There Was a Country
Chinua Achebe offers a moving personal history of the short-lived African nation of Biafra.
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"The Biafran government had issued a public safety warning to all citizens to abstain from wearing clothes of light colors like white or cream or sharp colors such as orange, purple, or red that could be easily spotted by the Nigerian air force. The Nigerian pilots approaching their chosen targets would often switch off the engines of the planes, then fly very low – treetop level – before they would begin the bombing onslaught. One could see that the plane crew was pushing out these bombs with their hands, tossing them out from an open aircraft door or shaft! Occasionally when the Nigerians used their aircraft guns to shoot at civilian or military installations, we noticed that some of the bullet cases were from large hunting ammo usually reserved for wild game."
Working one day with Christopher Okigbo at the offices of the Citadel Press in Enugu, the two men heard a distant explosion. Achebe continued to work and set out to run an errand, deciding to drop by his home on the way. He found an enormous crater where his apartment complex had stood. His wife and children had left shortly before.
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The most valuable contribution of this book may be the perspective that 40 years can bring. History has given Achebe the opportunity to place the Biafran experience in the context of genocides to come. “Almost thirty years before Rwanda, before Darfur,” he writes, “over two million people – mothers, children, babies, civilians – lost their lives as a result of the blatantly callous and unnecessary policies enacted by the leaders of the federal government of Nigeria.”
Time has underlined the lasting importance of Biafra in undermining the foundation of the country. Following the war, the government “nullified” bank accounts that had been under Biafran control. A 1974 decree then nationalized the stocks and bonds of Nigerian companies that were held by foreign owners. It was an opportunity for Nigerians to reclaim and profit from local businesses – unless they were the penniless Igbos.
“There are tons of treatises that talk about how the Igbo were wonderfully integrated into Nigeria,” Achebe writes. “Well, I have news for them: The Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness, in my estimation.”
Perhaps it was the hope that we would not have to make such a damning pronouncement that kept Achebe from writing this book for so long.
Geoff Wisner is the author of "A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa" and editor of the forthcoming "African Lives: An Anthology of Memoirs and Autobiographies."