Nigeria: Achebe's There Was a Country... Actually Means What It Says

17 February 2020

Nigeria's foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe died on March 21, 2013, roughly a year after the release of his last book There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Chinua Achebe's historical account in that supposedly last novel has been variously interpreted depending on the background, mindset and interest of each interpreter. Despite the varying connotations given to his intended message, Achebe's parting gift portrays the dominant conditions that pervade Nigeria's sociopolitical landscape, especially the quagmire of corruption and insipid leadership which she has been inexorably trapped into since she attained independence.

Ostensibly set in Nigeria, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra covers the period before, during and after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, spanning many political dispensations and prophetically unveiling matters ahead of it, some of which got fulfilled barely seven years after its publication. From its title, the reader gets the impression that Achebe's intent is to adapt the formulaic storytelling device using in folklores to arouse the audience's interest or create suspense. However, a closer look reveals that "There Was a Country... " actually means what it says. It is neither a prefatory statement nor folkloric rhetoric. There was indeed a country that embodied the aspirations of a people, who in unison, did all they could to preserve it, but lost it due to factors beyond their control. Being a nonfictional narrative, the title appears self-revealing, especially as it extends to include the sub: A Personal History of Biafra.

Does Achebe bemoan the loss of Biafra or a bleak future? The author asserts that "This is not a time to bemoan all the challenges ahead. It is a time to work at developing, nurturing, sustaining, and protecting democracy and democratic institutions." He expresses concern for not just Nigeria, but the African continent and calls on erstwhile colonial powers "to be involved positively in African affairs, this time not by imposing themselves or their self-selected rulers on a desperate continent but by aiding Africans in their struggles to become viable democracies."

Among the contending issues Achebe addresses in the book is 'Nigeria's Painful Transitions' since the cessation of hostilities in 1970, "The post-Nigeria-Biafra civil war era saw a "unified" Nigeria saddled with a greater and more insidious reality. We were plagued by a home-grown enemy: the political ineptitude, mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry and corruption of the ruling class.' Although Achebe refers to the immediate postwar era when "Nigeria had more money than it knew what to do with", he quickly adds that "A new era of great decadence and decline was. It continues to this day."

Has anything positively changed? Reflecting on the polity, Achebe decries the country's failure to enthrone a genuine and patriotic leadership, "My sojourn in politics was marked by disappointment, frustration, and the realization that despite the fact that there were a few upright political figures like Mallam Aminu Kano, the vast majority of the characters I encountered in the political circles were there for their own selfish advancement. Having grand ideas was fine, but their execution required a strong leader... Nigeria's principal problem was identifying and putting in place that elusive leader."

Neither prophesying as a prophet of doom nor the devil's advocate, the sage proffers solutions: "That road to a remedy of Nigeria's political problems will not come easily. The key as I see it, lies in the manner in which the leadership of the country is selected... What I am calling for is for Nigeria to develop a version of campaign election and campaign finance reform, so that the country can transform its political system from the grassroots level right through to the national party structures at the federal level."

Achebe also speaks on the republican disposition of Igbos, "The Igbos are a very democratic people. The Igbo people expressed a strong anti-monarchy sentiment-Ezebuilo-which literally means, a king is an enemy. Their culture illustrates a clear-cut opposition to kings, because, I think, the Igbo people had seen what the uncontrolled power of kings could do. There is no doubt that in their history they experienced the high-handedness of kings, so they decided that a king cannot be a trusted friend of the people without checks and balances."

Moreover, he posits that "they (the Igbo) tried to construct all kinds of arrangements to whittle down the menace of those with the will to power because such people are there in large numbers in every society. So, the Ibo created all kinds of titles that cost much to acquire. Aspirants to titles, in the end, become impoverished in the process and end up with very little. So that individual begins again, and by the time his life is over, he has a lot of prestige but very little power." This submission evidently indicates the proper place of money in the polity and suggests how to curb inordinate ambition for power.

Expressing a preference for democracy over any other system of government, the author observes that "Democracy is the very antithesis of military or absolutist rule. And democracy is not a fancy word; it is something that is full of meaning, even in our ancient African cultures. Dictatorships by their very nature concentrate power and the resources of the state in the hands of a very few people. Dictators hang on to power by resorting to tactics designed to keep the mass of the people silent and docile." Achebe cites Winston Churchill as perceptively saying that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.' We have to go by that wisdom."

There Was a Country is 333-page politico-historical nonfiction published by the Penguin Group in 2012 a few months before the demise of the famous iconic writer. The novel is divided into four parts, consisting of subtitles such as "Pioneers of a New Frontier", "The March to Independence", "The Cradle of Nigerian Nationalism", "Post-Independence Nigeria", "The Role of the Writer in Africa", "January 15, 1966, Coup", "The Dark Days", "A History of Ethnic Tension and Resentment", "Countercoup and Assassination", "The Pogroms", "The Nigeria-Biafra War", "The Major Nigerian Actors in the Conflict: Ojukwu and Gowon", "The Biafran Invasion of Mid-West", "The Republic of Biafra", "The Media War", "The Economic Blockade and Starvation", "The Case Against the Nigerian Government", "Nigeria's Painful Transitions: A Reappraisal", "State Failure and the Rise of Terrorism" and "State Resuscitation and Recovery". In addition, Achebe weaves poems and short-stories into the narrative process, thereby generating a hybridized genre. The poems include the following "1966", "Benin Road", "Penalty of the Godhead", "Generation Gap", "The First Shot", "Biafra, 1969", "Refugee Mother and Child", "Air Raid", "We Laughed at Him", "Vultures" and "After a War" while the short-stories are seemingly unrelated titles such as "The Magical Years", "A Primary Exposure", "The Formative Years at Umuahia and Ibadan", "Meeting Christie and Her Family", "Discovering Things Fall Apart", "The Ifeajuna Manuscript" and "Leaving Home".

Masterfully incorporating his childhood experiences and memoirs into the already intricate storyline, Achebe weaves well over 50 varied insightful topics into a complex plot that evolves to unfold a myriad of sociopolitical and economic issues that account for Nigeria's underdevelopment. There are also explicatory guideposts such as a postscript, "The Example of Mandela", an "Introduction" in the mould of a classical prologue, maps of "Republic of Biafra, May 1967", "Biafran Controlled Territory, January 1970", endnotes on subtitles and an index of about 14 pages as well as appendix, "Brigadier Banjo's Broadcast to Mid-West".

Moreover, the author explores the desirable qualities that characterized the fairylike country which may be harnessed to build a dream country-Nigeria: a focused leadership, limited, but well-managed resources, technological breakthroughs without foreign inputs, a political system in tandem with the culture and traditional disposition of the people, a country that leveraged on the intellectual capacities and experiences of its brains. Above all, that country purposively galvanized its meagre resources and inspired the people to make patriotic contributions towards achieving a collective goal.

In Achebe's description of the uniqueness of "The Republic of Biafra", he highlights the intellectual foundation of defunct Biafra, its military, national emblems, technological inventions-especially, of the famous "Ogbunigwe", war tanks, petroleum refinery and Uli Airport. In addition to recalling his own role as an emissary, and member of important committees, the author also recounts the roles of certain countries, organizations as well as major and minor individual players: Ojukwu, Gowon, Azikiwe, Ifeajuna, Banjo, Dick Tiger, volunteers, militia groups and the masses.

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