During the Biafran war of secession from Nigeria (1967-1970), the late Chinua Achebe was a propagandist: he worked for the Biafran Ministry of Information, lobbied foreign governments for diplomatic support, gave interviews to foreign magazines, and served on the committee that wrote the Ahiara Declaration, the document which describes “The Principles of the Biafran Revolution.” In 2012, about six months before he died, he published his final piece of Biafran propaganda, a memoir called There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.
“Propaganda” is a charged word. It didn’t use to be: originally derived from the Catholic church’s “Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith,” the word would mean only the organized and motivated dissemination of information; a neutral word for the good work being done (by those who were doing it). In the 20th century, it came to seem less benign; the propaganda of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia began to bear the sins that “marketing,” “public relations,” “lobbying,” and “political messaging” are somehow absolved of. To be a diplomat or a lobbyist or even an advertiser can be benign; but to be a propagandist comes to seem untrustworthy.
And yet, the word is apt for Achebe’s full-throated defense of the Biafran secession. In arguing that it was a necessary and legitimate response to widespread persecution, facts that might hinder this argument are omitted while facts that support it are offered without any real verification. And where other Nigerians might remember a different story of the crisis, Achebe shelters his polemic in memoir, insisting on the primacy of his own life and vision.
It’s easy to sympathize with Achebe’s position, of course. The Biafran crisis began with deadly ethnic violence directed against Achebe’s Igbo people, a series of bloody pogroms that left thousands dead and sent Igbo people all across Nigeria fleeing back to their overcrowded “home” region in the southeastern part of the county. When the Nigerian government did little to prevent the violence, or was directly complicit in it, who could blame Igbo people for wanting a total separation?
As Achebe recalls, the pogroms left him thoroughly disillusioned with the postcolonial state:
“It was now clear to many of us that we, the Nigerian people, were not what we had thought we were. The Nigeria that meant so much to all of us was not reciprocating the affection we had for it. The country had not embraced us, the Igbo people and other Easterners, as full-fledged members of the Nigerian family.”
The way that sentence transforms “we, the Nigerian people” into “us, the Igbo people and other Easterners” is There Was a Country in a nutshell: in their profound disappointment with Nigeria, his generation of Igbos decided to stop being Nigerian, to embrace the opportunity to “forge a new nation that respected the freedoms that all of mankind cherished and were willing to fight hard to hold on to.” For three years of war, that hope existed, and even printed legal tender and passports, and enlisted its population in an existential war for survival. For three years, there was a country.
And yet. When Achebe wrote that Biafra was “a dream that had become reality,” he found himself remembering a country that would never, actually, come to be. When he wrote that “[w]ithin Biafra, the Biafran people would be free of persecution of all kinds,” he was describing a future that, because it never came, was a hope that was never disappointed. If the Biafrans had won the war, perhaps the noble sentiments which Achebe and other Igbo intellectuals had written in the Ahiara Declaration would have been observed. Biafra was to be a republic, for example, and Achebe wrote glowing words about its foundation in popular sovereignty. But Biafra never had the chance to hold elections; the war began when the (unelected) military governor of the Eastern region, General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, declared independence in the name of the population he had appointed himself to represent, and Biafra lost the war before it had a chance to be other than a military dictatorship.
At the heart of Achebe’s book, then, is a problem he never addresses: to praise a noble ambition and sympathetic cause, he must embrace the war that was supposed to have been its means of realization. As the book lingers over loving descriptions of makeshift tanks and improvised explosive devices which “struck great terror in the hearts of many a Nigerian soldier,” his elegies for Biafran suffering blend seamlessly into nostalgia for the war effort itself. And while he insists that he abhors all violence, and wants to make it “crystal clear” that “a discussion of weapons of war does not imply that I am a war enthusiast,” can one praise the technical ingenuity of a bomb maker without endorsing the use of bombs?
We are left, then, with an author who spent decades after the war decrying Nigeria’s sequence of military dictatorships, who wrote eloquently on the Igbo people’s democratic spirit, and who declared himself fundamentally anti-war, and who nevertheless wrote a book in praise of a war that never became a country, led by a general who never became a president. He does not ask what atrocities would be justified in retaliation for what had been done to the Igbo people, or how much blood could be spilled to prevent the future spilling of innocent blood. And yet, these are good questions. Can one lament the dead and then celebrate a war made in their name? Can one celebrate “Biafra” without celebrating war itself?
From a different perspective, the Biafrans could have been considered the aggressors, and were considered the aggressors. Most of Nigeria’s oil reserves are not part of the ancestral Igbo homeland, but Biafra absorbed the entire Delta region in its first military campaign. And so, Ken Saro-Wiwa—who would live and die fighting for the rights of minority ethnic groups in the Niger delta—was and remained a harsh critic of Biafra. In On a Darkling Plain, his own memoir of the Biafran war, he called Ojukwu “one of the greatest reactionaries in Nigeria,” and insisted that “what he led was not a revolution but a tribal vendetta.” For Saro-Wiwa, the Igbo were colonizers; as he put it:
“Most Nigerian works on the war, both fictional and otherwise, have been produced by Ibos and have been concerned mainly with their suffering in the war. They have tended to support the argument so eloquently put before the world that the Ibos were and are the oppressed of Nigeria. My account shows this to be far from the truth; the world and posterity have to know that the real victims of that war were the Eastern minorities who were in a no-win situation. They are the oppressed in Nigeria.”
In his out-of-print memoir, Ken Saro-Wiwa charges the Biafrans with mirroring the ethnic violence to which they had so recently been subjected. When the war began, Ojukwu warned that he could not guarantee the safety of non-Eastern peoples who remained in Biafra, and Saro-Wiwa reports that he did not. Saro-Wiwa recalled seeing posters demanding that Biafrans “[r]eport all strange faces to the police,” with illustrations of the “cicatriced faces of ‘Hausas’” making it clear which strangers were being criminalized, and remembers Biafrans “arbitrarily arresting and beating up respectable Ogoni citizens and leaders who showed signs of political consciousness.” He watched in horror, he recalls, as Northern Nigerians caught in Biafra were “openly brutalized and shamelessly tortured to public applause.”
“Nigeria” was always a radically unstable union, a colonial design foisted on hundreds of different ethnic groups—many of which thought of themselves as nations—that first heard the word “Nigerian” in English, and only really became Nigerian when Independence was achieved in 1960.
“Nigeria is not a nation,” the Yoruba leader Obafemi Awolowo famously proclaimed in 1947; “It is a mere geographical expression.” A dozen years before he would become the first prime minister of independent Nigeria, the Hausa politician Abubakar Balewa would seem to have agreed with him, declaring that “Nigeria has existed as one country only on paper…Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country.”
Why do Yoruba and Hausa remain “tribes” or “ethnic groups” while “Nigeria” is a nation? Why would the arbitrary circumstance of history mean that the Yoruba, the Hausa, or the Igbo would have any greatly persuasive reason to think that being Nigerian was more important than being Yoruba, Hausa, or Igbo?
Before Nnamdi Azikiwe became Nigeria’s first president—a man whom Achebe lavishly praises as “the father of African independence”—he was as much of an ethnic nationalist as Awolowo and Balewa; in 1945, the president of the first Ibo State Conference, where he declared that “It would appear that the God of Africa has created the Ibo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of the ages”:
“The martial process of the Ibo nation at all ages of human history has enabled them not only to conquer others but also to adapt themselves to the role of preservers of all that is best and noble in African culture and tradition…The Ibo nation cannot shirk its responsibility from its manifest destiny.”
“Manifest Destiny” is a shocking phrase to encounter in such a context, but Azikiwe spoke those words after a decade studying in the United States. It’s a phrase that emerged in the context of the Mexican-American war when the USA took Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and California by force of arms from a nation they regarded as racially inferior. In the United States, “Manifest Destiny” is the language of genocide, the argument that because white people were racially superior, it was their right to murder and steal.
When Nigeria gained its independence in 1960, it became one nation in part because these three men—Balewa, Awolowo, and Azikiwe—all came to agree that “One Nigeria” was preferable to any other arrangement. But only a few years before the Biafran secession, it had been the North that looked most likely to secede, and the Biafran strategy for independence seems to have hinged on the disappointed hope that the Yoruba Southwest would also secede.
How could such a center hold? When the military took control of the country in 1966, ethnicity was the lens through which Nigerians interpreted what was happening: the murderers of the county’s first Prime Minister, a Northerner, were seen to have been part of an Igbo plot to dominate the state, an interpretation which seemed to be confirmed when an Igbo general took control of the government, jailing the murderers but not bringing them to trial. When he was murdered a few months later, and a Northern general took control of the army and the nation, what was widely understood to be “Northern” retribution became pogroms.
“There seemed to be a lust for revenge,” as Achebe recalls:
“for Nigerians to take out their resentment on the Igbos who led the nation in almost every sector—politics, education, commerce, and the arts. This group, the Igbo, that gave the colonizing British so many headaches and then literally drove them out of Nigeria was now an open target, scapegoats for the failings and grievances of colonial and post-independence Nigeria…Thirty thousand civilian men, women, and children were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed, and violated, their homes and property looted and burned.”
Historians tend to put the figure lower—between 5,000 and 10,000 people killed—while Achebe uses the figures publicized by the Biafran government at the time. But should we quarrel over the number killed, and ask whether it was two million displaced refugees, or merely a quarter of a million? A better question is: Why did it happen? And Achebe is very clear: the killings were organized by the army and the government itself, planned and organized from the very top:
“If it was only a question of rioting in the streets and so on, that would be bad enough, but it could be explained. But in this particular case, a detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government—the army, the police…it was a premeditated plan that involved careful coordination, awaiting only the right spark.”
He cites no sources and shows no evidence, but it’s certainly plausible; no one denies that the Nigerian military and police stood by while Igbo were slaughtered, so complicity, at least at the local level, is hardly unlikely. But a year earlier, an estimated two thousand (mostly Yoruba) people were killed after an outbreak of rioting in the Western province, and Achebe doesn’t say anything about the riots Ken Saro-Wiwa described against Northerners in the South.
Including that kind of context would have complicated Achebe’s narrative, and he wanted to keep it simple: by saying it was a premeditated plan, “awaiting only the right spark,” he makes clear that genocidal intent was the driving force, and that the “Igbo” coup was just a convenient excuse to eliminate Igbo rivals. And if there had been “careful coordination,” then, of course, the Igbo could have no place in the Nigerian state; sooner or later, it would happen again. But Saro-Wiwa uses the same language to describe how rampaging (Biafran) mobs in Port Harcourt attacked men, women, and children of Northern origin. “This was no spontaneous affair,” he writes; “it had been carefully planned and was, indeed, carefully executed.” And like Achebe, he gives us no sense of knowing how he knows what he knows.
Why would Nigerians resent the Igbo (“who led the nation in almost every sector—politics, education, commerce, and the arts”)? How had this group (“that gave the colonizing British so many headaches and then literally drove them out of Nigeria”) become scapegoats?
One way to tell the story is that the British had always favored the (mostly) Muslim North, whose aristocratic class structure made it relatively easy for the monarchical-minded British to govern. When the British stage-managed the transition to independence, they tried to place Northern elites—with whom they had close ties—at its head. This arrangement sparked resentment in the South, which was sharpened by meritocratic grievance: while the North had disproportionate political power, the country’s best-educated citizens came from the South and the Yoruba and Igbo dominated the “modern” sectors of the postcolonial state’s government and economy.
As the Igbo left their overcrowded home region in the South to start businesses or assume governmental posts across the country, the sense that the Igbo sought to dominate the country was widespread. Achebe, for example, prominently quotes from a 1967 article by Paul Anber—calling it “useful background information on the ethnic rivalry that existed in Nigeria right up to independence and beyond”—which describes how,
“With unparalleled rapidity, the Ibos advanced fastest in the shortest period of time of all Nigeria’s ethnic groups. Like the Jews to which they have frequently been likened, they progressed despite being a minority in the country, filling the ranks of the nation’s educated, prosperous upper classes… It was not long before the educational and economic progress of the Ibos led to their becoming the major sources of administrators, technicians, and civil servants for the country, occupying senior positions out of proportion to their numbers.”
The ellipsis in the middle of that quotation marks where Achebe cuts four pages, including the statement that “[l]ike most parvenus, many Ibos also became arrogant and self-righteous in their new status, thus arousing the resentment of other ethnic groups, the Northerners in particular, whom the Ibos regard contemptuously as backwards and inferior.” And while Achebe never uses the phrase “Manifest Destiny,” his account of Igbo dominance of the early nation’s civil service is essentially that they really were culturally superior. “The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots,” he writes; “Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies.”
There might be a simpler reason why the south was at 10% literacy at independence, while the northern Hausa was at less than 1%: Christian British missionaries didn’t build as many schools in the largely Muslim north, because the power structure they sought to rule through didn’t brook cultural rivals. Such considerations do not feature in Achebe’s account of Igbo cultural superiority.
Instead, There Was a Country adopts the same Islamophobic frame as the 1969 Ahiara declaration (that he helped write), which emphatically casts the conflict between Igbo and Hausa as a Christian crusade against Islamic imperialism. “Our Biafran ancestors remained immune from the Islamic contagion,” it reads; “We came to stand out as a non-Muslim island in a raging Islamic sea . . . Biafra is one of the few African states untainted by Islam.”
In 1969, of course, this frame might have been diplomatically useful. Israel had just won the Six-Day War, a month before hostilities broke out in Nigeria; the idea that a small, well-educated nation of modern technocrats could defeat a much more powerful (Muslim) military force was, if not part of the original inspiration to secede, a sustaining passion. “[T]he Ibos had come to read the Arab-Israeli confrontation in terms of a Northern Nigerian-Southern Nigerian confrontation,” as Saro-Wiwa recalls; “Since the Israelis won the war in six days, it was said in all seriousness that biafra [sic] would also defeat Nigeria easily.”
Despite Biafran efforts to script the conflict into this narrative about a global struggle against Islamic jihad, Israel supported Biafra much less than they had hoped, only providing a few Soviet arms they had recently confiscated. When Britain supported Nigeria, Biafra’s isolation ultimately doomed the war effort. Hemmed in by an economic blockade, stalemated militarily, and unable to turn their diplomatic and press successes into substantive commitments of aid or support, the Federal army slowly conquered back the entirety of the breakaway republic. Eventually, General Ojukwu fled the country and the war came to an end.
When Biafra is remembered today, it is primarily remembered that when the Nigerian government couldn’t win militarily, they won by blockading and starving Biafra into submission. About 100,000 soldiers died in the conflict, on both sides—a bloody war by any standards—but it’s the half a million to two million civilians who died of starvation and disease that makes “genocide” an appropriate frame for the Biafran war. The numbers are so large they hardly matter; 500,000 is the low end, while Achebe puts the “head count at the end of the war was perhaps three million dead,” with a footnote citing only “various estimates place the number killed at over two million.” But who wants to quibble over whether 15% of the Igbo people died or whether it was 25%? Numbers this big stop mattering.
If you want to make the case that the Igbo were the victims of a genocide—as Achebe emphatically does—you would think that you would want to focus on the drawn-out atrocities of the war, which perhaps killed millions, rather than the relatively brief explosions of violence, which killed a few tens of thousands at the most. But a surprisingly small portion of There Was a Country is about those starving multitudes, or the truly horrific catastrophe that the war represented for ordinary people.
Instead, Achebe spends comparatively much more time extolling the early exuberance of the first part of the war, a time when “one found a new spirit, a spirit one did not know existed, a determination, in fact.”:
“[O]ne could see this sense of exhilaration in the effort that the people were putting into the war. Young girls, for example, had taken over the job of controlling traffic. They were really doing it by themselves – no one asked them to. That this kind of spirit existed made us feel tremendously hopeful.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie quoted this passage in her LRB review—“Things Left Unsaid”—as did the New York Times, noting that Achebe’s “odd nostalgia” for Biafra seems quite “alive for him a half-century later.” But it becomes easier to understand why Achebe’s memories of the early parts of the war are so sharp and bright if you realize that the passage above are his own words from 1968, taken almost verbatim from an interview he did with Transition magazine (as is the entire four-page “Life in Biafra” section of the book in which it is found). To answer the question “Can you describe an average day in the last eight months in Biafra?” Achebe said, in 1968:
“[Y]ou find a new spirit, a spirit you did not know existed, a determination, in fact. I was in Europe for about three weeks a while ago and, when I got back I found young girls had taken over the job of controlling traffic from the Police. They were really doing it by themselves–no one asked them to. This kind of spirit exists, and this makes it so tremendous and hopeful.”
When people look back at Biafra from the vantage point of the 21st century, the most important thing to remember might be the millions who died. But a surprisingly large portion of There Was a Country was not written in the 21st century, by a man in his eighties, but by a thirty-eight-year-old propagandist in the Ministry of Information, at a time when there was still hope that the war could still be won, when there still was a country.
When you realize how much of the book was compiled this way, it’s less surprising that There Was a Country is propaganda. To astute Achebe readers, after all, the phrase “young girls . . . doing it by themselves” when “no one asked them to” will remind you of the central trope of the title story from his collection Girls at War, written two years after the war had ended, a story whose thrust is the absolute reverse of Achebe’s wartime delight at patriotic volunteers.
Achebe stresses the spirit and determination among the common people in the early days of the war to argue that the Igbo were not manipulated into the war by their elites. “To him, it is self-evident that an ethnic group known for its independence of mind could not easily be manipulated into supporting a war,” as Adichie puts it in her review.
When he wrote “Girls at War,” however, Achebe seemed to have changed his mind. Gladys, the eponymous girl at war, is first seen at a traffic checkpoint like the one Achebe described to Transit magazine; having enlisted in the war effort in “the first heady days of warlike preparation,” she is one of the many who came forth “burning with readiness to bear arms in defense of the exciting new nation.” But if There Was A Country embraces these heady days and excitement at the new nation, “Girls at War” is a disillusioned war story written by a disillusioned author; to read it with Achebe’s war-time interview in mind is to see an author bitterly satirizing his own words.
When Gladys inspects the narrator’s trunk—a high Biafran official named Reginald Nwankwo—he is annoyed; a big man like him should be above such indignities, he thinks. She remarks that “you people gave us this job to do,” but he doesn’t hear her; he only hears his own Biafran patriotism, indistinguishable from his own ego. Indeed, his delusional obliviousness is the point that will be driven home over the course of the story; as the war goes from bad to much worse and the economic blockade tightens, and people begin to starve, Gladys falls out of the war effort, begins trading sex for food for family, and re-enters the story when she becomes Reginald’s mistress. Again, our hero is irritated with her: when she barters sex for his illicitly-gotten foreign exchange, her tragic turn to prostitution leads him to moralize on the fallen state of Biafran womanhood. When she laughs and repeats “[t]hat is what you men want us to do,” he brushes it off; again, he can’t hear her.
In “Girls at War,” in 1972, there is no question that “Reginald” is a stand-in for the Biafran propagandist who told Transition, in 1968, about young girls taking over jobs that no one asked them to do; in 1972, Achebe makes his stand-in an unreliable narrator, in a story which bitter skewers his narcissistic patriotism.
In 2012, the author himself has become unreliable. There Was a Country briefly describes a children’s book Achebe worked on during the war, called How the Leopard Got His Claws; “The war clearly influenced the crafting of the new story,” he writes, and it “had manifestations of the Biafran story embedded in it.” In There Was a Country, he describes the book this way:
“[T]he leopard is the king of animals and is a peaceful and wise king. One day he is cast out by tyrants, led by the dog, into the cold, wet wilderness. The leopard seeks help from the blacksmith, who makes teeth and claws of steel for him, Thunder and Lightning, that grant him his roar and strength. Then he returns to his kingdom to retake his throne, punish the usurpers, and banish the dog to the service of man in perpetuity.”
The story of monarchical restoration he describes, however, is totally different than the book he wrote in 1968, which is a categorical denunciation of kingship as an institution. Achebe has often described the Igbo as a traditionally king-less people; in a 1985 interview, for example, he observed that “the Igbo themselves say “Igbo enwegh eze” [The Igbo have no kings] as a proverb. Why do they say it? It must be because they know what “king” is and don’t like it.”
Yet in the midst of an Igbo rebellion against a centralized state authority, Achebe in 2012 would have us think that Achebe in 1968 wrote a children’s book—based in local traditions—about a good king being restored to power, a story which ends happily when the king returns to re-take his throne. But as it turns out, the Leopard got his claws in a very different way: the actual book he wrote was about the tragedy of political leaders. Far from returning his kingdom to a prelapsarian state of peace and political tranquility, the Leopard’s return to power normalizes the violence of the state and he turns his claws against his own people, a parable about the peril of state power, in other words, in which the Leopard represents authority run amok. Having developed the force necessary to retake the state from its usurper transforms a “peaceful and wise” king into a tyrant. This is how the story ends:
“Today the animals are no longer friends, but enemies. The strong among them attack and kill the weak. The leopard, full of anger, eats up anyone he can lay his claws on.”
In 1968, this very “Igbo” story about the perils of kings, and about those who take power by force of arms, would have felt like a cautionary tale for Biafra itself: led by a military general, what might a victorious Biafra become? Might General Ojukwu, himself, become a leopard, turning his claws on his own people?
But in 2012, Achebe doesn’t deal with that possibility. Biafra remains a should-have-been, at least in part because it never was.
When Achebe declares in There Was a Country that his “aim is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions,” he is not accurately describing the very polemic book he published, a book which has some very clear and one-sided answers. There Was a Country has a position on the war and on what it means, a perspective and a politics, and it isn’t shy about delivering it.
This is, of course, Achebe’s right. And There Was A Country derives moral authority from the identity of the book’s author, from the fact that he was there, and from the claim to be non-fiction: he saw things, remembered them, and now he’s writing them. We read his book because we are interested in hearing him tell us about what he saw, what he did, and what he remembers. He speaks with the gravitas of an elder statesman of letters, a respect that the “father of African literature” has surely earned. Since I was not there, I feel a pressure to listen instead of speak; all I only know about the Biafran war is what I’ve read in books, some of them Achebe’s.
This is the power of the memoir as a form, which sets the terms of the debate that you can have about it and shapes the way you can approach it. A memoir makes objective claims about history—this is what happened, it proclaims—and it authorizes those claims by personal testimony. But as a result, we can easily grant the author more authority than he deserves. And the claims he made for the righteousness of the Biafran war are worth disentangling from the event of the book’s publication, the excitement that people (like me) initially felt over the prospect of a new book from Chinua Achebe. In 2012, Achebe had written very little in the decades since he moved permanently to the United States in 1990 (after a car accident left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down.)
Indeed, the writing Achebe is known for was produced in the decade leading up to the Biafran war: Things Fall Apart (1958), No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966). The Biafran war put an end to that explosive creativity and marked the end of Achebe as the kind of novelist he had been; he had been working on his fifth novel when the war broke out, but he abandoned it. He would publish Anthills of the Savannah in 1987, but that novel is more like a throwback to the golden years than a new beginning, one last hurrah but not a return to form. Since then, he wrote a little poetry, a few books of essays, some interviews, and an occasional speech. And that’s it. Four magnificent novels in eight short years—the rock on which so much of what is taken to be “African Literature” was built—and then only one novel and a handful of short stories in the next forty-two.
Achebe’s Biafra book couldn’t help but raise expectations, but if you strip away the author’s name, there was not much to see, a rehash of old history and a stale re-telling of some very well-worn stories. It’s not even his best autobiographical writing; the non-Biafra part of the memoir—dealing with his birth, family, education, growth, work—are barely 20% of the book, and while some of it is interesting to those of us who are interested, essays like “Named for Victoria, Queen of England” or “The Education of a British-Protected Child” are far more revealing and thoughtful. Indeed, “polemic” so overshadows “memoir” that it felt like Achebe was using the event of the book to give weight and heft to a historical argument that would otherwise seem much less substantial, and be of much less general interest.
It was, however, of specific interest; the Biafran war is not dead. And though the original participants are as old as Achebe was, the movement for secession lives on among a younger generation who only know the first war from books. “Biafra as a concept is alluring in its power as a counterfactual history of Nigeria,” as Vivian Chenxue Lu puts it, because “the thinking goes, if Biafra had successfully seceded in the 1960s, young Igbos today would be living a completely different material reality.”
The polemic impact of Achebe’s particular book was his charge that Nigeria’s social, economic, and political problems today are, specifically, the result of the persecution of the Igbo people, in the 60’s but also ever-after:
“There are tons of treatises that talk about how the Igbo were wonderfully integrated into Nigeria. Well, I have news for them: The Igbos were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness.”
As he puts forward this argument, he quotes himself from his 1983 polemic The Trouble With Nigeria: “Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo,” he declares, in 2012. And yet if you dig up a copy of The Trouble with Nigeria—a book which he wrote as a Nigerian, and which he said “only a Nigerian could write”—you will find that he has changed his quote, a little: in 1983, he wrote that “Nigerians of all other ethnicities will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.” In 2012, the meaning of the sentence changed in a subtle but crucial way: if he had originally described a tribal resentment that separated Igbo-Nigerians from non-Igbo-Nigerians, There Was A Country, makes Igbo and Nigerian into mutually exclusive categories, with anti-Igbo sentiment is now, quite literally, the only thing that makes “Nigeria” coherent as a category, the one thing that Nigerians have in common.
If Achebe identified more as an Igbo in 2012 than as the Nigerian who wrote that polemic in 1983, it might be because he had lived in the US since the early nineties; it’s not hard to imagine that his Igbo upbringing might have survived better than an increasingly nominal sense of himself as Nigerian. When he spoke his mother tongue, after all, it was not “Nigerian,” for no such language exists; it was Igbo. When the time came to write his memoir, who could blame him for feeling the strongest attachment to the culture of his birth, the culture of his family, and the nationalism at the heart of the secession he’s positioning as the defining event of his life?
What’s disturbing, however, is the blends of wholly sympathetic rage at a very real historical grievance—the obscene suffering of innocents during wartime—into an unmistakable grievance that the Igbo people were denied their rightful place. He sees violence against the Igbo motivated by resentment of Igbo excellence, which he argues to be an attack on the principle of excellence itself: “mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war—ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption, and debauchery.”
As I read those words—and as I wonder if “mediocrity” really kills as well as bombs, tanks, and guns—I find myself hearing the voice of Reginald Nwankwo, not the author who wrote him. You would never think, reading this book, that any other ethnic group in Nigeria had ever been sidelined or singled out for repression; you would never imagine that other Nigerians ever had anything to fear when it came to Igbo dominance of the country.
You would also never think, reading this book, that much had been written about the Biafran war. But the Biafran war might be the most heavily narrated and debated conflict in the history of modern Africa. Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn and The Man Died, for example, or Saro-Wiwa’s On a Darkling Plain are versions of what Achebe’s book initially seems to promise to be, and Adichie’s own celebrated Biafra novel Half a Yellow Sun (2007) was already being made into a feature film at the time. But nearly every participant seems to have written their memoirs of the war, from Olusegun Obasanjo’s My Command (on the Federal side) to Alexander Madiebo’s The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War (on the Biafran). Virtually every significant Nigerian writer of that generation has at least one major Biafran war book: after Soyinka and Saro-Wiwa, you have Flora Nwapa’s Never Again and Wives at War, Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Divided We Stand, Buchi Emecheta’s Destination Biafra, Festus Iyayi’s Heroes, Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew and Incidents at the Shrine. This is only a very selective bibliography; in the back pages of Half a Yellow Sun, Adichie lists thirty-one books she consulted in writing it, and it’s a fraction of the total.
In a 2007 review of Adichie’s novel, in fact, Obi Nwakanma recalls having an editor rejecting his Biafran war story in 2000; “your story is beautiful and touching,” the editor said, “but I’m afraid the subject of the Nigerian civil war has been exhausted.”
It’s hard to call a beloved writer like Achebe a “propagandist.” I first wrote (most of) this essay in 2012, and I shelved it rather than publishing it; it grew much too long, and took me too long to write, and I was busy trying to get a job teaching African Literature. I got nervous; I worried that publishing an essay like this wouldn’t be a good move for my career, and when, a few months later, he passed away, the world was filled with eulogies. No one wants to speak ill of the dead, especially not when it’s Chinua Achebe.
In the years since, I’ve thought a lot about that hesitation. When I was working on this essay, I re-read Achebe’s Biafran writing: four of the stories collected in Girls at War, the poetry collection Christmas in Biafra, and the children’s book How the Leopard Got His Claws are his major works of the 1970’s, and they are all focused quite specifically on the Biafran war. This writing gets overshadowed by his earlier novels, but re-reading it reminded me of what’s absent from There Was a Country, and what I’ve always valued in his vision. A story like “Girls at War” is complex, human, and ambivalent, and–like his other tragic portraits of fallen masculinity, essentially his great theme–it couldn’t be less of a celebration of war. You can’t read what Achebe wrote in the 1970’s without being struck by how differently he seemed to remember the war in 2012: it was exactly the point of “Girls at War” that women and children suffered disproportionately, but while there are pages and pages of biographical detail and speculation about various Nigerian and Biafran leaders—and Achebe’s favored approach to a variety of historical problems is to quote the statements of the relevant Big Men and then to opine on the matter himself—the only women or children who are referred to by name, in the entire book, are Achebe’s own wife and child.
It’s because the Achebe I know from these works was never callous about suffering that this failure of empathy is so disappointing; Things Fall Apart is a great novel because it so powerfully deconstructs the casual misogyny of privileged men, and places patriarchal violence at the very heart of the intergenerational story it tells. And just as Okonkwo’s brutality to his own children is at the very center of his tragedy, and that of his people, it’s Ezeulu’s inability to detach the tragedy of his own ego from the cosmos–in Arrow of God–that leads to his downfall.In Man of the People, Odili can see the flaws of his mentor and rival, Chief Nanga, so clearly that he chooses to, in the end, to become indistinguishable from him.
Tragedy resists propaganda, because the lessons to be learned are not how disaster could have been avoided, or how it should have been. Instead of a Good News that makes the world simple and easy, tragedy teaches much humbler and harder lessons about human frailty, and about the inescapable limitations of knowledge. And so, as I come back to There Was a Country, I find myself thinking about an old man, a few months from his own death; I find myself thinking that if elitism caused him to confuse the deaths of multitudes with the problem of Nigeria’s present-day “mediocrity”–if he forgot some of the most important things he once taught us–then it only illustrates all the more clearly the difference between the works of a great author and those of a “Big man.” And I find myself thinking that it may also be an ironic tribute to the author of these novels, if we are still able to sympathize with him, understand, and let him rest in peace.
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