Wednesday, November 7, 2012

My Problems with Achebe’s Personal History of Biafra Part I

“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 territories…towards a deeper understanding of self or society, or of foreign peoples, cultures, and situations”- Chinua Achebe

In his new book, “There was a Country: A personal History of Biafra,” Achebe wrote as follows: “The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic, and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies”(p.74). Let me start out by saying that I have indeed finished reading the book. I am not literary critic and as such this piece is not meant to be a critical review of Achebe’s new book. I will also hasten to add that I had no problems with the personal history of Achebe as he relates in the book, especially his upbringing, education and how he became a successful writer despite all odds stacked against him. I found that part of the book, which is restricted to the first few chapters of the book very informative, instructive and enlightening. In addition, and as I wrote earlier this month, I think it is high time Awoist accept the flaws in Pa Awo and acknowledged the fact that his role in the civil war particularly as it relates to the starvation policy leaves much to be desired. Achebe’s is on point in all of these issues and backed every one of his assertions and claims with facts, figures and interviews with the principal actors. It is a well sourced book on all these scores.

My problems with the book have to do with something that is very common among Nigerian intellectuals and political elites: a resort to worn out ethnic superiority argument to explain an endemic complex socio-political milieu. They often deploy this well worn out card time and time again to prop up their ethnic groups while taking a dig at other ethnic group, without any serious thought on the damaging implications for Nigeria body politics. Let me state here that the idea of one ethnic group as superior to another did not start with Achebe. It is a common refrain among Nigerian elites. You can see variants of these in one form or another from the likes of Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe: “It would appear that the God of Africa has created the Ibo(sic) nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondages of the ages... The martial process of the Ibo nation at all ages of the human history has enabled them not only to conquer others but also to adapt themselves to the roles of preservers... The Ibo nation cannot shrink its responsibility from its manifest destiny.” Chief Obafemi Awolowo: “I have always insisted to myself that my first duty is to the Yoruba nation....And I put that nation first, then the one called Nigeria. The people of the Western Region may be divided roughly into two groups: the Yoruba and the non-Yoruba. The Yoruba are a fastidious, critical and discerning people....the non-Yoruba elements were rabidly anti-Action Group, because they were anti-Yoruba.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by Bola Ige, Ahmadu Bello, et. al and now Chinua Achebe.

First of all, Achebe seems to build this premise on nothing other than his bare assertion. If this assertion were to be true then the British should neither have come up with “magna carta” nor invent the best naval warship; as they would have been hampered by traditional hierarchies. The reality Achebe completely ignores is that the Yoruba traditional hierarchies were not without moderation. A cursory reading of any Yoruba history books about the Oyo Mesi, and the “checks and balances” inherent in Yoruba’s traditional institution will show that it limits the absolutism that would have impeded the advancement of knowledge and development. The discovery of Ife bronze and other Yoruba pre-colonial works also puts lie to such tales. A recent book by Frank T. Kryza also revealed that Sultan Bello was suffused with knowledge about the world before the arrival of the colonialist even though he is deeply religious. Kryza notes that when the explorer “Clapperton reached Sokoto on October 20, 1826, where he was escorted to the same house he occupied on his first visit. He was cordially received by Sultan Bello, whom he found reading an Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements.” Knowledge, growth and advancement are not unique to any ethnicity in Nigeria.

All these historical facts matter a little to those who think their ethnic group is superior to others. Achebe wrote his new book as if he is still the director of Biafra ministry of information, summoned to fan the embers of ethnic jingoism. I found the book to be an attempt to fight the unfinished civil war business in print, and to lift up his ethnic group as the best there was and will ever be. I am very leery of people that think their ethnic group is the best thing since sliced bread. The fear that some mindless reader may cease upon this theory to forment another Rwanda-like genocide and tribal killings prompt me to write this piece. Every human being no matter the race they come from or belong is endowed with potentials to be the best. In Achebe's book, everything wrong with Nigeria is down to discrimination against Igbos and there is nothing that cannot be put right in Nigeria if we simply let Igbo individualistic spirit we have been holding down since independence free. Even the corruption in our land can be explained away as due to the shackles we put on Ndigbo. If we had only give Igbo people a little leadership in Dodan Baracks and Aso rock we may now be living in Achebe’s Eldorado. Things like corrupt laden Ajaokuta Steel Mills is linked by any means possible to the Soviet participation in civil war and the MIG they supplied to the federal side. It has nothing to do with endemic selfish inhibitions common among political leadership in “obodo” Africa, something the several Igbo governors and local government chairmen since the civil war are as guilty of as any other in modern Nigeria.

The attempt to paint one ethnic group as superior to the other often comes with deliberate distortions of facts or an outright side step of stubborn facts. Achebe played fast and loose with facts in his new book. As Patrick Moynihan argued, we are only entitle to our opinions and not our own facts. In Achebe’s book, the British would still be ruling us, but for the Igbos who drove them out of Nigeria. Achebe of course won't let banal facts- such as the fact that it was in Western Region that the motion for independence was first made-stand in the way of his superior race argument.

He wrote: “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 Nigeria”. Excuse me? You meant only Achebe's Igbos fought for Nigeria's independence? I bet Achebe’s Igbo parliament moved the motion for independence and suffer the hardship that the colonialist visited on them. The reality however is that nationalist came from every part of Nigeria, from the Egba and Aba women who rioted, to the Coal miners in Enugu, to people like Ms. Ransome Kuti's, Aminu Kano and particularly Zik and Awo!

In 1955, an American journalist, John Gunther, wrote the following about the nationalist movement for independence: “ this particular time, a severe constitutional crisis was at its peak. The African ministers representing one important political party, the Action Group, had adopted a non-fraternization policy, and would not accept hospitality from the Governor, although their Northern colleagues did. They were perfectly willing to talk business with Sir John McPherson in Government House, but they would not accept “hospitality” from him, not even a glass of water. There was nothing particularly personal in this. Macpherson was widely liked as an individual. But Government House symbolizes the Crown, and both West and East were at that time boycotting the Crown as a matter of principle.” Gunther also wrote this about an important Nigerian hero: “In March, 1953, came a positively savage crisis. Its effect was to paralyze government. An Action Group deputy, Anthony Eronsele Oseghale Enahoro, (This young man, born in 1923, is a firebrand. He has been imprisoned three times for sedition) rose in the central House of Representatives and introduced a resolution demanding complete self-government by a specific date-1956. … The East and West leaders, “Zik” and Awolowo, who had been fighting like scorpions the night before, publicly embraced, and pledged themselves to make the common cause.”

The tendency to play fast and loose with facts may be a good trait if you are a fictional writer but may not serve you well if you purport to give your reader a deeper understanding of self or society or of foreign peoples, cultures, and situations. Achebe is of course entitle to his opinion but he cannot remake history to continue the civil war in print, and set us back again. There is indeed a critical mass of Ndigbos who are still very bitter about the civil war and rightfully so, and Achebe is one of them. They are right about the fact that Ndigbos suffered a lot before, during and after that war. We should learn from the mistakes made by leaders from both sides so we don't fall foul of them again. I also believed that there might be need for some reparations in one form or another and acknowledgement of wrong by leadership of Nigeria before we can move on. But Nigerians who believe in the superiority of their ethnic group are hindering a full and frank discussion of issues afflicting Nigeria. The disservice this mentality does to our national psyche is telling indeed.
We cannot grow as a nation with this type of mindset. Corruption, nepotism, dictatorship and attempt to scuttle individual freedom reared its head in Achebe’s Biafra just as it continues to pervade our polity even now. Even Achebe alluded to an instance where his brother-in-law was court martial and had to face a death sentence in the new Biafra for expressing an opinion on the lack of preparedness of the military for War. We need to understand that the endemic problem Nigeria face has had helpful assist from all hue and ethnic group in Nigeria, including the leadership of Ndigbos, the Yorubas, the Hausa/Fulani and other ethnic groups. The way out of the logjam we found ourselves in Nigeria is for us to eschew any attempt to pull us apart and stand firm in the fight against corruption, ethnicism, nepotism with a determined resolve to fight for merit in all facets of our national endeavor.