"There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra" (The Penguin Press), by Chinua Achebe
Before Nigerian author Chinua Achebe became a famous writer, he was a journalist first, rewriting radio scripts for the state-run broadcaster. That terse, reportorial style of writing fills many of his novels, including his acclaimed debut novel, "Things Fall Apart," about the clash of cultures between traditional Africans and the arrival of European colonialists.
Now, Achebe has turned a reporter's eye toward the conflict that consumed years of his life, seeing his home bombed, his poet friend killed in battle and his Igbo people decimated by starvation brought on by civil war. While titled "There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra," Achebe's long-awaited memoir about a civil war that killed at least a million people at times feels purposefully restrained, as if he sought to write a history book that downplays his own emotions and experiences.
Yet haunting images of war still appear in the book's long passages. Achebe saves perhaps his greatest anger for the way oil-rich Nigeria runs now, its elections often dominated by "those infamous rent-a-crowd hooligans at the beck and call of corrupt politicians with plenty of money and very low IQs."
"As we reached the brink of full-blown war it became clear to me that the chaos enveloping all of us in Nigeria was due to the incompetence of the Nigerian ruling class," Achebe writes. "This clique, stunted by ineptitude, distracted by power games and the pursuit of material comforts, was unwilling, if not incapable, of saving our fledging new nation."
Nigeria, which gained its independence from Britain in 1960, had hopes that it would become a powerful democracy fueled by oil revenues and free of colonial influence. But a 1966 coup led primarily by army officers from the Igbo ethnic group from Nigeria's southeast shot and killed Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, a northerner, as well as the premier of northern Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello.
The coup failed, but the country still fell under military control. Northerners, angry about the death of its leaders, attacked Igbos living there. As many as 10,000 people died in resulting riots. Many Igbos fled back to Nigeria's southeast, their traditional home. As mediation efforts failed and more Igbos worried about being slaughtered, then-military Gov. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the region had seceded from Nigeria and become the Republic of Biafra. The civil war began soon after.
In the book, published by The Penguin Press, Achebe describes how he, his wife and children faced repeated threats in the war years, fleeing their Lagos home as the military sought to kill him and later just missing being inside their apartment when an airplane bombed it. Yet Achebe deals with these episodes quickly, never deeply exploring his emotions or those of his loved ones. The death of his friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, wrings the most emotion from Achebe's young son, who shouts: "Daddy, don't let him die!"
The glossing over of those memories might be what Achebe later describes as a different language employed by those who suffered through the war's waning days, "the language and memory of death and despair, suffering and bitterness." The horrors of the mass starvation suffered by Igbo civilians, the first televised images of African children with distended bellies ever seen by the West, led to many of the deaths in the war.
Achebe sidesteps answering the question he poses late in his book, whether Nigeria's government carried out a genocide against the Igbo, yet weights his books with others suggesting one took place. He also doesn't explore whether Ojukwu's use of starvation as a publicity tool and refusal to surrender led to more deaths, something English journalist John de St. Jorre suggests in his influential book on Biafra titled, "The Brothers' War."
Biafra remains almost a culture and historical black hole in Nigeria. Its dilapidated schools don't teach much about it, and those from the war generation, including Ojukwu, have begun to succumb to old age. However, Biafra has received new literary attention after the success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's civil war novel, "Half of a Yellow Sun." Achebe's book adds to that revival and revision of a war that nearly tore Nigeria apart — and whose strains can still be seen today in its corrupt government.
As Achebe writes: "What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty 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."
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .
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