There Was A Country: Book Review + Thoughts on Biafra


I bought Chinua Achebe’s Memoir, There Was A Country sometime last year, back when it was generating a lot of discussion on social media but I never really made a serious effort to read it until now.

I love Chinua Achebe as a story teller, and I definitely loved this book. It is heavily political, as you might surmise from its title. At first glance I thought it was another tome about Nigeria’s failed potential (akin to his The Problem with Nigeria) and in some ways, it is but mainly it is about Biafra. The story takes us through Nigeria as a British colony, independence, the falling apart, Civil War, Biafra and it’s aftermath. It was very eye opening, as much of this is simply not talked about in our history curriculum. And everyone wonders why this is so, but I understand it because we as a country have not agreed on the version that serves our needs as a country, so schools in different parts of the country will teach decidedly different versions of the history, which may complicate things. Anyhow, that’s by the way.

A few things I was able to gather from this book. The first is that the first generation of leaders in Nigeria is not only as good as they get, quality wise, but also among the best among their peers in Africa and even in the world for the time. These were men who grew up in the British Empire, were educated by some of the best academics and intellectuals, went to the best schools in the world and served under the best administrators and leaders that Nigeria ever had. The British built great schools and enforced high standards. They developed infrastructure, companies, institutions and made them work, and yes while most of that was in the service of the Empire, it actually did improve the lives of the British subjects themselves. To quote Achebe, “Here is a piece of heresy: The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care.” This explains to me why Tafawa Balewa had such remarkable grasp of diction and the spoken word, as did, indeed their whole cohort. These men were well trained, in a way that few leaders we’ve had since then were. Gowon and Ojukwu were mates at Sandhurst, and the latter even went to Oxford. University of Ibadan was one of the best universities in the whole empire. Government College, Umuahia and King’s College Lagos were remarkably world class. Today, we really don’t have many schools like this and the highly expensive, private ones we do have are glorified conduits through which our best brains are trained to look down on their own country and be more comfortable living in New York and London than building up their own country. We lack the apparatus to train leaders at a mass scale. This is very tragic.

The book also tells the story of many of Nigeria’s important political moments. Gowon/Ojukwu’s personal competition and ‘beef’ contributed a lot to the Civil War, beyond just the ethnic and political triggers. The book also talked about Obafemi Awolowo and his rise to national prominence, and many of his decisions and thought process make me respect and love the man even more than I used to in the past. He is surely one of the most brilliant politicians and statesmen in Nigeria’s history, and I see why according to Ojukwu, he is the best president we never had.

Other people who get honorable mention in the story include Mallam Aminu Kano, whom he called a man of honor, integrity and intellect, Wole Soyinka (obviously, the man is the best), Christopher Okigbo (“a remarkable man in every way”), and more.

His narrative of Biafra’s accomplishments during the war made me realized that Igbo people have been excellent industrialists and technicians for a long time. Even in Nigeria today, we see our Igbo people doing quite a lot in this area. According to Achebe, the Biafrans developed a missile by themselves, flew planes, tried to build one, built armored vehicles and made guns. All by themselves. Impressive.

He ends the story with some nostalgic reflections of the present day Nigeria and how corruption, ethnic strife, some concerted efforts at marginalizing the East, as well as mediocrity and political violence are all helping to ensure good leaders will not emerge across the country, and that the East will always feel like outsiders in Nigeria unless things change.

It’s a sobering book, one that I think has a lot to tell us, even if it is a little too pro-Biafra and biased towards Igbo point of view to my liking. However, it is an invitation for others to tell their own stories as well so that we can know so much more about where ‘the rain started beating us from.’

My own thoughts regarding Biafra past and present are somewhat along the lines of: Ojukwu’s ambition worsened a bad situation, and he launched into a war that there was no way in the world he was going to win, and millions of Igbos paid the price.  But that is the mistake of our past. Secondly, a lot of atrocities were committed during the war, mostly by the Nigerian side but also by the Biafran side. Attempts to moralize about this, or demonize the actors at the time seem to forget the fact that wars are not some kind of beauty pageant. Atrocities are what wars are made of. I’m not supporting these things, or reducing their importance, but I’m saying that once the shooting has begun, you no longer have the means to control what the other side does. It’s not an accident they say, all is fair in love and war. So those who call for war should understand exactly what they’re asking for. It’s nothing like the controlled environment you’re used to. During normal times, most people hold back their dark side. During war, all the darkness of the human heart is there at full display.

Also, I’m not sure why anyone in 2018 should be calling for Biafra. First off, it’s not even a viable solution to the existential needs of anyone, not even the Igbos. I believe in my people, and I want us to prosper but I can tell you, a land locked nation, with no agricultural base, no ground links to anywhere and a high population density is not a recipe for anything other than poverty. Secondly, looking at Nigeria as a country and historically, you realize that if we can figure out a federal, stable structure, we are much better working and living together. We actually do have complementary benefits to each other, from the Igbo entrepreneurial and industrial talent, to the Western academic and cultural prowess, Northern administrative depth and agricultural base and Southern mineral resources and riverine/marine base. We are a better country for being together than we would be if we all split up. It’s the living together angle we need to nail as fast as we can.

Finally, I find it interesting that the book reminded me of a saying I read somewhere, which is that politically, the tripod is the most unstable of all structures. It’s ironic because in physical engineering, triangles, tripods and pyramids are the most stable bases, however in politics this is different. I will leave you all to figure out why. But it’s the reason most stable democracies eventually coalesce into two major party systems, with everyone else playing at the edges. What this means for Nigeria remains to be seen.

Anyhow, I gained much from reading There Was A Country, and I appreciate the late Chinua Achebe for writing it. Highly recommend.


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