Growing Up With Biafran Nationalist Conciousness: Dulue Mbachu’s War Games

By Somnath Panade

Nigerian Civil War took place from the year 1967 to 1970 soon
after Nigeria’s independence in 1960. Having declared its independence
in 1967, the Eastern state, which is Igbo majority state, separated from
Nigeria and became known as Biafra. As a result, the civil war broke
between Nigeria and newly independent state of Biafra on 6th July 1967.
During the war years, Biafra was not recognized by any of the European
nations. The only African nations that recognized this tiny nation were
Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tanzania and Zambia (Williams 247). However, due
to lack of ammunition and weapons and much essential international
support, the weak resistance of secessionist government of Biafra was
easily crushed by Federal forces of Nigeria. Subsequently, Biafra was
defeated in January 1970.

Chinua Achebe views the Nigerian Civil war as ‘big incredible
experience’ for millions of Biafrans (Achebe 31). While describing the
war situation, he says:
Food is short, drugs are short. Thousands-no, millions by
now- have been uprooted from their homes and brought into
the safer areas where they really have no roots, no property,
many of them live in school buildings, camps, and the
committee does what it can (31).

Assessing the real causes of the civil war, he opines that the creation of
Biafra makes Nigeria worse ‘not only in terms of natural resources, but in
human resources’ (36). He also adds that because of ‘visible progress in
things like acquiring wealth, education and so on, the Northerners had
antipathy towards Igbos’ (36). It is only due to power struggle that
politicians exploited the tribal sentiments and remained in power (36).
Achebe mourns for the victims of the war. It was so horrendous that as
many as two million people were killed in the conflict. The young
Biafran generation was completely devastated during this civil war due to
starvation and malnutrition. It underlined the tribal conflicts in multiethnic
society of Nigeria and questioned the idea of one Nigerian nation.

The above Nigerian situation during the war conflict has been
replicated in Nigerian literature. Since Biafran War, many novels have
been written that deal with ‘Nigerian Civil War’ as a central theme.
Ogunyemi’s essay, ‘Poetics of War Novel’ analyses the novels like S.O.
Mezu’s Behind the Rising Sun (1971); Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra: A
Civil War Diary (1973); John Munonye’s A Wreath for the Maidens
(1973); LN.C. Aniebo’s The Anonymity of Sacrifice (1974); Cyprian
Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace (1976); Eddie Iroh’s Forty-eight Guns for
the General (1976) and Toads of War (1979); Isidore Okpewho’s The
Last Duty (1976)…and Tony Ubesie’s Igbo novel Juo Obinna (1977). The
above novels were compared with famous American war novels of
Stephen Crane, E.E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and
Joseph Heller (Ogunyemi 206). By doing so, he attempts to find out the
parallels between Nigerian war novels and its counterpart in American
literature. He asserts that ‘Although the Biafrans lost on the battlefield,
the Igboman, by portraying Nigeria’s victory as pyrrhic, has tried to
recapture his manhood through the pen. There is ironic laughter in the
portrait of a powerful giant who defeated a child’ (204).

Besides, Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra (1982), Dulue
Mbachu’s War Games (2005) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of
a Yellow Sun (2006) also present the war torn Biafra in their narratives
with its graphical portrayal of war realities. These novels attempt to
assess the causes of postcolonial failed nation building. They reflect on
what went wrong in the post-independent phase of African nations.
Mbachu’s novel War Games is more about the impact of war on
the ordinary people of Biafra. He belongs to the Igbo generation that had
closely witnessed the war during their childhood. They had experienced
the harshness of the situation. It is these war experiences that Mbachu
pours into the present novel. The novel is published in the first decade of
the 21st century, which is nearly thirty five years after the actual war.
Hence, it may be treated as a war memoir in the form of novel. Mbachu
adroitly presents the war realities in his novel. He portrays the male
coming-of-age experiences of its protagonist Basil Chekwubechukwu
Odukwe, nicknamed Cheche, against the background of Nigerian Civil
War. The protagonist is an Igbo child of a rich oil trader in Jos. In the
beginning of the text, Cheche is four years old and living a peaceful life
with his parents. However, the pre-war massacres of Igbos in the north
compel Cheche’s family to move from Jos to their native village Amafor
and from there to Umuahia and again back to Amafor. As the war begins
and continues to devastate life in Amafor, his family suffers disorderly
and muddled civilian life caused by the war. Cheche describes his rural
idyllic life in Amafor and the struggle of his people to survive the war
conditions. However, despite the war crises, by the end of the text,
Cheche successfully completes the phase of coming-of-age. He shows
much precocity in his overall behaviour. As the text explores male
coming-of-age during war crises, the present analysis focuses on the
formation of Cheche as a moral human being by the end of the text.

It may be argued that Mbachu’s coming-of-age novel is what
Ogunyemi calls ‘a special pleading that history should not be permitted to
repeat itself’ (204). It may be reckoned as a personal war chronicle that
gives the accounts of horrors of Biafra. In order to portray these horrors,
the novelist uses child narrator who naively describes the impact of the
war. Mbachu’s narrative gives the most unbiased account of the war
impacts. Taking an objective stance on the war, Mbachu neither tries to
justify the civil war nor refutes its historical essentiality. He simply places
his hero and other characters amidst the war situation and shows how the
civil war makes the people of Biafra suffer physical and mental damage.
It is through his innocent and unique perspective that the narrative is
unfolded. The novel explicates the birth and eventual death of Biafra. At
the same time, it is paralleled with the development of its hero Cheche
and his successful coming-of-age. Cheche grows up witnessing the
nationalist spirit and consciousness of Biafra.

It can be observed that Mbachu recreates the Biafran spirit of the
independence for their state through the narration of Cheche.
Then one day, there was a great rejoicing and merriment all
over Igboland: we were a new country, the Republic of
Biafra. I heard everyone saying. We were no longer part of
Nigeria, and it was now that I understood exactly what
Mama meant about her and Papa being older than Nigeria.
They were there when it was declared. I didn’t need any
telling to realize that I was older than Biafra (emphasis
mine) (34).

He seems to prove Benedict Anderson’s idea of nation as ‘an imagined
political community’ (6). The idea of new nation of Biafra interpellates
Cheche and his people with its Biafran consciousness. All of a sudden,
the people of Eastern state of Nigeria become Biafrans. This Biafran
nationalist ideology subjects the people of the region and they have to
suffer the war consequences. Nonetheless, Mbachu never seems to
romanticize the war. It is evident when Cheche implies the foolhardiness
of his people. He says:
War, I gathered, meant a scale of killing and destruction
worse than the pogrom we had already experienced. But
surprisingly, they spoke of it with enthusiasm, in a manner
that suggested they welcomed it as if it was some big
sporting event (33).

Mbachu tries to denounce the imposition of the war on common people.
He mocks the forced recruitment of young people in the army who are
half trained through the character of Uncle Emeka who always fears
conscription gangs and avoids joining Biafran Army. He makes a point
that ‘it would have been better to have joined up voluntarily and received
proper training than go into battle as a poorly trained conscript “to face
obvious slaughter”’ (78). Mbachu emphasizes the absurdity of these
conscript gangs and the insanity of the war politics. Instead of promised
secession and independence of their state, the war turns Biafra a place of
refugees, starvation and malnutrition, diseases like kwashiorkor, scarcity
of food, deadly air raids of federal forces and the death toll. It also brings
mental derailment of its people. However, Cheche survives all these
crises.

Cheche, an observer of the impact of the war events on the
commoners, represents the generation of Nigeria which suffered and
survived the war crises of Biafra. His coming-of-age is greatly influenced
by the war crises as his ordered life in Jos is disturbed by the crises. His
forced migration from northern Nigerian city of Jos to his native place
Amafor can be identified as his temporary regression from peaceful life
to a war affected region of Biafra. Cheche is migrated from pre-war
healthy conditions of Jos to dystopian conditions of Biafra. He refers:
People now talked of “Before Independence”, “Since
Independence” and “After Independence,” and dropped
names like Zik, Awo, Ahmadou Bello and Tafawa Balewa
…Then they talked of “Army take-over” or “Military takeover.”
Names like Major Nzeogwu, Major Ifeajuna and
Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi came up but things only got
worse and there was fear in the land (16).

These adroit references clearly imply the debilitated political structure
and the death of infantile democracy in Nigeria. Mbachu explicates how
ordinary people are deeply affected by the surge for the political power. It
is in these malevolent postcolonial civil war conditions that Mbachu puts
his protagonist Cheche and shows the impact of war on his coming-ofage.
While touching the tribal issues of Nigeria, Mabchu mourns the
cruelties inflicted on fellow Igbos by Northerners. For instance, Cheche
narrates horrifying experiences during riots in Jos:
Nights became even more frightening, dominated as they
were by blood-curdling cries of “Oshebee! Hey! Oshebee!!
Hey!! Oshebeeeee!!! Heeeey!!!” Mama told me they were
the war cries of the Hausa mobs attacking the Igbo in
another part of town’ (17).

Before war, what Cheche knows about his identity is that he belongs to a
better off Odukwe family that follows Roman Catholicism. However, it is
war that makes him aware of his own identity. The riots between Hausas
and Igbos create in him what may be called tribal consciousness. When
Igbos are attacked and killed in Jos, Cheche’s perceptive mind questions
the violent psychology of his fellow countrymen. He reflects:
I now realized I was an Igbo and wondered what I had done
to deserve such hatred. The adult said it was because the
other tribes were envious of our success in commerce, the
civil service and other fields. I wondered how they came to
single out the Igbo as the common enemy. Did they hold a
meeting somewhere to decide it? No one seemed ready to
provide an answer (17).

This collective Igbo hatred in the wake of the civil war shapes the
budding mind of Cheche. He receives his tribal identity at the very earlier
stage of his life due to war riots. Mbachu seems to suggest the rifts
between the Nigerian tribes that widened during the Nigerian civil war.
He questions the very idea of multi ethnic society in which one tribe tries
to dominate the other. Igbo hatred by the Hausas and other tribes and
eventual Biafarn war may be interpreted as the outcome of false jingoistic
consciousness of both Biafran and Nigerian military leaders. He
emphasizes the disillusionment and failure to build one nation of Nigeria
in the postcolonial phase due to tribal conflicts fuelled by politicians. It is
through Cheche’s character that Mbachu underscores Nigeria as a bunch
of tribal leaders fighting with each other for power politics.
As far as socio-cultural ethos of Amafor is concerned, it can be
said that it is in Amafor that Cheche receives his true Igboness. Amafor
endows him the rich Igbo heritage which he may have been deprived of
otherwise. His vacant time is filled with the tasks like fetching water from
stream, plucking wild fruits of Udala trees, spending time with his
cousins and friends and safeguarding himself from air raids. As the war
makes the Igbo people turn towards their traditional life as farmers,
Cheche also learns farming skills from his Grandpa and Obiukwu.

Mbachu makes a romantic description of childhood plays and romps
through the fields and bushes. Cheche’s Grandpa becomes the rich source
to Cheche to know his traditional religion with its positive as well as
negative aspects. Mbachu presents the character of Grandpa as a man
with traditional wisdom of medicine. At the same time, Mabchu
denounces the pagan practices in Igbo religion. Cheche never partakes in
any of his chicken killing rituals. Mabchu, by sketching the character of
Grandpa, criticizes the traditional paganism of Igbo religion. However,
concurrently, he admits it as a part of an Igbo life cycle and appreciates
its positive aspects. For instance, Mbachu explains the pantheistic nature
of Igbo religion. Cheche describes the significance of Ishigwu forest
which is dedicated to god Ishigwu. He says:
In obedience to that god, it was permanently conserved in its
natural state and was often used by medicine men to collect
herbs. There we children often hunted for wild fruits or
collected Okazi leaves for our mothers to make soup with.
Cutting live trees was forbidden but dry branches could be
hacked off. A number of such forest plots were dedicated to
Ishigwu around Amafor (195).

Cheche’s stay with his Grandpa and other members of Amafor makes
him realize his own roots. He learns his own Igbo culture by witnessing
annual Ogwugwu festival, its spirit dance and songs and folktales. It
helps him build his unique perspective to look at his own people and their
culture. Amafor brings him in the vicinity of nature that changes his
outlook towards rural traditional life. It may be argued that Mbachu
contrasts and heightens the insensibility and ugliness of the war with the
descriptions of beautiful Ogwugwu valley, its streams, fields and
landscape. Mbachu paints a sad picture of the war affected Biafra.

Mbachu also focuses on the issue of scarcity of food during the
war. In pre-war period, hunger is never an issue in Cheche’s life as he
belongs to a well to do family. However, it gains a huge importance
during the war in the wake of lack of food. In Cheche’s words:
It was now that I realized the true meaning of hunger, and
how things that didn’t matter before or which I took for
granted suddenly assumed unimaginable importance (108).

In the beginning of the text, Cheche informs that he is raised in a better off
Odukwe family in which there is the abundance of food. He says
‘invariably, there was a lot to eat and drink’ (5). Mbachu contrasts this
abundance of food with the scarcity of food during the war crises. As
Cheche and his people have to eat lizards, rats and frogs, Mbachu
sarcastically remarks that these small creatures ‘must have realized that a
war was indeed going on’ (122). It is not only humans but also animals
got affected by the war crises. The most significant lesson that Cheche
learns from the war is that the war disgraces the dignity of man when it
comes to basic drive hunger.

Furthermore, it is due to the war that Cheche’s education is
frequently interrupted which damages his educational growth. However,
it does not hamper his moral growth. In these hard times, his family plays
an important role in the formation of his character. His parents remain a
great influence on Cheche’s formation as a rational and thinking man.
Cheche is well protected by his parents. Though other children become
the victims of kwashiorkor due to lack of nutritional food, Cheche does
not suffer from malnutrition. His parents become the significant
protective factors in regard of Cheche’s physical and psychological
growth. He says ‘Mama always made sure I was well fed. But she didn’t
bother anymore about what I wore’ (127). Nonetheless, Cheche does not
fail to notice the physical deterioration of his parents as well.

The most significant experience that the war renders him is ‘the
value of being alive’ (40). Being always under the burden of survival, he
begins to understand what death means. Cheche’s companion Little
Johnny is killed as he unknowingly keeps an unexploded grenade in his
hand. Cheche describes Little Johnny’s shredded body: ‘Where his head
had been was blood and gore. Only his lower torso and limbs were still
intact (166). Though Cheche faints at the sight of Little Johnny’s body in
pieces, the experience of the death helps him understand the futility of the
war and the worthlessness of lives of ordinary people in the wake of the
civil war.

By the end of the text, the focal point of the narrative is shifted
from the war to the moral development of Cheche. Mbachu shows the
significant role that his parents, church and Bible play in Cheche’s
complete formation as a rational human being. Cheche displays the
development of moral tenacity in him when he begins to attend Church as
an altar boy. On one occasion, when the president of altar boys Paulinus
Nweze and his associates wrongly deny the Jollof rice and corned beef to
Cheche and others, which is actually meant to be equally distributed
among all, he rebels against them and refuses to apologize for his
disobedience. Subsequently, Cheche is suspended from his duties of altar
boys. It creates a psychological conflict in the cognitive mind of Cheche.

His restlessness can be seen when he says: ‘I was all alone with my
problem and felt like an outcast’ (199). Instead of apologizing, Cheche
stops attending the Church. His rebel is the outcome of his moral and
rational thinking that he develops at his pubescent age. His moral growth
can be clearly viewed in his reflection on virtues and sins:
I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t that corned beef was such a
novelty but that it was a matter of principle; that I was only
acting with the teaching at home and in school and church
that we should always stand up for truth and justice…(201).

He fights lonely against the corrupt altar boys of Church. His decision of
not making apologies for his rebellious and disobedient behaviour is
appreciated and wins him the title “the hard-headed one” (204). Finally,
Cheche remains firm to his decision and resolves his problem with
dignity. Therefore, his act of rebellion symbolizes the moral fibre of
Igbos. Mbachu suggests moral toughness of Igbos through Cheche’s
character. All in all, Cheche is portrayed as a boy growing during the
national crises and how these crises transform him into more humane,
sensible, rebellious and morally tough individual.

In a nut shell, it may be said that it is the war crises that render
Cheche a revelation to trust himself. His formation as a rational being that
is capable of making judgment between justice and injustice, sin and
virtue and good and evil is caused by his exposure to war realities. The
political turmoil in the nation, pre-war riots, the civil war conditions and
the Igbo socio-cultural ambience shape Cheche’s opinions, beliefs,
attitudes and ideologies about his own self, his cultural identity, his
religion and his society. In Mbachu’s view, the war quickens the process
of gaining maturity as children come of age earlier during this period. At
the same time, he mourns those children who face deadly consequences
of the war.

Conclusion:
With the above analysis of the select novels, the present chapter
makes it clear that African male coming-of-age passage portrayed by
African creative minds is not easy. It is quite stormy, stressful and full of
pain. It is hugely affected by the postcolonial failed nation building,
political instability, incessant military coups, political murders and the
civil war crises of Africa during the post-independence era in African
nations. The child-soldier narratives of Kouroma and Iweala are the
products of this grievous political situation. They reveal how the trauma
and cruelties of the civil war stunts the growth of the children. Their texts
explicate the process of dehumanization and resultant regression in the
developmental course of innocent children like Birahima and Agu. Also
Chris Abani’s text focuses on children of ghettoes and the dissolution of
the phase of adolescence from their lives as they are forced to accept
adult jobs at the earlier stage of their lives. However, Mbachu’s text can
be seen as the perfect example of African optimism. The text ends up
with the successful coming-of-age of its protagonist Cheche. Despite the
Nigerian Civil war and its aftermath chaos, he survives through the crises
and achieves and asserts his Igboness.

Somnath Panade is an assistant professor of English at Shihaji University, Kolhapur, India.

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