65 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on October 12, 2012
The 1967-1970 Nigerian-Biafran war in which an estimated three million people died, most of them Achebe's Igbo people, was a tragedy. What would have been an additional tragedy was Achebe not providing for the unborn generations his pivotal view of the event, and a sharp cross-examination of the actors. In There Was A Country, Achebe does it the Achebe way.
In Part one, Achebe reveals the golden days of Nigeria and how through hard work and support from his family he positions himself to receive the baton from exiting colonialists at the dawn of Nigeria's independence. Achebe's story in this regard is the story of how the Igbo, in only 30 years, were able to bridge the educational gap that the people of the then Western Nigeria had as a result of early exposure to Western education. Achebe's early childhood story and path to success mirror the drive that has propelled the Igbo since they became part of Nigeria- a drive that came from Igbo republican society that abhors royalty, encourages competition, and rewards personal achievement. In stories of personal struggle, rugged determination and unique foresight, Achebe makes it known that there is no magic wand behind the Igbo emergence and attainment of preeminent position in the Nigerian project other than by shared industriousness. The consequence of this accomplishment was an immediate fear of Igbo domination. That fear quickly took hold in the psyche of other Nigerians and practically truncated the Nigerian dream of Achebe generation.
It was this fear of Igbo dominance that made much of Nigeria and their British cheerleaders to interpret the 1966 coup (plotted by military officers, most of whom were Igbo, including Kaduna Nzeogwu who Achebe reveals is Igbo by name only because he perceived himself as a Northerner) as another phase of Igbo domination. It accounts for the ferocity of the atrocities unleashed against the Igbo, a degree of which had never been witnessed anywhere in Africa before then. At first Achebe, ever a believer in Nigeria, wanted to stay put in Lagos until the systematic killing of Igbo in Lagos forced him to return to the East.
For those who have not read most of Achebe's essays, he discloses how the conflict between the old Igbo culture and the emerging Christian society became the source of his masterpiece, Things Fall Apart. From his mother, he learns how to bring out changes in a gentle manner without being intimidating. He narrates how his mother fought and achieved victory for Christianity and women's right and freedom by merely challenging the taboo of a woman picking up a kola nut. Ominous feelings creep through a reader as Achebe unwraps, layer after layer, how the middle class of his time were basking in the illusion of independence and the promises of a new great nation, totally missing the signs of its impending doom. I find it a timely lesson for members of today's middle class Nigerians that do not see the shaky foundation of the Nigerian nation. The similarity is very striking.
When Achebe delves into his life story, he is ever the teaser. He will, like a priest, let the wine in the cup glaze the readers' lips and then he will pull the cup away. When he tells you about how a group of vacationing students working at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, NBC, came to his office to demand equal pay, he tells readers that their leader was Christie Okoli from Awka, his mother's hometown. He volunteers to readers that his interest in her grew after the articulate way she spoke. As you wait for more, he informs you that, "two years into our friendship, Christie and I were engaged."
The Part two of the book deals with life in Biafra. For those still wondering what happened in Biafra, this chapter is a gift from providence. Using personal stories, Achebe paints a vivid picture of what life was like in Biafra. He exposes the actors in the war and the roles each played. He quotes extensively from several sources as he presents the assessment of Ojukwu and Gowon, the primary actors in the war. He even quotes sources opposed to Ojukwu's position and point of view, like Amb. Ralph Uweche. Achebe says some questions will be debated for generations. One of such questions is security reasons behind Ojukwu's rejections of Nigeria's federal government's proposal for a road corridor for food and the federal government's rejection of Ojukwu's alternative. Every now and then, he interrupts the theories of several schools of thought to have his own say. For instance, Achebe has no doubt that following the ethnic cleansing in the North and the federal government's connivance in the drastic act, that Biafra's secession from Nigeria was inevitable whether Ojukwu was there or not.
Achebe writes with great moral authority that he often comments that "forty years later I still stand by that assessment." When Achebe makes his summations, they are as apt as his press releases. When he tells stories, they are as succinct as any of the novels that made him famous. Through the stories of his friendship with Christopher Okigbo, including their effort to run a publishing company during the war, Achebe recasts the man and educates those who hold the poet in contempt of literature due to his decision to go to the war front. Like so many surprises in the book, Achebe reveals that he, too, would have been lost during the war in several instances, including in a plane mishap while on a diplomatic mission for Biafra to Senegal.
At the 1968 Kampala, Ugandan, talks, Achebe writes that he met Aminu Kano there for the first time. Aminu Kano was part of Nigeria's delegation led by Anthony Enahoro. The Nigerian delegation, Achebe recalls, espoused total "crush of Biafra." He writes that Aminu Kano was not pleased by how the matter was being handled. "That meeting made an indelible mark on me about Aminu Kano, about his character and his intellect," Achebe writes. Achebe will later in life take a failed detour into politics, joining Aminu Kano's political party.
In Part three, Achebe makes an indisputable case against Nigeria in the way the war was prosecuted. He raises the question of genocide, makes hard-hitting arguments and levels his case against the Nigerian government. Ever unapologetic, Achebe does not spare the heroes - be it Awolowo or Gowon. As always, his moral message is "resolute." He slams Obafemi Awolowo for allowing his political ambition to diminish his humanity. He holds Awolowo responsible for "hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation- eliminating two million people, mainly members of future generations." He cites Awolowo's policies as the minister of finance during and after the war as evidence that his desire to secure permanent advantage for his Yoruba people superseded his inner good angel. Achebe does not spare Anthony Enahoro and Allison Akene Ayinda, supposedly intellectuals who backed Awolowo and, of course, the naïve Gowon who was in charge. Achebe points out the irony of it all - that all those who had hoped to benefit from the emaciation of Igbo people ended up becoming victims too. The British, through the indigenization decree lost investments; the Yoruba and Gowon's Middle Belt people are still trapped in a dysfunctional country, all suffering from its consequences.
In offering solutions, Achebe suggests a series of questions about "ethnic bigotry," corruption and pure impunity that will keep Nigeria busy for a long time. He has no problem describing characters operating in the Nigerian political arena as "bum in suit," "poorly educated," "half-baked," and "politicians with plenty of money and very low IQs."
Throughout the chapters, Achebe punctuates the stories with interludes of poetry. They stand as exhortations, as hanging tears, flags, stop signs and as asterisks. Most of the poems are from his past collections. He preserves for generations yet unborn the role played by the likes of Dick Tiger, Gordian Ezekwe and Carl Gustaf von Rosen during the Biafran war.
By going beyond the Biafra war in this memoir Achebe shows how the fear of Igbo dominance led to the dethronement of meritocracy and the enthronement of mediocrity. In that single move, Nigeria opens the flood gate for corruption, impunity and failure that has remained the trademark of Nigeria to date. Beneath the crisis playing itself out in Nigeria's landscape today - most especially in cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt- is still that fear of Igbo domination.
In Part four, Achebe performs a reappraisal of Nigeria's sordid journey. He connects the failure of the Nigerian state and the rise of terrorism to Nigeria's long history of condoning violence.
"Nigeria's federal government has always tolerated terrorism.
For over half a century the federal government has turned a
blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its
citizens - mainly Christian Southerners; mostly Igbos or
indigenes of the Middle Belt; and others - with impunity."
Achebe finds solution in good leadership as exemplified by Nelson Mandela. In the postscript, he spotlights Mandela as the epitome of the kind of leadership that Africa needs. He urges Africans to seek "sustenance and inspiration from Mandela." No one will disagree with that. However, he does not mention the Arab Spring or the possibility of its replica in sub-Saharan Africa. He, therefore, maintains his conclusion in The Trouble With Nigeria that leadership is squarely the problem. For younger readers not conditioned to wait indefinitely for change, the question left unanswered is, if leadership fails to come, then what?
The memoir, There Was A Country, is not just an epitaph for Biafra. It is also a warning to Nigeria. If Nigeria fails to find its purpose and achieve it for all of its people, a new generation of writers may have the misfortune of writing a similar epitaph for Nigeria - There Was A Country Called Nigeria. And for Biafran babies and their upcoming generations, the idea that there was a country carries a subtle message that what was could still reincarnate.
In There Was A Country, Achebe like a priest, illustrates to Nigerians how to partake in the Biafran Communion. To be a partaker, one must drop all malicious intents and repent. In briefs, citations, exhortations and excommunications, Achebe maps out the path for Nigeria to figuratively come to the Lord's table.
Chapter by Chapter, as it is dramatized in the Book of Common Prayers, Achebe, son of a catechist, beseeches Nigerians to kneel humbly. He proclaims the sins and he guides them as they confess their sins. He pronounces absolution of sins for those who repent. In flashes of dramatic interludes, like a priest, Achebe then picks the bread; and when he has given thanks, he raises it up and breaks it and gives it to Nigerians, saying; take, eat, this is the Biafra which is given for you, do this in remembrance of Biafra. Likewise, after admonishments, he takes the cup and when he has given thanks, he gives it to Nigerians saying; drink you all for this is the blood of Biafra, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins, do this as often as you can in remembrance of Biafra.
It is not clear whether this burdened generation of Nigerians still crippled by its non-reconciled history will understand the essence of this Achebe doctrine. What is clear is that Achebe has drunk the remaining wine after communion. One gets the feeling that what is left is for him to turn to the congregation and say, go home for the mass is over. Because of what Achebe has achieved in this book, we cannot let Biafra go even if we want to. Just like Biafra, because of this personal history, centuries from now when the novel is dead and buried, the new generation that will inhabit the territory currently called Nigeria will always remember that there was a writer named Chinua Achebe.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
A profoundly important document from one of the world's greatest writers. Here, Professor Achebe is addressing his readership not solely as a novelist, critic, children's author and poet, but as a statesman.
The book is broken into four parts - something the writer Obi Nwakanma has cleverly observed also corresponds to the four market days in the Igbo week and a may have provided the super structure for Achebe's literary world view. Nnena Orji also has admirably observed that "It seems...that the insertion of poems in the story is also a throw-back to Igbo traditional narrative styles that emanated from the oral tradition where the story itself was interspersed with chanting, singing and poetry. It occurred to me that Professor Achebe was making a concerted effort to embrace this "authentic African narrative structure" and was not, as some other shallow readings have suggested, just experimenting or taking artistic license.
In the western literary tradition, narrative structure followed very strict rules. I think it was G.F.W. Hegel in the 19th century that referred to poetry as "the universal art of the mind [that] runs through all the arts and is art's highest phase, one phase higher than music?" Poetry was treated as an art form apart and was hardly `married with prose."
Part one of the book deals with Professor Achebe's family and coming of age. Tender descriptions of his mother and father and their interactions with English clergy are particularly touching. His own education and encounter with some of founders of modern African literature are also found here with luminous beauty. I found particularly educational the account of the diversity and power of various writers and artists throughout the African continent and the evolution of what we now take for granted - modern African fiction. As a woman, his homage to what he calls the "female progenitors" of African literature blew my mind.
Part 2 and 3 concentrate on the Biafran war. Stand outs for me include the complex international relationships in the war - the unlikely allies of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United Nations, supporting the Nigerians - and France, China, Portugal and four African states supporting the Biafrans. Professor Achebe's trips around the world to plead for humanitarian aid - from Sweden, Norway, Canada, the United States and his meeting with Senegal's Poet-President - are presented brilliantly. His own family's ordeal during this war as he moved from place to place. What struck me was the amount of death - it seemed everywhere and almost omnipresent and startling for it's the inhumanity of the war fueled by the hatred of the Igbos.
Part 4 is an analysis of Nigeria's present situation replete with "corruption, ethnic bigotry, debauchery, political ineptitude." Achebe portrays a very dim picture indeed, but he also provides challenges for Nigerians to come together and pull their nation from the shackles of "self-imposed backwardness."
This is a tour-de-force that will elicit wide spread controversy - we are already seeing this in the Nigerian media with everything from moves to ban his books to others literally calling for his head. In Achebe's own words creative artists should be allowed to function in " an environment where freedom of creative expression is not only possible but protected... where an artist from any part of the world can acquire and develop their unique voice and then express themselves on the Great Cultural Stage in full ear shot of the world!" In this brave book Achebe's own voice is threatened and must be protected. I strongly recommend it.
19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
In "There Was A Country", Chinua Achebe (without mentioning names) described Rep. Chuma Nzeribe and Senator Andy Ubah as "Politicians with plenty of money and very low IQ." The sections of this Achebe's latest book that chronicled the state of decay and corruption in Nigeria to me is a must read not just because it paints a clear picture of how deep our crisis is but that it enables us to start taking steps and actions that will halt and hopefully reverse the decline.
So, rather than dwell on Achebes' account of the genocide perpetrated by Gowon and given economic strength and dimension by Awolowo, which has been universal knowledge just reinforced by Achebe for posterity, I want to focus on something that is happening and what could happen to Anambra State if these "Politicians with plenty of money and very low IQ" are allowed to have their way.
It was primarily because of these politicians who Achebe called renegades trying to turn Anambra state into "a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom," that made him (Achebe) reject being among six recipients of Nigeria's second-highest award, the Commander of the Order of the Federal Republic in 2004. These are men with distorted minds and evil in their hearts. They lit series of fires and watched the radio and TV houses began to take a new ugly shape and face as smoke billowed into the early morning sky. The smoke got into their lungs, caused them to cough but delighted their evil heart all the same. On that faithful November morning, we all asked was this real? Tears spilled down our cheeks. We listened and watched without comprehension. We felt a sudden pain behind our breastbone, vulnerable and defeated.
Paraphrasing Achebe from his 2004 letter rejecting the award of CFR; conditions in Anambra state is still "too dangerous for silence." These negative forces with insane intentions, `plenty of money and very low IQ' that held our state hostage for years are still lurking round the corner.
Prof. Chinua Achebe did not keep mute about the atrocities of the civil war. Anambrarians should not allow themselves to be subdued to the level of keeping mute and allowing these politicians with low IQ but plenty of money to buy the heart of our dear state.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 2013
Chinua Achebe, the Nigeria-born writer of the Things Fall Apart fame, pulled off another captivating blockbuster just months before he died. The latest book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, is arguably the most consequential nonfiction work of his illustrious career. Its delivery reeks of such suave flow that the reader could easily forget that he meant it to document his recollections about the tragic war in Nigeria in the late 60's, that saw the end of so many soldiers and civilians, mostly from the Eastern region of the country.
The legendary writer decidedly hit the ground running with an apt Igbo proverb to elucidate his raison-d'etre for the book. The reader was at the onset thus presented with the zeitgeist of the period in a sharp relief on his literary canvas. He then went on to serve up the main entre in delectable morsels that are luscious and tart in turns: stories in luminous prose interspersed with well-appointed poetry. He then bookended this epic with supportive bibliographical notes. The effect is quite a filling literary motherlode that should delight the taste bud of even the fastidious reader.
The book successfully shows a masterly deployment of different literary genres in the author's quiver, a treat that would make his passing the more of a loss to Nigerians; indeed he would be missed by civilized individuals with his kindred spirit of decency, as well as by connoisseurs of sinew proses everywhere. For those not even into the rhetorical flourishes of poetry, the bard's accessible pieces that garnish this narrative would only not bore, but would palpably enliven the thrust of his narrative. I for one could hardly get his piece, Mango Seedling, out of my mind for quite a while. The powerful poem pulsates with so vivid imagery on the unfolding tragedy and pointlessness of war that it haunts.
As a collection of short stories, his form here is taut, seamless and yet suffused with a Hemingwayesque kind of sophisticated simplicity. He treated each topic or event as an issue on which he narrated and opinionated to let the reader in on what happened--his interpretation, that is. Yet each story manages to stand on its own as an independent read, while it still manages to blend fittingly with the others like a jigsaw. Thus the book would easily pass as a work of short stories, to be enjoyed piecemeal by those with appetite for a good story but no stomach for serious reading.
On the other hand, running through the book from the get-go, is a surprising lack of serious editing. In addition to a handful of typos, which could be forgiven, there are consequential contradictions that make one wishes the great man was better served by his publisher pointing out the bloopers prior to rushing the manuscripts into a book for public consumption. Exhibit A: one quickly feels inundated with the author's alluded but over-harped sentimental preference of Igbo name-form, rather than Ibo, for his tribe. This looks like something he could have simply clarified in a preface to the book once and for all. But instead, the entire volume is sprinkled with that scholarly appellation: [sic] wherever his references include the latter name-form--even when the sources being quoted were his fellow tribesmen.
In another chapter he described a fellow committee member as "an emeritus professor... a rising intellectual star." Really? One would associate such oxymoron with those 99-cent booklets of riddles on the supermarket checkout shelves. Committing such gaffes on an editor's watch simply does not speak well for such a big publishing house.
There are yet other errors of omission for which the editor could be absolved. The author failed to elaborate on important aspects of Igbo traditions when he had the opportunity to do so. For example, he spoke of some Nri philosophy. Expanding a bit on this curiously pacific concept would have served nicely as a welcome counterpoint to the martial tone that runs through this book. Likewise, the knowledge of Nsibidi ancient system of writing got a short shrift when he had a golden opportunity to explain it to the world. Mentioned but uncharted also was Ezebuelo, a sentiment which properly introduced, may have explained the Igbo character far better than all the ethnocentric arguments in this volume put together.
Moreover, the book surprisingly lacks relevant maps. A reader is naturally curious about important towns and villages that were germane to the war stories. Nnokwa village (with its myth of Igbo origin) comes to mind, so were the battleground towns of Abakaliki, Afikpo, etc.
Another instance of dropping the ball in the Biafra saga was the loss of the manuscripts written by Major Ifeajuna, one of the plotters of the Nigerian coup that -for lack of a better phrase-drew the first blood. The missing document, despite the controversy he said surrounded its veracity, had untold historical and intellectual significance recognized by the author and his co-publishers even in those days. Yet he tersely declared that it "seemed to have disappeared." And no further helpful comments here by the master story-teller on the much-needed how, when, and why of the disappearance.
As a scholarly work his citation may have been a tad too self-referential. It seems more a rule than the exception for the author, in an apparent sort of petitio principii to buttress his point with a bibliographical note that in turn points to his say on the same subject in some previous interview or lecture, thus furtively begging the question. Conversely, many a note has several sources cited in a lump without specifying how each of them adds to the point he was making.
As a serious account about the civil war, truth must be told, this book is anything but. Its decidedly jaundiced commentary on the most cataclysmic event in the history of the young nation quickly falls flat. Perhaps the master storyteller's own memory was too seared by the specter of atrocities that occurred around him in that traumatic period to be able to write evenhandedly about it. Who could blame him? In war, it is said, the first casualty is innocence. In his defense though his aptly chosen subtitle, A Personal History, somewhat absolves him on this issue. Still, for a serious writer and world-class intellectual of his stature, it would not have been too much to expect something that gives the other side's viewpoint some semblance of serious consideration, which this narrative blatantly lacks. Disregarding the case of the other party of a conflict (no matter how seemingly egregious), one could argue, is indicative of the cause and the course of such a tragic civil war in the first place.
Then, there is the crucial contradiction in the book on the role and position ascribed to Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the erstwhile president of Nigeria, and the most prominent man of Igbo stock in the Biafran saga. In the chapter, The Nightmare Begins, Mr. Achebe maintained that, "Ojukwu's special Advisory Committee" had the consensus "that secession was the only viable path," in response to the atrocity suffered by so many innocent Easterners following the coups. The following day, he continued, "the Consultative Assembly [no word on its composition and its charter, or on how it differed from that of the Committee] mandated Colonel Ojukwu to declare [the secession], at the earliest practicable date." The author emphasized that it was "the decision of an entire people, the Igbo people, to leave Nigeria," and assured his readers that the responsibility for that sober decision involved "some of the most distinguished Nigerians in history: Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe.., Dr Michael I. Okpara and Sir Francis Ibiam..."
However, later in the chapter titled, Azikiwe Withdraws Support For Biafra, he cited ranking war-time Biafra officials in Ojukwu's inner circle go on record with views like:
"His [Azikiwe's] feeling was that when a leader wants to go to war, he should consult people. Primarily Ojukwu should have consulted Zik. Secondly, he should have consulted [Michael] Opara [premier of Eastern region]. Thirdly, he should have consulted other leaders...It was a great mistake. I told Ojukwu to invite these people [and inform them]. He told me they would compromise... That's not how to lead."
Heady stuff. The history-minded reader needs to pause and seriously reflect on these mordant claims and counter-claims, and on their implications, especially the tragic consequences of the subsequent war on the destiny of countless innocents afterwards. How was such a momentous decision made? The author, a leading light and apologist for the Biafra cause, failed to say with conviction. Instead, he immediately followed the latter citation with a remark on the "irony" of the actions of the British and the Nigerian Army--who no doubt did not play saints in that horrific theater of war. The far greater irony here may be the error of commission (and omission) by the war leadership, and perhaps the purport of the book itself as a serious work of reference on the subject.
In its scholarly iteration however, the bibliographical notes are generally a welcome supplement to the text. They clarify as to be expected, a lot of events cursorily referred to in the main body. There is even an illuminating Appendix, in the radio address of Victor Banjo, the Nigerian Army officer trapped behind enemy line (as it were) who Ojukwu promptly conscripted to lead his fight all the way to Lagos, the then Nigerian capital, geographically at the extreme end of a formidable gauntlet. A mission adjudged by an observer quoted later in the book as suicidal.
The book notably has another foreign correspondent characterized the campaign commanded by Major Banjo military (which ironically was the only one in which Biafra was not on the defense), as comprising nothing more than "at most 1000 men, the majority poorly trained and armed...." With such a rag-tag motley-crue, Ojukwu invaded the sleepy Midwest Region of Nigeria, and installed his own de facto military administrator, in disregard of the one appointed by the Nigerian federal government. The objective of the strategy, he argued, was "purely in an effort to seize the serpent by the head." Seriously?
From the point of pragmatism, this saga leaves the impression that the goals and objectives of the Biafran movement, justified or not, was not thought through, prior to the declaration of secession that led to the atrocious war.
Moreover, the author seemed to imply that the rest of the country so hated the hard-working Igbo people, that they conspired to deal the hapless tribe pogrom. Perhaps. But be that as it may, it is a weighty charge. As a principal argument of the book, it seems rather to beg to be aired as a proposition for debate in serious academic forums and in the Nigerian political space proper, rather than as a categorical assertion memorialized directly in a book as the final word. Exactly what conclusion the reader (who is Igbo, or another tribal Nigerian for that matter) was to draw from the laden claim would only be anyone's guess. Such categorical declaration, by an influential figure no less, could be so effectively rife with the seed of troubling long-term implications that the specter should make the thoughtful shudder.
Napoleon Bonaparte, himself no stranger to the theater of wars, at the end of his career declared that the one thing that is more important than all the conquests of war, is the idea you leave behind in the minds of men. One only hopes that the legacy of this "historical" work would somehow leave an uplifting idea in the minds of the readers. Indeed, it is incumbent on the Nigerian elite, especially the intellectual class, to exercise leadership responsibly, for the sake of the brotherhood of man and of nation-building. This could only be accomplished through individual deliberately rising above base and tribal instincts with transcendent humanist ideas.
Another point that begs for logic in this saga was the improbable hardline Biafran position at the Kampala peace conference of 1968. By now the war-weary Igbo people, innocent civilians no less, were dying by the thousands from bullets, bombs and empty bellies. Yet the Biafran delegation stuck to the script that their independence was not negotiable. The caveat the author proposed to explain this travesty was that, should they have chosen to surrender, the belief then was that it would lead to genocide for the entire tribe. The scenario must have been alarming indeed--except that the argument failed to rationalize that there were Igbo people in areas of the East already captured by the Federal soldiers.
Following this "non-negotiable" position, we are apprised with point-scoring specter of mutual savagery.
That the Biafran leadership chose to embark on such blood-cuddling jack-a-lope while, as the author described it, "overwhelmingly outgunned," and steadily and agonizingly losing the war is, well, for history to judge. Though cynics may rush to intone here that the intransigence was to buy time to save the skin of the leaders of the rebellion rather than the people. How many hundreds of thousands more died from that point until the surrender on January 15, 1970, we may never know--statistics was not the forte of the players of that franticidal bloodletting anyway.
If the purpose of studying history is not to repeat the mistakes of the past, then the lessons of this axiom deserves somber reflection here by Nigerians, especially the Igbo intellectuals. The pressing necessity to take the time to ponder the political and strategic significance of each decision point of the event, without sentiment, is indispensable as a part of the process of moving forward.
It is obvious how necessary it is for all sides to state the case for their individual role in the civil war. But many prominent figures in it are now dead. But dead or alive, the cadre unfortunately never comprised men of letters in the first place. Given that on one hand, and their continuing military governance presiding over the spontaneous gush of petrodollars immediately afterwards, who would have the time for such mundane task as putting the pen to paper to provide a counter argument to an oblique account anyway? The tedium of being desk-bound as a necessary service to posterity was just not that important to most of the big men.
A matter of intrigue was also in the author's nomenclature. The master of letters seemed to elicit a consistent preference for "Nigeria-Biafra" war, rather than "Nigerian Civil War." Does such crucial choice of words allude to a devil in the details? Perhaps this again evinces why African thought leaders should reflect on the referred Napoleonic axiom at the cusp of rallying their peoples to one cause or another. The question should be whether the plot, the conclusion and even what is gleaned between the lines would necessarily spur their audience to higher virtue, and noble goodwill toward their neighbors.
Mr. Achebe was no doubt a decent man as well as a devoted husband, who spoke of his abhorrence of violence. Toward the end of what he later labeled "Ojukwu's war", he "...felt that the best way to deal with this tremendous disaster was to not prolong the agony but bring it to a close." Quite a welcome relief.
After coursing through the litany of pathologies still afflicting the nascent nation of Nigeria, he then wrote some veritable suggestions to correct them. These were made with a broad-brush, so to speak, and therefore not specific enough to be readily actionable. But they are usefully to the point all the same, and deserves commendation and consideration.
The one incontrovertible good coming out of this consequential work then, is that it at least adds to the embarrassingly slim body of work on that unfortunate bloody chapter in Nigeria's history. This addition, like it or loathe it, is now out there for all to peruse, contemplate, and even criticize. Hopefully it would serve as a useful backdrop for an ever healthier discourse on the Nigerian project.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2012
Chinua Achebe's "There was a country: A personal history of Biafra," is one of those anomalies of literature which tends to defy genre typology. It is a medicine man's alchemic concoction made up of potions steeped in memoir, political commentary, history written in things-fall-apartese, episodic jeremiad interspersed with poems, and an elder griot's attempt at recollection. All this is decocted in a book that draws vivid descriptions of the people he met and the events he has witnessed--effectively juxtaposing Nigerian ethos with the pathos in Biafran history. Achebe, Africa's easily-recognized and widely-read writer, takes us to the past and then back to the present.
Dragged along in his time travel, we can see the Nigeria of decades ago fighting as one nation against the colonizing British Empire; matching purposefully towards independence; bungling the independence; degenerating to anarchy; killing each other by the droves; becoming puns in the hands of the superpowers; and finally elevating mediocrity to the level it is today. We learn of the politicization of ethnicity using the Nigerians' fear of tribal domination through history as a foundation to sic one tribe against the other.
We also learn how, with our many human and material resources, the good-intentioned ideal for transforming Nigeria into a democratic success did not succeed. Finally, we are challenged to comprehend why Nigeria continues to be backward on account of the Igbo tribal peoples, so often the perpetual victims of massacres, pogroms, and jihadist cleansing, are "not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria."
Apart from a brief rundown of his precocious childhood, his schooling, and his open challenge to a remark by a white teacher by writing the critically acclaimed Things Fall Apart--a book that forcibly threw African literature out there for all to see--Achebe's account of the Nigerian-Biafran war is enthralling and well-documented.
This stimulating, but even-handed history of Biafra explores the participation of the Igbo people as they spearhead the efforts to wrest independence from Britain in order to build a Nigerian state devoid of rank corruption and tribal rancor. This did not sit well; not for the other Nigerians who regard the Igbo as out to dominate; and certainly not for the colonialists who were smarting with anger and licking their wounds for being unceremoniously booted out.
It began, he explains, in January 15, 1966. Barely six years after Nigeria's independence from Britain's colonial government, and as regional political players played to the sentiments and fears of their constituencies by using the fear of domination of one region by another as a boogeyman to drum up votes, a group of army majors in a protest of the unpopularity of the government, killed some top government officials in a coup. The coup makers, who had an Igbo as their de facto leader, killed all the name-brand Hausa-Fulani politicians. Somehow they conveniently did not kill any Igbo politician. That was when the Igbo retaliatory massacres began. Within days, thousands of people of Igbo extraction were variously maimed, decapitated, or slaughtered. All over Nigeria, no Igbo person was safe; not even in Lagos where the likes of Achebe had to leave in a hurry.
And so "following the pogroms, or rather, the ethnic cleansing in the North that occurred over the four months starting in May 1966, which was compounded by the involvement, even connivance, of the federal government ... secession from Nigeria and the war that followed became an inevitability." The Governor of Eastern region - Lt. Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu - declared the region an independent republic country of Biafra, since the Igbo could no longer live safely in other parts of Nigeria. At the urging of the British, who never did trust the Igbo for spearheading the clamor for Nigeria's independence, the Nigerian Army invaded the Igbo Biafra country. Led by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon - the governor of Northern Region who promoted himself General after the coup and became commander-in-chief of the Nigeria Army - the Nigerian army attacked. The war--the darkest chapter in Nigeria's checkered history--was on.
Led by General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafrans resisted all that was thrown at them and even made some advances into the Nigeria Army's territory. When the Nigeria Army discovered that attacking the determined Biafrans frontally was suicidal, they surrounded the coastal areas around the Niger delta and effectively discouraged merchant ship going into Biafra. This blocked Biafra's supply route and with it, all food shipments. The Nigerians sat back and gloatingly watched Igbo children starve and die by the numbers.
The Nigeria Army got outside help in the form of Russian Ilyushin 28s, British MiG-17s, and mercenary pilots who did not fight fare, as they dropped slow-burning napalm bombs on fleeing civilians, and on open-air markets and church services. With a total blockade of every route leading in or out of Biafra, the Igbo had no food, no ammunition and certainly no fuel with which to continue to prosecute the war. Finally, after an estimated one to three million--mostly Igbo people--had been shot or starved to death, Ojukwu went into exile as Biafra surrendered. The Igbo went back into the Nigerian fold angrily silent. More than forty years after, the Igbo are "not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country's continued backwardness."
For Achebe, the ethnic cleansing to which the federal Nigerian government subjected the Igbo people during the atrocities was the formative experience of the Igbo people's consciousness and, rather convincingly, he makes it the leitmotif of his book. People of Achebe's ilk who believed in the cause, took sides. Since he was not the warrior type like his friend, the obscurantist poet Christopher Okigbo who died trying, Achebe served in other capacities. He used his pen, his name, his intellect, and his being to support the cause. He served Biafra as a roving cultural ambassador, and from the dangerous safety of his heights, absorbed the war's full horror. Achebe is not only skilled at describing the Biafra-Nigeria war. He is also adept at explaining the diplomacy of Biafra during the war, dragging you episode by episode, and the book becoming meaningful as it gains momentum such that you feel as if you were pulled along by an undercurrent moving in one direction.
Written with verve, full of heart-rending stories and vital insights, "There was a country," though genuinely disturbing, is a must read--but with a little detachment. Things Fall Apart it isn't, but Achebe makes less effort to be impartial, and uses predominantly Biafran and pro-Biafran sources. Thus, his book is not entirely free of tribal romanticism, and he approaches the pantheon of Biafran national heroes with excessive reverence.
Demonstrating an impressive mastery of a vast range of material, Achebe--an octogenarian--lays out the case for Nigeria's failure as a country: corruption, indiscipline, and the rise of terrorism. This material while not exactly riveting, is presented clearly and convincingly enough to qualify as refresher course in what ails Nigeria. Then he points out, in his subtle way, how his usual suspects: the hounding away of intellectuals, and the celebration of mediocrity, have pushed the country where it is now tottering precariously at the brink where a sneeze could send it plummeting into an abyss of no return. Overall "There was a country" will not cease to amaze. Splotches of deftly sculptured writing sit next to many sentences that are not only short, but also remind us of the absurd man in one of Achebe's books who came back from Britain and could only speak "is and was" sentences.
Achebe's story may very well be without a conclusion, but at least his diagnoses are right. He said something intelligent about the inequities and impenetrability of the Nigerian system which has vowed to crush the Igbo idiosyncrasies of competitive individualism and adventurous spirit--a faux pas that is "one of the fundamental reasons the country has not developed as it should and has emerged as a laughingstock." In sum, the book is a fair attempt at an immensely difficult topic, covering a large amount of material which Achebe goes through with commendable passion. He also continues to write well, which is remarkable, considering that he is over eighty years old. His great strength--evidenced by his earlier writings--is that he has a way of communicating his thoughts and ideas rather convincingly
The book is strongest, and most useful in its narration, dripping with a poignancy that can rub you the wrong way. The book--an unnervingly disturbing memoir--will undoubtedly irk you in a very profound way; even if it doesn't help you channel the anger to any purpose.
Emeaba Emeaba is the publisher of The Drum Magazine [...]. His novel, "A Woman To Die For" will be published in December.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Achebe's Top Ten Teachable Lessons
By Biko Agozino,
Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech.
`... My father and his uncle formed the dialectic that I inherited.' Achebe stated on page 13 of There Was A Country, his new instant classic. For those who do not know, a dialectic is the negation or contradiction between opposites (the thesis and the anti-thesis, negation or contradiction) that results in a synthesis (or negation of the negation) through a combination of the best in the thesis and the anti-thesis. The synthesis becomes the new thesis to be soon contradicted by a new anti-thesis in endless struggles between ideas (according to Hegel) or struggles between social classes (according to Marx) but the struggles are between cultural traditions in the case of Achebe:
Achebe's father was raised as a devout Christian by his own uncle who was a titled practitioner of Odinani (Igbo religion). No Christian or Muslim would be tolerant enough to raise a family member in African traditional religion today. Most reviewers of Achebe's book so far have missed the significance of this foundational thesis of Achebe in There Was A Coutry. Wole Soyinka corroborates this thesis, in Of Africa, where he identified the policies of exclusion and boundary enforcement as major threats to African tolerance and accommodation as exemplified by African religions that have never tried to conquer, enslave, convert or colonize non-believers.
In case readers unfamiliar with the metaphorical Igbo style of Achebe missed this riddle, he repeats the message on pages 18-19 and 56 where he talked about the significance of the celebratory arts of Mbari among the Igbo, the name that he gave to the literary club at the University College of Ibadan that he formed with Soyinka, Okigbo and Ulii Beier. It was in the town of Nekede where he went to live with his elder brother who was a teacher that he was introduced to this cultural performance by which the Igbo community came together, artists and commoners alike, to build a miniature house with every race, gender, class, and ethnicity represented and even with the spirits of the deceased accommodated with models of living generations without any discrimination. Achebe emphasizes that the inclusion of European characters in the sculptures was `a great tribute to the virtues of African tolerance and accommodation.'
The above is the central thesis of the whole book and part one of the book is an elaboration of this thesis with the example that the village mad man once walked up to his elementary school teacher who was giving a lesson about the geography of Britain under a mango tree, took the chalk from the teacher and wiped the black board, then proceeded to give a lesson about the history of the town, Ogidi, which was more relevant to the students. In Europe or North America, the teacher would have called the police to come and arrest the mad man as a threat but the teacher let him have his say as is expected in the radical democratic traditional culture of the Igbo where it is proudly asserted to this day that Ezebuilo or monarchy is enmity. Similarly, when Achebe abandoned his scholarship as a medical student and chose to major in English and theology, many parents today could have disowned him but his elder brother who was an engineer stepped up and paid his fees as an example in tolerance. Indirectly, Soyinka agrees in Of Africa that this is proof that democracy is not alien to Africa contrary to the ideology of dictators suffering from what he called deliberate cataract, who used to say that Africans were not ripe for democracy, as if we were some kind of bananas, according to Abdulrahman Babu.
Parts two and three of the book focus on the Biafra war and represent the counter-thesis or contradiction of the original thesis of tolerance and accommodation as African virtues. Part four of the book presents the synthesis and the example of Nelson Mandela was used in the postscript to underscore this logical structure of the dialectical narrative in the book. Most reviewers glossed over this while presenting mere summaries or simply reacting emotionally to the excerpt in The Guardian condemning the Igbo genocide that cost more than three million lives. Unfortunately, too many people are running their mouths in knee-jerk reactions without even bothering to read the engaging book first with an open mind willing to learn from the great but humble teacher.
Since many of the okirika reviews (Okirika is the Igbo town after which trade in second-hand clothes was named and the trade was banned by the military government soon after the war presumably to crush the restarting of the Igbo commercial dominance in buying-and-selling, but the pretense was that it was demeaning for Nigerians to buy clothing discarded by Europeans, not knowing that even in Europe, lots of people rely on second hand clothes shops provided by charities like Oxfam) have already summarized the story, I will dwell here on the ten teachable lessons that Achebe was challenging our blind sociologists, political scientists and historians to explore further beyond the limitations of his personal history in There Was A Country:
1) Biafra was the foundational genocide in post-colonial Africa and the script is still playing from time to time across Africa perhaps because we have never really learned the lessons of Biafra as Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe has harped in Biafra Revisited. Genocide is not a part of our culture and the mass killing of millions of people is an absolute abomination that has no justification in any culture. Such atrocities were introduced to Africa following the hundreds of years of the enslavement of Africans by Arabs and then by Europeans before being formalized as gunboat diplomacy during the 100 years of colonialism, before finally being handed over to post-colonial dictatorships that were trained and armed by foreigners and egged on to wage proxy wars against fellow Africans to guarantee access to resources and wealth. Achebe could have made this lesson sharper by directly calling for reparations for slavery, colonialism and the Igbo genocide as Soyinka suggested on page 54 of his new text, Of Africa.
2) Achebe's book is delivered in bite-sized passages of text rather than in intimidating long chapters perhaps to attract and keep the attention of the Nollywood (Nigerian films) generation and persuade them to shine their eyes away from media screens and ginger their swagger with valuable history lessons in a country where a democratically elected former military dictator disdainfully banned the teaching of history in schools but no one defied such a bizarre phobia about history lessons particularly following a traumatic bloodbath that would make the teaching of history mandatory. Achebe has come to the rescue and the amazing thing is that quite a few `intellectuals' are feigning annoyance at him for revisiting the national shame and pointing out valuable lessons. For instance, while claiming that he is yet to read the book after glancing at a Kindle copy of his friend, the poet, Odia Ofeimum, reacted emotionally by telling journalists that the leaders of Biafra should be the ones to be tried in Nuremberg-style courts for the genocide that resulted following the policy of `starvation as a legitimate weapon of war' cruelly canvassed by the hero of Ofeimum, Obafemi Awolowo, the then finance minister and vice chairman of the federal executive council. In 1983, Awolowo was reported as defending the same obnoxious policy of `all is fair in warfare' and starvation as a legitimate weapon of war, 13 years after the Biafra war. Today in 2012 the disciples of Awolowo continue to defend his shocking statements instead of learning from the Igbo proverb that says that when a vulture farted and told his children to applaud, they said, Tufiakwa (or Never) because we do not applaud evil but without disowning their father for as Achebe put it in `Vultures', one of the poems that illustrate the book, `...in the very germ of that kindred love is lodged the perpetuity of evil', p. 205. Ofeimum who was the personal secretary of Awolowo had earlier reviewed Achebe's 1983 The Trouble With Nigeria under the title, `The Trouble With Achebe' and unfairly suggested that Achebe obsessed too much with the Igbo question in Nigeria mainly because of Achebe's critique of Awolowo which was milder compared to Achebe's critique of his fellow Igbo, Azikiwe.
3) There Was a Country develops in cyclical or fractal patterns with self-similarity, infinity, recursion, fractional dimensions, and non-lineal geometry in the sections found in the four parts of the book rather than follow a chronological historical timeline in the structuration of the narratives. This elliptical style is the hallmark of Wole Soyinka (although Achebe delivers with clarity except in the war-time poems that he probably did not want the Biafran Intelligence to understand or he could have risked being arrested, like Professor Ikenna Nzimiro who dared to argue with a police officer and like Achebe's cousin who unwisely shared his opinion with fellow soldiers that if they did not have the weapons to fight with they should give up. Soyinka probably adopted the cryptic style to conceal his acerbic critique from the moronic goons of the crypt of the title of his prison poems, A Shuttle in the Crypt, a cryptic style that distinguished his pre-detention lucidity in The Lion and the Jewel from his post-detention complexities like Season of Anomy). This elliptical style is consistent with the conclusion in African Fractals by Ron Eglash who saw it as the characteristic of the majority of designs in African culture in contrast to European designs that favor straight grids in conformity with the principles of Rene Descartes for the purposes of easier conquest, control and mastery. In the hands of Achebe, this fractal presentation of the complex story helps the reader to remain alert throughout the book and compels the reader to follow the story non-stop as scenes of chaos are interwoven with hilarious humor, just as the war was experienced with love and laughter and not exclusively with tears and mourning.
4) The role of intellectuals as war mongers while other intellectuals struggled for hegemony or moral and intellectual leadership was highlighted by Achebe over and over again. Godfrey Chege recently asserted in an essay, `Africa's Murderous Professors', that educated Africans have played ignoble roles directly or indirectly in supporting genocide across the continent - a point that Soyinka made earlier in his detention memoir, The Man Died - but this is also true of European intellectuals in Africa and in Europe, according to Achebe. There Was A Country commends the bravery of Wole Soyinka who risked his life by opposing the genocidal war and critiques Ali Mazrui for condemning the poet, Chris Okigbo, who gave his life trying to save those that faced the threat of genocide. Achebe also critiqued the cavalier account of Emmanuel Ifeajuna who submitted a manuscript to Achebe and Okigbo for publication during the war in which he appeared to gloat over the assassination of the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, in the first coup that led to the second coup and the pogroms that led to the war. Nevertheless, Achebe gives enough indication that it was regrettable that Ifeajuna and Victor Banjo, among others, were executed by Ojukwu following the distrust brought on by the siege mentality of losing battles without adequate equipments, or simply because Banjo was a poor speech writer. He also deplored the attack on an Italian oilrig in Kwale resulting in the killing of some and the taking of 18 hostages that cost Biafra much of the goodwill it enjoyed internationally. Although Achebe adored Okigbo, he mildly rebuked the poet for being obsessed with food from high school days when he would devise ways to get extra food that was apparently wasted, to his waking up of Achebe's cook early in the morning to cook a secret recipe according to his specification and to his absent-minded consumption of the special cravings of Achebe's pregnant wife that he ordered to be sent to his own hotel room instead, causing Achebe's three year old son to attack him playfully only to later cry, `Father, do not let him die', when news came that Major Okigbo died in the war front near the place that inspired his poetry. Although Achebe did not say so, that much gluttony could have been responsible for the mystery that the gifted poet and star athlete was never a good student academically, according to Obi Nwakanma, in his biography, Okigbo: Thirsting for Sunlight, in which it was reported that the poet used to steal crates of bear from one of the professors during his college days.
5) Moreover, Achebe expressed disgust at Chief Obafemi Awolowo for repeatedly boasting that he stopped international relief organizations from sending food and medicine to Biafra because `All is fair in war and starvation is a legitimate weapon of war.' As Duro Onabule rightly stated in his column in The Sun Newspaper, Awolowo should not have continued to defend this statement that Achebe rightly dubbed a diabolic policy when neither Gowon nor the other genocidal military dictators that Awolowo served dared to openly canvass such an obnoxious war crime as a justifiable policy. As an intellectual, Awolowo should have known better and could have used his influence in the military government to push for a more humane ending of the war and the rehabilitation of the Igbo. Rather he imposed a vengeful policy of stripping the Igbo of their savings in exchange for a miserly 20 pounds per family head at the end of the war and proceeded to indigenize shares in multinational companies at the same time to exclude the Igbo who were feared as the dominant ethnic group in all aspects of Nigerian economy and society before the war. It is disappointing that some disciples of Awolowo are continuing to defend the same wicked stance today instead of agreeing with Achebe that any policy designed to kill three million Africans by fellow Africans and expropriate their wealth is indeed diabolical and indefensible. It is not too late for the followers of Awolowo to distance themselves from that shameful belligerence against an innocent people who had nothing against them. Without mentioning Biafra, Soyinka supports such dissociation in Of Africa by stating that the admission of sadism on the part of some does not condemn a whole continent as sadists.
6) Achebe repeatedly described Awolowo as a brilliant leader who united the Yoruba politically and he also described the Sarduana of Sokoto as a brilliant politician who united the Northern region politically. He also expressed admiration for Aminu Kano for not joining Anthony Enahoro in threatening to crush Biafra during the peace talks in Uganda. By contrast, he was almost disdainful towards Azikiwe who never received a direct praise in the book but was slightly ridiculed for telling his supporters that when the British Governor General told him that he wanted to stay on after Nigeria's independence, Zik told him that he was welcome to stay as long as he wanted. Zik was directly critiqued for saying that Nigeria got independence on a platter of gold and Achebe likened it to the head of John the Baptist. Readers of The Trouble With Nigeria will know that Achebe has a long resentment against Zik for what he called the `abandonment syndrome' of never seeing anything through. Even when the Zik Group of Newspapers was praised for writing in a plain style that the Latin-loving colonial elite ridiculed but the masses loved, a style that Achebe was to adopt in his own writing but which he attributes to his experience drafting radio broadcasts at Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, the praise appeared to be for the editorial board led by Anthony Enahoro rather than for Zik personally. In There Was A Country, Achebe reveals the source of this seething resentment - `Azikiwe Withdraws Support For Biafra' but Achebe makes this appear understandable in the context in which an `Aristocrat' like General Ojukwu did not consult or take advice from Zik of Africa while the formula for peace, reconstruction and rehabilitation that Zik proclaimed at Oxford University was rejected as `unworkable' by Nigeria only to become the model for UN interventions around the world today.
7) Achebe acknowledged the support of international media which rallied to expose the atrocities imposed on people in Biafra, mentioned an American student who set himself ablaze to attract the attention of a silent UN; Kurt Vonnegut, an American scholar, cried for days after his visit before writing `Biafra: A People Betrayed'; Auberon Waugh wrote a book lamenting the complicity of Britain in the genocide following a trip to Biafra and named his newborn baby Biafra Waugh; European missionaries who volunteered to defy the embargo and fly relief to Biafra, the few African countries that formally recognized Biafra and performers like John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix who played tribute concerts to support relief efforts. However, the international community was critiqued for supporting the genocidal war. Britain and The Soviet Union (cold-war enemies) supplied weapons to Nigeria and ensured that more small arms were used against Biafra during the 30 months war than were used in the five years of World War II. Achebe implies that the Nigerian government should take responsibility for allowing this to happen to its people and should endow a huge reparations fund for the survivors of Biafra. The UK and government of Russia (on behalf of the Soviet Union) should equally endow huge reparations funds to help heal the wounds of the Biafra genocide that they helped to engineer. No matter how big the reparations funds turn out to be, they would still be mere tokens of atonement that may help with healing the psychological scars that Nigeria and Africa continue to suffer from. No Nigerian group would be deprived of anything when the wrongs done to the Easterners are recognized and reparations offered as Soyinka has been demanding since the end of the war.
8) The then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson of the Labour Party, responded to the accusation that Britain was supporting the genocide being committed by religious fundamentalists by stating that the Nigerian army was 70% Christian just like the predominantly Christian people of Biafra. He also argued that General Gowon, as well as his field commanders, Olusegun Obasanjo (who bragged that he celebrated the shooting down, on his order, of a plane carrying relief supplies for the starving people during the war) and Benjamin Adekunle (who boasted that he did not give a damn if the Igbo got not a single bite of food and that he shot at everything that moved and even at things that did not move), and Theophilius Y. Danjuma, were all Christians. Such dishonesty is startling given that Christians have battled and killed Christians for millennia, just like Muslims. But for those who do not know, religious `fundamentalism' first emerged among self-proclaimed `Fundamentalist Christians' in the US who advanced the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible at a time that they enslaved millions of Africans for hundreds of years and committed genocide against American Indian Natives. One of the leading advocates of the Igbo genocide, Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo - a self-professed devout Christian - later claimed that he was a friend of the Igbo despite blocking food supplies to their dying children on the pretext that he did not want the food to go to the Biafran troops. In contrast, the Igbo have no history of invasions, conquests, massacres, genocides or forced conversion against any other group and despite all the atrocities visited against them, they constantly demonstrate their goodwill by returning to the killing fields across Nigeria to provide essential services to their fellow citizens, name their children after other ethnic groups, adopt their styles of dressing and even teach their children other tongues as a first language. Yet the hatred continues perhaps due to envy over the astounding success of the Igbo, according to Achebe who suggests that Nigerians prefer mediocrity to empowering Igbo excellence for the benefit of the whole country.
9) Achebe repeatedly praised the roles of women and indigenous technologies in helping the Igbo to survive the genocidal war. Women conjured up food to feed their families and fed the children folktales as Ngugi also reported in Dreams in a Time of War; they took great care of dying kwashiorkor babies as if they were beauty pageant contestants; they took refugees into their homes and charged no rents but offered to cook rice as a delicacy for the family of the teacher (Achebe's father) who was credited with introducing the town to rice as a staple food; they worked as nurses and organized the control of traffic without being asked; but above all, they organized educational classes during the war while also loving their husbands, making more babies; they also hid even eight year old daughters from drunken Nigerian soldiers who repeatedly massacred thousands of the Igbo males they could find in places like Asaba and Calabar but spared the valuable women as war booties. A Goddess was credited with helping to repel the enemy soldiers from the Oguta hometown of one of the heroines, the novelist Flora Nwapa and the Marxist anthropologist, Ikenna Nzimiro. The Biafran Army also devised Ogbunigwe explosives, built armored fighting vehicles, refined petroleum and flew their own planes to the amazement of neighboring African countries that still believed that only white people could fly planes. The diplomats of Biafra continued seeking a peaceful end to the war and drafted the Ahiara Declaration (modeled after Nyerere's Arusha Declaration) in line with the African virtues of tolerance and accommodation that Nelson Mandela personified when he came out from unjust imprisonment and avoided a race war and an ethnic war, served only one term as president and handed over to a younger generation.
10) Implicitly, Achebe is calling on us to rebuild the African Mbari houses to accommodate all irrespective of race, class, gender or religion. The limitation of his analysis is that it is pitched at the Nigerian national level and not open to the possibilities that Du Bois, Azikiwe, Nkrumah, Nyerere, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Fela Kuti and Moumar Gadhafi envisaged - a united republic of all Africans that would make it impossible for any group ever again to rise up and attempt to destroy any ethnic group in Africa. The Biafra war involved African countries as supporters on both sides but the solution was wrongly seen by the OAU as an internal affair of Nigeria. Within the People's Republic of Africa, such a genocidal war will no longer be tolerated in the future as it has been across Africa. The corruption and ineptitude that Achebe blames for the stunting of the development of Nigeria following the marginalization of the enterprising Igbo would be reduced when all Africans have the right to move to any part of Africa and settle, work, study, marry, trade and contest for office as is the case in the US today. Let us turn the 55 countries in Africa into 55 states or more. The African masses have already voted with their feet by disregarding the fictitious colonial boundaries, it is high time we brought policy in line with the lived experiences and realities on the ground and finally synthesize the contradictions between our past and present theses and counter-theses into deeper democratic traditions that are consistent with African cultural virtues of tolerance and accommodation; Udoka (Peace is greater, in Igbo) or Ubuntu (`the bundle of humanity', according to Soyinka, citing Desmond Tutu). Soyinka, in Of Africa, agrees that the resolution of the fiction of exclusivity and boundary enforcement should be pursued in the self-interest of Africans rather than in the interest of those who divided and weakened Africa but not only in the direction of dissolution towards micro-nationalism but more importantly in the direction of greater unity across borders, despite the failure of some tentative experiments in that direction in the past.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2012
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It’s good to read yet another eyewitness's account of this period in Nigeria's history. The book's opening sentence says “… a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot says where he dried his body", aptly describes Nigeria's fruitless toil to make headway politically economically and technologically. Many of today’s problems are traceable to the crisis and bitterness of the '60s. Prof. Achebe has presented an important view point of a Biafra insider which gives in a concise manner, a summary of Igbo people's grievances. The book has elicited a lot of fiery ethno-nationalistic response from a number of groups and individuals in the country who probably have not even read it. In my opinion, the book has no political overtones, is non-revisionist and is not calculated to diminish anyone's stature; it’s just one man's attempt to bring to the fore the discrimination and injustices suffered by a people who deserved much better. Any country serious about unity and real development should not run from the truth, the best way to disprove this work is not through abusive language in newspaper columns, but to write another book to state the facts in the way considered more accurate. I thank Prof Achebe for his work which is a great benefit for people of my generation who did not witness the war and I enjoin Nigerians who disagree with the facts and conclusions to write books to explain their position. The history of this country has not been written about enough, and for any real development to take place there must be admission of the truth, apologies where necessary and genuine reconciliation.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Save for a few typographical errors and what appears to be post-publication "cut-and-paste" jobs, I found There Was A Country, a gripping and disturbing account of events preceding Nigeria's civil war, as well as its aftermath. I particularly enjoyed the introductory chapters which dealt with the author's childhood and education. Achebe is a master storyteller and these accounts of his early life transport the reader to a time of innocence, a world unspoiled and a nation on its way to becoming great. Sadly, it all fell apart and Nigeria finds itself today nominally prosperous but essentially still searching for its identity - an adult trapped in an adolescent's body.
Chinua Achebe writes from a participant's point of view. And although he cites many third parties to support his narrative of events, I could not escape the verdict that this is still a partisan's account. This much is clear from the subtitle of the book, his choice of words (e.g. pogrom) and the general sentiment that runs through the book, like the distinct taste of artificial sweetener runs through diet soda. This should not necessarily disqualify Achebe's book from being a useful resource for historians and others interested in the basic question: What went wrong? I suggest that this volume be read with the mental caveat that the book was written by a member, nay, champion of an aggrieved group who feels that a great injustice has been done to it for which no redress or compensation worth the name was ever given. Indeed for the Igbos, Biafra remains an open sore that continues to be scoured pretentiously, even deliberately by the rest of Nigeria. Achebe's book is an attempt to bring this yearning for justice once again into the public domain. He has done an excellent job as a spokesman for his beloved Igbos. It behooves anyone who feels that there are omissions or distortions in Achebe's account to let their voice be heard too. Such engagement can only enhance dialogue and perhaps bring about much needed healing to the once progressive and emerging powerhouse of Africa that was Nigeria. As for Achebe, the man has spoken.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2012
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Great book into history. History very rare to find. Great learning. Hopefully more accounts about the war should be published
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 2012
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TEN REASONS TO READ THERE WAS A COUNTRY
1. Because it is first-hand eye witness account of the Biafran war
2. Because it provides the Biafran side of the story (the losing side)
3. Because Achebe is a credible guide having helped to write Biafra's constitution, served Biafra as a roving ambassador and travelled through out the world on her behalf
4. Because it is infact four books in one A) A personal history B) A national history C) A literary history C) A history of Biafra
5. Because many in Nigeria do not want the story to be told and are attacking both the author and his story
6. Because it is beautifully written, balanced rendition and ultimately hopeful
7. Because Achebe raises the thorny issues of corruption, mediocrity, political ineptitude, genocide and ethnic hatred
8. Because Nigeria is a "basket case" and he tells us why
9. Because three million people died in this bloody conflict
10. Because, sadly, the world has almost forgotten the Biafran conflict