VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 20 November 2012
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.