigative assignments. How were you able to convince your colleagues that the subject-matter was story worthy?
One of the great things about being a full-time academic is that you are expected to produce substantial research, but no-one really tells you what subject you should study. We were not assigned by anyone to do the work; it was a choice. This gave me great freedom; I did not have to convince anyone at my university that this was important work. Indeed, I received great support from my university and colleagues.
On the other hand, funding research is another matter. The university pays one’s salary, but does not provide funds to do research. It is up to us to write grants to cover all the travel, equipment, and so on. From the time the project started, in 2009, to the books coming out, I had to keep writing grant proposals. Many were turned down, sometimes multiple times! This is where one has to convince people that the work is worthwhile, so they will fund it. It was crucial to make a case that our research was needed to put the record straight, and to increase understanding not only of the war, but also of the long-term impact of trauma on communities and nations. We did manage to secure some university grants (most universities have competitive funding opportunities that faculty members can apply for). And our biggest success was securing an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) fellowship, which provided money for the last two research visits to Nigeria. That was tremendously important. ACLS funds only about 5% of the applications, so we must have been successful in convincing their judges that the work was important!
The Imperial War Museum Dept. of Documents should be thanked immensely for keeping the transcripts of Rosina Umelo intact and safe. What took you to the Museum?
As part of my research on the Asaba Massacre, I visited many archives that had information about the War. These included the UK National Archives in London; special collections in the Bodleian Library, Oxford; special collections at Michigan State University; the archives of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia – and the Imperial War Museum. It seemed a good possibility for material, and some time before I happened to meet someone at a conference who said she had seen an interesting old “diary” there.
The IWM did not have an extensive collection of Biafra-related material. But it did have the typewritten manuscript by “Mrs. R. Umelo,” which described her life in Biafra; I am sure that was the document I had been told about. It wasn’t a “diary,” but a narrative written during and immediately after the war. I found it fascinating, and although it was not particularly relevant to the Asaba work, I made a note to myself to come back to it when the first book was done. I thought it deserved publication in some form, as one of the very few accounts of the war written at the time, not years after, and by a civilian, not an Army officer or politician. In late 2017 I followed up with the IWM. She had loaned the manuscript to them in the 1970s, and they didn’t know where Mrs. Umelo was now. I eventually found her through the Nigerian Nostalgia Project Facebook page. We connected by email, met in London, and agreed to collaborate. I secured a book contract from Hurst Publishers in London, and this eventually resulted in the book, Surviving Biafra: A Nigerwife’s Story.
What ran through your mind of a story like Umelo and a war Starvation and Economic Blockade were used as weapon that would desperately starve infants, children and women to death?
This is still the most shocking aspect of the war. Months into the war, people in Biafra were already beginning to starve, although little was known about this outside the country. But by the spring of 1968, images of starvation were being seen all over Europe and North America, and outrage was developing. I think what was lost in the increasing media coverage was that this was not some unexplained famine, but was a direct result of the Federal government’s blockade, and that foreign governments, especially Britain, were aiding and abetting this, with their continued supply of weapons. I find it appalling that this was allowed to continue for another two years.
I am not convinced that the Federal government set out to commit genocide against the Igbo. I believe that at the beginning, there was an expectation that this would be a short war – that the military action and the blockade would quickly end the “rebellion” (as they termed it). But they under-estimated Biafran capacity to run an efficient government and to mount a serious campaign. At the same time, Ojukwu was expecting more support from other nations, both in Africa and elsewhere – support that did not come, and defeat for Biafra became inevitable. I do believe he should have capitulated sooner, when it became apparent that the cause was lost.
However, it is also clear that the Biafrans held out so long because of a genuine fear that they would be exterminated if they surrendered. And this fear was completely understandable, because of the way the war was conducted by at least some of the Federal military – notably the Second Division in the early stages of the war. In spite of a formal Code of Conduct for military interaction with civilians, there were numerous atrocities against civilians as Division 2, under Murtala Muhammed, swept back through the Midwest. Asaba was the worst, but hundreds were also killed in Benin, Warri, Sapele, Isheagu, and later in Onitsha. This continued later with mass killings of civilians in Calabar and elsewhere, under Col. Adekunle. It isn’t surprising that people in Biafra feared they would be wiped out. Again, I do not believe this was a premeditated plan by the Gowon government, but control of commanders in the field was weak, and there was strong anti-Igbo sentiment among some of the officers and troops. And certainly some in the government believed that starvation was a legitimate weapon of war, which is an unforgivable position.
If the Federal military had conducted themselves correctly, and if Britain had intervened once the terrible civilian toll became apparent (such as by cutting off arms supplies and insisting on negotiations), maybe a peace agreement could have been reached sooner. Instead, the horror continued.
In Africa, the two most blood soaked events are the Anti-Igbo Pogrom and the Rwandan Genocide. In the case of Rwanda, it was swift; an estimate of 800,000 people were slaughtered in a very short period of time. Any thoughts of a Rwandan Genocide project?
I have not considered writing about the awful events in Rwanda. For one thing, many scholars have written excellent work on it. To look at Rwanda, I would need to do a huge amount of work on a totally different country and culture, and I doubt I could add anything new. Rwanda is actually much better known internationally than Biafra, partly because it happened much more recently, at a time when there was more media coverage and greater awareness.
I have been wandering why nobody had questioned the events as it occurred in the Islamic north of Nigeria when the Pogrom erupted and what the Islamic northern nihilists and hoodlums did to the Igbo in the northern cities without image capture and recordings as it happened, which had left little or no records save for oral stories as told by the victims. What explains the disappearance?
As you say, this was a time when media coverage of such things was very poor. Nigerian media certainly didn’t want to cover it, and there were very few international correspondents on the ground. There were some reports in the foreign press, such as in the New York Times and Time Magazine, but generally very little news seems to have come out at the time. I think it also reflects a basic racism in the international news media; the pogroms were seen as some inexplicable “tribal” conflict that was an internal problem and not relevant to the outside world. This wave of violence and massive population movement was largely ignored. After the war, the Nigerian government preferred to “move on,” rather than address the history of what happened before and during the conflict. Now, decades later, there is little record of the Northern pogroms left, although there are certainly some photos and accounts of the violence, which were made at the time and preserved.
I saw you had moments with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka in Asaba during your visits. What's your take on him and folks of his era and the development of literature in Nigeria?
It was a great thrill to meet Wole Soyinka, who participated in the 50th anniversary commemorations in 2017 in Asaba, where our book was launched. I had corresponded with him previously, and he had expressed support for our work, but this was the only time I met him. His work, such as The Man Died, which addressed the war, was very important to us, as well as his writings on the significance of memory. Of course Achebe’s work was so important in understanding both Igbo culture and the impact of colonialism. I’m not a literary scholar, so it’s probably not my place to make critical judgments about Nigerian literature! But I’m sure it’s safe to say that both these giants, along with eminent writers like J.P. Clark and Buchi Echemata, established Nigeria as the leading source of literary excellence in Africa, and this continues today.
This is excellent, your work is thorough, and I thank you so much for the time!
Thank you for your interest. My final points are these: First, people must continue to fill out the story of the war, and this story should be told primarily by Nigerians, not by foreigners like us. As I mentioned, many Nigerians know little or nothing about it, and it should be recognized for what it was – a turning point in the nation’s history. If it wasn’t for the coups and the war, Nigeria might not have had to endure years of repressive military governments, and the country might be better off today. If we don’t know history, we can’t learn from it.
Second, I want to stress that my work (with both Fraser Ottanelli and Rosina Umelo), was not intended to be political. Of course we cannot ignore the political realities that produced the crisis. Without colonialism, “Nigeria” would never have been created, forcing disparate cultures to co-exist in a structure that was designed to be unfair. But we do not take a position on whether Biafra should have seceded, and our work is not “pro-Biafra.” The one advantage about our “outsider” status is that we can make our best attempt to be impartial, and go where the evidence takes us. Generally, we don’t appreciate our work being used by contemporary Biafra resurgence movements, while we understand that once it is public, people will make of it what they will.
Our main focus was on the experience of the innocent civilians who suffered and died. The powerful, whether Gowon, Ojukwu or other high-ranking people on both sides, came through the war unscathed, after making decisions that cost millions of lives. Ordinary people were left to pick up the pieces, and many families and communities never recovered. We need to understand and acknowledge that, while vowing that it never happens again.