Femke van Zeijl: There was a Country: An outsider’s review

by Femke van Zeijl

Most striking are the parts of There Was a Country where history meets Achebe’s personal experience. The restraint with which he describes the death of poet-warrior Christopher Okigbo, a personal friend, makes it all the more moving…

I am not Nigerian.

I am not Igbo.

I am not Yoruba.

When the Biafra War ended, I was not born.

I am however a historian and a writer, interested in the past, present and future of Nigeria.

Let me state these obvious facts before I continue this review, which I was told off to do even before I started writing it. Someone tweeted: ‘Why would you need to review it? Why don’t you leave that to people like my mother who actually lived through it?’ I put to him sometimes the perspective of an outsider can actually add to the discussion. From the outside, things look different. The observer does not carry the emotional burden of people directly or indirectly involved in history, allowing him a more neutral stance. Moreover, the eyes of an outsider sometimes see what people from up close do not notice anymore.

From the very first page Chinua Achebe made me wonder about his intentions. Did he mean to share his memoirs of one of the most volatile periods in his life with the world? Did he finally want to speak out about  what/who in his view caused and prolonged the Biafran War? Was he trying to record a balanced history of these dark pages in Nigeria’s past? The chapters swirl from one to the other, in the end leaving none of these approaches fulfilled to satisfaction. It took Achebe 42 years to publish this book, and it is like he tried to cram all bottled up thoughts and emotions about Biafra into this one work. I have come to see There Was a Country as three books in one: a personal memoir, a political pamphlet and a history of a war.

The memoir resonates most in the first section of the book. Though sometimes too lyrical to be believable (the use of superlatives in this part that describes virtually everyone as ‘very extraordinary’ or ‘very brilliant’ is striking), his tone is most personal and intimate when Achebe tells about own life. I would have liked to read more, but once he starts treating the events preceding the Biafra War he takes a step back and adopts a less personal voice.

This is where his work becomes a mixture of opinionated political analysis and historical write up. Sadly, these two never go very well together. And understandably it is this mixture that has gotten the writer the most criticism.

The book is subtitled ‘A Personal History of Biafra’. As a historian however I would not categorise it in the academic discipline of history. First of all phrases like ‘It is my impression that’ and ‘There are those who believe that’, which the author uses quite frequently, do not belong in a history book. Moreover it is the historian’s task to assemble historical evidence from a balanced multitude of sources, and not to leave out sources or views not convenient to the story he wants to tell. Also, big historical allegations need to be backed up by convincing historical facts. Achebe repeatedly fails to do so.

Let me take his attitude towards Biafra leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu as an example. Whether the writer is right or not in his mild approach of the late politician, Achebe, had he been a historian, should at least have made much more of an effort to answer the long standing accusations of Ojukwu having used the famine of his people as a public relations tool. Already in 1970 in The Columbia Journalism Review renowned journalist Karen Rothmyer wrote about the Biafran manipulation of the international media. These are public records a historian cannot turn a blind eye to.

On the other hand there is Achebe’s perspective on Yoruba chief Obafemi Awolowo, at the time member of the Nigerian federal Cabinet. He accuses Awolowo of ‘hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the number of his enemies significantly through starvation’. Regardless of whether he is on the mark or not, basing such an accusation on ‘a statement credited to chief Obafemi Awolowo’ is simply too flimsy as historical evidence.

It appears at times Achebe wants to make a point and looks for evidence to go with it. This is where the book gets the character of a political pamphlet, which is a valuable genre in its own right. He argues that what he sees as the continued marginalisation of the Igbo people in past and present day Nigeria has been detrimental to the country as a whole. Also he argues that what happened to the Igbo in the Biafra war was in fact genocide, paralleling it to Rwanda and Darfur.

Achebe starts his genocide argument by stating ‘I am not a sociologist, a political scientist, a human rights lawyer or a government official.’ Now this is either his way of warning the reader that his arguments will not be entirely convincing, or it is false modesty. After all, the great Achebe should know that when he states a case, Nigerians listen and take him seriously. That gives him even more of a  responsibility to back up a serious charge of genocide thoroughly.

The term genocide implies intent from the perpetrator to destroy a certain group of people. Intent here is the key word: it has to concern an organised and premeditated scheme for destruction. This intent can be proven directly, from orders or plans, or indirectly by pointing out a certain systematic pattern of coordinated acts. Where Achebe gives enough examples in the book to prove that, by targeting civilians, war crimes were committed by the Nigerian army during the Biafra War, he fails to do the same thing for his claim to genocide.

Achebe lines up a number of sources intended to back him up. First of all most of these sources stem from the era during or right after the Biafra war. Since the so much theory and jurisdiction has been developed assessing other allegations of genocide elsewhere in the world, that it is hard to understand why one would use only such dated sources. Also the ones Achebe quotes are mostly secondary, which at best can support a case but do not on their own construct a convincing argument.

The author comes closest to a beginning of proof of a coordinated system leading to genocide when he quotes New York Times journalist Lloyd Garrison, who covered the conflict: ‘The record shows that in Federal advances… thousands of Igbo male civilians were sought out and slaughtered.’

If there is a case to be made that Biafra was in fact genocide, it needs much more profound research into primary sources like the latter and an analysis of the actual coordination of the alleged genocidal acts by the Nigerian government. It is a missed opportunity that Achebe made the claim without doing so.

They say the first casualty of war is the truth. This also applies to the history of war. Its interpretation depends on the political affiliation of the writer, the time that has passed since, the background against which it is written. Tens of thousands of books have been published about the Second World War, and their number will continue to grow. To be able to form an idea of that war, one needs to read a lot. That is how to assemble a balanced view of history.

This is also the value of There Was a Country, that would have been more accurately subtitled ‘A Personal Account of Biafra’. It is a book that cannot stand on its own if you are trying to get a balanced view of what happened, but is a very valid contribution towards a better understanding of history. It is a book that will be taught along with other accounts of the Biafran War, like Frederick Forsyth’s The Biafra Story, and with fiction like Wole Soyinka’s Season of Anomy, asking students to compare the different perspectives and draw their own conclusions.

Most striking are the parts of There Was a Country where history meets Achebe’s personal experience. The restraint with which he describes the death of poet-warrior Christopher Okigbo, a personal friend, makes it all the more moving and the description of how Achebe and his family escaped death on several occasions and had to flee so many times brings alive the dead-end situation of the haunted people in Biafra during the war.

After all, and from whichever perspective you look at it, Biafra in Achebe’s words turned out into a ‘the humanitarian emergency of epic proportions’ no one can deny. Half way his book the author inserts a poem he published in 1971 that has since become famous. ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ remembers the countless casualties of the war. It is to them and their families we owe it to keep making an effort to try and understand what actually happened.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

 

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Comments (14)

  1. So where exactly does the truth lie?

    Anyone can write a review, and you wrote a review because you can …..write. Having said that, have you added anything to the discussion? I don't think so.

    For you to write a "dispassionate analysis", you have to have a full command of the facts – and you don't know the facts. Please learn the facts first.

  2. I notice you didn't use your new name in this review? Why on earth? Might it be because someone may think you are not entirely objective or an "outsider" as you claim, 'Funke'?

    You genuinely are more concerned with whether Ojukwu " used the famine of his people as a public relations tool", than why 2 -3 million were killed, bombed ,starved to death during the war and thousands raped following it? You chose the right side, Funke, your moral standards are much better in tune.

  3. To the ones who read my review as a dismissal of Achebe's book:

    read again. It is not. I point out both the flaws and the values of the book.

    To the ones arguing Achebe, having lived through it, is a primary source in his own right:

    my point exactly. That is what I would have liked to read much more of.

    To the ones accusing me of taking sides:

    the ad hominem argument is usually applied when you run out of others. I am not going to waste my time defending myself against unfounded allegations.

    To the ones saying I will never be able to understand Biafra:

    trying to understand history does not demand participation. If that would be the case, all historians who cover anything outside their lifetime would be jobless.

    To the ones denying me the right to review There Was a Country in the first place:

    such censorship clashes with freedom of speech and thought, things authors like Achebe fought for all his life.

    To the ones thanking me for writing a dispassionate analysis:

    thank you. You got what I set out to do.

  4. And this is the type of views that has kept this nation for developing. Did you even read what you wrote? 'Other ethinc groups in nigeria are envious of igbos and scared of igbo domination'. I am a yoruba man and I love how industrious the igbos are, sometimes I even envy them. But do I want do see them wiped out? NO!

    My brother, I understand why the igbos went to war, but what I fail to understand is why you feel the yorubas betrayed you. What did you expect us to do? Join you in war and become minorities in your Biafra republic? Or declare our own republic as well?

    You fought a war and you lost, you have two options now, go to the UN and apply for nationhood or shut up and embrace your Nigerian nationality.

    What makes you think the yoruba people are envious of you? We are obviously far better educated, more independent minded (we are the only region without a PDP governor) and we are better developed infrastructurally.

    I love the igbos, I still want them to be a part of this country, but if they want to leave, they should please do so without looking for enemies where none exist.

    1. Rocks : I am a yoruba man and I love how industrious the igbos are, sometimes I even envy them….

      Rocks: What makes you think the yoruba people are envious of you? We are obviously far better educated, more independent minded….

      Cognitive dissonance? eh Rocks?

      Nobody is talking about Yoruba betrayal, we are talking about the Civil war, what led to it and what happened afterwards. It's best if you read what others have written, instead of skimming through it.

      If you think the S.West is better off without a PDP governor, then please tell me the difference in ideology b/w the PDP, ACN and LP. What does each party believe in?

      1. Also I wanted to ignore your quip about Yorubas being more educated, but I am not magnanimous enough. According to the JAMB registrar, Prof Dibu Ojerinde that six southern states registered the highest number of candidates for this year’s examination (2012). Imo led with 123, 865, followed by Delta- 88,876; Anambra- 84,204; Osun- 73, 935; Oyo- 71, 272 and Ogun with 71, 173.
        http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/03/only-3-score-o

        That's 3 Igbo speaking states for you. It's been like this for the past 15 years. Numbers don't lie. So what were you saying about Yorubas being more educated.

        Secondly infrastructure in Lagos is where it is, because it was a FCT. We all built it. Apart from Lagos, the infrastructure of the other S.West states are in dismal condition. Your claiming Yorubas single-handedly Lagos is developed is similar to Hausa/Fulani's claiming they built Abuja single-handedly, NO! we all built with the Federal Capital Territories with our sweat and with Federal dollars.

  5. @deric_prince you stated

    "Interesting, passionate comments. But most of you missed the point of this review. Or a review in general. I believe Femke reviewed this book based on the facts presented therein. It’s not an attempt to correct Mr Achebe. Rather, it’s an effort to dispassionately critique what he wrote. If you see things that way, you would realise that Femke did a terrific job here".

    You are entitled to your opinion, but I don't think one can be dispassionate about Biafra, you chose a side and deal with the disenchantment that follows. My major qualms with her review is asking Achebe to base his "personal history on biafra"on research, which is most likely a European or American's research. This is kind of like Hillary Clinton writing a book about the Obama years, and someone saying "Oh Hillary your book is not based on research", she was there, she was in every major decision room, She was in that control room when Bin Laden was killed.

    Back to Achebe, "He was chosen to chair the newly formed National Guidance Committee, charged with the task of drafting principles and ideas for the post-war era" http://bit.ly/c36N5X meaning he chaired the committee that was drafting the constitution in Umuahia (seat of the Biafran Government) . How much more primary can that be, Achebe and co. wrote the constitution

    To deny Genocide was committed is to do what Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran says about Israel. That :the Holocaust needs to be investigated".

    The truth is other ethnic groups in Nigeria are envious of Igbos and are scared of Igbo domination even up till today. They make side comments like "Igbos love money, & will do anything for money" etc. Igbos are industrious, and rebuilt Igbo land without Government help. Igbos are type A, and are pure hustlers whether it's education or doing business. African Americans are still claiming they are suffering the effects of slavery 400 years later and that slavery is still slowing down their progress.

    Awolowo did what he felt he had to do to subjugate the race and keep them down. This was an economic and political solution. Everyone of them was scared of Igbo domination.

    In Northern Nigeria, Igbos and middle belters are slaughtered anytime something went wrong in the muslim world. This has been going on for the past 25 years. Case in point the Miss World controversy where some silly journalist stated Mohammed would not be upset Nigeria is hosting the event, and that he will even chose a wife from the contestants. Muslim Terrorists up North went wild and started killing Christians mostly Igbos, The State Governors and Muslim clerics will come out, give their silly speech about Islam being a religion of peace, & then nothing comes out of it. The killers are not prosecuted, and everything dies down to the next round of violence.

    However, they are doing it to themselves now, isn't Boko Haram targeting mostly Northerners, when they blow up Maiduguri, are they targeting Igbos? they recently killed Retired General Shuwa, now all the State Governors & Senators are scrambling to find a solution, because economic activities in the North have come to a standstill, at a precarious time when power has shifted to the South.

  6. Interesting, passionate comments. But most of you missed the point of this review. Or a review in general. I believe Femke reviewed this book based on the facts presented therein. It's not an attempt to correct Mr Achebe. Rather, it's an effort to dispassionately critique what he wrote. If you see things that way, you would realise that Femke did a terrific job here.

  7. @Donald..,u are spot on! I will also like to remind u that there was bad blood in the land!!There was a Coup that went bad and it led to everybody protecting their interests!! Also,there have been a lot of lies about BIAFRA!!OJUKWU,AWO ,GOWON…,were just characters that inherited this problem! The fact remains there was bad blood. Every region can defend its self as to who's guilty,but all characters were guilty and greedy for power!That's Fact! Its regrettable what happened in the north where 200,000 Innocent Igbos were slaughtered!Ojukwu had no other choice but to ask Igbos to come home!That's very logical!! What most people fail to realize is..,Amadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa were not not just the two major political leaders in the North,they were INSTITUTIONS!!so,when Nzegwu killed them like a goat and went on a killing spree on other ethnic leaders,exempting his kins men..!!lol .Meanwhile,ZIK,an Igbo man and President of Nigeria,was on an extended vacation of the west Indies when the killings persisted!He came back days after the killings. Please,how co-incident can that be??!!Also,Ironsi took over and did nothing the coup plotters!!!So,the whole coup thing was seen as an "IBO COUP"!!I wasn't born then,but for the little I know of Africans..,we had native intelligence! Like I said earlier..,there are too many lies about BIAFRA!!what was true is the fact that everybody wanted power!! Also,its on record that Ojukwu refused food channel by road,bcus FGN refused all foreign Aid to Biafra by Air,because the French government was using the avenue to smuggle in arms for Biafra. FACT!! Ojukwu was more concerned about the story of Biafra on the international media and he succeeded!!what do u expect when you have Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi as your chief propagandists???lol. The truth is..,Biafra wasn't ready for war!!FACT!!Ojukwu killed Igbo Generals who warned him against war against FGN!FACT. AWO went to Enugu to plead with him,but it seem Ojukwu had a bigger plan!! Don't blame AWO for changing the currency ;you can't allow your enemy to use your currency to buy arms to fight against you! That's just logical. Lastly,its important to ascertain the fact that a lot of secrets still kept Classified!! FaCT.

  8. @Donald..,u are spot on! I will also like to remind u that there was bad blood in the land!!There was a Coup that went bad and it led to everybody protecting their interests!! Also,there have been a lot of lies about BIAFRA!!OJUKWU,AWO ,GOWON…,were just characters that inherited this problem! The fact remains there was bad blood. Every region can defend its self as to who's guilty,but all characters were greedy for power!That's Fact! Its regrettable what happened in the north where 200,000 Innocent Igbos were slaughtered!Ojukwu had no other choice but to ask Igbos to come home!That's very logical!! What most people fail to realize is..,Amadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa were not not just the two major political leaders in the North,they were INSTITUTIONS!!so,when Nzegwu killed them like a goat and went on a killing spree on other ethnic leaders,exempting his kins men..!!lol .Meanwhile,ZIK,an Igbo man and President of Nigeria,was on an extended vacation of the west Indies when the killings persisted!He came back days after the killings. Please,how co-incident can that be??!!Also,Ironsi took over and did nothing the coup plotters!!!So,the whole coup thing was seen as an "IBO COUP"!!I wasn't born then,but for the little I know of Africans..,we had native intelligence! Like I said earlier..,there are too many lies about BIAFRA!!what was true is the fact that everybody wanted power!! Also,its on record that Ojukwu refused food channel by road,bcus FGN refused all foreign Aid to Biafra by Air,because the French government was using the avenue to smuggle in arms for Biafra. FACT!! Ojukwu was more concerned about the story of Biafra on the international media and he succeeded!!what do u expect when you have Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi as your chief propagandists???lol. The truth is..,Biafra wasn't ready for war!!FACT!!Ojukwu killed Igbo Generals who warned him against war against FGN!FACT. AWO went to Enugu to plead with him,but it seem Ojukwu had a bigger plan!! Lastly,its important to accertain the fact that a lot of fact are still kept Classified!!lo FaCT.

  9. I meant @danlad.

  10. @Donald. You are spot on. Femke writes great. But this review appears weak to me. And I understand. It's an outside review which I respect. I will continue to love Femke for her great writing.

  11. I don't like this review.

    Achebe was there, Achebe was a Biafran Diplomat. His job was to fly over the world and get support for Biafra. What other primary source do you need?

    The Nigerians committed genocide & still do. Google Asaba massacre, then fast forward to modern days, Google Odi, Google Zaki-Biam & see what Obasanjo did there, Check out what the government does to innocent civilians caught up in Boko Haram's strongholds.

    You stated:{{The term genocide implies intent from the perpetrator to destroy a certain group of people. Intent here is the key word: it has to concern an organised and premeditated scheme for destruction. This intent can be proven directly, from orders or plans, or indirectly by pointing out a certain systematic pattern of coordinated acts}}

    Then tell me why the Nigerian government refused to give back property that was abandoned in Lagos by the Igbos when they felt unsafe and ran for their lives. Ask why trade in second hand clothes was banned. Igbos dominated in that trade? Ask why the Nigerian Government felt the need to reduce every Igbo man's account to 20 pounds. Imagine having millions in the bank and then being reduced to 20 dollars. A lot of rich Igbo men died as a result. Isn't this financial genocide?

    Awolowo was finance minister, if you think he had nothing to do with this diabolical scheme then you don't know how powerful a finance minister can be. Look at Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Every major decision Nigeria takes today, she is involved.

    I leave you with the words of Wole Soyinka

    "Writing in certain environments carries with it an occupational risk. When I was imprisoned, without trial, it was as a result of a position I took as a citizen. Of course I used my weapon, which was writing, to express my disapproval of the [Biafran] civil war into which we were about to enter. These were people who’d been abused, who’d undergone GENOCIDE, and who felt completely rejected by the rest of the community, and therefore decided to break away and form a nation of its own".

    I don't expect you to understand the idiosyncrasies about the war, but Achebe was there. The only other folks that know what happened are Gowon, Obasanjo, Danjuma, and one day, they are going to talk.

    Yorubas are taught to worship Awolowo, and they are the ones who are telling you your review is nice & balanced because it fits their world view.

  12. Achebe is a primary source; thus, he does not need to be a historian to tell the story of Biafra.

cool good eh love2 cute confused notgood numb disgusting fail