There was a Country: Chinua Achebe makes peace with Nigeria – By Tolu Ogunlesi

Chinua Achebe’s latest book, There was a Country, has appeared fifty-four years after the author’s first novel, Things Fall Apart, today arguably the best-known novel ever written by an African. In the time between the two books, a remarkable literary and political career has played out, producing a plethora of poetry, fiction, and essays. It has also been characterised by outstanding acts of defiance: from taking on Joseph Conrad to twice turning down Nigeria’s national honours.

On May 30, 1967, following the 1966 massacre of thirty thousand Igbo (Achebe’s ethnic group, in the south east of Nigeria) civilians in the North of the country, the Igbo, under the leadership of Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu declared independence. Nigeria’s Federal Government, intent on preventing the secession, in turn declared war on the breakaway Republic of Biafra. That war would last 30 months, claiming the lives of between one and two million Biafrans. There was a Country: a personal history of Biafra is Achebe’s account of that war, interspersed with his poetry from that period.

One question immediately arises but remains unanswered: Why did it take Achebe 42 years to write this book? In the six years immediately preceding the war, he produced three novels, but only one in the forty-two years following. During the war poetry only, and after it, for the most part, only essays.

The early chapters of There was a Country set the context – the world into which he was born, the education he got, the friends he made, the woman he fell in love with and married, the jobs that came along, the story of how Things Fall Apart came to be written, and almost not-published.

The narrative has a ‘happily ever after’ ring to it in these early pages, and it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that Achebe is a fortunate man. Achebe himself confirms this: “It has often been said that my generation was a very lucky one. And I agree. My luck was actually quite extraordinary,” he writes.

Ahead lay a bright future for Independent Nigeria. “The possibilities for us were endless, at least so it seemed at the time. Nigeria was enveloped by a certain assurance of an unbridled destiny, of an overwhelming excitement about life’s promise, unburdened by any knowledge of providence’s intended destination.” But that bright hour deceived everyone; it wasn’t sunrise, but a prelude to dusk.

Things proceeded downhill from that moment. Independence provided the perfect opportunity for Nigerians to prove just how adept they would be at running the country aground. If the colonialists were corrupt, scheming, election-rigging administrators who still somehow managed to run a fairly efficient system, the Nigerians who took over from them devised a fail-proof means to keep the corruption while discarding the efficiency.

In the six-plus post-Independent years before the civil war, Nigeria successfully revealed itself as a “cesspool of corruption and misrule.”

From here we are taken into the heart of the book – the story of Biafra, as recollected and interpreted by Achebe. It starts with the first post-independence coup, and then a second one, and then the massacre of Igbos, and then a total falling apart.

I came away from reading this book with the feeling that the secession of Biafra was inevitable. Achebe eloquently sets out the scenario: not only could the Nigerian government not guarantee the safety of the Igbos; it had become implicated in the systematic shedding of their blood. In the face of “an Igbo backlash” in Northern and Western Nigeria, and a “government-sanctioned environment of hate and resentment”, the beleaguered Easterners needed – and found in Biafra – a “home”.

But Achebe also paints a picture of a complicated war. First, that it was a battle of egos between two young men, impetuous, inexperienced, and surrounded by “sycophantic” advisers: Nigerian Head of State Yakubu Gowon, and Biafran Head of State Odumegwu Ojukwu.

Then, that it was also a World War, drawing in Britain, France, America, China, the USSR and even Portugal – “big powers” in whose reckoning “we, the little people of the world, are ever expendable.”

And then, of course, that Biafra was a media war. Achebe describes it as “arguably the first fully televised conflict in history.” It also attracted some of the world’s best known writers (such as Auberon Waugh and Kurt Vonnegut), who visited to see things for themselves.

There was a Country has its fair share of hard-hitting attacks by the author: names are mentioned (most notably Obafemi Awolowo, deputy head of the Nigerian Government), fingers pointed, stones hurled.

But there are also those moments in which he resorts to a frustrating passivity of voice. The narration is laden with “Some say” and “There are those who believe”-type constructions. At important moments, when we need to see the ‘I’ in charge of the narrative, Achebe holds back. There are those readers who will insist that he has come some way from the unflaggingly take-no-prisoners tone of the non-fiction ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’ (1983).

However, even the unsaid or obliquely-said can be hugely revealing. The Ojukwu of There was a Country is not a hero; despite Achebe’s kindness to him.  Whatever heroism he embodied appears to end with his decision to take the destiny of his people into his own hands and orchestrate the secession. The Ojukwu that follows the declaration of Biafra is murderously intolerant of dissent and prone to questionable judgements. Not only does he reject airlifts of food aid; even when it is clear that the war is un-winnable, he takes decisions that prolong it, and prolong the suffering of his people. His attitude causes a number of influential Igbo statesmen – most prominent of whom was Nnamdi Azikiwe – to withdraw their support for Ojukwu and the Biafran cause.

And the Biafrans, victims, no doubt, are acknowledged by Achebe as having been complicit in “atrocities”: mob lynchings of captured enemy soldiers and the murder and kidnap of oil workers in the delta. None of these atrocities however belongs in the same class as the ones committed by the Nigerian troops. There is no doubt about that.

The denouement is delivered in the chilling line: “In the end, Biafra collapsed.”

Ojukwu, having stubbornly kept the war going for thirty months, sees the writing on the wall (by then Biafra had shrunk to a fraction of its original size), gives up, and flees to exile in Cote d’Ivoire.

“His detractors, many of whom are alive, still believe that this particular act was one of great cowardice, and that true heroes go down with the cause,” Achebe writes. He then proceeds to put up an unconvincing defence of Ojukwu, describing his “departure” as “a complicated matter.”

There is at least one loud silence. Not once does Achebe mention William Bernhardt, the American PR guru who, through his MarkPress, cranked the engines of Biafra’s massive “propaganda” machine from an office in Geneva. Achebe also speaks of himself as an “unofficial envoy of the people of Biafra,” but shies away from linking himself in any way to the Biafran propaganda effort. And when mention is made of the Haitian tyrant who accorded Biafra its “only non-African full diplomatic recognition”, Achebe conveniently refers to him, not as the “Papa Doc” the world knows, but as the benign “Dr. Francois Duvalier.”

There is no doubt that this book must have been Achebe’s toughest writing task ever. Perhaps that’s why it took so long to complete. The war, no doubt, marked a turning point in his life. In it he lost homes, friends (Christopher Okigbo being the most prominent), and faith in Nigeria; and watched helplessly as hundreds of thousands of his kith and kin went through indescribable suffering and death. There was a Country is an insider’s account of those trying times that continue, more than four decades later, to cast dense shadows on the land.

Yet I found the end of the book, laden as it is with lamentations first expressed thirty years ago in The Trouble With Nigeria, strangely hopeful and inspiring. Achebe appears, once again, to accept Nigeria. I say this because I believe it is only out of a sense of hope that one can castigate in the way Achebe does in the book’s final pages. And beyond lambasting, he goes on to prescribe solutions. This is a man who, despite how much Nigeria has hurt him, still believes in the possibilities of a “Nigerian solution”.

If the Nigerian solution continues to prove elusive, if we continue to disregard the admonitions of Achebe, and others like him, there is the possibility that another There was a Country will need to be written.

And it will no doubt have this line embedded somewhere within it: In the end, Nigeria collapsed.

Tolu Ogunlesi is a journalist and poet based in Lagos, Nigeria. He contributes regularly to local and international media on Nigerian and African affairs. He blogs at http://toluogunlesi.com/
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29 thoughts on “There was a Country: Chinua Achebe makes peace with Nigeria – By Tolu Ogunlesi

  1. I thought I have read all there is to read in Fredrick Forsyth’s THE BIAFRA STORY: a book that reads like a Biafran apologist, but actually portrays an objective viewpoint of the civil war imbroglio.

    I thought I never wanted to read another dot or title on the Nigerian civil war if it is not fiction, and here comes THERE WAS A COUNTRY, and my appetite being whetted by my Brother, Tolu Ogunlesi.

    The only other thing I wanted to do with the plethora of literatures on Biafra was researching for a full novel on the subject. Well, then, there may not just a country waiting to be written from this.

    Thank you, Mr. Ogunlesi. You do well!

  2. Well written. The review does whet my appetite I must say, and the book is probably worth a read. Great review.

  3. I’m glad a proper analysis of the book has finally come out from someone who has read the book, not the blind, blood baying, pretentious and self-serving writings of certain persons who, in John the prophet’s words, are unworthy of tying Achebe’s literary sandal strings.I commend your objectivity and clarity of expression. May the Nigeria of our hopes scion more with your gifts.

  4. This took me down the memory lane. I was in school then (Grade 6) when the civil war broke out. I can remember seeing in the news papers the people affected by the war. In one way, I was very relieved that the war ended, though the country called ‘Biafra’ was erased from the world map, because it ended human suffering.

  5. Tolu thank you for a very refreshingly articulate review.

    “If the Nigerian solution continues to prove elusive, if we continue to disregard the admonitions of Achebe, and others like him, there is the possibility that another There was a Country will need to be written.
    And it will no doubt have this line embedded somewhere within it: In the end, Nigeria collapsed.”

    Profound and apt.

  6. Thanks Tolu, for this appetizer into the content of lattest offering from the griot’s pen.
    What more is left? To place an order for a personal copy.

  7. Nice one, Tolu. One of the chief requirements for those who choose to be a voice, to, in effect, speak out, is that of providing needful and useful service in a trammeled and bligted land such as is Nigeria; consequently the glass must almost always be half full as long as there is life. In this instance there are over 150 million lives involved. Compassion must constrain and compel our “voice” to hold out hope that despite the many bloody and costly missteps, a better, fairer, country will be midwifed. The consequence of fostering a contrary sentiment in the land and I’m effect creating a mainstream culture of pessimisim andbit impact on the daily existence of Nigerians is best left imimagined.

    Self examination and self recrimination is a needful excercise following a tragedy such as the Nigerian civil war in which heroism and villiany were as detribalised in their sprinkling as were the mistakes and culpabity that led to the war and fuelled and prolonged the war in the first place, only if the serve to improve the national character and forge a better culture of unity.

  8. Pingback: Tolu Ogunlesi Reviews There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe | Books LIVE

  9. Great review, Tolu. It took Achebe 42 years to ‘agonize’ over the story…THERE WAS A COUNTRY; it is obvious that some will be pleased and some not at Achebe’s accounts of the Nigerian CIVIL WAR…He has told his own story, others must tell theirs. Your review has debunked the ‘ethnic brush’ that many ‘ethnic jingoists’ would want us to believe…in your words, ‘THIS IS A MAN WHO,DESPITE HOW MUCH NIGERIA HAS HURT HIM, STILL BELIEVES IN THE POSSIBILITIES OF A NIGERIAN SOLUTION…’ Nigeria has not been forsaken. Thanks.

  10. William Bernhardt may have owned MarkPress, but the Biafra account was managed by Bernard Preston.
    And, since MarkPress merely distributed content that was created in Biafra, there’s very little reason to call attention to the make of the P.A. system so long as the strong voice of the singer comes through clearly.
    Hahaha! The silence over MarkPress is least among the instances of Special Pleading in There Was a Country.
    Indeed, few are worthy of tying Achebe’s literary sandal strings as someone earlier observed on this thread. There Was a Country is another fine novel from the master.

  11. Igbo leader and world famous author Professor Chinua Achebe’s latest book, There Was A Country, definitely affirms that it is time we stopped walking as if on eggshells, around the history of Nigeria’s chain of crises.

    Achebe’s characteristic bare-knuckle account, for all it is worth, has opened the floodgates of candid debate. However if the professor hoped to use the book to validate the fantasy he had peddled for decades, he must be sorely disappointed now because the book did exactly the opposite. It has inspired a number of authoritative rebuttals, some of which have and more of which will further set the records straight.

    Achebe once wrote that the trouble with Nigeria is a failure of leadership, which obviously he does not think he is part of. But the truth is that Chinua Achebe is part of a generation of Igbo leaders, indeed a clique of self-serving Nigerian leaders that consistently failed their people. When leaders arrogantly refuse to admit their own failings, indeed refuse to accept the fallibility of man, the usual resort, of which Achebe and some Igbo leaders like him are evidently fond of, is to look for scapegoats, however improbable.

    In the second quarter of the last century, a half-wit German army corporal and his thuggish friends bullied their way into Germany’s governance. They thereafter paved Germany’s way to ruin with the propaganda of a superior Aryan race, supposedly whose progress was being impaired by a long list of scapegoats—Jews, Blacks, gypsies, the regular army, communists, the disabled and others. Victorious allies and other decent Germans made sure that surviving Nazi leaders faced the full music, for destroying countless lives in pursuit of their delusions. However, the tragedy was not that in modern Europe people with evil and petty minds like the Nazis existed. The tragedy was that those who ought to know better did not, but went along instead. The moral here is that humans will believe only what they choose to believe.

    I love Professor Achebe’s fiction and celebrate him for it, as do millions of other Yoruba people that he so much delights in vilifying but I detest his politics, especially when he deliberately intertwines the two and calls it history. It is understandable that, having made very little if any contribution to the advancement of his people, even as he exploited their history and lore for his own profit, Professor Achebe would now try to cad a decent burial from them. However, this long running but obviously futile effort to line his casket with the reputation of a decent people and their worthy leaders, for a man of Achebe’s age and endowment in life, is nothing but sheer wickedness.

    As they say, a people deserve the leaders they get. While Igbo people are welcome to accept another of Achebe’s fiction as fact—the same way that they have turned Achebe’s Things Fall Apart into an authentic Igbo history, and celebrate it as such—they have no right to ask the rest of the world to follow suit. Highly pertinent questions, long buried inside the grave of a no-victor-no-vanquished post-civil war policy, are about to resurrect. And if Igbo individuals are afraid to ask their leaders like Achebe, the right questions, perhaps for fear of what they might discover of the truth, others will.

    Professor Achebe claims that his people would have won the civil war had Chief Obafemi Awolowo not led genocide against the Igbo. Awolowo did that, Achebe alleges, because he and his Yoruba race were jealous of Igbo individualism, Igbo superior education, Igbo higher technological advancement and Igbo domination of Nigeria’s politics and industry. While the wishful conjecture of such a claim, for Nigeria of the sixties, is clearly self-evident, it nonetheless mirrors the same self-deception of Igbo battle capability, which self-serving leaders as Achebe sold to an already bruised and battered people to plunge them headlong into a war for which they were not prepared. They say a wise General picks his battles; Igbo leadership of the day simply lacked the good judgment to run away to fight another day.

    Awolowo did not ask or conspire with anyone to go and murder a whole crop of Northern military and political leaders in their beds and in front of their families. Neither did the Yoruba ask anyone to kill Easterners en-masse in the North. In fact, despite being essentially bystanders of both conspiracies, each side considered many innocent Yoruba lives to be acceptable collateral during that sad period of Nigeria’s history.

    There was a clear pre-misjudgment or miscalculation by Igbo leaders, of the North’s response to January 1966. Incidentally, I hold the opinion that being in prison in the East, where the ringleaders evidently did not make any serious plans or allocate tangible resources to implement their coup, saved Awolowo’s life. I have no doubt that if Awolowo had been in prison in the West or in the North, the coupists would have dragged him out and killed him. All that nonsense about carrying out the coup for Awolowo is simply propaganda, the origin of which I suspect is Awolowo’s enemies in the North.

    Then there was the unpardonable mistake of ordering their people, following the first round of pogroms, back to the killing fields of the North, without first pacifying an aggrieved people. Following which the so-called Igbo champions concocted the hemlock of Biafra.

    Biafra was good going as long as General Yakubu Gowon and Awolowo fed Biafra’s leaders like Achebe and their families. This was even as Achebe and others like him watched other people’s children die of hunger, kwashiorkor and their leaders’ wickedness.

    However, as soon as Awolowo stopped sending food, one by one, Achebe and others like him fled Biafra. The world never saw so many ‘roving ambassadors’ of a country. They left poor Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to hold the poison chalice, predictably which he also refused to drink, as he, too, eventually fled, leaving helpless Igbo masses to their fate.

    The integrity factor is all too evident. Chief Awolowo was honest to admit his role and defended what he saw as the good sense of blockading an enemy in war. Northern Nigeria leaders have admitted no less about the pogrom, saying they simply avenged their military and political leaders murdered by the Igbo. South-South leaders confirm that they sabotaged Biafra to free themselves from alleged Igbo ethnic oppression and brutal economic assault. What do we get from Igbo leaders? Denials of what in essence are a series of their bad judgment, while people like Achebe try to put a spin on history. Yet they wonder why others do not give much for the integrity of Igbo leaders like Chinua Achebe.

    ‘Transferred aggression’ is when an individual that is overwhelmed by superior circumstances looks for another individual, perceived to be an easy target, upon whom to vent his or her frustration. Such frustration is usually borne of one or a mixture of inferiority complex, cowardice and, or, shame.

  12. Olaitan Ladipo, you have succeeded in writing your own review as a comment, LOL. But I must thank you very much for it, especially for being in defiance. As much as I crave to read There was a Country and add it to my library in which already exists the awarding winning Half of a yellow sun, I must quickly add that even I too seek answers to this *imbroglio of a civil war. (I found that expression rather interesting as I read through the thread) My standpoint remains thus, if man isn’t selfish and self-centered, proud and grossly unforgiven, why should being white or black, or being igbo or yoruba become such a thorn in our throats. If it isn’t because sin has completely eaten us up and it’s increasingly becoming obvious, with the ongoing perversions and crimes that have invade our society and hearts, that only a few will be saved. So whether or not Biafra collapsed or that Nigeria is soon to follow, one thing remains, the heart of man is desperately evil. Two things actually, and the second goes thus, Fear God and keep his commandments. God save Nigeria!

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  15. Taking on Conrad an act of ‘defiance’? How so? Or is his ‘viciously dim’ observation of Heart of Darkness a brave challenge to the Great White God? I thought There Was a Country trite and – inevutably perhaps – badly written. It wasn’t even a book, properly speaking, just a rehash of various observations he has made elsewhere – the problem with Nigeria etc etc – casually flung together with no structure and a maudlin self-pity for all the awful things others did to the Igbo. Perhaps when we begin to take responsibility for our actions – take ourselves seriously, in other words – we might begin to move the country forward, as we like to say. Until then, no light, no water, no…

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