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Enugu In The Spotlight: 50 Years On, The Flame Of Biafra Still Burns

The Guardian, UK: ‘Enugu In The Spotlight: 50 Years On, The Flame Of Biafra Still Burns’ By Phil Hoad.

When this coal mining outpost was given town status in 1917 – one of the few Nigerian cities founded in the colonial era – there was little reason to think history would come calling. Seven years after independence, however, in the summer of 1967, it did so in tumultuous style when Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu declared Enugu the capital of the breakaway Republic of Biafra.

The move didn’t end well. The city was recaptured in the first week of October, and the civil war ended in mass starvation for the region’s Igbo people in January 1970. The internationally lamented tragedy was documented in the novel Half of a Yellow Sun, by the bestselling, Enugu-born writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A half-century on, the city’s now roughly three-quarters of a million people are back in the Nigerian fold.

Biafra calling

Well, more or less. The Biafra question and the possibility of “Biafexit” remain alive, as shown by the presence of a recent government-mandated military operation, codenamed Python Dance II, some say is aimed at suppressing calls for autonomy in the region. It follows “sit at home” protests in Enugu and other south-eastern communities at the end of May. Schools, markets and banks also fell quiet to commemorate the 50th anniversary, in response to a call from the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group. Its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, was freed in April after two years of detention, and he maintains tense relations with the central government, who, he believes, have failed the south-east and the Igbo.

President Buhari, meanwhile, isn’t doing much to dissuade him with recent statements such as: “Naturally, the constituencies that gave me 97% cannot, in all honesty, be treated [in the same way as] constituencies that gave me 5%. I think this is a political reality.”

Biafra remains a hot-button topic, about which many people are reluctant to go on the record. A spokesman at Enugu’s National Archives of Nigeria, who wished to stay anonymous, would only confirm the city’s emotional pull: “It’s the epicentre of the Igbo race. There’s that affinity, that natural love.”

Enugu in numbers …

Six storeys in the African Continental Bank tower, Enugu’s tallest building

234km of the original railway line that ran coal freight down to Port Harcourt

63.4% of people living on $1 a day or less in 2010

75 appearances for the Nigerian football team made by local boy Jay-Jay Okocha

… and pictures

South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood sets outlandish characters from Nigeria’s cut-price film industry against dusty Enugu backdrops.

History in 100 words

Enugu’s Ogui district, home to the University of Nigeria, gets its name from a village inhabited by the local Nike people (a sub-group of the Igbo) from the 17th century. The Cheshire-born geologist Albert Kitson would have encountered the Nike in 1909 when, prospecting for silver, he instead found coal on the nearby Udi Ridge. The colleries created a boom in black gold, which peaked in the 1950s; but by then the Igbo’s autonomous spirit had already made itself heard.

The Iva Valley shooting in November 1949, in which British colonial policemen murdered 21 striking miners, was one of many incidents that sparked the desire for nationhood. Post-independence, this drive towards self-determination ended catastrophically in the Biafran episode. War sparked severe famine and political repression, and decimated the Enugu coal industry.

Enugu in sound and vision

Radio Biafra, founded in London by Nnamdi Kanu, is keeping the flame alive in dependably strident west African style.

Enugu’s superstar actor Peter Edochie was the lead in the 1987 adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s Igbo epic Things Fall Apart. The city is the second hub of Nollywood production after Lagos.

What’s everyone talking about?

How to sort out the Enugu’s longstanding utilities problems. Power cuts are frequent, and the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company – caught in a dispute over £6.5m of unpaid debts with the state administration – seem helpless to rectify the situation. “Nobody is happy with them, and we’re praying for improvement,” says the National Archives spokesman.

Successive attempts to sort out and supplement the city’s three dilapidated main water plants have failed; and citizens relying on shallow wells for waters often run short in the dry season. Recent strides have been made to repair the city’s road network, but progress remains at the mercy of Nigeria’s chaotic and paternalistic politics. “These problems are common with developing countries,” says the National Archives spokesman. “But it is not permanent, it keeps on changing, depending on who is in the saddle.”

What’s next for the city?

If political independence is still distant for Enugu, then it can work on agricultural self-sufficiency in the meantime: a long-time goal for the region. The fertile state was a net exporter of food before the Biafran devastation; the national oil addiction further stunted its green fingers in the 70s. But there is much informal farming in the city, the National Archives spokesman says: “A people that cannot feed itself cannot lay claim to be sovereign, so [we understand] the importance of farming. We’re being encouraged to grow things, even it is just maize and oranges in your front or back garden. It is something – money you would have otherwise spent in the market.”

The challenge is to nurture this kind of ad hoc urban cultivation with formal policies: a starting point might be sorting the aforementioned water supply problems, or the reported holdups with a national subsidised fertiliser scheme launched in March.

Close zoom

The Nigerian Television Authority’s Enugu offshoot gives events in the area a decent runout, but don’t expect it to wave the Biafran colours. For that, there’s the Biafran Herald.


Phil Hoad writes about cinema and globalisation. Follow him on Twitter at @phlode

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