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Passionate Achebe memoir recounts Biafran chaos

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There Was a Country

A Personal History of Biafra

By Chinua Achebe

Penguin Press, 308 pages, $29.50

An emaciated child with beseeching eyes and a distended belly became the image of the war in Biafra, the eastern part of Nigeria that proclaimed independence in 1967 until its defeat in 1970.

The struggle in which three million people died generated outrage around the world at the time, but it is now largely forgotten.

One man who lived through it still remembers. Chinua Achebe, described as the father of modern African writing, acted as an ambassador for Biafra, trying to muster aid for the isolated population from international governments.

In the more than 40 years that have passed, Achebe, now 82, has written novels, poems and a challenging critique of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but only now has written a memoir with his views about what caused the war and why millions of people were starved into submission.

His powerful poems at the beginning and end of chapters convey the emotional impact of what he calls genocide. His damning claims are thoroughly supported in a well-documented appendix.

The source of Nigeria's problems lay in the British colonial system, he asserts. It was Britain that cobbled a country from different ethnic groups in western African, the Hausa/Fulani, the Yoruba, the Igbo and others, each with a unique language and cultural background.

As they did elsewhere in their empire, the British fanned inter-ethnic tensions through targeted political and economic favours. Britain rigged Nigeria's first post-independence elections in 1960, ensuring that British interests in oil, coal, gold, tin, cocoa and other resources would remain entrenched after they turned over the reins of government.

The headiness of independence ended within a few years. Nigeria became "a cesspool of corruption and misrule." Tribal resentments exacerbated matters as blame was traded back and forth.

In 1966 the military staged a coup and events spiralled downward rapidly, especially after a pogrom carried out against Igbo civilians living in the north left 30,000 civilians dead or wounded.

The declaration of Biafran independence was generally popular, he says, but ultimately the ferocity and length of the conflict may have been the result of competing "belligerent" egos of the eastern leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu and Gen. Yakubu Gowon, who had seized power federally.

Achebe's erudite style is nevertheless passionate. He describes the loss of the many intellectuals and artists, some his friends, who had much to contribute to society.

Many names may not be familiar to North American readers, but his explanations and analysis override that deficit.

He recounts futile efforts to get support for the Biafran side. While British popular opinion strongly favoured sending aid to Biafra, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson propped up Gen. Gowon to keep British oil interests intact. The United Nations, Achebe says, displayed a "vacuum in moral and humanitarian leadership" that allowed the Nigerian government to "operate with reckless abandon." Massacres, the bombing of safe havens and finally a complete blockade brought Biafra to its knees in January 1970.

Things Fall Apart, Achebe's first and most famous novel in 1958, commented on the destruction of African society by colonialism and the Christian church.

He condemns the chaos they wrought, yet acknowledges the British gave Africans the English language, which unified communication, and a high quality education system that gave him advantages in life.

Achebe participated in postwar Nigerian politics, but continued corruption drove him out. He moved to the U.S. in 1990 after a car accident left him paralyzed.

He is dismayed at the political upheavals and religious strife that keeps Nigeria from becoming an advanced society, yet he has hope. Invoking the indomitable spirit of Nelson Mandela, he maintains vigorous national debate will draw out "a new patriotic consciousness" until "we get things right."

Harriet Zaidman is a Winnipeg teacher-librarian.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 J8

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