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The Poet Politician—Chinua Achebe’s Civil War

CHINUA ACHEBE’S FAMOUS first novel, Things Fall Apart, conspicuously borrows from Yeats. The memoir with which he bookends his long career, There Was a Country, is a far more literal explanation of what happens when “the center cannot hold.”

The titular country of Achebe’s latest book is Biafra, a breakaway republic founded in 1967 in southeastern Nigeria. Just a few years after independence, waves of violent pogroms against members of the Igbo tribe forced millions back to safety in their historic homelands. Declaring the Nigerian social compact irreparably broken, they opted to secede.

The nasty civil war between the central government and the rogue state endured until 1970, when Biafra failed spectacularly. I mean this literally: Biafra was one of the first international conflicts to gain a global media and television audience. Richard Nixon weighed in on the humanitarian disaster. The trope of the “starving African” was born of LIFE magazine photos of Biafran children suffering from the effects of the Nigerian military’s blockades.

The preferred timeline for Nigerian postcolonial history tends to zoom from independence in 1960 to military dictatorship in 1984 back to democracy in 1999. But many non-Nigerians have forgotten or never knew about the civil war. And few Nigerians wish to dwell on the miserable conflict that eliminated 20 percent of the Biafran population, with no lasting institutions to show for it.

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Achebe revisits the spectacle as testimony—the book reads like an affidavit cloaked as personal memoir. After giving a brief synopsis of his childhood and ascent to authorship in the late 1950s, Achebe deals strictly with the thirty-month siege in Biafra, neatly fast-forwarding through the back half of the twentieth century during which he was Nigeria’s most celebrated writer.

It’s an odd decision—readers expecting a juicy literary memoir will be disappointed—but Achebe is a credible guide. His account empathizes with Emeka Ojukwu, the Biafran foil to Nigerian President Yakubu Gowon, and illuminates the humanitarian debates, military strategies, and slippery allegiances among senior Igbo officials. As an informal ambassador for Biafra, he maintained a surprising proximity to the leading generals and politicians of the age. One particularly delicious scene has him waiting for days in a Dakar hotel for an audience with Leopold Senghor, the president of Senegal and a great francophone poet. When Senghor realizes he is detaining a fellow scribe, he invites Achebe in—for a discussion that is fruitful intellectually but disappointing for Biafra, which Senghor declined to formally recognize.  

The book is at its best when the details are personal: the story of the last time Achebe saw slain poet Christopher Okigbo; his account of cowering overnight in a car emptied of petrol; the tale of trusting his first and only draft of Things Fall Apart to the Royal Mail service. His own free verse poetry is interspersed with the text. But still Achebe would rather talk politics. This has the virtue of consistency; in this book and in other writings he frequently discusses the obligations of African writers to be political, and, indeed, this imperative has underlined much of Achebe’s professional life.

Achebe worked in publishing—in the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, as a successful novelist, and as the proprietor of Citadel Press, a well-loved institution that died the day its headquarters in Biafra were strafed by a bomb. He published in Black Orpheus, the West African Pilot and Transition—early regional newspapers and “little magazines” that also printed Wole Soyinka, Okigbo, James Baldwin, and Paul Theroux. Under the example of Achebe and numerous others, African writing became morally committed to, as he puts it, “sitting at the table … effectively telling the African story from an African perspective—in full earshot of the world.”

The particular subject matter of this book raises the interesting question of how best to do so. Achebe is not the only recent Nigerian writer to entertain the issue. Chimamanda Adichie, for all purposes Achebe’s heir as Nigerian novelist of broad repute, also wrote a book about Biafra, Half of a Yellow Sun. It is necessarily fiction—Adichie’s generation of Nigerians (she was born in 1977) possesses no direct knowledge of the conflict and knows only slips of stories about the siege years. But where Adichie submerges the details of Biafra’s political economy in favor of human protagonists, Achebe has elected to write a story where the republic herself is the heroine.

Thus we learn about Biafra’s flag, its administrative structure, its currency, and her national anthem: “Land of the Rising Sun” (from which Adichie’s book presumably got its title). We learn about the pre-war pursuit and extermination of regional minorities that led to the country’s founding. We shake our heads when the United Nations fails to make interventions that are today standard operating practice. We read about ogbunigwe, a distressingly innovative scrap metal bomb developed by scientists and engineers at the Biafran think tank RAP.

Both books serve as admirable representations of a moment of huge importance for the most populous and dynamic country in Africa. And there is only superficial conflict between representing Biafra in fiction or as memoir. Both join a battle to fill the hole left by western histories of Africa. Even more than the specific history that he covers, this is Achebe’s aim. His earlier novels, he writes in this book, were political protests, simply for their existence. “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.”

If the book has a more concrete argument, it is that the state of Biafra failed—but was not “failed” in the modern geopolitical sense. Rather, the breakaway nation was functional and consensual to a degree unusual in twentieth-century Africa. Its actual ethnic and political cohesion is debatable, but Achebe paints a lovely picture of the early days of secession, in which “young girls ... had taken over the job of controlling traffic. They were really doing it by themselves—no one asked them to. That this kind of spirit existed made us feel tremendously hopeful. Clearly something had happened to the psyche of an entire people to bring this about.”

This insight is welcome and useful—particularly as modern Nigeria suffers from grubby corruption, self-dealing, and the same cycle of violent ethnic and religious clashes that began the civil war. Biafra was able to ask substantive foundational questions: “What would be the core components of our new nation-state? What did we mean by citizenship and nationhood?” Nigeria proper seemed to have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to ask these questions. Even though the nation won the war, its failure to reckon with the basic tensions of its anatomy have proven utterly debilitating.

Dayo Olopade’s forthcoming book, on innovation in Africa, will be released next year. Follow: @madayo