Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Legacies of Biafra Conference

Legacies of Biafra

I had a wonderful time in London. Legacies of Biafra, Reflections on the Nigeria-Biafra War 50 Years On, was an exciting and well-presented conference.

Yvonne and friend with me outside our hotel.

Yvonne and friend with me outside our hotel.

Louisa Egbunike and Yvonne Mbanefo were the principal organizers. Unu mere nke oma! (You did well!)

I took the Heathrow Express from the airport to Paddington on Thursday evening. I climbed into a taxi by 9 pm. Louisa was just returning from SOAS to the Tavistock Hotel as I got out. She invited me to join her and her friends for a late supper at the Indian Restaurant in the hotel.

SOAS was just two blocks away. On Friday morning I went to the panel, “Writing Biafra.” Dominique Otigbah presented “Remembering and Misremembering.” A frequent assumption is that the Igbo people were the only group involved in Biafra. But she said it’s important to remember the role of minorities. Others made similar comments.

Panel audience

Powering Biafra

My panel, “Real Life Accounts of the Nigeria-Biafra War,” was at 11 am. The audience seemed to appreciate my paper “Powering Biafra, One Key Actor.” I described my husband’s role during the war. During the Q&A, a woman in the front row mentioned her hometown Nanka.

Kate is from Nanka and remembered following me around during the Biafran War.

Kate is from Nanka and remembered following me around during the Biafran War.

After the session she approached the table where I was selling my memoir. “You said you’re from Nanka. My husband is also from Nanka. I was there during the war,” I said.

She looked at the memoir and my name, looked at me again, and exclaimed, “You’re the one!”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“During the war we children followed you around in the market, calling out, ‘See the white woman who speaks Igbo.'” I told her she could read all that in my memoir. She bought it!

In fact I sold all 12 copies. One person even paid for two more which he’ll pick up from us in Westport, CT!

My favorite plenary session was “Tim Modu, in conversation with Philip Effiong II.” They knew each other 50 years ago. Tim’s father was Biafra’s Vice President. Philip’s father was Chief of General Staff of Biafra.

Tim Modu in conversation with Philip Effiong

Tim Modu, left, in conversation with Philip Effiong

Tim has a large stash of letters of his father’s, some of them from Philip’s father. He read from a couple that showed the deliberate and careful planning during the war.

Philip Effiong as Chief of Staff was an example of the important role of minorities. He was not Igbo, but Ibibio, a different tribe, different language.

“Shrine” to Legacies of Biafra

At the center of the stage was a collection, like a shrine. Yvonne Mbanefo explained the elements. There were candles for memories of those lost in the conflict. A bicycle tire with photos attached was in the display. So many people relied on bicycles to get around.

The "shrine" on the stage at the conference

The “shrine” on the stage at the conference

There was a bowl and ladle to remind us that food was used as a weapon of war. I found the short-wave radio the most evocative. Like so many people in Biafra, we huddled around the radio to get the latest news of the war. Even when we suspected that Ojukwu was not completely truthful about Biafran losses, we listened avidly.

At the top of the make-shift shrine was the hat belonging to Philip Effiong, His son assured us it was the real thing!


On January 8, 1970, the Head of State of Biafra, Odumegwu Ojukwu, fled the collapsing country, leaving Effiong to become Head of State. After wide consultation, Effiong announced the end of the war. He surrendered to President Gowon a few days later, saying

“I, Major-General Phillip Efiong, Officer Administering the Government of the Republic of Biafra, now wish to make the following declaration: That we affirm that we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. That we accept the existing administrative and political structure of the Federation of Nigeria. That any future constitutional arrangement will be worked out by representatives of the people of Nigeria. That the Republic of Biafra hereby ceases to exist.”[1]

I heard the news that night in my apartment in Cincinnati. I had not heard from Clem for many days. You can imagine my relief when I got his letter a few weeks later. He was safely back in Lagos.

“Save Biafra” Buttons

A year ago my friend and Peace Corps colleague Jim sent me several “Save Biafra” buttons. What better place to take them than to the Legacies of Biafra conference!

I wore one on my name tag. A woman sitting next to me in a plenary session admired it. I sold her one for two pounds! I gave one to the organizers for the Legacies of Biafra exhibition in 2018. They are collaborating with the Nigeria Art Society UK.

I gave the final one to Tim Modu.

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie's novel of Biafra

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s novel of Biafra

A Final Pleasure

On Saturday afternoon I took time off from the conference to meet up with our niece Comet. She’s been living in London since she was a child. She rides her bicycle everywhere!

We found a coffee shop nearby. Afterwards I took her into the conference with me for the expected video greeting from Chimamanda Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun, that takes place during the Biafran War.

They had decided to Skype instead. There were technical problems. In the end Chimamanda was only visible to the person on stage with her laptop. She turned it around for a minute. It was a small screen in a big auditorium!

But we could all hear Chimamanda say she would come to the London conference next year. This year she was the keynote at another Biafra conference in Washington DC.

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

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