Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country and “Boko Haram” Criticism

17 Nov 2012

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Chinua Achebe

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu writes on Chinua Achebe’s new book There Was a Country and pays tribute to the author who turned 82 yesterday


“Never explain, never retract, never apologize. Just get the thing done and let them howl.” - Nellie L. McClung
It is howling time as a result of the release of Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country – A Personal History of Biafra. What strikes me is that the book has given birth to a new kind of criticism known as “Boko Haram Criticism”. The term applies to the Boko Haram sect in Nigeria that sees books as anathema. In certain quarters Achebe’s book is “haram”, to wit, an anathema. There Was a Country has created the world record of having more critics who had not set eyes on the book let alone read it. Some of the Boko Haram critics of Achebe’s There Was a Country actually called for the outright banning of not just the book but also Things Fall Apart! A boon companion of mine has just revealed to me that one Boko Haram critic who anticipated my support for Achebe’s book has vowed to kill me and kill himself… That’s of course the suicidal Boko Haram way!

Of course I did not want to join the league of Boko Haram critics who discuss books that they had not read. In the bid to get a copy of the book I sent out a message to Achebe’s son, Dr Chidi Achebe in Boston, USA, stating thusly: “Chidi my brother, how can Nna-anyi (our father) write a new book and I don’t have a copy here in Nigeria?” Chidi replied me immediately, stating that he had discussed with his elder brother Dr Ike Achebe and both of them were ready to surrender their personal copies to me! Before I could say “Chinua Achebe” a hard cover edition of There Was a Country had been air-freighted to me as a gift from Chidi via Yes, I can actually discuss the book because I have a copy on my table unlike the hordes of Boko Haram critics.
It came as a surprise to me that the book did not have more than a couple of paragraphs on Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the subject of the critical hysteria in the media. The totality of the book is my concern here especially as Chinua Achebe celebrated his 82nd birthday yesterday. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer of South Africa has this to say about There Was a Country: “Chinua Achebe’s history of Biafra is a meditation on the condition of freedom. It has the tense narrative grip of the best fiction. It is also a revelatory entry into the intimate character of the writer’s brilliant mind and bold spirit. Achebe has created here a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of storytelling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one. The event of a new work by Chinua Achebe is always extraordinary; this one exceeds all expectation.”

Yes, any new book by Achebe becomes an instant classic. What with There Was a Country giving the world a new form of criticism known as Boko Criticism, to wit, purporting to criticize a book one had not read!

Chinua Achebe’s oeuvre is indeed intimidating starting from the legendary Things Fall Apart in 1958 and grandly lapping all the way through No Longer at Ease, Arrow of God, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, Girls at War and Other Stories, Beware Soul Brother, Morning Yet on Creation Day, The Trouble with Nigeria, Chike and the River, Home and Exile, Hopes and Impediments, The Education of a British-Protected Child etc. 

There Was a Country can in a sense be seen as the encapsulation of the great man’s lifework. Achebe starts out by reiterating his favourite Igbo proverb that “tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” For Achebe, the rain began to beat Africa upon the “discovery” of the continent by Europe some 500 years ago. Achebe follows through history to the Biafran war that changed not just the course of Nigeria but more crucially and cataclysmically the history of Africa. According to Achebe, “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.”

Born in Ogidi in present-day Anambra State on November 16, 1930, Chinua Achebe who was baptized as Albert was indeed a child prodigy from the very beginning such that his academic feats was known far and wide culminating to his lifelong buddy Christian Chike Momah, alias Papa Ada, confessing that he and his mates were warned early in life that one Albert Achebe from Ogidi would send them to the cleaners in the regional school exams!

It was therefore no wonder that Achebe was early in life given this nickname: Dictionary. He passed his school certificate exams at the top of the class with five distinctions and one credit, and the one credit was paradoxically in literature that would eventually earn him worldwide fame. In the nationwide examination for entry into the University College, Ibadan which had just been established Achebe came first or second in the entire country and thus won a major scholarship. His alma mater Government College, Umuahia was so proud of his achievement that they put up a big sign that stayed on the wall for many years.

At Ibadan he did not feel like studying medicine after all and thus lost his scholarship. Upon graduation from Ibadan he fell in love with Christie Okoli while working at the then Nigerian Broadcasting Service (NBS) in Enugu. When Achebe eventually transferred his services to the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Lagos he began his journey with destiny by writing Things Fall Apart. He then in a “quite naïve, even foolish” move posted the only handwritten manuscript he had to a typing agency in London after paying the then hefty fee of 32 pounds sterling in 1956. It was through the help of a former BBC Talks producer, Angela Beattie, who had been seconded to NBC Lagos that the typed manuscript was eventually recovered from the typing agency after about two months of panic and delay.

Achebe in his humble manner labels his time “A Lucky Generation”. He lived through the march to Independence in 1960 and the exploits of great politicians such as Zik, Ahmadu Bello and Awolowo. “Here is heresy:” Achebe writes. “The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care.”

Achebe’s novel A Man of the People which ended with a military coup was published on the cusp of the January 15, 1966 military coup, “something Nigeria has never really recovered from.” Achebe was one of the last Easterners to flee from Lagos after first sending home his then young family of wife Christie, daughter Chinelo and son Ike.

Achebe reiterates his deposition in The Trouble with Nigeria “that Nigerians will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo.” He delves into the pogroms against the Igbo, the July 29, 1966 countercoup and the assassination of the Supreme Commander JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi. The failure of the Nigerian team to accede to the Aburi Accord would in the end lead to the Civil War. There has been the argument that Biafra was not ready for the war, but one should not wait to be properly armed like the bully before fighting back for one’s life. Only a very poor student of history would not know that somebody like Fidel Castro, for example, did not wait to have as many weapons as Fulgencio Batista before confronting the evil regime in Cuba. Castro was captured and jailed after his first attack in 1953, then he was betrayed and ambushed in 1956 only to fortunately flee from Cuba but he eventually succeeded in ousting Batista in 1959. In South Africa, in circa 1961, the African National Congress (ANC) decided to take up armed struggle to battle the gargantuan arsenal of the Apartheid goons, and here is what Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought in battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army. It would be a daunting task for a veteran general much less a military novice.” Mandela and his comrades thus set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation). According to Mandela, “The symbol of the spear was chosen because with this simple weapon Africans had resisted the incursions of whites for centuries.” Mandela reminds us that the Communist Party in Cuba under Batista had felt that the appropriate conditions had not arrived to wage the war but “Castro did not wait, he acted – and he triumphed. If you wait for textbook conditions, they will never occur.” 

Achebe lived as a refugee in villages such as Ezinifite in Aguata local government. He sends up what he labels “the Triangle Game: the UK, France, and the United States” in the war effort. Achebe’s Enugu house was amongst the first places to be bombed in the Biafran enclave. The publishing house Citadel Press Achebe set up with his bosom friend, the iconic poet Christopher Okigbo, took possession of the manuscript of Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the leader of the January 15, 1966 coup but Achebe had reservations about the writing which Ifeajuna’s colleague Chukwuma Nzeogwu dismissed as “Emma’s lies”. The killing of Okigbo put paid to the publishing dreams, but the duo had worked assiduously on the manuscript of How the Leopard Got Its Claws by Chinua Achebe and John Iroaganachi, with a poem “Lament of the Deer” by Christopher Okigbo.

Achebe’s role as the head of the team that wrote the Ahiara Declaration marks him out as a conscience of the new nation. He was a roving cultural ambassador in the course of the war. He does not flinch from delving into controversial issues such as the Asaba massacre, the Calabar massacre, the vexed issue of propaganda, the media war, refugees, world champion boxer Dick Tiger as a Biafran, Biafra’s taking of an oil rig in the so-called Kwale incident, the role of international writers, and of course the question of genocide. Once the former Nigerian president Zik switched over to Nigeria the war was as good as over. In the end the Biafran leader Ojukwu had to flee to Cote d’Ivoire and thus “robbed Gowon of closure and complete satisfaction in victory.” Beyond the book, it is indeed remarkable that Gowon, like Ojukwu, needed a state pardon to make a re-entry into Nigeria. 

All hell has since broken loose in the Nigerian media because Achebe quoted Awolowo’s argument that “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war” that eventually led to “eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.” The slanging match is evenly matched between defenders of Awolowo and backers of Achebe alongside the well-worn ethnic Nigerian divide. It suffices to say that the national catharsis is well worth it. Achebe delivers what we used to label in primary school as “one blow, seven akpus”, to wit, delivering one punch to a person’s face that leaves the hapless fellow with seven bumps on the selfsame face. Achebe has this to say on Igbo reintegration, or lack thereof, after the war: “The Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness.”   

Achebe goes beyond the war to when the civilian regime of then President Olusegun Obasanjo took sides with criminals to kidnap the governor and burn down government buildings in his native Anambra State which made him to publicly reject the national honours awarded him. He tackles the issues of corruption and indiscipline, state failure and the rise of terrorism, state resuscitation and recovery. He sees Nelson Mandela as the shining example for every African and indeed all mankind at large; incidentally Mandela has the highest regard for Achebe as “The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.”  This well-annotated book that is interspersed with poems has done the great duty of getting Nigerians reading again and actually debating, even as the Boko Haram critics are only interested uncouth abuses. 

Irony is the great power of Achebe. Some may read the book, like the New York Times reviewer, thinking that Achebe meant there was a country called Biafra without understanding that Nigeria is at bottom the purview.
While Achebe celebrates his 82nd birthday as the eagle on top of the iroko tree it strikes me as very funny that some ants are on the ground scratching the bare sand in the name of doing battle as Boko Haram critics with his book There Was a Country. The fabrications, incoherencies, convolutions and circumlocutions of the bawdy band of Boko Haram criticism can only be summed up with the following words: “When in doubt, mumble.”

Achebe’s marriage of history and memoir in There Was a Country has raised a very high stake in the discourse of Nigeria. It is akin to a new birth for the country that must return to school, not unlike the birth of Achebe’s son Chidi who gave me this book, as limpidly limned in There Was a Country: “On May 24, 1967, in the midst of this chaos, my wife went into labor. I sent my close friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, to the hospital she had been admitted to to find out when the birth would take place, and then to call me at home, where I had briefly returned to rest and take a shower. In characteristic Okigbo fashion, he waited for the delivery, went to the nursery to see the baby, and then drove back to convey the news to me that my wife had delivered our third child, Chidi – ‘There is a God’ – and that the way his baby locks were arranged, he looked like he had had a haircut and was ready to go to school!”

Brazil’s Samba Band, Chinese Dragon Dance Make Calabar Carnival Debut

The annual Calabar Carnival, which is a few weeks away, is set to have a more international flavour this year with the current reigning Samba band champions in Brazil, the Vai Vai band set to be part of it.

Beside the Brazilians, the Chinese Dragon dance may also make its debut in the carnival this year.
The Brazilian band, made up of 25 ladies is set to add more colour to the carnival with their eye-popping costumes.

Full of praise for the carnival, the Chinese Consul-General in Lagos, Liu Xianfa revealed the desire of the Chinese community to storm this year’s event with the Dragon Dance.

Xianfa stated this during a recent visit to his office by the Governor of Cross River State, Liyel Imoke.
Revealing that Calabar is very popular within the Chinese community in the country, he said: “I think the Chinese community should take part in the Calabar Carnival.”
He thanked Imoke for providing strong leadership and for his “support for Chinese residents there. I wish Calabar Carnival big success.”

The Jazz Series Continues
Lagos Jazz Series, a three-day music festival that commenced on Friday enters its second day today. Today’s event christened Jazz by the Waterfront holds at the Federal Palace Hotel & Casino, Victoria Island, and features Omawumi, 9ice, Bob James, Nathan East, Chuck Loeb and Harvey Mason.

On Sunday, the show moves to the Muri Okunola Park, also in Victoria Island. The Sunday show dubbed Jazz Party at the Park would feature Waje, Burna Boy, Omawumi, Becca, 9ice and Zahara.

Tags: Arts and Review, Review

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