I have met Chinua Achebe only three times. The first, at the National Arts Club in Manhattan, I joined the admiring circle around him. A gentle-faced man in a wheelchair.
“Good evening, sir. I’m Chimamanda Adichie,” I said, and he replied, mildly, “I thought you were running away from me.”
I mumbled, nervous, grateful for the crush of people around us. I had been running away from him. After my first novel was published, I received an email from his son. My dad has just read your novel and liked it very much. He wants you to call him at this number. I read it over and over, breathless with excitement. But I never called. A few years later, my editor sent Achebe a manuscript of my second novel. She did not tell me, because she wanted to shield me from the possibility of disappointment. One afternoon, she called. “Chimamanda, are you sitting down? I have wonderful news.” She read me the blurb Achebe had just sent her. We do not usually associate wisdom with beginners, but here is a new writer endowed with the gift of ancient storytellers. Adichie knows what is at stake, and what to do about it. She is fearless or she would not have taken on the intimidating horror of Nigeria’s civil war. Adichie came almost fully made. Afterwards, I held on to the phone and wept. I have memorized those words. In my mind, they glimmer still, the validation of a writer whose work had validated me.
I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had. And so, when that e-mail came from his son, I knew, overly-thrilled as I was, that I would not call. His work had done more than enough. In an odd way, I was so awed, so grateful, that I did not want to meet him. I wanted some distance between my literary hero and me.
Chinua Achebe and I have never had a proper conversation. The second time I saw him, at a luncheon in his honor hosted by the British House of Lords, I sat across from him and avoided his eye. (“Chinua Achebe is the only person I have seen you shy with,” a friend said). The third, at a New York event celebrating fifty years of THINGS FALL APART, we crowded around him backstage, Edwidge Danticat and I, Ha Jin and Toni Morrison, Colum McCann and Chris Abani. We seemed, magically, bound together in a warm web, all of us affected by his work. Achebe looked pleased, but also vaguely puzzled by all the attention. He spoke softly, the volume of his entire being turned to ‘low.’ I wanted to tell him how much I admired his integrity, his speaking out about the disastrous leadership in my home state of Anambra, but I did not. Before I went on stage, he told me, “Jisie ike.” I wondered if he fully grasped, if indeed it was possible to, how much his work meant to so many.
History and civics, as school subjects, function not merely to teach facts but to transmit more subtle things, like pride and dignity. My Nigerian education taught me much, but left gaping holes. I had not been taught to imagine my pre-colonial past with any accuracy, or pride, or complexity. And so Achebe’s work, for me, transcended literature. It became personal. ARROW OF GOD, my favorite, was not just about the British government’s creation of warrant chiefs and the linked destinies of two men, it became the life my grandfather might have lived. THINGS FALL APART is the African novel most read – and arguably most loved – by Africans, a novel published when ‘African novel’ meant European accounts of ‘native’ life. Achebe was an unapologetic member of the generation of African writers who were ‘writing back,’ challenging the stock Western images of their homeland, but his work was not burdened by its intent. It is much-loved not because Achebe wrote back, but because he wrote back well. His work was wise, humorous, human. For many Africans, THINGS FALL APART remains a gesture of returned dignity, a literary and an emotional experience; Mandela called Achebe the writer in whose presence the prison walls came down.
Achebe’s most recent book, his long-awaited memoir of the Nigerian-Biafra war, is both sad and angry, a book by a writer looking back and mourning Nigeria’s failures. I wish THERE WAS A COUNTRY had been better edited and more rigorously detailed in its account of the war. But these flaws do not make it any less seminal: an account of the most important event in Nigeria’s history by Nigeria’s most important storyteller.
An excerpt from the book has ignited great controversy among Nigerians. In it, Achebe, indignant about the millions of people who starved to death in Biafra, holds Obafemi Awolowo, Nigerian Finance Minister during the war, responsible for the policy of blockading Biafra. He quote’s Awolowo’s own words on the blockade – ‘all is fair in war and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder’ and then argues that Awolowo’s support of the blockade was ‘driven by an overriding ambition for power for himself in particular and for the advancement of his Yoruba people in general.’
I have been startled and saddened by the responses to this excerpt. Many are
blindingly ethnic, lacking in empathy and, most disturbing of all, lacking in knowledge. We can argue about how we interpret the facts of our shared history, but we cannot, surely, argue about the facts themselves. Awolowo, as de facto ‘number two man’ on the Nigerian side, was a central architect of the blockade on Biafra. During and after the war, Awolowo publicly defended the blockade. Without the blockade, the massive starvation in Biafra would not have occurred. These are the facts.
Some Nigerians, in responding to Achebe, have argued that the blockade was fair, as all is fair in war. The blockade was, in my opinion, inhumane and immoral. And it was unnecessary – Nigeria would have won anyway, it was the much-better-armed side in a war that Wole Soyinka called a shabby unequal conflict. The policy of starving a civilian population into surrender does not merely go against the Geneva conventions, but in this case, a war between siblings, people who were formerly fellow country men and women now suddenly on opposite sides, it seems more chilling. All is not fair in war. Especially not in a fratricidal war. But I do not believe the blockade was a calculated power grab by Awolowo for himself and his ethnic group; I think of it, instead, as one of the many dehumanizing acts that war, by its nature, brings about.
Awolowo was undoubtedly a great political leader. He was also – rare for Nigerian leaders – a great intellectual. No Nigerian leader has, arguably, articulated a political vision as people-centered as Awolowo’s. For Nigerians from the west, he was the architect of free primary education, of progressive ideas. But for Nigerians from the east, he was a different man. I grew up hearing, from adults, versions of Achebe’s words about Awolowo. He was the man who prevented an Igbo man from leading the Western House of Assembly in the famous ‘carpet crossing’ incident of 1952. He was the man who betrayed Igbo people when he failed on his alleged promise to follow Biafra’s lead and pull the Western region out of Nigeria. He was the man who, in the words of my uncle, “made Igbo people poor because he never liked us.”
At the end of the war, every Igbo person who had a bank account in Nigeria was given twenty pounds, no matter how much they had in their accounts before the war. I have always thought this a livid injustice. I know a man who worked in a multinational company in 1965. He was, like Achebe, one of the many Igbo who just could not believe that their lives were in danger in Lagos and so he fled in a hurry, at the last minute, leaving thousands of pounds in his account. After the war, his account had twenty pounds. To many Igbo, this policy was uncommonly punitive, and went against the idea of ‘no victor, no vanquished.’ Then came the indigenization decree, which moved industrial and corporate power from foreign to Nigerian hands. It made many Nigerians wealthy; much of the great wealth in Nigeria today has its roots in this decree. But the Igbo could not participate; they were broke.
I do not agree, as Achebe writes, that one of the main reasons for Nigeria’s present backwardness is the failure to fully reintegrate the Igbo. I think Nigeria would be just as backward even if the Igbo had been fully integrated – institutional and leadership failures run across all ethnic lines. But the larger point Achebe makes is true, which is that the Igbo presence in Nigerian positions of power has been much reduced since the war. Before the war, many of Nigeria’s positions of power were occupied by Igbo people, in the military, politics, academia, business. Perhaps because the Igbo were very receptive to Western education, often at the expense of their own traditions, and had both a striving individualism and a communal ethic. This led to what, in history books, is often called a ‘fear of Igbo domination’ in the rest of Nigeria. The Igbo themselves were insensitive to this resentment, the bombast and brashness that is part of Igbo culture only exacerbated it. And so leading Igbo families entered the war as Nigeria’s privileged elite but emerged from it penniless, stripped and bitter.
Today, ‘marginalization’ is a popular word in Igboland. Many Igbo feel marginalized in Nigeria, a feeling based partly on experience and partly on the psychology of a defeated people. (Another consequence of this psychology, perhaps, is the loss of the communal ethic of the Igbo, much resented sixty years ago. It is almost non-existent today, or as my cousin eloquently put it: Igbo people don’t even send each other.)
Some responses to Achebe have had a ‘blame the victim’ undertone, suggesting that Biafrians started the war and therefore deserved what they got. But Biafrians did not ‘start the war.’ Nobody with a basic knowledge of the facts can make that case.
Biafrian secession was inevitable, after the federal government’s failure to implement the agreements reached at Aburi, itself prompted by the massacre of Igbo in the North. The cause of the massacres was arguably the first coup of 1966. Many believed it to be an ‘Igbo’ coup, which was not an unreasonable belief, Nigeria was already mired in ethnic resentments, the premiers of the West and North were murdered while the Eastern premier was not, and the coup plotters were Igbo. Except for Adewale Ademoyega, a Yoruba, who has argued that it was not an ethnic coup. I don’t believe it was. It seems, from most accounts, to have been an idealistic and poorly-planned nationalist exercise aimed at ridding Nigeria of a corrupt government. It was, also, horrendously, inexcusably violent. I wish the coup had never happened. I wish the premiers and other casualties had been arrested and imprisoned, rather than murdered. But the truth that glares above all else is that the thousands of Igbo people murdered in their homes and in the streets had nothing to do with the coup.
Some have blamed the Biafrian starvation on Ojukwu, Biafra’s leader, because he rejected an offer from the Nigerian government to bring in food through a land corridor. It was an ungenerous offer, one easy to refuse. A land corridor could also mean advancement of Nigerian troops. Ojukwu preferred airlifts, they were tactically safer, more strategic, and he could bring in much-needed arms as well. Ojukwu should have accepted the land offer, shabby as it was. Innocent lives would have been saved. I wish he had not insisted on a ceasefire, a condition which the Nigerian side would never have agreed to. But it is disingenuous to claim that Ojukwu’s rejection of this offer caused the starvation. Many Biafrians had already starved to death. And, more crucially, the Nigerian government had shown little regard for Biafra’s civilian population; it had, for a while, banned international relief agencies from importing food. Nigerian planes bombed markets and targeted hospitals in Biafra, and had even shot down an International Red Cross plane.
Ordinary Biafrians were steeped in distrust of the Nigerian side. They felt safe eating food flown in from Sao Tome, but many believed that food brought from Nigeria would be poisoned, just as they believed that, if the war ended in defeat, there would be mass killings of Igbo people. The Biafrian propaganda machine further drummed this in. But, before the propaganda, something else had sown the seed of hateful fear: the 1966 mass murders of Igbo in the North. The scars left were deep and abiding. Had the federal government not been unwilling or incapable of protecting their lives and property, Igbo people would not have so massively supported secession and intellectuals, like Achebe, would not have joined in the war effort.
I have always admired Ojukwu, especially for his early idealism, the choices he made as a young man to escape the shadow of his father’s great wealth, to serve his country. In Biafra, he was a flawed leader, his paranoia and inability to trust those close to him clouded his judgments about the execution of the war, but he was also a man of principle who spoke up forcefully about the preservation of the lives of Igbo people when the federal government seemed indifferent. He was, for many Igbo, a Churchillian figure, a hero who inspired them, whose oratory moved them to action and made them feel valued, especially in the early months of the war.
Other responses to Achebe have dismissed the war as something that happened ‘long ago.’ But some of the people who played major roles are alive today. We must confront our history, if only to begin to understand how we came to be where we are today. The Americans are still hashing out details of their civil war that ended in 1865; the Spanish have only just started, seventy years after theirs ended. Of course, discussing a history as contested and contentious as the Nigeria-Biafra war will not always be pleasant. But it is necessary. An Igbo saying goes: If a child does not ask what killed his father, that same thing will kill him.
What many of the responses to Achebe make clear, above all else, is that we remember differently. For some, Biafra is history, a series of events in a book, fodder for argument and analysis. For others, it is a loved one killed in a market bombing, it is hunger as a near-constant companion, it is the death of certainty. The war was fought on Biafrian soil. There are buildings in my hometown with bullet holes; as a child, playing outside, I would sometimes come across bits of rusty ammunition left behind from the war. My generation was born after 1970, but we know of property lost, of relatives who never ‘returned’ from the North, of shadows that hung heavily over family stories. We inherited memory. And we have the privilege of distance that Achebe does not have.
Achebe is a war survivor. He was a member of the generation of Nigerians who were supposed to lead a new nation, inchoate but full of optimism. It shocked him, how quickly Nigerian fell apart. In THERE WAS A COUNTRY he sounds unbelieving, still, about the federal government’s indifference while Igbo people were being massacred in Northern Nigeria in 1966. But shock-worthy events did not only happen in the North. Achebe himself was forced to leave Lagos, a place he had called home for many years, because his life was no longer safe. His crime was being Igbo. A Yoruba acquaintance once told me a story of how he was nearly lynched in Lagos at the height of the tensions before the war; he was light-skinned, and a small mob in a market assumed him to be ‘Igbo Yellow’ and attacked him. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos was forced to leave. So was the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ibadan. Because they were Igbo. For Achebe, all this was deeply personal, deeply painful. His house was bombed, his office was destroyed. He escaped death a few times. His best friend died in battle. To expect a dispassionate account from him is a remarkable failure of empathy. I wish more of the responses had acknowledged, a real acknowledgement and not merely a dismissive preface, the deep scars that experiences like Achebe’s must have left behind.
Ethnicity has become, in Nigeria, more political than cultural, less about philosophy and customs and values and more about which bank is a Yoruba or Hausa or Igbo bank, which political office is held by which ethnicity, which revered leader must be turned into a flawless saint. We cannot deny ethnicity. It matters. But our ethnic and national identities should not be spoken of as though they were mutually exclusive; I am as much Igbo as I am Nigerian. I have hope in the future of Nigeria, mostly because we have not yet made a real, conscious effort to begin creating a nation (We could start, for example, by not merely teaching Maths and English in primary schools, but also teaching idealism and citizenship.)
For some non-Igbo, confronting facts of the war is uncomfortable, even inconvenient. But we must hear one another’s stories. It is even more imperative for a subject like Biafra which, because of our different experiences, we remember differently. Biafrian minorities were distrusted by the Igbo majority, and some were unfairly attacked, blamed for being saboteurs. Nigerian minorities, particularly in the midwest, suffered at the hands of both Biafrian and Nigerian soldiers. ‘Abandoned property’ cases remain unresolved today in Port Harcourt, a city whose Igbo names were changed after the war, creating “Rumu” from “Umu.” Nigerian soldiers carried out a horrendous massacre in Asaba, murdering the males in a town which is today still alive with painful memories. Some Igbo families are still waiting, half-hoping, that a lost son, a lost daughter, will come home. All of these stories can sit alongside one another. The Nigerian stage is big enough. Chinua Achebe has told his story. This week, he turns 82. Long may he live.