There Was A Country, is a book that chronicles the personal reflections of Chinua Achebe on the history of the Nigeria-Biafra war. He lays bare his thoughts, regrets, assertions and introspections both as a scholar, a political player and a patriot. Replete with academic citations, personal recollections, historical corroborations and newspaper testimonials, this book is no doubt a rich spring of knowledge on this subject matter.
He decries the Biafran war as that one cataclysmic event that changed Nigeria, once a land of great hope and progress, a nation teeming with immense resources both natural and human, forever. He begins this beautiful, richly academic book with the story of his own coming of age. His father was born in the last third of the 19th century during an era of great cultural, economic, and religious upheaval in Igbo land. With his parents deceased, he was raised by his maternal uncle Udoh. As providence would have it, it was udoh who would receive in his compound the first party of English clergy in his town. His father, Achebe, would soon, with vigour, imbibe the new religion, later on becoming a teacher and an evangelist in the Anglican Mission. The palpable tension between the Christian religion of his parents which were followed their home and the retreating older religion of his ancestors which was still active outside his home, would spark Chinua’s artistic career.
I reckon that his knack for interpolating Igbo proverbs into his writings stems from this dichotomy. That by approaching the issues of tradition, culture, literature and language of his ancient civilisation, without judging but scrutinising, a treasure trove was opened to him. Growing up, the young Chinua had periods of oscillating faith. Periods of doubt when he quietly pondered and deeply questioned the absolutist teachings or interpretations of religion. Whereas his father had a lot of praise for the missionaries and their message, as did he, he also harboured sufficient, and in my view, justifiable scepticism. One of the questions that preoccupied his brilliant mind was:
Does it matter, that centuries before European Christians sailed down to Africa to deliver the Gospel and save us from ‘darkness’, other European Christians, also sailing in ships, delivered us to the transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world?
Did you know that initially he was enrolled at the University College, Ibadan to study medicine? He later on, after a year of work, changed to English, history and theology. He’d go on to teach for four months at Merchants of Light before transferring to the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. It is there that he’d met his wife, Christie Okoli. He would publish a few stories during this period among them Polar Undergraduate and Marriage is a Private Affair. He also tells of how his magnum opus Things Fall Apart, almost didn’t come to be after he sent it to London for publishing only for the agency to go silent for six weeks! It took an intervention Angela Beattie, a former British B.B.C. Talks Producer Angela Beattie, for him to receive the manuscript back. It was Gilbert Phelps who would help him land a publisher, Alan Hill and Donald McRae, after many rejections. The book would receive, from all corners of the world, rave appraisals, and in some cases, harsh ones too, though mainly the former. This would lead the young Achebe to a powerful conclusion:
“People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience
The larger part of this book is dedicated to the war. It’s onset, origins, cause and course. He gives, in his opinion the chief reason for the formation of Biafra as this: “The movement toward a declaration of independence was very clear and sharp because it was a result of a particular group of Nigerian citizens from the Eastern Region attempting to protect themselves from the great violence that had been organised and executed by arms of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
A countercoup staged mainly by Northern Nigerian officers in 1966 that saw 185 Igbo soldiers murdered and the massacre of another thirty thousand Igbo and Easterners in pogroms, spanning over four months, left millions of Biafrans terrified. Seeing that the federal government of Nigeria did not respond to the Easterners call to end the pogroms, the Biafrans concluded that a government that failed to safeguard the lives of its citizens, has no claim to their allegiance and must be ready to accept that that the victims deserve the right to seek their safety in other ways- including secession. On the other hand, the Nigerian government, well aware that Biafran secession would encourage a number of other ethnic nationalities to follow suit, had one goal only- block the secession.
This is the conundrum that pit a Nation against itself, with the North represented by General Yakubu Gowon and the East represented by Emeka Ojukwu. Like in many other such scenarios, the influence of the West, especially the former colonial powers, could not be ignored. The British, the French and the Americans, each played a role in either prolonging or trying to assuage further carnage, either by casting their lots with Gowon or Ojukwu. The war would rage on, characterized with mass starvation, atrocious ethnic cleansing, rape, economic blockades and gross human rights violations.
This book, in the most cogent and academic way, tells it all. You could almost feel as if the legendary Chinua Achebe was right there with you, telling you the story. His story! It will serve as a boon to Africans, and the world at large. It’s a priceless repository of history, and the making and remaking of a nation. It’s a book everyone should read and learn from, lest we find ourselves asking the same question that Chinua Achebe posed:
“Are we perpetually doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them?”
REVIEW BY AURA BILLY OSOGO