Controversy Brews over Achebe’s There was a Country

Controversy Brews over Achebe’s There was a Country

[Achebe] is a professor of English, a writer of repute and runs regular commentary on socio-political development in Nigeria. He has been nominated two times to receive national honors, but turned down the offer both times. Achebe’s latest work, now available in the UK, is his personal memoir of the Nigerian/Biafran civil war. In the PR the book is decribed as “the towering reckoning with one of the modern Africa’s most fateful experience, both as he lived it and he has now come to understand it.”

Achebe, in an article for the guardian UK stated

But if the diabolical disregard for human life seen during the war was not due to the northern military elite’s jihadist or genocidal obsession, then why were there more small arms used on Biafran soil than during the entire second world war? Why were there 100,000 casualties on the much larger Nigerian side compared with more than 2 million – mainly children – Biafrans killed?

It is important to point out that most Nigerians were against the war and abhorred the senseless violence that ensued. The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.

It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra war – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.

The federal government’s actions soon after the war could be seen not as conciliatory but as outright hostile. After the conflict ended, the same hardliners in the Nigerian government cast Igbos in the role of treasonable felons and wreckers of the nation – and got the regime to adopt a banking policy that nullified any bank account operated during the war by the Biafrans. A flat sum of 20 Nigerian pounds was approved for each Igbo depositor, regardless of the amount of deposit. If there was ever a measure put in place to stunt, or even obliterate, the economy of a people, this was it.

Since the article and some reviews of the book were published, controversy has been brewing in the Nigerian literary and political space, with long threads of commentary on social media platforms and message boards. Newspapers are not left out as politicians and parties air their views. Read the statements below and share your own views in the comment section. Biggest question is, should Achebe as a writer need to publish a memoir on the civil war, and will it affect the country for the good or worse?

A political activist and convener of the Coalition of Democrats for Electoral Reforms (CODER), Mr. Ayo Opadokun, took umbrage at the position of Achebe in the new book. He said: “The new write-up is another rehash of the perverted intellectual laziness which he had exhibited in the past in matters relating to Awo when Achebe described Awo as a Yoruba irredentist. What he expected was that Awo should fold his arms to allow the Igbo race led by Zik to preside over the affairs of the Yoruba nation. The fact that the Yoruba people in their wisdom, having found out that the NCNC through Zik and Okpara had established a government of their choice and then wanted to follow up with the appropriation of the Yorubaland as their catchment area. It is a demonstration of the contempt of Achebe and his ilk for the Yoruba nation.

Chairman of the Afenifere Renewal Group (ARG), Wale Oshun wondered why some Igbo, especially Chinua Achebe “find it convenient to pick Awolowo as a scapegoat of all that happened to them during the war.” He asked, “did awo start the war? He was just the Federal Commissioner for Finance with responsibility for coming up with appropriate fiscal and monetary policies. He was not at the battle field and could not therefore be fairly charged with genocide..” The former Chief Whip of the House of Representatives also challenged anyone to come up with any publication where Awo said starvation should be regarded as a legitimate weapon of war. “Neither in any of the books written by him nor on him was any such thing said. It is the work of those who hated his guts. It is not factual. It must be remembered that even when he was not in the cabinet, he tried to prevent the war, but as soon as it broke out, it was between Nigeria and Biafra. He had to come up with policies that would end the war quickly. Those who are peddling this line have forgotten that Awo was in prison when the crisis started.”

Awo’s official biographer, Prof Moses Makinde, who heads Awolowo Centre for Philosophy, Ideology and Good Governance, Osogbo, is the author of ‘Awo: The Last Conversation’. The other two are: ‘Awo as a Philosopher’ and ‘A Memoir of the Jewel’. He disagreed with Achebe, maintaining that the Ikenne-born statesman was a full-blooded nationalist. His words: “I do not agree with Prof Achebe on the statement. It is not true that Awo’s civil war role smacked of even an iota of selfish political aggrandisement. I was his biographer and I can state authoritatively that, though he did not penetrate the North, he had a firm belief in the unity of Nigeria and that was why he wanted to govern the country as an indivisible entity. All the governors and other close associates of his would attest to the fact that he was a believer in the oneness of Nigeria which was why he wanted to govern the entire country for the overall benefit of her entire citizenry.

Dr Awolowo-Dosunmu told Sunday Vanguard, yesterday, while responding to the Achebe claim: “One is still trying to come to terms with the sense of disappointment about the person who wrote what is now a brewing controversy in the country. “While a formal statement responding to the offensive comments of the writer is being prepared by the family all I can say for now is that I feel so disappointed”.

But, Mbadinuju, defending Achebe, said: “I have not read the book. I don’t want to speculate. During the civil war, I was studying in the United States of America. However, I have absolute confidence in Prof Chinua Achebe. He is an acclaimed international scholar and figure; whatever he says about the civil war should be taken seriously.”

Sources, Nationonline, Vanguard

20 thoughts on “Controversy Brews over Achebe’s There was a Country” by Admin (@ogaoga)

  1. It is a shameful thing that Nigerians have turned the book into a tribal war. All the people against Achebe’s view on Awolowo happen to be Yoruba, and all the others who hail Achebe’s view are igbos. Every other part of the book as been disregarded and all focus on just a paragraph.

  2. It is a shameful thing that Nigerians have turned the book into a tribal war. All the people against Achebe’s view on Awolowo happen to be Yoruba, and all the others who hail Achebe’s view are igbos. Every other part of the book has been disregarded and all focus on just a paragraph.

  3. Daireen (@daireenonline)

    All I have to say is a man’s opinion is his opinion, right or wrong. When wrong we must beware let it corrupts us, a,d when right, we must strive for better…

  4. this is only one man’s book causing uprising everywhere. Just imagine that many books have been written about the Biafran war yet they are hidden away in dusty shelfs but this can never be looked down on because the Eagle on the Iroko is involved. the funny thing is that the book has not officially got here. chei! I am enjoying this! has anyone here read “Because I am involved”? many people have written their tells about the war; ranging from Obasanjo to Gowon and Ojukwu. chei i am very loyal to the supper lion THE EAGLE ON THE IROKO!

  5. Again it is emphasized-don’t joke with writers they can make,mend or break.I believe he was only re-echoing the bitter truth about the war.Only that politics and tribal biases have warped our mind.So rather than learn from our past,we are looking for excuses to perpetrate tribal intolerance.

  6. Biafran war again? The talk on it will never end. And Nigeria will never change so long the case keeps being ‘politicized’ and ‘tribalized’. But the dude has poured out his mind. Take it or ‘throway’ it.

  7. Whatever Achebe likes, he can write. But whenever he does, he should consider the impact of his writings cos he is someone a lot of us look up to. At 82, bringing up the war is a most unwise decision. Nigeria is not one country, forget whatever the powers-that-be say but an Achebe shouldn’t use his last days to incite a nation already volatile with hostilities at every corner. Achebe should know. The unfortunate thing is he has nothing to lose but the rest of us, the younger generation risk everything.

    Of all he wrote about Awo, he is right, very correct sef but this ‘impression’, the following paragraph, is so so needless and full of vitriol against a most intellectual National hero:

    “It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra war – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams.”

    I am sure if Awo had such ‘overriding ambition’, the best way to get it would have been through Gowon for he already was the most powerful civilian. But for him to have resigned from the cabinet after the war says a lot. Like he said at his send-forth: “If we are related, we shall meet again.” Events that happened afterwards have proven that Awo wasn’t ‘related’ to Gowon; hence his inability, despite repeated attempts, to get to the topmost post, the presidency.

    I am sad at the tribalism that has crept into all these; it is highly unnecessary but I do not think any right thinking Yoruba would just fold his arms and swallow the paragraph I quoted above. Awo made the West. He is a hero; a legend extraordinaire. No one, not even an Achebe, has any right to lampoon him with unsubstantiated ‘impressions.’ I would never say same of a Zik and I know the Igbos would never take it lightly if a Soyinka, for example, wrote such a line against Zik. Objectivity is all we need here.

    Yes, Awo formulated policies that brought the war quickly to an end, but for anyone to say he did all he did cos of an ‘overriding ambition’ as against doing what Gowon released him from prison to do -manage a war economy- is most unfortunate and deeply shortsighted.

    I hope Achebe is happy now. 42 years of hatred should have been sated by now. If not, I fear for his twilight.

    1. I agree banky, Nigeria needs more of unity and not anything that dredges up the past and causes more pain and invokes bitterness. i’ve not read the book, i hope to.

  8. Achebe’s view is one of many; readers should be able to sift objective points from ideas borne out of sentiments while reading. It is not as if our National Anthem will be modified to excerpts culled from any chapter of this memoir. Why the hype?

  9. As so it goes on. Instead of focusing on important matters, we keep getting sidetracked by someone’s opinion of something that happened some time ago. Una do o.


    1. @seun-odukoya, So Achebe is just ‘someone’… U sef do.

      1. Sir Banky @banky, what am I supposed to call him? ‘Everyone’?

        And I was not referring to Achebe personally. I was being general.

        Understand that.

  10. When I learnt achebe was writing this memoir I had a feeling something like this might happen. Wars are terrible. Relieving it is never easy and your memories will always be clouded by your emotions.

  11. I think people should learn to accept mistakes done in the past.I have not read the book but,I know the death of 2 million and one hundred thousand people is a terrible loss for the Nigerian people.No matter what Yoruba,Igbo, Hausa and all the tribes have to say.We cannot absolve people about the blames of the past.This book should serve has a lesson to Nigerians alive today .Achebe has the right to express his views.The family of Awo should also write about his role in the civil war.

  12. Its really sad when our so-called ‘elites’ and and ‘literary stalwarts’ still harbour such tribalism, as is evident in that single paragraph. What example is he setting for the youth, especially those from the east? Enough about Biafra sef!

  13. It’s quite sad…and funny at the same time. Memoirs of this war are still coming out? I’m not saying we should forget, but how about moving on? The effects are still being felt today; no need fanning the flames of tribalism, what with all that’s going on in the country today.

    1. God bless you @raymond. What’s the point? 42 years after?! *sighs

  14. Blowing whistle… The truth hurts, just that sometimes in order to maintain diplomacy it should remain where it was buried. But then I’m Igbo and I’m angry at the massacre of my ancestors. And if I have the opportunity I’ll vent my anger peacefully on anybody involved just like Achebe did. But I have better things on my mind right now…

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