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.