Chinua Achebe’s ‘There Was a Country- a personal History of Biafra’
-A review by Chukwuemeka Otuchikere,
The novel, There Was a Country-A personal History of Biafra by celebrated author and humanist, Chinua Achebe, is an autobiography which has succeeded in revealing to us the natural, human background of the man a lot of people have linked with pure surreal and mystical qualities, an attribute which he shares with an esoteric cadre of writers and artists. Achebe’s influence transcends borders, tongues and creeds, since the thoughts and inspirations he communicates in his writings find universal interpretation and relevance.
In this new book, Achebe takes the reader through the major influences of his growing up years. One is intrigued by the near democratic principles of his nuclear family which encouraged independent thinking such that Achebe as a 13 year old could have a say in the choice of his preferred secondary school. This decision became part of the vehicle that propelled him towards his dreams, a future unexplored and his earth life work which he carried out with fervour and near religious devotion.
The reader is able to discover the driving force behind the quest for excellence in his character, the deep-seated thirst for knowledge and mastery of his craft: Achebe’s contact with western education, the cultural challenges and conflicts that it threw up in his path. One is made to understand that there was a time that the Igbos embraced this type of formal education and the pride of place its acquisition was given in that society before the Nigerian civil war.
Achebe did not shy away from telling us about his contact with the native, traditional artistic and religious institutions in the Mbari culture of Owerri Igbo. This, I believe, had profound influence on his young impressionable mind and probably fired up his imagination into trying to unravel the rather opaque contact point between different cultures and religions. That he was able to give the world the epic novel –‘Things Fall Apart’ aged only 26 years is a testimony to the complete commitment he gave to his art. Chinua Achebe appears like a man whose palm kernel had indeed been cracked by benevolent gods, not withstanding the sheer discipline and enormous amount of labour that went into his creative pursuit. He was a citizen of the world, since his fame went ahead of him beyond many seas and plains. Achebe has always kept in contacts with his roots in Nigeria, even as he grappled with trying to decipher the trouble with his beloved country.
The man Achebe as a political thinker exhibited an uncanny intellectual ability that helped him think through the different influences and forces contending for the soul of the new Nigerian nation prior to the civil war. He talked about the Nigerian dream that suffered a great setback at the hands of the unprepared politicians and later the naïve and conceited military adventurers who single-handedly truncated the destiny of the nascent nation at the morning of its existence. The young officers used the tools of their profession, paid for by the hard working Nigerian tax payers to advance their personal agenda and their selfish ambition which included the annexation of the commonwealth of the land by a clique of ‘soldiers of fortune’.
Achebe’s personal, explicit and forthright style of story telling, gave a human angle to the author’s perception of the events that made history. As an intellectual, he was not a passive observer but a passionate participant in the evolving drama and birth pains of the still-born Biafra state. He therefore tries to communicate to his fellow countrymen and the international community the underlying events that influenced the attitudes and foibles of the larger Nigerian populace and indeed, the world’s near apathetic disposition to the suffering of millions in the Biafran enclave. The horrific plight of the women and children caught up in a theater of war of which they were reluctant and unwilling conscripts, was graphically described by a man in the middle of the storm. The rules of engagement was rather fuzzy, non-combatants-market men and women were raided and targeted by the Federal Air Force, the weapons deployed included hunger and starvation. Consequently, the civilian casualty was quite disproportional to actual death on the battle fields. The Biafran people were exposed to atrocities on a scale rather unimagined for those harrowing and bitter 30 months the war lasted.
Like the master story teller he is, Achebe fills the pages of this book with real events, real characters and anecdotes which sheds new lights on the action and inactions of the dramatis personae in the fratricidal war.
The cacophony of voices and opinions from a particular section of the Nigerian society in their usual ‘all-knowing’ nature, were able to draw inferences from the few excerpts and reviews that came out on the eve of actual launch of the book. These voices strongly chastised the author for telling his personal story and expressing opinions contrary to theirs, on issues pertaining to the bitter war, notwithstanding the fact that he was right in the middle of the maelstrom. This is akin to spanking a child and telling him not to cry out loud. They equally gave the impression that they held the censorship right over Achebes’ works and as such, he should first seek their approval before writing or publishing his memoirs. In my personal opinion, all the hues and cries, was really that Achebe’s story will give moral credence to the Biafran affairs. More so, the revelation of the inglorious pronouncements made then by some of the now reformed human rights activists of today. They argued that Achebe’s historical facts will only succeed in further exacerbating the ethnic tension and mistrust already brewing within the polity. I perceive that their opposition to this work of art, history, socio-political and economic relevance all of which are needful in the Nigerian nation right now was rather uncalled for.
The same unhealthy rivalry Achebe wrote about is made the more glaring as majority of those who invaded the pages of newspapers calling for the head of Achebe, had not read the whole book at the time they made their comments.
In Nigeria, the ‘Biafra-word’ stirs up something very uncomfortable within the conscience of men. Their apparent vexation is not that Achebe presented new facts, but that Achebe adding his voice to the Biafran story, will amplify the voices from the past and will cause those voices to resonate beyond the borders of Nigeria. He has further exposed the frailties and faulty nature of Nigeria’s unity which was laid upon shaky foundations with the complete connivance of the colonial powers.
One of the things Achebe achieved beyond giving credibility and impetus to the stories told before this time concerning the Biafran question and the lingering unresolved issues of reintegration, reconstruction and rehabilitation: Four decades and nine years after the war, brings to focus the lopsidedness of the Nigerian state policies which are still very evident and persistent till date.
Secondly, Achebe gave a voice and character to the long dead and forgotten heroes, victims and villains of the conflict. Like most, one of the dead, Christopher Okigbo, was animated; he took on life on the pages of Achebe’s narrative. One can identify with the young restless Okigbo, an artist, a man who desired to live his ideals and was willing to pay the ultimate price for his beliefs. Achebe painted the picture of a paradise lost, a glory that was not to be. The future of the nation sacrificed at the altar of political expediency, compromise, nepotism, and envy.
In the final analysis, most of Achebe’s antagonists were of the opinion that he should not open old wounds. On the other hand, many from my generation, born around the war period and immediately after the war, are rather exhilarated that Achebe was conscious of the fact that he owed us a moral obligation to re-visit those wounds, since they were yet to be completely healed after this many years. The partially healed wounds remain a blemish on the conscience of the Nigerian state and like Uthman Dan Fodio prescribed in his famous quotation, only the truth can heal this wound!
Like the Igbos will say, the bitter anger against a brother does not get to the bones. This is another way of saying that our grievances should be superficial. Let Nigerians allow the healing process run its full course. We can only stand as a nation if we allow truth, fairness, and equity to guide our unity. Anything less will create a mirage and will not stand the test of time. Another Igbo proverb says ‘that the man crushed by a steam locomotive was simply killed by his own deafness, nothing more’.
It is about time Nigerians begin to take the subject of our history seriously. Achebe should receive encomiums for the sheer discipline and courage to document in this unique and readable style, some of the important historical facts in the making of modern Nigeria, the way only Achebe can tell it- unambiguous, unpretentious and outright down to earth.
By Chukwuemeka Otuchikere, a geologist and Businessman. The writer can be contacted on: email@example.com
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