Achebe’s There Was a Country: An outsider’s review, By Femke van Zeijl

ABIC Books published Chinua Achebe's "The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics", an interesting 26-page monograph published in 2006

It appears at times Achebe wants to make a point and looks for evidence to go with it.

I am not Nigerian.

I am not Igbo.

I am not Yoruba.

When the Biafra War ended, I was not born.

I am however a historian and a writer, interested in the past, present and future of Nigeria.

Let me state these obvious facts before I continue this review, which I was told off to do even before I started writing it. Someone tweeted: ‘Why would you need to review it? Why don’t you leave that to people like my mother who actually lived through it?’ I put to him sometimes the perspective of an outsider can actually add to the discussion. From the outside, things look different. The observer does not carry the emotional burden of people directly or indirectly involved in history, allowing him a more neutral stance. Moreover, the eyes of an outsider sometimes see what people from up close do not notice anymore.

From the very first page, Achebe made me wonder about his intentions. Did he mean to share his memoirs of one of the most volatile periods in his life with the world? Did he finally want to speak out about what/who in his view caused and prolonged the Biafran War? Was he trying to record a balanced history of these dark pages in Nigeria’s past? The chapters swirl from one to the other, in the end leaving none of these approaches fulfilled to satisfaction. It took Achebe 42 years to publish this book, and it is like he tried to cram all bottled up thoughts and emotions about Biafra into this one work. I have come to see There Was a Country as three books in one: a personal memoir, a political pamphlet and a history of a war.

The memoir resonates most in the first section of the book. Though sometimes too lyrical to be believable (the use of superlatives in this part that describes virtually everyone as ‘very extraordinary’ or ‘very brilliant’ is striking), his tone is most personal and intimate when Achebe tells about own life. I would have liked to read more, but once he starts treating the events preceding the Biafra War he takes a step back and adopts a less personal voice.

This is where his work becomes a mixture of opinionated political analysis and historical write up. Sadly, these two never go very well together. And understandably it is this mixture that has gotten the writer the most criticism.

The book is subtitled ‘A Personal History of Biafra’. As a historian however I would not categorise it in the academic discipline of history. First of all phrases like ‘It is my impression that’ and ‘There are those who believe that’, which the author uses quite frequently, do not belong in a history book. Moreover it is the historian’s task to assemble historical evidence from a balanced multitude of sources, and not to leave out sources or views not convenient to the story he wants to tell. Also, big historical allegations need to be backed up by convincing historical facts. Achebe repeatedly fails to do so.

Let me take his attitude towards Biafra leader Chukwuemeka Ojukwu as an example. Whether the writer is right or not in his mild approach of the late politician, Achebe, had he been a historian, should at least have made much more of an effort to answer the long standing accusations of Ojukwu having used the famine of his people as a public relations tool. Already in 1970 in The Columbia Journalism Review renowned journalist Karen Rothmyer wrote about the Biafran manipulation of the international media. These are public records a historian cannot turn a blind eye to.

On the other hand there is Achebe’s perspective on Yoruba Chief Obafemi Awolowo, at the time member of the Nigerian federal cabinet. He accuses Awolowo of ‘hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the number of his enemies significantly through starvation’. Regardless of whether he is on the mark or not, basing such an accusation on ‘a statement credited to Chief Obafemi Awolowo’ is simply too flimsy as historical evidence.

It appears at times Achebe wants to make a point and looks for evidence to go with it. This is where the book gets the character of a political pamphlet, which is a valuable genre in its own right. He argues that what he sees as the continued marginalisation of the Igbo people in past and present day Nigeria has been detrimental to the country as a whole. Also he argues that what happened to the Igbo in the Biafra war was in fact genocide, paralleling it to Rwanda and Darfur.

Achebe starts his genocide argument by stating ‘I am not a sociologist, a political scientist, a human rights lawyer or a government official.’ Now this is either his way of warning the reader that his arguments will not be entirely convincing, or it is false modesty. After all, the great Achebe should know that when he states a case, Nigerians listen and take him seriously. That gives him even more of a responsibility to back up a serious charge of genocide thoroughly.

The term genocide implies intent from the perpetrator to destroy a certain group of people. Intent here is the key word: it has to concern an organised and premeditated scheme for destruction. This intent can be proven directly, from orders or plans, or indirectly by pointing out a certain systematic pattern of coordinated acts. Where Achebe gives enough examples in the book to prove that, by targeting civilians, war crimes were committed by the Nigerian army during the Biafra War, he fails to do the same thing for his claim to genocide.

Achebe lines up a number of sources intended to back him up. First of all, most of these sources stem from the era during or right after the Biafra war. Since the so much theory and jurisdiction has been developed assessing other allegations of genocide elsewhere in the world, it is hard to understand why one would use only such dated sources. Also the ones Achebe quotes are mostly secondary, which at best can support a case but do not on their own construct a convincing argument.

The author comes closest to a beginning of proof of a coordinated system leading to genocide when he quotes New York Times journalist Lloyd Garrison, who covered the conflict: ‘The record shows that in Federal advances… thousands of Igbo male civilians were sought out and slaughtered.’

If there is a case to be made that Biafra was in fact genocide, it needs much more profound research into primary sources like the latter and an analysis of the actual coordination of the alleged genocidal acts by the Nigerian government. It is a missed opportunity that Achebe made the claim without doing so.

They say the first casualty of war is the truth. This also applies to the history of war. Its interpretation depends on the political affiliation of the writer, the time that has passed since, the background against which it is written. Tens of thousands of books have been published about the Second World War, and their number will continue to grow. To be able to form an idea of that war, one needs to read a lot. That is how to assemble a balanced view of history.

This is also the value of There Was a Country, which would have been more accurately subtitled ‘A Personal Account of Biafra’. It is a book that cannot stand on its own if you are trying to get a balanced view of what happened, but is a very valid contribution towards a better understanding of history. It is a book that will be taught along with other accounts of the Biafran War, like Frederick Forsyth’s The Biafra Story, and with fiction like Wole Soyinka’s Season of Anomy, asking students to compare the different perspectives and draw their own conclusions.

Most striking are the parts of There Was a Country where history meets Achebe’s personal experience. The restraint with which he describes the death of poet-warrior Christopher Okigbo, a personal friend, makes it all the more moving and the description of how Achebe and his family escaped death on several occasions and had to flee so many times brings alive the dead-end situation of the haunted people in Biafra during the war.

After all, and from whichever perspective you look at it, Biafra in Achebe’s words turned out into a ‘the humanitarian emergency of epic proportions’ no one can deny. Half way his book ,the author inserts a poem he published in 1971 that has since become famous. ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ remembers the countless casualties of the war. It is to them and their families we owe it to keep making an effort to try and understand what actually happened.


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  • Lanre

    Thank you, Femke for your dispassionate analysis. I grew up knowing academics who spoke the truth to power and damned the consequences. I know of many who in their fields of study established scholarly output that marked them out. My disappointment with Chinua Achebe is actually a challenge. Like you rightly stated, a work of history has to go beyond “opinionated political analysis” in order to be taken as a serious work of literature.

    Can I also commend you for bringing into sharp relief the dilemma I am having in trying to classify this work. You did a good job when you write and I quote “I have come to see There Was a Country as three books in one: a personal memoir, a political pamphlet and a history of a war.” Thank you Funke 🙂

  • @presidentnm

    I guess you can look at the literary work and analyze it as dispassionately as you did because you didn’t live the time. If you saw your kit and kin slaughtered in the way before, during and after the war, had relatives go off and never come back, saw your children die before you or saw your women “raped” by the conquering forces, dispassionate would be the last thing on your mind to lay at the feet of Chinua. The man lived the war and so has a right to give his account of what he and his people suffered. I wonder that you’re quick to discredit his writing. I hope that has nothing to do with your great love for Lagos Femke or should I say Funke? It begs the question, how come the most vitrioli and backlash Achebe has received for this, is coming mostly from the Yoruba who were not major actors in the Civil War? Why do they feel so insecure about this book? It is my personal belief that unless this country makes a concerted effort to render full apology to the Igbo nation for the maltreatments from 1966 till date, Nigeria will not see the type of progress she deserves. And Femke, you will never really understand the ethnic bigotry that drives the Yoruba resentment and fear of the Igbos.

  • O. Olu

    Hello Femke

    Grateful if we
    can have the full citation of the
    article by Karen Rothmyer, cited above.


  • Efe

    Nigerians do not need a third party to explain the injustice we have perpetrated on one another, we require no third eye to see how unfair we have being to one another. Achebe works his view and experience, which will forever counts more than any scholar review or some after taught historical dig up. What we need as nations is to accept our fault and past, bring forth our strength to Foster our unity, re- embrace each other

  • Dubem

    Please, stick to what you know. You are not Nigerian. You are not Igbo. You are not Yoruba. When the Biafra War ended, you were not born. How can you write about what you do not know? If you are really a student of history, you should be telling us about the interviews you had with Igbos and Hausas who really lived through the war. Waking up one morning and deciding to make the opinions of your Lagos friends look like an honest review of Achebe’s book is downright dumb. Just like the rest of your anti-Achebe friends, you have not been able to prove Achebe wrong on Awolowo’s infamous “All is fair in war and starvation is one of them.” Awolowo came up with the idea during the war and after the war it became common knowledge. People like Gowon and Obasanjo will be laughing at your careless analysis.

  • Femke van Zeijl

    To the ones who read my review as a dismissal of Achebe’s book:
    read again. It is not. I point out both the flaws and the values of the book.

    To the ones arguing Achebe, having lived through it, is a primary source in his own right:
    my point exactly. That is what I would have liked to read much more of.

    To the ones accusing me of taking sides:
    the ad hominem argument is usually applied when you run out of others. I am not going to waste
    my time defending myself against unfounded allegations.

    To the ones saying I will never be able to understand Biafra:
    trying to understand history does not demand participation. If that would be the case, all historians who cover anything outside their lifetime would be jobless.

    To the ones denying me the right to review There Was a Country in the first place:
    such censorship clashes with freedom of speech and thought, things authors like Achebe fought
    for all his life.

    To the ones thanking me for writing a dispassionate analysis:
    thank you. You got what I set out to do.

    • Otunba_jebusite

      I bookmarked you review for future purposes.

  • MEXX

    Achebe chronicled events he witnessed first on the other hand(by your own admission) are essentially ignorant of the feelings and emotions of the people directly involved in this tragedy of war.Achebe saw his people murdered in their thouands,their women raped,their properties plundered and their children starved to death.He gave as reasonable an account of those events as any man in his shoes could give.Your review is a bit comical to read because you display such little understanding of Nigeria’s shameful civil war history and reading your review is like listening to a child who is yet to fully grasp the realities of life trying to teach wisdom to an elder who has seen it all

  • james

    the igbos are no saints . they went into biafra with the intention of violently appropriating minority land and resources, and in the process of doing this they triggered a massive war. Now they want us to view them as victims.

  • ayomi

    I am not sure if the author took time to familiarize himself
    with history of Nigeria, especially dynamics between its people, economics, politics
    and influence of colonial power over the country. Like most people around the world, they are
    in love with Achebe the writer and his body of work.

    I will encourage him to read this article “Achebe’s Biafra Book Full Of Lies” Published
    on November 5, 2012

    Ofeimun, poet and public affairs analyst, rips up Chinua Achebe’s There Was A
    Country. He speaks with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE and NEHRU ODEH