We formed the Biafra Students Association of North America

Ihechukwu Madubuike remembers the Nigerian Biafran War. Photo by Chika Oduah.

My name is Professor Ihechukwu Madubuike. I come from Isuochi, source of Imo River, the great Imo River in Abia state. I live in Abuja. I have served this country in the capacity of Minister of Education, post-war Minister of Education in the second republic. Then later, as Minister of Health under the Abacha regime. The constitutional writer, I have served in two conferences that looked at recommendations for a new constitution for Nigeria inclusive that is written by we, the people. What we have now is not exactly recommended. I am a writer; I am a teacher. Also, I have been a parliamentarian in old Imo state.

[The Biafran War]…I have just finished from school. I was ready to travel abroad in 1966 January when there was a coup, the first coup. We never heard about coup in Nigeria before, so it was very strange. I was just about 20, 21, or 22.

I had a scholarship to go to Canada to study and I had started in preparation for that trip. I had a graduate salary. I was able also to take care of my younger ones. That was one of the things we did. It was compulsory. It was a moral imperative to help your siblings. I had enough money from there to take care of my parents, to send two or three of my brothers and sisters who were of secondary school age to school, and I paid for them with the money. The money was paid straight into a bank. It was my first time of opening a bank account, because I was traveling. These are some of the things I’ll write in my memoirs.

So the war hadn’t started. I was still in Nigeria. The war started after I had left, but the build up was there. So I managed, we managed to get our passports in Lagos without some difficulty. The passport officer was an Igbo man so as soon as he heard we were coming, we were not all Igbos, that was another thing that struck me eventually. By that time, we were not thinking about ethnic groups or tribes as such. There were five of us who had this scholarship. There was also gender issue- three boys and two girls. It’s now that I am thinking about it. Our head, our principal was, from Belgium, a lady a very pretty woman. Mrs. Spar was her name.

Where I went to school, this is college I’m talking about.  There were five of us selected who got this scholarship to go study in Canada. UNESCO scholarship. And I’m talking about I didn’t think about the composition then. We were five: two girls and three boys. So I was saying that the woman or the school considered a number of things. Not just the intellectual performance because the two ladies had only credits. Of course, no lady had a distinction. Two of us had distinctions. We were all Igbos, okay. The third person, third male, was from Rivers. He had also credits. So the criteria was not, were not just intellectual performance. There were other criteria used and that’s what I’m now analyzing, that even at that time, okay, the regional character, not federal character, and the gender consideration were taken into account in selecting people who went abroad.

…they were falling and dying on the way…

Best man came from the Rivers. Mmaduka, myself, came from core Igbo and the other lady, one of the ladies came from Cross River. So all the ethnic nationalities in the southeast were taken. I didn’t think about it until lately. And that was a very important thing in the composition of the south east, of the Eastern region. Very important in the politics of the Eastern region. Very important in the politics of Nigeria.

So, by this time, eventually we, when I got my passport, my visa to Canada and so on and so forth, that was the same day we traveled. I got it in the morning. As I said, it was an Igbo officer who was in charge.

When he came to the office he was so upset because- he said he saw people pushing out Igbos out from molues and they were falling and dying on the way. He was really very upset. That was in Lagos, just before we traveled. So that and the evening around 10 o’clock British Overseas Airways Corporation, that was what British Airways was called then. The whole place was tense. The airport, these young northern military officers…they displayed the change. Showing us there was a change in power. So that was it.

They were pro-Nigeria and we were pro-Biafra so there was a tension between us

We traveled to London, Canada then we were following what was happening. That was 1967. We were following what was happening in Canada. And from Canada, the war came up.

I could’ve been in Nigeria [during the war]. As a matter of fact, I would have liked to fight the war. I mean it was, because when I was Canada, I took part in the war efforts. I literally forgot my studies.

Oh, so many things happened. After the first year, so when we came in, we were searched because as I told you, this degree, this thing we had, nobody knew what it was, so we had to take an exam of lessons and in that exam I came first and two of us were asked to go straight to do the Master’s. That was the quality of the education we received. And that is basic. We must get it. And one year, we got our degree. And we came back with my Cum Laude, but Magna Cum Laude. You know studying in French language with people you didn’t know and French students, especially know the school was a Catholic Jesuit school was very high, and many sisters in my class and brothers. Jesuits. So we started the Master’s course. That’s when the war now started.

And we had some Nigerian students there too. They came from Ibadan. They were pro-Nigeria and we were pro-Biafra so there was a tension between us.

We had to explain to the Canadians. I, in particular, because of my political background. I had become the president of what they call the committee of the international relations. All foreign students, I became their president. We were organizing sit-ins, seminars, writing letters to the government. Western governments.

Then Biafran emissaries came. There was a massive effort, publicity effort, on the side of Biafra. Biafra clearly won the moral fight, but the government refused to support Biafra. In Canada for instance, we had a separate history, movement. The French Canadians were looking for their own independence at the time Biafra was fighting. Okay. And the Canadian prime minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau was a French Canadian, brought up by French Canadians. You know that kind of thing. Here’s one of you. You want to be independent. One of you will be prime minister of Canada. His son, Justin, is now prime minister of Canada, as I’m talking to you now. That was in 1968. His son is president again. He was there for over 12 years. He had the longest reign. Canadian prime minister. So it became difficult politically for Canada to support Biafra. That was one of the consideration. I used to like Pierre Elliot Trudeau. He was a professor in Montreal and that was what I wanted to be.

The French Canadians had been defeated in a war by the English Canadians. Culturally they were different. One was English speaking, the other French speaking. Do you understand? And they are still struggling for their independence till now. So they were very sympathetic, so one of the things I did was to form a group by myself and move around the whole of French Canada let me list them. They were very sympathetic. And at that time in 1967, there was what they called World Exposition. They call it Terre des hommes. People from all over the world came to see that, and the French prime minister, French prime minister, Charles De Gaulle , a veteran of the war, fantastic man, came to Canada as one of those invited to the exposition and he made a statement. Alright, so when he came to Canada, he said Vivre Le Quebec Libre, Vivre Le Quebec Libre, Freedom to Quebec. Separatists. It didn’t go well with Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the English Canadians, but it went well with the French Canadians who were looking for their independence. And it went well with the Biafrans who were looking for their independence.

We had a magazine called the Biafra Review

We had sit-ins. We had teachers who were pro-Biafra. When I left Canada, as I said in Canada, I became president of the committee for international relations. So there were Canadians, there were Americans, Vietnamese, Laotians. There were everybody.

This is Laval Université, the oldest Catholic university in North America. Founded by the Jesuits. The work of the Jesuits is to set up schools. You know that. That it their work all over the world.

So I used that platform to do a number of things, you know, advocacy for Biafra. I literally left classes and of course it has affected my studies. That was my nature. I said if I were home, I would be in the field. And of course there are many students dying.

My major was literature, French. Literature in English and Philosophy.My first degree is in Philosophy at Laval Université. I received my Bachelor’s in one year in 1968 June [though I was skipping classes to advance the pro-Biafra movement].

Some Canadians helped. First of all I told them they were separatists themselves. So it was easy for them to understand Biafra, even those who were not, also understood.

The Biafran war is the first war to be televised. So, people saw what was happening. It wasn’t too easy, too difficult to convince them. Then I told you we have a fantastic bureau for information stationed in Geneva. Stationed all over Europe emanating from home, enclaves called Biafra. They were fantastic. They had agencies through which they sent out their information. I read newspapers, especially the one paper they called Africa Confidential.

And then many [Biafran] emissaries that came abroad that came from, they came from home, [southeastern Nigeria known at the time as Biafra] and went to Canada. The Biafran Commissioner for came to Canada. He came to Quebec and I led him around Quebec province. He didn’t speak French. I spoke French. So all the places he went to with his team, I went with them. When they spoke in English, I translated them to French.

This was around 1968, 69, so by that time it was pretty bad [in Biafra.]

Then, we formed Biafra Students’ Association of North America. Okay? We had a magazine called the Biafra Review. This was based in Columbia, in New York. My friend Professor Eugenie, professor now. He is the editor of Business Media in Lagos now. So we started that magazine. It was a magazine. Alright? In that magazine, we wrote about Biafra.

I don’t remember whether it was monthly now. It was a mouthpiece of the Biafrans in the whole of North America, including Canada. So I got in touch with them. I sent my poems to them. They found some of those poems. I don’t have one of it here. Sequences. It was easier to recollect, to write, in poetry. To write poems and to write long articles around that time because poetry is emotion collected in tranquility. So whenever I had a piece, some minutes of quietness, of reflection. They found my poems eclectic and three of us began to work together. One of the products is towards the decolonization of African literature, which is a must read if you are studying English anywhere in the world today.

We had Biafran Association of Canada

Our business was to state issues on African literature…For us, to project the Biafran ethos. To say that the Igbos can do something different. So we gave it our best and it remains the best.

[I never visited Biafra during the war.] It was not easy. People came from Biafra. That was the second aspect. Remember I mentioned the commissioner came. Then students from Biafra came to Canada. I hosted some of them. Some of them remained in my house. One of them is a retired professor and the other guy who was the president of the Nigerian Students Association died two weeks ago. And they sent those students to America and Canada.

That was what increased the agony

So there were many, many things we did. Biafrans met in Canada. We had Biafran Association of Canada. We met from time to time in Quebec. In Kingston, Ontario, and Toronto. Discussing Biafra, collecting money, sending aids back home. That is what some of us did. There was a psychological humanitarian angle. Many students could not cope with their studies. Some had psychological. The ones who were studying in Canada and abroad.They lost bearing of what was happening at home. Many are still there. They haven’t come back home. Okay. Many have not come back home. Many were disoriented. They left their studies. They didn’t know what to do. Many finished studies, they couldn’t go home, they couldn’t find a job. That is another angle people have not ever dealt with before.

I met a lady who ran away from London, came to Canada, stayed in Montreal, couldn’t stay in Montreal. Come to Quebec, couldn’t stay in Quebec, disappeared. Nobody knew where she went. There were others who came for summer schools who were studying French in English Canada and needed to come to French Canada. Igbos, they had problems, okay. So that one, nobody, I eventually left after my Master’s. By that time the war ended.

[During the war, there was no communication between me and my family in Biafra.] There was no communication. That was what increased the agony. For three years, there was no communication.

There were people who were able to go between the two conflicts. What they call the Ahia attack. People would move from Biafra, into the Nigerian enclave or into the captured Nigerian- do their business with Biafran currency and whatever. You know, and they will go back. Such people they managed to send out some information to the people outside, through the Nigerian corridor. Okay. The only corridor Biafra had was through São Tomé and Portugal and I still haven’t been able to figure out what happened, how that diplomatic breakthrough came through. There were countries that recognized Biafra. Four or five of them. But Nigeria’s propaganda was too much. Nigeria stopped air lifts to Biafra. And that was so much.

So many others wrote to senators, you know, as a result of what they saw, as a result of advocacy and so on and so forth. Remember we went from place to place? We were miming, acting poetry, lecturing and so on and forth. That was part of the Biafra efforts.

 

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