The Defeated Write History: Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country

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Their young arms and legs were like twigs, not much more than bone and skin and whatever little life still flowed in choked veins. Their skin dug deep between their ribs. Incongruously, their stomachs were pregnant with hunger. Their hair, originally full and black, had thinned and turned brown, red, blonde, or gray.

This is kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition brought on by extreme protein deficiency. It afflicted many of the children of eastern Nigeria a little over forty years ago. The word originates in the Ga language of Ghana, and it means, tellingly, “the influence a child is said to be under when his mother becomes pregnant with her next child.”

From 1967 to 1970, the young state of Nigeria (which had just achieved its independence from England in 1960) fought a civil war against the separatist nation, the Republic of Biafra. The near total decimation – genocide by means of various and effective blockades – of Biafran citizens is among the clearest cases of what happens when a small nation, recognized by only a handful of relatively powerless states, is set against an alliance of international powers. While about a hundred thousand Nigerians died, over two million Biafrans – primarily civilians and disproportionately children – perished.

Biafra is now largely forgotten outside the region, but one of Africa’s best known authors has just published a book which he certainly hopes will bring it back to our collective consciousness.

Chinua Achebe’s seminal 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, follows the lives of the Igbo people as they’re first confronted by the arrival of British colonialists and missionaries. His new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, follows those people into 1967 – when they, confronted by economic marginalization, and, ultimately, physical attack by Nigeria, declared independence and called themselves Biafra.

This is not the first book about the war; Achebe travels along well-grooved trails. For how marginal it now remains in the public imagination, it was then something of a cause célèbre. It was a televised catastrophe, the first televised famine, which would inspire celebrities to undertake the Biafran cause. On November 25, 1969, John Lennon returned the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) which he was awarded in 1965 as a Beatle, and sent along with it a letter to the Queen. “I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing,” he wrote, “against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.” The French philosopher and public intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, took a pro-Biafra stance as well. The Nobel Prize winning playwright, Wole Soyinka, went to a Nigerian prison for his outspoken support of Biafra and for his attempt to facilitate a cease-fire. “When he returned to Nigeria,” writes Achebe, “the authorities arrested him and accused him of assisting Biafra in the purchase of weapons of war.”

Bombarded by the images of human beings decimated by hunger and illness, Bernard Kouchner was inspired to found Médecins Sans Frontières – or Doctors Without Borders. Kurt Vonnegut found himself moved by the war as well. In Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons, a collection of pieces on a range of topics, he included the essay, “Biafra: A People Betrayed.”

“Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing,” he writes.
I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.
Achebe writes about the media exposure:
The Nigeria-Biafra War was arguably the first fully televised conflict in history. It was the first time scenes and pictures – blood, guts, severed limbs – from the war front flooded into homes around the world through television sets, radios, newsprint, in real time. It probably gave television evening news its first chance to come into its own and invade without mercy the sanctity of people’s living rooms with horrifying scenes of children immiserated by modern war.
Everyone, it seems, felt something about the Nigeria-Biafra war. It was written about and commented on by the talking heads of the day. In 1969, while the war raged on, Frederick Forsyth published an excellent, impassioned, and deeply sympathetic book called The Biafra Story: The Making of an African Legend. But what makes Achebe’s new book momentous is that, though it is not the first to comprehensively tackle the war and its consequences, and though it is not the first to reveal to the world its atrocities, Achebe is Igbo and he knows the war directly and personally. The Igbo – the Biafran nation – is his story.

He worked, for instance, as a roving international ambassador for the nation. Achebe’s literary gifts even turned prophetic in the lead-up to the war and caused him personal turmoil. His novel, A Man of the People, which ends with a military coup upturning a corrupt government, was published days before the January 15, 1966 coup by largely Igbo soldiers. It was such a presciently accurate depiction of the coup that it drew considerable suspicion. “[S]ome military leaders believed that I must have had something to do with the coup,” writes Achebe, “and wanted to bring me in for questioning.” The coup gave the Nigerian government a pretext for reprisals against the Igbo people and, ultimately, it led to Biafra’s declaration of independence and to the civil war the next year.

“Victors write history,” writes Forsyth in an updated prologue to The Biafra Story, “and the Biafrans lost.” But Achebe, a Biafran, has now written history. He’s written a segment of history still avoided by many official Nigerian texts. It’s a personal history which seems to recognize that the stories we often hear of the past are shaped by those in power. It recognizes that we will need to hear the stories of the powerless – of the defeated – if we would like a fuller picture of reality.

It brings to mind Howard Zinn’s approach to history in his A People’s History of the United States. “I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements,” he wrote.
But to think that history-writing must aim simply to recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. If history is to be creative, to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I believe, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win. I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.
But why the long delay? Why did it take Achebe so long to write such a book? He wrote quite a bit of poetry – “something short, intense, more in keeping with my mood” – during the war (some of which is included in the new book) but this is the first time he’s systematically discussed the conflict and devastation.

In a collection of his essays, Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965-1987, Achebe writes of his distance from the traditional Igbo religions, being the son of Christian converts, and how that distance helped him gain a deep understanding of them. What he writes appears to also justify the decades he’s taken to tackle the Biafran cause. “The distance becomes not a separation but a bringing together like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer may take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully.”

Many of the official documents detailing the war were only revealed afterwards. And, with time, perhaps Achebe has found a way to write directly and clearly, yet evenly and with composure. It may not have been possible for him to write passages like this one shortly after the war and after the attempted-genocide of his nation:
The Biafrans paid a great humanitarian price by ceding a great deal of territory to the Nigerians and employing this war strategy. The famine worsened as the war raged, as the traditional Igbo society of farmers could not plant their crops. Gowon [the Nigerian leader] had succeeded in cutting Biafra off from the sea, robbing its inhabitants of shipping ports to receive military and humanitarian supplies. The afflictions marasmus and kwashiorkor began to spread further, with the absence of protein in the diet, and they were compounded by outbreaks of other disease epidemics and diarrhea. The landscape was filled by an increasing number of those avian prognosticators of death as the famine worsened and the death toll mounted: vultures. By the beginning of the dry season of 1968, Biafran civilians and soldiers alike were starving. Bodies lay rotting under the hot sun by the roadside, and the flapping wings of scavengers could be seen circling, waiting, watching patiently nearby. Some estimates are that over a thousand Biafrans a day were perishing by this time, and at the height of Gowon’s economic blockade and “starve them into submission” policy, upward of fifty thousand Biafran civilians, most of them babies, children, and women, were dying every single month.
Biafra’s defeat was almost inevitable. The eastern region, which Biafra attempted to have separated from Nigeria, was oil-rich and Biafra’s attempt to maintain control over its resources did not go over too well with Nigeria and its chief economic partner, England.

“At first Biafra was successful and this alarmed Britain, the former colonial power,” writes Rick Fountain, in a report for the BBC, “anxious for its big oil holdings. It also interested the Soviet Union which saw a chance to increase its influence in West Africa. Both sent arms to boost the federal military government, under General Yakubu Gowon.”

Biafra, alone and cornered, certainly doomed: this is the fabric which unfolds in Achebe’s book. But, however wretched the circumstances and devastating the consequences, the Biafran story, as Achebe tells it, remains inspiring and continues to attest to the power of revolt. It echoes the words of Chris Hedges, who believes “that rebellion is always worth it, even if all outward signs point to our lives and struggles as penultimate failures.”

When Vonnegut met the Biafran military leader, Ojukwu, the undaunted general made plain their increasingly beleaguered position. “If we go forward, we die. If we go backward, we die. So we go forward.”