New Telegraph

Holes in our bubbles

This book is more unique than its writers realise. It is an attempt at an unusual melange of journalism and history. No, not in the sense in which journalism is sometimes called the “first rough draft of history” when reporters document happenings of newsworthy proportions.

In the language of the research meteorologist you could say that ex post facto on the story of Nigeria’s civil war, half a century after. Working retrospectively on the Biafran story is one of the strengths of this book. It enables the writers to sieve the emotions, leaving the essence from which abiding lessons can be harvested. It is something to commend the curator of this excellent anthology that he retains the names of the reporters who worked with him. It lends credibility to the book.

Editor Nnabuife worked on some of the contents alone. Apart from pithy preface and epilogue, there is also the prefatory chapter one where in a trade-mark lament prose he introduces former Brigadier Godwin “Gordon” Alabi-Isama who is the focus of the entire first part of the book. Altogether the part on the Nigerian war veteran comprises four chapters. Nnabuife collected materials for that part of the book before Alabi-Isama came out in 2013 acerbic war account tome, the tragedy of victory (Spectrum Books, Ibadan, 2013), where he documented his participation in the Nigerian‐Biafran war and how his Nigeria’s comrades butted him out afterwards. At 617 pages, Alabi- Isama’s book is the single largest volume by any one author on the civil war.

At the time Nnabuife was interviewing him in 2007, he had complained, (p. 8 of Nnabuife’s book), “I was thrown out of the military… In 1997; and that is to ‘teach’ me a lesson.” The second part consists in the main of interviews with some of the foremost names in the Biafran military. There are six in number, and each has a full chapter to his reminiscences.

They are: the redoubtable Colonel Joseph “Air Raid” Achuzie, Colonel Emmanuel Nwobosi, Colonel Emma Udeaja, Colonel Ben Gbulie, Professor Peter Ejiofor, and Dr. Jideo-for Danmabaezue. Interviews with them take six out of the seven chapters in this part of the book. The first chapter here introduces the event which provided the author with the rare opportunity that he has now deftly midwives into a book.

It was ceremony drawing from a custom that is well known in many African communities whereby the dead is given a burial that is adjudged culturally proper. It has the preeminent significance of respect for the deceased who at any rate is still considered to be alive in the abode of the spirit.

This particular instance on Thursday 22 January 2015 was hosted by the Anambra state government to honour those who lost their lives in the Nigeria- Biafra war of 1967-1970. It was both a memorial and as well as a mortuary rite in the original traditional manner.

The first part of the two-prong event is amplified in its name, Ozor Emezina (Enough is enough) which Nnabuife has also adopted as the title of the second part of his book. Nnabuife’s book brings out report of first hand experiences of these men in the war that had not been previously heard.

In the cases of Col. Nwobosi and Col. Gbulie, in addition to these, we read aspects of their experiences in the first putsch of 1966. Gbulie worked directly with Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu in the Kaduna Operations of the coup and has written the exquisitely crafted Nigeria’s five majors – Coup d’etat of 15th January 1966 (Africana Educational Publishers, Onitsha, 1981) but there is something the genre that it is brought in by Nnabuife has done to these narratives. It gives them the chatty, intimate effect which only a transcribed interview that is presented in its original form can embody.

Col. Nwobosi’s operation in Ibadan (He was then a captain) added to Major Nzeogwu’s in Kaduna as the only successful ones, from the standpoint of the objectives of the coup makers. The young officer demonstrated that a fighter could manage to combine humaneness and thoroughness even in an extremely dangerous situation.

The story of how he picked up an unknown stranded pregnant woman in labour on their way to Ibadan in the wee hours of that fateful night has been told by other writers. It was only after he had dropped off the woman in the hospital that he continued in his military mission. In Nnabuife’s book, Nwobosi recalls an incident along this line which had not been made public previously. After arresting Remi Fani-Kayode, Deputy Premier of Western Region, and the troops were on their way to Lagos, one of Nwobosi’s men agonizing from a wound on his hand became upset by the soliloquies of the political big shot bemoaning his unsure fate.

The wounded soldier slapped their loquacious guest. Nwobosi turned to the soldier and warned him seriously against a repeat. Many will be delighted to hear what the formidable Air Raid said about himself: for example, how he joined the Biafran Army, his friendship with Murtala Mohammed, the much-discussed field commander on the Nigerian side, and the leader of the countercoup of 1966.

Nnabuife, the professional journalist that he is, credits all that worked with him in the interviews – three in all. For the interview with Col. Achuzie, he worked with Nnamdi Chukwujindu and Rose Oranye; in that of Dr. Danmbazue, he worked with Chukwujindu and Stella Obi; for that of Col. Udeaja; he worked with Chukwujindu and Oranye, the same as in that of Professor Ejiofor and Col. Gbulie. He alone interviewed Col. Nwobosi.

The genre

Nnabuife has also made a name with the introduction of this genre into Nigerian writing. A booklength interview published in a question-and-answer format is rare in Nigeria, perhaps, in the entire English-speaking world. Yes, it is common among the French. In my new love, anthropology, I have two; De près et de loin (Èditions Odile, Paris, 2001) in which Didier Éribon interviewed the trailblazer, Claude Lévi-Strauss; and Les combats d’une ethnologue (Éditions de l’École des hautes etudes en sciences socials, 2015), in which Fréderic Mitterrand interviewed the activist lady anthropologist, Germaine Tillion.

In creative literature I encountered that first with L’homme et son double (not the book of the same name with a metaphysical theme) where the great novelist, Graham Greene was interviewed. Sadly, I am unable at the moment to get the book that I read in the early 1980s, Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce (Millington Books, London, 1974) interviewed the Irish writer, James Joyce.

Even at that, these last two were also initiated in French. Holes in our bubbles is a book that is at once relevant to Nigeria’s history, journalism, security studies, sociology, political science, … indeed most domains of socio-political life in Nigeria. It is a book which all should read, enjoy, and learn from.

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