Passionate Achebe Memoir Recounts Biafran Chaos

Winnipeg Free Press, October 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

Passionate Achebe Memoir Recounts Biafran Chaos


An emaciated child with beseeching eyes and a distended belly became the image of the war in Biafra, the eastern part of Nigeria that proclaimed independence in 1967 until its defeat in 1970.

The struggle in which three million people died generated outrage around the world at the time, but it is now largely forgotten.

One man who lived through it still remembers. Chinua Achebe, described as the father of modern African writing, acted as an ambassador for Biafra, trying to muster aid for the isolated population from international governments.

In the more than 40 years that have passed, Achebe, now 82, has written novels, poems and a challenging critique of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but only now has written a memoir with his views about what caused the war and why millions of people were starved into submission.

His powerful poems at the beginning and end of chapters convey the emotional impact of what he calls genocide. His damning claims are thoroughly supported in a well-documented appendix.

The source of Nigeria's problems lay in the British colonial system, he asserts. It was Britain that cobbled a country from different ethnic groups in western African, the Hausa/Fulani, the Yoruba, the Igbo and others, each with a unique language and cultural background.

As they did elsewhere in their empire, the British fanned inter-ethnic tensions through targeted political and economic favours. Britain rigged Nigeria's first post-independence elections in 1960, ensuring that British interests in oil, coal, gold, tin, cocoa and other resources would remain entrenched after they turned over the reins of government.

The headiness of independence ended within a few years. Nigeria became "a cesspool of corruption and misrule." Tribal resentments exacerbated matters as blame was traded back and forth.

In 1966 the military staged a coup and events spiralled downward rapidly, especially after a pogrom carried out against Igbo civilians living in the north left 30,000 civilians dead or wounded.

The declaration of Biafran independence was generally popular, he says, but ultimately the ferocity and length of the conflict may have been the result of competing "belligerent" egos of the eastern leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu and Gen. …

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