Chinua Achebe’s lament for his native Biafra and the decline of Nigeria is powerful and moving. – The Guardian.
No writer is better placed than Chinua Achebe to tell the story of the Nigerian Biafran war from a cultural and political perspective. Yet, apart from an interview with Transition magazine in 1968 and a book of Biafran poems, Nigeria’s most eminent novelist has kept a literary silence about the civil war in which he played a prominent role – until now. In his engrossing new memoir, There Was A Country, Achebe, now 81, finally speaks about his life during the conflict that nearly tore Nigeria apart in the late 60s.
In many ways, the early part of Achebe’s life mirrors the story of early Nigeria. Nicknamed “Dictionary”, Achebe was a gifted Igbo student and enthusiastic reader, a member of the “Lucky Generation” of young students who rubbed shoulders at top institutions under the tutelage of Oxbridge colonials. They were effortlessly absorbed into the media, industry and civil service, serving a Nigeria driven by optimism on its way to freedom from British rule.
By independence in 1960, Igbo people dominated commerce and the public sector in a land where the three biggest ethnic groups (the Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo) were jostling for supremacy. Achebe attributes Igbo domination to their self-confidence, inherent democratic values and adaptability, which were suited to Nigeria’s modernising economy. But many Nigerians resented it, and Achebe admits that the Igbo could be cocky, brash and materialistic, though he rejects the popular suspicion that there was a pan-Igbo agenda to control Nigeria – his people have too strong an “individualistic ethic”.
Six years after independence, corruption and electoral rigging preceded a military coup that overthrew Nigeria’s first prime minister, the Muslim northerner, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Although most of the coup-plotters were Igbo, Achebe disputes that it was an “Igbo” coup, partly on the basis that its leader, Major Nzeogwu, had grown up in the north and was Igbo in name only. Nevertheless, the murder of Nigeria’s northern leaders led to pogroms in which 30,000 Igbos living in the north were killed. The bloodshed culminated in General Emeka Ojukwu’s declaration in 1967 that the Igbos’ south-eastern region would secede from a country in which his people “felt unwanted”.