Biafra through the eyes of a legend

2012-10-06 10:46

Author Chinua Achebe writes about his personal experience during the Biafran War in his latest genre-bending book, writes Percy Mabandu

Like all the then newly birthed African states, in 1960 when Nigeria came into existence it was already riddled with problems and discord carried over from its colonial foundation.

These included the uneven dispensing of patronage and investment by the outgoing British overlords, who were trying to rule in absentia, but there were also skills and development deficits.

Most importantly, however, ethnic mistrust and tribalism were plaguing the new nation.

These variables came together in a toxic cocktail that precipitated the coup d’état of January 15 1965 that eventually led to the Biafran war.

In his latest book, There Was A Country, Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian intellectual and award-winning author gives us a personal account of his country’s march into independence, the Biafran secession and the civil war that followed.

Achebe, having had first-hand experience of the war and the events leading up to it, has never before shared his personal experiences and views on this period, aside from a poetry anthology, Christmas In Biafra, which became a joint winner of the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize.

There Was A Country is a 319-page, genre-bending book whose form is dictated by the needs of the story being told rather than by the rules of literature.

It reads like an intimate memoir that benefits from the discipline of historical writing and the grace of someone with a practised fiction style.

Achebe punctuates the book’s sections with poems. This recognises the emotional clarity and effect that only poetry can achieve.

This he achieves poignantly in a poem he introduces to conclude the story nugget about the birth of his third child, Chidi.

The birth happened amid the fears and persecutions that affected the Igbo people across Nigeria. This was only a day after his wife had fled Lagos on a commercial boat for Igbo land.

The poem, Generation Gap, explores Achebe’s personal anxieties and his fears for a child born into such an uncertain world.

He writes: A son arrival / Is the crescent moon / too new too soon to lodge / the man’s returning. His feast of reincarnation . . .

As the book progresses, Achebe moves from this personal stream to grand political themes seamlessly.

Introducing his analysis of the political climate leading up to the January 1965 coup, he makes the following observation: “The Nigerian political class of the day were oblivious of the growing disenchantment permeating literally every strata of their society. They were consumed with individual and ethnic pursuits, and with the accumulation of material and other resources.

“Corruption was widespread, and those in power were using every means at their disposal, including bribery, intimidation, and blackmail to cling to power.”

Complicating matters is that it wasn’t just the political elites who were out of touch with the pulse of their nation’s underlying problems.

For, as Achebe writes: “The war came as a surprise to the vast majority of artists and intellectuals on both sides of the conflict. We had not realised just how fragile, even weak, Nigeria was as a nation.”

This obvious leadership vacuum left the country open to opportunistic forces.

“Many within the military were increasingly concerned that they were being asked to step in and set things right politically.

“In the first six years of its post-independence existence, Nigeria found itself calling on the armed forces to quell two Tiv riots in the Middle Belt, crush the 1964 general strike and establish order following regional elections in Western Region in 1965.

“The involvement of the military top brass in the political running of the country took Nigeria down a troubled road it has yet to come out of even today.”

There Was A Country also manages to document the story of the Igbo people. Achebe gives us a lovely comparative study of his people’s cosmology and the Christian religion, which came to West Africa in the 1800s.

The story is thus also one of cultural self-revelation as new things were introduced into the lives of old communities.

He discusses the formation of new ambitions for young people born into this changing colonial world. This was a generation charged with the historical moment of forging African modernities, a new world from an old egg.

Achebe writes exquisitely in the voice of an elder sitting at the proverbial fireside to relish the gems of time-tested traditions.

These are the roots of his own embrace of storytelling as an art. His art was turned into a patriotic national service as Nigeria fell into the hands of despots.

Achebe also gives us insights into how his generation of artists, intellectuals and writers, from Christopher Okigbo to Wole Soyinka, were responding to the crisis as it unfolded.

They set the pace for the role of thinkers in times of martial conflict.

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