There Was a Country
A Personal History of Biafra
Penguin Press: 352 pp., $27.95
Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of the groundbreaking 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart," is widely considered the most influential African writer of the 20th century. A staple in school curricula worldwide and with more than 10 million copies in print, Achebe's novel is an African story told in an African manner by an African — remarkable for colonial times.
While Achebe identifies himself as a Nigerian author, he is also Igbo, one of the three most dominant tribes in the vast country of more than 200 million people. It was the Igbo who led the cessation from Nigeria in 1967, forming the Republic of Biafra, resulting in a nearly 3-year-long civil war that killed more than 2 million people, mostly Biafran, who were starved to death by the Nigerian government's food blockade. While recently teaching in Lagos, I could still feel the reverberations from the international disaster, including lingering ethnic tensions and reports of the Boko Haram, the violent northern jihadist separatist group, spreading terror nationwide with what many see as governmental support.
In "There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra," Achebe — now nearly 82 — attempts to reckon with his own dashed expectations as well as those of the Igbo and all Nigerians and Africans. It is an odd, frustrating book, with elements of memoir mixed with a history lesson and accounting of those responsible, including the foreign countries that aided the attempted genocide, and those that tried to end or alleviate the bloodshed.
The early part of the book provides some welcome personal context. Nicknamed "Dictionary," as a boy Achebe was encouraged by his parents, Christian converts, to pursue an education. A member of the so-called Lucky Generation, Achebe took full advantage of the British-built school system. Graduating at the top of his high school class earned him entrée into Ibidan's prestigious University College, where he would become editor of the school newspaper and begin writing fiction.
Spurred by a British English professor's criticism that his writing lacked "form," Achebe writes, "I was moved to put down on paper the story that became 'Things Fall Apart.' I was conscripted by the story." Achebe recounts how he sent the handwritten manuscript, his only copy, to be typed up in London, where it was promptly misplaced. It was only months later that a colleague at the Nigerian Broadcasting Company, on business in London, was able to retrieve it.
Not surprisingly but ironically, Nigeria's best and brightest, including Achebe, pushed against their educators and joined other Africans demanding independence, which was finally granted in 1960. Achebe rightly points out that British rule had sown the seeds of ethnic and geographical tension, and by 1966 there was a military coup, which many in the northern Islamic territories blamed on the Igbo, who, because of their education and ambition, had a disproportionate number of quality jobs in the new country.
The resulting counter coup unleashed a wave of terror that left 20,000 northern Igbo massacred with no intervention by the new government. By the following year, many Igbo had fled to the eastern Biafra region, where they declared their own republic. Achebe, ever hopeful, stayed in Lagos until the outbreak of the war when his life was threatened by rogue soldiers, whereupon he fled to Biafra for the duration of the conflict, leaving only to act as an ambassador, traveling around the world to help bring attention to the humanitarian nightmare.
When writing about the Biafran conflict, Achebe switches from a personal and engaged mode to what feels like an attempt at reasoned, unbiased historian. Considering that Achebe was deeply involved with the government of the breakaway republic and fled Nigeria in 1972 for the U.S., where he has lived on and off ever since, this objective stance is strained at best.
What Achebe does well is document the personality struggle between the opposing leaders, Nigeria's ruthless Gen. Gowon versus headstrong Biafran Gen. Ojunkwu, former Nigerian military men locked in a game of brutal one-upmanship, "blinded by ego," which undoubtedly prolonged the suffering on both sides.
Clearly it is Achebe's intent to show not only the devastating toll the Biafran conflict took on Nigeria but to hold up the Biafran experiment as a noble enterprise, a truly democratic, humanistic model for what could have been in Nigeria, and also perhaps the rest of Africa. Achebe draws a sharp line between the corruption and incompetence plaguing post-colonial Nigeria to the Biafran conflict.
Unfortunately, his argument is muddled by exhaustive, somewhat stultifying sections about the makeup of the Biafran government, committee deliberations over creation of Utopian laws, and the derivation of the national flag and anthem. Much of the prose here is flat and uninspired (and seemingly unedited). To whit: "Food was short, meat was very short, and drugs were short." It is a slog through this messy yet heartfelt hybrid memoir-history for anyone not completely versed in Nigerian history.
The ruthless and reckless decisions that fueled Biafran conflict, mostly swept under the historical rug, are well worth documenting, and Achebe's book is an imperfect attempt at revealing the truth. Just as "Things Fell Apart" blazed the path for more African writers to write their own stories, hopefully "There Was a Country" will bring about more rigorous, soul-searching calls for historical reckoning, a necessary step toward true African democracy.
Spillman is the editor of Tin House and edited "Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing."