There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

by Chinua Achebe
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There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe

From the legendary author of Things Fall Apart comes a longawaited memoir about coming of age with a fragile new nation, then watching it torn asunder in a tragic civil war

The defining experience of Chinua Achebe’s life was the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, of 1967–1970. The conflict was infamous for its savage impact on the Biafran people, Chinua Achebe’s people, many of whom were starved to death after the Nigerian government blockaded their borders. By then, Chinua Achebe was already a world-renowned novelist, with a young family to protect. He took the Biafran side in the conflict and served his government as a roving cultural ambassador, from which vantage he absorbed the war’s full horror. Immediately after, Achebe took refuge in an academic post in the United States, and for more than forty years he has maintained a considered silence on the events of those terrible years, addressing them only obliquely through his poetry. Now, decades in the making, comes a towering reckoning with one of modern Africa’s most fateful events, from a writer whose words and courage have left an enduring stamp on world literature.

Achebe masterfully relates his experience, bothas he lived it and how he has come to understand it. He begins his story with Nigeria’s birth pangs and the story of his own upbringing as a man and as a writer so that we might come to understand the country’s promise, which turned to horror when the hot winds of hatred began to stir. To read There Was a Country is to be powerfully reminded that artists have a particular obligation, especially during a time of war. All writers, Achebe argues, should be committed writers—they should speak for their history, their beliefs, and their people.

Marrying history and memoir, poetry and prose, There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid firsthand observation and forty years of research and reflection. Wise, humane, and authoritative, it will stand as definitive and reinforce Achebe’s place as one of the most vital literary and moral voices of our age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143124030
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/24/2013
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 415,739
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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 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.

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.

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

What People are Saying About This

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


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There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Omotola More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Zizi02 More than 1 year ago
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.
chiaka More than 1 year ago
Another one from the master himself. 5