Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was a Country, recalls his personal experience and reflection on the Biafran War of 1967-1970. Beginning with a personal account of his childhood and education in colonial Nigeria, Achebe describes steps leading to Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and the eventual descent to civil war in 1967.
When a new nation begins, the hopes, dreams and aspirations of many are held in the balance. Everyone, young and old, educated and illiterate has their idea of what their new nation should be like and Nigeria at that time had some much going for it, so much in it’s favour. But sadly after independence, mismanagement, corruption and tribal rivalries took over. And like many, Achebe’s dream or vision of a post-colonial Nigeria began to fade, but even in his description of the events after the military coups and during the relentless and brutal persecution of the Igbo tribe to which he himself belonged, there appears to be a faint glimmer of hope for change. That with the right kind of leadership, Nigeria would flourish as it was supposed to, the violence would stop and things would return to normal. But it was not to be.
The secession of of the peoples (mainly Igbo) in the Eastern region of Nigeria to form the nation of Biafra was to herald a new life for the Igbo people. If their Nigerian brethren wanted rid of them, then there was no other option but to protect their own, govern themselves and start over. Led by C. Odemegwu Ojukwu, the new nation entered into a brutal and protracted civil war with Nigeria, led by General Yakubu Gowon. Achebe at that time already an established and respected author, acted as a cultural ambassador for Biafran, travelling far and wide to get much needed support for Biafra from her fellow African neighbours and the West.
When describing the events leading to and during the war, there is a change in Achebe’s narrative voice. From a very personal and genial account of his earlier life, he now takes on the voice of a reporter, telling the reader the facts as he saw them. At times it is hard to gauge what he himself really thought and his accounts of the several times when he and/or his family were nearly killed only scratch the surface of what was clearly a horrific time to be living in. But in as much as this could be a criticism, it is also a strength of the book because what Achebe fails to or cannot not bring himself to write about in depth serves to highlight the trauma that he suffered, and is still suffering. Let’s not forget that the Nigerian-Biafran war ended only 42 years ago, so it’s no wonder that the memories of the horror is still fresh in the minds of those who lived through it. Furthermore, given that ethnic violence continues regularly in Nigeria, the threat of another civil war cannot be too far from people’s minds even if they do not acknowledge it.
There Was a Country, serves to remind us of the past, of the mistakes made and attempts to explore how a country, a nation can perhaps move forward to it’s destiny, if only it’s people are willing to ask the hard questions, acknowledge the mistakes and make the necessary changes. Strangely, after reading of the horror of listless, starving babies, military atrocities, and wondering how anyone could possibly survive such things let alone be able to write about it. I was left with Achebe’s abiding sense of hope, not just for Nigeria but for all African nations that they would once again flourish, economically, politically and culturally without resorting to its own destruction to achieve its goal.