Ken Wiwa reviews Chinua Achebe’s ‘There was a country’

by Ken Wiwa

“…I had to be careful about the way I handled someone else’s words or opinions… Even when there was strong disagreement, one had to remember to be discordant with respect.”

Early in this long-awaited memoir of the Nigerian Civil War, Chinua Achebe, Nigeria’s most famous and respected writer, recalls a conversation between himself, his future father-in-law, T.C. Okoli, and Christie, his future bride. “In the course of the conversation he [Okoli] missed something Christie said and asked for clarification. … I responded by saying jestfully in Igbo: ‘Don’t mind her…wagging her jaw…’”

“T.C. Okoli sat up and rebuked me. He said: ‘Don’t say or imply what someone else has to say, or is saying is not worth listening to.’”

Achebe recalls that the rebuke “immediately struck me that I had to be careful about the way I handled someone else’s words or opinions. … Even when there was strong disagreement, one had to remember to be discordant with respect.”

In a country where ethnic waters run deep, Achebe has, for most of a long and distinguished life in the public eye, navigated the turbulent channels of Nigerian politics and literature with just such respect, as well as the passion of a master storyteller. A firm advocate of the “balance of stories,” he avers that writing is “a moral obligation.” He has strived to tell “the African story from an African perspective – in full earshot of the world.”

Achebe’s most famous work, the 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, is a testament to that ambition. It has sold 10 million copies and and is an important reference point for the African proverb that, until the lion tells his story, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

There Was A Country is a lion’s story of the Nigerian Civil War, a provocative memoir from the victim’s point of view of an ugly conflict that claimed up to three million lives – mostly from disease and starvation, and mostly Igbos.

The Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) broke out seven years after independence from Britain. In a country of 80 million with 250 ethnic groups, tensions between the three largest groups – Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba – already problematic, erupted after the Igbo of Eastern Nigeria seceded from the nascent republic, proclaiming the Republic of Biafra.

Nigeria’s independence came not as a result of an armed struggle, but as Great Britain increasingly came to recognize the will of Nigerians, among whom the Igbos, with a culture Achebe says was “receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive,” were prominent.

Achebe admits, though, that the “Igbo as a group are not without their flaws. Their success can and did carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, that can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness.”

This venture into ethnography sets up what turns out to be a withering J’accuse that fingers the international community and some eminent Nigerians for genocide against his people.

The Nigerian Civil War is often remembered as the first television war, bringing, as it did, images of starving children into Western living rooms. But despite the now infamous images that drew worldwide protests, Achebe notes that the United Nations refused to act. In an impassioned section, he also makes “the case against the Nigerian Government,” accusing Yoruba chieftain Obafemi Awolowo as the architect of a deliberate policy of starvation.

Achebe’s observations have been vigorously challenged by mostly Yoruba supporters of the late Awolowo in the highly polemical pages of Nigeria’s media. Few will deny that the Igbos were victimized before, during and in the immediate aftermath of the war – Achebe was himself a personal witness to the suffering of his people as he movingly recalls in this account and the war ended with the famously magnanimous insistence by Nigeria’s military ruler General Gowon that there would be “no victor, no vanquished.”

In retrospect, that philosophy elegantly sidestepped the need to address simmering grievances on all sides. A part of me, the post-civil-war-generation part, wishes Achebe had not stirred up wounds that the passage of time has yet to fully heal. But as a national figure who played a prominent role as a Biafran ambassador, confidant to the charismatic Igbo leader General Ojukwu, Achebe’s story needed to be told. His perspective is an important addition to what remains an unsettling but incomplete chapter in Nigeria’s history.

While Achebe sets out the case for the prosecution, he does not suggest remedies, reparations or reconciliation. That is surprising since it is on this enduring, elusive project of reconciling Nigeria’s past with its future that his persuasive humanity has always been most inspiring.

There Was A Country is a memoir of the Nigerian Civil War in four parts. The pre-war section is testimony to the immense promise of a Nigeria that would soon be disfigured by greed and war. The later parts, however, covering the postwar years, read like an afterthought, with broad-brush ruminations on contemporary Nigeria that end with an abrupt elegy to Nelson Mandela.

Still, as his father-in-law would no doubt observe, Chinua Achebe is no ordinary man and whatever he says is always worth listening to.

This book review was originally published in The Globe and Mail.


Ken Wiwa is a writer and journalist. He currently serves as a senior special assistant to President Goodluck Jonathan.


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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