The Memory of the Nigerian Civil War in the Art of Obiora Udechukwu

by Rebecca Wolff*                                                           Obiora UdechukwuThe Exiles, 1973

………………………………………………………….………Woodcut on paper, H: 18 3/4 in, W: 15 1/2 in ………. …………………………………………….The Simon Ottenberg Collection, gift to the Newark Museum, 2013 ………………………………………………………………….Collection of the Newark Museum 2013.22.2………… …………………………………………………………………………………© Obiora Udechukwu.………………………….

The Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) was a pivotal moment in Nigeria’s history. It began as Nigeria’s response to its Eastern region’s declaration of sovereignty as the Independent Republic of Biafra in 1967, though the secession itself was the result of military coups, regional distrust, and pogroms against the Igbo people. Also called the Biafran War, the conflict lasted thirty months and was fought in Biafran territory, causing heavy destruction and loss of lives. For Nigerian artist Obiora Udechukwu (b. 1943), the war was not only a foundational period in his own life, but also a negative turning point in Nigeria’s history. He lived through the violence and became a displaced person within Biafra as the Nigerian army gained territory. Artistically, he worked as a Biafran propagandist, and his work responded to his wartime experience.

When Biafra surrendered in January 1970, the region was destroyed and demoralized. Yet, at the war’s end, Nigeria’s head of state General Yakubu Gowon famously declared that there was “no victor, no vanquished.” Former Biafra began its quiet reintegration back into Nigeria, and public discussion about the war was virtually nonexistent. For Udechukwu, the events leading up to the conflict and the war itself shattered Nigeria’s post-independent potential, and through the silence following the pogroms, corruption, and war, a precedent was established in which leaders had little to no accountability for their actions.

When the conflict ended, Udechukwu embraced a new aesthetic based on the Igbo art form of uli—wall and body painting primarily practiced by women. With its linear and lyrical style, he created strong social and political critiques of corrupt government leaders, lack of basic resources, and the uneven distribution of wealth in Nigeria. His thematic interest often returned to Biafra, and the memory of the Nigerian Civil War has been a constant thread throughout his work.

In this essay, I examine the print The Exiles (Facing the Unknown) (1973) and Air Raid: Harsh Flute Series (1989) to explore how different manifestations of this thematic motif address not only the impact the memory of the Nigerian Civil War has had on Udechukwu’s individual psyche, but also how the conflict has continued to affect the nation even years after its end. Through his artistic engagement with the Nigerian Civil War, Udechukwu demonstrates that, as Adorno has written, “the past that one would like to evade is still very much alive.”[1] By revisiting the conflict and its surrounding events, and through the act of remembrance through artistic production, Udechukwu calls for a critical look at the past as a means of addressing the present social and political situation of Nigeria.

Before I begin a discussion of Udechukwu’s art in relation to the conflict, an introduction to the Nigerian Civil War must be undertaken. The Eastern region of Nigeria seceded and declared itself the Independent Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967, which sparked the war, but the events leading up to the secession are equally important as they deeply affected Udechukwu. Since its colonization by Great Britain, Nigeria has been politically divided into three geographic regions with three ethnic majorities: the Hausa/Fulani in the North, the Yoruba in the West, and the Igbo in the East. Each region came to have its own dominant political party, and the disputes between these factions greatly contributed to the war’s outbreak. At the same time, as ethnic identity was closely tied to politics, ethnic tension and conflict also played an important role in the Biafran secession.

In the years leading up to Nigeria’s independence in 1960, political identities hardened along geographical borders. Because the North had the largest population out of the three, their political party, the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), easily won the national elections and held the majority in parliament. On the eve of independence, the NPC won the national election, and a Northern political hegemony quickly established itself.

This government proved to be largely ineffective and corrupt. Many Nigerians, especially those in the West and East (Nigeria’s geographic South) became angered by what they perceived as the government’s attempt to ensure the continuation of Northern political power. After years of government corruption and fraud, culminating in the 1964 general elections characterized by brutality and intimidation, five majors in the Nigerian military led a coup in January 1966.[2] They killed the Prime Minister, the powerful NPC leader Sir Ahmadou Bello, and many Northern military leaders. The coup ultimately failed, however, and the “five majors” were stopped by Igbo General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi, who subsequently became head-of-state.

Even though Aguyi-Ironsi had crushed the coup, Northerners regarded him with increasing suspicion.[3] The belief that the coup followed by Aguyi-Ironsi’s regime was an Igbo conspiracy intent on the domination of Nigerian politics quickly gained prevalence in the North. While their leaders were executed, Eastern leaders were arrested and later released. They also pointed out that only one Igbo officer died while many Northern military officers were killed during the January coup.[4]

A large Igbo diaspora lived in the North. During colonialism, to gain the support of the predominantly Muslim North, the British halted Christian missionary activity, which brought with it a European-style education system.[5] Conversely, many people in the South, where missions were widespread, received a European education and were thus better suited for jobs in the colonial administration. According to Chinua Achebe, the renowned Igbo novelist, poet, and critic, the Igbo took particular advantage of the new educational system, and many moved to the North to fill vacant positions in the colonial government.[6] Many resented these Igbo families.

This decade of political tension, and the ethnic hatred and distrust that had been festering since the colonial period spurred widespread pogroms against the Igbo from May to October of 1966 in the North. Throughout the region, Igbos and other Eastern Nigerians were attacked and killed, and their property was destroyed. The violence resulted in the mass exodus of Igbo refugees fleeing the North to return to Igboland in the East. The pogroms had a deep psychological impact on Udechukwu. He was attending Ahamdou Bello University in the Northern town of Zaria at the time, and he experienced the beginnings of the attacks, though he left Zaria shortly after at the end of the semester to spend the summer in Igboland. As the violence worsened, Udechukwu could not safely return to his university. The upheaval had a great impact on his art, and he began to create images of the fleeing refugees flowing into Igboland that he witnessed.

In the midst of these pogroms, a counter-coup was staged in July, overthrowing Aguyi-Ironsi and killing him in the process. The coup was instigated by Northern military officers to avenge the deaths of those that had died in the first coup, and to stymie the perceived Igbo threat. Lieutenant-General Yakubu Gowon emerged as the new head of state, but the Eastern governor Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu refused to recognize Gowon’s legitimacy.

Gowon’s government did nothing to stop the violence against the Igbo that had begun to spread into the Western region, including Lagos. In the end, thousands of Easterners died at the hands of the violent mobs.[7] Additionally, the East had to cope with the throngs of refugees that flooded into the region, and the federal government offered no aid to accommodate this influx.[8] The Igbo feared for their safety and felt their national government could no longer protect them.

The East declared its sovereignty as the Independent Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967. Gowon vowed to keep Nigeria together, and the government responded by initiating a police action against the fledgling republic. Met with fierce resistance, this police action turned into the thirty month long Biafran War.

Udechukwu and many Igbo artists showed overwhelming support for the Biafran cause. As Udechukwu explains, “The people who supported Biafra were not supporting the idea of secession from Nigeria, but they were saying it was wrong to slaughter innocent people.”[9] His support for Biafra was thus closely tied to the human rights violations perpetrated during the Northern pogroms.

His artistic life during the conflict largely centered on an informal group of artists and writers who named themselves the Odunke Community of Artists. Odunke came together in 1968 to hold meetings in which they read poetry, discussed recent events, and contemplated the future of Biafra.[10] Udechukwu wrote many poems as member, including memorials for the poet Christopher Okigbo and friends who had died in the conflict. He also co-wrote the group’s communally produced play Veneration to Udo, which reflected the artists’ disillusionment with the Biafran government that they believed maintained the corrupt leadership that had previously characterized Nigeria.

In addition to his poetry and writing, Udechukwu continued producing visual art. In Blue Figures (Refugees) (1968), and The Only Son (1968), Udechukwu portrays angular, elongated figures, referencing the widespread concerns of food shortage and starvation across Biafra. Even before the war began, Gowon blockaded the coast and enacted economic sanctions against the Eastern region.[11] Chinua Achebe, who lived through the war and served as a Biafran international ambassador, remembers that this economic blockade caused a shortage of “every imaginable necessity, from food and clean water to blankets and medicines.”[12] Furthermore, as the Nigerian side realized that this conflict was no mere police action, it is alleged that Obafemi Awolowo, a prominent Yoruba politician, declared that “starvation is a legitimate weapon of war.”[13] These economic, tactical, and arguably genocidal policies inflicted starvation and general suffering on Biafrans. They resulted in the widespread deaths of civilians, particularly among the young and elderly members of the population. Udechukwu’s artistic life became intricately tied to the war, and his art was a means of emotionally capturing the intense wartime experience in which he found himself.

The Nigerian Civil War ended in January 1970, and former Biafra faced the daunting task of reintegrating back into Nigeria. In March, Udechukwu returned to his studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The campus lacked electricity, working sewage, and an adequate amount of books and equipment, but despite these difficult conditions and the demoralization of defeat, it seems as if the Nigerian Civil War only galvanized the faculty and students of the Department of Fine and Applied Arts. As a student and later a professor, Udechukwu became involved in the development of an artistic practice—which I have called an uli-based artistic approach—that has flourished in the art department beginning in the 1970s.[14]

Uli artists deploy a variety of schematic motifs that represent various natural and manmade elements, through which they create linear body and wall paintings. Udechukwu undertook a study of uli aesthetics for his BA thesis, and subsequently crystallized uli’s aesthetic tenets as “space, line pattern, brevity and spontaneity.”[15] In his own practice, Udechukwu internalized uli aesthetics, and used its linearity and lyricism to create sociopolitical critiques, many of which have focused on the Nigerian Civil War.

An early work Udechukwu created through this uli-based artistic approach is The Exiles (Facing the Unknown) (1973; see figure). In this woodcut, an elderly couple stands together in front of a shallow background of abstracted buildings and a sun. Both figures eyes’ are encircled by concentric circles, which give them the appearance of being sunken. The man’s brows are furrowed, which gives him a worried and anxious look, and the lines coming down the left side make his face gaunt. His eyes look outward and his mouth appears set in determination. The woman also gazes out into the distance with despondency. Overall, they have a harrowed appearance, and exude forlorn resignation.

An overt use of an uli motif can be seen in the woman’s hair, which is composed of the agwolagwo (spiral) shape. The agwolagwo is a common uli motif, one of those that Udechukwu uses repeatedly in his art. The geometricized black outlines of buildings in the background, according to Udechukwu, represent the flat-roofed architecture that is common in the North.[16] This knowledge situates the man and woman as refugees fleeing the pogroms in the North. Their backs are turned towards their former home, and their haggard faces not only speak to their age but the violence they have witnessed.

For Udechukwu, this work addresses individual suffering, specifically suffering as a result of the violence in the North and the ensuing Nigerian Civil War. These two elderly figures have lost everything in the pogroms, but their only choice is to move forward with resignation. In The Exiles, Udechukwu is very much aware that he was still working through the issues surrounding the Nigerian Civil War and his feelings toward them.[17] The conflict was a part of the recent past and remained a fresh, painful memory. Through his art, Udechukwu was able to explore this sensitive topic in his psyche.

Yet, the Nigerian Civil War was not only a recent memory for Udechukwu, but for former Biafrans and the entire Nigerian nation as well; The Exiles was not simply about Udechukwu’s individual response to wartime traumas, but addressed an important concern for Nigeria’s collective memory and past. After the war, public discussion about the war and a program of reconciliation were conspicuously absent. Gowon’s statement that there was “no victor, no vanquished” effectively leveled the playing field, so to speak, and positioned the wartime experience as being equal for all Nigerians, although former Biafrans experienced considerably more hardship since the conflict was fought primarily in their territory. Thus, Nigeria did not have to confront its past, but had only to move forward as a reunited nation with a blank slate towards the future.

In the 1970s, Nigeria falteringly forged ahead into this future. While events such as the quick reopening of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka seemed to speak to the success of the Nigerian government’s reintegration policy, these achievements were merely superficial. Political scientist Chris Ojukwu argues that Gowon’s statement was merely “a glorious affirmation of the sourness of vengeance, a hypocritical anesthesia, which later relapsed into a dangerous insensitivity, as it is to the overwhelming imbalances of the Nigerian federation.”[18] There was a negligible attempt at reconciliation, and perhaps most significantly, there was no apology on behalf of the Nigerian government or people for the violence inflicted on Eastern Nigerians in the North. As the Igbo rebuilt their region in the years after the war, they continued to feel marginalized both economically and politically.[19]

The Nigerian Civil War, although confined to the past, continued to fester and seep into the present, about which Udechukwu was very much aware, and his artwork in subsequent decades also reflected this phenomenon. Nigeria has continued to be plagued by government corruption, military regimes, poverty, lack of resources, and violence. In the 1970s alone, Gowon was overthrown and replaced by Brigadier Murtala Mohammad, and after he died in a coup attempt, Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obsanjo became the nation’s leader, both of whom were high-ranking military leaders during the Nigerian Civil War. When Nigeria transitioned into a democratic government in 1999, Obasanjo became president, re-establishing political power in the hands of a Civil War military official. As a result of the self-imposed silence about the past, those involved in the leadership of the Nigerian Civil War have remained influential political figures.

Udechukwu drew Air Raid: Harsh Flute Series (1989) as a part of a still unpublished collection of Biafran poetry spearheaded by Donatus Nwoga.[20] Many of the poets included in this book were members of the Odunke Community of Artists, and Udechukwu references a period of intense violence that these artists experienced. In 1968, as Biafran territory began to shrink as it was reclaimed by the Nigerian army, many Biafrans moved to the city of Umuahia, including artists and writers. They experienced a heavy influx of bombing by the Nigerian troops, as the army attempted to capture the city. Many of the poems created during this time by the group members linguistically echoed the splintering and blasting of the constant bombing. For his part, Udechukwu grappled with the psychological and emotional shattering of the war, and his poems were elegies to prematurely ended lives and friendships.

Two decades later, Udechukwu visually returns to this experience through Air Raid. The composition of the drawing is sparse, the majority of the paper is left blank. A sun and airplane are discernable in the upper portion, and Udechukwu portrays the ruined city below in only a relatively small sliver of the bottom of the page. Through elegant and swiftly rendered lines, Udechukwu depicts the bombing’s aftermath. Among the general rubble, one can discern dismembered body parts, and a ghostly figure rises from the ruin, its mouth open in a silent scream. The chaos in this lower section contrasts starkly with the serenity that characterizes the majority of the composition. The airplane that dropped the bombs flies away, removed and unconcerned the destruction caused by its act. In this drawing, Udechukwu poignantly conveys the inhumanity of civilian-targeted air raids and the loss of lives and damage they leave in their wake.

Udechukwu_Air_Raid

Obiora Udechukwu, Air Raid: Harsh Flute Series, 1989
Ink on paper, 23.9cm x 18.2cm (9.4in x 7.2in)
Collection of the artist
© Obiora Udechukwu
(photograph of the work taken by Simon Ottenberg)

At the same time, Air Raid speaks to the sociopolitical situation of 1989. It was created during a time of great political repression and economic hardship. The decade of 1983 to 1993, historians Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton claim, is “widely regarded as the worst phase in [Nigeria’s] modern history.”[21] In 1985, the military leader Ibrahim Babangida staged a coup and became the country’s head-of-state, and by 1989, he had established a harshly authoritarian government, plagued by corruption and determined to crush any perceived opposition, often by force. Babangida had also implemented the now infamous Structural Adjustment Program a year before, which attempted economic reforms, but actually drove Nigeria’s already recessed economy into crisis.[22] Inter-religious violence spread throughout the decade as tensions between Christians and Muslims increased, resulting in many deaths and destruction of property. Even two decades after the Nigerian Civil War, violence, political corruption, and authoritarianism continue. Furthermore, the same inhumane treatment represented by the air raid characterizes Babangida’s disregard for the civil and human rights of those he was supposed to be governing.

Viewing Air Raid today, one is reminded of how the majority of these issues continue. In his recent presidency, Obasanjo was incredibly corrupt, and within the past two years, the Nigerian government has indiscriminately attacked people in the North in their attempt to rout out radical Islamic militant group Boko Haram. As Udechukwu says bluntly, “You can wake up and kill people, nothing happens to you. You can steal their money, nothing happens to you.”[23] In the Nigerian Civil War, scholar Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe sees a larger precedent of non-accountability set for the entire African continent. He argues passionately that after the lack of accountability that followed the Northern pogroms, the Biafran War was in no small part responsible for subsequent conflicts and genocidal attempts within the region.[24] To get at the root of Nigeria’s, and as Ekwe-Ekwe would argue Africa’s, recurrent sociopolitical problems, Udechukwu returns to their beginnings in the Nigerian Civil War. Again, Air Raid functions on both a personal and collective level, as Udechukwu turns to this personal past to address both Nigeria’s history and its present.

Importantly, Udechukwu also connects his works that deal with the war to Picasso’s response to the Spanish Civil War in Guernica.[25] He sees his art in relation to other artists who address the horror and trauma of war and violence in their practice, and The Exiles and Air Raid do not just speak to Igbo or Nigerian suffering, but to the suffering of anyone who has lived through armed conflict. As Udechukwu explains, “The war made it possible for me to re-examine human beings who are supposed to be civilized and the kind of things they’ve done through the ages. And as we speak, it’s going on in Syria.”[26] It is particularly interesting to think about Air Raid in relation to Guernica, as both responded to brutal air attacks on a civilian population. Udechukwu’s screaming face and scattered limbs are reminiscent of Picasso’s distraught figures and dismembered bodies. It is likely that Udechukwu purposefully positioned Air Raid in this art historical lineage through the use similar visual elements.

Closer to home, the figures depicted in these works also serve as a memorial to the victims of the pogroms and the war. The man and the woman in the Exiles and screaming figure in Air Raid represent the vanquished that Gowon refused to acknowledge in his public statement. And, through a national policy that wished not to address the pogroms and the war, the experience of these vanquished is confined to an untouched past and in danger of vanishing from national memory. For Adorno, this willful forgetting causes the victims “to be cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.”[27] These works are also about how the act of remembering can be a form of social justice in and of itself.

Finding inspiration in a passage from Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah, Udechukwu writes, “The picture that comes through is that of the artist as a highly sensitive and ‘possessed’ person who at the end of momentous events, at the end of war, when the guns and drums are silent, recapitulates events for the benefit of present and future generations.”[28] He continues, “The well-crafted story [art, literature, poetry], beyond giving pleasure, enables us to remember the past in order to encounter present and forthcoming situations with knowledge and wisdom.”[29] These statements distill why Udechukwu continuously turns to the Nigerian Civil War as his subject matter in his own words. The artist, it is implied, is in a unique position to facilitate a dialogue between the past and present through his artistic production, bringing these events and their historical legacy to his viewer’s or reader’s attention. By engaging with the memory of the Nigerian Civil War on both a personal and collective level, Udechukwu visually argues that this past cannot be ignored or forgotten. It is perhaps through art, Udechukwu suggests, that the Nigerian Civil War can be repositioned as belonging to an active past, while acknowledging that temporal boundaries are not so rigid and that the past seeps into and continues to affect the present.

*Rebecca Wolff recently graduated from Columbia University’s MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program. She is currently writing her thesis on Uche Okeke and Obiora Udechukwu’s development of an uli-based artistic approach in the 1970s. Other academic interests include the relationship between artistic production and armed conflict. She is currently a Research Assistant at the gallery Alexander Gray Associates.

[1] Theodor Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963), 89.

[2] The proclaimed goal of the coup was to end the corruption, tribalism, and violence of the first republic. The coup leader famously broadcasted the group’s intentions and motivations, which received overwhelming support from Nigerians in the East and West. For them, it symbolized a new beginning and an end of political violence and Northern-dominated politics (Toyin Falola and Matthew M. Heaton, A History of Nigeria, [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008], 173).

[3] He ended the North’s control of the nation, as he consolidated political power in the federal government and put an end to the regional system. An Igbo, he surrounded himself with Igbo advisors. Perhaps the incident most condemning in the eyes of the Northerners was that he imprisoned the five majors but did not bring them to trial (Ibid).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Gould, The Struggle for Modern Nigeria: The Biafran War 1967-1970 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2012), 12, 16.

[6] Chinua Achebe, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (New York:

Penguin Press, 2012), 74-75.

[7] The number of estimated deaths remains disputed among historians. Gould cites the account of the British High Commissioner, who he believes to be neutral, that the death count was 5,000. Ojukwu is reported to have claimed that 7,000 died (Gould, The Struggle, 47). At the same time, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe estimates that 100,000 Igbo were killed in the massacres (Biafra Revisited [Dakar: African Renaissance, 2006], 2). The reason for these vast differences is that the Nigerian government and the North have been accused of enacting a genocidal policy against the Igbo. The numbers reflect the side of the argument each historian takes.

[8] Again, I am refraining from using an estimated figure because the numbers of refugees that resulted from the pogroms also remains a controversial subject. Ekwe-Ekwe writes that there were two million, and this was the number Ojukwu used in his speeches (see Ekwe-Ekwe, Biafra Revisited, 80; Gould, The Struggle, 48) Yet, Gould argues that the number of refugees resulting from the pogrom was grossly exaggerated by Ojukwu’s effective propaganda campaign that attempted to garner international support for Biafra. Again, Gould quotes the British High Commissioner’s report on Eastern refugees in which the number of registered refugees totaled 150,000. The High Commissioner himself estimated 250,000 (Gould, The Struggle, 47-48).

[9] Obiora Udechukwu, conversation with the author, December 2013.

[10] Chukwuma Azuonye, “Reminiscences of the Odunke Community of Artists: 1966-1990,” ALA Bulletin 17.1 (1991): 20-21.

[11] Falola and Heaton, A History of Nigeria, 175.

[12] Achebe, There Was a Country, 199.

[13] Ekwe-Ekwe, Biafra Revisited, 89. This accusation remains controversial to this day. It has bolstered strong arguments that claim the Biafran War and preceding pogroms were part of a genocidal project against the Igbo. Some, like Ekwe-Ekwe and Achebe, bring Awolowo and Gowon’s policy to the fore of their accounts of the conflict. In Gould’s history, this policy is absent as he argues against an Igbo genocide. To further confound the debate, Awolowo remains a national hero for many Nigerians today, which makes accusations of his involvement in the genocidal policy all the more polemical.

[14] See Rebecca Wolff, “Adoption and Adaptation: The Development of an Uli-Based Artistic Approach in the Art of Uche Okeke and Obiora Udechukwu” (MA thesis, Columbia University, 2014).

[15] Obiora Udechukwu, “Towards Essence and Clarity,” Nigeria Magazine 132-133 (1980), 44.

[16] Obiora Udechukwu, conversation with the author, April 2014.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Chris C. Ojukwu, “Between Relegation and Reintegration: The Igbo Nation in Post-Civil War Nigeria,” in The Nigerian Civil War and its Aftermath, eds. Eghosa E. Osaghae et. al. (Ibadan: John Archers, 2002), 346-347.

[19] Many argue that the Igbo have continued to be marginalized by the Nigerian government, beginning with a reparation amount of a paltry twenty pounds per person despite of the huge destruction of personal property and infrastructural damage as a result of the war. See The Nigerian Civil War and its Aftermath for a compilation of essays with this argument.

[20] Donatus Nwoga was a Nigerian literary critic and scholar who was also a professor at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He died in 1991.

[21] Falola and Heaten, A History of Nigeria, 179.

[22] Ibid., 183-186.

[23] Obiora Udechukwu, conversation with the author, December 2013.

[24] Ekwe Ekwe, Biafra Revisited, 9-10.

[25] Obiora Udechukwu, conversation with the author, April 2014.

[26] Obiora Udechukwu, conversation with the author, December 2013.

[27] Adorno, Critical Models, 91.

[28] Obiora Udechukwu, “‘Agha a diro mma’ or ‘War is not good’: The Biafran War through the eyes of artists” (paper presented at the symposium “Healing the Social Wounds of War,” Windhoek, Namibia, August 29-September 2, 1991), 1.

[29] Ibid.