What Achebe really wrote
By ALVAN EWUZIE (email@example.com)
Why did it take the literary icon Albert Chinualumogu Achebe over four decades to tell his civil war story? Most intellectuals and writers in his ilk have put down their experience of those trying days of a people’s fight for freedom.
Although some of his short stories and poems were anchored on the gruesome Nigerian civil war, his latest book, ‘There was a country’, showed that he had not said or written much about his involvement and thoughts on the incident.
It must have been a rather difficult one for the master storyteller. But he had to tell it and in the process achieved a genre of writing, which weaved poetry, prose and academic research in one volume. One described by Nadine Gordiner, Nobel Laureate in Literature, ‘as surpassing expectations’.
The 335-page book, difficult as it must have been for Professor Achebe, begins with Nigeria’s birth pangs after nationalist struggles by early purveyors of calls for self rule exemplified by Herbert Macualay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and the rest. It must have pained Achebe that the country his generation enthusiastically welcomed at independence with high hopes, had come to a sorry pass. “Most members of my generation, who were born before Nigeria’s independence, remember a time when things were different, Nigeria was once a nation of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resourses at its disposal…’’ writes Achebe in the introduction of the new work.
The pains of a wasting nation that had refused to integrate a part of it decades after a harrowing civil war that claimed no less than three million lives on both sides of the divide. Two of his poetry collections published in 1971 and 2004 dwell on the war but that genre hardly permits details. In the new work, he juxtaposed poetry and prose to tell complimentary stories in two art forms. As he put it: “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grand children that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra story, our story, my story.’’
The story dates back to his coming of age, the extensive town-to-town travels with his father, who was a ‘church teacher’, some of the few whose early embrace of Christianity exposed to having value for education. Little wonder his children embraced education, which was why young Chinua was an early bird to school. An incident at St Philips’ Primary School, Ogidi, in Anambra State, his hometown, perhaps, set in motion his affinity to Igbo cosmology and the need not to denigrate your roots, and indeed see the good in it.
The incident went thus: Under the shed of a large mango three, their teacher took them on Geography of Britain. The village ‘mad man’ came by and stood, listening to the teacher. After a short while, he stepped up, snatched the chalk from the teacher, wiped the blackboard and proceeded to give the pupils an extended lesson on the history of Ogidi, his hometown.
It was ironic that a man whose sanity was assumed to be questionable saw the need to let the young lads know about their own history and environment. It was in secondary school at the famous Government College, Umuahia, that Achebe met some his life-long friends, including Christopher Okigbo, Chike Mommah, Benjamin Uzochuwku, Ekpo Etien Inyang, amongst others.
But it was Christopher Okigbo that became his soul mate. It was to Okigbo that Achebe always handed over his young family on his many diplomatic trips for Biafra. It was with Okigbo that he founded Citadel Press in Enugu in the wee hours of the of the pogrom and published one or two books before bombs shattered his Enugu residence and the publishing house and thus sent the venture into oblivion. when Okigbo secretly joined the Biafran Army and fell in battle at the Nsukka end, Achebe was devastated. Even now, 42 long years after the war, his fond memories of the poet and restless intellectual whom he believes to be one of the finest poets, drop like rain in the book.
He put it thus ‘‘…Christoher Ifekandu Okigbo was the finest Nigerian poet of his generation but I believe that as his works became better and more widely known in the world, he will be recognised as one of the most remarkable anywhere in our time. While other poets wrote good poems, Okigbo conjured up for us, amazing, haunting, poetic firmament of a wild and violent beauty. Forty years after, I still stand by that assessment.’ But Achebe’s early days were not heart wrenching.
When he graduated from the University of Ibadan where he was admitted on scholarship to read Medicine but was driven by passion and talent to drop the stethoscope, as it were, for the pen, he became a teacher briefly before joining the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation. It was there he wrote the monumentally successful ‘Things Fall Apart’.
The circumstance under which the manuscript would have been lost in England and how it was recovered should teach useful lessons to any budding writer. He grew into the few Nigerians, who replaced the departing expatriates in the civil service, inheriting some of the perks of office, living in Ikoyi with his wife,Christie. He blossomed in his writing and had just published his fourth novel, a prophetic political satire, in 1966. It predicted a coup, which surprised even the writer in its fulfillment. The country literally ceased to exist.
A counter coup six months later further sent the country down the precipice. When people from the east became victims of a genocide, which caught the authorities looking the other way, an exodus of easterners to their homestead became inevitable.
Achebe smuggled his family to the east in a boat from Lagos where he worked. He persevered until close friends told him to leave Lagos or go to an early grave. Soldiers had invaded his Ikoyi residence and missed him shortly before he bolted way to join his family in the east. His war time misery and that of a people had begun. In response to the calculated genocide against Igbo people across the country, Colonel Ojukwu, who was military Governer of Eastern Nigeria, was mandated to declare the Republic of Biafra. Achebe went back to his country home in Ogidi, Anambra State, but when soldiers mounted weapons in the compound to repel Nigerian forces, approaching from the River Niger end, he evacuated his family to Enugu in the first leg of a refugee staus, which saw them traverse no less than four towns, including Oguta and Orlu in the war ravaged land. The young republic defended itself with bare hands.
Two hurriedly trained soldiers would go to battle with only one rifle; the game plan being that one would forge ahead with the weapon of a fallen colleague. In the wake of initial fiasco of a surprise attack by Biafran soldiers, led by Victor Banjo, whose troop had reached Ore before capitulating, forcing the Biafran forces back, the battle grew worse. Banjo was executed for that seeming sabotage.
But Biafra had been weakened. They did not give up and the federal forces became more vicious. On page 137, Achebe writes ‘‘in actions reminiscent of the Nazi policy of eradicating the Jews throughout Europe just twenty years earlier, the Nigerian forces decided to purge the city (Calabar, inserted by this writer) of its Igbo inhabitants. By the time the Nigerians were done, they had shot dead at least one thousand and, perhaps, 2,000 Igbos, most of them civilians. There were other atrocities in the region.
In Oji River, the Times of London reported on August 2, 1968, ‘the Nigerian forces had opened fire and murdered fourteen nurses and the patients in the wards’. The Biafran people, being land locked after federal forces had captured Port Harcourt and Calarbar, effectively cutting supply sources via sea to the fledgling Republic, resorted to self ingenuity.
They manufactured weapons, refined petrol and constructed a makeshift night landing airport and held on to the struggle. The Research and Production unit, manned by Gordian Ezekwe, Benjamin Chukwuka Nwosu and less known technician, Willy Achukwe, produced Ogbunigwe, which was a lethal mass killer. Ojukwu engaged Achebe as one of war diplomats, who traveled around the continent to drum up support for the new Republic. He met with the then president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor, who gave backing to Biafra. Achebe and and four other intellectuals, namely Ifemesia, Ikenna Nzimiro, Emmanuel Obiechina, Eyo Bassey, Anthony Aniagolu and Ifegwu Eke, authored the impregnable document titled Ahiara Declaration, which had the potency to end the struggle.
When Biafra did not capitulate in despite the evil machinations against it, the Nigerian government resorted to starving the people through blockade of supplies, an ingenuous but sad war plan, which Achebe said was hatched by top echeleon of the Nigerian government, especially Obafemi Awolowo. He writes that by the beginning of dry season in 1968 Biafran civilians and soldiers were starving.
Bodies lay rotting under hot sun by the roadside and the flapping wings of scavengers could be seen circling, waiting patiently nearby. Some estimates were that hunger killed no less that one thousand Biafrans every day. The policy seemed to say ‘starve them into submission’ .
Upward pf 50,000 Biafrans, most of them children, died of starvation every month. An American child set himself ablaze to protest the killing of Bifran children, which was regularly beamed live on television screens across the globe. The war eventually ended at the point of seeming inevitable surrender. Over four decades after, Achebe says the Igbos were not and continue not being reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the continued backwardness, in his estimation. Writing the book must have pained the famous writer. Yet he had to do it.
Again he has swept the country’s woes to the door steps of leadership. This time, in the mode of selection. He says something must be done with the mode of selecting leaders. Today, it would seem that political alienation or starvation has replaced genocide and the general handout of twenty pounds for every Bifran after the war irrespective of what they had in the bank.
If four decades have gone by and non of their ilk has sat on the saddle to preside over the affairs of the country, Achebe may well be right. Like any people, the Igbos have their shortcomings, which the writer admitted, but it hardly gives rise to being shut out of leadership in the land, a clear sign that what starvation and genocide could not do, there were other ways of doing. It took Achebe so long to write this book. But the wait is worth it.