by Ikhide R. Ikheloa
[In which I compile my various thoughts on Professor Chinua Achebe's book, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra culled from my numerous postings on Twitter, Facebook and listserves. This is intended to serve primarily as a historical archive of my views. So I (we) may not forget.]
I enjoyed reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Many devotees of Achebe will recognize several chapters from previous essays; however he does a good job of putting them together to tell a majestic story. It is an important book, one that should adorn every thinker’s book shelf or e-reader. What I am going to say here is not a review or critique of the book; I don’t think that the world could stand yet another review of that book. Yes, there are some really good reviews of the book and there are many atrocious rants posing as reviews. My favorite review is by Tolu Ogunlesi whose coolly cerebral analysis puts to shame the reams of hot air from several architects of Nigeria’s ruin. Reading the book clearly makes the profoundly sad point that many who have “reviewed” the book dispensed with the inconvenience of reading it. Too bad. Achebe’s memoir is a great, nostalgic look back at a very complex era, one that should have elicited a more coherent and respectful engagement than what we witnessed when the book was released. To be fair, Nigeria’s educational system is at best incoherent, in reality in shambles. Not much of what Achebe had to say can be gleaned from Nigeria’s classrooms. And so, many people have reacted with pieces of dog-eared crap because Nigeria has not invested in an instructional and intellectual infrastructure that keeps her history intact. It is Nigeria’s loss, not Achebe’s.
The noise making and intemperate dance of shame that heralded Achebe’s book are a sad commentary on how many Nigerians conduct the business of scholarship these days. Many people should be stripped of their academic degrees; they are a disgrace to scholarship. There are many things to disagree with Achebe about, but one comes away with a sad realization that we are witnessing the passing of an era, of principled hard-working writers and thinkers, well-educated and brought up to believe in intellectual rigor. I say to those who “reviewed” the book before reading it, please go and read that book before you open your mouths one more time. Talk about a hardworking scholar; the man puts together an impeccable compilation of academic sources including my favorite historian, the indefatigable Professor Toyin Falola, in order to tell a compelling story about his life and our world. And yes, There Was A Country is not all about Biafra. There are powerful passages there for instance about the burden of the writer of African extraction, profoundly moving are his thoughts on what we should be preoccupied with as writers and thinkers. Achebe is a meticulous writer, providing sources everywhere appropriate. And that’s the other thing; many Nigerian writers would not know to go to Professor Toyin Falola as a reference, not as long as there is a Western scholar babbling stuff about “Africa,” Achebe did. The sources alone are worth the price of the book.
The truth must be told: Most people commenting on Achebe’s opinions were merely reacting to what he wrote about Chief Obafemi Awolowo in an Op-ed piece in the UK Guardian on Tuesday, October 2, 2012.
This is what Achebe said about Chief Awolowo:
“The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.
It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra war – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”
It is not the most elegant critique of Pa Awolowo’s role and complicity in the genocide that was Biafra. But then, there is something offensive about expecting Achebe to be “objective” in his narrative. There was a horrific conflict and he is telling his side of the story. Readers are mature enough to understand that Achebe is coming from a certain perspective and they respect that. As Achebe reminds us, until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter. Facts are facts and not even the saccharine hagiographies offered by insincere architects of Nigeria’s ruin can change that. To my dying day I will always maintain that Pa Awolowo and Pa Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that wiped out millions of Nigerians. They said it themselves, garrulously and loudly. We cannot and should not run away from that. Simply Google their names and the truth will come tumbling out of their boastful mouths.
Yes. Chief Awolowo virtually accepted responsibility in the blockade that starved millions of women children and defenseless women of Biafra. In response to Achebe’s biting words about Pa Awolowo, many exhumed a 1983 interview in which he tried to defend his role in the civil war. It is an awful interview with patronizing and condescending opinions about the other. He says of his role:
“You won’t hear of a single lawyer, a single doctor, a single architect, who suffered from kwashiorkor? None of their children either, so they waylaid the foods, they ambush the vehicles and took the foods to their friends and to their collaborators and to their children and the masses were suffering. So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.”
If you do not start from a point of truth and courage, you have a broken compass. What happened in Biafra was genocide, no ifs, no buts. I have always thought that as a (contrived) people, our cowardice is primeval and savage. The criminals who did this to millions of women, children and the defenseless are still alive as “statesmen.” The evil dead are immortalized in currency notes and their evil names adorn airports. I respect Pa Awolowo but I think he was not only wrong, he and Chief Anthony Enahoro are culpable in the genocide that was Biafra. I am not Igbo, not that it should matter, but I could tell you about what it meant to be caught in a war-zone (Benin City under the Biafran army occupation) at age 8, without your parents, tending to your six-year old brother while living in a two-room lean to of a distant relative. I could tell you that the terror lives with both of us to this day. Because war is hell.
Yes. the Nigerian civil war is infinitely more complicated than any book I have ever read can script it. My parents’ ancestral land is part of my experience but not in terms of a formal education. It is quite possible that without a free primary education powered by Pa Awolowo’s vision, I would not be here today. It is also true that many Biafran children are not with us today because Pa Awolowo denied them that which he offered me so generously; food, water and life. That is the absolute truth and Pa Awolowo confirmed it in the God awful (yes, awful) interview that many proudly brandish all over the place. It is impossible to forget Biafra, but today, Nigeria is in a very bad place, on many levels. Those that ruined our country are still strutting about handing us gobs of malu droppings. In the meantime in medieval places like Aluu, youths are slaughtered and burnt alive for allegedly stealing phones. Nigeria’s retired crooks are on social media tweeting quotes from Mahatma Gandhi. I mean, how difficult is it to say that the forced starvation of children and women was wrong?
Again, I say to these people, read the book. Despite Achebe’s anger, he devotes space in the book to reflect on the positive qualities of Pa Awolowo and he gives him due credit.
“By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the University of London. When he returned to the Nigerian political scene from England in 1947, Awolowo found the once powerful political establishment of western Nigeria in disarray— sidetracked by partisan and intra-ethnic squabbles. Chief Awolowo and close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue— resuscitated ethnic pride— and created a political party, the Action Group, in 1951, from an amalgamation of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Nigerian Produce Traders’ Association, and a few other factions….
Initially Chief Obafemi Awolowo struggled to woo support from the Ibadan-based (and other non-Ijebu) Yoruba leaders who considered him a radical and a bit of an upstart. However, despite some initial difficulty, Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared a similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination.” (Kindle Locations 784-797)
Yes, Achebe said all that about Pa Awolowo. Read the book first before reviewing it. Too many of the combatants in this shameless orgy of finger-pointing dunked the conversation in the filthy lucre of true and tired orthodoxy, to hell with a new realistic way of looking at our world. Think about it; in a certain sense, for a long time now, Western education and civilization have foisted on Black Africa, two tribes, one made up of the self-serving intellectual and political elite, and the rest, the dregs, the dispossessed. The poor are the ones that die by the millions, they are the ones that watch their children die of malnutrition, and endure abusive public education in the hands of intellectuals and politicians. They are the ones that are doubly victimized by thieving pastors. Their suffering knows no end. I ask my fellow intellectuals and professionals today: How many of us are in Nigeria? How many of us have children in Nigeria? How many of our children can speak an indigenous language? How many of our children give a hoot about any of this? It is our collective hypocrisy that even as we fight over dead leaders like Pa Obafemi Awolowo, our children are abroad at Starbucks, sipping lattes with their Spanish teachers. We will line up the poor, struggling in the dying remnants of ancient civilizations, to fight for our ideals.
What has happened to Achebe’s book is ordinarily an outrage. But it sells books and Achebe should be chuckling all the way to the bank. Ignorance sells. It bears repeating: Our intellectual and ruling elite know one fact – fiefdoms are not sustainable in the 21st century. We see this in their behavior. Their children and families are ensconced in the best communities and schools of the West, learn English, Spanish and lately Chinese, and busily acquire skills for 21st century survival while they force the dispossessed to look back in anger at their version of history. This they know: Expanding the boundaries of their world, their new ethnic enclave of middle-class living to embrace even more is anathema to their civilization. Our people are the new savages; our leaders are the new Conrads, little Naipauls shivering in the warmth of the other, dressed in ill-fitting Tweeds. The children of our pretend-tribal warlords do not speak a single “African” language, would not know a Yoruba from Siri. That is our Achilles heels, the rank hypocrisy of the intellectual and ruling class.
Chinua Achebe has said his piece and we should applaud him for jumpstarting a conversation. I believe his narrative more than that of a Pa Awolowo or Pa Anthony Enahoro garrulously defiant about the need to starve to death children, just to make a deadly point. By the way, I did not need Achebe’s book to come to that point. I am also very interested in the minority narrative, something which Achebe mostly ignores in his book and which many others gloss over, as if it is a patronizing afterthought. It is what it is, those of us cursed with the minority label daily endure the ordeal of our communal balls being squeezed by the big three groups – the Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani and Igbo. I will concede that many Igbo intellectuals have reflected deeply on the war and to their credit have been unsparing of Igbo leaders in the horror that was the Nigerian civil war. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for instance managed a certain distance from the war in her lovely book, Half of a Yellow Sun. That book should be required reading in every classroom everywhere in the world.
Many things I don’t understand, but perhaps, Africa is where bad ideas go to die. And yes, my point is this: Chinua Achebe’s book, There Was a Country, has fueled the bile of ancients, flag barriers of ethnic prejudices, shaking gnarled fists at the truth of Nigeria’s shame. There was a country indeed. Perhaps I exaggerate a bit, but nations and physical boundaries are so 20th century. Nations as we know them are dying, and not just because the great teacher, Chinua Achebe says so. Even as thriving nations are helped along to the new paradigm shift by their intellectuals, there is no end to the finger-pointing and recriminations among Nigeria’s narcissistic, navel gazing, and in many instances, thieving intellectuals. My generation of intellectuals and rulers (I would not call them leaders) has proven eloquently that we have lost the plot when it comes to Nigeria’s desired future. Many of us have taken to open looting, and virtually all of us have become defensive and perhaps abusive when it comes to getting feedback. Follow our intellectual and political elite and their buffoonery and Biafra seems so far away:
Our intellectuals are asleep at the wheel of divination. That is a shame. It is time for us to face some honest truths. Today, for many intellectuals, Biafra is an academic exercise for the most part and a dishonest one for that matter. Any notion that Biafra would have been a nirvana is easily dispelled by the state of Eastern states today. Corruption has eroded the people’s sense of self; the struggle continues, to use the cliché. There is not a single credible museum dedicated to the war effort anywhere in Nigeria. There are pretend-museums, but nothing like you would expect in honor of millions dead. In Anambra State, children of the traumatized and dispossessed are “educated” in hovels as this appalling video shows.
Back to Achebe’s book. Achebe needs no one to defend him and I am sure he expected some reaction to the book because he makes many statements in there that are controversial. There is plenty to disagree with in the book, for example, Achebe says:
“I have written in my small book entitled The Trouble with Nigeria that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo. The origin of the national resentment of the Igbo is as old as Nigeria and quite as complicated. But it can be summarized thus: The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/ Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing no god or man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities, such as they were, of the white man’s dispensations. And the Igbo did so with both hands. Although the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head start, the Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950.”
Achebe, Chinua (2012-10-11). There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Kindle Locations 1226-1233). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.
Achebe lost me here. My own people do not resent the Igbo. Achebe lost me there, yes. But I certainly understand why he would say that. The Igbo have suffered pogroms, massacres, genocide, economic and political marginalization and a man can be forgiven for those feelings. Everything has context. These words that I excerpted above were first written in that great little book of his that roared, The Trouble With Nigeria. Indeed, it is the case that many thoughts in There Was A Country are previously articulated in several other essays as Achebe meticulously documents in the various sources in the book. It is not a hagiography of the war; He is harsh in his assessment, not only of the Nigerian experiment, but on the Biafra leadership. Achebe is harsh on Biafran leader Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and provides credible sources who are severe critics of Ojukwu. He is harsh on the January 15, 1966 coup plotters and he ridicules Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the masterminds of the coup.
What I find surprising is how little of Achebe’s works have been read even by many of Nigeria’s intellectuals. Very little of it in this book is new that Achebe has not previously said. I will say however that the beauty of the book is how it tells a story as if it is all new. Achebe is a master story teller. If children can now ask elders questions about Biafra because of Achebe’s book, then he has been successful beyond my wildest imagination. What Achebe’s new book has told me is that there is hunger in our land – for stories; that Nigerian youngsters pine for history, for the written word; that perhaps, writers must reflect on their role in creating a culture of people actively engaged in their writing.
Decades of decadent irresponsible governance have robbed millions of Nigerian youths of their birthright – a good education, safety and security. Add to that a future that is certain only in the sense that there is probably none. Again, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun
is a good book for those who want to read something contemporary, engaging and evocative regarding Biafra There are many contentious issues that Adichie brings up – and there is no shortage of robust debate about them. That is what a book should do. Dan Obi Auduche also has a helpful bibliography of eighty books on the Biafran war here
. Adichie’s book has a reference list of thirty books. My favorite essay on Biafra by the way is My Biafran Eyes
by Okey Ndibe. You may feast on it freely on Guernica here
. Achebe has achieved what many intellectuals like him have attempted and failed – which is to write an engaging story of that period of our history when the world watched as children’s tummies swelled from hunger, not from food. Achebe, the eagle chuckles atop the Iroko. I salute you, Professor Chinua Achebe.
A version of this article was originally posted on the author's blog