On the margins of my happy childhood, there was a shadow: the Biafran war. I was born seven years after it ended, and did not experience any material deprivations—I had a bicycle, dolls, books—but my family was scarred by it. In 1967, after massacres in northern Nigeria that targeted southeastern Igbo people, the southeast seceded and formed an independent nation called Biafra. Nigeria went to war to prevent the secession. By the time that Biafra was defeated, in 1970, at least a million people were dead, including my grandfathers—proud, titled Igbo men who were buried in the unmarked graves of refugee camps. My parents lost other relatives, and everything they owned. A generation was robbed of its innocence. The war was the seminal event in Nigeria’s modern history, but I learned little about it in school. “Biafra” was wrapped in mystery. At home, my parents spoke of it rarely and obliquely; I heard many stories about my grandfathers’ wisdom and humor, but few stories about how they had died.
I became haunted by history. I spent years researching and writing “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a novel about human relationships during the war, centered on a young, privileged woman and her professor lover. It was a deeply personal project based on interviews with family members who were generous enough to mine their pain, yet I knew that it would, for many Nigerians of my generation, be as much history as literature. In 2006, my publisher and I were braced for the Nigerian publication, unsure of how it would be received. We were pleasantly surprised: “Half of a Yellow Sun” became one of the best-selling Nigerian novels published in the past fifty years. It cut across different ethnic groups, started conversations, served as a catalyst for previously untold stories. I was heartened to hear from readers whose families had survived Biafra and those whose families had been on the Nigerian side.
But the Biafran war is still wrapped in a formal silence. There are no major memorials, and it is hardly taught in schools. This week, Nigerian government censors delayed the release of the film adaptation of “Half of a Yellow Sun” because, according to them, it might incite violence in the country; at issue in particular is a scene based on a historically documented massacre at a northern Nigerian airport. It is now up to the State Security Service to make a decision. The distributors, keen to release the film before it is engulfed in piracy, are hoping that the final arbiters of Nigerian security will approve its release. I find this absurd—security operatives, uniformed and alert, gathered in a room watching a romantic film—but the censors’ action is more disappointing than surprising, because it is part of a larger Nigerian political culture that is steeped in denial, in looking away.
Partly the result of an unexamined past and partly of the trauma of years of military dictatorship, a sustained and often unnecessary sense of secrecy is the norm in Nigerian public life. We talk often of the “sensitivity” of issues as a justification for a lack of transparency. Conspiracy theories thrive. Soldiers are hostile to video cameras in public. Officials who were yesterday known as thieves are widely celebrated today. It is not unusual to hear Nigerians speak of “moving forward,” as though it might be possible merely to wish away the unpleasant past.
The censors’ action is a knee-jerk political response, yet there is a sense in which it is not entirely unreasonable. Nigeria is on edge, with upcoming elections that will be fiercely contested, religion and ethnicity increasingly politicized, and Boko Haram committing mass murders and abductions. In a political culture already averse to openness, this might seem a particularly appropriate time for censorship.
But we cannot hide from our history. Many of Nigeria’s present problems are, arguably, consequences of an ahistorical culture. As a child, I sometimes found rusted bullets in our garden, reminders of how recent the war had been. My parents are still unable to talk in detail about certain war experiences. The past is present, and we are better off acknowledging it and, hopefully, learning from it.
It is sadly easy, in light of the censors’ action, to overlook the aesthetic success of the film. Its real triumph is not in its politics but in its art. The war is the background to the complicated romance of characters played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, both of whom give the most complex performances of their careers. As a flawed professor, Ejiofor is finally freed from the nobility that was central, and limiting, to his past major roles. Here, his range is breathtaking. Newton brings a nuanced blend of strength and vulnerability to a character for whom she eschews the vanity of a beautiful movie star. On the screen, their chemistry breathes. Cinema, Susan Sontag once wrote, began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such immediacy. Director Biyi Bandele’s eye is awash with magic, but also with a kind of nostalgia, a muted love, a looking back at a country to which this film is both a love letter and a rebuke.
Nigerians are sophisticated consumers of culture and, had the censorship board not politicized the film by delaying its release, I suspect that few people would have objected to it at all.
This article was originally published in The New Yorker