A country’s promise turned into horror


Nigerian author revisits the defining experience of his life, the Biafran War.

Before Nigerian author Chinua Achebe became a famous writer, he was a journalist, rewriting radio scripts for the state-run broadcaster. That terse, reportorial style of writing fills many of his novels, including his acclaimed debut Things Fall Apart, about the clash of cultures between traditional Africans and European colonialists.

Now, Achebe has turned a reporter’s eye toward the conflict that consumed years of his life, seeing his home bombed, his poet friend killed in battle and his Igbo people decimated by starvation brought on by civil war. This long-awaited memoir about a civil war that killed at least a million people at times feels purposefully restrained, as if he sought to write a history book that downplays his own emotions and experiences.

Yet haunting images of war still appear. Achebe saves perhaps his greatest anger for the way oil-rich Nigeria runs now, its elections often dominated by “those infamous rent-a-crowd hooligans at the beck and call of corrupt politicians with plenty of money and very low IQs.”

“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,” Achebe writes. “This clique, stunted by ineptitude, distracted by power games and the pursuit of material comforts, was unwilling, if not incapable, of saving our fledging new nation.”

Nigeria, which gained its independence from Britain in 1960, had hopes that it would become a powerful democracy fueled by oil revenues and free of colonial influence. But a failed coup in 1966 led to riots that killed 10,000 people, and the civil war began soon after.

Achebe describes how he, his wife and children faced repeated threats in the war years, fleeing their Lagos home as the military sought to kill him and later just missing being inside their apartment when an airplane bombed it. Yet Achebe deals with these episodes quickly, never deeply exploring his emotions or those of his loved ones.

Achebe sidesteps answering the question he poses late in his book, whether Nigeria’s government carried out a genocide against the Igbo, yet weights his books with others suggesting one took place.

Biafra remains almost a culture and historical black hole in Nigeria. Its dilapidated schools don’t teach much about it, and those from the war generation have begun to succumb to old age. However, Biafra has received new literary attention after the success of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s civil war novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Achebe’s book adds to that revival and revision of a war that nearly tore Nigeria apart – and whose strains can still be seen today in its corrupt government.

As Achebe writes: “What has consistently escaped most Nigerians in this entire travesty is the fact that mediocrity destroys the very fabric of a country as surely as a war — ushering in all sorts of banality, ineptitude, corruption and debauchery.”

Jon Gambrell reviewed this book for the Associated Press.

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