"Writers don't give prescriptions, they give headaches."
~Chinua Achebe in Anthills of the Savannah
I have observed with some degree of amusement, the reactions to Achebe's latest book, his memoir, There Was A Country; which chronicles the ravages of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil from the perspective of the average Igbo man in 1970. But my amusement is slowly ebbing.
There are different sides to every story; and no matter how gory, it will have to be told. Some stories gnaw and gob at you, until you write them. Achebe is an old man; undoubtedly, he must have some stories to tell; stories which he must either tell or take to the grave.
Most of our problems as humans stem from the fact of untold stories. Sects of people in history - Africans, Jews, Muslims, Women, etc - have had to go back in time to scrounge up bits and pieces of their history, however inadequate, to get a more wholesome view of who they are. These historical sources, undeniably, are not without some taint of opinion/perspective; but ultimately, when pieced together, they give a more holistic light to the truth. Every literature is tendentious.
There have been three major groups of reaction to There Was a Country. Viz:
- Many people, especially the Yoruba, are angry about what they see as the demonization of the foremost statesman and nationalist hero, Obafemi Awolowo; as well as the inconsolable cry baby attitude of Igbo people. They question the inspiration behind Achebe’s memoir.
- Some other people, especially the Igbo, have rallied behind Achebe, hailing him for telling a much-needed story; the story of a people brutally dealt with.
- The third group, especially other tribes otherwise than the Igbo and the Yoruba, have adopted a conciliatory attitude, saying that while there may be some truth to Achebe’s memoir, it is time for all factions to let go and let in a stronger and more united Nigeria.
Each of these views is not without some merit, for it represents a vital perspective which needs to be added to other perspectives, so as to get closer solving the puzzle.
However, what I intend to stem, by this article, is the tide of one particular group, holding up and deifying its singular perspective, over and above the others. Achebe has called the tune; it is time for Nigerians to dance.
Let me state now that Achebe has not said anything in There Was a Country that the average Igbo man has never thought or felt before. The story has always been there, waiting to be told; Achebe is merely the vehicle. That story is not self-conclusive, it is not an answer in and of itself; rather, it is a question that requires an answer from every quarter.
That story questions the humanity behind the systemic annihilation of the Igbo man, both through weapons of war such as arms and starvation, as well as the economic destabilization and displacement of the Igbo man after 1970. That story questions the morality of the hallowed statesman, Pa Awolowo, in sanctioning some of the injustices meted out to the Igbo.
Those are the questions that demand answers. The way to go is neither to hastily sweep things under the carpet, nor to give a particular answer and dwell on it; but to give a holistic answer from every quarter – including the accusatory, the apologist band the conciliatory quarters – ; so that the dust may be rise as high as possible, and finally settle, once and for all.
I want the Yoruba man to still be able to tell glorious stories to his child regarding Awolowo; for he was human, after all. I want the Igbo man to be finally able to let go of his hurt and find healing. I want all Nigerians to be united, ultimately, in the cause of common betterment.
Some people say that Achebe’s story is unnecessary, seeing as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, has drummed up enough eympathy for the Igbo. I beg to differ. There is a place for every story. With profound respect to Adichie, she was not born when the war was fought, and her view of it cannot be as raw as that of an eyewitness. Indeed, Half of a Yellow Sun fulfilled a void; the void of empathy. However, that is not the entire story. Beyond the story that calls for empathy is a story that boldly accuses. That accusation is necessary, because it is the fuel that drives factional bodies such as Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB). Only when this accusation is properly brought to the fore can it be satisfactorily rested.
And which voice better than Achebe’s to do this? I cannot think of any more qualified. Some say they have lost respect for the great writer; some, like Femi Fani-Kayode, say Achebe owes them an apology. Well, that view is subjective. My respect for the man has not ebbed one bit. Achebe told a story that he felt he should tell, before he departs. I have observed the man; I do not believe that his singular intendment by this memoir is to vilify or polarize.
The proper thing to do now is to answer the questions raised. And the answers are slowly trickling in. It is we who are answering those questions. I read some extract of a speech by Awolowo, explaining/defending his role in the war. I have also read some interesting articles from other quarters. Let us not get too carried away with the blame game; let us face the questions squarely, answer them conclusively, and lay the ghost of the civil war to rest forever. We have Achebe to thank for giving us this opportunity, whether we like his opinion or not. The old man is human, he must have some opinions.
I do not think that after There Was a Country and the storm around it, there shall be any story so important left to tell about the civil war.
Finally, as Achebe said in Anthills of the Savannah, writers don’t give prescriptions; they give headaches. Achebe has given us some headache. Let us find a cure to the headache.
May we grow out of this headache, stronger and better; and may we all find it in ourselves to forgive one another and move on.
Blessed be Nigeria.