There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra
Allen Lane, 352pp, £20
Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience. It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others. There Was a Country is a candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria.
Divided into four parts and interspersed with poetry, the book provides an expansive, historical sketch of Nigeria from the colonial period to the present. It also pays homage to one of Achebe’s idols and one of Africa’s most respected leaders, Nelson Mandela.
It begins with an Igbo proverb: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” This is exactly what the book sets out to do – to discover where the rain that is still falling on Africa originated. Achebe, who is always clear-eyed about the source of the continent’s woes, writes:
The rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade, to the Berlin conference of 1885 . . . It took place without African consultation or representation . . . Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party. It was one of the most populous regions on the African continent, with over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages.
That piece of chocolate cake, made up of so many disparate parts, began to crumble soon after Nigerian independence in 1960. James Robertson, the governor general appointed by Britain ostensibly to oversee the transition, was given the task of manipulating the elections to ensure that Britain’s choice for prime minister of Nigeria, Tafawa Balewa, got into power. “The British made certain on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country that had played no real part in the struggle for independence,” Achebe writes.
Nigeria soon became a cesspool of corruption and misrule and was wracked by one crisis after another: the controversial census of 1963- 64, which was accompanied by accusations that the government of the northern region had inflated numbers to give it an advantage in the House of Representatives; the federal election crisis of 1964; and the western Nigeria election crisis of 1965.
In January 1966, there was a coup led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, “Igbo only in name”, who “was widely known as someone who saw himself as a northerner”. Unfortunately for Nzeogwu and the rest of his group (which included one Yoruba officer), the casualties of the coup were mostly politicians of northern origin, including Balewa, by then prime minister, and Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. This led to a perception that the coup was an Igbo plot to take over the reins of power. A counter-coup in the summer crush - ed Nzeogwu’s putsch and prepared the ground for dire repercussions against the Igbo. In the north, mobs attacked Igbo civilians. Things deteriorated quickly. General Ironsi, who after the first coup had inherited a nation in a shambles, was assassinated as Igbo officers were targeted.
The massacre of easterners had begun.
Achebe argues that “a detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government . . . Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. Calls in the east for independence grew louder . . . There was a strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo and many other peoples from eastern Nigeria. Nigeria did not belong to us.”
In the midst of this crisis, on 24 May 1967, Achebe’s son, Chidi, was born. Six days later, citing the federal government’s inability to halt the genocide against easterners, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of the eastern region, declared Biafra an independent state. In July of that year, a fullscale war broke out.
It has been 42 years since the Nigerian-Biafran war ended, yet ethnic and religious tensions remain high in Nigeria. Achebe writes: “Nigeria’s federal government has always tolerated terrorism. For over half a century the federal government turned a blind eye to . . . savage massacres of its citizens . . .” To put an end to this requires, as Achebe acknowledges, a transformation of the political system and an end to “the cult of mediocrity” that currently runs (and ruins) Nigeria – one hopes through a peaceful, democratic process. And with the Boko Haram terrorist group growing increasingly active and violent, this had better happen sooner rather than later.
Chika Unigwe is a Nigerian writer. Her latest novel is “Night Dancer” (Jonathan Cape, £12.99).