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Genocide and Postcolonial African Literature

  • Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba


This essay provides a critical review of the field of postcolonial African genocide writing. The review makes a case for scholarly recognition of the discourse of African genocide literature. The essay advances some broad claims, among which include the following: that genocidal atrocities in Africa have provoked a body of imaginative literature, which, among other things, has attempted to imagine the conditions giving rise to African genocides, and that this body of literature underlines a confluence of sensibilities shaping atrocity writings and their critical receptions in Africa since the mid-twentieth century. The review provides a critical overview of fictional narratives as well as their scholarly receptions bordering on genocidal atrocities in the Nigerian and Rwandan contexts.


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1 See Lemkin, Raphael, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, 2nd ed. (Clark, NJ: The Law Book Exchange, 2008). For a comprehensive discussion of Lemkin’s concept of genocide, see, for example, Moses, A. Dirk, “Genocide,” Australian Humanities Review 55 (2013); Shaw, Martin, What Is Genocide? (Cambridge: Polity, 2015); Power, Samantha, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide ( New York: Basic Books, 2013). See also Irvin-Erickson , Douglas, Raphaël Lemkin and the Concept of Genocide (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

2 Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, 79.

3 Article II of the UNGC defines genocide as meaning: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

4 See, for example, Stapleton, Timothy J., A History of Genocide in Africa (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2017).

5 For a recent discussion of the politics of this UN investigation and its implication for how the massacres became characterized afterward, see, for example, Smith, Karen E., “The UK and ‘Genocide’ in Biafra,” Journal of Genocide Research 16.2–3 (2014): 247–62.

6 See, for example, Stapleton, A History of Genocide in Africa.

7 Some scholars have argued that certain evolving representational trends in the West appropriated memories of Nazi genocide of Jews (the Holocaust) and turned them into a paradigm of extreme/absolute evil. This association of the Holocaust with absolute evil accounts for how we have come to imagine genocides more generally, oftentimes leading to implicit comparisons between genocides in other places and the Holocaust. See, for example, Hinton, Alexander L., “Critical Genocide Studies,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 7.1 (2012): 415 .

8 For a discussion of some methodological challenges in theorizing genocides in Africa, see, for example, Zegeye, Abebe, “Methodological Problems to the Understanding of the Rwandan Genocide,” African Identities 8.4 (2010): 309–16; Jaworski, Katrina, “The Methodological Crisis of Theorising Genocide in Africa,” African Identities 10.3 (2012): 349–65.

9 For some notable recent scholarly discussions of some of these novels as war fiction, see, for example, Coundouriotis, Eleni, The People’s Right to the Novel: War Fiction in the Postcolony ( New York: Fordham University Press, 2014); Hodges, Hugh, “Writing Biafra: Adichie, Emecheta and the Dilemmas of Biafran War Fiction,” Postcolonial Text 5.1 (2009): 113 ; Falola, Toyin and Ezekwem, Ogechukwu, eds., Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War (Rochester, NY: James Currey, 2016). See also some important older scholarly accounts: Willfried F. Feuser, “Anomy and Beyond: Nigeria’s Civil War in Literature,” Presence Africaine 137–138 (1986): 113–51; Nwahunanya, Chinyere, “The Aesthetics of Nigerian War Fiction,” Modern Fiction Studies 37.3 (1991): 427–43; Amuta, Chidi, “The Nigerian Civil War and the Evolution of Nigerian Literature,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 17.1 (1983): 8599 .

10 See, for example, Straus, Scott, “ ‘Destroy Them to Save Us’: Theories of Genocide and the Logics of Political Violence,” Terrorism and Political Violence 24.4 (2012): 544–60.

11 See, for example, Coundouriotis, The People’s Right to the Novel.

12 See, for example, Amuta, “The Nigerian Civil War and the Evolution of Nigerian Literature”; Iniobong I. Uko, “Of War and Madness: A Symbolic Transmutation of the Nigeria-Biafra War in Selected Stories from The Insider: Stories of War and Peace from Nigeria,” War in African Literature Today 26 (2008): 49–59.

13 See, for example, Hodges, “Writing Biafra”; Feuser, “Anomy and Beyond”; Nwahunanya, “The Aesthetics of Nigerian War Fiction.”

14 See Adimora-Ezeigbo , Akachi, “From the Horse’s Mouth: The Politics of Remembrance in Women’s Writing on the Nigerian Civil War,” Body, Sexuality, and Gender: Versions and Subversions in African Literatures, eds. Veit–Wild, Flora and Naguschewski, Dirk, vol. 1 (Amsterdam and Union, NJ: Editions Rodopi, 2005): 221–30; Pape, Marion, “Nigerian War Literature by Women: From Civil War to Gender War,” Body, Sexuality, and Gender: Versions and Subversions in African Literatures, eds. Veit–Wild, Flora and Naguschewski, Dirk, vol. 1 (Amsterdam & Union NJ: Editions Rodopi, 2005): 231–41; Machiko, Oike, “Becoming a Feminist Writer: Representation of the Subaltern in Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra ,” War in African Literature Today 26 (2008): 6070 .

15 My focus is on Coundouriotis’s book, The People’s Right to the Novel. It is a recent and perhaps definitive critique of African war fiction. It brings together some of the most important literatures of catastrophe in Africa’s postcolony in a compelling discussion as war literature.

16 Coundouriotis also notes that the Biafran war influenced Western humanitarian practice in ways that institutionalized humanitarianism as a “proxy testimony” account of suffering. For more explanations on Biafra and Western humanitarian practices, see, for example, O’Sullivan, Kevin, “Humanitarian Encounters: Biafra, NGOs and Imaginings of the Third World in Britain and Ireland, 1967–70,” Journal of Genocide Research 16.2–3 (2014): 299315 . For a discussion of humanitarianism as a practice that is based on accounts of traumatic experiences using the language of suffering, see Fassin, Didier and Rechtman, Richard, The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood, trans. Gomme, Rachel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). See also Fassin, Didier, Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2012).

17 Coundouriotis, The People’s Right to the Novel, 3.

18 Coundouriotis, The People’s Right to the Novel, 9.

19 On this point of naturalism in African literature, see also Lazarus, Neil, “Realism and Naturalism in African Fiction,” African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, eds. Olaniyan, Tejumola and Quayson, Ato (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell , 2007), 340–44. Lazarus suggests in this essay that African naturalism is different from European naturalism because African writers refuse to deny individuals agency even in the chaotic context of war and catastrophe.

20 Chinua Achebe writes moving details about his own experience of escape and his observations of the systematic massacres of Igbos in western Nigeria at the time. See his memoir, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (London: Heinemann, 2012). For a related experience based on escape of massacres occurring at the time in parts of the Northern Region of Nigeria, see Chukwurah, Diliorah, Last Train to Biafra: Memories of a Biafran Child: A Personal Family Experience (Surrey, England: Grosvenor House, 2014).

21 For scholarly accounts on the Biafran crisis as genocide, see, for example, Moses, A. Dirk, and Heerten, Lasse, eds., Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967–1970 ( New York: Routledge, 2018); Uzoigwe, G. N., Visions of Nationhood: Prelude to the Nigerian Civil War, 1960–1967 (Trenton, NJ; Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 2011); Korieh, Chima J., ed., The Nigeria-Biafra War: Genocide and the Politics of Memory (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2012); Ekwe-Ekwe , Herbert, Biafra Revisited (Dakar/Reading: African Renaissance, 2007); Forsyth, Frederick, The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story (England: Penguin, 1977); and Jacobs, Dan, The Brutality of Nations ( New York: Knopf, 1987).

22 For examples of some important socialist/Marxist criticisms proposing sociological readings of African/Nigerian literature, see Omafume Onoge, “The Crisis of Consciousness in Modem African Literature,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 8.2 (1974): 385–410; Amuta, “The Nigerian Civil War,” 85–99. See also McLuckie, Craig W., Nigerian Civil War Literature: Seeking an Imagined Community (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990). For scholarly discussion of war fiction by women as indicative of an emergent feminist consciousness in Nigeria suggestive of a gender war, see, for example, Pape, “Nigerian War Literature by Women,” 231–41.

23 Amuta, “The Nigerian Civil War,” 86.

24 Amuta, “The Nigerian Civil War,” 93.

25 Amuta, “The Nigerian Civil War,” 93.

26 There are writers whose novels deliberately reimagine the 1966–1970 crisis from apparently Marxist perspectives. See, for example, Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty (1976), Festus Iyayi’s Heroes (1986), and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy (1985). Yet, even in these novels—for example, Okpewho’s The Last Duty and Iyayi’s Heroes—the subject of genocide is not overly sacrificed for an understanding that is based entirely on class struggles. In part, Okpewho’s novel centers on the genocidist politics informing relationships between Igbo residents and other ethnicities in the then mid-Western Region of Nigeria during the war. Iyayi’s Heroes recounts a Nigerian journalist’s testament to the deliberate and systematic violence directed at Igbo civilians.

27 Adimora-Ezeigbo, “From the Horse’s Mouth,” 223.

28 See Julien, Eileen, “The Extroverted African Novel,” The Novel, Volume I: History, Geography, and Culture, ed. Moretti, Franco (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006): 667700 .

29 For a discussion of Twagilimana’s Manifold Annihilation as genocide and civil war fiction, see, forexample, Hitchcott, Nicki, “Visions of Civil War and Genocide in Fiction from Rwanda,” Research in African Literatures 48.2 (2017): 152–65.

30 Boubacar Diop renders the theme as “Rwanda: Writing against Oblivion.” See Diop, Boubacar, Africa beyond the Mirror, trans. Wülfing-Leckie , and Beschea-Fache , (Banbury, England: Ayebia Clarke, 2014), 5 .

31 See Tadjo, Véronique, “Interview with Boubacar Boris Diop,” African Identities 8.4 (2010): 425–30. See also, Diop, Africa beyond the Mirror.

32 Tadjo, “Interview with Boubacar Boris Diop,” 426.

33 For a discussion of the project’s theme, see, for example, Small, Audrey, “The Duty of Memory: A Solidarity of Voices after the Rwandan Genocide,” Paragraph 30.1 (2007): 85100 .

34 Kopf, Martina, “The Ethics of Fiction: African Writers on the Genocide in Rwanda,” Journal of Literary Theory 6.1 (2012): 66 .

35 See, for example, Paul Rusesabagina and Tom Zoellner, An Ordinary Man (2006); Immaculée Ilibagiza and Steve Erwin, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (2006); and Esther Mujawayo and Souâd Belhaddad’s SurVivantes (2004) and its sequel La Fleur de Stéphanie (2007), testimonial works on trauma, recovery, and reconciliation. See also Gilbert Gatore, The Past Ahead: A Novel (2012); Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil, The Girl Who Smiled Beads (2018).

36 Kopf, “The Ethics of Fiction,” 68.

37 See Dauge-Roth , Alexandre, Writing and Filming the Genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda: Dismembering and Remembering Traumatic History (Plymouth, England: Lexington Books, 2010): 87166 .

38 See, for example, Kopf, “The Ethics of Fiction.”

39 The official Rwandan government narrative of the war often emphasizes that the RPF fought the war to end genocide, a narrative that downplays some of the major political issues leading to the war such as power-sharing and reallocation of land to displaced Tutsi refugees. See, for example, Reyntjens, Filip, “Rwanda, Ten Years on: From Genocide to Dictatorship,” The Political Economy of the Great Lakes Region of Africa: The Pitfalls of Enforced Democracy and Globalisation, eds. Marysse, S. and Reyntjens, F. ( London: Macmillan Palgrave, 2005): 1547 .

40 The notion of a war fought in defense of Nigerian unity became the organizing condition for national consciousness. Igbo/Biafran victims lost the war. The narrative of their victimization cannot at the same time be the basis of the national consciousness of their oppressors. Hence the state represses the narrative of genocide that charges it with guilt in favor of a war memory that continues to describe that past as a victory for Nigerian unity and as the heroic feat of Nigeria’s military. To date, no significant monuments are erected in any part of the country to commemorate civilian victims. January 15 of every year is known as Armed Forces Remembrance Day in Nigeria. The day is used to mark the official surrender of Biafra and kept in honor of “the unknown soldier” who sacrificed “his” life for Nigeria’s unity.

41 Falconer, Rachel, Hell in Contemporary Literature: Western Descent Narratives since 1945 (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 4 .

42 Whitehead, Anne, “Journeying through Hell: Wole Soyinka, Trauma, and Postcolonial Nigeria,” Studies in the Novel 40.1–2 (2008): 16 .

43 See, for example, Linder, Mark, “Time for Lacan: Looking after the Mirror Stage,” Assemblage 21 (1993): 8283 .

44 See, for example, Sirc, Geoffrey, “The Composition’s Eye/Orpheus’s Gaze/Cobain’s Journals ,” Composition Studies 33.1 (2005): 1130 .

45 See, for example, Blanchot, Maurice, “Orpheus’s Gaze,” The Space of Literature, trans. Smock, Ann (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), 171–76.

46 Whitehead, “Journeying through Hell,” 17–18.

47 Soyinka, Wole, The Man Died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka ( New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 88 .

48 Soyinka, The Man Died, 88.

49 Stratton, Florence, “Periodic Embodiments: A Ubiquitous Trope in African Men’s Writing,” Research in African Literatures 21.1 (1990): 153 .

50 Diop, Boubacar, Murambi, the Book of Bones, trans. Laughlin, Fiona Mc (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 179 .


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Genocide and Postcolonial African Literature

  • Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba


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