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19September2017

There was a Country – A personal history of Biafra


Indeed, there was a country; at least according to the account of the Nigerian prolific writer, Chinua Achebe. Despite the seemingly disorganised and hasty implementation of Ojukwu’s ideas, the short-lived Biafra was ready to take on the world. The people of Biafra were determined to succeed, which according to Achebe was the most important driving force behind the secessionist regime. He gave a glowing praise of the Igbo people and their crave for excellence. This was perhaps balanced with the identification of loudness and self-centeredness as key weaknesses of an average Igbo man.

In his new book titled “There was a country – a personal history of Biafra”, Achebe gave his account of the Nigerian civil war between 1967 and 1970. It was a beautiful piece, especially because it was supposed to be an account of his experience of the war. Although his account is mostly opinionated, its analytical depth is magical. Achebe displayed his greatness in the art of writing with a combination of his personal experience and the analysis of other people’s accounts and comments about what happened during the period.

Aptly titled as the personal history of Biafra, Achebe started the book with his own history; the history of his ancestors and his childhood development. Achebe displayed his admiration of British colonial masters for bequeathing a very well structured and properly managed civil service to Nigeria at the point of their exit to the admiration of the African continent. It was such glorious that he also took up a career with the government and was at a time a management staff at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation. He lost everything to the civil war.

Achebe recounted his family’s ordeal during the war, moving from places to places in search of security from the invading federal troop. He also narrowly escaped being bombed in his house in Enugu. However, most often than not, his analysis and opinions conflict with some earlier held believes about the war and what led to it. As much as he tried to present a balanced story, he appears to focus more on rebuking the other major Nigerian tribes while placing the Igbos on a righteous yet persecuted pedestal. He did his best to present a slight different story from the earlier available ones, especially in his bid to exonerate the Igbos of any complicity in the events leading to the war and thus may have spooked serious controversies. He might be right, but a polarised Nigerian society will definitely not hear that.

The manner in which he characterises some of the gladiators of the era also generated controversies. His opinion of the supremacy battle between Gowon and Ojukwu and how it played out significant on the war despite the hardship on the civilians was not well taken. In fact, his opinion that Obafemi Awolowo might have supported the genocide against the Igbos so that he can govern a larger country, Nigeria generated unanticipated reactions.

As controversial as the story appears to be, it was a classy piece. According to Nadine Gordimer who reviewed the book, “Achebe has created a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of storytelling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one.” Finally, it is a personal memoir! An account and analysis of Achebe’s opinion of Biafra’s potential greatness (had it survived), and what really happened to stop its realisation. He has the right to it, his opinion.

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