“My role in the civil war” Achebe
When Achebe was writing his third novel, A Man of the People, he never envisaged that fiction would soon become fact in 1966, having predicted a coup in the fictional country depicted in the prose. Before it was released, the Nigerian military intruded into governance for the first time, and the blood of notable First Republic politicians, including the Prime Minister, Tafawa Belewa, and Sardauna of Sokoto, was spilled by the Kaduna Nzeogwu-led rebellion, which was misinterpreted as an Igbo coup by the North. Events wormed up to the catastrophic months later –a revenge countercoup led by northerners, plunging the nation into a three-year-civil war.
“The weeks following the coup saw easterners attacked both randomly and in an organized fashion. There seemed to be a lust for revenge, which meant an excuse for Nigerians to take out their resentment on the Igbo who led the nation in virtually every sector –politics, education, commerce and the arts,” Achebe recollects events leading to the Nigeria civil war. Weeks after the July counter-coup in Nigeria, Achebe and his family, then working and residing in Lagos, were on the run. His Igbo brethren were being massacred all over the place, and he could have been killed, too, though he was the Head, External Broadcasting of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation.
He eventually fled Lagos to eastern Nigeria, which was to become a break-away Biafran Republic. The civil war turned out to be an onslaught on Biafra, especially the Igbo, with supports from Britain, Russia (for economic interests) and other powers. The sound of death became an every-day down chorus, and survival for him and others was a diminishing probability, as the federal forces, with their superior firepower, went on rampage. Several times, he and his family came close to being killed, but luck smiled on them.
Four decades after the war ended, Achebe has penned his war-time experiences in There was a Country, A Personal History of Biafra, a new book just released by Penguin Books (USA) and described by the Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer, as having the “terse narrative grip of the best of fiction” and “a revelatory entry into the intimate character of the writer’s brilliant mind and bold spirit”.
Aside its Biafran overtone, There was a Country is many books rolled into one. On one hand, it is a coming age story of Achebe as he transited from boyhood to adulthood, including educational pursuits. On the other hand, it is an exposé on Nigerian history and politics, as well as an insightful literary testament. Achebe recollects the dark days of the Nigeria civil war with pains. On the heat of hostility against his Igbo kinsmen, he took a wise decision.
“I arranged to smuggle Christie and the children out of Lagos on a cargo ship from the port. Christie reports that it was one of the most horrendous voyages she has ever taken. She remembers the seasickness heightened on this particular trip as a result of her pregnancy. She and other refugees from the bloodshed were placed in a section of the ship that was in the open, without any shelter from the elements,” he recalls. Achebe was the last to flee Lagos, and it was grudgingly, because he could not bring himself to accept that he could no longer live in his nation’s capital.
“My feeling toward Nigeria was that of profound disappointment. Not only because mobs were hunting down and killing innocent civilians in many parts, especially in the North, but because the Federal Government sat by and let it happen,” he writes. In post-colonial Nigeria, the Igbo, narrates Achebe, grew in leaps and bounds. That he attributed to self-confidence engeandered by their open society and their belief that one man is as good as another. Sadly, it was seen as domination, which must be checkmated, recalls Achebe –which aided the conspiracy and onslaught against them by other Nigerians.
Contrary to the allegation that the January 1966 coup was an Igbo coup, Achebe says the motivation was removed from ethnicity. In fact, Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi, an Igbo man, who was to become the first military head of state, was even marked for elimination by the Nzeogwu group, but put up a stiff resistance in Lagos, where he was based, which led to the failure of the coup in Lagos.
In embarking on a secession bid, Achebe writes that the Igbo were already pushed to the wall: “When we noticed that the Federal Government of Nigeria did not respond to our call to end the pogrom, we concluded that a government that failed to safeguard the lives of its citizens has no claim to their allegiance and must be ready to accept that the victims deserve the right to seek their safety in other ways –including secession.”
The literary world and the academia, writes Achebe, were miffed by the Biafran disaster. Wole Soyinka was on the vanguard to make peace in Nigeria, which got him into trouble, however: “Soyinka’s attempts to avert a full-blown civil war by meeting with Colonel Ojukwu and Victor Banjo, as well as with then Lieutenant Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, would earn him enemies in the Nigerian Federal Government and a 22-month imprisonment.”
Fed up with the Federal Government’s unsuccessful treatment of the Biafran issue, Soyinka, recalls Achebe, had to travel to Biafra in an attempt to appeal for a ceasefire to the hostilities. He was planning to set up an antiwar delegation made up of the intellectuals, artists, and writers from both sides of the conflict –and from around the world –to achieve his aim. But it was never to be because of his arrest and detention by General Gowon. In the Harmattan Season of 1968, General Ojukwu invited Achebe to a small political committee the Biafran Ministry of Information was creating.
Pleased with the committee’s work, Ojukwu invited him further to serve in a larger committee, the National Guidance Committee, to create some fundamental principles with which the government and people of Biafra would operate. Headed by Achebe, it consisted of an impressive bunch: Chieka Ifemesia, Ikenna Nzimiro, Justice AN Aniagolu, Dr. Ifegwu Eke and Eyo Bassey Ndem, with Professor Emmanuel Obiechina serving as the secretary. The National Guidance Committee later produced the famous “Ahiara Declaration”.
Achebe’s service to Biafra didn’t stop at the BOFF; he was to serve as a roving ambassador to the embattled new nation. He recalls: “In addition to working with BOFF, Ojukwu also asked me to serve the cause as an unofficial envoy of the people of Biafra. Being invited to serve by the leader of Biafra was both an important and satisfying opportunity, but it also came with great anxiety.” The first trip he made in the new capacity was to fly to Senegal to deliver Ojukwu’s message to Senegalese president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and it almost ended in a disaster.
“During this particular flight, the pilot announced at about 20,000 feet that the plane was experiencing ‘technical problems’. It was marked by a great deal of turbulence and sudden losses of cabin pressure. We were all experiencing motion sickness, some were vomiting, and all were stricken by a sense of impending doom. The plane was diverted to an airport in the Sahara, where we disembarked, changed to a Senegalese airline, and flew to Dakar.” Worse still, Sam Agbam, who was accompanying him on the trip (an interpreter of a sort), vanished into thin air, and Achebe, who didn’t speak French, was left to his own desert in the francophone country; yet, he persevered. Meeting President Senghor wasn’t a stroll in the park.
The presidential aides were not convinced of his mission, and turned him away several times. He had to change his strategy, telling one of the aides who spoke English that he would like to present a copy of his latest novel, A Man of the People, to the president, who was also a renowned poet and literary aficionado. To that, the aide responded: “…You give me the book and poems and I will take it to him, and I am sure he will be delighted…” Days after he arrived Senegal, faced with impending failure, his tenacity finally worked, and Senghor surprised him with an invite sent with a limousine to come over at the Presidential palace.
“The next day, I had my audience with President Leopold Sedar Senghor, a very extraordinary man,” writes Achebe. “I was guided along a stone path in the gardens of the presidential palace and up the grand stair case to a secluded room. The first thing that struck me was the loneliness. We were standing in a room in this huge mansion, I in my Biafran attire, Senghor in his French suit…. “Senghor regretted that I had spent several days in the country trying to reach him and apologized for the treatment I had received. Senghor was a profoundly adept diplomat, and he took on the business I brought: He glanced through the letter quickly, and then turned to me and said that he would deal with it overnight ….
Our conversation then turned to other things intellectual –writing, education, the great cultural issues of the day, including the movement he was spearheading called Negritude.” Achebe also made an extensive trip to Scandinavia on behalf of the Biafran government. The Scandinavians had already made great humanitarian gestures to alleviate the suffering in Biafra. “I was also curious to visit the land of one of the most legendary of all Europeans who came to our aid –the Swedish aristocrat, Carl Gustaf von Rose. On this trip I visited Sweden, Finland, and Norway.”
His subsequent visit to Canada was different from the rest; he was invited to speak about the Biafran tragedy by the World Council of Churches and the Canadian Council of Churches. He was also part of the Biafran delegation that attended the Kampala, Uganda, talks, which was one of the failed attempts to forge a peace between Nigeria and Biafra. Achebe was struck by the comportment of Aminu Kano, who was part of the Nigerian delegation.
“As the Nigerian delegation, led by Anthony Enahoro, espoused their resolve to “crush Biafra” unless there was a complete surrender, Aminu Kano seemed very uneasy, often looking through the window. This was a man who was not pleased with either side or how the matter was being handled. That meeting made an indelible mark on me about Aminu Kano, about his character and his intellect,” he writes. In late 1968, together with other famous writers from the Biafran side, Cyprian Ekwensi and Gabriel Okara, he visited the United States as part of the extensive university tour to bring the story of Biafra to the mainly progressive American intellectuals and writers.
There, they met many American leaders of thoughts. In this book, also, Achebe offers a blow-by-blow account of miserable life in Biafra, the conflict having created a humanitarian emergency of epic proportions. Of particular interest is how Achebe’s family had to run from place to place to survive, in some instances missing death by whiskers. It wasn’t a surprise, therefore, when he travelled out of Biafra to England on a mission and he heard planes taking off and landing at Heathrow Airport, his first instinct was to duck under safe cover!
There was no dull moment in Biafra, nevertheless. Achebe and his bosom friend, late Christopher Okigbo (he wrote extensively about their relationships in this book –a relationship that started at Government College, Umuahia, and the University College, Ibadan), floated a publishing company, Citadel Press, Enugu, when the war started. Theirs was so close that when Achebe was sent on a foreign mission for Biafra, he handed over his family, including his pregnant wife, Christie, to Christopher Okigbo, for protection.
Homeless, Achebe left Enugu to visit his mother in the village, Ogidi, who was in the throes of death. Before enlisting in the Biafran army, recalls Achebe, Okigbo didn’t inform him. Perhaps he would have discouraged him. So, when the news of his death got to him, the loss was overwhelming. Achebe writes: “Christopher fell in August 1967, in Ekwegbe, close to Nsukka, where his poetry had come to sudden flower seven short years earlier. News of his death sent ripples of shock in all directions. Okigbo’s exit was totally in character. Given the man and the circumstance it was impossible for everyone to react to the terrible loss in the same way.
The varied responses, I think, would have pleased Okigbo enormously, for he enjoyed getting to his destination through different routes.” A chapter of Achebe’s new offering is dedicated to literature (“The Role of the Writer in Africa”), and it re-establishes Achebe as a committed artist. For instance, he declares: “The African writer who steps aside can only write footnotes or glossary when the event is over….
My own assessment is that the role of the writer is not a rigid position and depends to some extent on the state of health of his or her society. In order words, if a society is ill the writer has a responsibility to point it out. If the society is healthier, the writer’s job is different.” Affirming further, he says: “I believe that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest.
In my definition, I am a protest writer, with restrain. Even those early novels that look like very gentle re-creations of the past –what they were saying, in effect, was that we had a past. That was the protest, because there were people who thought we didn’t have a past. What I was doing was to say politely that we did –here it is.”