The history of Biafran war is a history which will forever dwell in the memory of Nigerians, born and yet unborn; but it is a history whose memory is most disturbing to the generation which witnessed it. Not a small number of people are of the opinion that what happened in the years of the civil war should be left as it was – it is a story already over-told. But in There Was a Country, Achebe was true to his words, ‘You told your own story and now you are announcing that the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.’ And now Achebe has told his own story; and what has he accomplished by his exposé on the Biafran tragedy?
The problem with Nigerians is that they are at times so full of premeditated ideas about matters that they are always on the lookout to praise or condemn without giving themselves the opportunity to be acquainted with that which they seek to praise or condemn. It is surprising than in less than three days after the public release of There Was a Country, it generated so much controversy. One wonders how suddenly voracious the Nigerian public had become that they could read 265-page book within two days, and read in such a way as to have formed their own opinions about it!
Of course it is evident that neither Achebe’s critics nor eulogizers are really aware of what he has written in There Was a Country, for should they do, I suppose they all should be gravely disappointed. There is an element of disappointment in There Was a Country for everybody, and if people should but take their time to read it, they will no doubt leave Achebe alone, neither praising nor criticizing him. It is admittedly near impossible for opinions to be formed about a public figure without prejudice; however, it is suggested that in the case of Achebe, one who wants to know his stand on Biafran catastrophe should at least endeavour to read him first – understand Achebe before judging him!
Many have alleged without reservation that Achebe has written a pro-Biafran literature, some even going as far as implying and even saying outright that he has written against the Government of Nigeria in support of the secessionist Biafra. It is easy to see why the Igbo man gets carried away with exultation that Achebe has finally opened his mouth to talk about Biafra, no doubt hoping that he would get ‘justice’ from his fellow Igbo man; but little does he know that Achebe has done him no more good than he has done everyone else! There Was a Country is not a book which seeks to justify the action of one people, nor to exonerate anyone from a rightly merited blames; it is a book in which the writer has candidly stated out the facts of history albeit in his own passionate perspective – but then, it would be asking the impossible of any writer to be totally objective in whatever subject he has set himself to write upon. It is a perfect blend of truism and literary ingenuity; and its major aim, as far as one can deduct from its pages, is to give the facts to the public and allow everyone to form his own judgement about who among the power players of the civil war were the heroes or the villains. This, I think, is the most a writer can be asked of in a disputable issue such as we have all agreed the civil war to be.
Soyinka’s initial silence after the release of There Was a Country no doubt excited some people since they might have thought that he had probably seen the indecorums of the book; but when more than a month later, Soyinka gave his praises on the book, people sighed conspiratorially, no doubt thinking that it was a mere case of an Ibadan old student praising another’s work (hypocritically). Whatever conclusions any one might draw from Soyinka’s accolades, it should at least be acknowledged that he reserved his comments until he has read the book before commenting on it. Let he who must praise or criticise Achebe first read him, not the newspaper editorials! Maybe then, it will be easy to understand why even the radical Soyinka identified with the candid narrative of Achebe in There Was a Country.
This is not the place to appreciate the book; suffice it to say that Achebe has simply laid bare the follies of both sides of the conflict as he understands it – which is not a small matter considering that he was very active during the war, albeit not in the artillery fields. If any man is hurt by his remarks, it is because the truth has an offending arrogance which spares no man; and if any man is praised, it is not flattery but deserved praise. To mention in passing, for instance, Achebe did not portray Ojukwu as the classic war hero which even ‘Nigerians’ themselves think him to be; he was portrayed for what he is, with all his nobility and tragic arrogance. Achebe did not present Gowon as an incorrigible villain of the war (not of course that he was not highly critical of his war strategies which Achebe himself personally suffered under!) It is surprising that there should be objections from parties so fairly treated; and Zik would surely have appreciated how his position in the war was brought to the public, for not a small number of Igbos believe that he was anti-Igbo.
Admittedly, the fairness and bluntness of Achebe’s assertion may at times border on the offensive. For instance, what Igbo man will not be appalled by his blunt yet truthful assertion: ‘I will be the first to concede that the Igbo as a group is not without its flaws. Its success can and did carry deadly penalties: the dangers of hubris, overweening pride, and thoughtlessness which… can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness. There is no doubt that there is a strand in contemporary Igbo behaviour that can offend by its noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness.’
This is the book which many will not read but will pass their judgement upon; this is the book which many will judge by its covers and cast away; this is the book which will be praised or criticised because of its author’s name. But just like the Bible, both its critics and eulogizers will never get to know its strength and weakness until they have read it.
By Joshua Omenga