By Tade Ipadeola
Professor Chinua Achebe has made a new book of a very eventful life. It is his most controversial book ever. It is a book impossible to read without evocations of long forgotten poems and narratives by the author, and others, which apparently were always couchant just below the surface. For us, Nigerians and Africans, who were born after the Nigerian Civil War and who must look both ways – into past and future – it is required reading. Precious Africans perished in the Civil War.
Achebe’s writing in this book exudes something of the writings of those who are intimate with power. His writing in this book is perhaps the most deliberate of all the writing Achebe has done. The book reads like the thoughts of a man accustomed to being right, like the thoughts of a man that expects to be vindicated, like the writings of a star witness.
I have spent a good part of my life reading and a good part of the last 20 years listening in court proceedings to witnesses in cases civil and criminal. Achebe’s tone in this book is of the knowledgeable, confident and aged personage who was also a victim of grave and intimate wrong. The problem is that people tend to listen real close to these kinds of witnesses and to spot every discrepancy in what they regale the audience with. The book under review, which claims to be a personal history, is no exception.
In his own introduction to this autobiography (which the BBC and others echo exaggeratedly), Achebe stated that he chose to respond through poetry as opposed to other genres to the particular distress of the Biafran War. Now, anyone who knows anything about Achebe knows that this is only half-true. From ‘How The Leopard Got His Claws’ (children’s literature), through ‘Girls At War’ (prose), to the book under review, Achebe has written hardly anything since the war that was not about the war at a conscious or an unconscious level.
The only genre Achebe has not explored is drama but he more than makes up for this in the dramatic monologues lurking throughout his cathartic writings. The restrained jouissance manifest in Achebe’s writings prior to 1966 practically died to pave way for the kind of pained catharsis in this book. It is tragic that Achebe never quite recovers that young timbre of voice. Achebe is not alone in that death of joie de vivre. It is a fate his writing shares with all those writers of his generation who lived through the war, in differing measures.
With admirable economy, Achebe intimates the reader with important landmarks of his birth and childhood. The son of an evangelist, he early chose, ironically, to avidly pluck from the alluring tree of knowledge rather than from the submissive tree of life. Achebe ascribes to his mother in this book, qualities which he ascribes to men in his fiction: the inclination towards bringing change about gently, reason-borne gradualism.
Achebe has a sense of words that is rare. It is instructive that in this autobiography, he first expresses himself in lyric poetry circa 1966. The Nigeria/Biafra war was a war of the poets long before it became a war of the novelists.
Achebe claimed and maintains the claim in this book that Nigerians, a diverse people of more than 250 ethnic nationalities, will probably agree on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo, his own nationality. This is more absurd than anything Antonin Artaud conjured. Assuming but not conceding that this assessment of Achebe is indeed true, there must be another reason apart from that proffered by Achebe. Human beings aspire after excellence, they do not resent it. What they resent, universally, is the parent of the prodigy who sounds off at every P.T.A meeting. The wise know that every child is a prodigy.
My reading of this book comes after my reading of some significant others: Elechi Amadi’s, Saro-Wiwa’s, Chukwuemeka Ike’s, Obafemi Awolowo’s, Stremlau’s. In this book, one of Africa’s most gifted writers finally dared to gaze into the abyss of one of Africa’s most destructive wars and fails to avoid the return gaze of the abyss. Nietzsche warned of this outcome.
There Was A Country is a book of remembrance but there is a sense in which the book is a maze of contradictions. For example, Achebe himself narrates how and why he turned down the publication of Ifeajuna’s manuscript. He cites an incongruent instance in the narrative; that of Ifeajuna and his colleagues in literal darkness yet Ifeajuna claiming to be able to behold the demeanours of his friends. Yes, such forensic attention to detail is imperative in an editor and a writer but Achebe himself goes on to assert that Nzeogwu, one of the five, was Igbo in name only (p.79). Now, Nzeogwu is from Okpanam and he fought on the Biafran side of the conflict when war eventually broke out. So much for being a ‘Northerner’ from Kaduna.
There are many such Freudian moments. Achebe writes of a cud-chewing goat which simultaneously nibbles elephant grass as a fact we should believe. Achebe refers to the five as the ‘so-called five majors’ throughout his narrative. He betrays a prejudice against Ifeajuna which effectively denies Ifeajuna his place as the ideological leader of the five, ostensibly because the ‘ideology’ in Ifeajuna was so shallow, egocentric and naïve. They were a colourful five, passionate and unbelievably naïve, there was nothing so-called about them. Achebe, of all persons, ought to know that passion is the sin of youth as pride is the sin of middle age and prejudice the sin of old age. At pages 81-82, Achebe writes of Ironsi’s and Fajuyi’s death. It is a study in understatements, fortunately, the current English Poet Laureate, Geoffrey Hill, provides a moving account in his immortal Mercian Hymns.
It is tendentiously presumptive of Achebe to state that Kaduna is the capital of the ‘Muslim North’ and that Nzeogwu saw himself as a Northerner. If such a capital exists, shouldn’t it be Sokoto? This, in my humble opinion, is where Achebe most aggravatingly abuses authorial privilege. Perhaps, indeed, Nzeogwu did speak more and better Hausa than Igbo, perhaps he preferred the kaftan to shirts. These all pale into insignificance when weighed against the totality of that soldier’s life and death; and, certainly, cannot rebut the evidence of his DNA much less of his sub-conscious psychological drivers.
Achebe’s interpretation of events, in my view, has hardly shifted from the positions he held as a Biafran propagandist during the war. Certainly, Achebe suffered much personally and as a citizen of Biafra. Aspects of the author’s psychic construction are evident in his interview with Rajat Neogy in 1968. The most problematic question for him to answer at that point was what happens if he has to become Nigerian again. Achebe never quite settled the question in his mind. Rain gets in the eye.
A proper understanding of the tragedies of post-colonial Africa is necessary but Achebe’s new book offers precious little light. There is a certain appalling poverty in the historicism of Chinua Achebe. According to him, the rain began to beat us with the arrival of Conrad’s Caucasian crew when in fact the trans-Saharan traffic was already depleting the continent for centuries prior. According to him, Biafra, like Rwanda and Dafur 30 years later, was unimaginable genocide. This is at best a grave and simplistic imposition of false moral equivalence. And, if the Biafra war was the first properly televised armed conflict, what was the Vietnam War?
Neither Nigeria nor Biafra ever had an accurate census. This is not the only similarity between the two undemographic spaces. Neither country ever erected a monument, with names, of fallen soldiers or civilians. This is another way of saying that neither entity was ever a country in the true sense of the word. They both symbolised and still symbolise what it means to be without vital statistics, what it means to be propped on numerical propaganda. When therefore Professor Achebe asserts that the Igbo, who formed the heart of Biafra, never were integrated into Nigeria, we have to ask how such a notion occurred to him in the first place.
The book does not explain why the foreign relations dimension of Biafra failed so dismally. Also, why, in spite of the fact of high calibre legal representation by Biafra between 1967 and 1969, the control of oil escrow accounts rather than human and people’s rights preoccupied those leaders on the Biafran side of the conflict.
Achebe did not describe the country that was. He mitigates the deficiency with high acrolect, his peerless intimacy with the lexicon. The effect is very much like that of the cover of the book: rising sun, neither innocent nor guilty; Biafra, implicitly just, intrinsically righteous, a horizon of promising sunlight. This is the germ of the doctrine of Original Virtue, of Igbo exceptionalism. It is odd that the high noon of Biafra which Achebe describes is no noon at all. We get the impressions, from other writers, of a land and people very much like the rest of Nigeria, a land and people without the meritorious exemplars Achebe persuades us, constituted the gene-pool of Biafra.
Achebe devotes considerable energy to the ‘question’ of genocide. He proceeds at first with seeming clinical detachment: ‘I am not a sociologist, a political scientist, a human rights lawyer, or a government official.’ He however settles the question for himself by stating that his impressions were that Obafemi Awolowo used the pretext of the war to perpetrate genocide against the Igbo since his personal ambitions were thwarted by the dominant Igbos of the day. Achebe thinks that his line of inquiry may cause a ‘few’ headaches. Actually, it is a baffling position for Achebe to take and it is even more baffling that he expects intelligent people to have any headaches at all.
There is the international law of belligerence and outstanding intellectual and legal acumen existed on both sides of the Nigerian-Biafran divide at the time yet neither side pressed charges before the international tribunals for genocide. It was the wise thing to do. I think Achebe diminished himself by trying to rake the ashes in this manner. A charge of genocide is a serious thing that ought to be pursued to the logical end and is never time barred. Achebe should act the statesman and pursue this, always bearing in mind the immortal poem of Robert Graves which he titled‘Saint’. I only wish to say here that, long before the idea of the cluster-bomb occurred to the Caucasians, it occurred to certain Biafran scientists to develop the ‘Ogbunigwe’ and they deployed it. Today, the cluster-bomb and weapons like it are outlawed by municipal and international law.This is war, warts and all.
In the end, Clausewitz, whom both Ojukwu and Gowon must have studied, is proved right for saying that it is absurd to imagine a principle of moderation in war. War is violence, and the extreme of violence. If indeed Ojukwu was the better student of the two (Oxford degree and all), he must have understood that there could be no inclination on the federal side to allow the ‘attack trade’ for longer than the federal side did, or to allow air-freight of food where the land corridor was rebuffed.
Something of Achebe’s own present disposition is disclosed in his final poem in the book. The poem is titled ‘After A War’. Achebe’s closure makes There Was A Country a book to own but not to cherish. It is like giving a luxury edition of Things Fall Apart as gift to a newly married couple. It never quite matters that the book is all of $4,000.00. No human being can ever really know joy if the closure Achebe offers in this poem, in this book, of retirement home to haunted revelry, is the best on offer. I propose an alternate reading of an alternate poem for my own closure here:
‘Even in our sleep
Pain that we cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart
Until in our own despair
Against our will,
Through the awesome grace of God.’ – Aeschylus.
•Ipadeola, lawyer and award-winning poet lives in Ibadan