Professor Chinua Achebe is arguably the best literary writer in foreign or more precisely English language that post-colonial Africa has produced. He is fearless, intelligent and able to speak truth to power in the most difficult circumstances. Those of us from the younger generation have in one way or the other been inspired by the intellectual prowess of Chinua Achebe. He has never failed to intervene in debates about the future of Nigeria. At a critical time in the history of Nigeria, particularly due to the key challenges that continue to raise the blood pressure of the country; namely the controversial result of the 2011 general elections, the so-called Boko Haram insurgency, and the general state of hopelessness and insecurity, ethnic and regional divisions that pervade the country. At a time things are falling apart for the country, Chinua Achebe intervened with the recent release of his memoirs; “There was a country: A personal history of Biafra”.
The review of the book by the Telegraph newspaper created a huge reaction. After reading through the debates, I had no intention then of making further comments especially after the series of articles that appeared in both Nigerian and other newspapers around the world. But then came an invitation from the Foreign Policy Centre in London asking me to serve as a panellist in a debate about the book at the British Parliament, the House of Commons, Westminster, and London. The centre organised the debate in collaboration with Africa Foundation for Development on Monday, December 10. The composition of the panel is itself partly a reflection of the diversity of Nigeria. The other three panellists were Donu Kogbara from the Greater Port Harcourt City Development Authority, Dipo Salimonu, co-founder of Ateriba Limited, a financial consultancy firm in Lagos and London, and Onyekachi Wambu Director of Policy and Engagement at the Africa Foundation for Development. Without saying it, I believe the organisers wanted to ensure “federal character” in the composition of the panel, or may be call it “UK character” if such thing exists. Chi Onwurah, the UK Shadow Minister for Innovation, Science & Digital Infrastructure, chaired the event. The story of Chi Onwurah is equally relevant to this debate as her parents relocated to the UK as a result of the Biafran war.
The debate is actually not a review of the book. It is a discussion especially from Nigerians in diaspora about the wider issues that the book has addressed, and their implication for the future and stability of the country. It is therefore difficult to avoid making a review even if mildly. There Was a Country is a 333 pages book published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. The hardcopy is sold at £20 (approximately five thousand Naira, depending on the exchange rate).
The book is very provocative especially in a country like Nigeria where religion, ethnicity, and regionalism can easily raise the blood pressure of the country. In summary here are some of the contentious issues that Professor Chinua Achebe highlighted in the memoir One is that the premier of the defunct northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, has a “limited political vision” (p.46). Chinua Achebe made this assertion in reference to the reason why Malam Aminu Kano decided to break away from the so-called northern establishment and join the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU).
Secondly, Achebe claimed Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa “who has been built into a great statesman by the Western world did nothing to save his country from impending chaos”. The writer continued by saying “the British made certain that on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country that had played no real part in the struggle for independence” (p.51-52). Chinua Achebe suggested that the Igbos who drove the British out of Nigeria became scapegoats after the January 1966 coup. The book suggested that there was a deliberate conspiracy to promote the hatred of Igbo people. He added that “a lot of this hot-blooded anger was fanned by British intellectuals and some radical Northern elements in places like Ahmadu Bello University. They were aided by a few expatriate population from outside Nigeria, who easily influenced the most self-satisfied and docile Northern leadership to activate a weapon that has been used repeatedly in Nigeria’s short history-a fringe element known as “area boys” or the “rent crowd types”- to attack Igbo’s in an orgy of blood” (p.69).
One of the most provocative statements by Chinua Achebe, which has been quoted by almost every review of the book is his impression of the Hausa/Fulani and the Yoruba. On page 74 he stated that “unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies”. Achebe even made an attempt to exonerate Chukuma Kaduna Nzegwu and the rest of the plotters that killed Sir Ahmad Bello in carefully crafted approach, because to him, Nzegwu speaks Hausa fluently and dresses like people of the North (p.79). While Professor Achebe was more cautious in his choice of language in reference to the predominantly Igbo plotters of the January 15th 1966 coup, he described the mainly northern officers who staged the counter coup in July 1966 as “murderers” (p.95).
To be continued…