(By Mazi Moses Idika)
“Personally, I was not surprised that the Guardian of London deliberately highlighted that portion of the book because throughout There Was a Country, Achebe has harsh words for England, the real prosecutors of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. So in order to divert attention of the world off their infamous role in the Biafra genocide, they decided to stir up the very sentiment that was at the root cause of the war: ethnic bigotry! And unfortunately, the self-appointed public intellectuals of modern day Nigeria quickly hooked up with the red herring and lo and behold people practically went to war again, though this time on the pages of newspapers.“
I HELD my emotions with bated breath as the Nigerian elites and public intellectuals held the nation spell bound with arguments and counter arguments on the appropriateness or otherwise of Prof. Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country. It greatly baffled me that in the characteristic of most Nigerians, the arguments and counter arguments were based on the review of There Was a Country by the Guardian newspaper of London! In fact, most of them had not even read the book!
Some people and especially those that said they were protecting Chief Obafemi Awolowo even suggested that Achebe should not have written the book in the first place! Chief Babatope simply said ‘they were going to write their own book to counter Achebe’s position’ while Mr. Fanikayode whose disrespect for elders is legendary simply said Achebe should not have written the book! As a young Nigerian, I know very well that these people of timber and calibre cannot pull the wool over our face, not that easily, especially when the book will eventually get to Nigerian streets and we shall read it! So I bided my time and it came.
My first contact with the book was on November 21, 2012, at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. I could not buy it because it was being sold for N10, 000. At that point I could not simply afford to buy it so I went home dejected, a mood not helped by the chaos that was that airport that period due to the Call to Bar of new wigs at the Supreme Court in Abuja. However, I didn’t have to wait for too long to read the book and I am indeed grateful that I have.
Going by the hoopla that the British Guardian newspaper review generated in Nigeria especially among the self-appointed intelligentsia of the Southwest and former dictator, Gen Yakubu Gowon (who must be fuming at Mr. Pini Jason for the interview Achebe reproduced on pages 236-239) I had thought that the entire book was devoted to maligning the erudite Chief Awolowo. To my chagrin, however, I was perplexed to note that of the 300 plus pages of the book Achebe mentioned Awolowo only in five pages: 45, 46, 51, 227 and 233! And in those five pages, Achebe actually lionised the late Awolowo as a political champion. I guess the point of contention is page 233, where Achebe quoted, verbatim, Chief Awolowo in famous justification of the use of starvation as a weapon in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war: “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.”
Personally, I was not surprised that the Guardian of London deliberately highlighted that portion of the book because throughout There Was a Country, Achebe has harsh words for England, the real prosecutors of the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. So in order to divert attention of the world off their infamous role in the Biafra genocide, they decided to stir up the very sentiment that was at the root cause of the war: ethnic bigotry! And unfortunately, the self-appointed public intellectuals of modern day Nigeria quickly hooked up with the red herring and lo and behold people practically went to war again, though this time on the pages of newspapers.
Whereas, the Guardian of London purposely crafted that ‘special review’ more to discredit that great soul searching book, the gullible ethnic jingoist masking as public intellectuals in Nigeria unknowingly promoted the book and I believe this is the benefit of the London Guardian review, ironically though. Surprisingly, while some Nigerian elites wish Achebe dead for directing our mind to ‘where the rain started to beat us’, Mr. Shimon Peres, former Israeli Prime Minister, a man of the same age bracket with Achebe, was on the highly influential Al-jazeera TV network recounting the experience of his grandfather and other Jews during the Jewish holocaust!
Achebe has proven for the umpteenth time that his love for Nigeria simply is everlasting. This is because no matter where one is coming from, one will not but agree with Achebe that the time for redemption of Nigeria has come. To Achebe ‘the time has come for “Nigerians to start asking hard questions”. This, essentially, apart from putting the records straight, is the reason why the book was written in the first place.
So, as a young Nigerian, and I call on fellow compatriots, I believe, and strongly too, that no amount of red herring should divert our attention from the moral of this great book, that we must conscientiously take our destinies in our own hands by asking hard questions on how we can redeem our country.
Achebe in the introduction of There Was a Country started with the Igbo proverb that says: “A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot know where he dried his body”, (page 1). He went further to tell us why he has written There Was a Country: “It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grand children that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra story, our story, my story” (page 1). There Was a Country, therefore, is written to help Nigeria since we have all gone into collective amnesia, to know where the rain started beating us as a nation so that we can begin to think, at least, of how to get our body dry.
In essence, all those things that led Nigeria into war in the late 60s are today more endemic than ever: Ethnic and religious bigotry, corruption, nepotism, quota system against meritocracy, inept politicians; lately collapsed infrastructure, joblessness, rundown schools and hospitals, insecurity, armed robbery, kidnapping, human trafficking, drug peddling etc.
Achebe, a master story teller, in this brazen book, has jerked us up from our slumber. Nothing in the last decade, not even the elections, has elicited the kind of uproar that There Was a Country has elicited, and gratefully so.
Achebe being a very practical man, in his love for Nigeria, has not just criticised Nigeria and the Nigeria problems, he has also proffered the way forward. He equally agrees that Nigeria needs a holistic turn around maintenance, even though he understands that the road may be quite steep. In his words: “That road to remedy Nigeria’s political problems will not come easily. The key as I see it lies in the manner in which the leadership is selected…from local governments, governors up to the presidency” (page 244). To further assure us that the answer to Nigeria problems lies with Nigerians, Nigerians that are ready to take action, he goes further on page 247 to warn us that: “This is not the time to bemoan all the challenges ahead. It is a time to work at developing, nurturing, sustaining and protecting democracy and democratic institutions.”
Achebe continues in his admonition to his countrymen, saying that the quest for strengthening democracy and good governance in Nigeria “should continue for decades in small forums, in schools, offices, on the radio, on TV, in our newspapers, and on the streets until we get things right”. He tells us that even “most advanced countries constantly appraise and re-appraise their countries’ paths and destinies” (page 252).
Here lies what the Guardian of London unsuccessfully tried to divert out attention from! A well-governed Nigeria will definitely mean less revenue for imperialist economies like that of the UK where corrupt Nigerians siphon our collective patrimony for safe keeping. As things stand today, it is the dream of any Nigerian politician from the local government to the presidency to buy a house in London.
Even, when many Nigerians in “the system” refuse to acknowledge our progress, Achebe does and agrees that fundamental changes must be made. On the recurrent call for Sovereign National Conference, SNC, Achebe perhaps proffers an agreeable solution: ‘It should not be an avenue for politicians to drink or feast on meals in Abuja”!
The old man also praises and acknowledges our progress so far: ‘The last general elections in Nigeria were not perfect, but overall it was an improvement over past travesties that were passed off as election in Nigeria”. It is, therefore, obvious that we must then focus attention on the real issues Achebe raised in There Was a Country so that we may save Nigeria from the precipice.
• Mazi Moses Eze Idika, an editor wrote from Abuja.
“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”