Chinua Achebe’s new book, ‘There was a Country: A personal history of Biafra’ opens in characteristic Achebe style with the Igbo proverb that says that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body. The proverb and the book itself speak to the present generation of Ndigbo and Nigerians using the narrative of the author’s life and personal experiences during the Nigeria/Biafra war. Achebe’s war time story could easily represent that of millions of other Igbo men of his generation many of who perished during the war. Perhaps the book is coming at the right time being that the generation who lived through the bitter war experiences and are quite conversant with the issues are passing on while those still with us are in their twilight. The book will help to remind Ndigbo of the need to always think home while navigating their way around Nigeria’s fragile and treacherous political and socio-economic terrain, a Nigeria that from Achebe’s and all other accounts would rather Ndigbo did not exist.
Despite the raging debate over the author’s reference on page 233 to a statement credited to the late Obafemi Awolowo in the book ‘The Brutality of Nations’ written by Dan Jacobs that “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder”, there is no diminishing the all-important message to the world by the author never to forget the millions who died during the Biafra war, which is comparable to the Jewish holocaust. It is therefore wrong that focus has now shifted to what Awolowo allegedly said as captured in Jacobs’ book and only referenced by Achebe and then forgetting other themes including the celebration of friendship and humanity between the author and the late Christopher Okigbo who died during the war. The tragedy of Okigbo’s death was to be captured by Ali Mazrui in his novel ‘The Trial of Christopher Okigbo’. Mazrui remarked in the book that “The Nigerian civil war and all its ramified implications (can be) compressed in the single poetic tragedy of the death of Christopher Okigbo”. He charges Okigbo with “the offence of putting society before art in his scale of value”, and concluded that “No great artist has a right to carry patriotism to the extent of destroying his creative potential”. I disagree with Mazrui’s expectations from artists with regards to their choices and chose instead to align with Achebe’s views on the role of the writer as discussed in ‘There was a Country’. However, that discussion will be left for another occasion.
Among other themes discussed by Achebe in ‘There was a Country’ include his coming of age in Nigeria in an era the author regarded as “a more innocent time”, the personality conflicts of the two dramatic personae of the war – Yakubu Gowon and Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the conspiracy of the British before and during the war, the ingenuity of Ndigbo who had to adapt and use locally available resources to produce weapons and other materials in executing the war, the wickedness of man as meted out to Ndigbo in Port Harcourt and other places where their properties were seized and classified as abandoned, the luck of his generation, the need to tell the African story, encouragement to beginning writers as according to Achebe, when he wrote ‘Things Fall Apart’, he did not know that anybody will read it, and that it will be accepted or published. He told of his brother-in-law that did read the book but told him the next morning that the book gave him a terrible headache plus other themes.
Those currently persecuting Achebe are indirectly also taking a poke at Mr. Dan Jacobs, who in 1968 worked as a consultant and spokesman for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, one of many relief agencies that were frustrated in their efforts to get supplies to Biafra. He quit his job then believing that U Thant, then Secretary General of the United Nations, was obstructing aid to Biafra. Mr. Jacobs subsequently became director of a group called the Committee for Nigeria-Biafra Relief, which tried unsuccessfully to get a relief effort started that would ferry supplies by helicopter from aircraft carriers off the Nigerian coast.
What the great Chinua Achebe has done with ‘There was a Country’ is to serve as voice of the millions who died and others who suffered during the war, many of who may not have such a platform to tell their war-time story. Coincidentally, I had started reading the book which I ordered from amazon.co.uk when my father, now 77 years old demanded that i arrange to either write down his life story or record them. I have never had this kind of conversation with him before, so when he noticed my look of surprise; he replied that we shall all transit to the great beyond one day. This was his own way of assuaging my fears and telling me to wake up to the inevitability of death. We later sat down to a 3 hour conversation at my younger brother Charles’ house who captured our discussions on his camcorder with a promise to continue his inspiring story later.
My father was living in Aba when the war broke out. He was a poultry farmer at the time and also had a big building material shop at the John Holt town shop. He told of how he had to abandon his shop, the chickens and pigs in the farm and fled with my mother and elder brother George who was barely 3 months old at the time. I was to be born a year into the war thus adding to their already difficult situation. I could easily have been one of the victims of the Kwashiorkor disease but many thanks to Magistrate Ike family of Ndikelionwu and Eli Okeke family of Omogho towns of Orumba North Local Government Area of Anambra state where they took refuge and were given acres of land to farm. The family would survive the war on vegetables and other produce from the farm, and were also able to batter some of their produce for other essential supplies. He also told of how he was captured one night by the Biafran soldiers and conscripted into the Biafran army with my mother wailing and clutching two starry-eyed toddlers, not knowing if she would ever see her husband again. Having survived the war, he would start life all over again with nothing but sheer determination and raw grit, plus the miserly twenty pounds the Nigerian government had approved for all Igbo depositors of the Nigerian currency regardless of the amount they may have deposited in the banks. This coupled with the Indigenisation decree which was to follow, and the ban by the Nigerian government of the importation of second hand clothing and stockfish, items mainly traded by Ndigbo in the market towns of Onitsha, Aba and Nnewi were ruthless attempts at economically disenfranchising Ndigbo and a crude sadistic experiment in wealth re-distribution in Nigeria. In Achebe’s words “If there was ever a measure put in place to stunt, or even obliterate, the economy of a people this was it”.
There are many people living in self-denial in Nigeria and who would easily wish away the Biafran story but that is not surprising as there are also concerted campaigns globally to dismiss the Jewish Holocaust but things do come into full circle in life sooner or later. As I read the story of the murder of General Muhammadu Shuwa (the Boko Haram sect have denied any involvement), I can only think of what Malcolm X said while commenting on the death of President John F. Kennedy, he said it was like the chickens coming home to roost. Shuwa is being eulogized in the media as a war hero without any considerations for the feelings of the innocent women and children slaughtered as he invaded the Biafran towns of Nsukka and Ogoja as the Commander in charge of the First Division of the Nigeria Army. The late Murtala Muhammed in charge of the Division Two had led the onslaught from Benin and other parts of the Mid-West into Onitsha while Benjamin Adekunle, Commander of Division Three of the Nigerian Army led the Southern offensive.
There are still a lot of injustices in Nigeria and Ndigbo are still predominantly at the receiving end and thus feel rightly that even though Biafra as a country may no longer exist, but there is still a country buried deep in their hearts where fairness, justice and equity will be guaranteed.