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. A reaction to the past or the present or the present based on the past? Only the prof can say. But we mustn’t shy away from the fact that the Igbos have been marginalized.

  2. Interesting review. “What is worrisome is that 45 years after this war, it is difficult to know who exactly Achebe’s audience is:” That is quite ironic given the depth of divisions within Nigeria and amongst those on the outside who pay attention to Nigeria. I didn’t get the sense that Adichie whole heartedly embraced, Achebe’s book, In fact, she clearly states: “In writing about the major events, Achebe often recounts what he was told rather than what he felt and the reader is left with a nagging dissatisfaction, as though things are being left unsaid. “. I am not widely read on Achebe, but I have read a few of his books and certainly one of the things that remains for me is that in his particular way of narrrating, he doesn’t just lay things out in a flashy matter -of-fact way. There is a story to be told, often rich with ,metaphore. There are divergent opinions on any war, and Achebe, in his typical fashion, appears (I have not read the book) will leave people questioning and scratching thier heads, another thing that he seems quite adept at. Is their a definative narrative on the Biafran war? Most people who study African history and politics will agree that colonialism is responsible for the under-development and conflicts across the continent. What they agree on beyond that is up for grabs.

  3. I disagree with all of Jumoke’s arguments. They all miss the point and in the end the effect is to discredit Achebe without providing any evidence contrary to his, which to me seems like a troubling denialism.

    A memoir is always a construction and is always political and invested, so when it is written is moot. This is not the grounds to discredit it. Many authors write memoirs and biographies in their old age. Secondly if Achebe has written his perspective and people respond with inflammatory comments online, how is he to blame? Nigerian newspapers and other similar sites need to be better moderated. The comments are always inciting ethnic and religious hatred.

    And if Alex Ekwueme supported Awolowo’s actions, what does this have to do with Achebe or how does it discredit Achebe’s perspective? Can Igbo men not disagree about issues affecting Igbo people, and can we as critical readers not reach our own conclusions. If Awolowo did sanction the use of starvation in the war, then I personally think he was morally wrong. I am a Yoruba woman for the record. We need to have honest conversations in Nigeria and we also need to stop deifying our leaders. None have been blameless.

      • War or genocide? At the end of the day, we must remember that up to three million Igbos died in this war – mostly civilians. And we are not talking of some event in the distant past. Among us walk survivors of this war and families upon families can recount their losses. In my family, both of my parents lost siblings and my uncle, was conscripted as a child soldier. I had family members who worked for multinationals before the war with thousands of pounds in their account before the start of the war. And then, as Ekwueme describes, through Awolowo’s fiscal discipline, it disappears. Formerly well-to-do Igbos were then left with a mere twenty pounds. Again, people who are walking among us today – not ancient history.
        Shared morals dictate that starving women and children is wrong – regardless of whether you are in war or not. Shared morals dictate that rather than dismissing a discussion of the civil war as “Igbo propaganda,” basic courtesy would dictate that you sympathize. And if you have nothing good to say, just keep quiet. When I hear of people dismissing the horrors of the civil war as something that is remote history, I cringe. I would say it is akin to how Jews feel about Holocaust deniers. Honestly, I am filled with disgust. I am very much pro-Nigeria, and I love her, all of her. But every now and again, I must admit that I nurse some bit of rage when I read articles like this, which in some ways, denies the reality of our painful, and recent, past. Honestly, it is only the grace of God that reminds me that anger and hatred only brings you down to the level of the perpetrator and brings you backwards, not forward.
        Again I agree with others that in order to move forward, we need to acknowledge the past. Would it hurt the author of this piece to acknowledge the horrors that were metted out to Igbos, realize that she will never be able to empathize, and simply leave the matter alone for those who are intimately familiar with the tragedy?

      • War or pogrom? Posterity will never forgive you and those that think like you, this country would have been better off if we tell ourselves the truth…

  4. I would have taken this article more seriously were it not for the author’s decision to quote random and useless internet chatter (referring to the “You will never see me in a Yoruba church…”). It goes without saying that with any contentious issue debated over the internet, hotheaded, anonymous individuals will spew words of hate and anger. For every pro-sessionist quote, you can find an anti-Igbo one. Was it not today that we witnessed the horrible burning of UniPort students, in which one of the perpetrators savagely beat the victim telling him that this Igbo boy must die. However, I would not not extrapolate such sentiments to a credible discourse to level-headed non-Igbos.
    I also agree with the writer above that just because Ekwueme sanctioned Awolowo’s inhumane war tactics, does not mean that starvation, as a weapons of war, is legitimate. In fact, I would go as far to say that the authors is almost trying to legitimize the starvation of the Biafrans with this quote. I would expect that any member of a sane society would unapolgetically condemn the idea of starvation as a weapon of war.
    We reference and discuss wars as far back as ancient times – why should it be any different for a modern day discussion of Biafra? It is especially pertinent to present-day discussions seeing that we are embroiled in a number of ethnic and religious conflicts in the country. If one does not remember how and when the rain began to beat him, how then can he understand when it stopped and then prevent being drenched in the future?

  5. Daddy don’t let him die!

    How would a three-year-old conceive of death this imaginatively?

    I want to believe that the writer of this piece doesn’t have a child yet.

    My son is barely two years seven months, and I have shushed and warned him on several occasions to stop using words like “I will kill you” and “die”… Is the author saying that a 2-year-old kid who grows up in a place where death has suddenly become commonplace won’t be imaginatively to conceive of death?

    And I am surprised the writer has posed this question:

    if it is possible for Achebe to remain faithful to a forty-five year-old war story?

    If a woman is raped at twenty, will the memory of the rape be romantised? And if she tells her story when she is 80, should we accuse her of amnesiac narration?

    I would advise the writer to be more unbiased and critical whenever she desires to expose her “informed” opinion in public space.

    Good attempt, all the same, but the fact still remains Nigerians are afraid of speaking about the genocide that was Biafra. And if the Igbo people wish to speak about the hurt, no one should strive to silence them. And if we as Nigerians are quick to condemn genocides in other places alien to us why are we afraid of looking each other in the eye and saying, brother, or sister, it is inhuman to starve women and children, no matter what, but let’s move ahead and find ways of averting any future misunderstanding, that in my opinion should be the right thinking and humane thing to do, not raising a storm to say “the memoirist is so old that no verifiable statement can emanate from him.”

    Hmm, Nigerians, will there ever be a united country?


  6. Jumoke, you fall my hand with this review!

    I think it’s high time I stopped thinking highly of all this ”modern day literary geniuses” and social media enhanced writers who have rather overrated opinions about themselves and are wrongly representing the new generation of Nigerians.

    I fall in the same age bracket as Jumoke and am proudly Yoruba too. I hold Obafemi Awolowo in high esteem and was privileged to attend the same primary and secondary school with Oluwole Awolowo’s children. But the fact remains from history that Baba frittered away the chance to have a restructured Nigeria with his support of that most lopsided war in human history which came about by Gowon’s turning back on the agreement dictated by the Aburi Accord that he had rather been well intellectually trounced into accepting by Ojukwu.

    We cant have a Nigeria of our future that would the pride of the black race with all our God given resources if we neglect the past and not allow it to guide us into the future.

    Though I havent read Achebe’s book, I remain his ardent fan having devoured all his books as far back as primary school and know for sure that when such men speak we should listen.

    Just like other countless genocides in the past that have been been denounced, the Biafran war was callously unjust and should never have happened if only common sense sense had prevailed among our past leaders whom one of the commentators above said that we have come to wrongly ”deify”

  7. I agree with Ojuyobo write up,we Nigerians should sometimes reflect with Achebe and Soyinka has said and have been saying. Soyinka went to prison because he spoke the truth about the killings of innocent civilians of Igbo origin,Achebe supported the war because Nigeria wanted to eliminate the ibos and Awolowo,man of high standing,released from jail by Ojukwu should have left Nigeria instead of backing Nigerian army who were trying to eliminate the ibos supported by foreign powers because of oil.The question is,if the Yorubas or the Hausa civilians are been killed because of coup staged by the military, how will any of these ethnic groups take it.Another question since after the Nigerian Biafra war,how many coups has taken place and how many soldiers died,but there was no killing of civilians because the coup plotters are not ibos and the men in uniform that took over power are always hausas.
    Nigeria will remain caused until those that shed the blood of innocent children and pregnant women of ibos ask for forgiveness and cleans the land especially the Northan Nigeria,this is just the begining .

    • Very good point Mohammed. Several coups have happened in Nigeria since the end of the war and none has ever resulted to war. Its funny, The 1966 coup has been called Igbo coup, meanwhile it was a very diverse group of army that saw themselves as revolutionaries that plotted the coup of 1966 to install Awo as the president because they likes his idea. (Awo was not involve in the coup in anyway) If it is an Igbo coup as widely cited, why was it in planned to make Awo the president?
      Its a pity a lot of prominent Yoruba resorted to name calling instead of addressing the content of the book. i got to this article because it says review, but from my knowledge, this artcle is very far from book review. In fact, there is no evidence that the writer has read the complete book but rather picking from internet commentaries.

  8. I laughed when I read that part about the child bending Okigbo’s finger and whether it is possible for a child to imagine death or pain for others. my son is only 16 months old and he also plays this ‘bend-your-finger-then-look-at-your-face-to-see-if-you’re-crying’ game. Frankly, is this writer wasn’t intent on seeing some ‘romanticising’, she probably wouldn’t have noticed that.
    If there was ever a country in which the phrase ‘sweep it all under the carpet’ should be declared a national pastime, it should be my beloved Nigeria. Because we as a nation have never been able to have a conversation involving ethnicity in a rational manner, without it devolving into an emotional battle where everyone protects their burnt out little patch, we are now a nation unraveling. To have a major section of your country still feel, after 45 years and millions of life lost, that there needs to be something said about what happened to them and then to have the reaction to that essentially be, “shut up, you can’t remember what you’re talking about,”…. is it any wonder at the slightest provocation, innocent people are still being killed over the stupidest of things across the country, from religion to alleged stealing of laptops?
    That we can’t see the link between that festering wound and some of the chaos that often erupts in Nigeria is mind-boggling.
    So if I wrote an article about how pretty red roses are, and some idiot on some unmonitored blog decides to use that as a ‘point of contact’, as we say in Nigeria, to talk about how bloody Igbos are (since I’m Igbo and just wrote the phrase, ‘red rose’) I should therefore not talk about red roses again?
    The boil that is the Biafran war hasn’t been lanced, which is why, yes, after 45 years, Achebe would still have pain when he writes about it. And despite much restitution made around the Holocaust (many of it’s perpetrators have gone to jail), people still write and talk about that war.
    Even though I’m Igbo, I’ve never viewed Ojukwu, leader of Biafra, as a hero, as many Igbos do, because of one statement my father made, in one of his many retellings of the particulars of the war. “He took us to war and abandoned us. To me, that made him a coward.” He said it with so much pain. Now if only many others would view Awolowo as a great man who made a morally wrong choice, rather than a deity who must never be spoken ill of, this blow-up would not happen.
    And until we are ready to talk about Nigeria as a construct that needs re-evaluation, we will continue unraveling.

  9. And this is where the problem lies for everyone else. No one is denying the pain of war, but the reason this remains unresolvable 40 years later is the need to tell half-truths in order to bolster one’s own case.

    Offers were made, and they are a matter of record, to ship food to civilians, with the caveat that it be during daylight. This was denied by Ojukwu, who insisted that it be at night. This of course would have allowed the smuggling of arms along with food much easier. So who is really to blame for millions of innocent civilians who starved to death? Any intellectual here want to take a shot at this?

    Secondly, all the assets frozen during the war were returned to the rightful owners, after the war. This is also on record. The trouble came with people who had exchanged their Naira for Biafran currency before the war, and now wanted a 1 to 1 exchange for Naira again, after the war. Obviously, there is no obligation to do so, and this would make absolutely no sense.

    By the way, has an apology being issued for the murder of Sardauna and Balewa? Has any leader expressed regret over the slaying of Akintola?

    • When you quarrel or fight with your colleague, I think the fight should get to your home so that your wife and children can apologize on your be half. Just start from the beginning let’s see who apology should go to!

    • Biodun, I guess with you everything went well and everybody is satisfied. Your justistication is that Ojukwu said it must be at night and that implies that arms will be smuggled. I don’t wish that the table should be turn to hear what you will be singing right now.
      Can some people get up from their high horse and ethnic jaundice and look at this objectively.
      Why not read book and refute anything you think is false with your own truth evidence?

  10. Jumoke went at length to quote some unknown people are writing online against the Yorubas but forget to write some unprintable name some respected yorubas are calling Achebe jst for writing what he feel is the truth. And some ppl reminding Igbos living in lagos that they are strangers.

  11. How amazing that a crop of Yoruba elite chose to dive headlong into a futile defense of the indefensible. Be it amage control effort or a play of the the devil’s advocate or both, and with Femi Fani-Kayode leading the charge, the calculation is belated as the Genie is already out of the bottle. Femi had enough scruples his credit himself with just the ‘I am a historian’ accolade, but he totally lacked the fairness of descent conscience to acknowledge a dramatis persona in the Biafra saga. Chinua Achebe was not in the business of the makeover of history books. He was saying as it was right inside the Biafra enclave, as a principal witnesses of the genocidal orgy. All what transpired were not told him, and Professor Achebe does not need history lessons to educate himself on the Biafra War. One would wish to be saved the this cantankerous “HISTORIAN” with the penchant to go off at the drop of a coin.
    It is quite certain that Achebe critics cannot confidently point to any watershed in Nigeria’s history that sticks out like the sore thumb as the Biafra saga. Yet, it has never occurred to their irrational pinheads to figure out why the history of the Biafra War is missing from our schools’ curriculum? Couldn’t it be more of a design to maintain the cover-up of an abominable evil stench of pogrom, than it is in line with the Nigerian cultural preference for living in denial of our past? In our usual hypocrisy, we pretentiously worry about Rwanda to whom we exported the evil of human massacre. We did not stop with the Central African nation; we extended the practice to Darfur, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Siera Leone, Sri Lanka, you name it? Then, we turn around, laboring to walk away as though the genocide against the Igbo people never happened.
    It is no longer a hushed tone secrete that, under the advisement of perfidious Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Anthony Enahoro, Philip Asiodu, Alison Ayida , Gowon and his henchmen set the Igbo slaughter in high gear.The pattern of distribution of Achebe’s critics is instructive; Ordia Ofeimun, Ebenezer Babatope, Jimoke Verissimo and their like. Verissimo authors a book, “I AM MEMORY”. She may want to be definitive of the boundary line between “MEMORY” and “MEMOIR”. It is perfidy to chronicle the horrific, atrocious holocaust of 1966 through 1970. But, in Fani-Kaode’s warped judgment the Awo treachery in going back on a solemn pledge to declare Oduduwa Republic after Biafra was, in Fani-Kayode’s warped irrationality, a very saintly act. Benjamin Adekunle shot “anything that moved”. For a grown man to choose to be called “Black Scorpion” shows the gutter level of his sadistic mindless disposition. As a people Yorubas cannot be stereotyped with ridiculous myopic of a few ideologues.
    Last Question. How come no advocates line out for Gowon, in the same fanatic zest as they do for Awo? Is Gowon the one and only fall guy? Truth is that Nigeria we talk about is deeply stymied in the quicksand of horrendous diabolical rot. The only reason Nigerians look the other way is because Igbos are the victims of Nigerian killings. For as long as the Nigerian people lack the courage to make an introspective mea culpa for the Igbo pogrom, the evil will continue to follow them around like a bad, nauseating smell.


  12. Hahahah I laugh in spanish cos Nigeria is indeed a country that should never have been. Of course Jumoke is an Awoist and Igbos are Achebeites. U see, d tribalism thing is so deep inside us, education and enlightment hasn’t changed a thing. U shuld read FFK’s blurts, sad! And so Jumoke goes to quote an online funny, dat is just one of numerous rants online. So dis is from a yoruba hater, der r millions too from Igbo haters and hausa haters, dat is we and we are nigerians. Dat quote shudnt have been in dis ur review. And u accuse Achebe of lying abt what a 3yr old said? Well, it is his memoir! My niece was talking perfectly at 15months, she culd recite numbers up to 30 without error and at 2yrs and a half, recite 36states n capital wtout a single error. Yes, a 3yr old can feel n talk abt death unless u hv neva stayed wt children..maybe u stay wt only d dull ones! Der is no time frame or limit for someone to write a memoir, dat Achebe’s memoir came now, in 2012, 45yrs lata doesn’t make d book evil, I think its needed more now. U dnt tell people what to write, every writer shuld be free to write his own story,his own words. I rily don’t get d point of ur review anyway. Yes der culd be internet war, not new,happens all d time,its jus a little fraction of Nigerians dat are internet users, d rest are too hungry to care. Truth: dat war didn’t end, we still fight it everyday, we are not ONE in Nigeria, never have,never might be.

  13. Sim,you belong to the yoruba tribe,yet you put aside ethnic complexes and view this matter without bias and through the cold light of moral scrutiny.You deserve all the respect in the world.God bless you.

  14. Jumoke, this article does not do your any good as a writer or upcoming one, not because of your opinion on Achebe’s book (more prominent Yoruba leaders have displayed worse opinion) but your method of picking internet commentaries. If I have not read this article and see your book I will be tempted to buy it because Nigerians have a very good writing record but now I know better.
    My suggestion is next time if you want to review a book or write an opinion about one, please try and read the book first. A good writer does not necessarily means an intelligent one. It is better to write what you know than to make yourself look very immature and stupid.

  15. What beats my imagination is the pathological inability of the Igbo to differentiate their friends from their enemies within the Nigeria conundrum. Two issues stand out from the literary giant’s war memoir: the Awolowo persona and the Yoruba character. Both unfortunately are interrelated. The only ‘objective’ comment is the one that denigrates and villifies Awolowo regardless of its ludicrousness. While no human is infallible though, one wonders why the heap of the war blame is on Awo and not so much on Gen Gowon who was indeed the Head of State. Is it not a case of giving dog a bad name? Moreso why were his efforts at averting the war not highlighted with gusto as much as his taunted action at ending the war speedily is condemned with passion. I admit wars are bad, we should never pray for it. Even the Bible admonishes never to go into a war without careful considerations and calculations. If truth must be told, Achebe perceives Awolowo as the singular stumbling block to the Biafra Dream, and is therefore, forever unwilling to forgive him. Understandably, no words can be speared in attacking such a person. Let’s go back into the archieves and reproduce events sequentially not a parochial backward reconstructionism. As to the Yoruba character, before, during and since after the war how many Igbo have been hounded down and butchered in any Yoruba area? Unfortunately the Yoruba, despite their hospitality and brotherliness, are perceived as unfriendly. In a scale of culpability for Biafra war crimes, it is Odumegwu Ojukwu first, followed by Yakubu Gowon and lastly Obafemi Awolowo. Anything else is chauvinistic insincerity.

  16. WE have to split up and go our own separate ways ,in the end it will be better for us all and we’ll actually get along better,Nigeria was never by our choice but was enforced by the colonialists,its as senseless as singapore,korea and japan bieng one country,so many different cultures and people with no real possibilty of unity,we either stay together in hell or part and accend to greatness!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s