Nigeria, at independence from British rule in 1960, was called the Giant of Africa. With a large population, an educated elite and many natural resources, especially oil, Nigeria was supposed to fly the flag of democratic success. It did not, and it is clear now, in retrospect, that it could not possibly have done so. Colonial rule, as a government model, was closer to a dictatorship than a democracy. Nigeria was a young nation, created in 1914, as Nigerian children would learn in history class in the endlessly repeated sentence: ‘Lord Frederick Lugard amalgamated the northern and southern protectorates to form one country and his wife gave it the name Nigeria.’alt

It is debatable whether, at independence, Nigeria was a nation at all. The amalgamation was an economic policy; the British colonial government needed to subsidise the poorer North with income from the resource-rich South. With its feudal system of emirs, beautiful walled cities, and centralised power systems, the North was familiar to Lord Lugard – not unlike the Sudan, where he had previously worked. In the South, the religions were more diverse, the power systems more diffuse. Lugard, a theorist of imperial rule, believed in the preservation of native cultures as long as they fitted his theories of what native cultures should be. In the North, the missionaries and their Western education were discouraged, to prevent what Lugard called their ‘corrupting influence’ on Islamic schools. Western education thrived in the South. The regions had different interests, saw each other as competitors, and became autonomous at different times; there was no common centre. A nation is, after all, merely an idea. Colonial policy did not succeed in propagating the idea of a nation: indeed, colonial policy did not try to. In the North colonialism entrenched the old elite; in the South it created a new elite, the Western-educated. This small group would form the core of the nationalist movement in the 1950s, agitating for independence. They tried to establish the idea of ‘nation’ and ‘tribe’ as binary, in opposition to each other, a strategy they believed was important for the exercise of nation-building. But the politicisation of ethnicity had already gone too far.

After independence a vicious regional power struggle ensued. The ‘fear of domination’ of one region by another was everywhere. Elections were rigged. The government was unpopular. Only six years later a group of army majors carried out a coup and murdered top government officials. In the North the coup was seen as an Igbo coup, a plot by the southern Igbo to gain dominance. It didn’t help that the new head of state, in a clumsy attempt to calm the nation, instituted a unitary decree. Instead of regional civil services Nigeria now had a single civil service. A second coup by northern officers saw Igbo officers hunted down and murdered. Then the murders became massacres. ‘Massacre’ may seem melodramatic. But perhaps because the events leading to the Nigeria-Biafra war are so often eclipsed by the war itself, so little remembered, it seems an apt word for the thousands of Igbo civilians in the North who were killed between May and September 1966, their homes ransacked and set on fire: Nigerian civilians killed by Nigerian civilians. The numbers are still disputed, but most agree that at least seven thousand died. The federal government seemed incapable of stopping the killings. Had the massacres not occurred, or had they been dealt with differently, the south-eastern region would not have seceded and declared itself the independent nation of Biafra.

The darkest chapter of Nigeria’s history: the Nigeria-Biafra war that left a million people dead, towns completely destroyed and a generation stripped of its innocence. On the Biafran side, intellectuals actively participated in the war, buoyed by their belief in the secessionist cause. They drafted press releases, served as roving ambassadors, made weapons. The best known and most influential African poet in English, Christopher Okigbo, joined the Biafran army. He was a romantic, unsatisfied with the administrative or diplomatic roles his fellow intellectuals took on; Chinua Achebe, his close friend, describes him as a man about whom there was a certain inevitability of drama and event. Mere months into the war, he died in battle. Achebe’s recollection of Okigbo’s death in There Was a Country is brief, and no less moving for that. Achebe hears the announcement on his car radio and pulls up at the roadside:

The open parkland around Nachi stretched away in all directions. Other cars came and passed. Had no one else heard the terrible news?

When I finally got myself home and told my family, my three-year-old son, Ike, screamed: ‘Daddy don’t let him die!’ Ike and Christopher had been special pals. When Christopher came to the house the boy would climb on his knees, seize hold of his fingers and strive with all his power to break them while Christopher would moan in pretended agony. ‘Children are wicked little devils,’ he would say to us over the little fellow’s head, and let out more cries of feigned pain.

In the years since the war, Okigbo has become an icon to writers throughout the continent: venerated, enmeshed in myth, his death a striking example of the great tragedy of the war. Achebe almost died too. Before the war started, when Igbo people were under siege in Lagos, soldiers raided his house and only just missed him. Later, his home and his office were bombed, and later still the Biafran army set up an armoury in his porch overnight; his family woke to the sound of shelling and knew it was time to flee. His story is a story of near-misses, of deep scars left by what could have been. After an air raid in Enugu at the beginning of the war, Achebe stares at the ruins of what had been the office of Citadel Press, a publishing company he had started with Okigbo, and thinks: ‘Having had a few too many homes and offices bombed, I walked away from the site and from publishing for ever.’

Achebe is the most widely read African author in the world, and was already a known and respected writer in 1967, when he joined the Biafran war effort. He served as an ambassador for Biafra, travelling to different countries to raise support for the beleaguered nation, and participating in various committees, one of which came up with the Ahiara declaration, a moving if starry-eyed document that was the new nation’s intellectual foundation. He has written poems and short stories about Biafra –Girls at War (1972) is a magnificent collection of stories set there. But many have waited and hoped for a memoir, for his personal take on a contested history. Now at last he has written it. Although it is subtitled ‘A Personal History of Biafra’, There Was A Country is striking for not being very personal in its account of the war. Instead it is a Nigerian nationalist lament for the failure of the giant that never was; Achebe is mourning Nigeria’s failures, the greatest and most devastating of which was Biafra.