Saro-Wiwa’s “On a Darkling Plain”: A poignant journey through the Biafran war — Ibiwari Ben

Ken Saro-Wiwa, a celebrated Nigerian writer and activist, has made an undeniable impact on the world with his memoir, On a Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War. The memoir is a narrative on the Nigerian civil war specifically calibrated to focus on inter-ethnic relations and the experiences of oil-rich minority Niger Delta communities during the war. 

He tells of the futility, the chaos, and malevolence of war, as well as the war’s impact on individuals and communities in this riveting tale. Furthermore, we explore the lyrical beauty that makes this memoir a timeless piece of literature. 

Historical Back-drop

Saro-Wiwa was an active participant of federalism during the Nigerian Civil war-Biafran war (1967-1970), an Ogoni ethno-nationalist, one among the micro minorities’ individuals residing in the Niger-Delta in the Eastern region recognised during the colonial era as the “Rivers People.” 

The Ogoni comprise less than 0.05% of Nigeria’s total population and what makes the Ogoni important is the abundant presence of oil and gas in the region. 

War and the Mutiny of Memory

The lyrical beauty in Saro-Wiwa’s writing is so clear and concise that it makes the reader contemplate whether any historical event in Nigeria has inspired as much narrative as the three-year civil war. In the book, Saro-Wiwa explains the impact of war on the collective memory, therefore exploring the concept of a ‘mutiny of memory’ that takes place during the timeless tragedy. The term ‘mutiny of memory’ encapsulates the idea that in the wake of war, memory itself becomes a battleground. It is the selective nature of recollection and the ways in which individuals and communities cope with the trauma of the Biafran war by altering their memories.

The Nigerian civil war took a toll on the human psyche and distorted the collective memory of people which resulted in blurring the realities that unfolded during those dark years. The mutiny of memory transforms into a coping mechanism, to make sense of a traumatic past. He also dwells on his opposition to secession during the civil war and gives a clear picture of the brutality suffered by the minority groups in the hands of their Igbo neighbours. 

The mutiny of memory is one of the notable features of Saro-Wiwa’s prose alongside the lyrical and evocative prose and literary style. This memoir is celebrated for its literary qualities because it captures the emotional and psychological aspects of war and from the role of a witness, Saro-Wiwa evolves into a storyteller. 


Unearthing the Personal: Saro-Wiwa as a Witness

In his war period memoir, he states that he was very much an observer of the war. This section delves into Saro-Wiwa as a witness to the Biafran war. Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa was born on the 10th of October in the year 1941, in Bori town, in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, a region that would later become central to his environmental activism. He describes the war of 1967-1970 as a time of confusion. As a witness, he invites the reader into his personal perspective and recollection as a witness to the conflict and his experiences as an Ogoni activist.

He was one of the few Nigerians who saw the war up close. At the beginning of the conflict, he was at the University of Ibadan and then moved to the Eastern part of Nigeria during the hostilities before escaping to Lagos where he became appointed the civilian administrator for Bonny at the beginning of the Nigerian civil war and remained at the war front with the three marine commando division in the war-torn oil port for the rest of the hostilities. 

As a witness, he renders a vivid account of how the war unfolds on a personal level. The war began in the southeastern region made up of the Igbo ethnic group (declared as the Republic of Biafra after independence). The secession led by General Odumegwu Ojukwu in 1967 who Saro-Wiwa writes was on a naked quest for power and Igbo suffering at the time was his ladder to that power. 

The Nigerian government led by General Yakubu Gowon at the time, opposed the secession, leading to a brutal massacre of individuals and a tumultuous period in Nigerian history. The conflict caused pervasive famine, mass displacement and human right violations from both sides. 

Saro-Wiwa states that the Nigerian federal government consistently ignored the criminal activities of the big oil companies. He describes pipelines, often very rusty and leaking, which pass through Ogoni land including personal family compounds, sometimes exploding, and causing mass destruction. The people of Ogoni land, he writes, are helpless because many times their rivers and farmlands are overly polluted and the two trades that had been the people’s stable way of survival- farming and fishing, have been damaged.

The emotional resonance while unearthing the personal based on Saro-Wiwa as a witness is that his prose shows the political maneuvering, trauma, the pinnacles of hope and the human emotion during the dark times (Biafran war). 

The Silenced Voices

Saro-Wiwa is able to capture the neglected voices in the historiography of the war and place them within proper historical perspective. He talks about stories of individuals and challenges the narratives that may overlook the nuances of individual experiences. The women of Biafra are the ones mostly affected by the challenges that come about during the war. In his memoir, Saro-Wiwa makes known the loss, displacement and tragedy faced by these women during the Biafran war.

He also mentions the impact of war on the children, unravelling stories of catastrophic tragedies, families torn apart and the loss of innocent lives. The silenced voices show the contradictory modernity’s present in minority and majority communities in Nigeria. The struggles of the women and children of Biafra became a testament that portrays resilience and hope in the face of adversity. 

Pictorial Representation of the Civil War

The power of storytelling is not restricted to the realm of words alone; another reason for this memoir being a literary gem is that it contains an album of photographs that serve as a visual/pictorial representation that vocalises the 1967-1970 Biafran war. In doing so, Saro-Wiwa communicates the raw, unfiltered truth of the war, war-torn landscapes, day-to-day struggle of people during the war and the impact of military presence on civilian population. Other things the images show is the impact of war on cultural practices and international involvement during the Nigerian civil war. 


Ken Saro-Wiwa’s  On a darkling plain re-authorises history by projecting versions of events submerged in time by discussing the denial of freedom to the non-Igbo minority communities in the eastern parts of Nigeria and expressing sympathy towards the ordinary people who are victims of the war. 

The concluding chapters serve as a call for remembrance, urging the reader to intensely reflect on the enduring impact of the chaos and war. Saro-Wiwa also condemns General Odumegwu Ojukwu, who started the secession through sarcasm in many parts of his memoir; The timeless beauty of this book is that it explores the Nigerian civil war by combining personal narratives, historical analysis and narrative artistry (craftsmanship). 

Ben’s review was a finalist in the 2023 Ken Saro-Wiwa Book Review Prize at LABAF 2023


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