by Babatope Falade
If history does anything, it nags.
Every historical account provokes opinions and creates new public spheres. The same dynamics is not divorced from Chinua Achebe’s “There Was a Country”.
The book no doubt betrays Achebe’s sentiment about the economic and material Hercules of his Igbo group, but it accounts for much more than that. He holds that the Igbos dominated government services and the economic landscape of the nation. For that reason they were suspect and usually disdained, a fact which can be confirmed by a northern conjecture nurtured by the late Sardauna himself, Sir Ahmadu Bello, who in a video described the Igbos as rats who like to take over everything. I watched this video personally on You Tube.
There Was a Country can be referred to as the Renaissance book of Nigeria’s history. Every country has defining moments that serve as pivots from which the older generation look in introspection and the younger generation for subliminal admonishments.
For the USA it’s their fight for independence in 1776 and the civil war prosecuted by Abraham Lincoln. Today the Gettysburg address by Lincoln is still recorded as one of the best speeches ever made. That address is beyond speaking, it’s beyond record keeping. It represents a social contract for reference and action to stay under a union for American citizens. For China it’s the Cultural Revolution orchestrated by Mao. Germany had Hitler moments. For Nigeria, the defining moment which always threatens or calls for unity of this nation is the BIAFRA WAR, prosecuted by two fine military officers, one loved by the Oxford elite and intelligentsia, the other a Sandhurst fine man, loved by the British royals – Ojukwu and Gowon respectively.
For a long time, there have been different insights and accounts into the war. There also has been a lack of itch to write and produce this account for it to resonate in the minds of every Nigerian citizen for didactic purposes. Achebe has surely endeavoured to fill this void.
Achebe begins with the pre-colonial on the left hand and the colonial on the right. He recounts how the British imperialism infiltrated our religious clime and how he a son of a catechist tried to understand the conflict between old traditions and dogmatic infallibles of Christianity. He also portrays the level of scholarship and ambition of his own family as typical construct of educational aspiration. Achebe relives his perception on the role of the artist in society. He argues for a participation in politics and active citizenship. He also stokes the charge for any generation to endeavour to explore the role it should play in society. Perhaps Achebe’s role has traversed generational shifts and he happens to have migrated from one generation to the other – the colonial generation and the post-colonial.
There was a country’s plot was a protest to the humanitarian misdeed against the Igbo’s during the war. Most importantly, underlying this protest was a valid negotiation that goes back and forth and operational within the present for tribal/ethnic existence. The pogroms by the muslim north after the first military coup executed by Major Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna and the likes served as preludes to the war.
Achebe’s book evidenced the ease with which various ethnic groups could easily gather to take defence and retaliate, as in the case of the Muslim/Hausa-Fulani north dealing Aguiyi-Ironsi to death and the other adjoin ethnic groups like Efik, Ibibio, Ijaws having distrusts against the Biafra campaign and usually betraying strategies of the Biafrans . All these beg the question of our existence as a nation and the often silenced or ignored themes such as True Federalism, review of the 1914 amalgamation and amplified ones on North-South rotational presidency.
Achebe didn’t fail to report his educational exploits, his performance in the University College entry exams which led to an award of a scholarship to him. Achebe also accounts for members of the golden generation with whom he was probably privileged to school with. They are Gamaliel Onosode, Christopher Okigbo, whom he regards as the best poet of his time, Grace Alele Williams etc.
He was elitist in his structure of his report in terms of the account of his personal life. There Was A Country can be dubbed to be an autobiography of Achebe and some his war trials, except that, he was privileged and had privileged friends. He probably didn’t have friends who found it difficult to climb the ladder of educational and professional upliftment. He probably never had a friend who was a trader.
There also seems to be a conflicting dialectic about who really organized the coup Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna seemed to differ on who the true ‘hero’ was. Ifeajuna handed a manuscript to Achebe which was never published. Achebe regretted that.
The war was bloody of course and several countries took different sides. Britain stood by Nigeria and countries like Tanzania, Ivory Coast and France supported Biafra. Julius Nyerere was the first to announce his support for the Biafran cause. France had a rivalry policy of disintegrating British economic post-colonial hold and cultural hold also. Thus, Ivory Coast under Houphet Boigny perpetuated that policy by supporting Biafra. Achebe records several aids being blocked by Nigeria. There were records of about 30,000 children, women and men massacred by Ibrahim Haruna during the war. It’s a surprise that Haruna has agreed to this publicly without remorse. He has also not been charged for war crimes, perhaps that would be retro-active.
The Biafran army soaked the pressure from all fronts and employed the best use of propaganda during the period. People like Wole Soyinka who tried to facilitate a truce were jailed. One of the most disappointing moments was when Nnamdi Azikiwe withdrew support for Biafra owing to disagreements with Ojukwu and his style of not not listening adequately. Ojukwu according to Achebe didn’t consult widely before declaring war. The Aburi Accord was not implemented and this led to further hostilities between both sides.
Achebe’s account was not short of admiration of Zik and his influence and inspiring leadership. Zik till date can be regarded as the most detribalized amongst the early leaders of Nigeria. Achebe had said of Tafawa Balewa to be lukewarm, Sardauna to hold back to pursue the Northernization policy, Awolowo to plot to decimate the Igbo people who he considered to be a threat to the advancement of his people -Yoruba. This has been the centrepiece for discussion in this book and has attracted repudiation from eminent Yorubas and commentators.
Many have labelled Achebe as an insatiable tribalist. I disagree, because everywhere it’s the survival of the fittest. Americans, Jews, Europeans are all negotiating their existence through the block of identity. Achebe feels wronged, because his people have been wronged and he surely was entitled to his own opinion. That was his opinion of Awolowo. Besides didn’t Awolowo trump the ethnic card against Nnamdi Azikiwe in the western region? It’s all about the dialectics of politics.
Chinua Achebe should be given credit for shedding light on our historical recluse. He exposed historical gaps and has provoked the needful which is a fervent and passionate discussion of the past with the roles of various actors. Achebe has also called for many patriotic and pragmatic efforts to help Nigeria. Indeed “There Was A Country” and there is still a country called Nigeria. What we need is serious people and responsible leadership. There is a Country and the Igbos are still a part of it. Long live Nigeria.