Chinua Achebe reflects on Biafra, but for whom?

It is a long time already since the Biafran War (1967-1970) to write a memoir, and it makes me wonder how affective Chinua Achebe’s narrative in The Guardian is to his audience. Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra appears to have reopened old wounds and resulted in widespread debate, whether in op-ed columns, on blogs or on social media.

I question, however, if it is possible for Achebe to remain faithful to a forty-five year-old war story? While it is important to account for history for posterity’s sake, when left too long, it might decline in veracity and become romanticised. I found an example in an excerpt of Achebe’s book quoted in the review by writer (and Achebe admirer) Chimamanda Adichie, where Achebe relays the death of his beloved friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo (Achebe has described him on occasion  as “Africa’s greatest modern poet”) to his family:

When I finally got myself home and told my family, my three-year-old son, Ike, screamed: ‘Daddy don’t let him die!’ Ike and Christopher had been special pals. When Christopher came to the house the boy would climb on his knees, seize hold of his fingers and strive with all his power to break them while Christopher would moan in pretended agony. ‘Children are wicked little devils,’ he would say to us over the little fellow’s head, and let out more cries of feigned pain.

I stopped. How would a three-year-old conceive of death this imaginatively? This for me appears to be an affective narration of an adult’s hurtful experience transferred to a child. Is it not possible that other narrations in the story have also been idealised? Interestingly, this “much awaited” book is supposed to be a response to the war, and perhapsto  become a reference point, as there are, in his words: “little relevant literature that helps answer these questions.”

Achebe’s Guardian article, for me, seems to have ended up promoting a self-serving perspective that encourages ethnocentricity. It has furthered ethnic cyber-war on social media and online pages of national newspapers like the The Nation, Punch, and in the Vanguard Newspaper, where a review of the book generated hate comments like:

You will never see me in a Yoruba Church, I don’t care if the pastor’s name is Jesus. This people lie like their father the devil, do you wonder why even the Hausa hates them, is not ironically that despite everything, Hausa’s still find Igbos more credible and trustworthy than Yorubas, even the south-south people can no longer trust this debased Yoruba characters, archtechs of crime and yet like the devil, always accusing others of sin, when they live and dine with the devil everyday. OGBONI-YORUBA MEANS SATAN WITH YORUBA, THE ONLY IGNORANT RACE THAT HAS PATH WITH THE DEVIL IN NIGERIA. (sic)

Some of the comments in The Guardian suggest that Achebe is propagating Igbo propaganda, especially, with his slight on Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who is accused of encouraging starvation during the war with his now infamous quote: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.” Ironically, this action was commended by Alex Ekwueme in a Vanguard article in 2010 as an act that displayed Awolowo as “a prudent manager of human and material resources by maintaining strict fiscal discipline in government spending and equally ensured that the Federal Government did not borrow money to fight the war.”

The Biafran War defined many things about Nigeria’s future. My father once told me that “we stopped being Nigerians after Biafra.” Many Igbos believe they have always been marginalised and were never really a part of the country before the war and even after. The debate on the marginalisation of the Igbo deepens each time the Federal Government is accused of attempting to exterminate Igbos during the Biafra war. Forty-five years since the war, this dirge is again revived in Chinua Achebe’s Guardian contribution.

Perhaps there are those who still see Achebe as a credible source for understanding Nigeria’s history and even that his newly published book would enlighten Nigeria on the ethnic divide since the 1966 war, it is important to note that it is not just the Biafran War that is missing in Nigeria’s school curriculum at this time; history and social studies have for a long time not been taught to students.

What is worrisome is that forty-five years after this war, it is difficult to know who exactly Achebe’s audience is: the Nigerian who lacks history or those with a manipulated history told to them by foreign media and regurgitated by the local media.

* Jumoke Verissimo is the author of I Am Memory. She is a postgraduate student of African Studies (Performance Studies), Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan. Her Twitter handle: @awapointe.

38 thoughts on “Chinua Achebe reflects on Biafra, but for whom?

  1. Yorubaland was not a major player in Biafra and did not consent to, nor participate in Awolowo’s actions.
    Judge him as you will, but to pretend he is the leader of a Yoruba people who have a monarchical structure is nonsense, and to hold all Yorubas accountable for the actions of one man is grossly unfair.
    The history of Biafra and of Awolowo must be told, but to make that the history of all Yorubas is irrational.
    The Igbo coup attempt that began predated Biafra resulted in Yoruba deaths, but you dont see Yoruba people blaming all Igbos for the actions of that man.
    Biafra was a tragedy yorubas were caught in the middle of. Let’s not misrepresent history and create more pain and hate.
    Let each man or woman be accountable for their actions.
    Blaming an entire tribe displays blind prejudice and makes me doubt if Nigeria as an entity was ever going to work.
    as for the book, I will reserve judgement till I read it.

    • Lagos was the Capital City of Nigeria, the Baiafrans did not declare war on the Yorubas neither did the Biafrans declared war against Nigeria. It was Nigeria that fired first shot at Biafra and pursued Biafrans to their Territory, what should the Biafrans do? Sit down and fold their arms and allow the Federal governments with its seat in Lagos to massacre of all them(Biafrans)because Lagos was a Yoruba land? Was the Yorubas not fully involved in waging the war against rejected Biafrans? I am not surprised that the Yorubas who are cowardly helped in the MAIMING and SLAUGHTERING of the Biafran people can never see the light of the day, rather will do whatever it takes to see black and call it white. The Genocide against the Jews by Hitler and took place before that of Biafra, and those who committed that heinous crime are been hunted down till date. Therefore I am of the idea and opinion that whoever that was involved in the massacre of the Biafran people dead or alive must be brought to justice.

  2. The comments here have been quite interesting and it sums up the purpose for which this post was written. Indeed, I have a fair idea of who Prof Chinua Achebe’s audience is now. First, I must correct the impression of many, who are led to believe I did a book review. I don’t think at any point in the post was that implied. An article or book review would entail much more rigour. Since, many of the readings have been done out of context, I would explain what I have done here: I aggregated online reactions to the Guardian article: my point of reference as stated in the beginning; “It is a long time already since the Biafran War (1967-1970) to write a memoir, and it makes me wonder how affective Chinua Achebe’s narrative in The Guardian is to his audience.” This led to me following up reactions from other internet page, and of course form an opinion on a quotation in Chimamanda’s review. (I’m sure it is still alright to review reviews). I believe the conclusion in my post shows the intent of the essay. Perhaps the next time; I’ll balance my internet quotes with a Hausa, Yoruba, Efik and other ethnic groups in Nigeria. Thanks for your views.

  3. One last word Jumoke. I am extremely sorry for the Yoruba folks who without a sober reflection jump into the civil war fray of which they are conspicuously ignorant. They did not deem it fit to give Awo the benefit of the doubts whether there was a compelling reason for his acion. To these self-imagined (Yoruba) online intellectuals, Awo was without brain and without compunction. To them Awo was no more than a rapacious ethnicist and a rabid villainous ambitionist. However I wonder if in their little knowledge of Awo (probably told them by family elders if the had any) they have found any evil machination in him. Thinking that they know better than him, who was in the eye of the war, they asked him to apologise posthumously. They team up with Awo’s sworn enemies (who saw him as the singular stumbling block to their dream) to deal the trecherous Brutus cut on him. What an irony! Meanwhile I challenge Prof Achebe to honestly answer the following questions: Was Awo not in jail when the pogrom (which was an offshoot of the Igbo led coup and the lopsided assassinations) started? Did Awo not, at the risk of his life and against counsels, cross to Biafra to dissuade Ojukwu on the dangerous venture? When the war broke out, did Ojukwu soldiers move to capture northern territory or western/mid western territory? Or is it that Ore in Ondo State and Benin City in Edo were northern towns? Was, Ojukwu’s army not coming to capture Lagos, a Yoruba town? Was any Igbo molested or killed before, during and after the war, even till date? Did Awo not ensure that Igbo property left in Yorubaland was returned to them after the war and due rents collected was paid to the owners? These Yoruba folks that use their left hands to point to their father’s house should tell us what they would do given Awo’s opportunity. – Surrender Yorubaland to prove a point, allow the enemy army to continue feeding first as usual in war, resign and run away with only your family as some Biafrans actually did, etc. Awolowo was not infallible but half truth and selectve presentation is not needful for such emphasis. War is bad, it is always unfortunate and detestable. We can only commiserate with the victims who felt the pinch but not to thoughtlessly and unkindly attack those to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for not allowing us to be further victims. If when there is war next time in Nigeria (God forbid) and the Yoruba and the others are the victims then you will robustly appreciate Awo -the unsung hero. Yoruba ronu.

  4. BTW, it’s worth reading William Wallis’ review of Achebe’s book in The Financial Times (Wallis was for a while FT correspondent in Nigeria, I think):

    The review includes this line:

    “… The price that the Igbos paid was terrible. Several million were killed or died of disease and starvation in what Achebe argues was a genocide orchestrated by the government. Here he reveals the very partisan nature of the book, for example suggesting that a jihadist tendency in the military drove its brutal agenda. He provides no evidence for this claim nor, in all likelihood, is there much to be found.”

  5. What Nigerians ought to learn from Chinua Achebe’s memoir is that there is no need to sweep what happened only forty years ago under the carpet, while the causes of that same tragedy are at the root of the majority of Nigeria’s problems. People should be willing to allow their mistakes ex-rayed and accept their mistakes. Tragedy does not have a tribal mark. There were mistakes on both sides of the conflict and people should be ready to take blames for their actions, and let them affect how they behave today and in the future. I find this review of Achebe’s book by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye quite interesting:

  6. Ayo Sogunro, b sincere for once, achebe was NEVER against yorubas, but against AWOLOWO, truth b told whether he is ur god or not. Biafra did not INVADE ore or thot of attacking lagosians, federal troops were deployed FROM LAGOS D THEN FCT to invade biafra, biafra went defensive and attempted to hold back d fed troops thro ore then to lagos. I dont hate awo but he isnt infallible, his policy on starving biafrans as legitimate is satanic n genocidal. Is it wrong 4 biafrans to decide to b on their own? Why did d fed troops attack first? One nigeria….? Big lie! OIL….SWT CRUDE!

  7. This issue is sensitive. But we can’t afford to discourage the exposure of the bad short days of Biafra.
    Achebe has spoken. Remove the veil of ethnicity to see the truth, at least some truth in his personal memoir.

    I am presently gathering facts for an unbiased archive of all that transpired in the war

  8. Memoirs are memoirs no matter where they are written, who is involved and the like. We must make a consious effort at unbundling loads of sentiments that ha smade us a people that are so retrogressive today. Be that as it may, let us not forget that the write – Achebe is so easy to read…i then wonder why we are at war with ourselves or is he not telling it the way he saw it?

  9. another massacar has startedin the name of boko haram in the north again against the ibos who are xtians.any day ibos get up to defend their dead loved ones then yorubas will write bad about the ibos.please yorubas write about the hausas now

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