The publication of Chinua Achebe’s latest book, There Was A Country, more than half a century after his famous first novel, Things Fall Apart, is a red-letter day in terms of African literature.
Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s most revered man of letters, has had a truly remarkable literary career, writing a mix of poetry, fiction and essays. And now a new book is published that is a mix of biography, history and social comment.
So how does this book figure in the body of writings that Achebe has produced? Its theme is a recollection of his early years and the appalling Nigerian Civil War that tore the country apart and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Nigerians (we will probably never know the true figure but estimates have been as high as three million deaths).
This war, fought between Achebe’s Igbo people (grouped in what was then called the “Republic of Biafra”) and the Nigerian Federal Government, still has reverberations and continues to scar the national psyche.
Achebe’s new book has received mixed reviews, but generally it has been appreciated as a record of the latter years of Nigeria under colonialism as well as the traumatic period following the 30 May 1967 declaration of secession by Biafra from Nigeria’s Federal State.
Led by a young and charismatic army colonel, Odumegwu Ojukwu, the breakaway “Republic of Biafra” declared its independence, an action that sparked the war.
But to review this book, we should start at the beginning: it is Achebe’s memoirs of what appears to have been a happy childhood. He explains that he has included his recollections of “coming of age in an earlier and, in some respects, more innocent time”, in order to give context to later events, such as the Biafran War, and to be open “about some of the sources of my own perceptions”.
His father, described as “a brilliant man who deeply valued education”, was an early Christian convert, a schoolteacher and an evangelist preacher. His mother, who he was also very close to, was educated by missionaries and helped her husband spread the gospel.
Achebe’s own education was undertaken at a number of schools, and he admits to having been a keen, hardworking student. What is so interesting about his descriptions of the schools he attended is the Anglophile tone of the appreciation of the institutions and the teachers he met on the way.
Yet, before Achebe started secondary school, and having being fascinated by Igbo culture, he sought an alternative education and was introduced to the sophistication of the Owerri Igbo belief system.
That said, Achebe admits to a heresy. While he does not justify colonialism, he insists that it is important to face the fact that “British colonies, more or less, were expertly run… there was a distinct order during this time”.
But it was also a time of a rising call for African nationalism and an explosion of political organisations. World War II might have caused a bit of a lull, but the media of the day, essentially newspapers and radio programmes, were full of the post-war exploits of Nnamdi Azikiwe, “the father of African independence”, who inspired Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and many others, including Achebe himself who throughout his life has always taken a broadly pan-Africanist view.
This book’s focus on the author’s early years, in truth, does not add too much to what was already known about that era from a number of biographical essays that Achebe has published over the past 40 years or so.
He does, however, after outlining how the British tried to rig the post-independence elections, describe the post-independence experience which was marked by rapid decline.
“Within six years of this tragic colonial manipulation,” Achebe writes, “Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule. Public servants helped themselves to the nation’s wealth. Elections were blatantly rigged. The subsequent national census was outrageously stage-managed; judges and magistrates were manipulated by the politicians in power. The politicians themselves were pawns of foreign business interests.”
This was also the period when Achebe was at his most prolific as a writer. Of particular interest is this book’s description of how Things Fall Apart, his famous first novel, came to be written, and almost failed to find a publisher.
In the half-dozen years before the Biafran War, Achebe wrote three novels, but he published only one in the 42 years that followed.
This era also includes the post-independence coups and then the terror of an Igbo massacre in the north of the country in 1996, a precursor to the Biafran War itself and the coup de grace to Nigeria’s post-independence dreams.
Achebe does exceptionally well in describing the long, slow descent into outright war, a path that had a dreadful inevitability when the government declared it could not guarantee the safety of the Igbos. Many beleaguered members of this ethnic group who had settled in other parts of the country, like the Achebe family who lived in Lagos, fled “home” to the east of the country for safety. When the war began in earnest, it became clear that the leaders of the two sides were trapped in a battle of egos – neither could possibly compromise and retreat from their ever more entrenched stance.
Furthermore, as well as becoming a proxy Cold War sideshow, with the involvement of Britain, France, USA, China, and the USSR in supplying arms, the issue of newly discovered oil also entered the grim equation. The war, punctuated by atrocities on both sides, and bringing unbelievable suffering to the innocent civilians caught between the two sides, lasted for 30 months.
In the end, Achebe writes: “Biafra was a vast smouldering rubble. The head count at the end of the war was perhaps three million dead, which was approximately 20% of the entire population. This high proportion was mostly of children. The cost in human lives made it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history.”
Sadly, we learn from this book the tragic reality that the Biafrans, not just the Nigerians, missed a number of opportunities to compromise and end the war earlier than they did.
There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, by Chinua Achebe, is published in the UK by Allen Lane, at £20; and in the USA by Penguin Press at $27.95. ISBN: 1-846-14578-6