When the independence of African nations became unavoidable, British and French colonisers followed a common pattern. They ignored the rightful call for self-determination and did all they could to create new nations according to their own needs. This is the case of Sudan and Chad, where southern peoples did not want to share the same state with northern Islamic groups. Or of Nigeria, as Chinua Achebe tells us in his latest book, somewhere between biography and history, There was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra.
The British knew that Nigeria could play a role in their economy. A large market to export products made in the UK with an excess of natural resources needed by British industry – from oil to precious wood, from minerals to cotton. This is why they kept adding territories to the original protectorate and resisted all calls for independence along ethnic lines. After all, all children in Nigeria studied that “Lord Frederick Lugard joined the northern and southern protectorates to form one country and his wife gave it the name Nigeria.”
In reality, as history has shown, there was no amalgamation. With its feudal system, Islamic background, and centralised power systems, the North was different from the South; here religions were more diverse, Christianity was gaining ground, and power systems were spread out. Lugard followed the blueprint he devised in the Sudan: he discouraged Christian missionaries from working in the North, he didn’t listen to requests from southerners, he insisted on the idea of Nigeria as a nation, even if it had never been united before 1914. Trouble wasn’t far off.
It is no surprise that an ethnic power struggle followed independence. Elections were rigged, the federal government was unpopular. Only six years into independence, a group of army majors carried out a coup and murdered top government officials. In the North, the coup was seen as an Igbo coup, a plot by the southern Igbo to gain dominance. A second coup by northern officers saw Igbo officers hunted down and murdered. Murders became massacres. The numbers are uncertain, but most agree that at least seven thousand died. The federal government seemed unable to stop the killings. Outright war followed.
Achebe recounts this reality in an autobiographical style, telling his side of the story, with the typical lack of complete information, and the naivety and freshness of personal memoirs. He tells us of Nigeria’s darkest chapter – the Biafra war that left a million people dead, towns destroyed, and a generation stripped of its innocence – and especially of the events that led to it. Because of his work at the national radio and the books he published in that period, he too became a target. Soldiers raided his house and only just missed him. Later, his home and his office were bombed.
“I was one of the last to flee Lagos – he writes. I simply could not bring myself to accept that I could no longer live in my nation’s capital, although the signs were clear. I was profoundly disappointed with Nigeria. Not only because mobs were tracking down and killing innocent civilians in many parts of the country, especially the North, but because the federal government sat by and let it happen.”
Achebe was already a respected writer by 1967, when he joined the Biafran war effort. He served as an ambassador for Biafra, travelling to different countries to raise support. After the end of the war, he wrote about that experience: Girls at War (1972) is a magnificent collection of stories set there. He never shared his most personal thoughts and the role he had in some events. There was a Country fills that gap even though the account is not always as personal and direct as one would imagine.
In this book, Achebe mourns Biafra, but he especially mourns the lost chance of a people forced to live where they do not want. Achebe is particularly unhappy for Nigeria’s failure. “There are countless treatises on how the Igbo were wonderfully integrated in Nigeria. Well, I have news for them: the Igbo were not and continue not to be integrated in Nigeria. This, according to me, is one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness.”
This is the great Nigerian writer’s last work. He died last March after a short illness. Those who knew him always portrayed him as a gentle, wise man. In life, as in his books, he was able to state his thoughts in a calm and orderly fashion. Some criticized him for lacking a precise style; others realised that his matter-of-fact way of approaching a topic was in reality his style. In his land, people say that when an elder dies, a library burns. In the case of Chinua Achebe, this is particularly true.
Chinua Achebe, There was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra. Penguin, 263pp, London 2012.