If you hoped, as I did, that There Was a Country would be a full-fledged memoir to set beside those of Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, you will be disappointed. But if you come to the book without those expectations, you may find it a powerful, enlightening, and sometimes moving work.
"There Was a Country" is in fact what its subtitle promises. It is a personal history of Biafra, the short-lived nation that broke away from the newly independent Nigeria, battled for its life for three years, then was crushed from existence, leaving memories of emaciated children with the staring eyes and potbellies of kwashiorkor. A kaleidoscopic jumble of childhood memories, literary friendships, political analysis, wartime traumas, and poetry, it culminates in an angry indictment of Nigerian governments past and present for their oppression of the Igbo people.
The book begins with an account of Achebe’s early years in the town of Ogidi. As a child, Achebe’s worldview was shaped by his father, a Christian, and his great-uncle, a follower of the Igbo religion. Achebe enjoyed the magic of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and traditional tales of a mischievous tortoise. A brilliant schoolboy, he was admitted to a prestigious government college, where he met the future poet Christopher Okigbo, the best-known casualty of the Biafran war.
Switching from warm reminiscence to the cool tone of the historian, Achebe sets the stage for the war in short essays titled “Post-Independence Nigeria,” “The Role of the Writer in Africa,” and “The Aburi Accord.” He outlines the series of electoral crises that followed independence and the coup by a mostly Igbo group of army officers that overthrew the government in 1966.
Achebe’s own story is gradually interwoven with the story of Biafra, a name that does not appear for almost a hundred pages. Shortly before the 1966 coup, Achebe published his novel "A Man of the People," which described “a military coup that overthrows a corrupt civilian government.” When the real-life coup was put down, Achebe was suspected of knowing about it in advance. In response to a government crackdown, Achebe and his family joined the flood of perhaps a million Igbos and other Nigerians into the east. The exiles declared themselves an independent country and were promptly attacked and blockaded by the government.
A chapter called “Refugees” contains Achebe’s most extended account of his life during the war. A VIP in the new nation, Achebe rode in an official car (his own car was a Jaguar) and flew to various countries as Biafra’s official envoy. But he and his family were not immune from attack.
"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.
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."