Saturday, October 6, 2012

Chinua Achebe's "There Was A Country: A Personal History Of Biafra" [ A Review]

By Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe
Chinua Achebe is Africa’s foremost novelist and one of the African World’s most outstanding intellectuals. The 1958 publication of his classic, Things Fall Apart,underscores the African-centred thrust of Achebe’s esteemed literary journey. In There was a Country, Achebe revisits the 1966-1970 Igbo genocide, the foundational genocide of post-(European) conquest Africa. It is also Africa’s most expansive and devastating genocide of the 20th century, in which 3.1 million Igbo or a quarter of this nation’s population were murdered. Achebe himself narrowly escaped capture by the genocidist army in Lagos where he worked as director of the external service of Nigeria’s public broadcasting corporation.

Prof Chinua Achebe  
Safely back in Biafra, Achebe was appointed roving cultural ambassador by the fledging resistance government of the new republic to travel and inform the world of this heinous crime being perpetrated in Africa, barely 20 years after the Jewish genocide. He recalls with immense satisfaction the successes of his travels in Africa, Europe and North America during the period – meeting leading writers and intellectuals, addressing church, civil and human rights assemblies, and charity and humanitarian caucuses. 

Achebe praises, particularly, the writings and campaign work of opposition to the genocide by Jean-Paul Sartre, Francois Mauriac, Auberon Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut, Herbert Gold, Harvey Swodos, Geoffery Hill, Douglas Killam, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Stanley Diamond. On Diamond, for example, Achebe notes: “This world-renowned anthropologist … galvaniz[ed] a formidable American and Canadian intellectual response to the tragedy” (Chinua Achebe, 2012: 106).
These responses to the genocide from abroad are a sharp contrast to the appalling position of Nigerian intellectuals, Achebe’s own contemporaries of writers and academics mostly from the University College Ibadan, essentially Nigeria’s pioneer post-conquest circle of scholars who emerged in the mid-1950s (Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, 2002). Apart from dramatist Wole Soyinka, notably, a stretch of Nigerian intellectuals supported the genocide or were complicit in the crime by their deafening silence: “We expected to hear something from the intellectuals, from our own friends. Rather, what we heard was, ‘Oh, they had it coming to them’, or words to that effect” (68-69). Furthermore,
[a]s many of us [who survived the first phase of the genocide] packed our belongings to return [home] some of the people we had lived with for years, some for decades, jeered and said, ‘Let them [Igbo] go; food will be cheaper in Lagos’. That kind of experience is very powerful. It is something I could not possibly forget. I realized suddenly that I had not been living in my home; I had been living in a strange place. (68)
Okwudiba Nnoli, the political economist, who, equally, cannot forget the nonchalance and hostility of Nigerian colleagues and others then, recalls: “[a]t that time, Nigeria seemed morally anesthesized” (Okwudiba Nnoli, 1980: 245).

The perpetrators of the genocide, who subsequently seized and pillaged the rich Nigerian economy, have by and large escaped sanctions from the international community. The consequences for Africa have been catastrophic, in that various autocratic regimes on the continent felt they could go on similar killing sprees with impunity. Forty-two years on, 12 million additional Africans have been murdered in the ever-expanding genocidal killing fields of the continent in Rwanda (1994), Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo (variously, since the late 1990s), Darfur – west of the Sudan – (since 2004), Abyei – south of the Sudan – (ongoing) and Nuba – south of the Sudan – (ongoing) and in other wars in Liberia, Ethiopia, Congo Republic, Somalia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Mozambique, Algeria, Libya, Kenya, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Angola, Zimbabwe, Burundi and Mali.
Achebe reminds his readers that the perpetrators have still not shown any form of remorse for this crime (234-236). On the contrary, Nigeria’s genocidal campaign against the Igbo people has been followed, post-January 1970, by the implementation of the most dehumanising raft of socioeconomic package of deprivation in occupied Igboland, not seen anywhere else in Africa. This package includes the following 10 distinct features:
1. Seizure and looting of the multibillion-(US)dollar capital assets across Biafra including particularly those at Igwe Ocha/Port Harcourt conurbations and elsewhere in Nigeria
2. Comprehensive sequestration of Igbo liquid assets in Biafra and Nigeria (as of January 1970), bar the £20.00 (twenty pounds sterling) doled out only to the male surviving head of an Igbo family

3. Exponential expropriation of the rich Igbo oil resources from the Abia, Delta, Imo and Rivers administrative regions
4. Blanket policy of non-development of Igboland
5. Aggressive degradation of socioeconomic life of Igboland
6. Ignoring ever-expanding soil erosion/landslides and other pressing ecological emergencies particularly in northwest Igboland
7. Continuing reinforcement of the overall state of siege of Igboland
8. Nineteen cases of premeditated pogroms against the Igbo, particularly in north Nigeria, between 1980 and 2012
9. Ninety per cent of the 54,000 people murdered in Nigeria by the state operatives and agents since 1999 are Igbo people, according to the December 2011 research by the International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule Of Law – an Onicha-based human rights organisation.
Professor Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

10. At least eighty per cent of people murdered by the Boko Haram islamist insurgent group’s attacks across swathes of lands in north/northcentral Nigeria since Christmas Day 2011 to date are Igbo.
These latter features, especially numbers 1-7 which inaugurated phase-III of the Igbo genocide on 13 January 1970, constitute one of the five acts of genocide explicitly defined in article 2 of the December 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “deliberately inflicting upon the group conditions of life designed to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2012).
There was an extensive coverage of the Igbo genocide in the international media throughout its duration. Yet in most countries of Africa in addition to the Organisation of African Unity, the continent’s supranational body, there was no condemnation of the Igbo genocide. On the contrary, in one conference communiqué after another issued throughout the 44-month duration of the slaughter, most of Africa considered the genocide a “Nigerian internal affair” (Achebe: 96-99). Achebe himself was part of the Biafra delegation to one such conference in Kampala, Uganda, in May 1968 (Achebe: 166-167). It is precisely because the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide appeared to have been let off the hook for their crimes that Africa did not have to wait very long before the politics of the Nigerian genocide-state metamorphosed violently beyond the country’s frontiers. Leaders elsewhere on the continent would subsequently wage their own versions of the liquidation of “opponents” of subjugated nations and nationalities as ruthlessly and horrifically as they could, à la Nigeria, because they expected no sanctions from either their African colleagues or from the rest of the international community. As a result, as already indicated, the killing fields of Igboland expanded almost inexorably across every geographical region of Africa.

As for the United Nations, it, too, never condemned the Igbo genocide unequivocally. Achebe appropriately uses the word “silence” (Achebe: 211) to capture the UN response to the tragedy. U Thant, its secretary-general, consistently maintained that it was a “Nigerian internal affair” (Achebe: 211-212). The United Nations could have stopped the genocide, instead of protecting the interests of the Nigerian state (Achebe: 212). In the wake of the Jewish genocide of the 1930s-1940s, Africa was, with hindsight, most cruelly unlucky to have been the testing ground for the presumed global community’s resolve to fight genocide subsequently, particularly after the 1948 historic UN declaration on this crime against humanity (cf. Hugh McCullum, 2012). Only a few would have failed to note that U Thant’s reference to “internal” is highly problematic, for genocide, as had been demonstrated devastatingly 20-30 years earlier in Europe, would of course occur within some territoriality (“internal”) where the perpetrator exercises a permanent or limited/ partial/ temporary sociopolitical control (cf. Nazi Germany and its programme to destroy its Jewish population within Germany itself; Nazi Germany and its programme to destroy Jewish populations within those countries in Europe under its occupation from 1939 and 1945). Between 1966 and 2006, the world would witness genocide carried out against the Igbo, the Tutsi/some Hutu, and Darfuri in “internal” spaces that go by the names Nigeria, Rwanda, and the Sudan respectively. The contours of the territory where genocide is executed do not therefore make the perpetrators less culpable, nor the crime permissible as the United Nations’s crucial 1948 genocide declaration states unambiguously.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu
The central role played by Britain in this campaign no doubt reinforced the failure of the United Nations to protect Igbo people during this catastrophe. Britain, a fully-fledged member of the United Nations – indeed a founding member of the organisation who enjoys a permanent seat on its security council and participated in drafting the anti-genocide declaration – supported the Igbo genocide militarily, politically and diplomatically. Britain was deeply riled by the Igbo lead-role in the 1930s-1960s in the struggle to terminate its occupation of Nigeria. A senior British foreign office official was adamant that his government’s position on the international relief supply effort to the encircled and bombarded Igbo was to “show conspicuous zeal in relief while in fact letting the little buggers starve out” (Roger Morris, 1977: 122). Indeed as the murder of the Igbo progressively worsened, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who Achebe describes as “villain of the peace” (Achebe: 214), was unfazed when he informed Clyde Ferguson (United States State Department special coordinator for relief to Biafra) that he, Harold Wilson, “would accept a half million dead Biafrans if that was what it took” (Morris: 122) Nigeria to destroy the Igbo resistance to the genocide.

Achebe embarks on his all-important memoir by quoting that engaging Igbo proverb that reminds everyone of the urgency of trying to come to terms with a catastrophic history: “a person (sic) who does not know where the rain began to beat them cannot say where they dried their body” (Achebe: 1). Thankfully, for the interest of posterity, this subject, the Igbo genocide, is one of the most documented crimes against humanity. Leading university and public libraries across Europe (particularly in Britain, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden) and North America have invaluable repositories of books, essays, articles, state papers (including, crucially, hitherto classified material now declassified as part of mandatory timeframe provisions and freedom-to-information legislations), church papers, human rights/anti-genocide/anti-war groups’ campaign papers, reports, photographs and interviews, Red Cross/other third sector papers, reports and photographs, newspaper/newsmagazine/radio/television/video archives and sole individual depositories, some of which are classified as “anonymous contributors”. 
Biafran Child (pix: The Guardian-UK)
These data variously include extensive coverage of news and analyses of varying features of the genocide between May 1966 and January 1970 as well as still photographs and reels of film footage of the devastating impact of the genocidist’s “starvation” attack on Igbo children and older people, the air force’s carpet bombings of Igbo population centres (especially refugee establishments, churches, shrines, schools, hospitals, markets, homes, farmlands and playgrounds) and the haunting photographs and associated material that capture the murder of tens of thousands Igbo in north Nigerian towns and villages and elsewhere during the first phase of the genocide in May-October 1966. A stream of these archival references has flowed steadily onto the youtube website as well as other internet outlets and much more material on the genocide will be available online in the months and years ahead. On the whole, this documentation is a treasure-trove for the conscientious scholar and researcher on the genocide.
Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua Achebe, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. London: Allen Lane, 2012.
Amnesty International, “Killing at will: Extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings by the police in Nigeria”. (accessed 24 September 2012)
Duffield, Caroline (a), “Nigerian hospital ‘overwhelmed by corpses from the police’”. (accessed 25 September 2012).
Duffield, Caroline (b), “Nigerian police: Issuing corpses and denials”. (accessed 25 September 2012)
McCullum, Hugh, “Biafra was the beginning”. (accessed 22 September 2012).
Morris, Roger, Uncertain Greatness: Henry Kissinger & American Foreign Policy. London and New York: Quartet Books, 1977.
Nnoli, Okwudiba, Ethnic Politics in Nigeria. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Convention and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide”. (accessed 25 September 2012)
Walker, Andrew, “On patrol with Nigeria’s police”. (accessed 23 September 2012).

Ekwe Ekwe, Herbert. "There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 04 October 2012
[, accessed 05 October 2012.]


Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country - A Personal History of Biafra - A Review By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...