When shall Nigerians listen to the voice of the sage ACHEBE and be wiser in our ways?
By Prof. Kalu Ogbaa
There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.
By Chinua Achebe.
New York: Penguin Books, Ltd., 2012. Xvi+333 pp.
Appendix, Notes, Index. $27:95
USAfricaonline.com : In an article he published in 1978, titled “Chinua Achebe”, Prof. Michael Echeruo predicted that “Given the pattern of Chinua Achebe’s development as an artist and as conscience for his people, it would indeed be surprising—it would be doubly disappointing—if his next major work did not deal with that truly traumatic experience: The War.” Of course, the war being the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-1970.
Reflecting on his earlier novels, Achebe once described his generation as “a very fortunate” one in the sense that the past was “still there,” even if not “in the same force.” Although Achebe’s next major work was a novel, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), which does not deal with the Nigeria-Biafra War, the one which does, titled There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, was just published in late 2012, thirty-four years after Echeruo’s prediction.
As a Nigerian first and a Biafran during the war, Achebe wrote it as a man who was involved virtually in all aspects of the war, from its promising beginning (for the newborn Republic of Biafra) to its regrettable tragic end. This fact, in a way, makes the book an authoritative insider’s story. If closely read, one can find ample evidence in it to prove that Achebe still maintains his usual pattern of development “as an artist and as conscience for his people”—the Nigerian people as a whole—which is a patriotic role that Echeruo spoke of in his article. However, given Achebe’s thorough and detailed critical analysis of the war in this book, it is neither “surprising” nor “doubly disappointing” that it took him many years of thoughtful deliberations and thorough research before he finally published it. Besides, that Achebe took his time to do such a good job of it is not surprising to an Achebephile like me, for it is his nature to exercise great patience and caution in whatever he does as a writer—a work ethic which a character in Things Fall Apart expressed proverbially thus: “If the penis does not die young it will eat bearded meat.” And in his work titled Morning Yet on Creation Day, Achebe expressed the same idea directly when he wrote: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” (61-64). Evidence of the thorough research he did to support his facts and claims in his story can be verified from the fifty-three pages of notes cited in the book (267-319).
There Was a Country is divided into four parts, each containing important segments that Achebe could have easily developed into separate books or book chapters if he so chose. The Introduction glimpses the issues discussed in the whole book and frames the argument around the main topic of the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-70). He foregrounds the overriding theme of the book with a profound Igbo proverb—the hallmark of his masterful Igbo story-telling habit that one finds in most of his writings—to underscore the great importance and tenor of the story he is about to tell: “An Igbo proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.”
Contextually, the metaphoric rain which beat Nigerians and eventuated in the civil war began four to five hundred years ago, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through its partition into colonies that were given to various European powers to control and then rule with absolute power. During that ominous exercise, Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, and the European powers did so without any African consultation or representation.
After summarizing the pre-colonial and postcolonial history of Nigeria, including the remote and immediate causes of the war, Achebe declares: “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, [and] my story.”
From the introduction, one gets the sense that Achebe feels compelled as a writer by the desire—even the destiny—of a patriot to write the story of his homeland with commitment, integrity, and purpose, in the hope that his fellow Nigerians would listen to him and thereby learn to dry their metaphoric drenched bodies quicker. In a word, the introduction, which traces the root causes of the war to the foundations of the Nigerian national history, surpasses what others have written on the subject, and presages why Great Britain was hell-bent to aid Nigeria by all means to destroy the Republic of Biafra.
In Part 1 of the book, Achebe introduces the reader to the colonial ambiance of his hometown, his nuclear and extended families, and his upbringing—in a mixture of native and foreign cultural milieu—during a period of time he fondly refers to as “magical years.” He describes with fondness his happy background and life in his village before his primary exposure to the outside world, as he leaves home to acquire Western education in a high school at Umuahia and a university college at Ibadan respectively. Before then, the roles his parents played in spreading Christianity and Western education in Igbo land, his personal development in those foreign institutions, as well as the experiences of his coevals are so succinctly delineated that they read like a short history of British colonial government and missionary activities in Nigeria—a history which is familiar to Igbo men and women of my generation that is one or two below Achebe’s.
Clearly, some of us could identify with the author’s colonial and postcolonial experiences, which he narrates with exuberant pride and joy as a young Nigerian of Igbo extraction. Furthermore, the narration of the events evokes in the reader a nostalgic yearning for life in the Igbo country of the time, especially where he describes the effective British colonial educational systems, Igbo cultural ceremonies (unlike what they are today), his meeting with his prospective wife Christie and her family, what inspired him to write his first novel, Things Fall Apart, and why he characterizes his generation of Nigerians as a lucky one. Ironically, however, all these events are narrated to emphasize the loss of the happy times in Nigeria, and to foreshadow the future traumatic events of the civil war, which become the thrust of the entire book.
As he painstakingly recalls and narrates the events photographically, Achebe subliminally prods his readers to vicariously feel the overarching traumas of the war, brood over them, and vow to themselves, “Never again, Nigeria!” This seems to me the essence of this war story.
The joyful and optimistic feeling Achebe had as a young Nigerian continued up to Nigerians’ march to political independence and the cradle of their nationalism. But the brief period of brightness in their history quickly turned into a cloud of uncertainty, which began to form during the brief period of post-independence; and there was a decline in the nationalistic spirit with which Nigerians of all ethnic, regional, and religious backgrounds welcomed their attainment of independence from Great Britain.
The decline worsened when the army staged the first bloody coup in Nigeria on January 15, 1966, which resulted in a series of other deadly events, such as ethnic tensions and resentments, a split in the army itself, countercoups and assassinations, and the pogroms which Northerners committed against Easterners, especially the Igbo ethnic people. The series of attempts the political leaders made to resolve the bloody conflicts between Easterners and other Nigerians woefully failed to produce the desired peaceful resolution to the conflicts. The last of the peace efforts, which resulted in the Aburi Accord, was neither respected nor implemented by the federal government when the two delegations to the peace talks in Ghana returned home to Nigeria. In the end, the nightmarish cloud of political uncertainty and debacle, which had hovered over the nation for long, turned into a torrential downpour of a bloody civil war which no one, on either side of the conflicts, could stop.
In Part 2, Achebe carefully lays out the divergent Biafran and Nigerian positions on the civil war, the attempts the Organization of African Unity made to bring peace between the warring parties, as well as what roles Western countries played in the war, which he dubbed “the triangle game: The UK, France, and the United States.” His analysis of events reveals why the efforts the countries and organizations made failed to help stop the war once it was allowed to break out, and the motivations of the countries supporting Nigeria to defeat Biafra diplomatically and militarily. Of course, they all wanted the Nigerian oil found in large quantities in Biafra land.
In the segment titled “The Writers and Intellectuals,” Achebe quotes foreign journalists who asserted that some of the leading international thinkers of the era were so appalled by the Biafran tragedy that they took it upon themselves to pay the breakaway republic a visit and get a firsthand look at the suffering, the destitution, and the starvation (105). He does so to validate and buttress his personal claims of what evils Nigerians did to Biafrans, which were unknown to the outside world, until the journalists published their reports about them from direct experience.
In the next segment, “The War and the Nigerian Intellectual,” Achebe narrates the laudable roles Nigerian intellectuals played not just in the rapid development of Nigerian literature in English but also how they were entangled with its political and cultural nationalism before and after independence, when they used their writings to find ways to bring Nigerian ethnic peoples together to stop the imminent war. He also narrates how Ojukwu appointed some of the intellectuals, including Achebe, roving ambassadors to plead the cause of Biafra in international forums. The role Achebe played in that capacity should cause readers of his fiction and this war memoir to revere him even more as a world renowned author and statesman.
Achebe’s delineation of the differences in the upbringing and mentality of the major Nigerian actors in the conflicts, Ojukwu and Gowon, adds some clarity to the understanding of how the general conducted the war and why it was difficult for people to bring them to the table for peace making. The nuanced differences between them are seen also in the eerie description of the gory incident of “The Asaba Massacre,” for there was blood, blood, blood everywhere on the Niger. Reading about it feels like seeing blood seeping through every page of the segment.
Beyond the description of the bloody incidents in the Igbo territories of Asaba and Biafra, Achebe narrates how Ojukwu appointed a group of Igbo intellectuals, called National Guidance Committee, and charged them to write a kind of constitution for Biafra—a promulgation of the fundamental principles upon which the government and people of Biafra would operate.
The final work of the committee became the Ahiara Declaration. Since after the war, some Nigerians have been consulting it as a road map, which helps them to serve the government competently. Achebe should be applauded for appointing and leading the other members of the committee, even though he does not (out of his natural humility) claim responsibility for the huge success of their work. Until revealing his role in the committee here in this book, most Biafrans (except in the inner circle of government at the time) believed that the Ahiara Declaration was the brainchild of Ojukwu, the Oxford-trained General of the Biafran People’s Army.
Another dimension to Achebe’s services to the Biafran nation, which touched on the education and literacy of its citizens, was his stint at establishing a publishing company, the Citadel Press, which enabled him and his co-author, John Iroaganachi, to publish war-time children’s books. Although the press was bombed down by the Nigerian Air Force, the concept of establishing it never died, for his friends, Arthur Nwankwo and Samuel Ifejika, established another publishing company, Nwamife Books, on the original spot of the stillborn press after the war. It thus became a foundation press, which has been publishing many books for the nation.
In Part 3, Achebe discusses General Gowon’s three-pronged attack on The Republic of Biafra, vide instituting an economic blockade and starvation against its citizens in what Achebe calls “the fight to the finish.” Gowon succeeded in cutting Biafra off from the sea, robbing its inhabitants of shipping ports to receive military and humanitarian supplies. Achebe asserts:
The afflictions of marasmus and kwashiorkor began to spread further, with the absence of protein in the diet, and they were compounded by outbreaks of other disease epidemics and diarrhea…. Some estimates are that over a thousand Biafrans a day were perishing by this time, and at the height of Gowon’s economic blockade and “starve them into submission” policy, upwards of fifty thousand Biafran civilians, most of them babies, children, and women, were dying every single month (210).
And yet the United Nations remained silent, and did nothing to save innocent Biafran babies, children, and women from the genocide and brutality perpetrated by Nigerians, who were aided and abetted by Great Britain and the USSR.
From that point of the war onwards, Biafra started losing the war diplomatically (as Azikiwe withdraws his support for Biafra) and militarily (as Nigerian troops recapture Owerri) in spite of the fact that Biafran troops took an oil rig from Nigeria: the Kwale incident, which should have empowered them to fight harder. In the end, by January 1970, there was sunset in Biafra: Land of the Rising Sun.
After the detailed description of the fall of Biafra, Achebe devotes the rest of Part 3 to raising questions about the genocide that Nigeria meted against the peoples of Biafra:
My aim is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions, and perhaps to cause a few headaches in the process. Almost thirty years before Rwanda, before Darfur, over two million—mothers, children, babies, civilians—lost their lives as a result of the blatantly callous and unnecessary policies enacted by the leaders of the federal government of Nigeria.
In the case of the Nigeria-Biafra War there is precious little relevant literature that helps answer these questions: Did the federal government of Nigeria engage in the genocide of its Igbo citizens through their punitive policies, the most notorious being “starvation as a legitimate weapon of war”? Is the information blockade around the war a case of calculated historical suppression? Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, over forty years after its end? Are we perpetually doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them? (228).
After asking these questions, whose answers are yet to be given by both the Nigerian leaders and the Western countries involved in the war against Biafra, Achebe goes on to present the arguments Igbo people, international journalists, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) made against Nigeria’s commission of genocide against his people, and backs them up with several documented sources. He follows it up with a presentation of the case against the Nigerian government. On page 233 of the book, Achebe openS the Pandora’s box when he cites a statement credited to the revered Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and echoed by his cohorts, which he says is the most callous and unfortunate: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.” Then he adds: “It is my impression that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself in particular and for the advancement of his people in general.” He then goes on to trace the source of Awolowo’s ambition.
Even though what Achebe accuses Awolowo of saying is validated from documented sources, the Yoruba people are justifiably outraged by the way Achebe presented it, especially when no one can prove that Awolowo’s personal ambition was also the ambition of his entire ethnic people. On the other hand, the Igbo people are also offended by it, because they now know the source of the government policy which led to the deaths of over two million of their kith and kin.
All told, the argument over that controversial statement has prevented many Nigerians from reading the book carefully to understand fully Achebe’s total message. What I think personally about the controversy is that Gowon should be the one held accountable for the deadly policy he implemented, no matter who devised it, because he was the head of the military government at the time. Nevertheless, as a fair-minded person, Achebe did not fail to include General Gowon’s answer to the case of genocide against his government (236-39). Readers should judge his defense for themselves.
Achebe devotes Part 4 of the book to conducting a post mortem examination of the death of the old Nigeria and the stillborn Republic of Biafra. Writing under the title “Nigeria’s Painful Transitions: A Reappraisal,” he argues: The post Nigeria-Biafra civil war era saw a “unified” Nigeria saddled with a greater and more insidious reality. We were plagued by homegrown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruling class. Compounding the situation was the fact that Nigeria was now awash in oil-boom petrodollars, and to make matters even worse, the country’s young, affable, military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, ever cocksure following his victory, proclaimed to the entire planet that Nigeria had more money than it knew what to do with. Anew era of great decadence and decline was born. It continues to the day (244).
We note well that before publishing this book, Achebe had outlined most of the same sociopolitical ills, which have been plaguing Nigeria, in another book, The Trouble with Nigeria (Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1983), during the time he campaigned for a political party with Amino Kanu, all in the spirit of playing his role as conscience for his Nigerian (indeed, Igbo) people. The question then is: When shall we Nigerians learn to listen to the voice of the sage and be wiser in our ways? Or shall we continue to behave like the deaf and the dumb?
In the final segment of the book, “Postscript: The Example of Nelson Mandela,” Achebe lionizes President Nelson Mandela of South Africa for being an embodiment of a man whose sacrifices and selfless leadership roles brought unity and progress to his country men and women of all ethnic and racial groups. Thus, he recommends Mandela’s leadership qualities for emulation by Nigerian leaders. For doing so could help them find ways of bringing peace and unity among all the ethnic peoples of their country, which they have been lacking since the end of the civil war. Achebe also draws their attention to the evil effects of the governance of wickedly corrupt African leaders on the citizens of their countries, which in some ways resemble what Nigerians experienced under their military rulers. Achebe ends his war memoir on that note, still playing his role as the conscience for his people.
In conclusion, Achebe interlaces his narration of incidents in his war memoir with many poems, which sound partly like dirges and partly like the blues, which is in line with the Igbo way of telling war stories: As an Igbo raconteur, he tells parts of the story in prose and others in esoteric proverbial language to lament the loss of life—akwa ariri onwu—in honor of the dead, and thereafter continues with the story line. We see Achebe doing so when he discusses the death of his dear friend, Christopher Okigbo, and those of the nameless Biafran soldiers and civilians, especially the malnourished and starved babies in refugee camps, whom he and his young family met as fellow refugees.
By creating this new genre of literature in There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Achebe has once again boldly demonstrated that a memoir, which is a Western literary creation, can be modified into a hybrid genre to serve his Igbo (indeed, African) creative need, just as he did in his first novel, Things Fall Apart. Now the world watches to see what other writers might do with the example he has just set for them to follow.
Ogbaa, a Professor of English and contributing editor of USAfricaonline.com, is based in New Haven, Connecticut, where he’s completing his memoir. Several of his commentaries are here, exclusively on the platforms of USAfrica.
Why Chinua Achebe, the Eagle on the Iroko, is Africa’s writer of the century. By Chido Nwangwu, Publisher of USAfrica, and first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com https://usafricaonline.com/chido.achebebest.html
First on USAfrica: Fashola on Achebe’s Biafra explosive book, live at Achebe colloquium. https://usafricaonline.com/2012/12/08/fashola-on-achebes-biafra-explosive-book-live-at-achebe-colloquium-by-chido-nwangwu/
By Chido Nwangwu, Founder & Publisher of USAfrica multimedia networks (Houston), first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com @Twitter.com/Chido247, Facebook.com/USAfricaChido n Facebook.com/USAfrica247
USAfrica: On a chilly Friday of December 7, 2012, Babatunde Raji Fashola, the popular Governor of Lagos State of Nigeria, flew into Rhode Island as a special guest and plenary session speaker at the Achebe colloquium on Africa. At almost 4:46pm,
he commenced his prepared speech with off-the-cuff remarks on a wide range of issues.
After a string of brilliant philosophical arguments regarding Africa’s renaissance to chronicling several remarkable achievements of his governorship, he cautiously stepped into thorny grounds….. Around the end of his impressive 38 minutes message, he carefully navigated the heated debates, the minefields of strong support and personal attacks which have followed Prof. Chinua Achebe’s latest 2012 work of history, poetry, education and creative exposition titled ‘There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra.’
Gov. Fashola, standing at the podium almost 15 feet away from Achebe, told the galaxy of African, American, European and Asian scholars, researchers, students, activists and business executives that the heat generated by the book almost made him look for a reason to avoid the event rescheduled for him from the 2011 colloquium, almost 300 days ago.
He said, according to the USAfricaonline.com notes at the colloquium: that after reading just about half of the book “I wanted to write Prof. Achebe to give him reasons why I cannot attend today’s occasion….” He said he was under pressure from his immediate Yoruba constituency.
He immediately ordered the new book to be mailed to an address in England, he would be traveling to– at the time. The man said he needed to read the book to know and understand why there was so much passion against and for the book; especially against the book by people of his ethnic group, majority of his supporters. “I’m Yoruba. Prof. Chinua Achebe is an Igbo. I’m a student of Things Fall Apart; things were No longer at Ease, but the center still held…”, he added, to applause from the audience, a play on words about some of Achebe’s novels.
Fashola, a senior advocate of Nigeria, whom I, as moderator of the 2012 Achebe colloquium on Africa, described a few minutes before his speech as “the governor who has shown himself as a worthy example of good governance in Nigeria” appealed to the dueling groups over Achebe’s new book on Biafra to calm things and “move forward.”
Consequently, during the Q&A session, he was asked by Prof. Obi Nwakanma (a contributing editor of USAfricaonline.com and staff of University of Central Florida): “When will the wounds of the war heal?”
In a frank, brief answer, Fashola said the wounds may heal but the scars will be there; adding that, in his view, the new generation of Nigerians want to move beyond the issue.
In a remarkable context for him and the audience, Fashola pointed out, according to the USAfricaonline.com notes at the colloquium: “I was only 4 years old” when the 1967-1970 Nigeria-Biafra war started.
But there were more follow-up questions, including the ones which raised the issue of the brutal devastations and genocidal killings held against Nigerian soldiers and wartime leaders (especially the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, as reiterated by Achebe in his new book, extensively quoting Awolowo’s own words).
Gov. Fashola blamed the national information management system and its failure to document and release official information about events like the war for the heated disagreements.
USAfricaonline.com will post more from Fashola’s comments to the USAfrica question on whether he will contest the 2015 presidential elections, and other issues which were featured in Chido’s live-blogging of his speech/remarks on USAfrica’s Facebook page Facebook.com/USAfricaChido and Twitter.com/Chido247). •Special report by Dr. Chido Nwangwu, Founder & Publisher of USAfrica multimedia networks, first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com; and recipient of several journalism and public policy awards, was recently profiled by the CNN International for his pioneering works on multimedia/news/public policy projects for Africans and Americans. http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/international/2010/07/29/mpa.african.media.bk.a.cnn.
Nigeria’s Federal Republic of Insecurity. By Chido Nwangwu, Publisher of USAfrica, USAfricaonline.com and the Nigeria360 e-group. https://usafricaonline.com/2011/12/17/nigeria-federal-republic-of-insecurity-by-chido-nwangwu/ : IF any of the Nigerian President’s 100 advisers has the polite courage for the extraordinary task of reminding His Excellency of his foremost, sworn, constitutional obligation to the national interest about security and safety of Nigerians and all who sojourn in Nigeria, please whisper clearly to Mr. President that I said, respectfully: Nigerians, at home and abroad, are still concerned and afraid for living in what I call Nigeria’s Federal Republic of Insecurity. FULL text of commentary at USAfricaonline.com https://usafricaonline.com/2011/12/17/nigeria-federal-republic-of-insecurity-by-chido-nwangwu/
Obama’s Africa agenda, our business and democracy. By Chido Nwangwu, Publisher of USAfricaonline.com and CLASS magazine and The Black Business Journal
USAfrica: As Egypt’s corrupter-in-chief Mubarak slides into history’s dustbin. By Chido Nwangwu. https://usafricaonline.com/2011/01/30/chido-nwangwu-as-egypt-corrupter-in-chief-mubarak-slides-into-historys-dustbin-egyptians-not-waiting-for-obama-and-united-nations/
Tunisia, Egypt . . . Is Nigeria next? By Prof. Rosaire Ifedi https://usafricaonline.com/2011/02/13/tunisia-egypt-is-nigeria-next-by-prof-rosaire-ifedi/
How and Why Romney beat Obama in first presidential debate. By Chido Nwangwu, Publisher of USAfrica. https://usafricaonline.com/2012/10/03/how-and-why-romney-beat-obama-in-first-presidential-debate-by-chido-nwangwu/