Chinua Achebe’s Would-Be Critics By Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe
Columnist: 
Okey Ndibe

Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was A Country: A Personal Narrative of Biafra, has in the last two weeks been subjected to a barrage of “reviews” by Nigerian commentators. The book has invited both harsh denunciations and effusive praise. Achebe’s place as one of the world’s most important writers is secure. Given his stature as a novelist and intellectual, it is hardly surprising that a new book by him would ring up a carnival-scale reception.

But the brouhaha over There Was A Country has pretty little to do with the book. Most of those who have either denounced the book or championed it have yet to read it. The feud over the book has to do, it appears, with the different camps’ perceptions of what the book is about. It’s a curious, quintessentially Nigerian kind of drama, this rush to pronounce on a book without first taking the time to read and absorb it (my own formal review will appear next week). Nothing more painfully illustrates the appalling state of public discourse in Nigeria than the spectacle of so many would-be critics both shrieking about There Was A Country and announcing they had not read it. In fact, one or two of the book’s most furious foes declared their intention never to read it. That’s a confession to intellectual dishonesty or a disdain for discourse.

How did so many people find themselves in a tizzy on account of an unread book?

The late Obafemi Awolowo has been the lightning rod for the “debate.” On the Internet and newspaper pages, many (mostly Yoruba) politicians, intellectuals, pundits and bloggers have sought to chastise Achebe for daring to write critically about Awo’s role in the Biafran War. At the heart of the furor is Achebe’s charge that the late politician was an architect of the war-time doctrine that starvation was a legitimate instrument of war. Besides, the author hardly pulls punches when he accuses Awo of masterminding a policy that impoverished the erstwhile Biafrans. That policy was to pay a mere twenty pounds in Nigerian currency to each Biafran adult regardless of their pre-war assets.

Many of Achebe’s bashers know about his unflattering portrait of Awo not from reading the book but because the (British) Guardian carried excerpts as an op-ed piece. Instantly, the would-be critics began to act as if the book was an all-out assault on Awo and the larger Yoruba ethnicity.

That misperception begot one of the most inelegant moments in publishing history – a sustained, near-hysterical attempt to enter into an argument against an unread text. One doubts that many other books anywhere in the world have ever been subjected to the same treatment: a willful reduction of a complex, ambitious text to its outlook on one personage. In recent literary history, one can think of only one parallel – the zealous fury that hounded Salman Rushdie after the publication of Satanic Verses.

What began as the cause of defending Awo quickly became an exercise in gratuitous vilification of Achebe and, in several cases, denigration of his ethnicity. In a fit of mischief, one attacker asked the federal government to pull Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from Nigerian classrooms. The prescriber saw in the classic novel’s title evidence that Achebe had been engineering the falling apart of Nigeria – as if that ill-conceived edifice needed any help. A few critics hoisted up an old canard: that Achebe had it in for Awo because Wole Soyinka had won the 1986 Nobel Prize in literature. Of course, the purveyors of such silliness are simply clueless. They know nothing about the warm friendship that the two literary giants have maintained for several decades.

We’ve seen a predictable outcome, for there’s no formula for engaging sensibly with a book one hasn’t read, much less digested.

One is not saying that all of Achebe’s critics would have fallen in love with his book had they waited to read it. It’s altogether possible that some of them would have found the book even more objectionable. But that’s beside the point. Even when one disagrees with a book – in fact, especially then – one is served by grasping the book’s essential points. It ought to be a fairly self-evident principle.

And because too many of the anti-Achebe warriors failed to read him first, it was no wonder that their utterance tended to be shrill, coarse and without context. Convinced that the author had degraded their icon, some Awo partisans proceeded to lob infantile insults at their presumed nemesis.  

It was the perfect recipe for a Nigerian-made war. Many Igbo warriors rose to Achebe’s defense. Like Achebe’s traducers, many defenders of the author wrote without the benefit of reading There Was A Country. For all their fervor, they too could not claim to speak from a familiarity with Achebe’s book. So it came to pass that we had a sordid mini-ethnic war in progress. Innuendoes flew in every direction; stereotypes were dusted up and hurled at ethnic targets. We became a people content to throw punches in the dark, seeking to pulverize whole ethnic groups. A sad day!

What does it all mean? For one, the preemptive salvoes against a book that’s only now reaching many Nigerian hands strikes me, on some level, as a war on memory and history. As a writer and participant in the events of the Biafran War, Achebe’s witness is of inestimable value. At the end of the day, his fans as well as many of his foes are bound to realize that they owe him a huge debt for offering us the benefit of his experience of Nigeria’s tortured political evolution that culminated in war.

Achebe should feel mighty fulfilled that he’s forced Nigeria to begin some conversation about Biafra, a subject that the country has done its damndest to avoid. True, what’s transpired so far can hardly be called a conversation; a screaming match does not a conversation make. Even so, one has the hunch that, sooner than later, the violent pitch of the verbal exchanges will yield to a more sober response.

If anybody was in doubt about the imperative of talking about the war, the vociferousness with which Achebe’s book has been received in some quarters ought to dispel it. Yet, some of Achebe’s noisiest detractors have accused him of opening old wounds. That line of reasoning suggests a profound delusion. Biafra remains – will remain – an open, raw sore until Nigeria makes a conscious choice to reflect on that bloody chapter of its history. One has argued elsewhere that the tragedy of Nigeria is to proceed as if the Biafran War never happened.

Think about it: the violent convulsion in the Niger Delta, the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, the decimation of Odi and Zaki Biam, and the massacres in Maiduguri – to take a small sample – would most likely not have happened had Nigeria not carried on as if there had been no Biafra. The tragic reign of injustice in Nigeria is linked, at bottom, with Nigeria’s project to erase the memory of Biafra.

Achebe’s timely book has come as a rebuke to us all, an invitation to examine where the rain began to beat us – however painful the process of this searching of the soul. Once the decibel comes down, the deliberation will begin. That, or doom wins.

Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe
(okeyndibe@gmail.com)

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Chinua Achebe’s Book

As a Yoruba man, I plan on purchasing this book. I do believe the acts committed against the Igbos were a national tradgedy. I hope we can transcend the historical limits that have shaped our modern atmosphere along ethnic and religous lines as well as heal our national wounds. At the end of the day, the real enemy are the parasitic international corporations who lie in bed with a few of our political leaders and suck the life out of Nigeria. We can only limit their exploitation in the measure that we stand together in solidarity, Igbo, Hausa, Edo, Ibibio, Urhobo, Ijaw, Efik, Ejagham, Annang etc.

Stop all the bickering people...build on your commonality as exploited Nigerians. You don't have constant electricity, running clean water, and public safety while your country makes billions of dollars in oil revenue since the 1960's. <>

@DERI,THE PRESIDENCY CAN WAIT BUT SAME FOR YOUR OIL WELLS

As you gloat and wish the Igbo bad luck,so will your oil wells dwell in northern and western control.Who says the Igbo must be President?we have the ability of saying who will not be and that is more important.
It was the Igbo who said the Hausa-fulani will not win the last election and they did not,next election we will do the same,we dont have to be at Aso-rock to run the country, fool.

RE:@NAGODI,POSITIVES CAME FROM THE BIAFRA TIMES

"The VW bettle was invented for Hitlers Afrika korps during world war two,a fuel efficient car that could function without water was needed in the sahara ,the Germans lost the war but many inventions of that war are still in use today.
The ability of Biafrans to improvise and internally source everything used for the duration of the war during blockade and under overwhelming fire and hunger was legendary,now that is part of military science.
The military ambush tactics of shaka Zulu is still used today in military tactics classes but he lost to the Europeans who had superior weaponry."

I WAS WAITING TO HEAR WHAT INVENTION THE IBOS DEVELOPED THAT ARE STILL IN USE WORLDWIDE TODAY. SINCE THERE ARENT ANY, THE GERMANS AND THE ZULUS ARE BETTER LOSERS OF WAR THAN YOU. INFACT THAT IS WHY THEY DONT MAKE ANY SILLY EXCUSES. THEY SIMPLY ACCEPT "WE LOST THE WAR". AND THEY SHUT UP.

Okiki trouble sleep Iyanga go wake up

@Okiki, look at thy mean greedy self-where is the wise man in you and achebe? dont u know that the other name for Achebe is failure? U claim to want 2015-do u still yearn for it after this mess by Achebe? The 2015 presidential election is as good as lost. Then a minority ijaw man was elected president of Nigeria! Now comenth the the time for us to break up in 2015 wihtout a fight. Enough of this useless ego trip by the regional ego-maniacs.

WE LOST THE WAR BECAUSE WE WERE STARVED!

WHAT A DUMB EXCUSE. HOW ARE YOU STARVED? ARE YOU LIVING ON AN ISLAND? WHAT THE IBOS HAD WAS PRIDE AND IT ALWAYS COMES BEFORE A FALL. THE SAYING THAT SILENCE IS GOLDEN IS TRUE. A FOOL WHO KEEPS QUITE CAN BE MISTAKEN FOR A WISE MAN. EMPTY BARRELS MAKE THE MOST NOISE. NOW THAT THEY CANT ACCEPT THAT MY GORO CHEWING PARENT OUT WITTED, OUT-MANEUVERED AND OUT-SMARTED THEM, THEY ARE PUTTING UP A SHAMEFUL EXCUSE THAT THEY WERE DEFEATED BECAUSE THE NIGERIAN GOVT REFUSE TO GIVE THEM FOOD. YOU WERE DEFEATED BECAUSE YOUR FOOLISH PRIDE BLINDED YOU FROM THE MOST BASIC OF WAR PREPARATION, FOOD AND WEAPONS SECURITY. YOU SAID THE NORTHERNERS CANT FLY THE FIGHTER JETS AND THAT THEY HIRED OTHERS TO DO IT FOR THEM. YES AND AFTER THE BATTLE THE NORTHERNERS WROTE THE HISTORY, TOOK THE SPOILS AND MADE YOUR DESTINY. WHO IS SMART NOW? WHAT IS IT THAT YOU CANT GIVE TO SWAP POSITIONS WITH THE GORO EATERS?

There is no gainsaying the

There is no gainsaying the fact that you lack civility. To use gutter language in such a discourse as this says it all. I am even surprised that you rank Achebe within the groups of the individuals you mentioned. Truth is bitter they say but must be said no matter whose ox or demigod is gored.
If you have any perspective on the genocide that was the Biafran war, why not go to the prints.

@NAGODI,POSITIVES CAME FROM THE BIAFRA TIMES

Loosing a battle does not mean the struggle for self determination has ended.The struggle has metamorphosed to other non-violent forms but not by any means over.
The VW bettle was invented for Hitlers Afrika korps during world war two,a fuel efficient car that could function without water was needed in the sahara ,the Germans lost the war but many inventions of that war are still in use today.
The ability of Biafrans to improvise and internally source everything used for the duration of the war during blockade and under overwhelming fire and hunger was legendary,now that is part of military science.
The military ambush tactics of shaka Zulu is still used today in military tactics classes but he lost to the Europeans who had superior weaponry.

Everybody is on there ethnic

Everybody is on there ethnic side. I pity Nigerians.

Live in the present

With all due respect to u Ndibe Okey, I can detect biase in your write up due to the fact that you come from the ethic group that is being discussed. Why blame a great man whose footprint will stay forever on the sands of time ( Awolowo) . Here was a man who decided to put the interest of his country before the interest of power thirsty Ojukwu and his cohorts in the biafrian army. The igbos are just trying to procure the sympathy of nigerians for the blunder and megalomaniac traits of ojukwu and others during the biafrian era. When great men die, the light they leave behind continues to shine just like the case of Awolowo who did what he had to do to maintain the peace and serenity of Nigeria.

Perfect reply

Spot on comment without any form of biase. Why blame a man who decided to put his country first before an ethnic group. Awolowo did what he needed to do by putting the interest of the country before that of the igbos

RE:@NAGODI,HOW MANY TIV CIVILIANS DIDYOU KILL AFTER DIMKA'S COUP

"It is plain criminal mischief to justify the killing of more than 100,000 Igbo civilians living in the north who knew nothing about the killing of eight leaders of other tribes by Army officers."

I DONT SUPPORT MOB ACTION, BUT BLAME THOSE THAT START IT BY EXECUTING THE COUP.

"The achievements of Biafrans in all spheres of warfare will remain legendary and is quoted in lectures in most military tactics classes round the world.The genocidal policy of civilian starvation is nothing to be proud about..."

I DONT KNOW WHICH MILITARY TACTICIAN WILL HAVE USE FOR BIAFRAN STRATEGY IN A CONFLICT THAT THEY FAILED IN THE FIRST AND FOREMOST REQUIREMENTS BEFORE A DECLARATION OF WAR, FOOD SECURITY. ALEXANDER THE GREAT, THE GREATEST MILITARY TACTICIAN, WHEN ASKED WHY HE HAD TO CONQUER EGYPT, HE REPLIED THEY HAVE THE BEST WHEAT IN THE WORLD. THE DUMBEST GENERAL WONT RELY ON HIS ENEMY FOR FOOD. BIAFRANS SHOULD BE THE LAUGHING STOCK OF MILITARY TACTICIANS!

NIGERIA IS SCREWED A COUNTRY!

Okey, you see why Nigeria is screwed a country as it is today. Some of the commentators here including those you would expect to be rational are justifying the death of 3 million Ndi Igbo because 3 Igbos in a group of 12 staged a coup in January 1966 and killed 8 northern and western politicians and soldiers. I have no doubt that these demented goons would have justified Hitler's murder of 6 million Jews.

I will pop champagne the day Nigeria breaks up and I pray it is in my lifetime. I can wait for that day.

Dr Ndibe laments the

Dr Ndibe laments the vilification of the Igbo as a collective because of what Chinua Achebe has written about Chief Obafemi Awolowo.

Why does his outrage not extend to the collective vilification of the Yoruba on account of the statements and actions Achebe attributes to Awo, even if only out of respect for his wife, who is Yoruba by patrimony?

FOR OKIKE AND STAUBER

The contents of Achebe's book have become public knowledge so don't tell me to go and read satanic verses when I already know what the Devil looks like. The book is already tearing us apart. Well meaning Nigerian writers have been writing their opinions objectively without taking side. You guys still don't know that Ndibe's position is clearly known on this subject because you are bereft of a slightest tinge of discernible mind. It takes a frustrated mind to keep blaming other people for your predicaments. This is our own generation and let's take responsibility. Get real folks!

Deri & Minority mentality

@deri: Your minority mind-set which is the hallmark of all your posts on this site is a personal affliction for which you an urgent remedy. Please accept my sympathy.

Kola Ola Olaniran, accept my sympathy.

@Kola Ola Olaniran: From the tone and language of your post, it is easy to deduce that you are a frustrated illiterate. How else can we explain this personal attack on Okey Idibe. If you think that you can blackmail us here with your cooked-up lies about phone calls and all that, then you are fooling yourself.
Afterall, your phone contacts also share the same disability as you - frustration and illiteracy!! I would have advised you to go and read the book, except that you cannot read. QED

achebe was part of the starvation propaganda

Prof Achebe was a voice to be reckoned with during the war and together with Ojukwu they delibrately starved the Igbos so as to win the sympathy of the United Nations. Prof Achebe and his family were well fed during the war. Please ask Alhaji Lateef Okunnu, he is still alive and he helped mediate during the war on food distribution to the civilians which Achebe and Ojukwu decided to deprive the civilians of. Please find out the truth. Again if Biafra is to be a reality how come all Igbos refused to vote for APGA and join MASSOB.

Rise Up Above Ethnic Sentiments!

This Achebe book has already become public knowledge and for goodness sake, it's already causing panic among my Igbo brothers in Lagos and their Yoruba counterparts in the East. One would have expected Ndibe to tell the old man that we don't need divisiveness at this period rather than telling me to go and read "Satanic Verses" so as to know what the Devil looks like. Well meaning Nigerian writers have been writing objectively. It's true there was a war but the great Zik and Ikemba did not die with animosities in their hearts. Rise up above ethnic sentiments and get real folks!  

How do you make a book sell? (3)

Most of the major decision makers of that period are either gone or are slowly leaving the 'living' and time is getting shorter to have a real discussion and lay to rest all the evils of our past and present as well as lay down the future dynamics and working relationship of the different nationalities of Nigeria.

This book has opened up the scar of the past whether Okey agrees or not. If that is so, I agree that the reasonable thing to do is not apply a new emollient but seek for a permanent cure otherwise our nationalities will continue to get at each others jugular for years to come.

How do you make a book sell? (2)

There was wickedness, real wickedness on both sides of the war. We can argue until we are blue in the face as to which is worse between Nzegwu's coup act (that so terminated a democratic process in a slip shod manner resulting in the killings of mainly Northern politicians and the fact that almost 50 years on, we are yet to live in peace and see the 'dividends' of democracy) and the consequences of the war that followed. Igbo suffered most, no doubt. I have always said we need to revisit all these issues for Nigeria to move forward.

Rainbow is beautiful. Sadly, the way Nigerians have interacted, we see our Nation as a clash of colours, mostly dwelling individually and at times collectively in seeing how much advantage we can garner and get away with, from the common resources pot. We have failed to take the path of honour by shedding our biases and looking at the country as a whole and what decency and good we can each bring in to the advantage and for the good of all.

How do you make a book sell? (1)

How do you make a book sell?
-You make it controversial.
Would Achebe want to sell his books or cause grief to any particular group for that sake?
-Not likely, given his antecedents.

Am I going to read the book?
-I am not sure.
Will it change the thinking on both sides of the debate divide?
-Not likely; as tribal sentiments and loyalty runs deep in human nature.

Wisdom, Intellectualism and scholasticism are not confined to any one tribe or race. In that case any one that does not agree with Achebe's version should give their own since it is not as simple as Igbo were good and the rest of Nigerians were bad. He has stated his points from his own perspective.

Reply to Kola Ola Olaniran

To: Kola Ola Olaniran

How many of the folks whom you have been receiving phone calls from read the book? The central point in this memo by Okey Ndibe is that most of the critics and advocates of the book/Achebe have not taken time to read the book. You have just demonstrated that you lack the capacity to understand a written discourse. It is also so easy for you to make derogatory remarks about other people whom you disagree with as though you a relevant entity. In your shallow uncivilized world and perverted orientation, you are either opposed to or in support of every situation. I advise you to go and read Achebe's book first and come back and let's have an academic debate on it. Choose either side of the argument and I will defeat you.

How many of the folks whom

How many of the folks whom you have been receiving phone calls from read the book? The central point in this memo by Okey Ndibe is that most of the critics and advocates of the book/Achebe have not taken time to read the book. You have just demonstrated that you lack the capacity to understand a written discourse. It is also so easy for you to make derogatory remarks about other people whom you disagree with as though you a relevant entity. In your shallow uncivilized world and perverted orientation, you are either opposed to or in support of every situation. I advise you to go and read Achebe's book first and come back and let's have an academic debate on it. Choose either side of the argument and I will defeat you.

WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?

Who the hell is this guy-okey ndibe  taking side with Achebe? I've been receiving phone calls from folks who used to see him as a national figure expressing their disappointment that the guy they used to hold in high esteem is a card-carrying narcissist and ethnic chauvinist. Some of them almost put this dude on the same class with Dele giwa, Stanley Macebuh, Onome Osifo- Whiskey... until they realized that he's just another ATENTTION-SEEKING IDIOT like reuben abati (r.i.p.?) who inflicted so much wound of betrayal on the people. Achebe's book has just exposed his idiotic disposition.  

Awo Acnowledged He Supported Blockade of Biafra, So why all the

But why do some Yorubas still want to cleanse Awo of the sin of genocide he perpetrated while he was the thinking machine of Gowon;

after all, Awo had in many occasions accepted that he supported the blockade of the Biafra enclave which resulted to the famine death of close to 2 million Biafra children?

@NAGODI,HOW MANY TIV CIVILIANS DIDYOU KILL AFTER DIMKA'S COUP?

It is plain criminal mischief to justify the killing of more than 100,000 Igbo civilians living in the north who knew nothing about the killing of eight leaders of other tribes by Army officers.The bulk of educated officers in the Army were of Igbo origin so there was always a tendency that this group of "revolutionaries" would include more Igbos.
The achievements of Biafrans in all spheres of warfare will remain legendary and is quoted in lectures in most military tactics classes round the world.
The genocidal policy of civilian starvation is nothing to be proud about and history will vindicate the just,in this case it has already started.I admire the honesty,fairness and principled opinion of Prof Wole Soyinka,he also witnessed the war.

One yearns for 2015 to come quickly the other waits and watches

The struggle in 9ja 4 d control of d resources of the SS, has always been between the-Ibos, Fulanis and Yorubas! Those who suffer from the politics of divide and rule since 1914 are the so-called minority tribes in d 6 zones-Each of d old regions of 9ja, produced their own political gladiators-Zik, Awo and Ahmadu Bello were d dominant figures of the 3 major tribes! Politicians from these tribal enclaves, often whipped up ethnic sentiments, fear, suspicion and jealousy to their own advantage-so as to entrench themselves in power at the centre. That is why Politics in 9ja, often tend to be brutal, short and mercenary like in nature-political debates are mostly conducted in very abusive tribal tones-while ethnic loyalties are exploited to the fullest as we may have seen in the ongoing fight between the Yorubas and Ibos-yet they refuse to allow the SS go-cause of awuf oil revenue!

Was There A Country, Or Is There One.

The way and manner discourses on issues go in Nigeria, will always make a non Nigerian ask, not just if there was a country, but even if there be any now in existence? I shall try and read the book. Chief Awololwo was one of the greatest NIGERIANS. Dr AziKiwe, Sultan Ahmadu Bello, Alhaji Abubarkar, Malam Aminu Kano, Chief Denis Osadebe, and a whole lot of others were very great men, and please let me add, Margreth Ekpo, Fumilayo Ramsome Kuti, Mrs Mokelu among other women who carved out a niche for themselves. They were most honourable people who in some cases sacrificed their lives in the course of founding a nation to be one. YET, none of these ones was a God. For all I know, just like any good thing, they would have had advantages and disadvantages. Only God IS flawless. Let's hope we have a country, I mean one where discourses and write ups will be subjected to intellectual assessments based on unbiased stand point.

ADEREMI

READ WOLE SOYINKA'S TAKE ON ACHEBE'S BOOK AND CIVIL WAR.

ALSO READ BEN ADEKUNLE'S REGRET FOR FIGHTING CIVIL WAR.

@General TY Danjuma - You Stink!

First of all, I must tell you that we are not Yibos. We are Ndigbo. For a man who has been in public life forever like you it is quite unforgivable. So you think that we are cry babies? Which other group of Nigerians would survive better if after the war they were given 20 pound, their houses stolen and left to fend for themselves despite the fact that some were millionaires before the war? Why are you afraid of the truth coming out?
The continuing murder of people of Igbo heritage in the North is no fiction. Why do you think that it should be swept under the carpet? Your contribution to this debate, just like your contribution to the development of Nigeria is zilch. Your careless invitation to Ndigbo to secede again suggests to me that you have an eye on what they have achieved despite the odds. Thief!

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