As the world remembers 50 years after a million people died trying to carve out a State for the Igbo from the larger Nigeria, we revisit a book that Chinua Achebe, Africa’s most read author, wrote just before he exited the scene.
There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published a year before the sun set on the man widely regarded as the father of African literature.
The book documents Achebe’s experience in the cause in which he was a key intellectual plank as ambassador and scribe; and his anger at the “failed Nigerian State.”
The secessionist attempt was stoked by a coup, a counter-coup and the killing of thousands of Igbo civilians in the North between May and September 1966.
The fissure between the north, southwest and southeast regions had been widening below the surface since Sir Fredrick Lugard cobbled together the territories to found the Nigerian nation state in 1911.
Biafra referred to the southeastern region dominated by the Igbo, one of Nigeria’s three main ethnic groups.
The others are the Yoruba of the southwest and the Hausa-Fulani of the North.
Achebe writes in the memoir that “Biafra took its name from the Bight of Biafra, the vast expanse of water covering the continental shelf into which the Niger River empties before flowing into the Gulf of Biafra.”
After Biafra’s surrender in 1967, the body of water was renamed the Gulf of Guinea.
Achebe was Biafra’s most prominent man of letters, the other being Christopher Okigbo, the poet who dumped the barrel of the pen for the gun and died in battle a few months into the war.
In the book, Achebe disputes the long held notion that Biafra happened because of the personal ambition of the Biafran leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
“Following 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.”
Some critics have charged that There Was a Country was divisive and that it diminished Achebe’s image as a nationally beloved writer and intellectual.
“It is a book I wish he had never written — that is, not in the way it was. There are statements in that work that I wish he had never made,” Nigeria’s Literature Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, himself a Yoruba, said in an interview following Achebe’s death in March 2013.
In the book, Achebe blamed the Yoruba leader, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, for “hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people…”
While acknowledging that the Igbo were indeed victims of genocide before the war, Prof Soyinka has insisted that atrocities were committed by both sides.
Soyinka adds that the Igbo were militarily unprepared for that war. “I told Ojukwu this, point blank, when I visited Biafra. Bluff is no substitute for bullets.”
Achebe and Soyinka, Africa’s leading authors, were not known to get along well.
While the latter, an accomplished dramatist and wordsmith with a legendary turn of phrase and diction, became the first African Nobel Prize winner in 1986, there are many who have never forgiven the Nobel committee for not awarding Achebe, the man who wrote Things Fall Apart.
Achebe himself didn’t help matters when he once quipped that “the fact that Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize does not make him the Asiwaju (Leader) of African literature.”
So stung was Soyinka by this swipe that in an interview after Achebe died, he said the fallen novelist may have been a celebrated story teller, but not the father of African literature.
But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has rallied behind Achebe, her fellow Igbo and mentor, saying he indeed restrained from making his memoir too personal.
During the war, soldiers raided Achebe’s house in Lagos and narrowly missed him. Later, his home and his office were bombed.
Writing in the London Review of Books, Chimamanda said: “Although it is subtitled ‘A Personal History of Biafra’, There Was a Country is striking for not being very personal in its account of the war. Instead it is a Nigerian nationalist lament for the failure of the giant that never was; Achebe is mourning Nigeria’s failures, the greatest and most devastating of which was Biafra.”
Calling Biafra “the darkest chapter of Nigeria’s history” that “stripped a generation of its innocence,” Chimamanda, has accused the federal government of failing to stop the killings.
“Had the massacres not occurred, or had they been dealt with differently, the south-eastern region would not have seceded and declared itself the independent nation of Biafra,” said the author who wrote about the civil war in her 2006 novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.