There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra [NOOK Book]


From the legendary author of Things Fall Apart—a long-awaited memoir of coming of age in a fragile new nation, and its destruction in a tragic civil war

For more than forty years, Chinua Achebe has maintained a considered silence on the events of the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, of 1967–1970, addressing them only obliquely through his poetry. Now, decades in the making, comes a towering account of one of modern Africa’s ...
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There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

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From the legendary author of Things Fall Apart—a long-awaited memoir of coming of age in a fragile new nation, and its destruction in a tragic civil war

For more than forty years, Chinua Achebe has maintained a considered silence on the events of the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, of 1967–1970, addressing them only obliquely through his poetry. Now, decades in the making, comes a towering account of one of modern Africa’s most disastrous events, from a writer whose words and courage have left an enduring stamp on world literature. A marriage of history and memoir, vivid firsthand observation and decades of research and reflection, There Was a Country is a work whose wisdom and compassion remind us of Chinua Achebe’s place as one of the great literary and moral voices of our age.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Achebe's reminiscences of Biafra, a country whichthat spent the entirety of its brief existence, from 1967 to 1970, in civil war with Nigeria, result in an uneasy mix of history and memoir. After an insightful, masterful account of his education, his attention wavers between the individual and the international without settling on a steady tone. Readers will find his legendary gift with imagery in several poems, as well as in details such as Biafran citizens being warned against wearing the colorful clothing most visible to Nigerian bombers, a brilliantly selected example of war's reach into the previously mundane. But the narrative as a whole never coalesces, and after Biafra declares independence it keeps swinging abruptly between the trivial and the heart-stopping: Achebe never unpacks; he tries to stay alive; his wife employs men to redecorate. Nagging questions remain at the end about his stance towards the conflict, during which he served as cultural ambassador for Biafra, while a closing call for "patriotic consciousness" to overcome Nigeria's current problems fails to convince. Only in a concluding poem does Achebe put his finger on the main theme of this stubbornly loyal celebration of unfulfilled possibility: "haunted revelry." Agent: Andrew Wylie, The Wylie Agency. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"Foreign Policy Must Read 2012" by Books from Global Thinkers

“Chinua Achebe’s history of Biafra is a meditation on the condition of freedom. It has the tense narrative grip of the best fiction. It is also a revelatory entry into the intimate character of the writer’s brilliant mind and bold spirit. Achebe has created here a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of story-telling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one. The event of a new work by Chinua Achebe is always extraordinary; this one exceeds all expectation.”—Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

“A fascinating and gripping memoir.” —The Wall Street Journal

There Was a Country ought to be essential reading…an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes.”—Financial Times

“Achebe writes in a characteristically modest fashion…Like much of Achebe’s other work, this book about the progress of war and the presence of violence has a universal quality. In a world where sectarian hatreds augmented by political mediocrity have fractured Syria and threaten to bring Israel and Iran to blows, There Was a Country is a valuable account of how the suffering caused by war is both unnecessary and formative.”—Newsweek

"Memoir and history are brought together by a master storyteller."
The Guardian

Library Journal
Shortly after gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria was subject to a military coup and countercoup that resulted in the massacre of thousands of Igbo citizens. Fleeing to the east, the Igbo proclaimed the eastern region of the country the independent Republic of Biafra. The ensuing civil war ended in 1970 with Biafra's defeat. Achebe (Things Fall Apart) lends his voice to this bloody period in Nigeria's history through a blend of insightful political analysis, history, and memoir, interspersed with his poetry. Because of his prominence as an author and intellectual, Achebe was an integral part of the Biafran government, serving as a cultural ambassador. Yet he was also an Igbo trying to make sense of the brutality and keep his family safe. Achebe's personal stake in the Biafran war makes his account more than just a standard historical retelling. His writing reveals his love and sorrow for his people and his hope for Nigeria's future. VERDICT Achebe's book will appeal to scholars of Africa, but its reach will extend to all readers interested in learning more about the author's life and the life of his country.—Veronica Arellano Douglas, St. Mary's Coll. of Maryland Lib., St. Mary's City
Kirkus Reviews
The eminent Nigerian author recounts his coming-of-age during the now scarcely remembered civil war of 1967–1970 that sundered his country. An Igbo by birth and heritage, born into a deeply Christian family in 1930, Achebe (The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays, 2009, etc.) grew up at a time when British colonial rule was at its orderly zenith and educational institutions in Nigeria were first-rate. These schools turned out the imminent Nigerian leaders and pioneers of modern African literature, who would assume power and position as Nigeria marched to independence in 1960. Yet within the vacuum left by the departing British, Nigeria became "a cesspool of corruption and misrule," with the numerous ethnic groups vying for power, especially the dominant Igbo in the east, the Yoruba on the coast, and Hausa/Fulani in the north. The Igbo were increasingly resented and persecuted for their education, competitive individualism and industriousness. The coup of Jan. 15, 1966 was ostensibly led by Igbo military leaders and was countered by bloody assassinations six months later, followed by pogroms against the Igbo by northerners. Igbo refugees flooded the Eastern Region, which refused to recognize the Nigerian government led by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon; the consensus was building across the East, led by Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, that "secession was the only viable path." The East was declared the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967, with the full backing of the Constituent Assembly and the best Igbo minds of the time, including Achebe. The arrangement proved disastrous, as Gowon aimed to crush the insurrection at all costs, starving Biafra by blockade and creating a global humanitarian disaster that killed an estimated 3 million, mostly children. Achebe looks at all sides of the conflict, inserting poems he wrote at the time and tributes to Nigerian writers and intellectuals. A powerful memoir/document of a terrible conflict and its toll on the people who endured it.
The Barnes & Noble Review

There once was a country called the Republic of Biafra. Its brief existence, from May 1967 to January 1970, was an affront to the leaders of Nigeria, from which Biafra, occupying the nation's southeast corner, had seceded. Nigeria, which had gained independence from Britain just seven years prior, took military action to suppress Biafra's bid for sovereignty. In a brutal civil war that lasted thirty months, perhaps as many as 2 million Biafrans perished — directly from the violence or from the starvation and disease resulting from a blockade imposed by Nigerian forces. The Biafran War was, according to the most famous Biafran, the writer Chinua Achebe, "a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa." Before the humanitarian disasters in Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere, it was one of the first dirty wars to run its course on the world's TV screens.

One of the authors of the Ahiara Declaration, proclaiming the new nation's liberal founding principles, Achebe also served Biafra as a diplomatic envoy. This absorbing memoir, There Was a Country, recounts the doleful history of Biafra from the perspective of a disappointed partisan and within the context of the author's life through 1970. Although Achebe has been living in the United States — currently resident at Brown University — for more than twenty years, this is a book about Africa and its author's experiences there. He begins by recalling his childhood at the crossroads of traditions, in the town of Ogidi, where he was open to the influences of his father, a Christian teacher and evangelist, as well as to the ambient Igbo culture. He praises the British colonial system, in particular an educational infrastructure that celebrated hard work and high achievement. Achebe, who earned the nickname "Dictionary," excelled within this meritocracy, as a student and then as an employee of the Nigerian Broadcasting Service. In 1958, he outdid Amos Tutuola and Cyprian Ekwensi, the only Nigerian novelists to have gained significant recognition, by publishing Things Fall Apart, the most influential novel ever to come out of Africa.

The memoir's account of Achebe's early life is perfunctory, lacking the rich textures that vivify his fiction. Recalling University College, Ibadan, he notes that his brother Augustine provided him with funds "so that I could pay the university tuition and continue my studies, which I did, very pleasantly." No details explain what made the studies pleasant. Achebe does offer an anecdote about how the manuscript of Things Fall Apart was almost lost when he mailed it off to be typed by a shady outfit in England, but it only whets one's appetite for further insights into the writer's life.

However, the focus of this book is Biafra, as refracted through Achebe's experiences and beliefs. Though he clearly favors the secessionist cause, he attempts to present the complexities of national identity in Nigeria, a construct of colonialism that encompasses more than 250 ethnic groups. Of these, the largest are the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo. Achebe praises the Igbo, his own people, for their industriousness, individualism, and respect for learning; he lays much of the blame for Nigeria's woes on resentment of Igbo achievements. He admits that Igbos led what he calls "the naively idealistic coup of January 15, 1966." That bid for power triggered a violent counter-coup that was accompanied by anti-Igbo pogroms. Biafra, where Igbos constituted about 65 percent of the population, was a refuge against genocide. Achebe views the ensuing war as a personality clash between two rival graduates of Sandhurst — General Emeka Ojukwu, the son of wealth and privilege who led Biafra, and General Yakubu Gowon, the opportunist who took control of Nigeria. In his own family's close calls with death, Achebe reflects the ordeals of millions.

Now past eighty, Achebe has been a public figure for most of his life, called on for fifty years to make pronouncements about his native land. Much of There Was a Country consists of recycled riffs on set subjects. The book's 377 footnotes acknowledge not only that Achebe draws on outside sources but that much of the text is a verbatim sampling of what he has already said in essays and interviews. The name of a prominent figure often generates two or three sentences of canned description. Awkwardly interpolated, one too-tidy paragraph sums up Achebe's crucial founding of the African Writers Series. What might have been a vivid record of a literary artist's personal experiences instead too often reads like a compendium of well-rehearsed position statements.

One in four Africans lives in Nigeria, whose population may well exceed 1 billion by century's end. Achebe, who defines himself as "a protest writer, with restraint," concludes his anguished memoir by denouncing the "decadence, corruption, and debauchery" that continued to worsen after 1970. Things fell apart, perhaps irreparably, in the carnage of Biafra.

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at University of Texas at San Antonio, where he has taught since 1976. His most recent book is Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005).

Reviewer: Steven G. Kellman

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101595985
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/11/2012
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 558,830
  • File size: 982 KB

Meet the Author

Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He has published novels, short stories, essays, and children’s books. His volume of poetry Christmas in Biafra was the joint winner of the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Of his novels, Arrow of God won the New Statesman-Jock Campbell Award, and Anthills of the Savannah was a finalist for the 1987 Man Booker Prize. Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s masterpiece, has been published in fifty different languages and has sold more than ten million copies internationally since its first publication in 1958. Achebe is the recipient of the Nigerian National Merit Award, Nigeria’s highest award for intellectual achievement. In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize.  He died in March 2013.  
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Read an Excerpt

An Igbo proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.

The rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade to the Berlin Conference of 1885. That controversial gathering of the world’s leading European powers precipitated what we now call the Scramble for Africa, which created new boundaries that did violence to Africa’s ancient societies and resulted in tension-prone modern states. It took place without African consultation or representation, to say the least.

Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party. It was one of the most populous regions on the African continent, with over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages. The northern part of the country was the seat of several ancient kingdoms, such as the Kanem-Bornu—which Usman dan Fodio and his jihadists absorbed into the Muslim Fulani Empire. The Middle Belt of Nigeria was the locus of the glorious Nok Kingdom and its world-renowned terra-cotta sculptures. The southern protectorate was home to some of the region’s most sophisticated civilizations. In the west, the Oyo and Ife kingdoms once flourished majestically, and in the midwest the incomparable Benin Kingdom elevated artistic distinction to a new level. Across the Niger River in the East, the Calabar and the Nri kingdoms flourished. If the Berlin Conference sealed her fate, then the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates inextricably complicated Nigeria’s destiny. Animists, Muslims, and Christians alike were held together by a delicate, some say artificial, lattice.

Britain’s indirect rule was a great success in northern and western Nigeria, where affairs of state within this new dispensation continued as had been the case for centuries, with one exception—there was a new sovereign, Great Britain, to whom all vassals pledged fealty and into whose coffers all taxes were paid. Indirect rule in Igbo land proved far more challenging to implement. Colonial rule functioned through a newly created and incongruous establishment of “warrant chiefs”—a deeply flawed arrangement that effectively confused and corrupted the Igbo democratic spirit.

Africa’s postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by “our colonial masters.” Because the West has had a long but uneven engagement with the continent, it is imperative that it understands what happened to Africa. It must also play a part in the solution. A meaningful solution will require the goodwill and concerted efforts on the part of all those who share the weight of Africa’s historical burden.

Most members of my generation, who were born before Nigeria’s independence, remember a time when things were very different. Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal—natural resources, yes, but even more so, human resources. But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.

It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1

Pioneers of a New Frontier 7

The Magical Years 8

Primary Exposure 15

Leaving Home 17

The Formative Years at Umuahia and Ibadan 19

The Umuahia Experience 21

The Ibadan Experience 28

Meeting Christie and Her Family 30

Discovering Things Fall Apart 33

A Lucky Generation 39

The March to Independence 40

The Cradle of Nigerian Nationalism 43

Post-Independence Nigeria 48

The Decline 51

The Role of the Writer in Africa 52

1966 (poem) 62

January 15, 1966, Coup 63

The Dark Days 65

Benin Road (poem) 73

A History of Ethnic Tension and Resentment 74

The Army 78

Countercoup and Assassination 80

The Pogroms 82

Penalty of Godhead (poem) 84

The Aburi Accord 85

Generation Gap (poem) 90

The Nightmare Begins 91

Part 2

The Nigeria-Biafra War 95

The Biafran Position 95

The Nigerian Argument 96

The Role of the Organization of African Unity 96

The Triangle Game: The UK, France, and the United States 99

The Writers and Intellectuals 105

The War and the Nigerian Intellectual 108

The Life and Work of Christopher Okigbo 114

The Major Nigerian Actors in the Conflict: Ojukwu and Gowon 118

The Aristocrat 118

The Gentleman General 120

The First Shot (poem) 127

The Biafran Invasion of the Mid-West 128

Gowon Regroups 132

The Asaba Massacre 133

Biafran Repercussions 135

Blood, Blood, Everywhere 136

The Calabar Massacre 137

Biafra, 1969 (poem) 141

The Republic of Biafra 143

The Intellectual Foundation of a New Nation 143

The Biafran State 149

The Biafran Flag 151

The Biafran National Anthem 151

The Military 153

Ogbunigwe 156

Biafran Tanks 157

A Tiger Joins the Army 158

Freedom Fighters 159

Traveling on Behalf of Biafra 160

Refugee Mother and Child (A Mother in a Refugee Camp) (poem) 168

Life in Biafra 169

The Abagana Ambush 173

Air Raid (poem) 175

The Citadel Press 176

The Ifeajuna Manuscript 178

Staying Alive 179

Death of the Poet: "Daddy, Don't Let Him Die!" 183

Mango Seedling (poem) 186

Refugees 188

We Laughed at Him (poem) 196

The Media War 199

Narrow Escapes 200

Vultures (poem) 204

Part 3

The Fight to the Finish 209

The Economic Blockade and Starvation 209

The Silence of the United Nations 211

Azikiwe Withdraws Support for Biafra 215

The Recapture of Owerri 217

Biafra Takes an Oil Rig: "The Kwale Incident" 218

1970 and The Fall 222

The Question of Genocide 228

The Arguments 229

The Case Against the Nigerian Government 233

Gowon Responds 236

Part 4

Nigeria's Painful Transitions: A Reappraisal 243

Corruption and Indiscipline 249

State Failure and the Rise of Terrorism 250

State Resuscitation and Recovery 251

After a War (poem) 254

Postscript: The Example of Nelson Mandela 257

Appendix: Brigadier Banjo's Broadcast to Mid-West 259

Notes 267

Index 321

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 1, 2013

    Master story teller

    Chinua Achebe is a master story teller, he has written this one masterfully , his writing is so smooth you won't realize when you finish this good book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2013

    This is a book rooted in the truth of what was and a candid narration of what is. This book has given me back a lost period of my youth. May your soul rest in peace Mr. Achebe and thank you. I highly recommend this book of great importance to all!

    When I was a child, things happened. Nobody explained these important landmarks of that time as current events and now no-one has taken time to write a historical sequences of events as detailed and chronicled in Chinua Achebe's "THERE WAS A COUNTRY". I invite every Nigerian, born, adopted and befriended to READ THIS BOOK AND LEARN. Excellent must read book for this summer.
    Stella Erondu

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 30, 2012

    A must read for all esp Nigerians

    The book arrived on time. I wasn't disappointed. Thanks Barnes&Noble :) This is a controversial book that gives an insight on the civil war that broke out in Nigeria. A tell-it-all from the author's perspective.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 9, 2012

    Another one from the master himself. 5

    Another one from the master himself.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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