Representations of Women as Assertive Attack Traders in Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace, Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra and Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun

Robert Obioha

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The Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970 has generated lots of literary works in practically all genres of literature namely, prose fiction, drama, poetry and short story. One of the features of the war is women participation in attack trade or “afia attack”, a trade across enemy lines. Indeed, attack trade is one of the important themes of some Nigerian Civil War Novels. Although some men participated in the illicit but lucrative trade in some of the novels, it was essentially driven by women. Some studies have mentioned the activities of the women attack traders but did not give details of the illegal but tolerated trade. Generally, individual and group survival top the agenda of female attack traders, some also use the trade for selfish and subversive acts.Therefore, this paper explores in details the representation of women assertive attack traders in Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace, Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra and Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. It also highlights the gains, inherent dangers and contradictions of the trade.

Keywords: Representation, Women, Womanism, Nigerian Civil War, Novels


Unarguably, one of the features of Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970 is women participation in attack trade. The trade is indeed one of the important themes of some Nigerian Civil War Novels. Some studies of the Nigerian Civil War Novels have mentioned the activities of the women attack traders without giving details of the female participants. This paper explores in details the representation of the assertive women attack traders in Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace (1976), Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra (1994), and Chimamnada Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). The paper also highlights the gains, inherent dangers and contradictions of the trade.

Theoretical Approach

This paper is also a Womanist reading of the aforementioned Nigerian Civil War novels. As a critical theory, the goal of Womanism, as Ogunyemi (1996:123) elucidates, is “to establish healthy relationships among people, despite ethnic, geographical, educational, gender,   ethical, class, religious, military, and political differences.” In order to achieve the Womanist goal in literature, Ogunyemi recommends that “the oppression emanating from these differences has to be addressed to counter further divisions and hardships” (123). Some of the Womanist’s questions she believes to be addressed “for a postmilitaristic reconstruction” (123), (which are still relevant for improved gender relations in the country today) include: “What is wrong with the relationship between men and women? What are the strengths of men and women, and how can they be optimally utilized for their own and national good? What can be done to stem the current nihilistic trends in the country?” (123).

 Similarly, Kolawole (1997:24), another womanist theorist, contends that “womanism is the totality of feminine self-expression, self-retrieval, and self-assertion in positive cultural ways” and that “any African woman who has the consciousness to situate the struggle within African cultural realities by working for a total and robust self-retrieval of the African woman is an African or Africana womanist” (34). Kolawole concludes that “African womanism also identifies problems relating to the male dominance in the society while seeking solutions to women’s marginalization by looking inward and outward. It further seeks to create a conducive social space for the woman from which she contributes to the larger struggle of her gender, race and/or class”(198). Since womanism seeks for better economic conditions for women, men and children in the society, this paper, therefore, examines the depiction of women attack traders in the aforementioned war novels taking into due consideration these womanist concerns.

The paper uses the Womanist principles of “self-assertion,” and “bonding,” in analyzing the various conceptions of the women attack traders by the writers of the selected war novels. It also uses these concepts to interrogate how the women characters portrayed in these works use the attack trade as a vehicle to improve their lives and those of their families and community at large during the war in keeping with the overall aim of womanism. The paper equally highlights the gains, the inherent dangers and contradictions of the attack trade vis-à-vis the objectives of the Biafran War as portrayed in the novels.  By bringing scarce food items and other essential commodities to Biafra, women in no small measure contribute towards their own survival as well as the survival of the men and children in Biafra. Therefore, women’s invaluable and assertive role in the attack trade is in conformity with African womanist ethos in working to ensure the welfare of all in the society.

The women’s role in the attack trade is patriotic and even heroic because they help to save millions of Biafrans from starvation. If not for the attack trade, more Biafrans would have died due to the socio-economic deprivations occasioned by lack of essential commodities. This is probably why Ifi Amadiume, as cited by Bryce (1991), asserts that “women fed and sustained the economy of Biafra through attack trade which involved market trips through enemy front lines” (33). The fact that women engage in the market trips through enemy front lines negates the notion of docility and passivity usually ascribed to them in war situations. It also deconstructs the myth of war being the preserve of men or sites where only men operate. The attack trade is also instrumental to the survival of Biafra as it helped her replenish some of the needed but scarce commodities.  

Gains of Attack Trade in Survive the Peace

In Survive the Peace, Cyprian Ekwensi demonstrates much interest in the activities of attack traders, the articles of trade, the nature of the trade, the methods and the huge profits made by those involved. Gladys is one of the assertive female attack traders that is portrayed in this novel that chronicles the events of the Nigerian Civil War and its aftermath. The novel’s title is suggestive of surviving the peace that came at the end of the war. Ekwensi’s thesis is that surviving the peace after the war is as difficult as surviving the actual war as some people died after the end of the hostilities. Gladys is a good representation of a typical shrewd and fearless attack trader in the novel.  The first glimpse of Gladys as attack trader by the author is when “she began to tell the stories of crossing the Biafran border into the Nigerian side” to her friend, James Odugo (82). As an expert in attack trade, Gladys goes to the Nigerian side with her articles of trade, which are mainly transistor radios, and sells them at good prices. With the proceeds, she buys salt in fifty kilogramme bags which she sells on the Biafran side at a huge profit. Here, Ekwensi underscores the profit motivation of the attack traders.

 In this novel, Ekwensi depicts the two-way traffic of items of trade between the women attack traders and their Nigerian counterparts. Since Gladys sells a four-ounce measure or one cigarette cupful of salt for one Biafran pound or more, she could make not less than four hundred pounds on a bag of salt she brings to Biafra. Women like Gladys are in charge of the Biafran economy. Ekwensi posits that “attack traders like Gladys, had no deep interest in the causes of the war or its outcome, so long as it gave them the big business opportunities lacking in peace time” (83). The main motive for the attack trade is survival of the participants and by extension Biafrans, as “one journey in two or three months was enough to sustain life at above average level” (83).

By bringing into Biafra scarce and essential commodities, the attack traders ensure not only their individual survival but the survival of the Biafran society. While attack trade is generally transacted behind enemy lines, Ekwensi goes further to explain why Gladys and others that engage in the hazardous trade are called the ‘attack traders’. Ekwensi narrates that “Gladys and her kind were called the ‘attack’ traders because their operation resembles military action and was fraught with the gravest risks on both sides of the fighting front; but Gladys thought nothing of them” (83). That Gladys thought nothing of the inherent dangers in the attack trade is a marker of bravery and doggedness. It symbolizes the aggressiveness and ruthlessness of a typical attack trader, who is not afraid of death. To Gladys and others that participate in the trade, the survival instinct is far greater than the inherent danger associated with it. In this way, the attack traders and the soldiers in the battle front are all involved in the struggle for the survival of Biafra under different fronts with different instruments.

On the modus operandi of the trade, Ekwensi has the following explanation: “The entire ‘attack’ business involved bribing one’s way across the fighting fronts in either direction. Nigerian imports were as much under strict control as was importation into Biafra. And the attack trade flourished on scarcity” (126). It is ironical that the attack trade market is mutually beneficial to both Biafran and Nigerian participants, the hitherto brothers and sisters that have within a little space of time become mortal enemies despite the official restriction of movement of goods and people by the warring governments. By engaging in attack trade, women serve as points of contact and bridge builders between the warring sides. Ekwensi’s portrayal of Gladys as a fearless attack trader and one bent on surviving the hard times of war is clearly a departure from his earlier portrayal of women as prostitutes and male appendages in his city novels, Jagua Nana (1961) and People of the City (1954).

Perhaps the realistic nature of war novels might have propelled Ekwensi not to disregard the roles of some of these powerful women that contribute to Biafra’s survival in his war novel. Contrasting the main character in the novel, Odugo with Gladys, Chukukere (1984) submits that “Gladys’ ‘attack trade’ business involves incursions into federal enemy territory where essential commodities are battered. Thus, her moral superiority is demonstrated in her fearless ventures which are contrary to Odugo’s mental and physical revulsion from danger and pain” (82).  Apart from Gladys, Juliette, Odugo’s wife, is another woman that participates in the lucrative attack trade. Juliette’s desire for independence and economic freedom seems to have propelled her to venture into the trade and she points this out to her husband unambiguously:

I want you to know that things have changed. The past is past. Look round and see! How many women who took part in ‘attack trade’ are still living with their husbands? None! Everyone of them is now thinking how she can save herself and prosper and gather money together to enjoy herself. (140)

Juliette’s tone in the preceding passage is portrayed by Ekwensi from the position of power. She is bold and fearless in telling her husband her mind. Most of the attack traders portrayed by Ekwensi want to live a free and independent life as Juliette desires: “I have given you three children. That is enough! I’m not going to kill myself for you. I want to live free – independent. Not begging for every penny I need” (140). Juliette also wants total freedom from man’s control: “I want to be my own boss, and see what God has in store for me” (141). Juliette’s desire to live an independent life outside marriage is one of the ugly fallouts of the war. However, it should be pointed out that Juliette’s quest for total freedom from her husband contradicts the overall aim of Womanism: the welfare of all sexes in the society. The portrayal of the disruption of family life using Juliette and others to illustrate it is an indication of Ekwensi’s realistic vision of the war situation.

Stories of women that abandon their husbands during and after the war abound. In all, Gladys and Juliette represent strong women that control the home front as well as the public front as attack traders. The war gives them the opportunity to occupy men’s spaces as bread winners. Ekwensi uses these female characters to demonstrate the change in gender roles during the war. Therefore, their nurturing role in providing the basic needs of family tallies with Womanist aesthetics. They assertively and assiduously work for individual and communal survival in Biafra. In this wise, they can be regarded as brave female warriors because the attack trade is a veritable theatre of war. They should also be garlanded as heroines of the war alongside their male compatriots that engaged in battle. Ekwensi’s attack traders are women of means and power. Some of them even rub shoulders with men and want some freedom from men. In Survive the Peace, Ekwensi’s women become attack trade fighters, economic power wielders and people that matter in the society instead of being seen through the lens of prostitution and appendages to men of Jugua Nana era. They prove to be men’s equal and cooperative allies in the Biafran struggle. The portrayal of these multi-tasking female characters by Ekwensi is in line with Nnaemeka’s (1977) position that:

Women fought ‘on all fronts’ in order to bring normalcy (or semblance of it) to an abnormal situation—a task they saw both as a moral obligation and a civic duty. As the line between public and private, personal and political, individual and collective became blurred, women fought their daily battles by playing multiple roles. (253)

Perhaps, this is why Azodo (1998) postulates that in the face of hunger and deprivation during the war, “many women went into “attack trade” to ensure the survival of their family members. (Some) women learned to overlook the hostilities in order to make friends behind enemy lines in search of the necessities of life” (243). The women in this novel act as equal partners with men to assiduously and frontally confront the shortage of essential commodities in Biafra.

The women attack traders are strong, brave and courageous. It can, therefore, be safely said that the engagement in the attack trade has made women realize their inner potentials. It is also liberating to some of them who may have been operating under the shadows of their husbands, the hitherto bread winners, and under certain societal restrictions that inhibit women’s aspirations and growth. The attack trade offers women a veritable pedestal to prove their mettle during the war in this novel. Pape (2011) notes that while the trade is orchestrated in the background by rich male merchants, most of the foot work is done by women. The major items of the trade, she recounted, include furniture, clothes, jewellery and food items (46-47). For the women involved, the attack trade is dangerous as Biafran and Nigerian Forces treat them as saboteurs. The Biafran war situation allows women attack traders to be seen and also heard. 

Contradictions of Attack Trade in Destination Biafra

In Destination Biafra, Buchi Emecheta draws attention to the fact that prominent individuals in Biafra take part in the illicit attack trade because they too want to survive the war no matter the strategy that is adopted. After all, the war is about the survival of the new nation Biafra as well as the survival of her citizens. To Nigeria, the war is to keep the country as one but to Biafra, it is a war of survival and freedom from Nigeria’s persecution and oppression. With this in mind, it does not really matter to many Biafrans whether or not, the individual survival method is at variance with the national war objectives. Emecheta’s female characters, Mrs. Ozimba and Mrs. Eze, the wives of two prominent politicians from Biafra, are two women that participate in the survival trade through the prompting of Mrs. Stella Ogedemgbe. Ogedemgbe writes them a letter after hearing that kwashiorkor was killing hundreds of children and even adults in Biafra: “She wrote that she was sad to hear that kwashiorkor was killing hundreds of children and even adults. Nigerian soldiers had occupied her area of Mid-West. She urged the wives to remember that the only thing their politician husbands gave them was their names” (216).

The sisterhood and cooperation existing among Mrs. Ogedemgbe, Mrs. Ozimba and Mrs. Eze in this novel is a demonstration of Emecheta’s womanist concerns.  Mrs Ogedemgbe goes on to assure them of how the deal will be done and her willingness to accept Biafran currency: “And because she was Mrs. Ogedemgbe she could send them food through the creeks via the Mid-Western towns. She would accept Biafran money, and that they could get the business going” (216). Mrs. Ogedemgbe also reveals other strategies to make the deal sail through seamlessly: “She had four strong canoe men in her employ. They should reply through the same Biafran soldier who brought the note, and please not report him to their husbands. She had paid heavily to convince him that he would come to no harm” ( 216).

Emecheta’s portrayal of the illegal attack trade shows that even highly placed Biafran women are also part of the trade through well-coordinated proxy. Even some Biafran soldiers act as collaborators in the trade through their involvement in transmitting messages to the attack traders. That their husbands are kept out of the business shows the organized nature of the trade and the extent of secrecy surrounding it. Some of the items of trade Mrs. Ozimba compiles include “bags of salt and garri” which are scarce in Biafra. Emecheta’s portrayal of women attack traders shows the collaborative spirit of the women to help one another survive. Such collaboration goes beyond thin ethnic boundaries of Biafra and Nigeria. It is also part of Emecheta’s womanist aesthetics and strategies to weave woman’s culture. Her depiction of the attack trade apart from showing the survival tactics of women engaged in war also shows the contradiction in the Biafran society. For instance, in Biafra, survival, whether at individual or communal level, is accorded higher premium than the national goal by individuals involved in the war. Some characters can go to any length to ensure that they survive the war.

It is also contradictory that Mrs. Ozimba and Mrs. Eze use the trade to send their children abroad for safety and make plenty of money, while the children of poor women are sent to the battle field to die. While the affluent women live big from the proceeds of the illicit trade, the mothers of those men that are sent to battle fields to fight and possibly die for Biafra depend on food from feeding centres. Food supply in the feeding centres can be erratic at times. This makes those in the battle fields to languish in want and utter deprivation. The activities of these women in the illicit trade and the tacit support given to them upon discovery by their husbands clearly depict the degree of alienation between Biafra’s leadership and some political elites. It also depicts the level of hypocrisy among the Biafran elites. The reactions of the two politicians when they discover that their children have been sent out show their ignorance of what their wives do: “Luckily, the two women’s sons listened to their mothers, and left Biafra along with the list of goods and bags of Biafran money. They wrote to their fathers soon afterwards to say that they were safe, and Dr Eze and Dr Ozimba both shook their heads and remarked, These women, what they can do” (216). Their tepid response appears to be supportive of their wives’ unpatriotic roles.

More worrisome is the claim by Dr Eze that his two sons are missing when it is becoming clear that the fictional Biafran leader, Abosi, is suspicious of the deal: “When the second son left, and Abosi began to be suspicious, Dr Eze claimed that his two sons had suddenly disappeared. This caused panic inside the cabinet for it was thought that enemies had infiltrated, abducting the sons of top men. Both Eze and Ozimba slept better, and meanwhile their wives carried on a very lucrative trade” (216). That is why Taiwo (1984) laments that “while the children of poor people are conscripted into the army to die, they send their own children to school abroad. Their wives make huge profits from the ‘attack’ trade and accumulate wealth inside and outside Biafra” (119). With this portrayal of high level betrayal in Biafra, Emecheta, apart from showing what women can do in the grueling circumstance of war and deprivation, also mocks the hypocrisy of the Biafran political elites that look the other way while the national goal is being vitiated, subverted and totally abandoned.

The activities of these women and others in Biafra tend to lend support to Nwachukwu-Agbada’s (1996) thesis that the story of the Biafran War in Destination Biafra is about “how women battled to save themselves and their families in a time of national emergency” (394). To women in Biafra, survival of family ranks highest before any other thing. They loath seeing their children killed because of the war. Therefore, the politics of the war does not engage their attention more than how to survive in the face of enemy bombardment and lack of essential commodities. These handicaps explain their engagement in attack trade as a means of individual and communal survival. Emecheta’s construction of women attack traders is markedly different from  others so far examined in that it shows the interconnectedness of influential Biafran and Nigerian women in the border trade.

It also shows non-passivity of women in war situation, especially the Nigeria-Biafra War. Porter (1996) observes another insidious contradiction of laughable roles played in the saga by Dr Eze and Dr Ozimba that while the sons of the rich “leaders” are cowardly hiding in distant places, their fathers (embodied in Dr. Eze and Dr Ozimba) respectively send four Biafran soldiers on a clandestine mission aimed at launching biological warfare against the federal forces” (324). This depicts the height of deception in Biafra and hypocrisy writ large by some prominent characters that populate Biafra. The contradictory roles of such influential men in Biafra can possibly explain why Biafra eventually lost the war. It is very doubtful if they believe in such a war when their sons are safe in foreign lands. This shows that not all Biafrans including the highly placed are very committed to the Biafran cause. In fact, much commitment to the Biafran cause may have actually come from the commoners, the peasants, who sacrifice their lives to defend Biafra. In Destination Biafra, Emecheta underscores the important roles of the female attack traders in the survival of their individual families, the network of participants in the trade, the collaborative spirit of the actors as well as the hypocrisy of some of the major actors in the Biafran war. Additionally, She shows the powerful space occupied by women in Biafra and the creative ingenuity of women to survive an adverse situation as war. Therefore, Emecheta’s women on this count are witty and fearless in their survival ventures.

Dangers of Attack Tade in Half of a Yellow Sun

Just like Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace and Emecheta’s Destination Biafra, Chimamanda Adichie in Half of a Yellow Sun portrays the activities of women attack traders with particular reference to certain death that ultimately awaits some of them. She also underscores the fact that there is indeed nothing some of these women could not do to get through the trade, including at times offering their bodies to soldiers as part of the bargain to get what they want. Some of the female attack traders Adichie portrays in her war novel are not named. Actually, some of these audacious female attack traders are realised in the story through their actions like donating food for charity or giving gifts to friends and relatives. But the depiction of Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister and perhaps Mrs Muokelu’s participation in the trade engage the attention of Adichie largely, especially Kainene’s involvement in the dangerous trade, from which she never returns, despite all the search efforts by her family members, including consulting a native doctor, dibia. Apart from the gains of the trade, Adichie equally highlights the hazardous nature of the illicit trade between Biafrans and Nigerians. The death or disappearance of Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene, in the trade, as already mentioned, is an apt illustration of the inherent danger of the trade and apparently a narrative strategy to avoid closure of the Biafran story. The first mention of attack trade in Adichie’s narrative is when: “Olanna spent most of the cash in the envelope and bought biscuits and toffees in shiny wrappers from a woman who traded behind enemy lines” (271). Also portrayed among parents that donate food items to Olanna’s home lesson in the novel is: “A woman who traded across enemy lines (that) brought a chicken” (298).

These depictions draw attention to the fact that those that engage in the trade are many and well-off. Another compelling reason that makes Muokelu join the trade might be survival, having many people to feed at the same time, including her children, her wounded soldier husband and many relatives. She works as a teacher but along the line decides to join the highly lucrative afia attack. The situation in her family with increasing number of people to feed and the husband that returns from the war front with only one leg makes it imperative for Mrs. Muokelu to join the rank and file of women attack traders in Biafra with the sole aim of survival: “I have twelve people to feed, she said. And that is not counting my husband’s relatives who have just come from Abakaliki. My husband has returned from the war front with one leg. What can he do? I am going to start afia attack and see if I can buy salt. I can no longer teach” (299). Muokelu might have seen that other women that engage in the trade are not doing badly hence, she joins them, the new women of power and money. Of all the female characters that engage in attack trade in Half of Yellow Sun, only Kainene is distinguishably characterized.

Apart from Mrs Muokelu whose activities in the trade are not well-defined as earlier stated, it is to Kainene that Adichie devotes much space in her portrayal of the illicit trade. Kainene’s motivation for the trade is not for personal gains. It is essentially to supply the needs of those in her refugee camp. Therefore, her reason for embarking on the trade is both altruistic and nationalistic. She discloses that she will sell some items those in her refugee camp have produced and use the money to trade with the enemy. To Kainene, the attack trade means “trading with illiterate Nigerian women who have what we need” (414). But readers are aware that the trade is more than her simple and naïve description and conception. While other women go on attack trade for profit motive and individual survival, Kainene is motivated by the urge to find food for the inmates of her refugee centre.

Kainene’s role in the trade is, therefore, not self-serving but sacrificial. By dying in the trade, Kainene, like soldiers that die in war fronts, sacrifices her life for the cause of Biafra. She is a martyr of Biafran war.  Nweke (2010) comments on Kainene’s assertive roles in the war: “Kainene is not only a contractor, but is in charge of some refugee camps. She has a solid mien so much so that when the situation becomes more critical, she takes the risk of trading across enemy lines” (“Exhuming the Ghosts,” 70). Kainene’s disappearance may also be a narrative strategy adopted by Adichie to keep the Biafran War story open-ended to avoid closure, has also attracted the attention of literary critic, Hugh Hodges (2009). He sees Kainene’s disappearance as a loss and not necessarily death and her participation in the illicit attack trade as a humanitarian gesture to care for others. Perhaps that is what informed his assertion: “Kainene—Olanna’s sister and Richard’s fiance—is lost when she goes on afia attack (trading behind enemy lines) in an attempt to get food for the refugees under her care.” Hodges (2009) also observes that “she has unexpectedly become, as “despair, chaos, death, and horror” threaten those around her, the strength that holds everyone together, so her disappearance, which remains unexplained at the end of the book, makes a more fitting metaphor for what’s lost at war’s end than her death would have been” (11). It is a fitting epitaph to Adichie’s war novel.


This paper has examined the representation of assertive attack traders in the selected three Nigerian Civil War novels. It concludes that all the three authors of the works analysed in this paper portray the female characters that participate in attack trade as assertive and fearless in their war novels. They also portray women characters that use the lucrative but sometimes hazardous attack trade to ensure their own survival and that of others in war-torn Biafra. Some female characters become very rich from the attack trade. Some of them portray how participants use the attack trade to achieve their personal goals and at the same time contradict and subvert the Biafran war vision. The economic independence the attack trade gives some women also makes them desire separation from their husbands. Some of the attack traders are lost in the process as demonstrated in Kainene’s disappearance in Half of a Yellow Sun.


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