There Was a Country: Commentary/Review

I apologise for posting this later than I planned to. I tried to do it justice but I’m still not satisfied.

Before you read this, you may want to read my general thoughts on this book here and for more information on Biafra, this website is helpful:

I apologise if this is too long.

There Was a Country is Chinua Achebe’s personal account of the Nigerian civil war which occurred between 1967 to 1970, which till date remains a sensitive subject to Nigerians.  During this war, around 3 million Igbo people and over 100,000 Nigerians died. The book is divided into four parts and poems were used to illustrate it. He starts by talking about his upbringing, his family, his friends, how he met Christie and his literary journey. Part 1 also includes the build up to the civil war. In the second part, he writes about what transpired during the war and the involvement of parties outside Nigeria. The third part is about the final period of the war and its end. Lastly, he finishes by writing about the current state of Nigeria and what it needs to change.

In my opinion, this book could not have come at a better time and is a perfect parting gift. Although short, we get to read about Chinua Achebe’s history direct from the author. I confess that when this book was purchased for me, I was more interested in reading his account of the Biafran war rather than his life preceding it. I enjoyed reading about his life. It did not occur to me that he was involved directly. He was assigned by Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to serve as part of an unofficial envoy which would go abroad to deliver messages to officials, was part of the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF) and was asked to be part of several committees, one of which produced the Ahiara Declaration (the Biafran constitution). If not for this book, I don’t know whether I would have known more about the civil war. It is the reason why I am inspired to learn more about Nigeria’s history.

Chinua Achebe was very smart. His headmaster announced to fellow students taking the entrance examination that he would beat all of them  in every subject. He gained admission to two secondary schools namely, Dennis Memorial (his brother’s alma mater) and Government College,  Umuahia. Famous friends that he went to school with are made mention such as Chike Momah, renowned author, and Christopher Okigbo, famous poet who was a dear friend to the Achebe family. After Government College Umuahia, he went to University College, Ibadan, which was established by the colonial government. He gained a scholarship to study medicine but later changed to study the arts. This caused him to lose his bursary, however, his older brother Augustine Achebe gave him the money to continue his studies. Unlike the situation today, the system enabled him to gain employment soon after graduation. It was later, during an internship at the Nigerian Broadcasting Services (NBS), that he met his wife, Christie Okoli. 2 years after, they were engaged.

Chinua Achebe’s journey to becoming an author was interesting. If not for fate, we may have missed out on the great author’s literary works. When the manuscript for Things Fall Apart had finally been written, it was sent off to London to a typing agency to be produced (no copies had been made). It became worrying when after sending him acknowledgment of the receipt of his manuscript, he did not hear a word from the agency. Fortunately, the head of his department, Angela  Beattie, went to the agency’s office asking to speak to the manager. The manuscript was duly delivered. It was sent to various publishers. He faced rejection, however, Donald McRae, an executive at Heinemann, encouraged Heinemann to publish the manuscript. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958. It is amazing how fate works.

The great author has managed to offend a group of people with what has been written about Obafemi Awolowo. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the leader of the Action Group, a political party. According to the author, Awolowo was concerned about the domination of the NCNC by the Igbo elite. He was part of General Yakubu Gowon’s cabinet and is alleged to have been driven by personal ambition and the ambition of his Yoruba people. He is also alleged to have been the mind behind the blockade which caused millions of Biafrans to starve. If one should go online, they will find articles, forum posts, videos and etc of those who have been offended. It has practically turned into the war of the Igbos vs the Yorubas which I find ridiculous. It would be better if people were more diplomatic and willing to see the arguments on both sides before reaching their conclusion after all, there are multiple people who are at fault for the civil war. The blame cannot be solely placed on Ojukwu neither can it be placed on Yakubu Gowon and Obafemi Awolowo. The root of the problem in Nigeria is not only corruption. Ethnic rivalry is a key problem also.

He states that the British, well aware of the rich resources they could derive from their colonies, were not willing to give up their colonies. However, Nigeria gaining its independence was inevitable. It wasn’t simple, however, Nigeria did gain its independence. Unfortunately, it did not take long for Nigeria to be rife with corruption including blatant election rigging and the flaunting of wealth by the elite in front of the masses. It was this corruption that would lead to the January 15, 1966, Coup. It was seen as a coup by the Igbos because it was mainly made up of Igbo soldiers and was led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. The details surrounding the coup were unclear, however, it was the story of the coup being “Igbo” that perpetuated the existing tribal tensions including the belief that Igbo people were taking over top positions. According to the author, the coup was used as an excuse to commit crimes against the Igbos. Given the details of the coup, it is not surprising that the Igbos were blamed. The majority of the coup plotters were Igbo and it led to the death of prominent figures including Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, Chief S.I. Akintola, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh and Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Most of those killed were from the North. The coup had been poorly plotted. I don’t believe that the coup was an Igbo coup, however, I can see how it can be perceived as such

It is easy to automatically perceive Chinua Achebe as tribalistic, biased and being untruthful in his account. I am Igbo but I don’t see it as that and that is not me being biased either. He told his version of events. There are multiple sides to a story including the truth. From his writing, one can see that he takes pride in his tribe which is not wrong. He wrote about their achievements in education, social settings, politics and the economy. It was this prosperity that caused tension. This is discussed later on in the commentary/review.

Soldiers went after prominent people like Chinua Achebe. Prior to the coup, he had written a book called ‘A Man of The People’ which “forecast a military group that overthrows a corrupt civilian government.” It was believed that he had something to do with the coup. He and his family were forced to flee. Christie was pregnant at the time. Like many Igbo people, they had to be prepared to flee at any time. He does state that their belongings were permanently in the car boot in case they would have to flee again.

The coup was followed by a counter coup. Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi was the head of state. He did not put the coup plotters on trial and did not do enough to calm the fear of the Northern leaders that Igbo people were trying to dominate. The northern leaders had also been happy with Decree 34 which replaced the federal system of government with a unitary system. Most top ranking Igbo officers including Ironsi lost their lives. To make matters even worse, during the counter coup, pogroms occurred which resulted in mass casualties of mostly Igbo people.

Pogrom= An organised, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group.

Northern youths killed civilians with weapons such as machetes and knives. Thirty thousand civilians died and hundreds were injured. Homes and property were robbed and set on fire. Igbo people living in the North has no choice but to flee. Their place of refuge was the East. The government did not do much to stop the killings. What amazes me is why the Nigerian government did not think that their inactivity would result in the Eastern region wanting its independence. The decision was not made overnight. Had the government done something, it is highly likely that the Eastern region would not have wanted to secede.

A meeting in Aburi, Ghana, failed to resolve matters. Ojukwu began to sever Eastern ties with the rest of Nigeria and eventually declared the Eastern region, Biafra, independent of Nigeria. General Yakubu Gowon’s response was to declare a state of emergency and divide the nation into twelve states. He saw the secession as an “assault on Nigeria’s unity and blatant revenue appropriation”. The pogroms altogether were an assault on Nigeria’s unity. A certain group was being attacked under the notion that the Igbos were taking over. Did he not see this as divisive?

Another key factor in the civil war was foreign involvement. The British were against secession. However, the British people were not happy with the position that Harold Wilson took. The media showed images of the poor state of Biafrans which caused outrage. There were two wars fought. One was the physical war, the other was the media war which Ojukwu was very successful in winning except an issue concerning the safety of foreign oil workers. The French Government made a statement which showed support for Biafrans though it did not recognise it as a secessionist state. The USA was neutral though the Nixon administration did call for hostilities to end. The civil rights community was also against the violence occurring in Nigeria. The Soviet Union provided assistance to the Nigerians due to its interest in the country. The Chinese were on the side of the Biafrans.

The backgrounds of the main actors in the war, Ojukwu and Gowon, were looked into. They were colleagues with distinct backgrounds. Ojukwu came from a rich family, had impressive oratorical skills while Gowon came from a less privileged background and was popular amongst the royals and his colleagues. A question has been raised as to whether they were the right leaders for the war. Did their egos come into play? He writes that their rivalry contributed to the war and neither wanted to look weak. They were also spurred on by advisors who did not encourage them to stop the war.

There are people who place the blame solely on Ojukwu and I don’t agree with this. He was a leader and saw that his people were in need of a solution when the government had failed them. Chinua Achebe believed that the war was inevitable due to the event that preceded it and I agree. He included criticism of Ojukwu by Ralph Uwechue, who wrote that Ojukwu’s mistake was he placed the survival of his leadership ahead of the survival of Biafrans. It is possible to see that in his quest for secession, he failed to declare a ceasefire at several points in time in order to prevent the deaths of many people be it from fighting in the army, being killed by the enemy or starvation. He knew that the army did not have enough weapons. The army moved in a line. If a soldier was killed, the soldier behind him would pick up his gun to fight. There also weren’t enough bullets. On top of that, due to the blockade by the Nigerians, food was prevented from being flown in which resulted in starvation. The Nigerian army on the other hand were supplied with a great amount of weapons to fight. How did Ojukwu think that he was going to win? Should he have left things they way they were just because the Biafra was ill prepared?

The war lasted for 30 months. Though the Biafran army was not as equipped as the Nigerian army and was smaller in size, they managed to hold on much longer than anticipated. Ojukwu escaped while Sir Louis Mbanefo, the Chief Justice, and General Phillip Effiong were left to surrender to Gowon who subsequently made a “no victor, no vanquished” speech. The debate remains whether Ojukwu was a hero or a deserter. I can see the viewpoints of both sides. Though the war had ended, things did not improve for the Igbos. They were left with twenty measly pounds in their account regardless of the deposit and their homes had been taken over amongst other things.

Chinua Achebe ended the book on the state of Nigeria.

“We could no longer pass off this present problem simply to our complicated past and the cold war raging in the background, however significant these factors were. We could not absolve ourselves from the need to take hold of the events of the day and say, Okay we have a difficult past… From today, this is the program we have; let’s look at what we have not done.”

He acknowledges that the road to remedy is not simple. First, Nigeria needs a leader “… with the right kind of character, education, and background.” He writes that Nigeria needs a new election process, needs to do away with its “godfatherism” (a corrupt and archaic practice), open up the system to all Nigerians who choose to vie for presidency and make sure that the electoral body overseeing elections is run by competent and well respected officials who are chosen by a non-partisan group of people. He asks for Great Britain, America and the West to involved more in a positive manner by aiding Africa and not by imposing itself or their selected rulers.

Corruption and terrorism remain the bane of Nigeria’s existence. He argues that unless corruption is made to look unattractive, it will still exist and I agree. Like he states, corruption is made to look rewarding and profitable so it is no wonder that it is easy for people to take such a route.

With the economic instability, social inequalities and corruption, Nigeria has fallen victim to political instability of which terrorism has arisen. He writes that the federal government has always tolerated terrorism as it has “… turned a blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its citizens… with impunity.” I don’t know whether I agree with this but I do agree that terrorism is a product of the ongoing corruption. A current example of impunity is amnesty which was offered to MEND and was a topic of debate on whether to offer it to Boko Haram members.

There Was a Country is such a significant book. Hopefully, this is the last time I will write about the civil war, ethnic tension and other related issues as I have beaten them to death. I would like to reiterate how important it is that we are made aware of our history and use it to correct past mistakes.

I hope that Chinua Achebe rests in perfect peace. He has blessed the world with his writing and it is such a shame that the world has lost such a great mind. His legacy will forever live on.



7 thoughts on “There Was a Country: Commentary/Review

  1. Pingback: There Was a Country: Commentary and Review | NaijaBrit88- Thinking out loud...

  2. I was gonna write a review of the book when I read it last year buy procrastination got the better of me. I found the book fair and I saw achebe as writing his recollection of event. I did not get the controversy surrounding the book. I dont believe achebe was a tribalist and what he wrote about awolowo was his opinion and I cant argue with that. Good book all in all and I say this as a “hausa” boy and an ardent fan of Achebe’s work.

    • I understand. I scrolled down the review when I was editing it and realised I had saved numerous drafts for the past two weeks. It is great to see that you are open to reading his opinion because a lot of people have dismissed it as fantasy from a fiction writer. People may not agree and that’s the good thing as it should spur healthy debates. If a lot of people from all tribes are as open as you to the differing opinions of our history, there’s hope for Nigeria.

      • I’m still working my way through the book to write my own review. With school and work, its been such a slow read, but I will definitely bookmark this page to read it when I have more time 🙂

      • Thank you so much! 🙂 When you write the review, I’ll be sure to read it. It really is a great book! it took me a while to read and review it too. 🙂

  3. I must admit that it took me a few days to read the whole commentary! I was able to get a feel of the entire book from your interesting review. Critics ought to respect the fact that Achebe’s account of events was based on firsthand personal experience, analysis and opinions. As such it should not be taken so personally but used as a historical tool for future generations.
    Thank you for taking the time out to do this as it has also inspired me to re-read Nigeria’s history!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂 I know how it is when I see a long post, it takes me a while or I have to bookmark it and come back to it later on. I’m glad you’re inspired to re-read Nigeria’s history.

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