There Was A Country, Chinua Achebe’s autobiographical account of the Nigerian Civil War, raised a dust storm of reaction in Nigeria. Jeremy Weate suggests the books controversy and power lies outside the simple tectonics of ethnicity.
There Was A Country, Chinua Achebe’s autobiographical account of the Nigerian Civil War, has raised a dust storm of reaction in Nigeria and exposed the unprepossessing tectonics of ethnicity. Opinions have been largely divided by differing allegiances either side of the river Niger. What is an outsider to make of it all?
In the celebrated text The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon outlines three phases in the development of the “native intellectual”. In the first phase, Fanon writes that “the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power […] His inspiration is European and we can easily link up these works with definite trends in the literature of the mother country. This is the period of unqualified assimilation.”
This characterisation fits neatly with Chinua Achebe’s journey to manhood, as portrayed in his latest work. Although an uncle versed in the old pre-Christian ways piqued the young Achebe’s curiosity, his account of his childhood and schooldays is one of being increasingly held within the colonial embrace, in the warm-embered years of the end of empire. The bright lad found favour among British teachers at the prestigious Government College Umuahia, where speaking in any indigenous Nigerian language was strictly forbidden. From Umuahia, he eventually went on to read English literature at University College, Ibadan, alongside fellow student Wole Soyinka. Later, Achebe entitled two of his books after lines in poems by Europeans (Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease are both drawn from poems by Yeats). The inspiration for the young writer was Europe, even if, as in the case of Things Fall Apart and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he was sometimes writing against the European canon and not for it.
Achebe confirms phase one of Fanon’s schema in There Was A Country, when he outlines how issues such as imperialism, slavery, independence, gender and racism should be tackled by African writers:
Engaging such heavy subjects while at the same time trying to help create a unique and authentic African literary tradition would mean that some of us would decide to use the colonizer’s tools: his language, altered sufficiently to bear the weight of an African creative aesthetic, infused with elements of the African literary tradition.
This personal backstory to Biafra goes some way to explaining a question that Achebe avoids in his latest book (or elsewhere, it seems): why did he never write in Igbo? Or at the very least, experiment with it? Why not write from his own language, rooted in his own culture, rather than that of the coloniser? While this debate is at risk of battle fatigue, it is an issue that must be continuously discussed at a time when many African languages are disappearing or are losing their richness. The question is all the more pressing when one learns that Achebe’s first school lessons were in Igbo and that he only started to learn English aged eight. With his deep interest in Igbo culture and oral stories, it seems that Igboland has lost an opportunity to develop its own literary culture. Who knows what might have been, had the English language not been so imperative? Instead, all the richness of Igbo culture and idiom is used to enrich and legitimise the coloniser’s language further.
In Fanon’s second phase:
we find the native is disturbed; he decides to remember what he is … Past happenings of the bygone days of his childhood will be brought up out of the depths of his memory; old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed aestheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies.
Elements of the second phase lurk between the lines in There Was A Country. Throughout the book, there is an unresolved tension between the gratitude Achebe feels towards British colonialism (as he experienced it growing up) and a bitter rejection of western influence, especially during the Biafran war. He writes that “the callous interference of the great powers led to great despair and a prolongation of the tragedy.” This statement is itself in tension with elsewhere in the book where he expresses appreciation for the role of the French during Biafra.
Achebe’s relationship to colonialism and the post-colonial aftermath is clearly complex, if not fully contradictory. In line with Fanon’s reference to “old legends”, in There Was A Country, Achebe describes what he calls the “era of purity” before the coming of Europe to Africa, with specific reference to an Igbo cultural heritage. It is hard, nonetheless, to reconcile this notion of purity with historical realities. As Achebe himself notes, the origin of the word ‘Biafra’ is likely to come from the Portuguese and is therefore hardly autochthonic. Why wasn’t an Igbo word chosen as the name of the country that never was?
The book has several other examples where claims of cultural purity mask hybridity: Take the reference to nsibidi, an ancient script Achebe rightly attributed to the Ejagham group. Achebe brings nsibidi up in the context of discussing the village of Nnokwa, which “played a vital role in Igbo cosmology”. Nsibidi clearly has a complex trans-cultural lineage in southeastern Nigeria, which cannot be reduced to or appropriated by the cosmology of any specific culture in the region. Achebe makes the same mistake again in his note on the relation between the Igbos and minority groups in the Eastern Region. He refers to a “high degree of cultural assimilation among the four major linguistic groups of the area the Igbo, Efik, Ijaw and Ogoja”. There is some degree of ontological violence at work here, silencing the other minority tribes of the region, specifically those of the Niger Delta: the Urhobos, the Itsekiris and so on and at the same time not acknowledging the complex heterogeneity of the region beyond the four he privileges.
In general, There Was A Country underplays the internal resistance to the Biafra project within the Eastern Region. For instance, Achebe makes no mention of Isaac Boro, the archetype of today’s Niger Delta militant, who during the civil war fought on the side of the Nigerians. Like Boro, there were many in the Niger Delta who had no wish for Igbo hegemony (and the capture of the oil profits) in the region.
In the same vein, Achebe plays down the internal tensions within the Biafran experience in favour of ethnic purity. He makes no mention of what might have been the Osu outcast experience of the war, a ‘tradition’ that continues in largely unspoken form to this day and a theme in No Longer At Ease. What was the Osu experience of the conflict? Were Osu Igbos integrated within the war effort, or were they marginalised, as in everyday life?
Nor does Achebe refer at any point to other forms of historical internal tensions in Igboland, such as the conscious rejection of being Igbo among Aro and Onitsa groups in pre-independence Nigeria. Given the ascendancy of the Aros in the nineteenth century (due to their control of the slave supply chain), it’s difficult, if not impossible to imagine a pan-Igbo identity at work one-hundred or more years ago. Meanwhile, myriad borrowings, exchanges and transfers between the two largest groups of southern Nigeria, the Igbo and the Yoruba, tell their own story of linguistic-cultural hybridity and the lack of a pure essence in the pre-colonial space that is now known as Nigeria. All these themes would trouble the “era of purity” language that Achebe requires when reminiscing about Biafra.
At this point, it is worth giving pause to ask which country There Was A Country refers to: is it Biafra or Nigeria? Of course, the obvious reading is that Achebe is referring to what might have been in the south-east, had secession succeeded. However, an almost equally available interpretation is that he is referring to the Nigeria that never came to be, which is hinted at when he writes that: “Nigeria had people of great quality, and what befell us – the corruption, the political ineptitude, the war – was a great disappointment and truly devastating to those of us who witnessed it.”
Here again, the projection of purity is on full display: as if pre-Independence Nigeria were not chockfull with corruption scandals and examples of political ineptitude. We only need review the Lagos Town Council Enquiry of 1953 and the Foster Sutton Enquiry of 1956 (exposing Nnamdi Azikiwe’s diversion of the Eastern Region’s public funds into the African Continental Bank) to see two examples of corruption that are in a continuum with the outrages of present-day Nigeria. In contrast to other African countries, Nigeria was not blessed with a unified narrative at independence; there was no Nkrumah or Nyerere founding father figure around which a national narrative could be woven. Instead, there was a collection of ethnicities playing along the continuum between late colonial corruption and ineptitude (among both the British and the emergent Nigerian bourgeois elite) and post-independence kleptocracy. Independence was not a rupture with the past in any definitive sense. But then, as other reviews of the book have pointed out, a class analysis of Nigerian is not on prominent display in There Was A Country. A more focused attention on class as opposed to a reification of ethnicity would have exposed the contradictions within the Biafra project.
Although Achebe’s desire to project purity onto the Nigeria that existed before the Biafran war is historical fantasy, it nonetheless reveals a deeper emotional truth. Achebe, like many other Igbos, was devastated and marked by what happened during the civil war, and Nigeria could never be the same again: “That night of January 15, 1966, is something Nigeria has never really recovered from.” In this respect, There Was A Country serves not as an historical account of a country torn apart (and should not be read as such), but as a painfully poignant and honest memoir of a trauma.
In her recent essay on Biafra, ‘Scattered limbs, scattered stories: the silence of Biafra’, Bibi Bakare-Yusuf argues that the experience of trauma – especially trauma that has not being worked through – often stimulates a retrospective search for a coherent and pure ethnicity where there was never one, alongside the invention of different stories to make sense of the traumatic experience. The subjective experience of the text reaches its dramatic zenith in the weeks Achebe spent in hiding in Lagos. He writes: “I realised suddenly that I had not been living in my home; I had been living in a strange place.” The uncanny morphing of the familiar into the unknown, the surreal flight from danger, the realisation that nothing would be the same again: Achebe’s book paints these ghastly segues with bare and bold colours. We should look underneath the surface of facts, events and chronologies to a dispiriting emotional descent into hell that Achebe characterises with deft skill and sparse, simple prose. Despite Achebe being the chief propagandist for Biafra, There Was A Country cannot be simply read as the definitive truth about Biafra. There are many truths and many more narratives still waiting to be written about Africa’s first genocide. There Was A Country has to be situated as part of post-traumatic literature of genocide survivors in the tradition of the Jewish writer Primo Levi. The book is a work of trauma in search of resolution.
We can leave to one side some of the issues that have sparked intense debate in earlier reviews of the book, most notably, the role of Yoruba political leader Obafemi Awolowo in the war, and the issue of why the transport corridor that could have brought food into Biafra remained blocked throughout the war, ensuring mass starvation. We can also leave aside the question of whether Igbos are now politically integrated within the Nigerian system (Achebe vehemently thinks not and I disagree). Positions on both have become entrenched, especially in the wake of the book’s publication. It makes little productive sense, when reviewing a book that was not set out to be the authoritative account of the war, to add another view here.
More interesting is the alternative Nigeria that Achebe suggests was on the brink of realisation, were it not for the stubbornness of Biafran leader Odumegwu Ojukwu. He summarises Senator Francis Ellah’s view that there were “many who believed that the Biafrans, not just the Nigerians, missed a number of opportunities to compromise and end the war earlier than they did”. Achebe (and Ellah) is referring most pointedly here to the talks in Kampala in May 1968, where many on the Biafran side were prepared to concede to the Nigerians and agree to a confederated country of four or six states. Instead of the consequences of Biafra’s failure: the fracturing of Nigeria into ever smaller sub-national states, an alternative decentralised Nigeria could have unfolded, were it not for Ojukwu’s pride and Yokubu Gowon’s brutal retribution in creating East Central State and cutting Igboland off from the resource wealth of the Niger Delta.
All of which brings us to a key critical point: there wasn’t ever a country in Biafra. Without access to Niger Delta oil, the coast (and a transport corridor to Port Harcourt), it’s hard to imagine how the independent state would have survived and developed a viable economy for any length of time, had the war turned out otherwise and a landlocked rump had been salvaged. The idea that Biafra could ever have extended across what are now Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross River states is contentious at best, given the forces stacked against the Biafrans. Achebe reveals a distorted sense of geography when he writes – and note the strange (unconscious?) use of the present tense – “Calabar is in the southeastern part of Biafra, on the banks of the majestic Calabar River.” Who would the landlocked state have traded with surrounded as they would have been by an indifferent (at best) or hostile (at worst) neighbour?
Reading There Was A Country reveals Achebe to be a figure caught up in an unresolved tragedy. From a gilded dream of a country nurtured in late colonial Nigeria by an emergent elite, the nightmare has continued, long since most non-Igbo Nigerians appear to have forgotten or indifferent to the civil war. Clearly, Achebe has not forgiven Nigeria for what happened to Igboland and for what happened to Nigeria itself. We should not forget that likely far more Igbos died in the civil war – perhaps two million – than Tutsis died in Rwanda, and yet no far-reaching truth and reconciliation process has taken place. As Achebe notes:
Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. It was not just human nature, a case of somebody hating his neighbour chopping off his head. It was something far more devastating, because it was a premeditated plan that involved careful coordination, awaiting only the right spark.
Even today, the Nigerian civil war is not taught in schools. As Bakare-Yusuf notes: “The curriculum’s silence on Biafra cannot conceal the background noise of expectation. Many Igbos take the war to be incomplete, unfinished business. Rightly so! There has been no ‘national conversation’. Just silence.”
In Fanon’s third “fighting phase” of the native intellectual:
the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with people, will on the contrary shake the people. Instead of according the people’s lethargy an honoured place in his esteem, he turns himself into an awakener of the people; hence comes a fighting literature, a revolutionary literature, and a national literature.
Perhaps we should characterise Achebe’s latest book as precisely this: part of a fighting literature, but not necessarily a national literature. Although he has not fully left the nostalgic romanticism of a mythicised pre-colonial Igboland (the quasi mythic realm of the Nri Kingdom) behind, Achebe is most certainly not playing the role of the magnanimous elder statesman in There Was A Country. There is still fire aplenty in his belly, and visceral outrage at the unacknowledged violence at work in the defeat of the dream of Biafra. This anger informs Achebe’s conviction of the role of the African writer: “I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest.” It is questionable how many younger writers would agree with this vision of the African writer.
Should books from the continent continue to be protesting tales of war, of famine and of suffering, and confined to some dusty corner of the bookshelf (or some obscure page on Amazon)? Or is a new era of writing now upon us, which normalises our experience across all its differences and is increasingly curious about the locality of language? Writing that sings and cries and laughs, like all other tragic-comedic narratives that circulate around the globe.
Jeremy Weate is co-founder of Cassava Republic Press, a publishing company based in Abuja.