ArtsAchebe's "There Was a Country" risks opening old wounds

Achebe’s “There Was a Country” risks opening old wounds

Koert Lindijer has been a correspondent in Africa for the Dutch newspaper NRC since 1983. He is the author of four books on African affairs.

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There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra

Chinua Achebe

Allen Lane, 318pp £20.00

The author is one of Africa’s finest novelists, the subject is one of Africa’s greatest tragedies, the accusations he makes could not be more serious, and his prognosis for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is grim indeed. The combination should make for a compelling read. Instead the result is a quirky mix of opinion and autobiography, history and polemic, uneven in quality and partisan in perspective.

It has been more than forty years since Nigeria’s civil war over the breakaway state of Biafra ended and Chinua Achebe, its best known son, has at last broken his silence on the subject: “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.”

The story he tells has all the elements that were to become so familiar across the continent: ethnic divisions, religious rivalries and regional tensions, a problematic colonial legacy, and an elite of venal politicians and ambitious soldiers who plundered national resources.

This volatile combination came to a head in January 1966 when an Igbo-led coup overthrew Nigeria’s civilian government. Achebe, an Igbo himself, describes the coup as “naively idealistic”.  Idealistic or not, the outcome changed Nigeria forever.

In May government plans to abolish regional autonomy, which would have allowed the better-educated Igbos to dominate the civil service, triggered a counter coup in July.  It was a ghastly time, with many thousands of Igbos, who are mainly Catholic, slaughtered by the northern Hausa, almost entirely Moslem. Achebe calls the killings as “pogroms”, evidence that the “the northern military elite” had a “jihadist obsession”. Time and again he insinuates that religion played a big part in the civil war – yet General Jack Gowon, the Nigerian military leader, was a Christian from the Middle Belt region, as were several of his senior generals. And far from pursuing a “jihadist obsession”, the same northern elite backed Gowon’s “no victor, no vanquished” policy at the end of the war.

Whatever the merit of Achebe’s claims about the role of religion, no-one disputes the fact that as many as a million Igbos from around the country fled to the sanctuary of their homeland in eastern Nigeria. On May 30, 1967, the Oxford-educated Igbo general, Emeka Ojukwu, declared the independent state of Biafra.

Achebe argues that the roots of the ensuing civil war go back to well before the January coup. They can be traced to Britain’s encouragement of “inter-ethnic tensions” which were, he alleges, a key element in the “rigging” of the 1960 independence election to ensure that the north would dominate the new administration: “Within six years of this tragic colonial manipulation Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule”.

The Biafran civil war triggered by Ojukwu’s announcement might well have been dismissed as an obscure conflict in a far-off country but for two factors:  the country’s huge oil reserves, which were in Biafra territory; and it was the first war of the television era. Having calculated that the Nigerian regime would emerge the victor, Britain sold it the weapons that helped bring this victory about, the arms reinforcing an economic blockade imposed by Nigeria, including a ban on relief flights. The result shocked the world. Newsreels of skeletal, saucer-eyed starving children, victims of what Achebe calls genocide, appeared on television around the world.

For the supporters of Biafra, the heart-breaking pictures were enough to win their sympathy. For opponents of Biafra’s bid for independence, a dangerous genie had to be put back in the bottle. If it succeeded, secessionist movements would be inspired by a precedent that would undermine the territorial integrity not only of Africa’s most populous state, but could threaten arbitrary, fragile and disputed borders across the continent.

At the time of the January 1966 coup Achebe was working in the talks department of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, and describes how he and his wife went into hiding in Lagos before heading east. There he had a unique vantage point as an emissary who put Biafra’s case to governments around the world, drawing on his first-hand experience of conditions on the ground, and mourning the children who were victims of a “genocidal obsession.”

Thirty months later the breakaway state surrendered. It was, writes Achebe, “something Nigeria has never really recovered from”. Nor, it appears, has Achebe, now 84 and living in the United States. His pain and his grief are as raw as ever, his anger abides. A third of the way through the book, he offers a further reason for telling his story.

“The moment has come for Nigerians and the world to ask the proper questions and draw the right inferences about what happened in those terrible years.” Yet it is far from clear just what those questions and inferences are. And as he compiles his indictment he gets careless. On one page he writes that “over two million” Biafrans died; on the very next page it has risen to “perhaps three million dead.” He claims that “more small arms were used in Biafra than during the entire World War”, which seems unlikely, but is nevertheless cited by Achebe as further evidence of the genocidal intentions of the military regime.

Had post-Biafra Nigeria proved a success, Achebe might at least be reconciled to his memories. But on the contrary, there has been a disastrous succession of military coups, followed by civilian rule, both corrupt. Billions of dollars of oil revenue have been squandered, and sleaze remains endemic.

Achebe’s fear for contemporary Nigeria has the same prophetic ring as his prescient novel, A Man of the People, published on the eve of the 1966 coup. Some four decades later he warns: “Corruption in Nigeria   has passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage, and Nigeria will die if we continue to pretend that she is only slightly indisposed.”

But when he deals with what he calls the “endless cycles of inter-ethnic violence, mindless carnage” his anger spills over and his language verges on the intemperate, even inflammatory: “For over half a century the federal government has turned a blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its citizens – mainly Christian Southerner, mostly Igbo or indigenes of the Middle Belt – with impunity.”

By this stage however Achebe’s story has become a harangue, one that risks opening old wounds and reviving old scores, and failing to provide the fresh insights into the African tragedy that was Biafra.


Michael Holman, brought up in Zimbabwe, is a former Africa editor of the Financial Times. His satire on aid, the Last Orders at Harrods trilogy, is published by Polygon.

This review will be published in the September issue of the London Literary Review  

Also on The Africanists: Chinua Achebe: Peaceful world my sincerest wish

Koert Lindijer
Koert Lindijer
Koert Lindijer has been a correspondent in Africa for the Dutch newspaper NRC since 1983. He is the author of four books on African affairs.

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