by Adewale Sogunro

Chinua Achebe

I was hoping that he would look beyond the ethnic divisions, while rendering language to heal the wounds between ethnic groups in Nigeria from the Biafra war.

Upon hearing the public uproar sparked by Chinua Achebe’s book in various social circles, I immediately saw it befitting for me to purchase and reserve a space on my book shelf for another potential masterpiece. Achebe is undoubtedly one of the greatest literary geniuses and intellectuals produced by the African continent, presently he is a professor at Brown University, a prestigious institution in the United States of America. The most valuable gift that Achebe offered to the world was “Things Fall Apart,” a novel which presented Africans as subjects instead of objects in colonial times, a position contrary to the norm at his era; since the British usually depicted Africans as primitive, inferior and unsophisticated savages in most of their literature and historical writings. With such enlightened writing, he humanized the African experience through his work.

In the early chapters, Achebe rendered a travel log, capturing his academic journey as well as giving the reader glimpses into the colonial reality of Nigeria during his time. He painted a seductive picture of a Nigerian utopia, a country void of ethnic divisions or religious strife, which he saw during his youthful years as a school boy. At one point he mentioned:

It has often been said that my generation was a very lucky one….the pace of change in Nigeria from the 1940’s was incredible. I am not just talking about the rate of development, with villages transforming into towns, or the coming of modern comforts, such as electricity or running water or modes of transportation, but more of a sense that we were standing figuratively and literally at the dawn of a new era. My generation was summoned, as it were, to bear witness to two remarkable transitions – the first the aforementioned impressive economic, social, and political transformation of Nigeria into a midrange country, at least by third world standards.

Moreover, as one digs deeper into the book, it becomes more clear who Achebe believes should hold the reins of leadership in steering Nigeria down the right path of political and economic development: his own Igbo people. Central to his argument appears to be that the Igbo intelligentsia surpassed any other ethnic group in the country and therefore merit filling the leadership vacuum created by the parting British imperialist. The further I read the book, the more it became evident why it is titled “There was a country,” because in the figment of Achebe’s imagination the Igbo people did no wrong and only good in building the country he saw. Over and over, he accentuated on the great contributions of his ethnic group. He cited, Nnamdi Azikiwe as “the father of African independence…,” whiles he later skimmed over the contributing ideas of Azikiwe’s predecessor Herbert Macaulay, who is credited as the father of nationalism and creator of the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP).

As I read through his book, I sensed the pain and bitterness echoing through the written words of Achebe. At one point he mentioned, “The Nigeria that meant so much to all of us was not reciprocating the affection we had for it. The country had not embraced us…” Of course, I found it justified, he was a man that lived through the pain of the Biafra war. Nevertheless, I saw he was a man blinded by his bias, who continually applauded the great contributions of the Igbos. Yet, I found it understandable, he is a product of his time, a man that saw the dream and promise of Nigeria, but suddenly woke up to a nightmarish reality in which millions of innocent and precious Igbo lives were lost. There cannot be any justification for such a horrendous and callous act committed by the Nigerian government, I thought to myself. Moreover, Achebe didn’t attempt to fully present a balanced story; instead he positioned everything and anything positive, tilting in favor of the Igbos. He mentioned at one point:

“In most other nations the success of an ethnic group as industrious as the Igbo would stimulate healthy competition and a renaissance of learning and achievement. In Nigeria it bred deep resentment and both subtle and overt attempts to dismantle the structures in place for meritocracy in favor of mediocrity, under the cloak of a need for “federal character” – a morally bankrupt and deeply corrupt Nigerian form of the far more successful affirmative action in the United States.”

The implications of such statement are that the Igbo people are talented and victims due to their high intellect, which attracts jealousy and resentment from other ethnic groups. Moreover, he refrains from portraying an objective argument as to what actions committed by the Igbos amplified ethnic tension. At one point, he spoke of Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi, who committed a counter coup against Chukwuma Nzeogwu, but didn’t take action to quail the distrust of Northern Nigerians against Igbos. This was due to the killing of high ranking Yoruba and Hausa military personnel by Igbo officers, who excluded Igbo officials from being killed.  As Achebe acknowledged, Nzeogwu killed Sir Ahmadu Bello, thus setting the stage for “religious, ethnic, and political ramifications…” However, he didn’t associate such grievous action as fuel being doused on the flames of ethnic mistrust between Northerners and Igbos.

There were a few times that Achebe hinted on how the Igbo leaders were accomplice in their people’s demise, but it wasn’t plainly stated. He cited a Canadian humanitarian organizer as saying, “‘Ojukwu administration as one “that was more interested in the getting of arms than food or medical supplies and had made up reasons for rejecting {humanitarian aid}.’” Would some Biafrans have starved to death by the thousands, if Ojukwu, as a leader, put the interest of his people ahead of his own ambitions? How many lives could have been saved, if Ojukwu would have accepted humanitarian aid instead of focusing on securing weapons? Perhaps, this exemplifies the shortsightedness of Ojukwu as a leader. These are all reasonable analysis that Achebe never dared elaborate on; for fear that it would not portray Igbos as victims.

Achebe even later stated, “…Azikiwe withdrew his support for the breakaway republic…” Again, he gives the reader a glimpse into the strategic flaws and moral grounding of the Biafra movement, yet, he only scratched the surface. Achebe’s bias did not allow him to sufficiently expose such information in aims to save face for his Igbo people and the Biafra movement he held so dear. Even when the opportunity presented itself to reveal the faults of Ojukwu, he lightly touches on it in saying, “…it seemed to me that Ojukwu wanted to a hold on the organs of government – these two organs, plus the military – not so much separated but working at a pace and manner of his design.” Clearly, Ojukwu showed signs of a brute dictator, according to the aforementioned statement, but as usual Achebe never expounded or sought to elaborate on the questionable actions of any Igbo personality in his book.

I believe Achebe sought to recreate the nostalgia of Igbo excellence and pitted other ethnic groups as envious and spiteful of his own people; which led to the atrocious and horrendous Biafra war. At one point he mentioned, “Marauding Northern youths armed with machetes, knives, and other instruments of death attacked unsuspecting civilians, mostly Igbos.” Such a statement makes it seem that Northerners were discriminate killers, fishing out Igbos residents for the killing and ignoring Yoruba people. Quite the contrary, many Yoruba people and non Hausa/Fulani ethnic groups were killed also during the Pogrom onslaught although not in high rates as the Igbo, who were the majority groups out of other ethnic minorities living in Northern Nigeria. This is further evidence on how ethnic hatred and mistrust enshrouded Nigeria at the time, and no ethnic minority group was singled out from attacks by Northerners.

In comparison to other historical works, and especially one written by a reputable intellectual, I was hoping that he would look beyond the ethnic divisions, while rendering language to heal the wounds between ethnic groups in Nigeria from the Biafra war. On the contrary, I believe that Achebe played and perpetuated some of the legacy of ethnocentrism and bigotry. His ethnocentric position placed his people as an entitled group that merit governing the country due to being gifted intellectuals and business people. He boldly stated, “…the Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness, in my estimation.” Such a statement removes rationality from the conversation, especially when it is evident that Igbo statesmen govern Igboland and their socioeconomic plight is similar to anywhere else in Nigeria, underfunded and underdeveloped due to corruption.

In the final analysis, I believe this book perpetuates the same misunderstanding of ethnic strife that led to the Biafra war. While I do acknowledge the pain and suffering of the Biafra war at the expense of my Igbo brothers and sisters; the expectation that Achebe would use his intellectual foresight to guide future generations beyond the limits of ethnocentrism is heavily called into question after reading this book. Aren’t these the same tools of control, the privileged few, use to manipulate the masses in Nigeria and Africa: divide and conquer? Rather, we need intellectuals to rise above the fray of Nigeria’s legacy of ethnocentrism in unifying the people not accentuating on what divides us, but rather what unites us. His book, “There was a country” is truly how he saw Nigeria and Biafra, a once progressive state dependent on the intellectual prowess of his Igbo people. This book spoke of atrocities committed against Igbo people, which are invariable truths, but rarely does he delve into how Igbos were accomplice in a turn of events that led to the Biafra war. Ethnic mistrust was the sentiment of those times, no ethnic group held a monopoly to such attitudes. It could have happened to the Yoruba, Edo, Ijaw, Nupe or other ethnic groups as it happened to the Igbo people as they were persecuted and killed. It was a time that required sensitivity on the part of leaders to be aware of the undertones of ethnic mistrust and act with caution. This book will be valuable to those seeking to remember and relive the pain and sorrow of the past Biafra war as well as assert the ethnic superiority of Igbo people as seen through the eyes o f Achebe. There was a country was truly how Achebe saw the country, where Igbo people did no wrong, a truly imbalanced account.

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Adewale Sogunro obtained an undergraduate degree in history and a graduate degree in public administration from Brigham Young University. He has been a public servant in the U.S government sector for the past eight years.

 

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.