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Many of us—old African hands, like myself, and Chinua Achebe’s millions of readers—have waited for this book: what happened to Africa’s greatest novelist during the Biafran war, when the Igbos in Eastern Nigeria broke off from the newly-independent country and declared themselves a separate state. Many of us have known that Achebe, an Igbo, served as a roving ambassador for Biafra during the war, 1967-1970, traveling around the world and attempting to gain recognition for the secessionist country. Achebe has written about those years in many of his poems, in a few of his best stories (including the masterful “Girls at War”) and from time-to-time provided partial accounts of the war itself and his activities during that time, but there has been no complete account from his perspective, though many others (especially journalists) have contributed to the discussion. Moreover, now that the events are forty years in the past, the time is appropriate for Achebe’s own personal account.
In the introduction, Achebe provides the content for what will follow but also a statement so profound that the reader can easily ignore it in anticipation of what will follow: “Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal—natural resources, yes, but even more so, human resources. But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.”
But first, Achebe tells us about himself, his own family, and his years as a young writer up until the outbreak of the war in 1967. Born in 1930, Achebe’s father (a Christian) and his uncle (an animist) “formed the dialectic that [he] inherited,” brilliantly narrated in his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart (1958). Achebe talks about his love of reading when he was still a schoolboy (nicknamed “Dictionary” by his classmates). Because of his academic brilliance, he was awarded a scholarship to study medicine but changed majors after a year, shifting to journalism and losing the scholarship. Some time after graduating, he worked for the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, while writing fiction during nights and weekends. Within half a dozen years after the country’s independence in 1960, the shattering of expectations for the country’s greatness had already occurred.
“Within six years of [independence] Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule. Public servants helped themselves freely to the nation’s wealth. Elections were blatantly rigged. The subsequent national census was outrageously stage-managed; judges and magistrates were manipulated by the politicians in power. The politicians themselves were pawns of foreign business interests.” Tribalism had reared its ugly head. Many had questioned from the beginning how a country with so many distinct ethnic groups—including three dominant ones—and with Africa’s largest population could ever achieve a balance of co-existence.
There had always been animosities about the Igbos. Of all the country’s ethnic groups, they were the most Westernized and—at independence—more Igbos had university degrees than those in any other groups. Quite naturally, Igbos dominated civil service jobs in the newly-minted government. The military was dominated by Northern Hausas. Within a few years, there was an increasing backlash against the Igbos because of a feared Igboization of the civil service. In January of 1966, a coup—largely led by junior officers who were Igbos in the military—attempted to wipe out corruption in the government. Achebe says he was in a state of shock: “That night of January 15, 1966, is something Nigeria has never really recovered from.” In the aftermath, an even stronger backlash against Igbos began, specifically pogroms against those living in the Northern part of the country, eventually killing approximately 30,000.
Achebe says he understood the backlash. What shocked him was the “incompetence of the Nigerian ruling class,” especially their greed. Worse, “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. Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. It was not just human nature, a case of somebody hating his neighbor and chopping off his head. It was something far more devastating, because it was a premeditated plan that involved careful coordination, awaiting only the right spark.” Achebe himself was implicated in the initial coup because he had published his fourth novel, A Man of the People (a story that ends with a military coup in an unnamed African country) days before the one in Nigeria.
It took more than a year for the Igbos to succeed from Nigeria (May 30, 1967). By that time major changes had taken place in the country, including a new military leader as the head of state, Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, and a military head of the Eastern Region, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, following a series of accords that attempted to negotiate a new federation for the disparate parts of the country. The underriding feeling for those in the East, Achebe tells us, “Was a strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo and many other peoples from Eastern Nigeria.” A later remark illustrates the irony of Igbo succession: “Having spearheaded the fight for Nigerian independence, Biafrans were later driven out by the rest of Nigeria; who waged war with the secessionist republic to conserve the very sovereignty of a nation (Nigeria) within whose walls Biafrans did not feel free, safe or desired.”
For a time, the war was a stalemate, with neither side having the advantage. But it didn’t take long for the “rag-tag” Biafran army to feel the superiority of Nigeria’s increasing stockpile of armaments, largely the result of so few countries siding with Biafra or recognizing it as a separate nation. By October of 1967, the Biafrans were being attacked from all directions. Often, these attacks were followed by massacres of civilians. Biafra’s capital had been pushed back from Enugu to Umuahia. The only reliable route in and out of the country was the Uli airport, once a highway, covered up with branches during daylight but, after dark, “one of the busiest airports in Africa with more than 50 flights a night.”
But “a humanitarian emergency of epic proportions” had already begun: mass starvation of the Biafrans. Achebe, at Ojukwu’s request, worked with others on the writing of Biafra’s constitution, and became—in his own words—“an unofficial envoy of the people of Biafra.” Besides describing his trips out of the country, in one of the most poignant incidents of the book, he describes the moment he learned of the death of his great friend who had joined the Biafran military, Christopher Okigbo (often identified as Nigeria’s major poet). In addition to soldiers, the greatest loss was of Biafran children, with one account stating that 300,000 were “suffering from kwashiorkor…and three million children near death.”
It was a terrible war for children, though the mental scars for adults were equally horrifying. Achebe sees a particular failure of the United Nations, its lack of involvement, particularly relating to the humanitarian issues. As the war continued, he also became disillusioned with Ojukwu, who fled to the Ivory Coast in early January of 1970. “Ojukwu robbed his old nemesis Gowon of the war booty he sought the most—his head… The protracted internal rivalry between the two men…had no resolution, and he had robbed Gowon of closure and complete satisfaction in victory.” The Igbo surrender was on January 15th of that year.
Approximately three million Biafrans—mostly women and children—had died, about twenty percent of the population. Achebe remarks, “Nigeria had not succeeded in crushing the spirit of the Igbo people, but it had left us indigent, stripped bare, and stranded in the wilderness.” There was little attempt to reintegrate Igbos back into the country or to assist them economically. Worse, forty years later there has still been no national discussion of the war in the country. It is as if nothing was learned by the horrible event. Yet, post-war Nigeria has been a “greater and more insidious reality. We were plagued by a home-grown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruling class. Compounding the situation was the fact that Nigeria was now awash in oil-boom petrodollars….” Not a pretty picture. Thus it is obvious why Chinua Achebe (and most of the country’s leading writers and intellectuals) do not live in Nigeria, have little regard for his country’s current government, which Achebe calls “godfatherism,” where corruption is the modus operandi.
For Achebe, There Was a Country must have been a painful book to write, but I also assume it was Achebe’s way of finally getting closure on one part of his remarkable life. I say that, in part, because the first time I met the writer was after the Biafran war. I could not help registering the man’s sadness. The occasion was a poetry reading, and Achebe read a number of his recent poems about the war. I had brought along a number of his novels for him to sign, and I remember the remark he made when I handed him a first edition of Arrow of God (1964), his third novel. Clearly surprised to see the book, he responded by saying that he no longer had a first edition. His books been destroyed during the war. I wasn’t quick-witted enough to tell him to keep the book, but I have remembered that incident for nearly forty years.
So I confess that I have a vested, biased interest in all of this. My Peace Corps years, 1962-1964, were spent teaching English at a boys’ secondary school in Igboland, half a dozen miles from Ogidi where Achebe had grown up. I spent my entire academic career after returning to the United States teaching and writing about African literature. During the Biafran war when I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I had lengthy discussions with other ex-Peace Corps Volunteers, trying to figure out some way that we could return to Nigeria and fight for Biafra. To my great frustration, that plan never materialized. To this day, I am haunted by photos of starving Igbo children printed in American magazines and newspapers.
So I confess that my heart has always been with Nigeria’s Igbos and—like Achebe and too many others—my heart has been broken by the failure of the country to fulfill its expectations at independence. And I still mourn my own ineptitude to give him the copy of Arrow of God (which I no longer possess). I wrote this review, in part, to say that I am sorry. But I also wrote it to celebrate Chinua Achebe himself, Africa’s soul.
Chinua Achebe: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra
Penguin, 333 pp., $27.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org