Chinua Achebe’s “There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra”
A Review By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
At last, the world is hearing from Professor Chinua Achebe, Africa’s foremost novelist, distinguished intellectual and author of the classic, Things Fall Apart, on the Nigeria-Biafra war. In a new book (There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra, New York: Penguin, 2012), Achebe presents a detailed account of what is widely regarded as the ‘genocidal Biafran war’ prosecuted forty-two years ago in which about 3 million people (mostly, unarmed civilians, including women and children) were brutally killed. When you talk about genocide in Africa, most people would eagerly prefer we all look towards Rwanda or Darfur, or even the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and not Biafra which happened about twenty years earlier and which Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, professor of history and politics, in his review of Achebe’s memoir, describes as “Africa’s most expansive and devastating genocide of the 20th century.”
Indeed, Biafra is a problematic subject. It readily stirs up a lot of discomfort and debilitating guilt in not a few quarters as it throws up memories of grossly disreputable decisions and actions with far-reaching, disastrous consequences, from which the originators and perpetrators would so much wish to distance themselves. The genocidal Biafran war is, without doubt, a recent occurrence (only four decades ago), but the strong determination of its guilt-ridden perpetrators, their foreign collaborators and local sympathizers, to hastily consign this monumental tragedy to pre-history and shout down anyone trying to remind the world of it has been quite overwhelming.
But this has not deterred Achebe. So, in his new book, There Was a Country, which TIME magazine in its August 27, 2012 edition classified as one of the twelve “most anticipated” books this fall (2012) and Newsweek (of the same date) in its “Fall Books Preview 2012” placed among the “15 Books To Read,” Achebe unwraps Biafra before the world again, letting everyone into gruesome details of wanton massacres of unarmed civilians, including women and children, and the horror of mass deaths caused by unspeakable starvations and sicknesses due mainly to the inhuman blockade zealously imposed upon Biafra by the Nigerian government, with the overwhelming support of the British government, despite outcries from several parts of the world.
Like Achebe has argued in an earlier work, there is, indeed, greater danger in choosing not to remember and suppressing ugly history, because we lose the redemptive opportunity of allowing the high costs of past mistakes, the mortification that comes from regular encounters with the unpleasant consequences of unedifying decisions and indecent actions, to moderate the choices we make today and the actions we undertake. Indeed, forgetting emboldens men to unleash far worse horrors with greater impunity having at the back of their minds that they live in a society that has learnt to easily forget, where actions, no matter how hideous, attract little or no retribution. And Nigeria, like Achebe has long observed, which is “always prone to self-deception, stands in great need of reminders” (Morning Yet on Creation Day, London: Heinemann, 1975, p. xiii)
Achebe has a long history of forthrightness, so those expecting appealingly embellished, “politically correct” tales about Biafra in his memoir should be prepared for a huge disappointment. The Biafra he presents is one that comes with all the gory, scary details of her moment of grievous torments. In Achebe’s earlier novels, several lectures, interviews and essays we see a throbbing insistence that Africa’s colonizers must realize the extent of damage caused by their misadventure in Africa and so should take adequate responsibility.
In the later novels, he focuses on the succeeding African leaders whose failure of character and leadership successfully has enthroned the crippling mediocrity and corruption that have compounded the continent’s woes. In this new book, Achebe shows how Nigeria’s inability or unwillingness to learn from her history of clearly avoidable tragedies have continued to sink her deeper in muddy waters of underdevelopment, and how the unrepentant stance of the leading protagonists in the country’s monumental crises and failures continues to ensure that Nigeria perennially wallows in the same old, costly mistakes.
The incidents Achebe recounts in his memoir is one he witnessed at very close quarters, some of which he personally experienced, and was almost consumed. The bombing and sudden reduction of his house in Enugu to rubbles, and how his family miraculously escaped death because they had left for Ogidi a few hours earlier to see Achebe’s sick mother is one of the most touching of Achebe’s experiences during the pogroms and the war that followed.
Achebe commences with the story of his growing up, how he developed early interest in reading, worked hard and earned excellent grades in school. At Government College, Umuahia, where he made a number of interesting friends, notably, the great poet, Christopher Okigbo (who receives generous mention in the book) Achebe graduated with five distinctions and one credit. And as he got set to leave Umuahia, the colonial government built the University College, Ibadan (UCI), in whose national entrance examination, he “came in first or second in the country” and won “what was called a ‘major’ scholarship” (Achebe, 2012: 27). Government College, Umuahia, was so proud of his achievement that for several years “they put a big sign announcing [his] performance…” (p.27).
Achebe would soon secure a job in broadcasting in 1954 after his graduation from the UCI. Before the mass killings of Easterners residing in Northern and Western Nigeria in the mid-sixties which forced Achebe and his family to escape from Lagos where his job had taken him to and where he had risen to become the NBC’s director of external broadcasting, he had captured international attention with the publication of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in June 1958 which sent an unmistakable signal to the rest of the world that Africans were capable of producing serious literature which can hold its own in the global literary scene. (With its recent translation into Persian, Things Fall Apart now exists in 60 world languages and has sold over 12 million copies, making it the most widely read and translated African novel, and its author Africa’s best known writer). Three other novels were to follow which firmly established his reputation as a master of his art, a writer with a distinct voice, style and story, showing the light to many other aspiring writers. The accounts of how Achebe and some other Easterners mentioned in the book excelled in their careers through hard work and determination without seeking to first pull anyone down or out would inspire serious questions in most readers on the justification for the overwhelming resentment towards Easterners for merely occupying senior positions in the various establishments which they had worked hard to earn.
Paul Amber sees it this way: “It was not long before the educational and economic progress of the Igbos led to their becoming the major sources of administrators, technicians, and civil servants for the country, occupying senior positions out of proportion to their numbers… [and] this led to the accusations of an Igbo monopoly of essential services…” (Quoted in Achebe, 2012: 74-5). One can only imagine what Nigeria would have become today if this situation was seen in a positive light and allowed to serve as motivation to many youths instead of the mass resentment it bred which eventually snowballed into the disastrous shortcut of mass eliminations and mass replacements, which eventually plunged Nigeria into the horrible mess in which it is trapped today.
Achebe writes on the January 1966 coup which he says had initially elicited widespread celebrations due to the unpopularity of the very corrupt and grossly inept civilian regime that was overthrown. But there was so much anxiety in the land due to paucity of information. People were eager to find out what had happened here and there. Sadly, this non-availability of information soon gave room to dangerous rumours which culminated in the suggestion that the coup was “in fact a sinister plot by the ambitious Igbos of the East to seize control of Nigeria.” The fact that a greater number of Igbo officers had participated in the coup helped to reinforce this impression. And so “before long many people were persuaded that their spontaneous jubilations in January had been a mistake.” (Achebe, 2012: 66).
And this provided the excuse, or rather, the long-sought opportunity, to translate into physical violence the bitter feelings long bottled up against the Igbos. The counter-coup of July 1966, still widely referred to as a “revenge coup” was the signal required to start hunting down the Igbos in the North and later in the West and slaughtering them like fowls. “There seemed to be lust for revenge, which meant an excuse for Nigerians to take out their resentment on the Igbos who led the nation in virtually every sector – politics, education, commerce, and the arts” (Achebe, 2012: 66-7).
On August 25, 1968, while the Biafra-Nigeria war raged, Achebe told participants at a political science seminar at the Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda:
“The story of the massacre of thousands of innocent Eastern Nigerians need not be told here. But a few salient features should be recalled. First, it was a carefully planned operation. Secondly it has never been condemned by the Nigerian government. In short thousands of citizens were slaughtered, hundreds were wounded and maimed and violated, their homes and property looted and burned; and no one asked any questions. A Sierra Leonean living in Northern Nigeria at the time wrote in horror: ‘The killing of the Igbos has become a state industry in Nigeria’” (Achebe, 1975: 83).
The benumbing account of the pogrom is re-presented in greater detail in Achebe’s memoir with several quotations from the writings and statements of other observers. Achebe “was one of the last to flee Lagos” because, as he says: “I simply could not bring myself to accept that I could no longer live in my nation’s capital, although the facts clearly said so” (p.71). Achebe was disappointed that whereas mobs hunted innocent civilians down and slaughtered them, “the federal government sat by and let it happen” (p.71).
Earlier, he had smuggled his pregnant wife and children out of Lagos on a cargo ship, a journey which his wife, Christie, describes as “one of the most horrendous voyages she had ever undertaken” (p.69). Achebe was to hear later that a drunken soldier had gone to his office “wanting to find out which was more powerful, their guns or my pen.” Fortunately, Achebe was not in the office. Also, some determined pogromists had visited his Ikoyi residence to look for him and, happily, he had left the house. It could be heart-shattering to be made to suddenly feel unwanted, in fact, that you have become a prized target for brutal slaughter in a city you once called home – your own country’s capital. What happened next can only compound such feelings:
“As many of us packed our belongings to return east some of the people we had lived with for years, some for decades, jeered and said, ‘Let them [Igbos] go; food will be cheaper in Lagos.’ That kind of experience is very powerful. It is something I could not possibly forget. I realized suddenly that I had not been living in my home; I had been living in a strange place” (p.68).
What flourished in Nigeria at this time was barbarism at its best. Achebe writes that a “detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government – the army, the police – the very people who were there to protect life and property … it was a premeditated plan that involved careful planning, awaiting only the right spark” (p.82).
Achebe observes that it was Collin Legum of the London Observer that first described the mass killings of Igbos after the July 1966 “revenge coup” as genocide (p.82). Many others including journalists, international observers, representatives of international humanitarian agencies and even Pope Paul IV’s special envoy were to use the word “genocide” to describe the situation in Biafra. Given the magnitude of the massacres and the bitter, fierce feelings that fired them, it remains surprising that some Nigerians are today surprised that the Igbos were reluctant to accept later assurances from the federal government that their safety would be guaranteed anywhere in Nigeria, more so, when those who had earlier believed such assurances and returned to their stations outside the East from where they had successfully escaped death during the initial massacres were soon hunted down and gruesomely slaughtered, while the same federal government that had promised to protect them watched with what could be called collaborative passivity.
Achebe writes that “following the pogroms, or rather the ethnic cleansing in the North that occurred over four months starting in May 1966, which was compounded by the involvement, even connivance, of the federal government in those evil dastardly acts, secession from Nigeria and the war that followed became an inevitability” (p.125). Indeed, many Igbos felt that secession was the most effective way to safeguard their lives and fight back their murderers.
The recent death and burial of late Biafran leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, provided excellent opportunity for deep, sincere reflections on the war by a number of Nigerians. One example of the very instructive sound bites heard during the burial ceremonies will suffice. Niger State Governor, Dr. Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu said:
“Many saw him (Odumegwu-Ojukwu) as controversial, a war lord and a rebel whatever we might think of him, we must appreciate the issue of the time and majority of the people concluded he was forced by circumstances to take up arms against the country he loved and swore to defend. I, Dr. Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, from my studies know that, I will take up arms to defend my people if confronted with similar circumstances that Ojukwu found himself that time.’’ (The Nation February 19, 2012).
The devastating war that followed the pogroms (after the Republic of Biafra was declared), during which the worst manifestations of human depravity was brazenly advertised is now, according to Professor Ekwe-Ekwe, an expert on genocide, “one of the most documented crimes against humanity.” Gallant peace efforts by Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka landed him in prison, where he stayed till the war was nearly over. To the Nigerian authorities all was fair in war, including such horrible crimes against humanity like callous bombings of markets, schools, hospitals, relief centres and private buildings, ripping apart unarmed civilians mostly women, including many pregnant ones, children and health workers. It also meant the “starve them unto submission” policy of the Gowon-led regime.
Major characters in the crises: Ojukwu, Gowon, Awolowo, etc.; organizations like the United Nations (UN) and Organization of African Unity (OAU), and countries like Britain and Russia, got their shares of critical examination in Achebe’s memoir. The UN, for instance, was in a very good position to achieve an amicable resolution of the conflict and halt the genocide if it did not choose to encourage the atrocities against Biafrans by its atrocious silence.
The British which had reluctantly relinquished power to Nigerians ensured that the Nigeria she left behind was (if you would permit the cliché) “a disaster waiting to happen.” She used “a courageous English junior civil servant named Harold Smith” to rig Nigeria’s first election in favour of her “compliant friends” so she could still manipulate the country from London to safeguard British interests (p.50). And when Nigeria was plunged into a bloody conflict, it played direct, active role to ensure the victory of its preferred side.
What Achebe has done in this book is to invite Nigerians to deeply reflect on their country’s journey so far. It is unhelpful to wish away your ugly mistakes with the hope that its consequences would just disappear, or that somehow, they would correct themselves. “I believe” Achebe once wrote, “that if we are to survive as a nation we need to grasp the meaning of our tragedy. One way to do it is to remind ourselves constantly of the things that happened and how we felt when they were happening” (Achebe, 1975: p. xiii). In other words, we need to look back to find out where exactly “the rain began to beat us.”
According to Achebe: “The post Nigeria-Biafra civil war era saw a ‘unified’ Nigeria plagued by a homegrown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruing class. Compounding the situation was the fact that Nigeria was now awash in oil-boom petrodollars, and to make matters worse, the country’s young, affable military head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, ever so cocksure following his victory, proclaimed to the entire planet that Nigeria had more money than it knew what to do with. A new era of great decadence and decline was born. It continues to this day” (p.243).
It is saddening to note that Nigeria needed to waste three million lives to achieve this descent.
Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye is a Journalist, Writer and Anti-tobacco Advocate. www.ugowrite.blogspot.com; (firstname.lastname@example.org)