Sunday, November 11, 2012

Recalling A Nation's Ills, Chinua Achebe, Storytelling, The Pogrom And Story That Never Ends


There Was A Country
A Personal History Of Biafra
By Chinua Achebe
Penguin Press: 352 pp., $27.95

A young Igbo boy, surviving the pogrom, back in good health, smiles as he holds his little brother, who has not fully recovered at the UNICEF convalescent center in Okporo, Orlu August 17, 1970. Achebe mentioned the hospitality and goodwill his family received in Okporo during the time of random travels and relocations while the federal Nigeria forces advanced toward the capitulation of Biafra. Image: Bettmann Collection

I had no knowledge of what was going on about a Nigerian national state and what had been the root cause of the outburst of uprising in the 1960’s post-independence nation which had been politically confused from a bad and corrupt leadership when the organizers of the first coup that overthrew the government of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa struck January 15, 1966. But I had sensed as a little kid, that something, somewhere, had gone wrong when my father and his kinfolks would gather to discuss what had unfolded in their native land; that a sitting government had been toppled and war was about to erupt in the ugliest of circumstances, and after all said and done to avert war, and if not for the sudden 180-degrees turn in declining to decisions reached at Aburi, Ghana, by a federal Nigerian delegation and a Eastern Nigerian team led by Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, and, other attempts made to stop what had erupted from killing Igbo on a wholesale scale, the situation wouldn’t have been what the country looks like today.

And I did notice the propaganda from the airwaves my father and his kinsfolk tuned in to from that transistor radio which had become their lifeline in what was going on in their native land, coupled with the pogrom which took place, and all had to wonder if any of their families would survive the ordeal in what Ojukwu had called “ a premeditated and diabolical act,” by the vandals and architects of what Nigeria would not recover from until eventually the right thing is done. I remember the scenario where everybody, of my father’s kin, would sit at the tables talking about the fate of Nd’Igbo with an ongoing pogrom all across Nigeria and what had caused the systematic massacre of Igbo in a country they had engineered its structure from the beginning. Oftentimes, the question popped up in the classrooms; a teacher had asked if we were aware of the ongoing internal strife taking place in Nigeria and how the Hausa-Fulanis with a collaborative Yoruba have singled out a people for mass slaughter. It had become a way of life for the time being and Nigeria had taken the center stage becoming the major topic of all subjects in relative discourses.

Like American leaders (Bill Clinton's formal apology to Japan on the events of World War II), Russian's Boris Yeltsin's formal apology to the Romanov's on that fateful July 17, 1918, when Czar Nicholas II and his household were slaughtered during the Bolshevik Revolution, and just past this July 22, 2012, French President Francois Hollande formally apologized to the rounding up by French police, 13,152 Jewish men, women and children on July 16 and 17, 1942, "locked them up at the Velodrome, a bicycle stadium, and later deported them to German concentration camps" where most of them perished. In Nigeria, the bigots and haters who have lived in denial over the years and continue to tell us no such thing as the pogrom took place when Igbo men, women, infants and children were sought from house to house for extermination, and when children and their mothers were desperately starved to death, should bear in mind that their victims will not fall into oblivion just like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the German concentration camps, the case of the Romanovs, the Rwandan genocide and all cases of that nature. We hope one day the right thing will eventually be done.

As this had happened, nothing that I knew was going on and, I was also not physically there to have experienced Obafemi Awolowo’s orchestrated ‘Economic Blockade’ which had denied access to food and medicine to the children of Biafra during the course of Yakubu Gowon’s-led genocidal campaign against the Igbo nation.

It was not until I arrived my native land as a kid that I began to get a grip of what my father and his kinfolks were doing in the days of a troubled nation and the reasons why they were disturbed. Like my father, his kinfolks had relatives living in every part of Nigeria, thus the worry and the uncertainties, and fate surrounding their relatives when the crisis turned ugly.

The result would be a tragedy. The Igbo nation had been targets of genocide in a deliberate act and conflict that would consume an estimated 3 million people. Upon my arrival to my native land, all I saw was a people in shambles, relatives I have not known and had begun to get the drift, and by listening, I captured the event from the war stories told by my uncle on what had happened in the enclave during the 30-month siege, which included my relatives I did not meet, who did not make it back when the counts began. It was a typical eyewitness account. With my uncle, I was able to adapt without culture shock and his gist about the pogrom and 30-month invasion of Igboland begun my learning on the facts and logics about the Biafran war. And the story never ends.

Before the speculations on the possibilities of Chinua Achebe to tell his story and what he had known about the pogrom and what would eventually erupt as a full-blown war between nations, many did wonder why it had taken the master of letters and storyteller , Achebe, that long to release information in his possession; the stuff he had known based on his personal encounter in what had transpired over time during the Biafra-Nigeria war.

Many had also questioned the relevance of Achebe’s book at this very point when numerous books on the subject matter have told stories of the conflict in a war Achebe had described as the first war of its kind in a warfare on the face of the African continent.

Also, as it had happened, the relevance of Achebe’s book came into question when a literary friend had openly asked and confronted the literary icon’s book, demanding why Achebe “isn’t telling the world” about his American experiences based on the number of years he’d lived on the shores of America and, the importance of a book in that regard since he’s been earning his living on the American shores for quite a while, which concludes the necessity of a book from that perspective. And, that, those big boys who created the mess in the heydays of a fabricated Nigeria are almost gone, that the ones left who have not tracked their stories for book format have nothing much to say, if not at all.

As it had turned out, Achebe explained the delay which is in the body of this literature.

But of course, Achebe had us waiting. And we waited. And the book, as I would say, came out at the right time when stories of the war and its effect have begun to wane in steps deliberately taken by the Nigerian government and the alleged ‘victors’ in order to wipe it out from memory and outrightly to deny generations to come the privilege to know detailed analysis and breakdown of the pogrom and a civil war including the roadmaps to the conflict and what had caused a war of nations with ominous consequences.

Taking into account Achebe’s previous noteworthy books, “Things Fall Apart,” “A Man Of The People,” “No Longer At Ease,” “Home And Exile,” “The Trouble With Nigeria,” and other related stories, it shouldn’t take too much probing to elicit testimony that most of the nation’s problems had been surrounded by social-related issues and bad leadership, lacking since the nation was given its freedom by its colonial master, Britain, in which a Biafra that was left with two choices as a result of the pogrom and failed dialogues to reach a common ground to avert war; and the options to either be free or remain enslaved was what resulted to a brutal war that shouldn’t have taken place if the decisions reached at Aburi, Ghana, were upheld and respected, and if it had been realized by a federal Nigeria mandate that an unprovoked attack would be much more costly, the invaders probably would have done a rethinking of their strategies.

The name Biafra did not surface out of the blue. Biafra was not a fabricated state and was not a one man’s idea. Biafra did not exist as a nation because it wanted out of a fabricated Nigerian republic on purpose. Biafra was born out of having a choice rather than being permanently enslaved. And Biafra was not an idea which came out as a result of being politically impotent. Biafra did send the message. Nigeria would never be the same again.

Then again, fact is, the history of the anti-Igbo pogrom and the war cannot be complete until there are significant accounts, or thereabout of what happened at the federal Nigeria occupied regions of the Hausa-Fulani dominated northern regions, the Yoruba speaking majority of the Western region, the Midwest, an occupation of multilingual people and, the eastern Nigeria inhabitants, and the people among whom the Igbo lived with, in and near the Igbo landscape.

In uncountable occasions, and still counting on a whole lot of complicated issues regarding Africa’s most blood soaked event - the anti-Igbo pogrom and a brutal war that followed - in which its account, assessments and effects by way of casualties from every aspect of the encounter, and from around which the invaders and nihilists took hold, in the attempt for what they had envisioned and conceived, and the people in question to be exterminated, and the stories yet to be wholly told in its entirety, takes into account the timely arrival of Achebe’s “There Was A Country: A Personal History Of Biafra.”

The story not yet told and why it has been very important to be told on a personal experience and from eyewitness accounts perspective which is also necessary for posterity and for humankind to be on alert for it not to happen again, makes Achebe’s new entry to the bookshelves a read that deserves to be well noted.

It has seriously bothered the mind since Achebe’s book release; first, from the British Guardian published excerpt of Achebe’s “There Was A Country,” and as prelude to what would explode among folks who had not read the book but would spew out the venom in them to seek relevance on the basis Obafemi Awolowo was mentioned for his wrongdoing regarding the state of affairs and his participation when children, infants and their mothers were desperately starved to death, and the question of his take on that. The irony in this very outburst of anger and frustration by the Awoist who did not pay attention or care to read the book before the hearsay of this is what he wrote about Awo and things like that relative to tabloid news, was the supposedly fervent Awo followers who had lacked the ability to make sound judgments before displaying their ignorance which did become sickening. Actually, I was not surprised and had expected the ruckus from a people hatred had been baked in their genes it becomes so obvious and impossible to erase.

Oftentimes, situations like this occurs with people in denial which is dangerous and deterrent to seek the truth and notably from a long-awaited book that is still incomplete with a whole lot of stuff not revealed we should assume the author must have been aware of, or must have known either by his running errands for the Biafran state, or, may have been passed through to him during exchanges of correspondences; and, or he must have deliberately wanted not to add for a lack of merit. The Awoists dabbled into name-calling; most, if not all, from a book they were yet to read and analyze.

What the British colonists did which still haunts the country today is unquestionably their leaving serious unresolved internal problems covering every aspect of the nation’s economic, social, and political life despite the fact that British intent was to establish a class of "black Englishmen" who would be their partner in religion and administration that would compel their subjects to abandon their origin and culture in order to assimilate with the British way of life and culture, which in itself was another tragedy. But as the case would turn out to be, Britain played its significant role when Achebe reminds us that the British transition as they prepared the country to independence was profoundly smooth considering himself to be lucky and part of a generation that sprang out in that whole era. Achebe writes;

“My generation was summoned, as it were, to bear witness to two remarkable transitions -- first the aforementioned impressive economic, social, and political transformation of Nigeria into a midrange country, at least by third world standards. But more profoundly, barely two decades we were thrust into the throes of perhaps Nigeria’s greatest twentieth-century moment -- our elevation from a colonized country to an independent nation.”

At a time of a Achebe’s generation that flourished, over "seventy-five percent of Nigerians were illiterates and techniques in development had to be slow," thus tools for modernization largely absent while many suffered from ill health. Nigeria had not been earning from oil. It's foreign revenue was derived from palm oil,groundnuts, cocoa and other cash crops. When the oil production arrived, it was exploited by foreign companies with no regulations and at the cost of a labor intensive indigenous workers. Nigerian college graduates then were very few for the nation's need in skilled labor. There were fewer schools and limited opportunities. Nigeria, at this particular time, was not practically solvent and buoyant in human capital as we find it today. Achebe and his class of intellectuals were very few, ala, not much resistance or challenge when a bunch of ethnic groups were struggling for an identity in the quest for nationhood.

Today, it’s been three generation since the agitation for independence Achebe and his generation found themselves in toward the struggle, coupled with the dialogue for sovereignty which turned out to be very unfortunate in the quest for freedom and independence. The founders of Nigeria’s statehood who hurried for independence did not think about the consequences of joining a collection of nations with different ethnic backgrounds and cultural practices together; thus, in their constitutional conferences to have suggested to the organizing body overseeing the platform for nationhood that the agenda did not add up and was not necessary for the formation which takes into account many instances as to why Nigeria should not have been one country if the agitators had paid attention to the complexities and consequences that may result from the ethnic collaboration for sovereignty under a one Nigeria platform.

But then again, we must bear in mind that a sense of national pride and patriotism took form with Nnamdi Azikiwe, Achebe had held on high grounds for Zik as he was called by his admirers, his insights and what he had tailored for a promising country while negotiations with the colonists about independence continued apace. Achebe does not forget the significant role Zik played during the course of the nation’s independence and the impact it had toward the ideals of a democratic fabric and nationalism and, how finally in championing Igbo (Biafra) nationalism with the presentation of papers seeking resolve to the Biafra-Nigeria war. Achebe reminds us of Zik's attempts to end the war with the speech at Oxford University where Zik came up with “a fourteen point peace plan” for proposal by the United Nations measure seeking resolve to the Biafran war which has become a model adopted by the United Nations in its method of operation today.

While we are at it, Achebe also tells us the friction from around which Zik withdrew his support for the Biafran cause and how Ojukwu had been blamed for Biafra’s demise on the grounds of Ojukwu not listening and taking into accounts, counsels proffered to him as strategies while the war raged on.

The Biafran war, without doubt, has been of utmost concern to many of us, especially those of us who were not in the country at the time, and those not yet born. And it had been on these basis that we were able to locate ourselves and commit ourselves collectively when the Biafra-Nigeria-World and its related sister links was created, to generate a forum for related discourses and dialogue, and also to seek the truth on who had been the key players and what role and decisions were made at the time of an emerging Biafran republic. Precisely, on that score, Chinedu Ibe, who had joined us out of Chicago suggested contacting and connecting with the late Okechukwu Ikejiani who then lived in Canada. Not a whole lot came out from the tele-conferences held with Ikejiani, in the several attempts to eke out stuff with him and what he had known during the struggle for Biafra save for the revival of the Ahajioku Lectures as a backbone to the 1950s, 1960s Igbo Union. Ikejiani died in Canada some years ago while Ojukwu departed just about a year ago.

With all said about Biafra that I have read and still reading from every source even though we will not get to know all the facts with some of the subjects gone without trace of their storylines, Achebe, here, in “There Was A Country” links us to Ikejiani’s thoughts and what Zik had in mind for Biafra while Ojukwu ignored most counsels, in that regard, by way of what probably would have worked if Ojukwu had considered and taken seriously what Zik had observed and thought was proper. In Ikejiani’s own words as Achebe presents it:

“His [Azikiwe’s] feeling was that when a leader of a nation wants to go to war, he should consult people. Primarily Ojukwu should have consulted Zik. Secondly, he should have consulted [Michael] Okpara [premier of Eastern Nigeria]. Thirdly, he should have consulted other leaders. The only people Ojukwu consulted were [Louis] Mbanefo and [Francis] Ibiam. I have Ibiam’s letter here. It was a great mistake. I told Ojukwu [to] invite these people [and inform them]. He told me they would compromise. That’s what he said. He didn’t invite them, never asked them questions. That’s not how to lead. That’s what led us into trouble. There are many areas we would have compromised. Ojukwu did not compromise. That’s one of the mistakes we made in the war...It wasn’t that Zik opposed the war.. Anybody with an intellect, with a sense would consider carefully the implications of a war. War is destructive. There’s no country that went to war that didn’t suffer, not one. When we went to war, we destroyed everything we had. That’s true.”

While Achebe continues with his tales which overwhelmingly transcends the opening acts as in a Shakespearean drama, he drives us through the landscape of his ordeal at the time the pogrom had commenced and a target of the hit list of a battle between his art of using the pen precisely on a book he had just published and the barrels of the military machines in their several attempts looking for him while he hid from place to place until he evaded the experiments of the military firepower that came to find out which of the two had more impact -- the gun or his pen.

In Minna, the case of a six year old, Achebe Michael Okongwu, had already seen what the pogrom looked like when the northern Islamic nihilists who were also hoodlums invaded the classroom where he had begun to take classes in the first grade, came looking for Igbo subjects for termination in what had been premeditated. His first grade teacher, a Yoruba lady mistaken to be Igbo by the nihilist was slaughtered as they were on the rampage looking and searching from spot to spot , locations where the Igbos were hiding. Okongwu continues to tell his story of a six year old who was caught in a conflict he knew not about and had experienced the trauma of dead bodies on the streets while his family flee from Minna and trekked hundreds of miles in between shuttling on jalopies until they found themselves home in their native Ogbunike. Okongwu still do not know how they ended up to a place he’d not seen before that was called home. He had realized Minna was not originally home. His father would join them at a later time after clearing the hurdle with his wounds.

A story that never ends.

In 1982, I had bumped into Okongwu in Lagos and, we were both in our early twenties, and about, youngsters, caught up in the crossroads with a future full of uncertainties in an unstable and unpredictable Nigeria. We had thought Nigeria was beginning to have form with onward objectivity in a second republic that was a little bit over two years old, and with prospects of becoming Africa’s true giant as the new political beginning began to emerge. Both Yakubu Gowon and Chukwuemeka Odimegwu Ojukwu, the culprits of the Civil War who were wanted by a federal Nigeria for crimes the state had alleged they committed, would be granted presidential pardon by Shehu Shagari and, would be free to return back to their native lands. Little did we know that the military juntas would strike sooner than later to place Nigeria permanently in a coma.

On the New Year’s eve of 1984, the Muhammadu Buhari-Tunde Idiagbon-led military juntas would strike and wrestle power from a corrupt administration of Shehu Shagari. Within months of the military takeover, Okongwu left for the United States and I would not hear from Okongwu again; not even a letter on the goings on and how life’s been treating him out there in a strange land.

1989, I had gone to one of the Igbo-related social events in the company of my cousins and friends I have known from Lagos and part of getting around knowing the big city when I bumped into Okongwu and almost could not recognize him from the last time we hanged out in Lagos. He had added a lot of weight. He had wondered what brought me to Los Angeles since I never mentioned about my family all through we were in Lagos. We spoke a little bit, exchanged information and went our separate ways.

And, the late Mark Ojo, too, had a story which bears the same resemblance with that of Okongwu and his sixth grade teacher. Ojo, I had met in Los Angeles through the same kind of social gathering when I encountered Okongwu. Ojo and I, talked at length about the pogrom from around which the Orwellian drama affected him during the northern Islamic nihilists and hoodlums’ invasion of his neighborhood. His father who the nihilists had mistaken for Igbo was stabbed to death while his entire clan watched, somewhere in the woods of Ado Ekiti. Ojo and I spoke quite often, and each time we met our discourse had always been on a fabricated national state, and a country that was not meant to be one in the first place had it not been the events that followed the constitutional conferences miscalculated by the founders and their inability to rethink their strategies on dialogue toward sovereignty with the colonists to have arrived a favorable contract in which the tribes as independent national states should have been given a top priority, and the consideration they were entirely a different people, having no need to be joined together as a one united nation. Ojo did not get to put his story in book format. May his soul rest in peace!

Obafemi Awolowo, during agitation and the followed up constitutional conferences toward independence, had made it patently clear in his assertions he had viewed as legitimate that Nigeria as a nation doesn’t exist, using an analogy akin to the colonists and conquest, that the Scot, the Welsh and the Irish were all different entities which summed up his line of argument that there’s no such thing as Nigeria. Nigeria does not exist; thus a geographical expression.

Eventually, there was a Nigeria, now at a terrible cost. As with men with vision, Achebe had already told us about a nation clouded by social ills with a government that would be impossible to run when he wrote “Things Fall Apart” in 1958, telling us the story of a defiant Okonkwo who would not succumb to a modernization theory and concepts, but a cultural heritage that must be maintained. Achebe retold the story tracing back his family’s lineage and encounters with the missionaries and, the conversion which brought in the push factor era. Born under humble circumstances, Achebe applauds the colonists for smooth transition toward nationhood, considering himself lucky and among the greatest generation that went through series of dialogue with the colonists in what eventually did evolve to an independent national state. Before the UK release date of “There Was A Country,” Achebe in his interview with the Iranian journalist Nasrin Pourhamrang, editor-in-chief for the Hatef Weekly, which was published at The Africanist, and whose [Achebe] book "Things Fall Apart" has been translated in Persia, Achebe told Pourhamrang when asked his about to be released book and what kind of story his readers should be expecting when the book graces the bookshelves and why it took that long for the release. Achebe tells Pourhamrang;

I was telling three interweaving stories using an autobiographical prism to recount two broader stories - the story of pre and post independence Nigeria, and the story of Biafra and its aftermath; and on why it took that long to write about Biafra, I was not ready...I had to find the right vehicle that could carry our anguish, our sorrow, the scale of dislocation and destruction, our collective pain in many ways, I can say that I have been writing this book for about four decades - at least in my head and the very scribbling on paper almost as long - particularly the research, interviews, data collection etc. I discovered while working on the book, quite interestingly, that it would not be a straightforward work.I found that I have to draw upon prose, poetry, history, memoir, and politics and that they were independently holding conversations with each other - perhaps because no one genre or art form could bear the weight of the complexity of our condition. The Biafran war was such cataclysmic event that in my opinion changed the course, not only of Nigeria which has not recovered from that conflict, but of all of Africa.”

On the aftermath of Biafra, a people in shambles, demolished and plundered, was the remains of an agitation in quest for self-reliance in a struggle that lasted thirty months. Achebe had asked from the column that outraged the Awoists, Awolowo’s followers, why has the war not been taught in schools today? And I think, a better question should have been, why are the schools in Igbo-related states not made it mandatory for the pogrom and Biafra war to be taught in elementary civics and government classes? Must a federal government determine every part of our destiny? And why now that democracy surfaced with legislation, why is the matter not yet brought up by the state governors who run the affairs of state and the legislators who make the laws? Why would an issue like the pogrom which affected every family in Igbo land should not be talked about and engaged in relative discourses? Are we pretending nothing really happened? In Igbo land, none of its elite and ruling classes have thought and put into consideration the pogrom and Biafra war scholarship; why is that? Not even a legitimate memorial and museum for the most blood soaked event in the entire region.

Question to be answered: In the thirteen years Ojukwu was in exile, what were his plans on that mantra "whilst I live, Biafra lives," to give hope? Who were his counsels and subordinates during his life in exile? What was his communication with those he left behind on the slogan of 'whilst I live, Biafra lives'? What happened to his presumed memoir on accounts with his commanders' advisers regarding his life in Ivory Coast and his take on a Biafran national state?

On Ikejiani, Achebe did not tell us about his sojourn and possible contacts while he exiled in Canada and what had been planned ahead. Who and who did Ikejiani had meetings with about a postponed Biafra, considering the magnitude of his role during the Biafran war? People like N.U. Akpan, what were the outcome of his meetings and interviews with the international press in London? Where are the papers connecting him to the Republic of Biafra? On Zik, what were his thoughts after ceasefire and how did he connect with Ojukwu both in exile and at home? Would it be all the players went about their separate ways and never mentioned anything about it upon capitulation? A story that will have no end with question marks?

Achebe had told stories like the usual Achebe who is fond of recalling societal problems, and with stories that have been re-told and re-told, over and over again, with formats anew in every detail of his releases. All in all, “There was a country: A Personal History Of Biafra," the long-awaited memoir to have provided us in great detail all that he had known about the errands he ran for his colleagues who called the shots and had been in key positions to have made sound judgments, but took a whole lot for granted in a desperate situation requiring collectivism which was negated by Ojukwu, who had consulted with just a few, according to the report presented by Achebe from Ikejiani, missed a lot of expected gist considering how close Achebe was with those who called the shots.

“There Was A Country,” should not be confused with Achebe’s other projects; it’s not his finest, not even the previously released collection of his essays, “The Education Of A British Protected Child: Essays” “Things Fall Apart” is yet to be beaten by Achebe himself, in all his works.


"Nchamere Nd'Igbo: Evidence of Anti-Igbo Pogrom" - Photo Essay/Documentary by Ambrose Ehirim

"The Crime Committed in France" by President Francois Hollande - Speech to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Vel d' Hiv Roundup.

"Chinua Achebe: Peaceful World, My Sincerest Wish" by Nasrin Pourhamrang, (Interview) The Africanist

"Aburi Accord Plays On" by Ambrose Ehirim, The Ambrose Ehirim Files/Biafra-Nigeria-World

"The Revolutionary Years: West Africa Since 1800. T.B. Webster and A.A. Boahen with M. Tidy. Longman Group; 1980
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