In more ways than one, Chinua Achebe in his new book, There Was A Country, returns to the very beginning, that is, his beginning. From that beginning he succeeds in completing an unfinished circle which for long has been left hanging in the air.
The 1967-1970 Nigerian-Biafran war in which an estimated three million people died, most of them Achebe’s Igbo people, was a tragedy. What would have been a greater tragedy was Achebe not providing for the unborn generations his pivotal view of the event, and a sharp cross-examination of the actors. In There Was A Country, Achebe does it the Achebe way.
In Part One, Achebe reveals the golden days of Nigeria and how through hard work and support from his family he positions himself to receive the baton from exiting colonialists at the dawn of Nigeria’s independence. Achebe’s story in this regard is the story of how the Igbo, in only 30 years, were able to bridge the educational gap that the people of the then Western Nigeria had as a result of early exposure to Western education. Achebe’s early childhood story and path to success mirror the drive that has propelled the Igbo since they became part of Nigeria – a drive that came from the republican nature of Igbo society that abhors royalty, encourages competition, and rewards personal achievement. In stories about personal struggle, rugged determination and unique foresight, Achebe makes it known that there is no magic wand behind the Igbo emergence and attainment of preeminent position in the Nigerian project other than by sheer industriousness. The consequence of this accomplishment was an immediate fear of Igbo domination. That fear quickly took hold in the psyche of other Nigerians and practically truncated the Nigerian dream of Achebe’s generation.
It was this fear of Igbo dominance that made much of Nigeria and their British cheerleaders to interpret the 1966 coup as another phase of Igbo domination. The majority of the coup plotters were Igbo officers; their number included Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu who, as Achebe reveals, was Igbo by name only because he regarded himself as a Northerner. The perception that the Igbo had an agenda of domination also accounted for the ferocity of the atrocities unleashed against them – to a degree that had never been witnessed anywhere in Africa before, and hardly since. Achebe, ever a believer in Nigeria, at first wanted to stay put in Lagos. It was only the systematic killing of Igbo in Lagos that forced him to return to the East.
For those who have not read most of Achebe’s essays, he discloses how the conflict between the old Igbo culture and the emerging Christian society became the source of his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart. From his mother, he learns how to bring out changes in a gentle manner without being intimidating. He narrates how his mother fought and achieved victory for Christianity and women’s right and freedom by merely challenging the taboo of a woman harvesting a kola nut. Ominous feelings creep through a reader as Achebe unwraps, layer after layer, how the middle class of his time were basking in the illusion of independence and the promises of a new great nation, totally missing the signs of its impending doom. I find it a timely lesson for members of today’s middle class Nigerians that do not see the shaky foundation of the Nigerian nation. The similarity is very striking.
When Achebe delves into his life story, he is ever the teaser. He will, like a priest, let the wine in the cup glaze the readers’ lips and then he will pull the cup away. When he tells you about how a group of vacationing students working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, NBC, came to his office to demand equal pay, he tells readers that their leader was Christie Okoli from Awka, his mother’s hometown. He volunteers to readers that his interest in her grew after the articulate way she spoke. As you wait for more, he informs you that, “two years into our friendship, Christie and I were engaged.”
The Part Two of the book deals with life in Biafra. For those still wondering what happened in Biafra, this section is a gift from providence. Using personal stories, Achebe paints a vivid picture of what life was like in Biafra. He exposes the actors in the war and the roles each played. He quotes extensively from several sources as he presents the assessment of Ojukwu and Gowon, the primary actors in the war. He even quotes sources opposed to Ojukwu’s position and point of view, like Ambassador Ralph Uwechue. Achebe argues that some questions will be debated for generations. One of such questions has to do with the security reasons behind Ojukwu’s rejection of Nigeria’s federal government’s proposal for a road corridor for food and the federal government’s rejection of Ojukwu’s alternative. Every now and then, he interrupts the theories of several schools of thought to have his own say. For instance, Achebe has no doubt that, following the ethnic cleansing of Igbos in the North and the federal government’s connivance in the drastic act, Biafra’s secession from Nigeria was inevitable whether Ojukwu was there or not.
Achebe writes with great moral authority. Often he writes a phrase like, “forty years later I still stand by that assessment.” When Achebe makes his summations, they are as apt as his press releases. When he tells stories, they are as succinct as any of the novels that made him famous. Through the stories of his friendship with Christopher Okigbo, including their effort to run a publishing company during the war, Achebe recasts that extraordinary poet and educates those who hold the poet in contempt of literature due to his decision to go to the war front. Like so many surprises in the book, Achebe reveals that he, too, would have been lost during the war in several instances, including in a plane mishap while on a diplomatic mission for Biafra to Senegal.
Achebe describes meeting Aminu Kano for the first time during peace talks in Kampala, Uganda in 1968. Aminu Kano was part of Nigeria’s delegation led by Anthony Enahoro. The Nigerian delegation, Achebe recalls, espoused the total “crush of Biafra.” He writes that Aminu Kano was not pleased by how the matter was being handled. “That meeting made an indelible mark on me about Aminu Kano, about his character and his intellect,” Achebe writes. Achebe will later in life take a failed detour into politics, joining Aminu Kano’s political party.
In Part Three, Achebe makes an indisputable case against Nigeria in the way the war was prosecuted. He raises the question of genocide, makes hard-hitting arguments and levels his case against the Nigerian government. Ever unapologetic, Achebe does not spare the heroes – be it Awolowo or Gowon. As always, his moral message is “resolute.” He slams Obafemi Awolowo for allowing his political ambition to diminish his humanity. He holds Awolowo responsible for “hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation – eliminating two million people, mainly members of future generations.” He cites Awolowo’s policies as the minister of finance during and after the war as evidence that his desire to secure permanent advantage for his Yoruba people superseded his inner good angel. Achebe does not spare Anthony Enahoro and Allison Akene Ayinda, supposedly intellectuals who backed Awolowo and, of course, the naïve Gowon who was in charge. Achebe points out the irony of it all – that all those who had hoped to benefit from the emaciation of Igbo people ended up becoming victims too. The British lost investments through the indigenization decree; the Yoruba and Gowon’s Middle Belt people are still trapped in a dysfunctional country, all suffering from its consequences.
In offering solutions, Achebe suggests a series of questions about “ethnic bigotry,” corruption and pure impunity that will keep Nigeria busy for a long time. He has no problem describing characters operating in the Nigerian political arena as “bum in suit,” “poorly educated,” “half-baked,” and “politicians with plenty of money and very low IQs.”
Throughout the chapters, Achebe punctuates the stories with interludes of poetry. They stand as exhortations, as hanging tears, flags, stop signs and as asterisks. Most of the poems are from his past collections. He preserves for generations yet unborn the role played by the likes of Dick Tiger, Gordian Ezekwe and Carl Gustaf von Rosen during the Biafran war.
By going beyond the Biafra war in this memoir Achebe shows how the fear of Igbo dominance led to the dethronement of meritocracy and the enthronement of mediocrity. In that single move, Nigeria opens the flood gate for corruption, impunity and failure that has remained the trademark of Nigeria to date. Beneath the crisis playing itself out in Nigeria’s landscape today - most especially in cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt- is still that fear of Igbo domination.
In Part Four, Achebe performs a reappraisal of Nigeria’s sordid journey. He connects the failure of the Nigerian state and the rise of terrorism to Nigeria’s long history of condoning violence.
“Nigeria’s federal government has always tolerated terrorism.
For over half a century the federal government has turned a
blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its
citizens – mainly Christian Southerners; mostly Igbos or
indigenes of the Middle Belt; and others – with impunity.”
Achebe finds a solution in good leadership as exemplified by Nelson Mandela. In the postscript, he spotlights Mandela as the epitome of the kind of leadership that Africa needs. He urges Africans to seek “sustenance and inspiration from Mandela.” No one will disagree with that. However, he does not mention the Arab Spring or the possibility of its replication in sub-Saharan Africa. He, therefore, maintains his conclusion in The Trouble With Nigeria that leadership is squarely the problem. For younger readers not conditioned to wait indefinitely for change, the question left unanswered is, if leadership fails to come, then what?
Achebe’s memoir is not just an epitaph for Biafra. It is also a warning to Nigeria. If Nigeria fails to find its purpose and achieve it for all of its people, a new generation of writers may have the misfortune of writing a similar epitaph for Nigeria – There Was A Country Called Nigeria. And for Biafran babies and their upcoming generations, the idea that there was a country carries a subtle message that what was could still reincarnate.
In There Was A Country, Achebe like a priest, illustrates to Nigerians how to partake in the Biafran Communion. To be a partaker, one must drop all malicious intents and repent. In briefs, citations, exhortations and excommunications, Achebe maps out the path for Nigeria to figuratively come to the Lord’s table.
Chapter by chapter, as it is dramatized in the Book of Common Prayers, Achebe, son of a catechist, beseeches Nigerians to kneel humbly. He proclaims the sins and he guides them as they confess their sins. He pronounces absolution of sins for those who repent. In flashes of dramatic interludes, like a priest, Achebe then picks the bread; and when he has given thanks, he raises it up and breaks it and gives it to Nigerians, saying; take, eat, this is the Biafra which is given for you, do this in remembrance of Biafra. Likewise, after admonishments, he takes the cup and when he has given thanks, he gives it to Nigerians saying, drink you all for this is the blood of Biafra, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins, do this as often as you can in remembrance of Biafra.
It is not clear whether this burdened generation of Nigerians still crippled by its non-reconciled history will understand the essence of this Achebe doctrine. What is clear is that Achebe has drunk the remaining wine after communion. One gets the feeling that what is left is for him to turn to the congregation and say, go home for the mass is over. Because of what Achebe has achieved in this book, we cannot let Biafra go even if we want to. Just like Biafra, because of this personal history, centuries from now when the novel is dead and buried, the new generation that will inhabit the territory currently called Nigeria will always remember that there was a writer named Chinua Achebe.