There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Penguin Press, RRP$27.95, 352 pages
It has been a dozen years since Nigeria’s greatest novelist last published a major work and 29 since he captured so poignantly his country’s oil-fuelled decline into mediocrity and decadence in The Trouble with Nigeria. Now, at the age of 81, Chinua Achebe has broken his silence on the 1967-70 civil war with a first-hand account of the events that brought the post-independence aspirations of elite Nigerians crashing down.
Coming as it does when fault lines in Africa’s most populous nation are painfully evident, There Was a Country ought to be essential reading. A new, dynamic generation is bursting from the shackles of the past in what looks like the start of a renaissance for business, politics and the arts. Yet some of the same religious, ethnic and regional tensions that combined to create the conditions for the Biafran war are tearing again at the fabric of the Nigerian federation.
Back then, Achebe’s prophetic fourth novel, A Man of the People, published weeks before the first coup in 1966, foresaw the disastrous intervention of the military in the nation’s political affairs. It was this bungled effort, led by junior officers, that eventually triggered pogroms against Igbos who were scattered around Nigeria – in part because they had proved the ethnic group most adept at seizing the opportunity provided by western education and jobs in the colonial administration.
Thousands were killed and as many as a million fled back to their eastern homeland, where, after a string of failed negotiations, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, then military governor of the east, declared the secession of Biafra, triggering what has remained to this day one of Africa’s most devastating civil wars.
Achebe’s prognosis for his country is grim. “Corruption in Nigeria has passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage, and Nigeria will die if we continue to pretend that she is only slightly indisposed,” he writes. Before arriving at that bleak conclusion, however, he stitches his story together joltingly, moving from the autobiographical to the historical and ending with something of a rant.
There is an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes buried in there, but this is not a book that will add much to the understanding of the war, nor one that will go down among Achebe’s great works. Of these there are several, including Things Fall Apart (1958), the bestselling African novel ever and perhaps the finest account of the clash of cultures that occurred when Europeans first penetrated the continent.
Told in four parts, There Was a Country starts with an at times self-satisfied account of Achebe’s upbringing, his academic prowess and the lives of his peers. It conveys the great hope that existed as colonial Africa pushed towards independence, and gives some credit to British efforts to create the institutional and human foundations of the Nigerian state.
At the same time, the book traces many of Nigeria’s woes to the elections that preceded independence in 1960, and points to British exploitation of regional and ethnic tensions as well as complicity in rigging that saw victory – and long-term political hegemony – go to the party from the predominantly Muslim north of the country. Later, the damaging effects of British involvement in the civil war, as a principal supplier of arms to the federal government side, are repeatedly brought up.
Achebe himself had an opportunity to witness the geopolitical machinations behind foreign meddling in Nigeria as an envoy for the Biafran leadership. He travelled from Norway to Canada and from the UK to Senegal – where he recounts a fascinating meeting with Léopold Senghor, Senegal’s independence leader and one of Africa’s foremost intellectuals.
During the war it was not only world powers hungry for Nigeria’s oil but also much of Africa that stood behind the federal government, despite its use of tactics that would today be prosecuted as war crimes. African countries feared that a successful bid for independence by Biafra would unleash similar attempts in other states stitched together for the convenience of colonial masters, often with little regard for ethnic and religious differences.
There Was a Country is at its best when it moves into the war years, after Achebe and his family fled Lagos to the east, where they drove through a landscape peopled with starving children and terrorised by bombing raids. Some of the most poignant descriptions of the devastation, both physical and psychological, can be found in the poems Achebe wrote at the time, reprinted throughout the book.
The price that the Igbos paid was terrible. Several million were killed or died of disease and starvation in what Achebe argues was a genocide orchestrated by the government. Here he reveals the very partisan nature of the book, for example suggesting that a jihadist tendency in the military drove its brutal agenda. He provides no evidence for this claim nor, in all likelihood, is there much to be found.
It is the north of Nigeria that is most in turmoil now, as it faces an Islamist insurgency that has already cost thousands of lives. But if writers such as Achebe, and also his protégé, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), are still drawing on the Biafran war it is partly because eastern Nigeria has remained a festering wound.
Achebe tramples on a well-worn Nigerian myth that, when the war ended, the federal government’s espoused policy of “no victor, no vanquished” allowed the Igbos to assimilate back into the nation without facing retribution. While that was true to the extent that there were no prosecutions, the people capable of rebuilding the region were initially bankrupted by the state. Later, like much of Nigeria, they were starved of power, infrastructure and services so that the east, what was for 30 months Biafra, has never fulfilled its potential.
This is a book that shows how raw the trauma of Biafra still is for Nigerians of Achebe’s generation. It should serve as a warning to younger generations as their country again comes dangerously close to the brink. But it is as likely that it will stir up animosities and reinforce old prejudices.
William Wallis is the FT’s Africa editor