In the midst of the Nigerian-Biafran War, having been forced to leave his home, job and life in Lagos and flee east to the supposed safety of the new secessionist Republic of Biafra, Chinua Achebe established a publishing house. The Citadel Press was quickly inundated with manuscripts, one of which was written by an army officer partially responsible for the 1966 coup against the Nigerian government that had led to the war.
Achebe rejected it: the work was biased, poorly written and exaggerated the officer's own role. Yet he regrets not giving it a wider audience. Citadel should have published the memoir and called it "special publishing … so at least a version of what happened, however flawed, warts and all, would be available for debate".
The charge sheet against There Was a Country is in no way comparable – its biases are understandable and Achebe is not a man to place himself on a pedestal – yet it is not hard to imagine Achebe's own publishers wondering whether a similar disclaimer should have been attached to this work. What could have been a heartbreaking, lyrical, incisive memoir about one of the 20th-century's greatest crimes is too often hamstrung by an overly cautious tone and, at times, plodding prose. He demonstrates an unfortunate knack for making the most gripping anecdotes sound mundane.
It's also a book that appears to be written for two different audiences – domestic and foreign – and Achebe never gets the tone quite right for either. Some readers might be interested in the functions of the Bank of Biafra, or a full list of the committee members tasked with drafting a constitution, but they are likely to be in a small minority.
Yet There Was a Country is a version of what happened, and should be available for debate. The war lasted three years and cost the lives of some three million people, many of them children. During the war, Achebe was a roving ambassador for the Biafran government, lobbying presidents and prime ministers in foreign capitals; doing what he could as a writer and intellectual to raise awareness about the unfolding tragedy.
The roots of the conflict appear fleetingly in Achebe's tales of his early life. As he remembers it, life in colonial Nigeria seemed rather pleasant. It is, he accepts, a "piece of heresy" to suggest it, but "British colonies were expertly run". Yet Britain was determined to control the handover, and the first, flawed elections helped to cement the growing ethnic and religious divisions that continue to haunt Nigeria to the present day.
There is a level of naivety about Achebe's recollections that makes his sudden realisation of what Nigeria had become all the more difficult for him to deal with. "I had been living in a strange place," he recalls, "Nigeria did not belong to us."
Nigeria's tragedy did not end with the demise of the Biafran dream. "A new great era of decadence and decline was born," Achebe writes. A succession of military coups and corrupt governments has done as much to hold Nigeria back. "Mediocrity destroys the fabric of a country as surely as a war." In those damning conclusions, Achebe offers a glimpse of what this book might have been.
Steve Bloomfield is the author of 'Africa United: How Football Explains Afric'a (Canongate, £9.99)
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