Read There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra Online

Authors: Chinua Achebe

Tags: #General, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Africa

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (7 page)

One thing that I find a little worrying, though, is the suggestion that perhaps what
was done in the 1960s, when African literature suddenly came into its own, was not
as revolutionary as we make it out to be. That African literature without a concerted
effort on the part of the writers of that era would still have found its voice. You
find the same kind of cynicism among young African Americans who occasionally dismiss
the contributions of the civil rights activists of that same period. Many of these
same critics clearly did not know (or maybe do not want to be told) what Africa was
like in the 1940s, back when there was no significant literature at all.

There are people who do not realize that it was a different world than the world of
today, one which is far more open. This openness and the opportunities that abound
for a young intellectual setting out to carve a writing career for him- or herself
are in fact partly a result of the work of that literature, the struggles of that
era. So even though nobody is asking the new writer or intellectual to repeat the
stories, the literary agenda or struggles of yesteryear, it is very important for
them to be aware of what our literature achieved, what it has done for us, so that
we can move forward.

As I write this I am aware that there are people, many friends of mine, who feel that
there are too many cultures around. In fact, I heard someone say that they think some
of these cultures should be put down, that there are just too many. We did not make
the world, so there is no reason we should be quarreling with the number of cultures
there are. If any group decides on its own that its culture is not worth talking about,
it can stop talking about it. But I don’t think anybody can suggest to another person,
Please drop your culture; let’s use mine. That’s the height of arrogance and the boast
of imperialism. I think cultures know how to fight their battles; cultures know how
to struggle. It is up to the owners of any particular culture to ensure it survives,
or if they don’t want it to survive, they should act accordingly, but I am not going
to recommend that.

My position, therefore, is that we must hear all the stories. That would be the first
thing. And by hearing all the stories we will find points of contact and communication,
and the world story, the Great Story, will have a chance to develop. That’s the only
precaution I would suggest—that we not rush into announcing the arrival of this international,
this great world story, based simply on our knowledge of one or a few traditions.
For instance, in America there is really very little knowledge of the literature of
the rest of the world. Of the literature of Latin America, yes. But that’s not all
that different in inspiration from that of America, or of Europe. One must go further.
You don’t even have to go too far in terms of geography—you can start with the Native
Americans and listen to their poetry.

Most writers who are beginners, if they are honest with themselves, will admit that
they are praying for a readership as they begin to write. But it should be the quality
of the craft, not the audience, that should be the greatest motivating factor. For
me, at least, I can declare that when I wrote
Things Fall Apart
I couldn’t have told anyone the day before it was accepted for publication that anybody
was going to read it. There was no guarantee; nobody ever said to me, Go and write
this, we will publish it, and we will read it; it was just there. But my brother-in-law,
who was not a particularly voracious reader, told me that he read the novel through
the night and it gave him a terrible headache the next morning. And I took that as
an encouraging endorsement!

The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and
trust with the reader, who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into unfamiliar territory,
walking in borrowed literary shoes so to speak, toward a deeper understanding of self
or society, or of foreign peoples, cultures, and situations.



our thoughtless days

sat at dire controls

and played indolently

slowly downward in remote

subterranean shaft

a diamond-tipped

drill point crept closer

to residual chaos to

rare artesian hatred

that once squirted warm

blood in God’s face

confirming His first

disappointment in Eden

January 15, 1966, Coup

On Saturday, January 15, 1966, a pivotal day in the history of Nigeria, members of
the Society of Nigerian Authors happened to be gathered for a meeting. The venue was
an office building on Kingsway Road in Ikoyi, Lagos. There were about ten of us living
in Lagos at the time: John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (aka J. P. Clark), Wole Soyinka,
Onuora Nzekwu, and a few others. A few members were sitting at a table that looked
out onto the Lagos Lagoon. We were engaged in polite conversation, delaying the start
of the meeting as some of our members trickled in.

It happened that my new novel,
A Man of the People
, was about to be published in London, and I was communicating with my publisher,
Heinemann. I knew that the book was going to be problematic for me because of its
criticism of Nigerian politics—very severe criticism. The novel, after all, climaxes
in a military coup.

I had sent one copy of the novel to J. P. Clark on a Wednesday, two days earlier.
When J.P. arrived at the meeting his voice rang out from several hundred feet away.

“Chinua, you know, you are a prophet. Everything in this book has happened except
a coup!”

That very evening, unbeknownst to us, a military coup was being launched that would
change Nigeria forever.

The next day I got a message from Heinemann, a cable or telex, asking me whether they
should go ahead and publish the book. Why would they send this message? I wondered.
I was unaware that a coup had happened the night before. I told the gentleman who
carried this message—I think from the British embassy—to tell my publisher to go ahead
and publish the novel. I was not particularly afraid, even though I had concerns.
I thought, Who was likely to misunderstand? My sentiment changed from incredulity
to dread when we heard details and the surrounding events of the coup.

In those days we went to work on Saturdays and worked till noon. When I got to my
office that Saturday there were soldiers everywhere, surrounding Broadcasting House.
The soldiers stopped me and interrogated me until they were satisfied that I worked
there, and then let me pass through. The announcement of a coup on the radio had not
been made. Some people had their suspicions, because soldiers in military vehicles
were seen being deployed throughout the city, and roadblocks with barbed wire were
being erected everywhere.

News began to seep through. We heard that the prime minister was missing. Then came
news from Kaduna that the Sardauna
Sir Ahmadu Bello, the most powerful of the premiers, had been killed. We then heard
that Samuel Akintola, the premier of Western Nigeria, had also been killed. Those
of us working in broadcasting in the coming days would get a more detailed list of
those killed, imprisoned, or detained during the coup. These events thrust Nigeria
into a state of shock for a long time.

Nigeria was not ready or willing to face her problems. If her leaders had approached
their duty with humility, they all might have realized long before the coup that the
country was in deep trouble. Nigeria was rocked by one crisis after another in the
years that followed independence. First the Nigerian census crisis of 1963–64 shook
the nation, then the federal election crisis of 1964, which was followed by the Western
Nigeria election crisis of 1965—which threatened to split the country at its seams.
At that point most of us, the writers at least, knew that something was very wrong
in Nigeria. A fix was long overdue.

When the artist’s imagination clashes with life’s very reality it creates a heavy
conundrum. The story Nigeria had of herself was that something like a military coup
would never happen; Nigeria was too stable for that. We were utterly unprepared for
such an event, and for the magnitude of the dislocation that ensued.

Despite my fictional warning I never expected or wanted the form of violent intervention
that became the military coup of January 15, 1966. I had hoped that the politicians
would sort things out for our new nation. Any confidence we had that things could
be put right was smashed as we watched elements from the military take control. The
coup was led by a group of junior officers, most of them Igbo, and it would be known
widely as the Nzeogwu coup after Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, the ringleader, who was from
the northern city of Kaduna. That night of January 15, 1966, is something Nigeria
has never really recovered from.

The Dark Days

On January 16, 1966, the day after the Nzeogwu coup, my wife, Christie, took our first
child, Chinelo, to the movies to catch the matinee. Chinelo was full of energy—always
running all over the place. My wife’s doctor, Dr. Okoronkwo Ogan, who became our daughter’s
godfather, called her “quicksilver.”
On their way home, my wife decided to drop by and see me in the office, so that our
daughter could tell me all about the movie they had watched. I believe it was the
Disney classic
, about the flying elephant. As they approached the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation
they saw the soldiers around but did not know what was happening. They were not scared,
even though they found the commotion a bit peculiar.

As they walked to my office someone yelled at my wife: “Where are you going? Don’t
you know what is happening?” So she walked more briskly, because she wanted to find
out whether I was alive. A soldier stopped them and asked them to leave. They returned
home and tuned into the radio station to find out what was going on.

People were standing on the streets in small groups, listening to the radios of street
newspaper vendors. There had been a coup, the radio announcers said, at which point
there was an initial period of spontaneous, overt jubilation. The story of the coup
and how it happened started leaking out, first from the military barracks and then
from the international media. There was a great deal of anxiety among the general
populace. Everyone wanted to find out exactly what had happened in Kaduna, Lagos,
Ibadan, and elsewhere the night before, though apparently not much action had been
seen in Enugu, the capital of the Eastern Region. The initial vacuum of information
was filled with gossip, innuendo, and fabricated accounts that magnified the confusion
throughout the country. A second story got around that the military coup, which at
first had been so well received, was in fact a sinister plot by the ambitious Igbos
of the East to seize control of Nigeria.

In a country in which tribalism was endemic, the rumor of an “Igbo coup” began to
find acceptance. Before long many people were persuaded that their spontaneous jubilation
in January had been a mistake. A Nigerian poet who had dedicated a new book “to the
heroes of January 1966” had second thoughts after the countercoup of July, and he
sent a frantic cable to his publishers to remove the dedication.

Those who knew Nigeria were not very surprised, because part of the way to respond
to confusion in Nigeria is to blame those from the other ethnic group or the other
side of the country. One found some ethnic or religious element supporting whatever
one was trying to make sense of. This angle grew stronger and stronger as the days
passed, mainly because the state of confusion was not really dispelled satisfactorily
by the authorities.

The weeks following the coup saw Easterners attacked both randomly and in an organized
fashion. There seemed to be a lust for revenge, which meant an excuse for Nigerians
to take out their resentment on the Igbos who led the nation in virtually every sector—politics,
education, commerce, and the arts. This group, the Igbo, that gave the colonizing
British so many headaches and then literally drove them out of Nigeria was now an
open target, scapegoats for the failings and grievances of colonial and post-independence

It was a desperate time. Soldiers were being used by elements in power to commit a
number of crimes against Igbos, Nigerian citizens. Military officers were rounding
people up and summarily executing them, particularly in the North, we were told by
victims fleeing the pogroms. There was a story of hoodlums looking to hunt down and
kill Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani, who was the chairman of the Nigerian Coal Corporation.
Dr. Ikejiani escaped the grasp of these thugs by dressing up as a woman and crossing
the Nigeria border to Dahomey (today’s Republic of Benin)!

In Lagos, where we lived, soldiers were also used in targeted raids of certain people’s
homes, including our own. It happened that my wife and I had moved recently from Milverton
Street to Turnbull Road, after my promotion to director of external broadcasting.
Fortunately for us the soldiers went to Milverton Street, to our old house, to search
for me.

Some may wonder why soldiers would be after me so fervently. As I mentioned, it happened
that I had just written
A Man of the People
, which forecast a military coup that overthrows a corrupt civilian government. Clearly
a case of fact imitating fiction and nothing else, but some military leaders believed
that I must have had something to do with the coup and wanted to bring me in for questioning.

Eventually my family and I left our Turnbull Road house, a painful decision. We had
moved into it after we were married. It was located in Ikoyi, a nice section of town,
overlooking the lagoon. I remember receiving important visitors in our home, such
as the great African American poet Langston Hughes, who stopped by during one of his
famous African tours. I have a favorite picture of the two of us from that period,
standing near a palm tree on the lawn of that lovely residence.

We found refuge in an old friend’s house—Frank Cawson, the British Council representative
in Lagos, whose intervention literally saved our lives. He housed us for a number
of days. Mr. Cawson had been the British Council representative in Accra, Ghana, and
had invited me to give a lecture there before he came to Lagos. I delivered a lecture,
entitled, “The African Writer and the English Language.” So when Mr. Cawson was transferred
to Nigeria, he was already known to me.

He was monitoring local and international radio and newspapers to get a sense of what
was happening. He took a number of precautionary steps to enhance our safety. First
he took his car out of the garage and put our own there instead, so that no one would
see it. It was a very tense, anxiety-plagued period for my wife and me and our two
children, Chinelo, who was five years old, and Ike, who was two. Making matters worse
was the fact that Frank Cawson was quite ill—I think with malaria.

For about a week, lying hidden in Mr. Cawson’s house in Lagos, I still simply thought
that things had temporarily gotten out of hand, and that everything would soon be
all right. Then, suddenly, I discovered that I had been operating on a false and perhaps
naïve basis all along. The soldiers located us after we had been hiding about a week.
It became clear to me that I had to send my family away.

As many of us packed our belongings to return east some of the people we had lived
with for years, some for decades, jeered and said, “Let them [Igbos] go; food will
be cheaper in Lagos.” That kind of experience is very powerful. It is something I
could not possibly forget. I realized suddenly that I had not been living in my home;
I had been living in a strange place. There were more and more reports of massacres,
and not only in the North, but also in the West and in Lagos. People were hounded
out of their homes, as we were in Lagos, and returned to the East. We expected to
hear something from the intellectuals, from our friends. Rather, what we heard was,
“Oh, they had it coming to them,” or words to that effect. There were many others
from other parts of Nigeria who did not jeer but suffered with us at this sudden discovery
that a section of the large, diverse Nigerian family was not welcome in this new country.

A lot of this hot-blooded anger was fanned by British intellectuals and some radical
Northern elements in places like Ahmadu Bello University. They were aided by a few
in the expatriate population from outside Nigeria, who easily influenced the mostly
self-satisfied and docile Northern leadership to activate a weapon that has been used
repeatedly in Nigeria’s short history—a fringe element known as “area boys” or the
“rent-a-crowd types”—to attack Igbos in an orgy of blood.

As we reached the brink of full-blown war it became clear to me that the chaos enveloping
all of us in Nigeria was due to the incompetence of the Nigerian ruling class. They
clearly had a poor grasp of history and found it difficult to appreciate and grapple
with Nigeria’s ethnic and political complexity. This clique, stunted by ineptitude,
distracted by power games and the pursuit of material comforts, was unwilling, if
not incapable, of saving our fledgling new nation.

I arranged to smuggle Christie and the children out of Lagos on a cargo ship from
the port. Christie reports that it was one of the most horrendous voyages she has
ever undertaken. She remembers the seasickness heightened on this particular trip
as a result of her pregnancy. She and the children and other refugees from the bloodshed
were placed in a section of the ship that was in the open, without any shelter from
the elements. There was vomiting, nausea; it was just awful. After the harrowing sea
journey, Christie, Chinelo, and Ike were received safely in Port Harcourt in Eastern
Nigeria by her brother, Dr. Samuel Okoli, an obstetrician-gynecologist, who served
gallantly during the war effort.

I found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Nigeria was disintegrating,
that I had to leave my house, leave Lagos, leave my job. So I decided to sneak back
into our Turnbull Road residence and return to work. People were disappearing right
and left. . . . There was a media report of someone from the senior service whose
body was found the night before. At this point the killings had reached the peak figure
of hundreds a week.

Victor Badejo, the director general of Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, saw me on
the premises, stopped me, and said, “What are you still doing here?” And then he said,
“Life has no duplicate”
and provided further clarification of the situation. Badejo confirmed a story I had
heard of drunken soldiers who came to my office “wanting to find out which was more
powerful, their guns or my pen.” He was quite anxious on my behalf and advised me
to leave my Turnbull Road residence immediately.

Philip Ume-Ezeoke was the controller of education programming at the Nigerian Broadcasting
Corporation. We were both from the Eastern Region and got on rather well. He and I
decided together that the time had come for us to travel back to the East. Relatives
were sending messages from there begging their loved ones in Lagos to return. There
were a number of people like us who did not really want to see this come about . . .
did not believe this was happening. Ume-Ezeoke came to my house and suggested we go
in a two-car convoy back to Eastern Nigeria. We agreed on a time that we would leave
Lagos the following morning.

I got to Ume-Ezeoke’s house the next morning very early, exactly at the agreed-upon
time, but no one was there. He was already gone. Unfortunately, Philip Ume-Ezeoke
is no longer alive. If he were, it would be interesting to know what happened. In
any case, I set out on my own, wondering what would come up at any point. The highway
was full of police roadblocks along the way. I was stopped once or twice and had to
show my papers—what Nigerians call my “particulars.”

I was one of the last to flee Lagos. I simply could not bring myself to accept that
I could no longer live in my nation’s capital, although the facts clearly said so.
My feeling toward Nigeria was one of profound disappointment. Not only because mobs
were hunting down and killing innocent civilians in many parts, especially in the
North, but because the federal government sat by and let it happen.

The problems of the Nigerian federation were well-known, but I somehow had felt that
perhaps this was part of a nation’s maturation, and that given time we would solve
our problems. Then, suddenly, this incredible, horrific experience happened—not just
to a few people but to millions, together. I could not escape the impact of this trauma
happening to millions of people at the same time. Suddenly I realized that the only
valid basis for existence is one that gives security to you and your people. It is
as simple as that.

When I finally got to Benin City, which is located roughly halfway from Lagos to Igbo
land in the Mid-West Region, there was a distinct atmospheric change. The fact that
the Mid-West was a neighbor of the East meant that at this point there were Mid-Western
Igbo policemen. It is important to recall that during this period in Nigerian history
the Igbos had large numbers in the police force but not in the army, where their numbers
were concentrated in the officer corps. Crowds of policemen recognized me when I got
to Benin City and cheered, saying, “Oga, thank you!,” and let me through to continue
my journey without incident to Onitsha Bridge, and over the Niger River to the East.

It is pertinent to note that within the military there had been for at least half
a decade preceding the coup a great sense of alienation from and disillusionment with
the political class in Nigeria. They shared that feeling with a growing number of
ordinary Nigerians, and clearly with the writers and intellectuals. The political
class, oblivious of the growing disenchantment permeating literally every strata of
Nigerian society, was consumed with individual and ethnic pursuits, and with the accumulation
of material and other resources. Corruption was widespread, and those in power were
“using every means at their disposal, including bribery, intimidation, and blackmail,
to cling to power.”

Many within the military leadership were increasingly concerned that they were being
asked to step in and set things right politically. In the first six years of its post-independence
existence Nigeria found itself calling on the armed forces to quell two Tiv riots
in the Middle Belt, crush the 1964 general strike, and reestablish order following
regional elections in the Western Region in 1965. In hindsight, it seems as though
President Azikiwe may have been aware of the sand shifting beneath the feet of the
political class, and he tried to gain the support of the military brass during the
constitutional crisis following the 1964 federal general election. The failure of
Azikiwe’s attempt perhaps should have been the first sign to many of us that trouble
lay ahead for our young nation.

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