The word `genocide' is used several times in this book. Alas, it had to be used often in the 20th century for programmes of extermination inflicted on various classes of people, whether the classification was defined ethnically (the usual reason) or in some other way, as in, say, Cambodia. A word that is never used at all is `holocaust', which is by general consensus reserved for one particular policy of this type, one that was implemented right in the heart of soi-disant civilised Europe. A word can be powerful. We are always being reminded of the need for vigilance to prevent any second holocaust, and indeed none has happened nor (hopefully) looks likely. Genocides have been another matter entirely. They have been occurring regularly over the past few decades, and they are not obviously less horrible than the officially-designated holocaust. It could be that at the very least our perspective on recent history will be improved if we apply this effective term where it can be applied with equal propriety. Perhaps we might even succeed in preventing such events from happening as often as they have been.
I remember the Biafra war very well. One particular Nigerian tribe, the Igbo or as we used to call them Ibo, attempted secession from its parent nation because of perceived racial persecution, setting up an independent state in eastern Nigeria to which the secessionist leader General Ojukwu gave the name Biafra. The truth about secessions and revolutions seems to me very simple - if they fail they are treason, if they succeed they are glorious revolution. It would not have been otherwise in Russia, or indeed in America. Biafra failed, and the manner of its defeat was by common consent an exercise in atrocity. The case argued in this gripping book is that winning was so overwhelmingly important for the Nigerian government that anything was deemed legitimate to achieve that. This case is not universally accepted, of course. General Gowon, military President of Nigeria at the time, has stated that Chinua Achebe does not know what he is talking about. Well, he would say that I suppose, which is not to imply that his point of view can be dismissed unexamined. However, to be going on with, it seems to be a matter of undisputed record that one Nigerian general said that if children had to be slaughtered to achieve victory that was just too bad; that another refused to associate himself with Gowon's apology for one particular massacre of civilians; and that Chief Awolowo said that in war anything goes and that starvation of civilians is a legitimate tactic in war.
Chinua Achebe is himself an Igbo. However the tone of the book is not what you would call obviously partisan. Far from it: as I was reading his account of the British exit from their former colony, and then of the coup and counter-coup I was thinking that I had found a modern Thucydides, so dispassionate did the author seem. The impression was reinforced as I read his more general reflections on the nature of colonialism and in particular its legacy after the colonial masters have folded their tents. At one point Achebe says `I am not a sociologist, a political scientist...' Maybe not, but he is a genuine historian and no mere chronicler, and I think his book will be reread often, as Thucydides wanted his own great work to be reread. The narrative is not all at this level, some of the descriptive parts are like documentary, and some of his admiring comments on other intellectuals are downright wide-eyed and childlike. However the above-it-all tone comes back towards the end, and of course his poetry raises the entire book to a special level.
You can't escape the issue of ethnicity here, whether we are to call the Igbo a race or a tribe. There is no doubt (and I remember this from the coverage at the time) that the Igbo dominated the Nigerian economic administrative and cultural scene, and that they were widely resented. This was, simply, the root of the whole trouble and it went deep. It will not do to object to stereotyping by way of avoiding the topic and go on our way rejoicing, because stereotypes can be valid and political correctness can on occasions be stupid and perverse. Simply - are the Igbo a cut above their fellow-Nigerians or are they not? There is not much doubt that Achebe thinks they are. On the issue of ethnic stereotyping there is one unintentionally funny bit in the book, related to an incident that is not funny in the slightest and that is plausibly identified by Achebe as being pivotal in leading to Biafra's downfall. Biafran forces took control of an oil-rig at Kwale, and we are led to believe that they released their hostages on being threatened with military intervention by, er, Italy. Sometime read the deadpan account that Rory Stewart gives in The Prince of the Marshes about the performance of the Italian troops when he was acting as vice-governor in one province of Iraq.
That the whole godawful war was racially/tribally motivated is something that it's impossible to deny. What responsibility the Brits bear I'm not competent at the moment to evaluate, but I feel a lot better educated regarding this whole chapter of history, which of course is still with us, as you will be left in no doubt from the final chapters. It was a 5-year wonder in the western media, that is not as it should be, and as it possibly might be if we called it a holocaust, the thing we seek so determinedly to avoid, even to the extent of conniving at some very dubious policies and actions in other contexts. What indignation this proliferation of the term would arouse might be interesting to see. It will doubtless be lively and vociferous, but it might open an overdue new chapter in our way of thinking.
on 12 November 2012
A profoundly important document from one of the world's greatest writers. Here, Professor Achebe is addressing his readership not solely as a novelist, critic, children's author and poet, but as a statesman.
The book is broken into four parts - something the writer Obi Nwakanma has cleverly observed also corresponds to the four market days in the Igbo week and a may have provided the super structure for Achebe's literary world view. Nnena Orji also has admirably observed that "It seems...that the insertion of poems in the story is also a throw-back to Igbo traditional narrative styles that emanated from the oral tradition where the story itself was interspersed with chanting, singing and poetry. It occurred to me that Professor Achebe was making a concerted effort to embrace this "authentic African narrative structure" and was not, as some other shallow readings have suggested, just experimenting or taking artistic license.
In the western literary tradition, narrative structure followed very strict rules. I think it was G.F.W. Hegel in the 19th century that referred to poetry as "the universal art of the mind [that] runs through all the arts and is art's highest phase, one phase higher than music?" Poetry was treated as an art form apart and was hardly `married with prose."
Part one of the book deals with Professor Achebe's family and coming of age. Tender descriptions of his mother and father and their interactions with English clergy are particularly touching. His own education and encounter with some of founders of modern African literature are also found here with luminous beauty. I found particularly educational the account of the diversity and power of various writers and artists throughout the African continent and the evolution of what we now take for granted - modern African fiction. As a woman, his homage to what he calls the "female progenitors" of African literature blew my mind.
Part 2 and 3 concentrate on the Biafran war. Stand outs for me include the complex international relationships in the war - the unlikely allies of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United Nations, supporting the Nigerians - and France, China, Portugal and four African states supporting the Biafrans. Professor Achebe's trips around the world to plead for humanitarian aid - from Sweden, Norway, Canada, the United States and his meeting with Senegal's Poet-President - are presented brilliantly. His own family's ordeal during this war as he moved from place to place. What struck me was the amount of death - it seemed everywhere and almost omnipresent and startling for it's the inhumanity of the war fueled by the hatred of the Igbos.
Part 4 is an analysis of Nigeria's present situation replete with "corruption, ethnic bigotry, debauchery, political ineptitude." Achebe portrays a very dim picture indeed, but he also provides challenges for Nigerians to come together and pull their nation from the shackles of "self-imposed backwardness."
This is a tour-de-force that will elicit wide spread controversy - we are already seeing this in the Nigerian media with everything from moves to ban his books to others literally calling for his head. In Achebe's own words creative artists should be allowed to function in " an environment where freedom of creative expression is not only possible but protected... where an artist from any part of the world can acquire and develop their unique voice and then express themselves on the Great Cultural Stage in full ear shot of the world!" In this brave book Achebe's own voice is threatened and must be protected. I strongly recommend it.
One of my earliest memories as a child is the Biafran war and the horrendous pictures of starving children that it brought to our TV screens. This was before Live Aid and the Ethiopian tragedy, and as a child I would worry about the possibility of famine in the UK. This wasn't helped by my mother telling me that in case of famine they would eat the youngest first (I was the youngest!)
Seeing this book on the Biafran war brought all these memories back to me and spurred me on to read its pages.
The author is clearly an accomplished writer who has a style and a delivery that is simply excellent. The pages are all embracing, in that the reader is drawn in and has to continue listening to the voice of Chinua Achebe.
Whereas not seeming to personally espouse the Christian faith, the author indicates the Christian context in which he grew up and praises it for the huge impact it had on him, both educationally and ethically.
With great care the author describes the cultural backdrop to the conflict that happened in 1967-70. He also paints an interesting involvement of the UK, France and the USA from his African perspective.
Ending with a dramatic poem, this piece of prose is an excellent read and I recommend it to anyone who would like to gain an insight into this aspect of history through the personal memoires of a respected individual.
on 26 October 2012
I was a young girl during the war and I was on the Nigerian side so my knowledge was limited to the propaganda we were fed. This book was enlightening, to put it mildly, and it should be essential reading for all youths and elders in Nigeria as it reminds us why WAR is never a good thing but why the country should not condone mediocrity and corruption as these were the original reasons for the 'seccesionist plot' . Achebe might be accused of a subjective account but I found it enthralling and honest. His account is split into three neat parts starting with Achebe's autobiography, a background to the war and the aftermath.Interspersed within the account of war are lines of poetry that evoke powerful imagery. I daresay many will be appalled at some of the stuff that happened but it is also a testament to the resilience of the Igbos that they have somehow managed to forgive the atrocities they encountered and to rebuild and forge ahead. My only reservation was there are no pictures but you can't have everything. I hope someone makes a film of the book one day but for now I urge you to buy this book, read it and recommend it to as many of your friends as you can. I am a Yoruba married to an Igbo and I can honestly say, this book really opened my eyes to the deep seated 'collective amnesia' of a nation.It should be an essential text for any students of war history and negotiation studies and most certainly an essential text in Nigeria.
History is often more easily revealed, and its nuances more thoroughly grasped, through the eyes of a novelist rather than by a historian. Much of what I know about the Biafran War and the bitter internal strife of Nigeria from 1967-70 was gleaned from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's stunning 2006 work of fiction - Half of a Yellow Sun. And now I find I get the best of both, a history of that hopeful yet terrible time, told by one of the finest living story tellers today, acclaimed author Chinua Achebe.
His personal testimony of the war, and it's devastating aftermath lingering to this day in Nigeria, is all the more moving as Achebe records how his close friends and family fought, and ofttimes died, for the breakaway state in the south east of the country.
These were times of great hope, as Biafrans fought to break away from the corruption and ethnic imbalance of the government of post colonial Nigeria. The newly formed Biafran state attracted celebrated sympathisers such as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Achebe gives a fascinating account of the special position, and indeed as he sees it, responsibility of writers and intellectuals like himself to act as leading lights of change. His own family are forced to flee and flee again, as around three million of his people are mercilessly slaughtered in a brutal war.
And he makes harsh judgement on the role of the British Government in the war, under the leadership of Labour's Harold Wilson, who Achebe feels was more concerned with protecting the interests of British oil companies in the region, than seeing that any sense of humanity, justice, or fairness prevailed.
This book is not only moving and illuminating as a historical testament; Achebe argues forcefully that the Biafran War needs to be understood in order to address the problems, including endemic corruption, which continue to plague modern Nigeria just as much as they did in the 1960's. This is a powerful and brilliantly recounted book which deserves to be widely read - it is a further tragedy that it is not likely to be.
This is, as the sub-title declares, a very personal, subjective and contingent assessment of the Biafran war. As a member of the Igbo tribe, Achebe found himself and his family the objects of intentional genocide - a position from which it is difficult to write with objectivity or impartiality.
It need hardly be said that Achebe writes with a profound sense of moral purpose and obligation - and yet this isn't a wholly successful or satisfactory book. Part personal memoir, part Nigerian history, part war narrative, part postcolonialist indictment, part meditation on the role of the writer in society - all of which are interspersed by poetry written during the late 1960s while the war was taking place - this feels like a slippery text which is too diffuse to be as powerful as it should be.
Achebe himself is a wonderful man and a superb writer - but, as much as I hate to say it, this is a disappointing book - sorry.
Chinua Achebe was an immensely talented writer. I read Things Fall Apart at highs school and it has stayed with me, long after The Bronte sisters faded into distant memory. His latest (and sadly last) work, a personal history of the Biafran War and fusion of memoir, history, and poetry does not fail to disappoint.
While it would certainly help to be familiar with Mr Achebe's other works while reading There Was A Country, or at least with the historical context described, the book is in essence a reflection on the freedom of peoples everywhere. Readers familiar with Achebe's work must be warned, however, that this book will make you want to revisit his books with fresh eyes and an new appreciation of their historical context.
Achebe, an ethnic Igbo, unflinchingly unpicks the Biafran conflict and events leading up to it from both the Nigerian and Biafran sides. The book begins and ends with more personal reminiscences. Achebe describes the hopefulness and feelings of promise during his childhood and in the years leading up to Nigerian independence. This sets the scene for the horrors to come, which are described in a mostly more impersonal style, although there are enough moments of real feeling that I felt engaged, though-out. Nonetheless, Achebe's emphasis seems to be on remaining impartial, possibly because of his own background. While this could feel frustrating, I felt that the balanced, measured prose helped me follow the nuances of the historical events, as presented from an African perspective. African history got short shrift in my US/Scottish history lessons. I was not aware, for example, of the resentment against the Igbo from other ethnic groups, of the sheer diversity of peoples in Nigeria and of how this resentment erupted into massacres, leading, eventually to the Biafran succession, as the federal government failed to quell it.
Also extremely interesting are Achebe's meditations on the development of authentic African literature (something about which Chimamanda Adichie has also spoken eloquently, in possibly the best TED talk ever), the legacy of art in succeeding generations and the role of writers at war. He claims the title of a writer who "writes back to the West", telling his story and challenging stereotypes. Despite his own political involvement, Achebe is not judgemental of writers who chose to focus on personal, instead of political work, though he warns at one point that writers who turn away from real-world events will tend to produce "elegantly tired fiction".
The poems contained in the book are not 'new' , in the sense that they have been published before, but the context given by the surrounding prose gave me a far deeper appreciation of them than had I read them as stand-alone works. This for me was probably the most fascinating part of the work. I paused at the poems, flicking back and forth in the surrounding pages for clues to illuminate them. And like good poetry, this book carries one through the full range of human emotion and experience - despite such horrifying subject matter it is elegantly and humanly written.
on 17 November 2012
Unresolved Infanticide,Genocide,or Pogrom do not really age. They continue to require our attention,our questions;our unease. We owe something- more than apology - to the innocent Children,Women,and Men who were massacred as a result of pernicious and fatal policies acted out by the brutal federal Government of Yakubu Gowon and the western allies.
Prof.Chinua Achebe's latest book is not seditious, but rather an attempt to pay tribute to all the innocent victims of that atrocious acts of brutality; conveniently swept under the carpet for over forty years by the bloody federal
government of Nigeria.
The awful truth has finally come out in the fullness of time; a bitter pill for Gowon and his coterie of friends and
advisers to swallow.
History repeats itself. The menace of Boko Haram brings to life the conditions that forced the Biafrans to Secede.
Achebe's goal (Cf. p.53); surely is to educate the younger generation by recasting that period of history as prose, poetry etc. The tell-all memoir has,however, stirred up a real hornets' net . All that remains now is for justice to take its course.
Gowon -like Charles Taylor- has questions to answer; the earlier the better. (Cf. p.228):
1. Did the federal government of Gowon engage in the infanticide/genocide of the Igbos through their punitive policies: 'starvation as a legitimate weapon of war.'
2. Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young , over forty years after its end?
3. Is Nigeria suffering from a curse; by incessantly repeating the mistakes of the past?
The Chickens come home to roost. Prof. Achebe is an old hand at writing; in THERE WAS A COUNTRY he spills the beans with taste and compassion about intense tribal hatred and evils that men did; which have unfortunately refused to heal.
There could never be a better account of what happened in those dark years- 1966-1970 -in Nigeria.
Long live Professor Achebe!
on 25 October 2014
An exceptional account of the Biafra war and more generally of the plight of post-independence Nigeria. Achebe is unsparing and bleak on the failure of the country to rise above ethnic tensions, and the unbreakable grip of corruption. He comes close to saying that independence has not worked and while he attempts to come up with solutions at the end, the cupboard is pretty bare. He even resorts to asking why Africa's self-aggrandising and phenomenally corrupt rulers can't be more like Nelson Mandela! The happiest time for modern Nigeria emerges as c. 1930-60, the immediately pre-independence decades when the author was young and everything was to play for.
The UK receives due recognition for the robust and impartial quality of its administration but the praise is tempered by the sad fact that we imposed an unworkable constitutional framework on Nigeria in order to protect our economic interests.
My reservation is that the book's structure is rather episodic and free flowing. It's a mixture of reflection, personal memoir and reportage, which at times could have benefited from tighter editing. It's hard to get a clear sense of the war's major events. The inclusion of some of Achebe's poems didn't work for me but that is highly subjective. But when all that has been said, as a book about Biafra, how it happened and why things panned out as they did, this must be a unique text.
on 16 March 2014
My uncle was a missionary priest in Owerri, Biafra prior to & during the Biafran war. In fact, the airstrip used to land emergency supplies from Fernando Poo was in his parish. After the war, he was imprisoned by the Federal forces and accused of helping the rebels. He admitted to providing spiritual and medical assistance. He was expelled from Nigeria which upset him quiet a bit, as he had spent 25 years there in total. When he came home, he was very angry towards the British & Russian governments who assisted the Federals with weaponry. He had great admiration for the pilots who flew supplies in at night and then took off again. He told us stories of his experiences during the war. I was a young boy at the time and I suspect some of his stories were sanitised for me. The events described in this book match my uncles tales. The author also describes the horrific end of the war and its aftermath which is probably what my uncle did not want us young people to hear. For me, this book was a good read. I have retained an interest in Biafra's struggle.