One evening in January 1966, Chinua Achebe went to a meeting of the Society of Nigerian Authors in Lagos. Achebe’s fourth novel, A Man of the People — a satire about corruption in an unnamed African country which culminates in a military coup — was about to be published. When he got there, one of his fellow writers, who’d already read the book, greeted him by saying: “Chinua, you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a coup!”
What neither of them knew was that at that moment a military coup was under way just a few miles from where they were standing. As Achebe writes, it was a night that Nigeria has never really recovered from. The first coup, led by members of the Igbo tribe, was swiftly followed by another. At this point Nigeria exploded into ethnic violence.
Fearing they would be massacred, the Igbos returned to their tribal homeland in eastern Nigeria and declared independence. Their new country, they declared, would be called Biafra. Almost half a century on, mention of the word Biafra prompts a shudder among those who remember what happened next.
By the time the Biafran war was over two-and-a-half years later, around three million people had died — that’s 20 per cent of the entire population. Most of them were children. It was also the first televised war in history. Every night people watched appalled as the hopelessly outnumbered Biafrans — they only had 2,000 troops at the start of the war — threw themselves at the massed ranks of the Nigerian army.
But the most dreadful sight of all was the famine victims — starving babies with withered limbs and flies settling on their eyes. People had never seen anything like this before, at least not in their living rooms. In Britain, dock workers reportedly refused to loads ships with arms bound for Lagos, protesting that they were being used to kill Biafran babies — worried about losing oil revenue, the British government continued arming the Nigerians throughout the conflict. The columnist Auberon Waugh even christened one of his sons, Biafra.
An Igbo himself, Chinua Achebe became an unofficial envoy for the Biafran government. A decade earlier, his brilliant debut novel Things Fall Apart — the first African novel written in English to receive global acclaim — had been published. Now he found himself travelling around the world trying to drum up support for the Biafran cause.
But for all Achebe’s diplomatic efforts, it soon became clear that this was a war Biafra could not win. As he saw all too plainly whenever he went home to visit his family, it had become a country of the dying, the displaced and the mad — people cracked up in their thousands under the endless pressure. “They could often be seen walking seemingly aimless on the roads in tattered clothes, in conversation with themselves.”
Now 81, Achebe found the experience of civil war so traumatic that it has taken him all this time to write about it. There was a Country is a blend of historical overview, personal memoir and political manifesto. The trouble is that these three elements chafe, rather awkwardly, against one another. While the history is fascinating — and horrifying — Achebe’s personal recollections are oddly lacking in atmosphere. It’s as if he is viewing events through a plate-glass screen which, even now, he can’t quite bear to lower.
As for Nigeria, that has become what Achebe calls despairingly a “cesspool of corruption”. Just in case anyone is inclined to doubt this, it’s worth bearing in mind that the World Bank recently released figures showing that $400 billion has been looted from the country’s treasury since independence. Or, to put it another way, in 50 years Nigeria’s corrupt ruling class has stolen the equivalent of the entire economy of Sweden.
[Source London Evening Standard]
There was a Country:
A Personal History of Biafra
by Chinua Achebe
(£20, Allen Lane)