There was a country

Friday, July 05, 2019

LSE’s Sakina Badamasuiy reviews the latest book by the Nigerian literary giant, Chinua Achebe. 

Must Africa have To come a third time?

– “Biafra, 1969”, Chinua Achebe

The discovery of truth always evokes a certain series of emotions, no matter how grim or uplifting the substance of the truth may be. Once a familiar sense of surprise has given way to the actions of impulse, almost certainly a feeling of relief follows. Relief can only come from being allowed to understand the truth of the situation which one is surrounded with, no matter how bleak.

Chinua Achebe’s history of Biafra is a meditation on the complex and hidden nature of a truth and darkness that is deeply embedded in Nigeria’s history. As a nation that claims to be draped with an immensely rich fabric of historic tradition, it is disappointing how infrequent such meditations are. More unsatisfactory is the fact that the appreciation of history continues to be taken for granted in schools where it needs to be fervently taught. It is now clear that generations have grown up in a Nigerian system where we were peddled an alarmingly incomplete version of our country’s story; where we were allowed to wander so completely oblivious to the darkness that once gripped our nation completely. Achebe’s book can therefore only be likened to sitting a whole generation down and cleaving apart the inconsistencies we were told. He has allowed us to see for the first time in gory detail, the unhealed wounds our nation still bears.

It is no exaggeration to say that the 4 years of civil war ingrained in Nigeria’s independent history were the most defining and significant in changing the course of our nation’s progress. The brutalities that Achebe described in his latest book, “There Was a Country” were especially numbing not because of their rarity, but unfortunately because of the uncanny resemblance these atrocities bear to the those we still seem to ignore in the world today. His reflections bring home the simple truth that the difficulties of Nigeria cannot be fully understood without first deeply considering the history of Biafra.

“As a writer, I believe that it is fundamentally important, indeed essential to our humanity, to ask the hard questions, in order to better understand ourselves and our neighbours. … Is the information blockade around the war a case of calculated historical suppression? Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, over forty years after its end? Are we perpetually doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them?”

(page 228)

These mistakes were, no doubt, many.  The spectre of tribalism and ignorance that started the civil war in 1966 clearly still survives today.  The kind of wanton corruption that prolonged the suffering and loss of lives of Biafrans is an even bigger problem in our society today. The mediocrity and political ineptitude of our leaders has been exacerbated even more by a petroleum wealth that has bled the nation dry of every other resource. It would seem that Nigeria has been doomed to witness endless cycles of inter-tribal and inter-religious violence because the government has failed woefully to enforce laws protecting its citizens and their right to security. Achebe writes of the Asaba Massacre where Murtala Muhammed’s division rounded up and shot “as many defenceless Igbo men and boys as they could find” (page 133) and at that point, I wondered if, replacing guns with bombs, I was not reading a story very similar to the current scourge of home-grown tyranny we have faced in the hands of Boko Haram.

Chinua Achebe reminds us that the language of war is not marginal, nor is it a possession of any single political demography. The distinction between numerous stories of conflict lies not in the manner that atrocities were carried out but in how a nation decides to make its immediate journey beyond the hollow confines of violence. Only through a unified acceptance of grave mistakes and an effort at reparations can a country even begin to contemplate the long journey towards complete nationhood.

Achebe’s epic narrative ends with an urgent call to democratic governance, explaining that the key to progress lies in the manner in which the leadership of the country is selected. I cannot help but agree completely. Since we have forged this language of nationhood and decided to retain a country to embody it, we must act responsibly to remember our past and gain a clearer perspective of our present. The path to progress must therefore concern not only law but morality; not only morality but the personal meaning of justice; not only justice but also an intimate sense of ownership in our diverse nation of millions with stories that must never be forgotten.

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Author: Chinua Achebe