Achebe’s Book, the Crossfire, and Some Home Truth

13 Oct 2012

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Chinua Achebe

I say it again: the Lion roared and there is war instead of fear-induced silence. There is fire everywhere in the media, and they are not just pyrotechnics. Some combatants have resorted to strong language, some very strong.

Last week’s piece here drew prompt reaction from some readers, who questioned Michael Holman’s authority on Nigerian issues. Holman who was brought up in Zimbabwe, was Africa editor of the Financial Times from 1984 until 2002. He is a respected freelance journalist and continues to travel extensively in Africa.

In his review of the book, Michael opened, “The author is one of Africa’s finest novelists, the subject is one of Africa’s greatest tragedies, the accusations he makes could not be more serious, and his prognosis for Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is grim indeed. The combination should make for a compelling read. Instead the result is a quirky mix of opinion and autobiography, history and polemic, uneven in quality and partisan in perspective….”

And he closed, “By this stage however Achebe’s story has become a harangue, one that risks opening old wounds and reviving old scores, and failing to provide the fresh insights into the African tragedy that was Biafra”.

Strong! But although a book review is a form of literary criticism that analyses the content, style, and merit, it is often difficult to rule out the issue of personal taste.

One thing you don’t deny Michael though is his expectation of the book’s ability to open old wounds and revive old scores. It has.
The long-awaited book could simply be outlined as the birthing of a large country of many colours, high hopes of a liberated people, an action and crippling chain reactions that have scared the nation and left it on its knees.

The problem seems to be Achebe’s attempt to allocate blame, sometimes strongly. He blamed former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (retd), and the Yoruba political leader and Vice Chairman of the then National Executive Council, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, of formulating policies that led to the genocide against the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria.

While Gowon has kept a studied silence, loyalists of Chief Awolowo, would not let this pass. They have taken strong exception to Achebe’s claims and language, but his kinsmen, insist the truth has been roared by no less an animal than the lion.
The following are some of the tongues of the raging fire:

The Sun quoted the immediate past president of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Dozie Ikedife, as saying: “The facts are naked but only that truth is better. Igbos would not start another war but for Nigeria to move forward, she must acknowledge injustice done to Ndigbo during the war.”
Ebenezer Babatope, a former minister said in a statement : “While Achebe is free to write on any topic that suits his fancy, he has no right whatsoever to irresponsibly murder history by his recklessly attacking a great leader like Papa Awolowo.”

In his own reaction to the controversy, a former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, said, “this claim is not only false, but it is also, frankly speaking, utterly absurd. Not only is Professor Achebe indulging in perfidy, not only is he being utterly dishonest and disingenuous, but he is also turning history upside down and indulging in what I would describe as ethnic chauvinism.

“We must not mistake fiction and storytelling for historical fact. The two are completely different. The truth is that Professor Chinua Achebe owes the Awolowo family and the Yoruba people a big apology for his tale of pure fantasy.”

Vanguard quotes Chinwoke Mbadinuju, former governor of Anambra state, Mr. Achebe’s home state, as cautioning such remarks:
“I have not read the book. I don’t want to speculate. During the civil war, I was studying in the United States of America. However, I have absolute confidence in Prof Chinua Achebe. He is an acclaimed international scholar and figure; whatever he says about the civil war should be taken seriously,” Mr. Mbadinuju said.
Mr. Awolowo’s daughter also spoke of her “disappointment”.  She said: “One is still trying to come to terms with the sense of disappointment about the person who wrote what is now a brewing controversy in the country.”

Poet and author, Odia Ofeimun said Achebe should not have thrown his weight behind the justification for the war in his book, because what the Biafran leaders did amounted to genocide against the Igbo people.

Leader of the pan-Yoruba socio-cultural group, Afenifere, Chief Ayo Adebanjo said: “We know Achebe as somebody who has some hatred for Yoruba, and the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, in particular. Many of us who were around during the war are already familiar with (Achebe’s) styles and actions. He has a pathological hatred for Awolowo and the Yoruba race.  He’s suffering from Yorubaphobia; and he needs help.”

In the raging crossfire for which I have no contribution, I decided on a purely literary view of the subject. Is the book historical textbook? No.  But Achebe did note that it is a “personal history of Biafra.” Personal!
Is it fiction? Certainly Not.

A faction (a mix of faction and non-fiction) as I am trying to do with my book on the Niger Delta? No!
Autobiography or a memoir? Hmmmm, a mix. Looks like a mixture of a memoir and history. It is certainly not an autobiography, which is more encompassing and detailed- everything that has happened.
So we settle for a memoir because it is focused on some parts of Achebe’s life, including the Civil War, which could have been one of the turning points in his life; and as he suggests, the turning point in the fortunes of Nigeria. 
Was Achebe qualified to write a memoir? Sounds stupid to ask, but until the genre became an all-comers affair, people had to earn the right to write it: experienced, accomplished people with noteworthy achievements, or people who have had extremely unusual experience or brilliant writers.
On all accounts, Achebe should be reader’s choice memoirist. As an experienced and brilliant storyteller, would it have been an easy book for him to write? He has not spoken about that but memoirists say that although it could be a therapeutic and beneficial experience, it is a complex journey of self-discovery and reliving pain and loss, as in the case of the Civil War.

I can imagine Achebe’s pain going back in time to write about the personal cost of the Civil War to him such as near deaths, and the death of his close friends. I know because personally, there are certain painful moments in my life I try not to remember. I have been through unimaginable poverty and pain.

On the bombing of the offices of a publishing company,  Citadel Press, he owned with his closest pal, Christopher  Okigbo, Achebe wrote: ‘Having had a few too many homes and offices bombed, I walked away from the site and from publishing forever.’

Achebe’s traumatic experience and scars include the siege of Igbos in Lagos from where he fled to the East, witnessing horrific deaths, and fleeing his home in Biafra, when soldiers set up an armoury on his porch.

From his previous works, one senses some level of Achebe’s bitterness against Nigeria, whose awards he has refused twice.  He also shows it in the new book with layers of doubt of the ability of the country to turn the corners into dreamland.

Many memoirists believe that in this state a writer could be torn between going for Emotional Truth or Factual Truth. According to one of them, while factual details paint the story’s canvas, emotional truths comprise the story’s soul. According to a web definition, emotional truth is writing in such a way that readers not only learn the facts of an event, but can feel the joy, sorrow, anger, envy, love, hate.

Whichever is the case, memoir writing requires emotional honesty and courage. The book is Achebe’s memoir, largely his perspective of issues and events. Personal views to which he is entitled. His huge literary status notwithstanding, and the acceptance level of his views, they remain his. The little problem I have with his style is painting a group of actors in “Nigeria’s problem” all white and the others all black. It is difficult to believe that the people in white did nothing wrong; and the all blacks did nothing right. As some memoirists caution if you are writing about someone who did you wrong, don’t blank out his good sides.

All things considered, however, the book is a good read. As they are fashioned to be, many great memoirs are storm raisers.

Tags: Arts and Review, Review, Chinua Achebe

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