In the opening pages of his new memoir, There Was A Country, Chinua Achebe lays claim to 'story', as an almost proper noun in the grandest, most comprehensive of definitions. This story is not just for audiences in the West, with their long history of partial, often reductive interest in Africa, but also for his country of Nigeria and the continent that contains it, as well as for his children and grandchildren – for, basically, everyone.
It is the story of Biafra he proposes to tell. In 1967, after seven years of shoddy nation-building, three eastern states lumped together and broke away from the federation of Nigeria. Achebe, who had come to international attention with his first novel Things Fall Apart, published nine years before, went to work for the secessionist government’s Ministry of Information. He travelled around drumming up support for the break-away nation, telling its story to Westerners and Africans alike. He also helmed the National Guidance Committee, which wrote up high-concept ideology to brand what at first seemed like an emerging nation.
In many ways, There Was A Country can be read as a continuation of that mission. The book approaches the story under the auspices of three genres: memoir, poetry, and academia. Achebe begins with a coming-of-age routine, recounting his early life of scholastics, his passion for literature, his burning desire to elevate African stories to a narrative tradition then burdened with cliché, misrepresentation, and outsider exposition. Tucked in between these and other pages are poems, previously published in some form, conjuring the horrors ordinary Biafrans experienced during their three years at war with Nigeria.
But the main mode of narration is academic. Achebe posits that the civil war was touched off by the genocidal ambitions of leading Nigerians, such as the late Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba who allegedly could not tolerate the presence of Igbos in the upper echelons of society. He also charges members of the mostly Hausa and Muslim north with systematically killing Igbos in their midst after a tit-for-tat series of coups in 1966.
Achebe details the international reaction to Biafra, the cynicism of leading Western powers who were mostly interested in supporting the most-likely-winner of a fight that had ramifications for the global oil industry. On the other side of the issue was the support of the international artists’ corps, as well as national creative figures like Wole Soyinka.
Achebe also outlines the starvation tactics launched against Biafrans, lamenting the sad icon of children with hunger-swollen bellies, and the indiscriminate bomb raids perpetuated by Nigeria’s air force.
In the end, he continues, two million people were dead, most of them Igbos who dreamed of a homeland that would foster the freedom to achieve. Survivors were inadequately reintegrated into the federation, with legislation and compensation conspiring against Igbo equality. Achebe decries Nigeria’s present condition and makes recommendations for stronger public institutions, freer elections, and ethnic and religious tolerance. That’s his story.
That Achebe, who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007, might be the man to tell this story – to tell any African story – is taken for granted. Things Fall Apart, for which he is still best known outside of Nigeria, has had a staggering reach since its publication in 1958. It has been translated into at least 50 languages and revered by critics on both sides of the global hemispheric divide. It remains go-to reading for outsiders visiting Africa for the first time and looking to gain the kinds of insight more readily available in fiction than non-fiction.
And, in addition to the dozens of other books Achebe has written, and to the scores of articles, he has worked hard as an editor connecting other African writers to international readerships. The London-based publisher Heinemann Educational Books tapped Achebe to edit a book list called the African Writers Series, for which, from 1962 to 1972, Achebe worked as an advisory editor.
Meanwhile, There Was A Country has, perhaps unsurprisingly given the sensitivity of its topic, rankled its fair share of Nigerians, some of whom have spoken out against the author in the national media.
Certainly, Achebe’s memoir smacks hard of ethnic nationalism. Never does he directly disparage anyone of Yoruba or Hausa descent, Nigeria’s other two most populous peoples, but his celebration of the Igbo as enterprising and industrious - common descriptions in Igbo identity-construction - sometimes teeters into jingoism, if only because the rest of the country is portrayed as unable to achieve much of anything without Igbo contributions.
Biafra itself is presented as a utopia, a Mecca of freedom and a manifestation of pan-African independence. That its leader, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, was an early participant in the country’s decades-long issue with military dictatorships is not directly mentioned, even though it is obviously incongruent with Achebe’s rhetoric of freedom. Likewise, allegations of human rights violations against Biafran soldiers are brushed off by the author as simply unlikely, not the sort of thing he saw personally.
It is hard not to think of Achebe acolyte and fellow Igbo Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, also explores the Biafran war. This account seems to offer a much more realistic story, one complete with the moral degradation of the Biafran army, which is smeared with rape and child soldiering. Compared to her story, Achebe’s seems like propaganda, which is fitting considering his role in the secession but nonetheless dangerous stuff in a country that continues to experience tensions along the same lines as in the late 1960s. Even Adichie, writing recently in The London Review of Books, seems disappointed in her mentor, though for reasons she suggests more than explores.
Finally, storytelling is hard work, no matter where the teller was born. In There Was A Country, Achebe spends too little time with the memoir trope of his project. The pro-Biafra academic treatise is the focus of his energies, while the poems offer nothing especially new, well-written as they are, and were the first time they were published.
Achebe dispenses with key events in his life in just a paragraph or two, seldom inviting the reader to touch or smell or hear much of anything. His traditionally laconic prose style does no service to these brief treatments, and what usually comes off as a sparse but meaningful approach to language here often reads as clumsy and incomplete, leaden with passive constructions and, for a man who boasts of being nicknamed Dictionary, much too reliant on vague verb choices.
If telling an honest and true story is the business of the writer, and Achebe would attest that indeed it is, then one of Africa’s most celebrated tellers of truth has missed his mark. What we have here instead is mostly a partisan story about politics, rather than a sound contribution to the bigger picture.
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