Thursday, 20 June 2013
There Was A Country- A Review By Chidi Nwaonu
In pursuit of this review have done 3 things I said I wouldn’t do; I bought a book in hardback. I read ‘There was a country: A Personal History of Biafra’ by Chinua Achebe. I am writing a review of it.
The first thing I will say is that this is not Achebe’s best book, be it fiction or non-fiction. Nor will I say it is his most relevant; as Things Fall Apart still wins that accolade just for being what it is.
It is however one of the most relevant books about Nigeria by a Nigerian. Not just for what it says but for what it causes to be said.
Once it came out the usual suspects inevitably emerged from the wood work, the ethnic supremacists, Biafra nostalgists, Igbo everyone-hates-us-ists, Yoruba justificationists, tribal chauvinists, Northern oligarchists, minority tribe what-about-us-ists, the-One-Nigeria-but I hate-the-rest-of-you-ists, text speak writing I don’t fully understand but I’ve got to write something unintelligible commentatorists. Prayers warriors have deployed en masse with curses, praise and damnation in all tongues and to various gods, deities and non-specific supreme beings. But then any book written about Biafra, from the perspective of a Biafran particularly one as high profile as Achebe will elicit a spirited response, it would be equally depressing if it didn’t.
It is the strange reality of the Nigerian Civil War that its history is written almost exclusively by the losers. The vast majority of the literature, fiction and non-fiction from the military or civilian perspective is written by Igbo’s. This could be due to the fact that the vast number of Igbo intellectuals who suffered and stayed in Biafra, reacted the only way they could with words whilst for other Nigerian intellectuals the war was an abstraction as opposed to a daily reality. Those that have written from the Federal side all had a personal connection such as Wole Soyinka (who was imprisoned for his anti war views), Elechi Amadi and Ken Saro Wiwa.
In essence there has been no attempt at any sort of narrative by the side that won, thus there is no credible way to dispute or even present a conflicting argument (if one was inclined to) to the prevailing story of the war. So for Easterners in general and Igbos in particular the story of this glorious but doomed fight for freedom and survival is ingrained in the soul and preserved in literature and poetry, yet for the rest of Nigeria it is barely mentioned thus when the topic comes up for discussion it turns into a battle of rumours against certitude.
Yet the parts about Biafra are to me less interesting, possibly for this very reason and also due to the fact that these parts are comparatively poorly written, with factual errors, misuse of military terms and misplacement of incidents, such as referring to General Effiong as the Biafran Army Commander (actually General Madiebo) or inferring that Britain supplied Nigeria with MiGs (actually supplied by the USSR) or stating that Murtala Mohammed took Onitsha on the second attempt (it was at the 3rd). Pedantic points of interest to a history buff but they are also telling omissions by a sensitive man of letters who not only abhorred war in its abstract but in its object and its reality and this war in particular which destroyed the culture and country he so revered.
However despite the book’s title I believe the country he most mourns for is not Biafra, but Nigeria.
Not just the Nigeria of 2012 or the Nigeria of 1960 but also the Nigeria before Nigeria was Nigeria. For the customs, cultures and practices of the tribes and nations that inhabit the landmass known as Nigeria.
Seen with the eyes of a ‘British protected’ son of studious, Christian parents and grand nephew to a genial unapologetic animist and through the mind of a hard working student going through the colonial education system rising through merit and hard work to the peak of his profession and work, this is an elegy to an innocent time, when possibilities were possible and endless and the best was yet to come.
It is in fact like a man staring back at his life, with a wry smile to the romances of his youth, shaking his head at his naivety, remembering the good times but skipping over and ill remembering the bad times.
Nigerian independence as it appears in this book is like an arranged marriage, with one reluctant suitor, an eager one and a quasi eager one. This weird unhappy polygamy was made a reality by giving control of the marriage to the entity that wanted to be in it the least yet had the most to gain from it.
Achebe was by this point an ardent Nigerian nationalist, working in the government media, with an eclectic assortment of friends and colleagues from all over the Federation. In fact his observations to the crisis in Nigeria can be likened to that of a wronged spouse going through the stages of grief.
First there was denial expressed by staying in Lagos despite being one of the most high profile, non political Igbo’s, whom soldiers were actively looking for and even going to work during the pogroms, until warned off by his Yoruba boss.
And then anger, at the ‘Triangle Game’ of the Soviet Union, Britain and France, with the first two supporting the Federal side overtly with arms and aircraft and the latter supporting Biafra covertly with enough arms to keep fighting but not enough to win.
With the OAU and UN for their impotence and deference to the Federal position.
With Awolowo and Adekunle for their ‘starvation is a weapon of war’ mantra.
Then bargaining, looking towards elder statesmen like Aminu Kano and Nnamdi Azikiwe to find a negotiated way out of the crisis.
And then depression as evinced by the alarming chapter titles in Part 4 of the book such as Corruption and Indiscipline and State Failure and the Rise of Terrorism.
I’m not sure he has got round to acceptance.
Achebe’s normally beautiful prose is missing. This is a functional book that not so much tells the story of Achebe but the story of Nigeria using Achebe as a vehicle.
The shining city on the hill that Nigeria could have become is represented by the Achebe’s and Soyinka’s. The waste by the Okigbo’s, the arrogant hubris by the Ibrahim Haruna’s and Murtala Mohammed’s.
So in the end what does this book tell us?
It gives us a critique of colonialism from a unique perspective. Yes it destroyed many of the progressive aspects of our root cultures and reinforced most of the regressive and forced a group of completely different people into a union without the necessary conversations as to how they would exist together. It was also an extremely efficient, benevolent, administration, by far superior to what pertains to day in intent and practice. There was an education, legal and administrative system that not only functioned but in which the population understood and bought into. It was and is a testament to the people who set up and ran it. That its aim was to exploit one country and its peoples to the benefit of another much removed does not in any way detract from the fact that it did exactly what it said on the tin and did it well.
What does it mean to be independent? Do all peoples truly yearn to be free or are some happy to exist in the comforting bosom of another’s rule? Upon visiting Senegal, Achebe notes all the ministerial staff around the President (a poet and pan Africanist) were French expatriates. How can one truly claim to be independent when you can’t even type your own letters? And this was someone who introduced the concept of Negritude, yet the French ran his ministries.
The comparisons with blockaded Biafra where African scientists made rockets, batteries and spare parts, explosives, rifles and mines without, ‘expatriates’, ‘aid’, ‘technical assistance’ or ‘overseas development’ are profound. Oil was extracted, refined and distributed. Post was delivered, phones worked and electricity generated and distributed. So who was truly free? Even the vaunted mercenaries so beloved of fiction were worthless. There was not a single campaign whose outcome was determined by mercenaries. Of those that remained in Biafra, the good ones died and the useless ones ran away or went mad. On the Federal side, the mercenary piloted air force significantly failed to shut down the only airport left in Biafra or shoot down the slow obsolete transport planes coming in. Yet to this day there are expatriates working at every strata of African governments for the simple reason that for African leaders to accept competent African workers into their administrations would expose their utter lack of qualifications for the positions they hold. Maybe this informs our willingness to defer everything to God or Allah, maybe there are people who are truly terrified of their own freedom.
Maybe Nigeria should have attained independence in stages with those regions that had achieved self sufficiency not just financially but administratively going it alone first and adding the remaining regions by referenda so that the exact terms of the union are determined and agreed upon by both the elites and the people. But then who really knew?
Thus I believe ‘There was a country- A personal History of Biafra’ is less about Biafra than Nigeria, much the way this review is less about the book itself than about the state of Nigeria.
That is the utility of this book, to start the debate, to ask the questions, analyse the facts, draw conclusions and once again ask questions. Professor Achebe is now old and will soon join his ancestors. I do not say this in a macabre way, for there is nothing wrong with an old man dying, especially when one can look up in his works and say they were good.
So I look upon this book as his final gift to Nigeria, to look upon our country and our history and to own it whether we are from the north, south, east or west.
To question whether we merely traded an unjust but efficient colonial government for an unjust and inefficient post independence government and whether it was worth it?
And if it wasn’t how can we make it so.
For those of us who grew up in a semi functioning Nigeria the phrase ‘There was a country’ is so loaded and emotive it needs no explanation, for someone like Chinua Achebe it must be soul breaking.
Maybe we can grudgingly learn to love the other members of the harem or file for an amicable divorce or maybe we can just achieve acceptance.