rof. Chinua Achebe is one of my heroes. He is one of those human beings like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, etc., who are not afraid to live the force of their convictions and whose lives provide object lessons in morality and virtues. His types are not afraid to confront evil or speak what they believe to be the truth. This was the reason why I pre ordered his latest book, ‘There was country, A personal history of Biafra’ and I finished reading it more than two weeks ago. It was a wonderful read. It is another brilliant demonstration of his mastery of storytelling and a very valuable contribution to the political history of his people and a country he once knew. I have no intention of reviewing the book for the simple fact that many who are far more qualified and experience in the art of book review have done an excellent job which I cannot improve on. However, I am compelled to write about the book because of some of the comments I have read from many Nigerians who feel offended by Achebe’s perspective of the history of Nigeria and the truth as he knows it.
Some of the comments on the book by some Nigerians are very disappointing, especially in their use of language. They have focused on a line or two in the book because they could not bear that Achebe can speak his mind about anybody. It would seem to me that when some Nigerians write or read other people's work, they tend to project their prejudice and beliefs into what they read and forget that what authors present is their perspective which contains elements of facts as they recall them coloured by their personal prejudices. Achebe’s book is a very important historical account and perspective of the civil war. As an actor in the sordid war, he is bound to be defensive of his role and may not be able to buy into the justification for the actions of those he believe were in the wrong. This is how some human mind work. I suppose his account should be read alongside the accounts of all the other participants in the war to form an objective opinion of the regrettable war. What his book reveals is the extent ethnic prejudice and the flawed personalities of the actors contributed to the tragedy.
It is often forgotten that the principle actors in the war were young men in their thirties with inflated egos who had no respect for views that did not support what pride compelled them to do. Achebe has produced a courageous indictment of his privileged generation who could not preserve what the colonial master bequeathed them and no one could be harder on this privileged generation which failed. I could not recognise the Nigeria I grew up in, in Achebe’s Nigeria and it made me angry and later sad that Achebe’s generation lost the Nigeria Achebe wrote about. The book also gave me insight into why Achebe has not been able to accept honours from the Nigeria government. He loves the Nigeria so much and to him, joining Biafra was like being compelled to leave a loving marriaged and for the spouse to come back after one has found a new love. Achebe knows so well that what led to the civil war is still alive and well in Nigeria and perhaps, his rejection of national honour is his last protest.
His account of the role of Awolowo in civil war which were just few lines in book would seem to be the only thing some people read in the book. It has drawn the vilest criticism from some people who believe that great men do no wrong and seem to be dividing Nigeria along ethnic lines. Even people who are known for objectivity have become apologists of ethnic prejudice and this is very sad and unfortunate. I suppose that Achebe wrote a political historical document. It is unfortunate that he did not reproduce Awolowo’s defence of his role when he was confronted with the same allegation Achebe repeated in his book, during his presidential campaign in 1979 to reflect a balanced account, especially since Awolowo is not around to defend himself. This would have been fair. The fact is that Nigeria was at war with Biafra, and Gowon, Obasanjo, Theophilus Danjuma, Anthony Enahoro, Murtala, Mohammed etc., did not spend the period of the war thinking about the lives of the 2 million Igbos who would perish as a result of their actions. They were fighting a war and just like Igbos they also believed that they were fighting a just war. They did whatever they thought was necessary to win and Biafran leaders also attempted whatever they thought would give them victory. The truth is that no people or nation will ever see the people who masterminded their destruction as great men and the people who supported them will never see them as evil men. This is how ethnicity and religion colour our sense of morality and justice. Nigeria and Biafra fought a war and Awolowo, played a role using his intelligence and position to ensure victory for the side he belonged to. I see nothing unusual in his action. I suppose if the roles were reversed, that Igbos may not be too kin in feeding those who are fighting to kill them. It is time to accept that war is evil and brings out the worst in all human beings. In wars nice men do terrible things. No one goes to war reciting the 6th commandment or singing love your enemies, do good to those who despitefully use you.
The complexity of the Nigeria situation is that when many of the people who masterminded the defeat of Biafra were planning their battle strategies, they did not envisage that they were fighting for a country where the Igbos would come back to assert their equality and rights. They might have believed that finally they could solve the Igbo problem. It is unlikely that Awolowo envisaged that after the war, he would need Igbo votes to gain the presidency of Nigeria and when he was confronted with his role in the war in 1979, he gave a reasonable explanation of why he did what all who fight wars do. I also hope that Igbos who want to become president of Nigeria know that they would need Yoruba and Hausa votes. I do not suppose, Awolowo hates Igbos more that Gowon, Obasanjo, Murtala Muhammad, Theophilus Danjuma, Anthony Enahoro, etc., who prosecuted the war and continued the policies that impoverished Igbo Land in attempt to stop the Igbos and in the process destroyed Nigeria. This is Achebe’s narrative and he is entitled to his opinion and there are many in the world who share the same perspective but it does not make it the only perspective. The fact is that some actors in the civil war found it a convenient excuse to let loose their ethnic or religious prejudices against a group they love to hate because they believe that they nursed ambition to dominate the country. We must learn from their mistakes to do better.
Nigerians should recognise that the Nigeria -Biafra war was a war, in which a man had to kill or be killed and Igbos often forget this because they persist in looking at it from the perspective of their loss. Some months ago, I wrote an article in Nigeriaworld, the glorification of war is the beginning of insanity URL: https://nigeriaworld.com/articles/2011/mar/231.html and Achebe’s book reminds me of the what I argued in that article. I wonder if Ojukwu or Achebe would have continued to feed Nigerians if the roles were reversed. I read Achebe’s book and did not see the Nigeria my own generation grew up in. I could not imagine Achebe’s Nigeria or feel his loss. What I remember is a country where I was discriminated against because of my ethnic group, a country where even in my own state of origin, I was denied equal opportunity because I refused to pay bribe. I know a country where excellence means very little, corruption endemic and mediocrity the order of the day. How can I mourn such a country? Possibly Achebe’s lost Nigeria should be the Nigeria of my dream. Achebe said clearly in his book that there was a good Nigeria which his generation lost. It is perhaps for the current generation to try to re-establish this lost country.
Achebe’s book is a tale of squandered opportunities, preventable mistakes, bad decisions, ethnic and religious prejudices and paranoia in the affairs of men. In a very uncomfortable way, it exposes the extent of ethnic prejudice in Nigeria and how deep it runs, and offers insight into what could be done to remedy the situation. Achebe does not deserve the vituperation and insults of people who claim he accused their hero of masterminding genocide against Igbos. It is an insult to the intelligence of Achebe for people to misrepresent his historical account and use it as excuse to vent their ethnic prejudices and further worsen the mistrust between groups in Nigeria. Achebe said it loud and clear that the privileged generation could not keep what they inherited because they retreated into their ethnic enclaves and allowed their prejudices to colour their sense of justice as fairness. This was why Achebe’s Nigeria died.
Hopefully one day, Nigeria will learn that history is only needed so that men can learn from it to avoid its mistakes and not used to fan the flame of old prejudices and enmity. I suppose it is in this perspective that Achebe wrote, which is why I found the book very interesting.