Achebe’s opening of Pandora’s box

Tunde Fagbenle

Tunde Fagbenle

It is doubtful if the great novelist of our time, Prof. Chinua Achebe, expected his latest book, “There Was A Country” to be anything more than its subtitle says: “A Personal History of Biafra.”

In my own opinion, the old philosopher merely wanted (and needed) to unburden his mind before he left “this sinful world,” tell his own story of anguish and pain, of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams first for Nigeria and then even worse for a country that once “was” or could have been — Biafra.

In my estimation, he also wanted to use the opportunity to settle some scores; hit hard at perceived enemies and those who, in his reckoning, played unsavoury role in thwarting those dreams of his.

Finally, it is my opinion that for the griot, the Biafra War is not over — but suspended or transferred to another theatre — and there was need to rekindle the spirit of it in the Igbos, particularly the younger generation so they can know of what ‘sinew’ their fathers and fathers’ fathers were made and thus inspire them to their own greatness and bond them in their own confraternity.

Necessarily for the great storyteller, it would mean throwing many things into it in a mishmash of facts and fiction, of ‘pride and prejudice,’ of selective memories and selective amnesia; it means entertaining certain conceits and suspending certain disbeliefs; anything and everything to “make the book sweet.” After all, it is his personal story.

As a result, in the book, anything and everything that could detract from the wholesomeness of the Igbo greatness and the horrors they suffered as a result of it gained no admission or were made light of.

Examples abound:

In the opinion of the erudite professor, the entirety of the then Eastern Region was one and at peace, sans untoward ethnic conflict, domination or rivalry. And except those and where the enemies had infiltrated or corrupted by greed to corner the oil in their domain, the other ethnic groups — about 35 per cent of Biafra population according to Achebe — shared the same Biafran dream! But, cry not, it is our professor’s story.

When it came to the atrocities visited upon innocent Mid-West civilians by “retreating Biafran forces” when the Biafran invasion of the Mid-West was about to be terminated, our professor could find “no credible corroboration of them” in spite of the “several accounts” he had heard. But, cry not, it is our professor’s story.

Achebe endorsed the fallacy of misinterpretation of Awo’s “threat” of the West following if the East (was allowed to) leave Nigeria, conveniently joining the mischievous multitude to remove the caveat:

“Awolowo warned Gowon’s Federal Government that if the Eastern Region left the federation, the Western Region would not be far behind.”

But our Achebe has opened Pandora’s box. To open “Pandora’s box” is to start something or create a situation that takes a life of its own, flying out of control and causing unforseen troubles, miseries and evils.

Right now, the war of words has begun; the battle of wits is afoot. The cyberspace, in particular, is in a frenzy, with cyber warriors up in arms throwing vitriols, sense and nonsense, and everyone being forced into ‘defending’ ‘camps’ they never saw themselves as belonging to hitherto. So sad.

Meanwhile, as in all wars, the first casualty is the Truth. If oga Achebe has his ‘story’, so do other people. And the cankerworm is all tumbling out of the cupboard.

Now we are reminded of many things, some thrown in to muddy the already muddied water, some to truly contextualise issues, and some from the vilest of hearts.

We now know of Achebe’s ‘bad-belle’ on Soyinka’s Nobel Prize victory; we now know of Ojukwu’s recalcitrance that blocked Federal Government’s and international communities’ options to get food to starving Biafran children; we now know of how the great Zik and some other Igbo sage saw no sense in continued hardline that resulted in the horrific war and deaths of, some say, over two million people.

Biafrans hurt about the fate they suffered in the hands of their fellow Nigerians. But if I had watched and seen my father gunned down in cold blood for no crime but being a “northerner,” and seeing my ethnic leaders decapitated in one fell swoop, charged with no crime only for me to be mocked and taunted on the streets, nothing would be too much to avenge their death; nothing.

A new ‘war’ is raging, a war of words and a battle of wits. It is coming with its own unpleasantness and fears of degenerating into even something nastier. The two loud-mouthed and conceited groups are pitted one against the other — the Igbos against the Yoruba; while the others are watching and leaving them to ‘cancel’ themselves out.

Even my last week’s column on this topic has, regrettably, fallen victim of “ethnic camping” — the Igbo denouncing it and the Yoruba applauding it; some even angry at its “uncalled for moderation”!

The point I was making was totally lost on many: Achebe may be correct to infer that the great Awo was the architect of a wartime policy of blockade that had genocidal consequences on the Igbo. But to go farther to say categorically that Awo conceived of the “diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly” because Awo “saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles” to his “overriding ambition for power” not only defied logic, but was unbecoming of the intellectual status of an Achebe.

For the avoidance of doubt, I was for Biafra. I still am. I empathise with the suffering they were subjected to, and sympathise with the great dream Biafra portended; but no more than I am for Oduduwa or Arewa, or Ijaw, or any such go-my-way aspiration.

But I also love Nigeria, the Nigeria of my youth when I could take off from my Kano base at night and drive all the way alone in my jalopy, arriving safely in Lagos in the wee hours of the morning; or be on the train to Enugu or Port Harcourt just for the fun of it.

Just that I’d any day rather a successful, vibrant, and progressive small entity than a bogus elephantine construct with inherent contradictions that may mean perpetual retardation.

This jaw-jaw has its own goodness. For those 50-and-above, it may prove cathartic, a way of finally letting it all out so we can move forward. But in doing so, the care we need to take is not to infect the younger generation with the poison of hate, mutual suspicion, and alienation.

As my good friend Okey Ndibe says, we need to “examine where the rain began to beat us, however painful the process of this searching of the soul.”

We must do so with some honesty, with the sincerity of knowing and accepting that there are two sides to a coin. Where that “rain began to beat us” was not the pogrom against the Igbo in the north, and certainly not in the civil war and its misbegotten policies. It began earlier; much earlier!

Punch

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