Memoirs as Tools for National Mobilization: A review of Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country:A personal history of Biafra and Wole Soyinka’s Ibadan: The Penkelemes years

There was a Country: A personal history of Biafra (2012) and IBADAN: The Penkelemes years (1994) stands out as not just a collection of realistic experiences, but a socio-political commentary that captures the bygone events in Nigeria with its attendant relevance to contemporary society. It is a sad a reminder of the historical actualities as encapsulated in the memories of two of the country’s finest writers. They are accounts of the hostilities and conflict that plagued the social landscape at specific times in the nation’s rich existence.

For Soyinka, it was the “Penkelemes years” at Ibadan with reference to his experiences at Federal Government College, Ibadan, Paris and England, his drama troupe, the Orisun theatre and the pivotal role he played in the affairs of the South-West of the early sixties, all in a bid to jettison political mediocrity and bigotry in that region.

Chinua Achebe on the other hand explores his concern with the Nigerian civil war and the plight of his kinsmen in a nation besieged with ethnic chauvinism and suspicion. As a modern griot, Achebe owes posterity a responsibility to narrate his role in the Biafra mandate; the many reasons behind its initial success and ultimate failure and that is what we see in this latest book.

Though published 13 years apart, both works are testaments of the rough road the young nation had to undertake towards actualizing that dream state, one laden with prospects, nay a land flowing with milk and honey, at the departure of the colonialist who left us to steer the ship of this fantasy.
There was a country (2012) comes across as an attempt to remind us of that elusive aspiration and undoubtedly, the fact that a breakaway state called Biafra once existed. It brings to memory the gruesome years (1967-1970) where Nigerians were killed in their thousands leaving so many internally displaced.

Controversial or not, there are lessons to be learnt from these narratives. For instance, preventing what happened in the past from repeating itself. Whatever issue is raised in these books, one is wont to believe that it is for the nation to learn and avoid a similar occurrence, knowing that it is not luxury to engage in war. They both offered implicit advice that a nation with such vast potential should be able to offer its citizenry good governance, the best of education, health care, security, and a robust system of employment opportunities.

It is as a result of these activities that the military intervened in the political sphere of the nation on January 15, 1966.Many saw this as an ethnic battle especially against the backdrop that those murdered were predominantly key leaders of Northern extraction- The Sadauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello and the Prime minister of the nation then, Sir Tafawa Balewa and a host of others. This in turn led to a counter-coup as things began to take an ugly turn.
But this was a result of the colonial act in that historical and landmark amalgamation of the Northern and Southern protectorate in 1914 by Lord Lugard where diverse nationalities were grouped together without appropriate details to understand their peculiar nuances, traditions, mores and ethos and how plausible co-existence would be.

Since then however, the political scene of the nation has always been a beehive of ethnic polarization and subtle political undertones. The move on the floor of the Federal House of Assembly in 1954 by Chief Anthony Enahoro for independence of the nation was seen by the North as an idea that was “as soon as practicable”. This is only an example of the uneven development of the people of the nation. While some thought it was the best time for independence, others thought it ill-timed. Of course the rest is not just history, but a contemporary phenomenon still bedeviling our nascent and fledgling democracy. Unfortunately, the issues of power struggle at the federal and regional level as well as the endemic corruption outlined in both books are still a present day reality.
Nigeria thus was a time bomb of ethnic discord waiting to explode and the strings of events between 1963-1965 such as the national census, the Federal election, Kano riots, operation Weti e in the South-west and the massacre of Igbo civilians in the North, offered the opportunity for such explosion.

Achebe records:
…The Northerners turned to Igbo civilians living in the North and unleashed waves of brutal massacres that Colin Legum of The Observer (UK) was the first to describe as a pogrom. Thirty thousand civilian men, women and children were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed and violated, their homes and property looted and burned- and no one asked any questions. (82)

This is the present reality of things as civilians are been killed by various militia group across the country and there seem to be no body asking questions. However, I believe Gowon as a major player in the civil war, owes the country his memoir. He has to tell us his own version of the story. What Chinua Achebe has simply done in his 333- paged memoir divided into four part, is to give us his own version of the events that unfolded in that era. So much of the nation’s history has been lost with the demise of key players in the coup d’ etat of both January 15 and July 29 of 1966 as well as the victims of the civil war such as the late poet, Christopher Okigbo.
One is tempted to ask the salient question, why is the civil war not taught in schools as Achebe covertly advises? As this will help us appreciate the complexity of the human nature and put us in a frame of mutual understanding. It will help us embrace the strength in our diversity, as well as help us take advantage of our ingenuity across the many ethnic groups scattered about our large geographical enclave. Again like every good thing, it will be subjected to abuse, but let’s give it a try first.

The major players in the war will do posterity well if they outline their role so that the young generation will learn. Not with the motive of instigating violence, but with the idea of fostering peace and unity in the nation. Many will argue that Nigeria and the United States of America share similar history. Even though America is over 200 years, she has had her fair share of civil war (1861-1865) and has still been able to remain one having aptly reconciled all parties. The Nigerian civil war (1967-1970) is a reality that we must live with and time will continue to heal the wound even as the nation heads towards a developed nation status.

What have however prevented a reoccurrence of such conflict in America have been the myriads of memoirs available on the war. From key players such as generals on the part of the Union to Generals who fought on the side of the Confederate, they all bear their fears, weaknesses and reasons why they failed or succeeded depending on which part of the divide they were. This was done in a bid to foster national unity, trap history and inform the young generation about the dangers of war. Such can be done in Nigeria. Although General Olusegun Obasanjo and a handful of others have published autobiographies detailing their role, it is however not enough.

The question one is tempted to ask is why is the book written at such time as this? Why is it now that Ojukwu is dead? That is a discourse for another day. However, in an attempt to sieve through for answers, one begins to think of Chinua Achebe as one laden with the responsibility of transmitting knowledge from his generation to ours knowing well that the journey to the grave is very short.

All the information provided in the book would have been lost forever if Achebe were dead. Major Kaduna Nzegwu and Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi are not here to tell us what transpired in the early years of our independence but history will not forgive those alive who have deliberately kept back information.
Everything rise and falls on leadership and that is what Chinua Achebe points out .Part of the reason Biafra fell is the penchant of its leader Dim Odemegwu Ojukwu to cleave on to power despite the clear signals that the battle was over. This is also another present reality of some African countries where its leaders hold on to power with a host of them losing their lives in the process. The Arab spring is a worthy example. We seem not to learn from history in this part of the world.

It is against this back drop that Wole Soyinka’s Ibadan (1994) proves a valid illustration of the idea of protest beyond the pages of books to physical force as was experienced in the wake of the Arab spring. Narrating his life’s experience between 1946-1965, Soyinka’s Ibadan is a reflection of the socio-political and economic upheaval of pre-independence and early years of independence. One is quick to add that Soyinka’s perspective offers us more detail about what transpired in those trying years down in the West.

Unlike Achebe, who used the first person narrative point of view, Soyinka’s third person technique chronicles the fated Nobel Laureate as a tool for cataclysmic change especially as it concerns education and the society. Having studied at University of Ibadan and later returned as a research fellow, he proved a hard nut to crack on the home front as well as in the corridors of power.

The influence of politicians such Nnamdi Azikiwe and Chief Akintola in the affairs of the university (University of Ibadan and later Ife) undermined the autonomy of these pioneering institutions. (Indeed we see a repeat of this recently when President Jonathan attempted to change the name of Unilag to Moshood Abiola University). This provided the needed inspiration upon which Soyinka rode to establish himself as a national icon, a resolute supporter of education void of external politicking.

In the 382-page autobiography, we see a Soyinka taking the character, Maren who with sheer wit gained ascendency in an attempt to rid the state of scrupulous fellows. Ofcourse all this leads to his detention, yet he never relented in his efforts at advancing freedom of speech and the autonomy of the institution of higher learning, a course which he gives himself wholeheartedly to the detriment of his family. The visit of his wife when he was in prison reveals this:
She reminded him of her generosity in taking his child by first marriage to her bosom, treating him just like any of hers, not making him feel unwanted, never discriminated against, indeed playing a role in repatriating him from England at great risk, yet his gratitude was certainly notable in his gross neglect of her and hers, and so on. (373)

Maren proves himself not just a playwright, but a social activist, one who risks his life for the good of the society, defending the right of the oppressed from wielding a gun to political thugs, to holding workers in a radio station hostage.(341)

Many have said that Achebe’s work seem one sided, somewhat biased. But this is his own story; one only wished others bring a different angle to the plot. No doubt the pogrom against the Ibos is highlighted in the book. One can only say that Achebe must of necessity express his experience which is inevitably his own reality. He could not have done better.

Soyinka on the other hand was very much involved in the socio-political landscape of the West just like Achebe. A writer indeed cannot be divorced from his environment; it is what shapes his inspiration as one cannot write in a vacuum. This is the very reason he was committed to making things right. Just like Christopher Okigbo who fought in the Civil war and was killed, Soyinka and Achebe are not exempt.

These writers were in every angle nationalists and committed at least to a course we can all identify. They used the tools available to them: their pens and popularity to advance their respective patriotic spirit.
Chinua Achebe writes of the Nobel Laureate in his memoir:

Wole Soyinka was already regarded b this time as Africa’s foremost dramatist. He had published The swamp Dweller, The Lion and the Jewel and The Trials of Brother Jero as well as collections of poetry. The Road is considered by many to be his greatest play. A Dance of the Forest, a biting criticism of Nigeria’s ruling classes, was the first of what was to become his signature role-as one of the most consistent critics of misrule from his generation. His 1964 novel, The Interpreters, as well as ventures into recording, film, and poetry, showcased his versatility. Soyinka’s attempts to avert a full-blown 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 twenty-month imprisonment. (109)

Achebe later confessed that if he were to find himself in the shoes of Soyinka, he would not have done less. His response to the editors of Transition in 1968 echoes this disposition.”If I had been a Nigerian, I think I would have been in the same situation as Wole Soyinka-in prison.” (110)

In conclusion therefore, one cannot over-emphasize the veracity that these writers are patriotic. Although from different socio-political and cultural orientation, they are committed to the course of nationhood and ethnic integration.

They however frowned at the corruption of power that a few privileged men displayed to the detriment of these traditional and universal values. One can only hope that the nation learns from its mistakes and ensure that the solutions proffered by these writers are taking seriously because as Chinua Achebe’s Man of the People (1965) was a prophecy of the coup of 1966, we could just have a repeat of such in contemporary Nigeria especially as we approach 2015.



3 thoughts on “Memoirs as Tools for National Mobilization: A review of Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country:A personal history of Biafra and Wole Soyinka’s Ibadan: The Penkelemes years” by sambright (@sambrightomo)

  1. Rich, incisive and very educative piece, Sam. My best line is ‘A writer indeed cannot be divorced from his environment; it’s what shapes his inspirations as one cannot write in a vacuum.’ That’s what some of these critics fail to realize when they carelessly spew invectives on these notable writers.

    I totally concur with the points raised here. I’ve often said to those who wants to listen that it’s the small and easily neglected details that often counts. The history of Nigeria is replete with such neglects and it has cost us a lot, yet we refuse to learn it. We cannot simply forget the civil war and move on like Kaycee once alluded in his piece ‘Cry, The Beloved Country, For The Sceptre May Not Hold.’ At least I know I can’t. No amount of time can erase that and I’ll equally narrate what my father told me about the war and what I read about it to my kids. I owe them that. The elements of the Nigerian Civil War- the cause, the players, the aftermath, the effects on the citizens both social and psychological aspects of it, preventive mechanisms to avoid such gory occurences, etc- should be taught in schools as you’ve rightly and impicitly suggested, but in a manner that wouldn’t stimulate ethnicity, vendetta or negative thoughts among the youths. It will help reshape our views of the war and see it as one of those things that should be done to bring about a better civilization. Running way or repressing it does more harm than good…

    I wish to read more like this and that ‘farting in church’ stories from you

  2. @francis you surely will get.Thank you so much,I am humbled.

Leave a Reply