Thursday, 20 December 2012

Recounting the Loss: There was a Country

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

Over three million people dead. A coup, then a countercoup, followed by pogroms throughout Nigeria, especially the north. The year was 1966. Chinua Achebe was about to publish A Man of the People, which ends with a coup. As the printing presses were about to start rolling, life imitated art. Did he know something the public did not - as an executive at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in Lagos?
He didn't. The first coup took him and almost everyone else by surprise. A group of low-ranking officers took it upon themselves to overthrow what was seen as a corrupt government. The leaders of several states were executed in one night. At first there was widespread celebration. Then a story got around that the military coup "was in fact a sinister plot by the ambitious Igbos of the east to seize control of Nigeria". In There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Allen Lane), Achebe surmises: "The night of January 15, 1966, is something Nigeria has never really recovered from."
There was a countercoup in July 1966, after which the leaders of the first coup were executed. The descent into chaos gained pace. In Achebe's account, we learn that about 30 000 Igbos were butchered in acts of violence, to which authorities turned a blind eye. Achebe mulls this over quite a bit in the book.

His view is that Igbos had moved quickly between 1930 and 1950 to gain education offered by missionaries and the colonial system. By independence in 1960, the Igbos had surpassed even the Yoruba in the west of the country, among whom missionaries had first settled and introduced schooling in educational achievement. Unlike the Muslim north, they were not fettered by traditions of hierarchy. For them, no condition was permanent. Anyone could ascend in life through hard work. When independence came, they quickly filled many of the senior positions vacated by expatriates in the civil service, state-owned companies and the private sector. The accusation of domination was easy to level, and thus they became an easy target.
The targeting of Igbos became so aggressive that people started moving in droves to Igbo land in the south. It quickly became clear that the bloodletting was not going to stop. The last resort for self-preservation was to seek independence from Nigeria. On May 27, 1967, Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu declared eastern Nigeria an independent and sovereign state - the Republic of Biafra. Biafra was walking away from Nigeria, a colonial creation, in order for the Igbo to find lasting peace in their own homeland.
The Nigerian response was a swift military invasion. Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon sent in the army to crush Biafra. With a small and poorly armed force, Biafra put up fierce resistance in the form of a guerrilla war. The struggle would last almost three years and take a devastating toll on Biafrans and on Nigeria to this day, according to Achebe.
There Was a Country is a disturbing read. How can the recounting of events so horrific read so well? Thousands of people, mainly children, perished daily from starvation as a result of the blockade on Biafra imposed by the Nigerian army. Hospitals and marketplaces were targeted for bombing. The book is a page-turner; once you begin reading, it's impossible to put it down.
Achebe's family survived intact, except for his mother, who died of natural causes during the war.
Achebe, his wife Christie and their three young children, had to move frequently. First, they had to escape from Lagos as the chaos began to spread. He sent his family ahead by boat then drove through many police checkpoints and army patrols to get to Onitsha and across the Niger River into the east. The family had many near misses. Enugu served as the capital of Biafra, until it was pounded by Nigerian bombs.
During this time, the inimitable poet, Christopher Okigbo, approached Achebe to set up a press to publish stories that reflected the experiences of Biafrans. The Citadel Press published one book before the Achebes were forced to flee Enugu. Their apartment building was bombed hours after Christie and the children had left and a little while before Achebe had got there from the offices of the press before fleeing.
Okigbo died on the battlefield. Achebe became an emissary for Biafra, going to Sweden, Canada, Senegal and other countries to try to gain military and humanitarian aid for Biafra. Russia and Britain supported Nigeria. The leadership in the US remained quiet on the matter. People continued starving to death by the thousands. But the ragtag Biafran army held out, despite all odds.
By the beginning of 1970, though, it was clear that all sides were exhausted: "In the end, Biafra collapsed. We simply had to turn around and find a way to keep those people still there alive".
On January 15, 1970, Biafra surrendered.
Achebe's account of events and experiences of the war raises many questions.
What would have happened had the Biafran War not taken place, that is, had the Igbos not retreated en masse to the east of Nigeria as they were being massacred in 1966? Would a genocide have taken place, like the one that occurred in Rwanda in 1994?
Towards the end of the book, Achebe thinks through whether what happened in Biafra should be classified as a genocide. He weighs the definitions and the arguments on either side, before concluding that it should have been called genocide. Certainly, he suggests the massacre of the Biafrans reverberates in the present.
"My generation had great expectations for our young nation. After the war, everything we had known before about Nigeria, all the optimism, had to be rethought," asserts Achebe.
Two things have happened since the war, in his assessment: first, Igbos were never reintegrated into Nigeria, and second, Nigeria has entrenched mediocrity in its public life.
There Was a Country is a sobering read when one surfaces from the beauty of its language. It is tinged with a strange nostalgia for Biafra. Achebe's commitment to ethnic categories is puzzling.
The book has already set off polarised public debate in Nigeria, even before it has been released there. It is testament to how alive the issues still are. It comes a few months after the Biafran leader, Ojukwu, died in March.
It has taken Achebe so long to write with such clarity about the war. The issues that continue to plague Biafra to this day make it clear why.

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