Sunday, March 31, 2019

Book Review: There was a Country by Chinua Achebe

When I picked up this book, the review from trusted friends (Bookies alike) was not to waste my time. The general opinion was that Chinua Achebe's last work was the worst; the most tribalistic, and rubbish work of literature. One famous friend who is also a journalist actually claimed to have tried to read it and having to throw it into thrash after one chapter! These were trusted opinions by the way, so I had to get over these sentimental misgivings to power my way through the last book of record from the controversial novelist.

The first few chapters actually unfolded excitedly. To the reader it paints a rather rosy picture of a Nigeria pass gone by. If this was the country "that was", then it had to be Utopia. Idyllically Country and Provincial in the first bit, the early years of young Chinua growing up in the home of early modernists in a rapidly modernizing country was that of privilege, joy and thematic conflicts: between religions, languages and cultures. These conflicts were however not the violent and virulent my generation is now used to. It was rather a conflict of the mind, one debated by young Chinua. The reader was then taken on a journey of the early  years of setting up Nigeria's storied institutions of learning -  partly by governments and mostly by parochial orders: churches and mosques, town unions et al.

Indeed, Chinua Achebe was a member of the lucky generation of Nigerians, or so it seemed. Enjoying admission to the then University College, Ibadan he described a period of solid education and outsized opportunities beckoning upon graduation as the young nation displaced foreigners perhaps too quickly and placed young graduates like Chinua in inexplicable luxury. I mean, you get a beach side Villa at Ikoyi as official quarters right after graduation? Movies on Saturdays in the early 60s? Dream on folks. That dream was never meant to last forever!

And forever, it didn't. As Chinua began to grasp the underbelly of the contradictions of a country that had injected children into strategic decision making: from media where Chinua Achebe was, to the military where Nzeogwu resided. This was a key take away for me in this early chapters, as Chinua Achebe waxed on describing how Nigeria's early morning turned into a scary dawn. First it was the coup, next it was the taunts cum reprisal massacre that followed as a precursor to a counter coup that greeted Nigeria's own Nero (Aguyu Ironsi), whom Chinua largely failed to defend as gallantly as one would have expected. But oh, well - this was the least fictional of the excellent work of fiction that riddled Chinua Achebe's abridged recount of Nigeria's political history from 1952 to 1970.

The fiction that flowed from Chinua Achebe's pen first dripped like tales by moonlight, like his claim about cross carpeting in the Western Region, something that is now regarded as the worst form of fictional recount of history of Nigeria ever told. But not a few people still believe it nonetheless, that a zero party election can produce cross-carpeting on House grounds when we are yet to see a party based results of this so called election that split Awo and Zik, Nigeria's East and West regions - until this day. The treatment of this incident by fiction guru, Chinua Achebe set the pace for the rest of the book which was more or less, a recount of the suffering of Uncle Achebe during the Civil War.

The Biafra war recount was gripping given its first person account, and also revealing on many levels. First, the laid back treatment of the declaration of war virtually by Ojukwu by the author and the manner in which it seemed the Eastern intellectuals of the day prepared for this both domestically and internationally was thoroughly amateurish. Did anyone think Nigeria will sign up for a break up without putting up a fight? Did anyone not think through the repercussion of the multi-ethnic Eastern region and the response of the oppressed minority to the majority ambition to free itself away from the only check the minority had on the majority Igbo ethnic group? Kidding me right?

Of course, the author calls for sympathy from readers by describing in details the familiar horrors of war perpetrated by the federal side, while he took away from this sympathy by glossing over similar atrocities by the Ojukwu led military junta. Aside from dismissively describing the loses of Murtala Muhamed as he sought to take Onitsha, he went on to gloss over how Ojukwu ensured alternative views of original 1966 coup plotters - Majors Banjo and Ifeajuna - were stamped out forcefully. Indeed, in a moment of paranoia and extremism they were executed secretly without proper trial when they failed to hold the Mid-West Region. This of course was tell tale signs early in the war that the Colonel that led the East was about his ego alone and not for any righteous cause as he may have led his people on. In Achebe's world of moral relativism, Achuzia was a War Hero, and Benjamin Adekunle was a war monger. Oh well. 

The section that describes Biafran innovation were no doubt an exercise in recounting the capacity of a people under common spell to achieve against all odds. I wouldn't however boil down to any exceptionalism as the author will want his readers to believe, bearing in mind that the same author never held out the exceptional abilities of the Biafran state to withstand a food blockade which he blamed on the wickedness of a new found enemy in Obafemi Awolowo and Gowon his normal target of course. I mean, if someone can make airstrips, tanks and missiles - how hard can growing food be? The author's recount of personal experiences were equally powerful, and one in which he witnessed the likely lynching of a federal soldier was largely glossed over - calling into question the morality of the presentation itself.

One fact that struck me through the book- whether in peace or war, was the extraordinary privilege that someone like Chinua Achebe enjoyed. Official cars, stayed even in war period. Life was from a lens that was far removed from the everyday life of fellow countrymen- whether Nigerian or Biafran. This was the life. 

As his story wore on, I would have been surprised if Chinua Achebe did not admit at least one excess of the Biafran government he worked for; but that came nearly as much in his recount of the Kwale "incidence" where Ojukwu ordered the killing and kidnap of ENI Italy employees at an oil and gas facility- and Chinua Achebe seem to disagree because his international mission on behalf of Biafra lost steam as a result. In it, he admitted that Biafra lost the world when they decided to attack the world; he failed to acknowledge that the same reaction the world had was what Gowon and his field commanders could give when he recounted the so called "atrocities" committed by the Nigerian side, and the "incidences" (his words) fomented by Biafra in a ping pong test of strength in those years.

If any part of Prof Achebe's missive would be part of the Corpus of Tribalism, it has to be the fourth part on which he closed the book. Repeating ideas that one will tease first out at beer parlors than in a serious academic discussion, he discussed how the "democratic Igbo" was so exceptional he historically resisted kings, while ignoring the incorporation of democratic check & balances,  and self restraint in an organized monarchial system in Nigeria's storied empires of Songhai, Oyo and Borno- while the domination of money in the republic Igbo system guaranteed some measure of "vote buying" which cannot exactly be called democratic.

At the risk of getting into some muscle arm contest on which race is superior in Nigeria's over 350 blessed ethnic groups, this part of the book could easily have been skipped by the author instead of contributing to Nigeria's ever enlarging body of disturbingly divisive and ethnocentric literature. The loose use of the "genocide" word - while failing to explain how come the same country that sought to "eliminate" the Igbos elected one as Vice President mere nine years after the end of the fracas while the same vilified Gowon was on exile. Naturally, Achebe's adaptation of the "marginalization" posture that currently dominates the region for which he writes and is from in national engagement discourse, comes across naturally as pedantic, plain and unbacked from purely historical perspectives.

Interestingly, some of the author's diagnosis and path to greatness for Nigeria were still apt and on point. His remedy of gradual evolution of democratic institutions, followed by free press and strong judiciary that will remedy corruption and enforce good governance seem like provenance to the part Nigeria seem to have since embarked on - charitably since 2011, by hook or crook. 


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