Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country: A tripartite story in four parts

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Reviews season two

Last Updated on June 23, 2018 by Memorila

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy writes that Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece, There was a Country, which tells of the horror that was Nigeria’s civil war, is a literary, historical and political piece rolled into one

“My aim is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions and perhaps to cause a few headaches in the process.” – Chinua Achebe (There was a Country, p. 228)

Typical of quintessential Achebe, he not only succeeds in causing a few headaches, he leaves us feeling sick and restive from the gory images of suffering, agony, starvation, destruction, and a poignant smell of death during the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War painted in his last book, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.

To have written such a powerful book, one wonders how Achebe survived the many years after the war with all these haunting and disturbing memories bottled up inside him, and as if they have vowed not to let him die till he commits them to paper, Achebe would vacate this corporeal realm only after telling this last tale, a tale that would see the prolific writer abandon the genre of fiction and take solace in the non-fiction, a tale Achebe never wanted to tell till he no longer could keep it incarcerated, a bitter tale of his experience and happenings before, during, and after the Nigerian Biafra Civil War (1967-1970).

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Yes, Achebe in trying to approximate his civil war experience could only write short stories, gathered in a collection titled Girls at War and other Stories, and a poetry anthology titled Beware, Soul Brother. But this time, the writer decides to abandon the comfort of fiction and confront reality, the result is a merger of two major genres – prose and poetry – and a soldering of three varying academic fields – literature (autobiography), history, and politics! If there is a problem with this book, it will be that scholars will keep finding difficulty in any attempt to compartmentalise it, as the literature scholar will label it an autobiography while the student of history will claim that it is a history text just as the political scientist will call it a text on African politics – all depending on the approach adopted. Yet, I dare say the book is all these aspects rolled into one.

A narration in four parts, the first part traces the origin of the writer, his parents, and the milieu he was born into and how his father’s dedication to reading inspired his love for education. It is also a tale of the good old days when colonial administrators ran the political and government system efficiently as compared to the hotchpotch our local political leaders turned the system into as soon as they took over the rudder from the erstwhile colonial masters. Lastly, it describes the events leading up to the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. This part can be majorly seen as the autobiographic aspects of the book.

The second part captures the commencement of the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra; it mentions especially the many botched attempts at seeking peace before the commencement of a full blown war. A war which saw ordinary men quickly metamorphosing into soldiers, men rejecting honours bestowed upon them by the British to show solidarity with the Biafran cause, a war which saw to the death of great and promising intellectuals such as Christopher Okigbo, and left what little is left of the Igbo race in tatters. For those seeking to know more about the life and times of the enigma called Christopher Okigbo, Achebe’s There was a Country holds valuable information. This part also mentions the roles played by the international community in the war, the stance taken by intellectual and various influential persons around the world, especially the efforts of agencies such as the Red Cross and the Catholic Christian community.

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The third part tells of the war ending and the grim prospects open to Biafrans who survived the war as they attempt to reintegrate into the society that had once rejected them (Nigeria). This part, along with the second, contains the main historical aspects of the book.

The fourth and last part narrates the writer’s sojourn into mainstream politics now as a citizen of Nigeria; it captures his disillusionment and withdrawal from politics down to why he rejected the award of the General Commander of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (GCFR), one of the highest awards that can be awarded to a citizen. This part also espouses Achebe’s political philosophy and like in his small but powerful book, The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe still believes that Nigeria, and indeed Africa, still has a leadership crisis. This is the part that deals mainly with politics and there is a lot of wisdom in this part for all those who would dare to turn its pages and listen to the words of the sage called Achebe.

So, the book is a tripartite book with the first part being an AUTOBIOGRAPHY, the second and third part being HISTORY and chronicling the commencement of the Nigerian-Biafran civil war down to its terminal point, while the last part discusses Achebe’s POLITICAL IDEOLOGY.

We may not agree with the many issues Achebe brings up in his book, even though it will be difficult to disprove him as he backs them up with facts. I think that, for Achebe and as with most writers, it is more of seeking inner peace within oneself by releasing pent up feelings of betrayal and anger before leaving for the grave which matters most, which is much more than what someone else’s feelings may be after perusing the book. Hence, I have chosen not to argue for or against the validity of the facts presented in the narration. I would rather want us to examine the lessons to be learnt from the experiences Achebe narrates in his book.

War favours none and should never be an option in conflict resolution, we must always seek other means except war, every group has the right to self-determination and that right should be accorded them, protected, and respected. If we must live as one, at no time must we permit the purposeful annihilation and denigration of a particular (ethnic) group, and we must count ourselves part of the conspiracy when such occurs and we keep mute.

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Nevertheless, I must stand fast to salute the men and women of Biafra, many of whom had no former military training but were prepared and determined, like the American farmers during the war of independence, to pick up arms and fight for what they believed in, the dream called Biafra – Land of the rising sun! Sadly, it was a dream that never came into fruition…

I must confess that I have read quite some few books on the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, from non-fictional accounts such as Ademola Ademoyega’s Why We Struck and Chief Olusegun Obasanjo’s My Command to fictional accounts as Cyprain Ekwensi’s Divided, We Stand, Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty, Iheanyichukwu Duruoha’s Eaters of Dust, Chinua Achebe’s Girls at War and other Stories, Flora Nwapa’s Women are Different, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, and even poetry collections such as J. P. Clark’s Casualties and Achebe’s Beware, Soul Brother but I dare say that no discourse on the literature and history of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War will be complete without a mention of Achebe’s There was a Country.

I would have said the book is such a fine work, but is it still really fine if after placing it on my shelf, images of children with bloated stomachs, thin necks and heads continue to disturb my dreams? Read the book and tell me if it makes you feel same way also.

© Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy 2018

Review Eazy’s reviews on Memorila every Saturdays!

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Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy

Ubaji Isiaka Abubakar Eazy holds a degree in English language and literary studies. He is a short story writer, copy editor, book reviewer, literary critic, poet, and essayist. He teaches English as a Foreign Language in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

2 thoughts on “Chinua Achebe’s There was a Country: A tripartite story in four parts

  • June 24, 2018 at 12:31 am

    Easy is always good at what he does…. I always enjoy reading his works….keep it up


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