A few years ago, in West Africa, a woman came up to me and said, ‘You know what’s wrong with our men? They go crazy once they get power. Crazy and bad.’ Chinua Achebe’s saving has been the fact that he never sought power, at least not of the kind that leads to conflict and the cutting off of heads. His curse has been to observe things that most of us should be happy never to have seen.
Now 82, Achebe has done what many elderly people do when they have seen remarkable things: he has borne witness and set down his version of the rise and fall of the short-lived state of Biafra.
Achebe’s masterpiece came early in his writing life: Things Fall Apart, published in 1958 when he was still in his twenties, has since sold some 12 million copies and is one of the key texts of any mid-century literature course. In the novel, the protagonist discovers that his people, the Igbo, will not fight to defend their heritage. In real life, things turned out differently.
That book earned Achebe a special place in African letters and in newly independent Nigeria, where he became a cultural and political commentator. Some might have seen something inevitable about this, as Achebe is an Igbo, a tribe that benefitted more than most from the missionaries and their church schools. Their success has had an unfortunate by-product, as Achebe is well aware, for he recognises that ‘there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behaviour that can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness’. In other words, not only do they do well, they want everyone to know it.
In 1960s Nigeria this was a problem. The Igbo were a minority from the south-east of the country. The majority, including the government, took action and began excluding Igbo from public posts. Achebe sees this tribal bigotry as one of the main reasons for Nigeria’s underdevelopment and for its civil war. In January 1966, a group of junior officers — most of them Igbo — staged a coup that failed. That summer, a counter-coup by a Muslim-Christian alliance put General Gowon in power. Two months later, amid heightened tribal tensions, some 30,000 Igbos were killed, primarily in northern Nigeria. Tribal rivalries, always present in Nigerian politics, became untenable. Accusing the new government of failing to protect its people, a group of senior Igbos declared independence for their eastern heartland, which they called the Republic of Biafra.
The ensuing three-year civil war led to the death of at least one million — and perhaps as many as three million — people, most of them through starvation. Biafra is where the world first gazed on bloated, skeletal, malnourished children on their television sets. Achebe was a witness to the war and a player in some small degree.
The opening chapters of There Was a Country tell the story of Achebe’s upbringing and explain the significance to him of his Igbo heritage. His father was a Christian preacher, but the son was more interested in Igbo traditions and cosmography and, later, in writing rather than preaching. If he were to be a writer, he would be a protest writer. ‘The whole pattern of life demanded that one should protest, that you should put in a word for your history, your traditions, your religion, and so on.’ This Achebe did, in subsequent books such as Anthills of the Savannah and The Trouble with Nigeria. But the outbreak of war forced action as well as words. No one was immune. Achebe has memories of the war that have not lost their terror in the intervening decades. Moments such as his terror of the bullying Nigerian soldiers who wanted to steal a goat from the people who were sheltering him, or the night he needed to move himself and his wife because the Nigerian army had discovered his whereabouts, only for his car to run out of petrol, are brilliantly constructed.
The opening section of There Was a Country, with its account of growing up in British-run Nigeria, will appeal to the wide readership of Achebe’s novels and throws light on his development as a writer. But some of the war details, the events leading to the outbreak, the way in which the conflict was conducted and the huge range of characters — most of them named, but very few explained — will be a puzzle for anyone not familiar with 1960s Nigeria.
Some of Achebe’s claims remain a matter of dispute. He insists, for instance, that the failed coup of January 1966 was not an Igbo coup, because there were non-Igbos involved and because not all Igbo officers were included. But the tribal tensions created by Igbo success was the prime motive for the coup, and the majority of officers involved in staging it were Igbo. Similarly, his suggestion that the departure early in 1970 of General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, was anything other than flight to save himself, is a minority point of view, even among Igbo. But not all is so contentious. Achebe rightly accuses Harold Wilson of being an apologist for the genocidal acts of the Nigerian government of General Gowon.
One key issue, which has never been clear, is whether Biafra would ever have been viable as a sovereign state. Achebe has no doubt and suggests that the more educated, hard-working and cohesive Igbo would have made a success of it. And he might be right. The tragedy, which his memoir makes clear, is that the Igbo have not been able, or allowed, to accelerate the development of postwar Nigeria, which sits just below Afghanistan and Somalia in the rankings of failed states. Achebe ends with a list of questions that need to be addressed, including this one: ‘What do we need to do to bring an end to organised ethnic bigotry?’ This issue led to the 1966 coups and the Biafran war, and dogs the country today.
If There Was a Country had been written by a writer of lesser status, it would probably not have attracted so much attention; but Achebe in old age still commands respect and his desire to bear witness will have a readership. His memoir will encourage many to look again at the great tragedy of his lifetime.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012