Nigeria did fracture once, however, and it is this story that Chinua Achebe, a giant of African letters, tells. His memoir of the moment describes when the country, yoked together artificially by British colonizers, split apart at a cost of more than a million lives.
Nigeria is the Texas of Africa: it’s big and loud and brash, a place of huge potential, untapped talent, murderous conflict and petroleum riches. It also has a singular capacity for irony and self-reflection that is both cultural habit and survival tactic. It is difficult and often dangerous to get by in Nigeria unless you are a fortunate member of the infinitesimally small and mostly corrupt oil-fed elite. Acute awareness of your surroundings is a necessity; along with it goes another Nigerian trait, thinking and dreaming big.
All these characteristics were in play when the nightmare for weak nation-states became reality in 1967. Seven years after Nigerian independence, the prosperous Ibos, dominant in the eastern part of the country and targets of persecution and pogroms, declared their independence. Led by the charismatic Oxford-educated, Shakespeare-loving Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, the fledgling nation called itself the Republic of Biafra. Achebe, an Ibo himself and the new country’s pre-eminent intellectual, a product of Nigeria’s finest English-style schools and author of “Things Fall Apart” — soon went to work at Biafra’s Ministry of Information, serving as special envoy and chairman of a committee charged with writing a constitution for the new country.
The architects of Biafra were correct in their frustration with the Nigerian government, which did not intervene as thousands of Ibos were massacred. But they were deluding themselves that Biafra was viable. The nascent state had virtually no chance of survival once the authorities in Lagos decided they were going to stamp out the secession in what they called a “police action.” Was Biafra ever really a “country,” as Achebe would have it? It had ministries, oil wells, a ragtag army, an often-shifting capital, official cars (Achebe had one) and a famous airstrip. But as a “country,” it was stillborn.
Nonetheless, for over two brutal years, the Biafran war dragged on at the insistence of Ojukwu — described as “brooding, detached and sometimes imperious” in a 1969 New York Times profile by Lloyd Garrison — and meddling international players. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed. As many as 6,000 a day starved to death once the federal government blockaded the ever diminishing Republic of Biafra. But Ojukwu refused to give up. The final death toll was estimated at between one and three million people.
It was the first conflict in Africa to draw much outside media attention; the photographs of starving Biafran children with distended bellies became symbols of African suffering, and they triggered an extensive Western relief effort.
We get glimpses of this immense human tragedy in Achebe’s characteristically plain-spoken narrative: the millions of citizens escaping the war zone, targets of the federal Nigerian planes even as they fled; the men and women driven mad by the grinding, endless war who “could often be seen walking seemingly aimlessly on the roads in tattered clothes, in conversation with themselves”; the federal soldier, who “wandered into an ambush of young men with machetes” and was murdered and mutilated “in a matter of seconds.”
But mostly Achebe’s account is tinged with odd nostalgia for the ephemeral moment when Biafra seemed to birth a national culture. “One found a new spirit among the people, a spirit one did not know existed, a determination, in fact.” This feeling — evidently alive for him a half-century later — recalls the spirit that imbues his most celebrated work, “Things Fall Apart,” itself a fairy-tale-like re-creation of self-sufficient, indigenous nationhood.
Literature for Achebe had a didactic function; working for officialdom thus was not a stretch. It is clear that the writer, long a resident of the United States and now a professor at Brown University, recalls this period as a golden age. “During the war years one never really unpacked,” Achebe writes, but despite the hardships, he paints it as a time of unequaled excitement and stimulation. His committee produced a landmark speech for Ojukwu, the “Ahiara declaration,” “an attempt to capture the meaning of the struggle for Biafran sovereignty.”
Yet when Achebe praises Ojukwu’s “gift for oratory,” the colors in the new nation’s flag or the accomplished design of its new currency it is sharply at odds with the haunting images of the suffering engendered by the war: the famine, the bodies “rotting under the hot sun.” His nostalgia seems jarring and misplaced.
And that nostalgia, in turn, is a kind of justification for one of this book’s underlying themes: bitterness over what Nigeria became after independence from Britain in 1960 — a stance familiar to those who follow the country and Achebe’s regular critical pronouncements on it.
“There was enough talent, enough education in Nigeria for us to have been able to arrange our affairs more efficiently, more meticulously, even if not completely independently, than we were doing. . . . Nigeria had people of great quality, and what befell us — the corruption, the political ineptitude, the war — was a great disappointment and truly devastating to those of us who witnessed it,” he says. Writers faced political repression and “found that the independence their country was supposed to have won was totally without content. . . . Like the head of John the Baptist, this gift to Nigeria proved most unlucky.”
Worse, after the end of civil war, “a new era of great decadence and decline was born. It continues to this day,” he laments. The country is a “laughingstock.” His disappointment fortifies his belief that “the British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care.” Achebe is careful to say that he is “not justifying colonialism.” But this partially rose-tinted view of the colonial past — a view one sometimes hears from other elderly Nigerians confronting the chaos of daily life — surely has much to do with the favored status enjoyed by Her Majesty’s onetime brilliant subject.
Like his nostalgia for Biafra, Achebe’s judgment on contemporary Nigeria seems excessive — more the products of a writer’s jaundiced backward glances than a coming to grips with the reality of what was and what is. Nigeria today is a seething caldron, maddening in its contradictions and capacity for self-destruction but full of promise too, in its immense energy and human resources.
As for judgments on Biafra — perhaps we should rely on Nigeria’s other great man of letters, Wole Soyinka, whose blunt appraisal is that secession was “simply politically and militarily unwise.”