Not Another Commentary on “There Was A Country”

As part of my research for a biography that I am currently writing I had to read up on Biafra and the Nigerian civil war. By coincidence Chinua Achebe’s personal memoir  about the war “There Was A Country” released recently  (which I am yet to read) has been polarizing opinion among Nigerian commentators and pundits. The arguments have as usual been mostly emotional and tribalistic.

While Chinua Achebe asserts there was a ‘genocide’ and that it was spear headed by Obafemi Awolowo, Awolowo’s defenders argue otherwise. There is also a lot of rancor about whether the ‘true’ history of the civil war is being taught to our younger generations.

I have refrained from commenting.  My experience has been that discussing the civil war is like discussing religion or politics, unacceptable as polite dinner conversation. No one seems rational about it.  Tempers flare and friends destroy friendships.

There was an attempt by @CitizensPlatformNg to moderate a discussion on twitter that largely failed do more than stir the hornets’ nest. Nothing conclusive or progressive came of it, it seemed only to further expose peoples entrenched and fixed opinions.

Considering the sentiments expressed by the various parties it was a bit of a surprise to see the wealth of information available about the war on the internet alone. Especially considering that the debaters were mostly online activists. Google ‘Biafra’ and almost 2 million results come up, many of them commentaries and reports written during the war.

Like this one by Maxwell Cohen who argued vehemently in 1968 that there was a genocide and it was being ignored by the global powers for self serving reasons.  And this memorandum from the American Jewish Congress also of 1968 that pretty much said the same thing and names a number of other western liberals that believed that the starvation policy was a form of genocide.

George T. Orick, a business man who left Lagos just before the war started  said in his speech to the  First International Conference on Biafra in New York, on December 7, 1968 that;

“After the January 1966 military coup in which the Sarduana of Sokoto, who was the spiritual leader of the Moslems in Nigeria as well as the central leader of the Northern Region and in fact, if not in theory, of Nigeria, was killed, the folk wisdom of many of the tribes then (I call it folk wisdom because it was never official government policy, but it was a motivation expressed by the largest tribe in Nigeria) was that one million Ibos must die to avenge the killing of the Sarduana. I heard this many, many times. Nigerians will deny it, of course, but it was-said often.”

During an interview the subject of the biography I’m writing, and who was a child during the war expressed experiences and sentiments very similar to those expressed by Okey Ndibe in this 2007 feature on the website “Nigerian Village Square” titled “My Biafran Eyes”.

Having worked with victims of violence against women for over 15 years the most important lesson we learn and share is to always validate a victim’s account of their abuse.  As such I find the criticism levelled against Achebe for his  personal account of an atrocious war grossly unfair and quite frankly  akin to a public lynching  or like asking a rape victim ‘what were you wearing’.

And that’s all that I have to say about it right now.

One love and One Nigeria.

Fascinating to learn the region of south east Nigeria and most of Cameroon were known as Biafra or Biafara by the Portuguese. Makes you wonder. Cultural or socio-political similarities?

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