Achebe’s Acts of Memory
The brouhaha over Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, as throngs who hadn't read the book stood up to vociferously vilify or champion it, represented a grave disservice to a book that is extraordinarily important, a carefully calibrated document that is at once a great labor of love and yet, in one or two respects, also flawed. It’s a pity that Achebe’s 333-page book became the occasion for a shouting spectacle among Nigerians at home and abroad. The whole ruckus was unnecessary, for the book is, all told, a tremendous gift of memory. And despite any missteps in the book, Nigerians as a whole stand to lose profoundly should they resort to crude trading of invectives and insults instead of taking a cue to meditate deeply about the wretched state of their country.
Achebe, the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of Literary Arts and Africana Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, is widely regarded as Africa’s most important novelist. In addition to five novels, he has also offered the world a body of work that includes poetry, children’s books, literary criticism and essays. His decade-long editorship of Heinemann’s African Writers Series resulted in a library of works by numerous African writers impressive in range, form, theme and geographic spread.
His own career as a writer as a world-class writer has involved a painstaking chronicling of what one might call the drama of Nigeria’s becoming. Given Nigeria’s so far desultory experience, Achebe’s work has often resembled testimony of a country’s disaster, a failure by Nigeria’s multitudes of geo-political communities to coalesce as one. His first and most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, became a fitting opening act, exploring the internal dynamics of a pre-colonial African society as adventurous European imperialists intrude on their lives and space. From there, he explored both the fracturing of traditional identities as well as the futility of the British project to create a larger political community named Nigeria.
In A Man of the People and Anthills of the Savannah, Achebe depicts the corruption, violence and ethical hell that arise from naked inter-ethnic competitiveness, greed by the elite, the widespread adoption of toxic moral values, and the rampant use of militaristic means in the public space. In effect, he gives us in these two novels a wealth of insight about the virtual collapse of Nigeria that far surpasses the harvest in several political science texts. The Biafran War of 1967 to 1970 represents the most dramatic moment of Nigeria’s incoherence.
Achebe has written about that war—in poems, short stories, and essays, including his polemical The Trouble With Nigeria—but his statements always seemed tentative. It was as if he was mulling the form, content and occasion for a fuller statement of what Biafra meant—and continues to mean—in the context of a Nigerian narrative perennially marked by unrealized hopes.
In There Was A Country, Achebe has, finally, relieved the burden of expectations. The book is an organic, logical extension of his oeuvre. But it is also something else: an elegiac, summative offering, an amalgam of the themes, styles and forms that have shaped or informed his previous writings. Some critics have been baffled, for example, by Achebe’s placement of several of his poems at various points in the book. Others have noted that the book appears neither comfortable to stay within the conventions of the memoir nor that of straight history. Yet others have dwelt on the book’s incorporation of seemingly disparate vignettes from previous books.
These seeming quirks, I suggest, are part of a deliberate decision by Achebe to implicate the totality of his work, as a writer, intellectual and citizen, in this tour de force. For the book has a rich, varied form. In one respect, it encompasses Achebe’s intellectual, social and political awakening and development. And in an admirably seamless way, it examines the forces that fomented a series of political crises in Nigeria. The crises culminated in the pogrom of the Igbos in the North and elsewhere. The incapacity or unwillingness of the Nigerian state to protect a besieged sector of its citizenry fueled secessionist demands, and the ultimate descent into war. The book reaches back to the earliest beginnings of the author’s sensibility and then reaches forward to the disquieting present, focusing on the odysseys of one of the world’s deadliest wars. In all, Achebe’s ambitious project here is to make sense of Nigeria’s predicament, past and present.
There Was A Country is a treasure trove in many respects. As one of the world’s most celebrated writers, many aspects of Achebe’s life are already in the public domain, thanks to enterprising literary archivists. Even so, Achebe begins this book by revealing, even if in his ever reticent manner, some of the early events, personalities and experiences that formed him. He has written in the past about the peculiar gifts and perils of living at the crossroads of culture, in a world radically reshaped by European colonialists but still resiliently bringing residues of its traditional worldview into play. Achebe fleshes out that tension through personal memory, recalling his fascination as a child “sitting quietly, mesmerized [as] story time took on a whole new world of meaning and importance.” Those moments Achebe spent listening to stories told by his mother and older sister, Zinobia, fostered his decision to become a storyteller.
Achebe’s book is a sober, sobering recollection of his generation’s now vanished sense of buoyancy and hope in Nigeria’s prospects. When Achebe writes in this book about his “lucky generation,” it is impossible not to juxtapose that sentiment with Wole Soyinka’s later assessment of that the same generation as “wasted.” The kernel of Nigeria’s tragic history can be located, I believe, between the ecstasy and despair in those two great writers’ respective evaluations.
The Biafran War animates Achebe’s ranging story, rendered in his signature spare, brilliantly accessible prose. It strikes me as particularly sad that the erstwhile Biafran leader, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, may have died without leaving a memoir of the cause he led. It is a gargantuan, irreparable loss. One hopes that Yakubu Gowon, who prosecuted the war to “keep Nigeria one,” will take time from his prayer mission to offer Nigerians his own recollections.
At the time of the war, Achebe had already emerged as one of Nigeria’s most talented writers. That profile ensured him several roles in the war. One such role was to head a team that worked on the Ahiara Declaration, the closest thing to Biafra’s ideological blueprint. Achebe also became a roving ambassador for the Biafrans, traversing the world to sensitive governments, intellectuals and organizations about the travails of his people, and to curry diplomatic recognition.
There Was A Country richly benefits from its author’s vantage roles in Biafra. Achebe gives us close-up portraits of the vicissitudes of the war, from the heroism of hastily recruited and poorly trained Biafran soldiers, the use of propaganda, the inventive genius that enabled Biafran resistance to last as long as it did, the deepening despair as the superior armory of the federal troops inflicted a series of quick military losses on ill-armed Biafran fighters, to the grim toll that starvation took on Biafrans (especially children) as a result of Nigeria’s callous policy of blockading Biafra. He also inflects his narrative with accounts and analyses of the role that the world’s superpowers as well as African nations played in the gruesome war. The book is peopled by amazing individuals, writers, intellectuals, scientists, mercenaries, daredevil philanthropists as well as diplomats who were emotionally moved by Biafrans’ plight. Many of these individuals then took up the cause of Biafra and provided succor—sometimes openly, other times secretively—to a people fighting for a home, for survival.
Achebe tells the stories of the war with the poise and intimacy of somebody who was not only a close witness but also a participant in the unfolding drama. Though he is temperamentally not one to dwell on his own privations, he also paid a steep personal price. There is a harrowing account of the loss of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, in the war front on August, 1967. Achebe’s apartment in Enugu was leveled in a Nigerian airstrike, the lives of his wife and children spared only because they had left for Ogidi to be with the author’s dying mother. And then Achebe nearly lost his life during a difficult flight to Dakar to deliver Ojukwu’s message to then Senegalese leader Leopold Sedar Senghor. He and his family had to relocate from one place to another as Nigerian forces closed in on Biafra. More than once, in fact, he came face to face with menacing Nigerian soldiers filled with the kind of triumph that raw power engenders.
There is no question that Achebe writes about Biafra from a deeply sympathetic place. But it is also clear that he considers himself, like many other south easterners, a reluctant “rebel.” He had not sought to divorce Nigeria as much as Nigeria—through acts of injustice that remain far from resolved, even today—abandoned him, left him no choice.
Part of the genius of the book is that Achebe writes his accounts in a measured tone, in an accent remarkably free of overt bitterness. It is ironic, then, that his castigation of Obafemi Awolowo’s role as a fervent defender of the federal government’s deliberate deployment of starvation as an instrument of war, should color public reception and discussion of the book in Nigeria. Achebe’s take on Awo, the charismatic, disciplined and austere man widely revered in the southwest, is one of the rare moments when the book becomes strident.
No, Achebe is no fan of Awo’s, and why should he be? Achebe’s book marshals evidence that Awolowo, who served in Gowon’s wartime cabinet as Finance Minister and second-in-command, was an enthusiastic voice for imposing a blockade that led to the death of multitudes of children. Yet, Achebe also recognizes that the policy—as well as an ancillary policy that handed each Igbo adult a mere twenty pounds after the war—represented the collective action of a regime, not Awo’s personal decree. Achebe points out, for example, that the late Anthony Enahoro, also a prominent member of Gowon’s cabinet, unapologetically professed the policy.
Achebe is, above all, a courageous writer, not afraid by any means to raise the question whether Ojukwu unnecessarily prolonged the war and the suffering of his own people. In the book, in fact, he shows that many prominent Igbos—among them, Ralph Uwechue, the late Okechukwu Ikejiani, and also Francis Ellah—precisely and openly questioned Ojukwu’s judgment either in declaring the war when Biafra was far from militarily ready or failing to surrender earlier.
The book’s flaws lie, I suggest, in two areas. Whilst Achebe is justified in indicting Awo for espousing the use of starvation as a weapon, one wishes that he did not go as far as imputing a motive to the late Yoruba leader. When the author offers an “impression that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself in particular and for the advancement of his Yoruba people in general,” he opened himself to charges of speculative overreach. Awo supported a horrific policy; his motive—unless he confessed it in a document or to some confidant—is a different matter altogether.
I also wish Achebe had devoted some time to examining the heartlessness of some Biafran officials who betrayed their own people by misappropriating what little food and other relief material managed to slip through the blockade—often thanks to the brave exploits of daredevil expatriate pilots. Achebe has written eloquently about these acts of treachery in Girls At War, his short story collection. I wish he had made space to reflect on that phenomenon in this magisterial work.
In the end, Achebe’s deeper worry—and it should be ours, as well—is that, forty years after the end of the Biafran War, Nigeria continues to flounder and to behave as if it had not fought a catastrophic war. His book is a timely reminder that Nigerians had better talk honestly and openly about the nature—the meaning and spirit—of their identity as members of a space that continues to confound us and the world. Instead of holding that conversation, we have had a verbal war over this book. Once tempers cool and Nigerians finally have the opportunity to read and digest this delightful and instructive book, hopefully we will rise to the challenge that Achebe invites us to.