Chinua There was a Country
In our house in Nsukka, the small university town in eastern
Nigeria where I grew up, my parents’ bedroom harboured a cupboard, reached only
by standing on a stepladder. In that cupboard lay a battered brown leather
satchel, filled with memorabilia from Biafra. I remember Biafran stamps,
currency notes and coins, photographs, receipts, letters and a small green hard
backed pamphlet: The Ahiara Declaration.
From time to time, under conditions of great secrecy, the
satchel would be brought down and my brothers and I would be allowed to rummage
through it as my parents told us stories of their harrowing experiences during
the war. We would look at photographs of friends and family “lost” in the
conflict, or during the massacres of Igbos that preceded it. We would marvel at
the lightness of the Biafran coins. I don’t remember my parents explicitly
saying it, but somehow it was communicated to us that the satchel and its
contents were not things to be discussed outside the family home.

In Nigeria in the 1970s when I grew up, Biafra was only
talked about in hushed tones, in an atmosphere of an unspoken fear that talking
about it could bring reprisals.
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to an
early rough-cut screening of the film version of Chimamanda Adichie’s book, Half
of a Yellow Sun. At the end, in the darkened room in Soho, as I joined others
to congratulate the director Biyi Bandele, I found myself hugging him instead
and felt to my embarrassment, tears running down my cheeks. As I apologised,
avoiding the bemused stares from some of the staff at the venue, I explained to
Biyi that I had felt such a powerful reaction because the story he was telling
was the  story of my family – of my parents and grandparents.
That evening, as on the phone I described my feelings
watching Biafran refugees fleeing the university town of Nsukka to my mother,
who had herself fled the town with my father and elder brother in 1967, she
said “I am glad that our story is going to be told, that the world will
Chinua Achebe’s new book There Was A Country: A
Personal History of Biafra emerges into this landscape of memory and
remembrance, forty two years after the war ended. In the book Achebe, a few
weeks before his 82nd birthday, finally sets out to tell the story of his
Biafra. The format he adopts is novel – involving a rambling mix of anecdotes,
summarized histories, analysis, reportage, declamation and haunting poetry. In
some ways, reading the book feels like I imagine spending an hour or two
chatting with the distinguished novelist might.
He roams from the story of how Nigeria came to be, to his
schooldays and burgeoning friendships with prominent figures like the poet
Christopher Okigbo, whose presence looms large through the book. 
the historical account is the story of his father, one of the early Igbo
converts to Christianity, and his experiences growing up with newly Christian,
trailblazing parents caught between the old traditions and cosmology of the
Igbo people and the new Christianity. The personal glimpses into his early life
are hugely enjoyable and indeed tantalizing – often outlined so succinctly,
that he leaves the reader greedy for more detail.
Approaching the events leading up to the war –  the
descent of the first post-independence Nigerian government into an abyss of
corruption and misrule; the role that the colonial government played in setting
the stage for this descent and the first military coup in 1966 – he acquires a
less personal and more straightforward recounting tone. This continues until
the latter part of the book, when he begins to describe the counter-coup of
July 1966, the massacres of Igbos that followed the coup, the failed attempts
at negotiating peace and the subsequent declaration of independence and the
harrowing consequences that followed.
Achebe, as is his right, does not pull any punches, although
he does make some concessions to alternative points of view, especially in
relation to the legacy of colonialism and the moral imperative on writers to
produce committed literature. He is less conciliatory on the question of
whether the actions of the Federal Government of Nigeria during the war
constituted war crimes and, possibly, genocide. He is scrupulous in naming the
officers and individuals responsible, and where possible provides their
viewpoints based on news and other reports.
He also highlights the role played by Western countries and
the international community. And he challenges the popular perception that
General Gowon’s “No Victor, No Vanquished” policy at the end of the war in 1970
led to the successful re-integration of the Igbos into Nigeria, highlighting
the egregious government policy which wiped out the savings of every Biafran
who had operated their bank accounts during the war with an “ex- gratia”
payment of just 20 pounds. He is also laser sharp in his conviction that part
of Nigeria’s problem stems from its anti-meritocratic suppression of the Igbo
people, and the refusal of the country to face up to insalubrious aspects of
its history, issues that he argues continue to haunt it.
Of particular interest are the snippets that emerge of life
in Biafra – the intense emotional connection of a people united by the fear and
anger at the massacres, the ingenuity of the engineers who fond ways to refine
petrol or build bombs and the efforts of artists and intellectuals to
contribute to building a new nation. He also describes his own forays to
foreign capitals to seek their support for the Biafran dream and the eventual
withering and death of that dream. Sprinkled through the book are excerpts from
a series of interviews commissioned by the Achebe Foundation with many of the
key players in Nigeria’s history. These, when eventually published, should
provide a rich resource and other perspectives on the events that the author
The final section of the book picks up on Nigeria’s journey
since the end of the war, dipping into the failures of governance and the
consequences, raising several questions that need to be addressed for the
The book could benefit from a closer proof-reading and
fact-checking process by an informed editor. Irritating errors crop up like
“maul over” for “mull over” “deferral” for “federal”, “Iwe Ihorin” for “Iwe
Irohin” and St Elizabeth’s Hospital for Queen Elizabeth Hospital, but these do
not detract from Achebe’s attempt to present, from his perspective, an account
of those dark days. As he says in the book, “My aim is not to provide all the
answers but to raise questions and perhaps to cause a few headaches”. It is
clear that this is his book, his view and his own particular nostalgic ramble.
Ultimately, it is important that he has shared it, warts, unevenness and all. In
doing so, Achebe has helped bring the contents of my parents’ brown satchel
back into the open.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here