Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Reflections on ‘There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra’ by Chinua Achebe, Allen Lane, 333 pp.

Achebe’s new memoirs should be a source of inspiration and an advocacy guide for those calling for a new Nigeria that confronts the mistakes of its past; a Nigeria where members of the different nations have an equal place no matter their size.

Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s distinguished Professor of Literature based in the United States, has recently published ‘There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra’, his war time memoirs and reflections on the process leading to Nigeria’s darkest page in history and its outcome. The 333-page book has been received with mixed feelings back in Nigeria with the loudest voices seeing it as ethnic activism championed by an ‘unforgiving’ old man. Achebe is not known for cowardice. As an author, he contributed in no small measure in placing African literature on the global literary map. He spoke directly to the racist construction of African narrative in western literature by making nonsense of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.” He has earned his place in his chosen path, yet at 82 he choose to speak about an issue that Nigeria has struggled, albeit unsuccessfully, to move away from for the past 40 years. It takes discipline and courage to wait for this long and speak to the conscience of humanity.

The outcome of British colonialism in today’s Nigeria is mixed. After several years of controlling trade through unequal treaties with the indigenous kingdoms, British administrators made a masterstroke of administrative excellence by amalgamating the Northern and Southern Protectorate of Nigeria. This singular act in 1914 created an outpost of the British state out of a multiethnic collection of kingdoms in a single geographic stretch from the boundaries of the Sahara desert to the Gulf of Guinea by the Atlantic Ocean. Nigeria is actually a success story of British colonialism, as she emerged at independence as a multinational state with the highest ethnic diversity in Africa. The downside of this, however, is that almost a hundred years after British amalgamation of the North and South protectorates, the nations within the Nigerian state are yet to find a common ground on which to build a multinational state. Whether this relationship is because of the ‘forced marriage’ of the North and South officiated by the British or an outcome of the partners’ need to move beyond the circumstance of their marriage to the reality of their existence is debatable. It is this reality that Chinua Achebe was born into, which he experienced and of which he has written.

In his book, ‘There Was A Country’, Achebe gives an account of his childhood as a boy born in a British colony. He talks of a traditional society waking up to the reality of two worldviews contesting for relevance. The British worldview influenced by the Christian religion and scientific structure of education and the traditional African religious system with the informal education structures in the family, age grades and community structures contesting for dominance. Oftentimes citizens of the ethnic nation states in colonial times became victims for failing to reconcile themselves to the reality of the emerging social order implemented by the force of violence by its promoters. This is not new stuff from Achebe; he expressed this narrative in his all-time classic, ‘Things Fall Apart’.

In the Igbo heartland of eastern Nigeria, some citizens challenged the emerging status quo of the colonial order and paid for it with their lives; some were passive and others took advantage of the new order by learning and practicing in the new way of doing things. Achebe’s father fell in the later category. Gaining education from his father’s acceptance of Christianity and questioning certain absolutist notions in religious teachings, Achebe wrote:

‘I often had periods of oscillating faith as I grew older, periods of doubts, when I quietly pondered, and deeply questioned, the absolutist teachings or interpretations of religion… My father had a lot of praise for the missionaries and their message and so do I. I am a prime beneficiary of the education that the missionaries made a major component of their enterprise…’[pp13">

Achebe’s formative years were lived in a largely Igbo traditional environment. His early formal education took place in different towns of Eastern Nigeria. His first major encounter with different ethnic groups in Nigeria was during his sojourn at the University of Ibadan. It was within this environment that early homegrown academic enthusiasm towards Pan-Africanism in Nigeria was established by young scholars from different ethnicities.

Achebe was born into a ‘lucky generation’ as he said. A generation ‘summoned, as it were, to witness to two remarkable transitions - the aforementioned impressive economic, social, and political transformation of Nigeria into a midrange country, at least by third world standards. But, more profoundly, barely two decades later we were thrust into the throes of perhaps Nigeria’s greatest twentieth-century moment – our elevation from a colonized country to an independent nation’(pp 39-40). With such a lived experience and having studied at the cradle of academic nationalism in Nigeria, Achebe could be described as a Nigerian at heart.

While Achebe and his colleagues at Ibadan where imagining a new Nigeria in post-independence era, a vicious power struggle ensued amongst so-called nationalists on who should take over from Britain. Achebe’s book lacks a detailed account of this pre-independence power struggle, but in my opinion, that was where the drive towards a multinational state in Nigeria suffered a stillbirth. At different times, the Northern elites were unprepared, elections and populations censuses were rigged and tribal sentiments were whipped up to make claims to power in regional parliaments. To Achebe, it seemed that Nigeria emerged as a country with great promises. However he fails to point out in his book that these promises suffered greatly even before independence.

While elites where concerned with the politics of who controlled state power, private citizens from different ethnic groups busied themselves with the pursuit of self-actualization as human beings. This pursuit was largely unorganized. However, the first Premier of Western Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, implemented a deliberate educational policy that ensured that every citizen within the region had access to free education. Coupled with initial early contacts with Europeans, this made the Western region to be a highly educated ethnic group in Nigeria. In the eastern region, without any formal state influence, Igbos pursued education vigorously and caught up with the west. The Igbos moved a step further by making entrepreneurial in-roads into other regions of Nigeria and they dominated trade and commerce beyond the eastern region. This was as a result of what I call the ‘Igbo complex’, which is the energetic and entrepreneurial ebullience of the Igbo people.

While ordinary citizens began to imagine themselves as non-British subjects, politicians in Nigeria ascribed to themselves the role of the new elites replacing the colonial masters. African nationalists, although they struggled to end colonial rule, have made little efforts to replace the structures of colonialism that are largely undemocratic, dictatorial and inherently corrupt. This was inherently missing in most nationalist movements in Africa and explains why the so-called post-colonial democracies all gave way to the systems of governance that naturally fit the prevailing political structures: dictatorships.

As part of the chaos that characterized post-independence politics, corruption prevailed amongst public officials. Ethnic sentiments were whipped up by politicians to portray ‘otherness’ and a concept of ‘us’ or ‘we’, portraying people from different ethnic groups as being rivals in the contest for the commonwealth of the new Nigeria. The Igbos who were spread all over Nigeria fell victim to these ethnic sentiments; many of them lost their lives to organized pogroms. Achebe spoke emotionally to these unfortunate events, but did not emphasize the impact of corruption in stagnating development in the new Nigeria. Massive corruption amongst power elites was given as a reason for the first military coup in Nigeria. In his January 1966 coup speech, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu proclaimed that ‘[O]ur enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds’. Nigeria makes the compelling case today that she is yet to free herself from the shackles of these enemies.

Despite the patriotic posture of the revolutionary coup, it was largely seen as an Igbo coup that sought to wipe out Northern rulers, chiefly because the major actors of the coup were deemed to be Igbos. Achebe puts a lie to this assertion by claiming that Kaduna Nzeogwu was, to a large extent, a Northerner. He was born in the Northern capital of Kaduna, spoke Hausa fluently and always appeared in Hausa regalia when he was not wearing his military uniform. This seems trivial, but inherently crucial to the Nigerian discourse. The idea that citizens belong to a particular region or state due to their ancestry, different from that which they are born and where they live a better part of their lives keeps Nigeria backward. A state of origin that is unknown or unfamiliar to the claimant undermines the commitment to nationhood. This identity construct fuelled the response to the first military coup, which led to organized pogroms and mass movement of Igbos to the East particularly from Northern Nigeria. To date, Nigeria is yet to redefine her steps with regards to this issue of state of origin. Let me observe that not even those who criticize Achebe’s book spoke to this bitter truth.

Achebe had started writing about the politics that gave rise to the complex emergencies leading to the war before its actual occurrence. He published the novel ‘A Man of the People’ that speaks of a military change in power due to political corruption and woke up the next morning after its publication to hear about the first military coup. A travel back in time through literary works such as those of Achebe reminds one that the prevailing conditions in Nigeria are similar to those which gave rise to the darkest pages of Nigeria’s history.

In ‘There Was a Country’, Achebe gives an account of himself as a man whose enthusiasm for nationalism was reformed into an instinct for survival through a civil war that targeted and eliminated people from his ethnic group. He wrote: ‘Suddenly I realized that the only valid basis for existence is one that gives security to you and your people’ (p 71). The civil war casualties on the Biafran side are reported to be about one million civilians. These deaths were mainly non-battle related - caused by starvation, sickness and disease due to the economic blockade of the Eastern region by the Federal Military Government. The global response was mixed, but that war gave birth to what is today known as humanitarian aid to nations experiencing hunger and starvation. As Achebe explains it, the war affected him personally as he had to stay on the run, first escaping from the Nigerian army targeting civilian populations and second as a roving ambassador of the de facto Biafran State. The war went further to take away his friend, Christopher Okigbo. To Achebe, that was one loss too many. While his mother died during that period, it seems that Achebe is yet to recover from the loss of his dear friend.

In his personal account of the war, Achebe depended mostly on secondary sources. He accused the major actors of General Yakubu Gowon’s government as having personal interests in persecuting his ethnic group and thus saw the war as an opportunity to achieve their selfish interest. Achebe’s account in many instances was a secondary account, often judgemental and prejudiced. Although award winning novelist Chimamanda Adichie has described this part of the book as lacking actual details, thus leaving things of interest unsaid, a reader cannot hold Achebe to that as he had no primary experience in the combat field; nor was he part of the cabinet that made the decisions leading to the war and during the war itself. Adichie longed to hear what Achebe felt during the war; to me, the answer is in her review which pointed out his instinctual response to sounds of planes at London’s Heathrow airport and an experience during his visit to Canada as a Biafran envoy. His feelings were basically instincts of survival.

Achebe re-echoed the tripod character of Nigeria’s ethnic structure, recognising the dominance of the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. To discuss Nigeria as if these major ethnic groups are all that matters while ignoring the role played by different ethnic groups, is simplistic to me. One such group that rejected the dominance of Igbos were the Ijaw. In Port Harcourt, a colonial administrative centre, massive Igbo migration changed the previous demographics of a largely pan Ijaw communal identity. The Ijaws responded by building political alliances aimed at undermining Igbo hegemony in the South East. The war presented a classic opportunity to achieve this goal and resistance to Biafra catalysed Ijaw nationalism. In Anyama, an Ijaw village in Bayelsa State, I was told of how the villagers deceived Biafran soldiers into a boat and sank it in the middle of the river. A play is enacted yearly to dramatize this unfortunate event. Ijaw nationalist, Major Isaac Adaka Boro, led troops of Nigerian soldiers to counter Biafran exploits in the riverine areas. Thus while Achebe might claim that his people are hated by other members of the majority in Nigeria’s tripod, he leaves open the question why they are also treated with suspicion by minorities like the Ijaws.

The crux of Achebe’s account that has attracted much criticism is hinged on his perception of ethnicity and conflicts in Nigeria. Achebe sees ethnic traditions as crucial to the way a people live their lives in pursuit of self-actualisation. This is true; however ethnicity also is not a constant phenomenon. It evolves with civilisation. As a student, I am of the view that concepts such as ethnicity are socio-political constructs that evolve and are entrenched upon society by political actors who seek to create antagonisms that on the surface advance perceived ethnic interest, but probed further are clear manifestations of personal interests of the given actors. To achieve their goal, ethnic champions create an image of ‘us against them’. In his writing Achebe glossed over this quintessential issue and how it manifests in Nigeria in his time. He would have helped many young minds if he had given detailed attention to this subject.

Reviews from many young Nigerians who have read (and have not read) Achebe’s new book seem not to give priority to the familiar features of Nigeria’s past in the book, but focus on the seemingly ethnic clichés that Achebe re-echoed. Corruption, religious and ethnic politics, unfair distribution of resources, nepotism and the mischievous appropriation of ethnic identities that characterise early post-independence Nigeria as discussed by Achebe still characterise the Nigerian body politic. In the final section of the book, Achebe re-echoes the current flawed democratic experience in Nigeria; he examines corruption, ethnic bigotry, state failure and terrorism as it manifests today. He makes the point that the political and horrid economic conditions that necessitated the first military coup still prevail in Nigeria to this day. To me, this book should be a source of inspiration and advocacy guide for those calling for a new Nigeria, a Nigeria where members of the different nations have an equal place no matter their size and where we would not repeat the unfortunate incidence that happened from July 1967 to January 1970.

Nigeria needs a factual account of her history, particularly with reference to the civil war. Achebe’s book fills a yawning need in Nigeria’s historical analysis, one need that has been carefully avoided by the Nigerian state and her historians. With older citizens living in denial of history and young citizens lacking knowledge of history, Nigerians are bound to repeat the same mistakes that have kept the nation backwards.

Achebe notes that this is his own story: ‘This is another way of stating the fact of what I consider to be my mission in life. My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, ‘Now we’ve heard it all.’ I worry when somebody from one particular tradition stands up and says, ‘the novel is dead, the story is dead.’ I find this to be unfair, to put it mildly. You told your own story, and now you’re announcing the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.’ (p 55) This is actually a call to others who claim they have a story to tell to give their own account of the war. They can directly ‘write back’ to Achebe in their own voice and participate actively in ‘the politics of representation.’ All that we desire as students of history is to know the different stories from which we can make our own judgements.

Many have criticised the book as providing no solutions to the problems the author identified in Nigeria. To me, I find that a lazy conclusion. An academic, scholar or artist is not necessarily meant to provide answers; they are more attuned to raise questions after critically observing society. Explaining further the questions they have raised makes their art banal. It is the responsibility of society or the literary critic to understand the questions posed by the artist. Examining the relevance and validity of the questions critically will put the artist’s credibility to test. To my mind, in Chinua Achebe’s new book, he successfully asked the question: Has Nigeria moved beyond the rhetoric that led to the darkest pages in her history?


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

* Tarila Marclint Ebiede is a Doctoral Student and Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Peace and Development, Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He can be reached on email here: marclint(at)