Superficially, it was understandable to conclude that this was indeed “an Igbo coup”. However, scratch a little deeper and complicating factors are discovered: One of the majors was Yoruba, and Nzeogwu himself was Igbo in name only…he was widely known as someone who saw himself as a Northerner, spoke fluent Hausa and little Igbo, and wore the traditional Northern dress when not in uniform.
Chinua Achebe, There Was A Country
In the end, I began to understand. There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.
Chinua Achebe, Home and Exile
IF in There Was A Country “a Nigerian ruling class” only appears in the narratives and reflections of the author in the final fourth part of the book, this is only the most stunning aspect of the general intellectual and discursive architecture of the book. This “architecture”, this “grammar” is none other than the fact that for nearly all other parts of the book with the exception of that concluding fourth part, all of Achebe’s “explanations”, all of his speculations in the book are relentlessly driven by ethnicity, and a very curious conception of ethnicity for that matter. Logically, inevitably, the corollary to this is that “explanations” and speculations based on class, and more specifically on intra-class and inter-class factors, are either completely ignored or even deliberately excluded. As I shall presently demonstrate, this is a remarkable departure from virtually all of Achebe’s writings prior to this recently published book. For now, let me illustrate this startling matter of the complete subsumption of class into ethnicity in There Was A Country with two particularly telling examples out of innumerable other instances in the book.
The first of our two selected examples pertains to nothing less than the January 15, 1966 coup itself, arguably the “opening shot” in the chain of events and crises that led to the Nigeria-Biafra war, the central subject of Achebe’s book. It so happens that there is quite a significant body of both general and academic writings and discourses on this signal event. And indeed, Achebe’s long citation of his sources in the bibliographic section of his book mentions many of these writings and discourses on the January 15, 1966 coup. It is therefore baffling that of the variety of “motives” or “interests” that have been ascribed to the coup plotters, the single one that Achebe addresses in his book is ethnicity, “tribe”: Was it, or was it not, “an Igbo coup”.
There have been suggestions, there have been speculations that it was a “southern coup”, this in light of the fact that most of the political and military leaders assassinated or inadvertently killed were, overwhelmingly, either northerners or southerners in alliance with northern leaders. More pertinent to the present discussion, there has also been an even more plausible speculation that class and ideological interests were significant in the motives of influential members of the coup plotters like Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Wale Ademoyega. Of the two alliances of the ruling class parties of the First Republic, the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) and the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), with the exception of Festus Okotie-Eboh, the Finance Minister, all those assassinated belonged to the NNA. S.L. Akintola, the Premier of the Western Region, was a diehard NNA chieftain; there is compelling evidence that this was why he was assassinated while Michael Okpara, the Premier of the Eastern Region, was spared because he was a major figure in the UPGA alliance. As a matter of fact, there is clear evidence that some of the coup plotters had the intension of making or “forcing” Chief Awolowo to assume the office of Prime Minister in the belief that the progressive northern allies of UPGA were far more regionally and nationally popular and credible than the southern and conservative allies of the NNA.
Achebe’s book pays not the slightest attention to these other probable factors in assessing the motives of the January 15 coup plotters. Was it, or was it not, “an Igbo coup”? That is all Achebe is interested in exploring - and disproving – in There Was A Country. Of the many threads that form the complex fabric of that fateful coup d’état, this single thread of ethnicity or “tribe” is all that Achebe strenuously tries to unravel in his book. This may be because by the time of the terrible pogroms of May 1966 against Igbos in the North, all other plausible motives for the coup had been almost completely erased by assertions, indeed pronouncements that the coup had incontrovertibly been an Igbo coup. But Achebe’s book was written more than forty years after the event and it had the advantage of both historical hindsight and a vast body of accumulated research and discourses. For this reason, there is no other conclusion left for us other than a finding that Achebe almost certainly has a driving rationale for sticking exclusively to ethnicity or “tribalism” while simultaneously ignoring or excluding all other plausible, and in some cases factual, factors.
At any rate, this is precisely what Achebe repeats in the second of our two examples. This pertains to the period of regional and nation-wide crises between 1964 to 1966 that preceded the January 15 coup and the Nigeria-Biafra war. Here, in Achebe’s own words, is the particular case: “By the time the government of the Western region also published a white paper outlining the dominance of the ethnic Igbo in key government positions in the Nigerian Railway Corporation and the Nigerian Ports Authority, the situation for ethnic Igbos working in Western Nigeria in particular and all over Nigeria in general had become untenable” (p. 77). This is indeed a fact, but it is a partial fact, one aspect of a complex of facts and realities many of which Achebe chooses to ignore or obscure. It is useful to carefully state what these other facts and realities were.
First, the government of the Western region that Achebe alludes to here was that of Chief S.L. Akintola and his party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). Arguably, these were the most perniciously right-wing government and party in southern Nigeria in the entirety of our post-independence political history. Achebe completely ignores this fact and fixes exclusively on this government’s anti-Igbo programs and diatribes. Secondly, Akintola’s government and party were not only virulently anti-Igbo, they were also scurrilously anti-welfarist and anti-socialist. A brilliant orator and a master of Yoruba rhetorical arts, Akintola tirelessly satirized a range of targets and issues of which Igbos were only one composite group. He was particularly fond of spewing out twisted, parodic visions of welfarism and socialism in which everything would be shared – wives, children, family heirlooms and personal belongings. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Achebe had to have been aware of these facts and realities; but he ignores them completely. Thirdly and lastly, Akintola and his party quite deliberately stoked the fires of intra-ethnic tensions and resentments within Yoruba sub-groups and they took this as far as founding a rival Pan-Yoruba organization to the Egbe Omo Oduduwa which they called “Egbe Omo Olofin”. And for good measure, they tried, unsuccessfully, to instigate the late Duro Ladipo to write and produce a play to counter Hubert Ogunde’s famous pro-Awolowo and pro-UPGA play, Yoruba Ronu.
It must be emphasized that all these intra-class and intra-ethnic facts and realities were so well-known at the time that Achebe could not have been ignorant of them. We are left with no other conclusion than that Achebe simply had no place in his book for any factors, any realities beyond a pristine, autochthonous conception of ethnic identity and belonging in which no other aspects of social identification are allowed to “contaminate” the singularity of ethnicity . This, I suggest, is what we see in its quintessence in the argument expressed in the first of the two epigraphs to this essay to the effect that Nzeogwu being Igbo “in name only”, the January 15 coup could not have been “an Igbo coup”.
In last week’s beginning essay in this series, I made the assertion that Achebe is one of the greatest realist writers in world literature in the last century and half. I now wish to clarify the relevance of that assertion to the present discussion. One of the most compelling claims of realism is that it is the mode or genre in which the chain of representation in a work of literature or, more broadly, an intellectual treatise, comes closest to the chain of causality in nature, history or society. In a layman’s formulation of this “big grammar”, this means that above all other modes, forms and genres, it is in realism that what is presented in a work of art or a treatise is as close as you can possibly get to how things actually happened. Another way of putting this across is to suggest that typically and unavoidably, there being always and forever a big gap between how things actually happen and how they are (re)presented in writing, it is only the most gifted and talented realist writers that come close to bridging that gap.
In all of Achebe’s books on our pre-colonial and postcolonial experience, he had come closer than perhaps any other writer to this conception and practice of realism. More specifically, ethnicity, class and individuality had been superbly interwoven and productively explored in such titles as No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, The Trouble with Nigeria and Home and Exile. Thus, in my opinion, There Was A Country marks a radical rupture in Achebe’s writings on our country, a rupture in which the realist rigour of his previous writings gives way to, or is considerably modified by a mystique, an apologia, an uncompromising defense of Igbo ethno-nationalism. I do not think that Achebe took this path in a fit of absent-mindedness; to the contrary, I think it is a decision, a choice he made in this new book quite deliberately and purposively. In next week’s continuation of this series, I shall deal extensively even if only speculatively with this choice, with particular reference to what I personally regard as one of the most controversial aspects of There Was A Country, this being the link that Achebe makes in the book between what he deems the endemic ethnic scapegoating of Igbos in our country and the utter collapse of meritocracy in post-civil war Nigeria.