Monday, 21 April 2014
Rejoinder to Adam Nossiter’s New York Times Review of Achebe’s Memoir By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
“Rumors of Nigeria’s demise have been somewhat exaggerated.”
With that sentence, Adam Nossiter started a perfunctory review of Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country in the New York Times. The possibility of Nigeria’s demise is not a rumor. If such demise is exaggerated, the CIA is also guilty of the same crime. For Nigerians who daily live with the signs and symptoms of a dying nation it has passed the prelude. Each time they pay the price for a deeply flawed nation, the rumor is closer to reality.
Nossiter’s main issue with Biafra is that it was not viable. This is like telling the Jews after Holocaust that the state of Israel in Palestine was not viable. And I am sure that many did. In fact, some Jews were in support of the British-backed plan to create a country for the Jews in Uganda instead of having them reclaim their homeland in Palestine. For Igbo people who faced persecution, pogroms and annihilation, Biafra was inevitable. Viability has never stopped anything that is inevitable.
Conveniently, Adam Nossiter did not dwell much on the role of the international players in Biafra. They, more than any other group, determine what becomes viable in conflicts like this. The Biafrans fought beyond the expectations often associated with heroes. The unusual marriage of external forces against Biafra was something no strategist could have imagined. The only other time in history that Britain and Soviet Union fought on one side was against Adolf Hitler.
Nossiter said there really was not a country but a stillborn. If Biafra was a stillborn, it must be the world most famous stillborn ever because most families I know do not remember their stillborns the way the Nigerian family remembers Biafra.
Biafra was a country. It may not have succeeded but it surely made its mark while it was there. And it is still a virtual home and a cloud country for the Igbo and all those who face persecution and pogroms.
Nossiter wrote: “Yet when Achebe praises Ojukwu’s “gift for oratory,” the colors in the new nation’s flag or the accomplished design of its new currency it is sharply at odds with the haunting images of the suffering engendered by the war: the famine, the bodies “rotting under the hot sun.” His nostalgia seems jarring and misplaced.”
It is easy to look back now and blame the people who tried to save themselves from extinction. There is no way of calculating the Igbo lives that Biafra saved. If after Biafra they are still killing Igbo people in Nigeria today, imagine what they would have done without Biafra. In fact, who knows if any Igbo would have been left without that drawn Biafran line?
Maybe the nostalgia that would be left would have been similar to that of the dinosaur. Writers would recall stories of dead bodies of Igbo people returning to the East from all over the country and the final wipe out.
“Like his nostalgia for Biafra, Achebe’s judgment on contemporary Nigeria seems excessive — more the products of a writer’s jaundiced backward glances than a coming to grips with the reality of what was and what is. Nigeria today is a seething caldron, maddening in its contradictions and capacity for self-destruction but full of promise too, in its immense energy and human resources.”
Really? Has this guy been to Nigeria? For over 50 years, Nigerians have been feeding on this promise of potentials. It has become a pie in the sky. Well, the hunger has not disappeared. In fact, stunted growth has become the outcome of that self-deceit. No nation can survive for long carrying on its back the “capacity for self-destruction.” Eventually, it will act it out. Then, nobody will fault those whose judgments are today considered “excessive.”
Unlike Nossiter, when it comes to judgment of Biafra, as much as I admire Wole Soyinka, I am not relying on him to tell me what happened in Biafra. I am relying on the one who was there- Chinua Achebe.
I hope Adam Nossiter will find the time to read Wole Soyinka’s new book, “Of Africa” He won’t like the judgment Soyinka delivered in the book. A judgment that made Adam Hochschild to declare in the same New York Times, “If I’m right about the inner conflict reflected in Soyinka’s contorted prose, one thing I wish I could say to him is that perhaps he takes Africa’s woes too much to heart.”
For some of us who have more than a working relationship with Africa, there is no taking Africa’s woes too much to heart. There is no judgment that is “excessive.” Adam Nossiter and Adam Hochschild can afford to look at 11% GDP and pat Africa on the back. Those of us who have families dying from poor roads, poor healthcare and poor nutrition because African leaders are sending most of that 11% growth in GDP back to Nossiter and Hochschild’s country expect more.
Americans did not live on a phantom promise that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Americans have seen that promise fulfilled again and again.
Africans, in general, and Nigerians, in particular, cannot live on a phantom promise that they have enormous human and material potentials. At some point, Africans will figure out that they are dying while they are expected to wait for this apparition of a promise. And that is when their patience will fade way.
I find it hard to believe that Adam Nossiter, someone who read Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country and had worked in West Africa, is still using Ibo instead of Igbo. No where in the book were the Igbo referred to as Ibo.
He wrote, “Seven years after Nigerian independence, the prosperous Ibos, dominant in the eastern part of the country and targets of persecution and pogroms, declared their independence.”
Like most of Nossiter’s arguments, the statement above scratched the surface of the matter. The Igbo prominent presence across Nigeria was why they became a target for persecution and pogroms. If the Igbo were confined in the east, they would not have become targets of persecution and pogroms. Before Nigeria came into being and the Igbo were compelled by that reality to embrace the rest of Nigeria, nobody was persecuting and killing the Igbo in their homeland.
Biafra in a way was the Igbo attempt to return to home base after the Nigerian experiment turned sour for them. And once again, Nigeria would not let the Igbo be. Now that was the crux of the matter. And it remains the central question in the Nigerian experiment. It is not a rumor for Nigerians, and, obviously, not a rumor for the Igbo.