Chinua Achebe's There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra and the Rhetoric of Tribal Spokesmanship

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Chinua Achebe's There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra and the Rhetoric of Tribal Spokesmanship
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  Name: Banire, S. Abiodun. Fulbright Scholar at New York University, Manhattan, USA. Title : Chinua Achebe‟s There Was Country: A Personal History of Biafra  and the Rhetoric of Tribal Spokesmanship. Paper presented at the Toyin Falola International Conference on Africa and the African Diaspora, held at Ibadan, Nigeria, July 2, 2013. Abstract. The search for truthful accounts of events that precipitated the Nigerian Civil War has remained elusive in literary corpus, even in the autobiographical sub-genre which prides itself on  factuality and faithfulness to objective depiction of events. Over four decades after the cessation of hostilities between Nigerian Federal Forces and the secessionist Forces of Biafra, the  plethora of autobiographical works on the subject remains heavily compromised with the burden of tribal prejudices and sentiments, taking us farther away from unraveling the true causes (remote and immediate) and circumstances of a war that appears to have wrecked indelible  scars on the psyche of the Nigerian state. Dwelling on Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country: A  Personal History of Biafra which is one of the most recent autobiographical works in the  Nigerian civil war continuum, this paper examines the strategies adopted by such writers to  pursue tribalistic agendas. It argues that Achebe, in this work, assumes the role of a tribal  spokesman bent on building up the Igbo as a master race, absolving it of any blame in the events that culminated in the war, and reducing other (major) tribes of Nigeria as less-sophisticated and incurably envious of the Igbo tribe. Through comparison of Achebe’s civil war memoir with historical accounts (such as newspaper articles, press releases, letters, and other memoirs on the  subject) and examination of the strategies he uses to mythicize the Igbo race (as infallible, and as victim of envy and hate), disparage other tribes, trump up claims of genocide, and downplay the totalitarian and repressive regime operated in Biafra’s brief existence to pu rsue his  Igbocentric leanings, this paper concludes that Achebe’s civil war memoir, rather than expand  factual knowledge on the tragic events of the war, is a further distortion of history to achieve tribalistic intents, as evident from the avalanche of cr  iticisms that trails the “facts” presented in the book.     The prime motivations for literary engagements often vary from one region to another. While the Western writer whose society has relatively overcome the basic challenges of human survival (food, shelter, responsive leadership etc) is at liberty to recreate and even contrive literary works that have no serious or direct implications for individuals and society, the African writer, whose continent is bedeviled with myriads of challenges (injustice, socio-economic deprivations/imbalances, endemic poverty, pervasive corruption, inept and insensitive leadership), has no alternative to being utilitarian in his art. From its inaugural moments, African literature has always been answerable to the society that produces it as Joe Ushie (2008:1) affirms that: In Africa, in orate pre-colonial period and after, literature has never  been a phenomenon detachable from the material realities of the society in which it is produced. The umbilical cord between the material world and the fictional world of literature is never severed, as literature continues to feed on this physical world which it, at the same time, interrogates ridicules, satirizes or  praises...a literary work in Africa and the realities of its concrete world are, hence, necessarily mutually embedded in each other. With this inextricable link that African literary works, even from pre-colonial times, share with the material realities of the society that produces them, it is unsurprising that early  popula r works of African literature such as Kobina Sekyi‟s The Blinkards   and Chinua Achebe‟s Things Fall Apart sought to caution Africans from slavish uncritical imitation of everything European, and to rescue the African culture and civilization from the crushing weight of European imperial superciliousness respectively. This early socio-cultural, economic and political consciousness of African literature is echoed in Chinua Achebe‟s (1975: 15) assertion that “The African writer who avoids the big issues of cont emporary Africa will end up being irrelevant.”   Colonialism is in many ways the major harbinger of the “big issues” that confront and  plague the African continent today as the 1884  –  1885 Berlin Conference where European powers met to partition the African continent among themselves did not take the philosophical and cultural peculiarities of the different African tribes into consideration before seaming them together into larger amorphous units to ease colonial administration. This incongruity laid the foundation for future squabbles among the heterogeneous tribes, as Peter Muller (1997: 340) sees colonialism as:  Africa‟s undoing in more ways than one. By the time independence returned to Africa in 1950, the realm (of Africa) had acquired the legacy of political fragmentation that could neither be eliminated nor made to operate satisfactorily.  Nigeria, one of the products of European colonial expedition in Africa, is replete with several “fragmentations,” chief among which is tribal fragmentation that  has remained intractable, and continues to preclude national progress. Rather than make frantic efforts to build  bridges of brotherhood across the tribal gulf among Nigerians, the indigenous leaders who inherited the baton of leadership from the British colonial forces exploited the tribal differences of the people by whipping up xenophobic sentiments to perpetually control the nation, eventually  plunging the young nation into a thirty-month civil war (1967  –   1970) which claimed millions of lives. Although the actual military combats ended in January 1970 when the representative of the secessionist region, Eastern Nigeria (under the umbrella of Biafra Republic), Philip Effiong, formally surrendered to federal forces, the war appears to have left some unanswered questions and indelible scars on the psyche of the Nigerian nation, as politicians, pundits, tribalists and other opportunists continue to exploit the civil war discourse for selfish gains. On account of its status as one of the “big issues” of the  Nigerian nation, even in contemporary times, the Nigerian civil war features prominently in literary outputs of Nigerian writers. But rather than fill the gaps of unresolved issues and questions, as Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995: 8) pontificates that “they (African writers) must play an interventionist role”, writers, especially in the fictional genre, relying on their license to recreate and even create what never happened, have reduced the Nigerian civil war to a postmodernist discourse where “truth” has  been mercilessly murdered and de-centered. The autobiographical sub-genre of fiction, on account of its relative faithfulness to factuality, naturally becomes a site where truthful accounts of the Nigerian Civil war could be eked as such works, also known as memoi rs, in Alan Collet‟s (1989: 343) view,  Possess truth values, in that they relate to reality outside the texts and that this relationship can be verified or falsified…the reader hopes that everything the author writes about…corresponds to the way things really were, that the account is true.   Rather than utilize the autobiographical sub-genre to illuminate obscure issues of the war and give the Nigerian populace a true picture of the circumstances in which it was fought, what obtains from recent autobiographical representations of the war is a flagrant departure from facts, and an unapologetic attempt to infuse tribal sentiments into such remembrances. The emerging reality is such that the srcin/tribe of the autobiographer/memoirist determines the bent of his narrative, culminating in the erosion of facts, hence the validation of Timothy Dow Adam‟s (1994: 459) assertions that: In recent years, scholars working with this (autobiographical) genre have almost universally come to the realization that whatever else it is, autobiography is not nonfiction. Chinua Achebe‟s autobiographical reflection on the Nigerian Civil war is a classic in the repository of such autobiographical works that lend credence to the disappearance of the demarcations between purely fictional and nonfictional works. Arguably, it is such works as Achebe‟s There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra that Remy Oriaku (2005:96) has in mind when he asserts that: They (memoirs) present the collective “life” experiences of a group, class or community of which the narrator-protagonist is only a significant member. The tendency usually is for the memoirist to assume the role/post of spokesman/spokeswoman of the group or community Resplendently garbed in the regalia of an Igbo-centric spokesman, Achebe, in There Was  A Country inexorably launches out to exculpate his Igbo tribe from any blame in the events that culminated into, and surrounded the civil war, painting the other major Nigerian tribes as incurably envious of the Igbo, and hell-  bent on wiping them (Igbo‟s) out. He copiously quotes from materials that corroborate his „Igbo -as- victim” agenda, conspicuously ignoring and downplaying ubiquitous records that portray the culpability of the Igbo tribe in a manner that aptly validates Ngugi Wa Thiong O‟s (1981: 6) opinion that every writer is more or less a  politician who, in his work, is essentially …trying to persuade us, to make us view not only a certain kind of reality, but also from a certain angle of vision often, though  perhaps unconsciously, on behalf of a certain class, race, or nation.    The fact that tribalism was endemic in Nigeria‟s first republic, regardless of region, is not controversial, as Remi Anifowose (1982:35-36) affirms that: Throughout the development of Nigeria from a colonial territory to a republic, it has been rare, except for a small politically conscious elite, for Nigerians to think of themselves first as Nigerians, rather than as Hausa, Yoruba, Tiv, Ibo (sic) and so forth. Obviously on a mission to exonerate his Igbo tribe from the guilt of tribalism, Achebe in his description of the frontline political leaders of the major tribes  –   Ahmadu Bello (Hausa),  Nnamdi Azikiwe (Igbo) and Obafemi Awolowo (Yoruba)  –   elevates Azikiwe, his Igbo kinsman, above his peers, declaring that “the father of African independence was Nnamdi Azikiwe. There is no question at all about that” (2012: 41). He goes on to paint Azikiwe as an unwavering advocate of African independence who ceaselessly berated colonialism through his newspaper The West African Pilot  : His (Azikiwe‟s) strategy was an incredible success.  The West  African Pilot’s  anti-colonial message spread very quickly, widely and effectively (P.42) While Azikiwe‟s enormous contributions to Nigeria‟s independence cannot be denied, there are records (which Achebe refuses to acknowledge) that Azikiwe, more often than not, surreptitiously used this newspaper ( The West African Pilot  ) to build up a myth of Igbo superiority, as he maintains in his July 8, 1949 publication that: It would appear the God of Africa has created the Ibo (sic) nation to lead the children of African from the bondage of the ages…the martial prowess of the Ibo (sic) nation at all stages of human history has enabled them not only to conquer others but also to adapt themselves to the role of preserver...The Ibo (sic) nation cannot shirk its responsibility from its manifest destiny (P. 7) Even though this statement of Azikiwe is unarguably redolent of the quintessential marks of an incurable tribalist, Achebe labours hard to thrust the title of “father of African Independence and Pan- Africanism” on him (Azikiwe). This statement shows Azikiwe‟s idea of independence - one that must be organized under the supervision and leadership of Igbos whose “manifest destiny” is to lead all other tribes of Africa. The fact that Azikiwe voiced this sentiment in 1948, long before Nigeria‟s independence, further proves that the Igbos entered the
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