By McPhilips Nwachukwu
There Was A Country… A Personal History of Biafra by world literary icon, Chinua Achebe is no doubt, another tour de force from the master story teller, who in 1958 through the publication of his classic narrative; Things Fall Apart inaugurated the birth of what is today known as African literature. Besides being the mother and midwife of modern African literature according African American novelist, Michael Thelwel, Achebe is also an important essayist, poet, social commentator and cultural archivist.
In the course of his writing, his efforts at envisioning an imagined continent of peace and freedom have often times resulted in controversies, sometimes, life threatening controversies. Some of such instances were during the publication of his third novel, Man of The People, a 1966 publication that predicted military take over in post independent Nigeria.
As a social commentator, Achebe in 1983 published in a 68 page controversial book of essays aptly titled, The Trouble With Nigeria, where he takes time to asses the challenges that face post civil war Nigeria in all facets of life.
In that small, but unsettling book, he concludes that the trouble with Nigeria bothers on failure of leadership. In one of the essays titled, “Where the Problem Lies”, he argue: ‘ The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.”
These few instances are pointers to any reader about the luminal and impressionistic latitude of Achebe’s imagination as writer and social fighter. It is therefore not surprising that his recently published book also impressively follows Achebean tradition of narrativisation.
333 pages There Was A Country… , a very long awaited book from Achebe is an autobiography which tells the story of a nation through the history of one man. This autobiographical imagination through the writer’s judicious crafting therefore becomes a centre of connections and interconnections with Nigerian history.
Written in four parts with an appendix, the book in Achebe’s artistic style begins with an Igbo proverb, which says that “ a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” It is this statement that shapes the tone and character of the entire book.
It is through this proverbial vehicle that Achebe in his four part book revisits the story of life as a writer of confluence of history, colonial education, post colonial Nigeria, civil war, birth of Biafra, refugee and genocide.
Also from the hindsight of his tory, There Was A Country traces the dilemma of Nigeria from the pre-colonial Nigeria through nationalistic days, independence and post independence era. However, the well annotated book devotes a large part of its discourse to the regrettable 30 months civil war that gave birth to the defunct Biafra republic.
The story of Biafra in this book is very important because the Biafra/ Nigerian civil war remains the most important historical event in Africa in the last century. The human crises that it caused and the ethnic politicking that spiced the prosecution of the war left in its wake an injurious relationship among constituting tribes in the now amalgamated Nigeria many years after the war.
The account of the war provided in this book comes from Achebe as a witness and principal player in the war. Not a witness as a field soldier, but worked closely with Biafran government as an envoy. As an envoys, he tells in this book about the effort of Biafran government to get the support of the international community in her fight against what was seen as genocidal war being waged against the Igbo by the Nigerian state.
The book traces how Biafra prosecuted her side of fratricidal war, almost empty handed and how in the face of economic blockade imposed by the Gowon led military government evolves its own home grown technologies with which it manufactured its own military hardware , refined its own crude oil and built its own airport.
As painful as Achebe’s narrativization of the Biafran war sounds, it, however reveals one important truth: that Nigeria can do all things likewise Africa, if they can only infuse in the system the Biafran spirit. I think it is this line of reasoning that informed the publication of Arthur Nwankwo’s book some years ego titled; Nigeria: The Challenge of Biafra.
Achebe’s account of the war, though familiar in many ways with all the other stories about the war told by other writers has a lot to educate Nigeria and indeed Africa about how to harness human resources for effective human and infrastructural development.
Biafra, according to Achebe’s account, though lost the war, but made remarkable achievements through the innovative and imaginative creativity of its intellectuals. The book, therefore, underscores the importance of education as a critical factor in development.
The Biafran war was according to book’s account guided by sound intellectuals and conceptualized by these intellectuals in an ideological document, which became the Ahiara declaration. It was that ideological road map that formed the spirit and character of envisioned Biafra republic.
There Was A Country … will no doubt raise another controversy. But that will not be surprising. After all names are mentioned about the roles of certain individuals, dead and living, who played one role or the other to heighten or abate the crises. But the story must be told and Achebe has told his own side to activate national debate.
This important narrative is a delight to read. Besides being spiced up with poetry, it is also full of humor in the manner of Achebe with which he tones down the pains and emotion being raised by this unsettling account. Interestingly too, the book has a lot of footnotes and citations to which the reader can refer to, further insights and clarifications. There is no doubt that the import of this book will resonate for a long time.