Oria Iyayi: Was this a country?

by Oria Iyayi

We do not teach the War in our schools, most times we act like it never happened.

I never witnessed events of the Civil War having been born about a decade after the last shot in anger had been fired. I heard some accounts of the war from various people.

I heard how it was important to be able to speak one’s own native tongue so as to establish that one didn’t belong to the enemy. A friend of my father told me he witnessed two Igbo friends of his get killed by a Hausa soldier after the Mid-West Region was liberated from the Biafran forces. His cry of horror brought his presence to the attention of the soldier, and he only escaped joining his recently departed friends because an officer showed up and rebuked and disarmed the soldier just before he pulled the trigger.

Apart from these stories, we do not have a clear, coherent account of what transpired. We do not teach the War in our schools, most times we act like it never happened. All my Social Studies books seemed to have to say on the subject was, “We fought a war from 1967-1970. Nigeria won. No Victor, No Vanquished. The end.”

Americans, by contrast, have written countless books on the American Civil War.
Movies have been made telling events from both sides of that war. They haven’t tried to forget that there was a time when brother turned on brother and neighbours went to war. Their civil war history is not missing from the pages of their school books.

Accordingly, the news that Chinua Achebe had written an account of the Nigerian Civil War, titled “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra” was received with great enthusiasm. Achebe, an African intellectual and literary titan, witnessed events first-hand from the Biafran side of the conflict, having held various posts in the Ojukwu-led Biafran government.

When the book came out, it immediately received praise in some quarters, opprobrium in others. Replies were written, rejoinders were written to replies, articles of all flavours flooded the newspapers and internet. A four part series by Odia Ofeimun titled “Awolowo and the Forgotten Documents of the Civil War” saw the internationally respected poet take Achebe to task and receive the sort of abuse not even reserved for the most egregious looters of the public till.

I was fortunate to stumble across a copy of the book recently, and hardly put it down until I finished it. It is indeed an absorbing read, benefitting immensely from Achebe’s inimitable prose and command of language. He tells us about himself, and gives an account of events from the first coup d’état in 1966 to the pogroms which saw Ndigbo flee Northern Nigeria, to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra. He narrowly escaped death numerous times, and it is almost unbelievable that he and his family did in fact survive the war intact despite his position in the Biafran government and importance to the short-lived Igbo nation.

Sadly, the book is not the objective account of the war which many have craved.
Pretty early on, Achebe begins to take some rather amazing liberties with the truth, not least in his jaw-dropping assertion that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was the “father of African independence.” That this claim totally ignores the irreplaceable contribution of Herbert Macaulay to the independence movement is cringe worthy in the extreme. Herbert Macaulay founded the first Nigerian political party, and proceeded to win election after election. The fact that Herbert Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) together and Macaulay was its first President somehow totally escaped Achebe’s notice!

In fact, leadership of the NCNC only passed to Azikiwe following the death of Macaulay in

Obafemi Awolowo is portrayed as a tribalist who was terrified of Igbo political might.
Even my forebears in the Mid West were not spared, as I got to read that we too were so terrified of creeping Igbo influence that we banded with the Western Region to halt the glorious Igbo nation in its tracks. This in turn, ignores the fact that until this day, the Obi of Onitsha cannot be crowned without the representative of the Oba of Benin being present, or that administratively, Asaba was under the Benin province until Delta state was created and, thanks to the influence of the then First Lady, Asaba was named as the capital of the new state, to the consternation of Warri. The idea that Mid Westerners would be scared of the Igbo is so absurd that I actually guffawed when I read that particular piece of literary ingenuity.

General Ojukwu, the leader of the Biafran revolt, is portrayed as this hero of his people, a man deeply consumed with concern for their welfare. Despite this rosetinted view of the man, Achebe inadvertently lets slip a few things. For instance, during the economic blockade of Biafra, and with images of starving Biafran children flooding the international media, Gowon offered to allow supervised relief convoys into Biafra. Ojukwu refused and chose additional air lifts of food instead. His reasoning was that the Nigerian troops would poison the food, and Achebe applauds this decision because that’s what all Biafrans felt! The fact that there were several things wrong with that decision doesn’t even enter the great man’s account. Off the top of my head, it is glaringly obvious that poisoning relief supplies would severely damage the credibility of the Federal Government, and probably lead to increased pressure on the United Nations to actually step in. Indeed, my Machiavellian side would suggest Ojukwu poison the food himself and blame Gowon. Nobody would believe Gowon didn’t order such a thing no matter how hard he denied it.

Achebe’s account of the invasion of the Mid West Region by the Biafrans was similarly lacking in any sort of objective analysis. By his own account, the Biafran troops numbered about 1000, and swarmed into Benin in an assortment of lorries and trucks, with a Peugeot 404 as their command vehicle! He describes them as not even having uniforms. Victor Banjo, the Commander of this “army” was then expected to immediately march on Lagos. His hesitation to carry out what was undoubtedly a suicide mission due to the presence of then Lieutenant Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo’s federal troops would lead to Banjo’s court-martial by Ojukwu for “treason” and “plotting to overthrow the government” and his execution. Achebe then, stunningly, dismisses atrocities committed by the Biafran troops in Benin because there was “no evidence of genocide.”

His recounting of the reasons for his refusal to publish the manuscript of Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the leaders of the January 1966 coup was for me a major low point of the book. Here he was with a chance to publish a first-hand account of one of the seminal events in the country’s history, and he refused because he felt Ifeajuna built himself up as the hero of the tale. He also helpfully remembers that the final nail in the coffin of the manuscript was being told by Christopher Okigbo that Major Kaduna Nzeogwu considered the Ifeajuna manuscript to be a bunch of “lies”. He then says he regrets not publishing the manuscript regardless of his misgivings. Surely, the responsible thing to do would have been to publish the manuscript and then ask Major Nzeogwu to tell his side of the story?

Somewhere in their accounts, a clearer picture of the events of the January 15, 1966 would have emerged. Indeed, the fact that publishers abroad turned down the Ifeajuna manuscript because they were scared it was too incendiary and it has since vanished from public view is proof of the fact that Achebe committed a serious blunder, and all because his great friend, Christopher Okigbo, admired and respected Nzeogwu.

It is also quite telling that despite his best attempts, some facts about Ojukwu’s character cannot help but slip out. For instance, he recounts that when he was asked by Ojukwu to head the National Guidance Committee and that the Committee was to report directly to him, he was apprehensive because he felt that Ojukwu wanted to hold on to the organs of power, but despite this realisation that he was working under a dictator, he went ahead and formed the Committee anyway! Is this the great Igbo “democratic spirit” that he hailed constantly in the book?

Another inadvertent revelation which can be gleaned from reading between the lines is that Ojukwu deeply resented the fact that Gowon, despite being junior to him in rank and age, had been chosen as head of state after the Northern officers-led counter coup. He states that one of Ojukwu’s positions at the much-vaunted Aburi conference was that he did not recognise Gowon’s leadership of the Federal Government. It thus becomes clear that ego played a huge part in Ojukwu’s decisions and no doubt clouded his judgment. Not that Achebe saw anything wrong with that, oh no.

Achebe then goes on to deliver what I consider to be the ultimate knock-out punch to any notion that “There Was a Country” is anything other than a painstakingly assembled propaganda piece. We are all aware of the crisis that engulfed Anambra state when Governor Chris Ngige was abducted and locked in a toilet. Achebe points the finger of blame (rightly) at the Federal Government, then says that it was due to then President Obasanjo’s deep resentment of the Igbo people, stemming from the Civil War, that led him to endorse the events in Anambra. Achebe blithely ignores the fact that it was actually two Igbo men, the Uba brothers, who were responsible for that particular hot mess. And he also ignores the fact that it was Tafa Balogun, a Yoruba Inspector-General of Police, who got the Governor rescued and restored to office. He also fails to lambast Ngige for signing an undated resignation letter and handing it to the Uba brothers, for such was his desperation to become the Governor of the state. That the hand of the Obasanjo administration was shamefully evident in that crisis was due to the brand of “politics” being practiced in Nigeria, and not some residual hatred of Ndigbo.

All told, “There Was a Country” turned out to be a bitter disappointment. While I expected that some events would be airbrushed, I was totally unprepared for the sheer magnitude of pure propaganda it contained. Indeed, for someone who took the view that Ifeajuna’s account of a coup was full of lies, Achebe certainly dished out more than his fair share in his account of the Civil War. If one takes his view as fair and accurate, one would be forced to conclude that Nigeria owed her independence entirely to the Igbo, and that all other ethnicities were murderously jealous of the accomplishments of Ndigbo, and resolved to push them out or wipe them out. Indeed, I almost put it down when I read that part about Zik being the father of African independence.

If even greatly respected men like Chinua Achebe can take such egregious pot-shots at history, I seriously doubt that we are ever going to find out the truth about the events of 1967-1970.



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 (4)

  1. There are always different perspectives to a story and the Biafran story cannot be an exception. Achebe has told his storyas he experienced as perceived it and that is that. If you ask me, Achebe has once again distinguished himself for being honest and courageous enough to tell his story and set the tone for further discourse on the subject (at least this piece is one such fine examples) Let others tell their story and from the midst of all the stroies those of us who were yet to be born would begin to sieve the wheat from the chaff and like a jigsaw construct our own story.The truth be told, the problem lies more on the ominous silence on the subject than a search for the true account of events.

  2. I indulged in the book not as a true representation of historic facts but rather as pure fiction. To me, Achebe's narrative in some parts appeared to be lacking in objectivity and entirely inaccurate. How can Nzeogwu be referred to as a "Hausa" man just because he was born and bred in the North.

    1. How can't he be referred to as a Hausa man? Anyhow, Achebe clearly states that it is his personal story;his views. There is no obligation for anyone to align with it. For the records, I do.

  3. I felt exactly the same way when I read the book. I was actually apprehensive about reading it given all the commentaries I had read beforehand. Unfortunately, it did nothing to calm my apprehensions.

    It didn't move the discuss forward. I agree with Achebe's call for a return to meritocracy in Nigeria but disagree with the attempt to airbrush the Ibos as the only meritorious ethnic group in Nigeria.

    Nice review

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