This is about the most powerful, compelling, honest, enlightening book I've ever read. I read it shortly after having read Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, and I've since been studying and devouring historical and sociological academic materials covering the time of the Nigerian-Biafran war. This book is as easy to read as a novel - one written by one of the greatest novelists ever. I cannot recommend this book more highly. I encourage anyone who has even the slightest interest in history, in West Africa, in understanding human relations and the human condition at all to read this book.
Fifty years ago the plight of Biafra made world headlines. Aid organisations rushed in, students marched on campuses and Nigeria came in for a lot of criticism for its crushing of the breakaway state. But what was it like to be there, trying to survive and get the infant statelet recognised and supplied. Achebe, a top-flight novelist, was there and knew the people in charge as well as the ordinary farmers, and soldiers. He give an good account from that vantage point. I'd have like more about what happened after and how the Igbo feel about their status within Nigeria today but I wouldn't even call that criticism. Worth reading about this semi-forgotten conflict.
A good overview of the events leading up to the Biafran War and the context in which it occurred. 'A Personal History' is a good subtitle for the book as it mainly revolves around Achebe's experiences during the war and doesn't necessarily give an overall view of how others in Biafra or Nigeria where impacted by the war, beyond more sweeping generalizations and specific stories sprinkled in. Ojukwu's (the leader of Biafra) intentions are explored to a degree and his relation to then Nigerian leader Gowon is explored to a degree. Would have liked to get a more detailed analysis of how the Biafran War affected Nigeria immediately afterwards and any consequences of the war that are still felt today (this is explored to a degree, but tends to delve into Achebe deriding Nigeria's current culture). Also, a more detailed background outlining the relationship between the Ibo, Yoruba, and Hausa people's leading up to the conflict would have been nice.
Anyone who knows anything about Nigeria knows it has an image problem. But those who know the country well are also aware of something deeper, more primal: Nigeria has an Igbo problem. Nigerian society has long been besmirched by a widespread animosity toward the Igbo, an unapologetically industrious people who are often perceived by fellow Nigerians as too ambitious. Indeed, in Africa's most populous country, what one might call Igbophobia is a malady more endemic than malaria.
One of the outstanding contributions of Chinua Achebe's There Was A Country, A Personal History of Biafra (the last work the renowned author published before he passed away in March 2013) is his eloquent explanation of the link between these two problems. It is no surprise that Achebe confronted this issue head-on in his book: trying to write about the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-1970 without discussing Nigeria's Igbo problem would be like attempting to write a history of the American Civil War while glossing over the stain of slavery.
Again and again since 1914, when the British cobbled together what we now know as Nigeria, the Igbo people have paid a heavy price in blood and tears for the irrational resentment their compatriots hold against them. There have been multiple anti-Igbo pogroms. Apologists for these pogroms often strain to explain them away as merely backlashes against the grasping Igbo and their desire to dominate Nigeria's economy and/or politics. In reality, though, these acts of anti-Igbo mass murder stretch back to the era of direct British rule, when the Igbo people were colonial subjects like everyone else--the first significant recorded one happened in the city of Jos in 1945, followed by another in the city of Kano in 1953 (fifteen years, and seven years, respectively, before Nigerian independence was declared in 1960).
In fact, it was two particularly vicious rounds of such pogroms in 1966 that compelled the Eastern Region (which had a majority Igbo population) to strive to secede from Nigeria and establish a new country, the Republic of Biafra. [For the record, I am a survivor of the 1966 pogroms in which some 50,000 people, most of them ethnic Igbo, were massacred. I was a toddler then, and I owe my survival to the insight and quick thinking of my working-class parents.]
Achebe acknowledged that when things began to fall apart in 1966, he had a hard time bringing himself to believe the awful reality. He was already a well-known writer, having made his mark with Things Fall Apart, published in 1958. The publication of another one of his books, A Man of the People, (a rather prescient depiction of a corrupt young African country brought to its knees by venal politicians) coincided with Nigeria's first military coup in January 1966. This first coup was followed six months later by a counter-coup in which hundreds of officers and men from Nigeria's Eastern Region were hunted down and killed.
The mass murder quickly spread to civilians, and Achebe and his family had to go into hiding. But he soon realized that the only safe place for an ethnic Igbo in Nigeria of late 1966 was the ancestral home region, the East.
"I was one of the last to flee Lagos," Achebe wrote. "I simply could not bring myself to accept that I could no longer live in my nation's capital, although the facts clearly said so. My feeling toward Nigeria was one of profound disappointment. Not only because mobs were hunting down and killing innocent civilians in many parts, especially in the North, but because the federal government sat by and let it happen."
What followed was a desperate attempt by the people of the Eastern Region to obtain from the Northern-controlled federal government some reassurances of security of life and property, and some form of compensation for the victims. None were offered. This was not surprising. As Achebe noted about this period just before the war:
"What terrified me about the massacres in Nigeria was this: If it was only a question of rioting in the streets and so on, that would be bad enough, but it could be explained. It happens everywhere in the world. But in this particular case a detailed plan for mass killing was implemented by the government--the army, the police--the very people who were there to protect life and property. Not a single person has been punished for these crimes. It was not just human nature, a case of somebody hating his neighbor and chopping off his head. It was something far more devastating, because it was a premeditated plan that involved careful coordination, awaiting only the right spark."
In spite of their wrenching losses, the people of the Eastern Region would have preferred that Nigeria be kept together if a way could be found to reassure them that, going forward, their lives and property could be safe. They had a lot to lose in a splintered Nigeria. Until the forced exodus back to their home region, easterners were far more dispersed around the country than people from any other part of the country, and they were forced to abandon a lot of immovable property (especially real estate) all over Nigeria during the crisis. They were not eager for Nigeria to break up; if they had good reasons to believe they would not lose their lives trying to do so, they would have preferred to return to places like Lagos and Ibadan and Kaduna and Kano to reclaim what they'd left behind.
A peace summit in Aburi, Ghana seemed to offer some promise of reconciliation in January 1967. But the increasingly confident federal military government quickly reneged on the agreement reached at Aburi. (Yakubu Gowon, the Northern army officer who headed Nigeria's military government at this time, was a rather dapper man whose outward charm did not readily betray his attitude toward the Igbo. Of course Gowon's actions spoke louder than his looks, but he had many reasons to feel very confident--the British government loved Gowon and made no secret of its eagerness to provide him with the weapons and diplomatic support he wanted. And most world powers--including the United States--were willing to follow the lead of the erstwhile colonial master whose direct hegemony in Nigeria had ended only six years before.)
After the federal government in Lagos imposed economic embargoes on the Eastern Region, the East announced that it was seceding from the Nigerian federation. Gowon's regime responded with a military invasion of Biafra in July 1967. The war lasted until January 1970 when Biafra and its bedraggled survivors were forced back into the Nigerian federation. For Achebe and millions of others inside the Biafran enclave during this period, the nearly three years of conflict were marked by unrelenting pain and suffering. But there was also a deep-seated conviction among the Biafran population that they had no choice but to fight for their lives.
In other words, the Biafrans were convinced that Nigeria's behavior before and during the war essentially gave them just two options: to die on their knees in abject submission, or to die fighting. Those who still wonder why Biafran resistance lasted as long as it did, even when the military situation seemed utterly hopeless, would do well to understand and acknowledge this hard reality.
Nigeria may have succeeded in forcing the Biafrans back into the troubled federation, but postwar Nigerian history joins the prewar history in indicating that Biafra held the moral high ground in that conflict. Today's Nigeria is even more plagued than ever by raffish venality and criminal misrule. Meanwhile, a vicious Islamist terrorist insurgency is wreaking havoc in the old Northern Region, causing many observers to wonder once again about Nigeria's stability, even its very future.
Well, for now, at least, Nigeria limps along, hobbled by a self-imposed curse of impunity and the specter of heinous crimes committed in its war against Biafra, particularly its use of starvation as a blunt-force weapon that essentially destroyed an entire generation of young children. As deeply concerned as he was with the crass brutality with which the Nigerian government conducted the war itself, at the cost of some two million Biafran lives, this was not the only factor underpinning Achebe's apprehension about Nigeria's future.
"What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entirety travesty," he wrote, "is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war--ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption, and debauchery. Nations enshrine mediocrity as their modus operandi, and create the fertile ground for the rise of tyrants and other base elements of society, by silently assenting to the dismantling of systems of excellence because they do not immediately benefit one specific ethnic, racial, political, or special-interest group. That, in my humble opinion, is precisely where Nigeria finds itself today!"
Chinua Achebe has done his part and, as Nigerians like to put it, "joined his ancestors." Only time will tell if the Nigerian experiment is ultimately a viable one.
The author is an accomplished and world acclaimed writer.The book was very well written. It is a very interesting book that was hard to put down once I had started reading it. It enlightened me about Biafra even though I was there as a very young person. But the book was written from an Igbo man's perspective - and justifiably so. In the book, he listed the shortfalls of the Igbos but was too protective , as an Igbo person, to add most of what people know about the Igbo character. The sufferings of lesser tribes such as the Ibibios, Annangs, Ijaws, etc, were barely touched. The innumerable atrocities of some of the Biafran soldiers ( and Nigerian soldiers too) on women, that I witnessed, and the pillaging of properties did not appear in the book. However, to be objective, these behaviors can be caused by the stress of being in a war torn environment.