Chinua Achebe is one of the most celebrated African writers. The reverence for his books has been in part due to excellence of his writings, but mostly for being an excellent narrator and poet of his beliefs.
Chinua Achebe begins the story with his early years, and lovingly describes the parents who raised him, and the society that nurtured him. He describes his schooling, and the inherent conflicts between his traditions and Christianity.
His views on African education are illustrated by an incident that occurred at his school where his teacher, with drawings on the blackboard, was giving a lesson on the geography of Great Britain.
Then the village ‘madman‘, from nowhere, snatched the chalk from the teacher and proceeded to give an extended lesson on Ogidi, Achebe’s hometown. It was the ‘madman‘, according to Chinua Achebe, who had the ‘clarity of perspective’ that Nigerian children would not only benefit from colonial education but also from ‘instruction in their own history and civilisation’.
However the focus of the book is his first-hand observation of the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, otherwise known as the Biafran War. The prelude to the Civil War was Nigeria’s march to Independence, and the great promise of a young country recently freed from the yoke of colonial rule. But within six years of independence, Nigeria had become of a ‘cesspool of corruption and misrule.’
The climax was the coup, led by an Igbo senior army officer, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. This was followed by a counter-coup staged by Northern Nigerian soldiers, leading to the brutal slaughter of one hundred and eighty five Igbo army officers, and in the next four months the massacre of over thirty thousand Igbos.
The Biafran War had started in earnest, with many Igbos terrified and fleeing home to Eastern Nigeria, a territory that would, with secession, be called Biafra.
With failed peace talks between the Biafran and Nigerian leaders, the civil war that flared left, in the end, over three million dead Nigerians. The vast majority of these casualties were sadly children.
The major Nigerian actors in the conflict were British trained soldiers Odumegwa Ojukwu (an Igbo from a highly priviledged background), and the head of state of Nigeria, Yakubu Gowon. The rivalry and the intense hatred between the two were to become a subplot in the fighting that followed.
With neither side prepared to compromise a Biafran state was declared with its own capital, government, constitution, provinces, flag, anthem, national bank and currency. The new country took its name from the Bight of Biafra, an expanse of water into which the Niger River empties.
With the Nigerian government intent on restoring its authority over all of its territory, the army was mobilised and quickly the capital of Biafra, Enugu, fell. The odds were heavily stacked against the new state, with only two thousand trained soldiers arrayed against the overwhelming might of the state army.
This was no just war between two armies. According to some Biafrans, the Nigerian army wasn’t just fighting a war; they wanted to wipe out all Igbos from the face of the earth. The Biafrans were soon completely outgunned, and in no time completely surrounded. The net then slowly closed in on the infant state.
With humanitarian aid to the civilian victims blocked, death by hunger and disease quickly became the symbol of the Biafran War. The brief and courageous resistance of the Biafrans soon crumbled, and was supplanted by a desperate struggle for survival.
In 1970, with Ojukwu having fled the country, the inevitable fall came, and Biafra was reduced to smouldering rubble. ‘The cost in human lives made it one of the bloodiest wars in human history.’
Chinua Achebe was no innocent bystander in this conflict but unashamedly served the Biafran, cause. Throughout the book are his scattered confessions of missed opportunities for peace by both sides. The horror and the pain he endured during the thirty months of bloody conflict were both profound and personal. He spent the next forty years of his life living and teaching abroad.
It seems he spent most of those years pondering the dashed expectations that many had for the new Nigerian state. All the optimism they once shared, he states, had to be re-thought. Also, as former Biafrans they had to contend and adjust to realities of a country that no longer appealed to them.
As with a dying parent talking to his children, THERE WAS A COUNTRY is Chinua Achebe’s last word to his country and continent. Corruption and the roguery of African leaders, according to him, have turned Africa into a pit of despair. He significantly concludes that we can no longer pass of the continent’s ‘problems to our complicated past and the cold war, however significant these factors are’.
THERE WAS A COUNTRY is his swansong, a memoir, and his disappointment with the political problems of his country. Perhaps in time, it will be regarded as Chinua Achebe’s finest literary achievement.
For me, it towers even above Things Fall Apart. Far from being polemical, it is a book written with prudence, skill and dignity. Chinua Achebe’s immense wisdom is stamped on every sentence and chapter. His style cannot be compared to any of the past great writers. He always depicts human experience in simple human language.
The book is an opportunity to conference with a unique writer of singular skill. If there is any lamentation on his part, it is from leaving this world without seeing any diminution of human misery, in a continent where the most abundant riches and most delirious possibilities still exist.
In all his works, Chinua Achebe’s mode of writing was the same. Though he gladdened and depressed us at same time, he never failed to instruct and to steer us. Even from his valedictory words one can still hear hope, despite the mangled remains of our societies, of a continent not only rising but soaring from the abyss.