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Author: Richard M. Shain
Title: Two Niger Delta texts on the "Biafran" war
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Two Niger Delta texts on the "Biafran" war
Richard M. Shain

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 6, pp. 15-16, 1993
Author Biography: Richard M. Shain is a member of the Department of History, Rutgers University-Newark.

WAR OF WORDS Two Niger Delta Texts on the "Biafran" War


"Bibi wari kuromo" ("Words strengthen a house")

—A Nembe proverb from the Eastern Niger Delta


Most Nigerian academic historians have avoided writing extensively about the violent conflicts of 1967-1970. As a result, the writing of this period's history has been left to other genres. Nigerians often rely on autobiographies and novels to reconstruct this phase of Nigeria's past. These texts constitute a rich archive of myth and memory. They demonstrate how Nigerians privilege the past in contemporary contests over cultural identity and regional autonomy.

This paper focuses on two of these texts. Both are from the Niger Delta, a major battleground of the war. Elechi Amadi's Sunset in Biafra: A Civil War Diary [2] was published by Heinemann's African Writers Series in 1973. Amadi writes from the perspective of a sensitive and refined civilian caught up in the chaos of conquest and occupation. Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy [3] is a more recent work, published locally in Port Harcourt in 1985. It deals with the war-time experiences of a slightly educated young Delta soldier. The texts provide vivid records of the Nigerian conflict. However, their lasting impact goes one step beyond documenting the dislocations of life in a war zone. Amadi and Saro-Wiwa each postulate a language to write about this period. Amadi's language is the voice of the pre-independence, university educated intelligentsia—stately and erudite. Saro-Wiwa writes in what he calls "rotten English"—the "discordant" [4] vernacular of junior clerks, drivers and mechanics. This paper argues that the tensions between these languages articulate the post-colonial social and cultural history of the Niger Delta region.


Elechi Amadi was born in the Ikwere speaking [5] part of the Niger Delta in 1934. After attending secondary school in the old Eastern Province of colonial Nigeria, he attended the University of Ibadan. He graduated in 1959 with a degree in physics and mathematics, a fact he often alludes to in Sunset in Biafra. He enlisted in the Teaching Corps of the Nigerian Army not long after receiving his degree. He joined the Federal side in the "Biafran" conflict where he helped re-establish Federal authority in the Niger Delta. Since the war, Amadi has figured prominently in the intellectual and political life of Rivers State. He held the key post of Minister of Education there for a period in the early 1970s. In addition to Sunset in Biafra, he is well-known in Nigeria for his novels The Concubine and The Great Ponds.

Ken Saro-Wiwa was born in the Gokana [6] speaking area of the Niger Delta in 1941. He graduated from the same elite secondary school as Amadi and, like him, enrolled in the University of Ibadan. After graduating in 1965, Saro-Wiwa entered the Nigerian civil service. During the war, he served the Federal side as civilian administrator of the eastern Delta district of Bonny. Since then, he has been active in Rivers State and, like Amadi, has held high government positions. Saro-Wiwa's literary work acquired a national reputation in the 1980s when the Nigerian Television Authority aired his television show "Basi and Company." The series which enjoyed a successful run was a comedy based on the regional variations of spoken English in Nigeria.


Neither Sunset in Biafra nor Sozaboy seeks to be in Amadi's words "a comprehensive account of the Nigerian Civil War." [7]

Amadi and Saro-Wiwa chose instead to write personalized, highly idiosyncratic narratives of the "Biafran" conflict from a Niger Delta perspective. Each author graphically depicts the devastation of the region during this troubled era.

Amadi and Saro-Wiwa structure their narratives around journeys. However, these journeys differ from one another in nearly every respect. Amadi's is autobiographical while Saro-Wiwa's is fictional. Amadi purposefully and prominently plays his part on national and regional stages. Saro-Wiwa's Mene the "Sozaboy" anonymously and randomly wanders through a localized landscape. For Amadi, the small Rivers village of Diobu, northwest of Port Harcourt, is utterly rural [8]; for Mene the "Sozaboy" it is New York. [9] Mene "dresses up" when he travels to Diobu from his home village of Dukana. On one of his trips to Diobu New York, he meets his future wife at The African Upwine Palmwine bar.

Amadi's Sunset in Biafra begins in the city of Zaria in Northern Nigeria with Amadi resigning from the Nigerian Army. He leaves Zaria just one week before the coup of January 15th, 1966 and travels to his home village of Aluu, near Port Harcourt. His military training and intellectual stature guarantee him a leadership position when "Biafran" troops occupy the Rivers Region. Amadi's narrative emerges from this experience. His complicated war-time itinerary, interrupted by interrogations and detentions, take him around "Biafra." Amadi's circuit widens when Federal troops re-occupy Port Harcourt. It expands to include the Ahoada District, where he becomes District Officer, and even Lagos. The Federal military government appoints him head of the Rivers Ministry of Local Government in Port Harcourt. He makes sorties from Port Harcourt in search of his missing family and parents. In a rare happy ending for the "Biafran" conflict, he is re-united with all his kin at the narrative's conclusion.

Saro-Wiwa's narrative begins in the small Rivers community of Dukana and rarely leaves the area. As Mene circulates around his rural district as a truck driver's apprentice, he hears talk of disturbing events happening elsewhere in Nigeria. He marries one of the refugees from the West and the North trickling into the area. As rumors of war grow in intensity, Mene decides to enlist. After training camp, Mene proceeds to a Rivers war front. When an air attack decimates his company, Mene runs into the forest. An enemy unit later captures him and takes him to a prisoner of war camp. Under duress; a confused Mene changes sides and becomes a driver. On one of his missions, he takes a detour and visits a nearly abandoned Dukana. He deserts his post to search for his missing wife and mother. He goes from one refugee center to another before encountering many of his townspeople. Rather than welcoming him, his townspeople turn him in as one of the "enemy." He is taken to a prison where he is almost executed. Only the sudden ending of the war saves him. When he travels back to Dukana, he learns that a bomb had killed both his wife and mother some time earlier. His townspeople now consider him a malevolent spirit. They scheme to bury him [10] to end the town's afflictions. Upon detecting his townspeople's plan, an embittered Mene leaves Dukana.

A mutual desire to survive prompts the journeys of these protagonists. Amadi's journey leads to increased social prominence. Once Federal troops take back Port Harcourt, he rises rapidly in the re-occupation hierarchy. He has private breakfasts with top military brass. The Nigerian Head of State, General Yakubu Gowan, even sits through a performance of one of his plays. Strangely, though, Amadi's war apparently changes him little. His confidence and probity survive intact. His style remains detached, abstract, a little bit stiff.

At the end of Mene's journey, he has lost everything—job, family, community. However, he does realize a degree of inchoate self-knowledge. Even more significantly, he devises a language that transmits every fragmented nuance of what he saw and felt. Mene's dialect mingles "Nigerian pidgin English, broken English and occasional flashes of good, even idiomatic English." [11] It communicates with extraordinary suppleness his initial confusion and gradual understanding. When his community forces him into exile, this "rotten English" becomes his only possession, the last remaining anchor of his dislocated cultural identity.


Amadi and Saro-Wiwa use greatly dissimilar styles in their accounts of the "Biafran" conflict. Where Amadi seeks a smooth, writerly surface, Saro-Wiwa strives for a jagged hyper-orality. These contrasting stylistic choices offer radically different readings of this period's history. Amadi encases his Apollonian reflections in a somber prose:

The earth had become a monster, a ubiquitous monster, licking her fangs yet in no hurry to swallow me up. She sneered at me as I trod on her, she laughed at me as I ate, knowing she was fattening me for the kill ... Life was a bitter, cruel dream, arranged by a sadistic god! [12]

Amadi uses this ponderous prose in the service of a historical "pageant." He mounts this pageant in a mixture of interiors—the cool, colonial grandeur of the Zaria Officers Mess; the dignified clutter of a staff commons area; the tense starkness of a police interrogation room; the dank claustrophobia of a prison cell. When he exits these interiors, he relinquishes his powers of description. He rarely depicts the tropical environment surrounding him. His landscapes are "inscapes," and the undefined spaces of Amadi's Rivers raises interesting questions about the true nature of his "local" ties.

Other aspects of Amadi's pageant further highlight the ambivalence of his "Rivers" cultural identity. He builds his pageant around three elements: dialogues, historical interpolations and tableaux. The dialogues are lengthy, stagy exchanges between Amadi and the other "pageant" "cast" members. However, these dialogues rarely involve members of his community who lack individuality. These dialogues often give way to "historical" commentaries where Amadi airs his views on some of the issues at stake in the "Biafran" conflict. Terse and formal, these short essays on such topics as military strategy and "minority" rights portray the moderating influence of Amadi's Ibadan education. However, they never dwell specifically on Ikwere or Rivers history. In the third, most revealing element, Amadi constructs literary dioramas of war-time suffering:

The police cell was more crowded. There were over seventy of us in three rooms. Actually there were more than three rooms, but the others were unusable. Detainees defecated and urinated freely in them and the stench which permeated the occupied rooms was difficult to bear. Again, there were the bedbugs. I had not seen such a dense population of them before. There were many cracks in the wall, especially near the floor, and these were crammed with fat bedbugs. At night they descended on the inmates and fed well. [13]

These tableaux strain for universality. In so doing, they underscore Amadi's desire to link his modes of representation to a long line of English literary progenitors. Keats, Shelley and Shakespeare all make an appearance. However, Amadi never cites Nigerian writers and only rarely alludes to Ikwere or other Rivers cultures. When such "local" references do unfold, Amadi either presents them as touristic forays into the "other" or as manifestations of something ancient and ineffable.

Two telling moments reveal Amadi's ambivalence towards the "indigenous" elements in his "pageant". The first transpires when the military governor of Rivers State visits Amadi at Ahoada. Amadi organizes a "cultural display" for his visitor in his capacity as District Officer. Through persuasion (or coercion), "traditional" masquerades from the area "come out" and "play" for the governor and the local administrator. Amadi not only does not identify these masquerades; he fails to describe them. [14]

The second moment occurs at the text's conclusion when Amadi is re-united with his peasant father:

I picked up my father the next day just four miles from home. Clad in a tattered ancient black overcoat, and with a white beard, he was pushing his bicycle along with steps made remarkably steady by his proximity to his ancestral home. He did not weep as he hugged me, but I knew he felt more than everybody else. [15]

Thus, Amadi's somewhat verbose historical pageant culminates in silence. His father treks towards his ancestral home which apparently is no longer Amadi's. Amadi admires his father's attachment to his locality but does not share it. His concluding sentences imply he has yet to learn his father's language.

Sozaboy unleashes Amadi's silenced voices in Mene's alternative account of the "Biafran conflict." He stresses that for many Rivers people the war was a struggle to preserve local communities against an encroaching world. In order to preserve this local identity, "knacking tory" is an end in itself. The real subject of Sozaboy, in fact, is "knacking tory" in "rotten English"—the creation of a regionalized modern Nigerian vernacular prompted, in part, by the turmoil of the "Biafran" conflict.

"Rotten English" represents a significant departure from both pidgin English and the indigenized English of the Yoruba writers Tutuola and Fagunwa. It differs from pidgin in the conditions of its creation and in its expressive range. Nigerians constructed their pidgin(s), primarily as trade languages, in a precolonial cultural contact zone shared with visiting Europeans. "Rotten English" emerged in a post-colonial situation with university educated Nigerians taking the place structurally of European traders. Pidgins incorporate only as much English vocabulary as necessary for trade and cross-cultural contact. "Rotten English," by contrast, establishes a creative tension with state sanctioned English. Mene frequently satirizes the "big grammar" of the better educated:

The man with fine shirt stood up. And begin to talk in English. Fine fine English. Big big words. Grammar. 'Fantastic. Overwhelming. Generally. In particular and in general.' Haba, God no go vex. But he did not stop there. The big grammar continued ... Then they begin to interpret all that long grammar plus big words in Kana. In short, what the man is saying is that all those who can fight will join army. My heart begin to cut. [16]

Mene's parody reveals his ambiguous self-awareness. As a "rotten English" speaker, he is both proud of his English and driven to improve it. Since finances curtailed his formal schooling, he has to buy "those small small books that they are selling in the park." [17]

He "learns plenty things" from these books but not enough to bring his English up to what he considers "standard" usage.

Mene's compulsion to refine his spoken English illuminates the divergences between "rotten English" and the "Africanized" written English of Western Nigeria. Amos Tutuola in The Palmwine Drinkard (1952) and D.O. Fagunwa in The Forest of a Thousand Deamons (1968) invent an English that reflects Yoruba. Saro-Wiwa's "rotten English", though, is self-referential. Tutuola's rococo "African English" depicts a folk "naif" world where humans and spirits intermingle. The only spirit in Sozaboy is Mene himself-at least in the eyes of his towns people.

However, it is irony which most separates "rotten English" from Pidgin and "Africanized" English. "Rotten English" speakers recognize their language's problematic position between "broken" and WAEC English. However, this position has advantages. If social conditions prevent Mene from achieving his ambitions, "rotten English" gives him a medium, no matter how imperfect, to comprehend those conditions.

This ambiguous position makes "rotten English an excellent historical language. It is a vehicle for "present-ing" the past. "Rotten English" implicitly makes use of materials from the past to organize the present. Mene, for example, continually mixes pre-colonial, colonial, and contemporary English in describing his war-time experiences:

So I begin to think that it will better for me if I travel in the night because in the daytime I can fit see the enemy and even sef if farmer or fisherman or any woman come see me inside my knicker and no shirt and plenty wound for my body and I no fat, they can take me to make prisoner of war again. Or they will think that I am ghost or juju or mad man and they can do me some bad thing. [18]

"Rotten English" is especially effective at transmitting Mene's war-time experiences. Its discordant rhythms evoke the chaos and confusion of battle:

Then I just remember say I never see Bullet. My heart just cut one time. Abi Bullet don die? Ehn? God, whosai'e day? I begin run about dey hala well well, "Bullet, Oga Bullet, Bullet where you dey? I look everywhere. 'E no dey. All de sozas wey no die or no wound join me begin dey look for Bullet. So we come to one pit and I see one hand with watch dey stretch from inside de pit. I know say na Bullet watch be dat one. [19]

Its expressive range simultaneously conveys humor and horror:

So as we were still looking at the plane as it came to pass round and round the camp, I saw that plane drop something. 'E dey me like say the plane dey shit and I begin laugh. But my laugh no reach my belly because that thing from the plane just land near we camp and I hear very very big noise which come carry me for air throway for ground. [20]

"Rotten English"s localization evokes fleeting depictions of war-time landscapes. A dead-pan Mene describes the devastation of the Delta: deserted villages, mangrove swamps with croaking toads and whizzing bullets, land rovers hurdling though forests. Slowly, the "Sozaboy" realizes that the "Biafran" conflict has permanently transformed his world into a now unrecognizable Delta.


These two narratives of the "Biafran" conflict emanate from the same region. The two authors are approximately the same age, and had remarkably similar backgounds and war-time experiences. Even their post-war careers follow parallel trajectories. However, their portrayals of the war are almost completely at odds with one another.

The contrasting languages of these narratives account for this disjuncture. From this linguistic perspective, the texts have more to do with the on-going politics of cultural identity in the Rivers region than with the "Biafran conflict." Amadi writes from the viewpoint of a transnational Delta gentleman who listens to Mozart with gruff army colonels. [21]

Saro-Wiwa's literary voice derives from the English of small town "school leavers." These two identities highlight the changing meanings of minority rights and cultural survival in the post-"Biafran" oil-boom period.

Both authors identify themselves as "minorities" but in quite different ways. Amadi's definition is a structural one. "Minorities" are the smaller groups struggling for their share of national and regional cakes. Consequently, a quest for authenticity and a need for external recognition organize his text and delineate his cultural identity.

Saro-Wiwa is more concerned with the exigencies of place. His minority status thus becomes entangled with his construction of localness. His "rotten English" re-situates his cultural identity. His "knacking tories" name and chart out a localized landscape. This particularized landscape results in a true self-referential localism. Mene's Dukana resists literary commoditization. It is not an exoticized African village designed for external consumption in a cultural Worlds Fair setting. No elders intone sparkling aphorisms. The gods and humans do not engage in profound discussions on ethics and metaphysics.

In Sunset in Biafra and Sozaboy, representations of a turbulent past contribute to the formation and transformation of a regional identity in the present. However, as that "present" shifts, Rivers writers re-negotiate this identity. Amadi writes during a period when Nigeria is re-imagining itself and he feels the need to legitimate his national identity. Sozaboy is engaged in a radically different project—the production of local Nigeriana.


Alagoa, E. J. Noin Nengia, Bere Nengia: Nembe N'Akabu Port Harcourt: University of Port Harcourt Press, 1986.

Amadi, Elechi Sunset in Biafra: A Civil War Diary London: Heinemann, 1973.

Saro-Wiwa, Ken Sozaboy Port Harcourt: Saros International Publishers, 1985.

1. E.J. Alagoa Noin Nengia, Bere Nengia: Nembe N'Akabu (Port Harcourt, 1986), p.23.

2. Elechi Amadi Sunset in Biafra: A Civil War Diary (London, 1973).

3. Ken Saro-Wiwa Sozaboy (Port Harcourt, 1985).

4. Ken Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., "Author's Note."

5. Ikwere is part of the Igbo Language Cluster.

6. Gokana is part of the Ogoni group of languages. It is spoken on the southeastern fringes of the Niger Delta.

7. Elechi Amadi, op.cit., Foreword.

8. Amadi, op.cit., p.141. When a Federal soldier stops Amadi and demands that he prove that he is a Rivers man and not a "rebel", Amadi states that he is from Diobu.

9. Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., p.13. Mene "dresses up" when he travels to Diobu from his home village of Dukana. On one of his trips to Diobu New York, he meets his future wife at The African Upwine Palmwine bar.

10. The town considered him dead, and believes his spirit has come back to trouble them because his corpse was never given a proper burial.

11. Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., "Author's Note."

12. Amadi, op.cit., p.63.

13. Amadi, op.cit., p.124.

14. Amadi, op.cit., p. 172.

15. Amadi, op.cit., p.184.

16. Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., p.46.

17. Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., p.12.

18. Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., p.115.

19. Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., p.111.

20. Saro-Wiwa, op.cit., p.110.

21. At Amadi's reunion with Benjamin Adekunle, the commander of the 3rd Marine Commando, the two listen to Mozart's Serenade in G at Adekunle's headquarters. See Amadi, op.cit., p.149.

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