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Friday, 25 January 2013

Books - There Was A Country - A Personal History of Biafra - by Chinua Achebe

Star rating - 9/10

History is often more easily revealed, and its nuances more thoroughly grasped, through the eyes of a novelist rather than by a historian. Much of what I know about the Biafran War and the bitter internal strife of Nigeria from 1967-70 was gleaned from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's stunning 2006 work of fiction - Half of a Yellow Sun. At least much more detail stayed with me than when I flirted with the study of African politics as a student. And now I find I get the best of both, a history of that hopeful yet terrible time, told by one of the finest living story tellers today, acclaimed author Chinua Achebe. 

His personal testimony of the war, and it's devastating aftermath lingering to this day in Nigeria, is all the more moving as Achebe records how his close friends and family fought, and ofttimes died, for the breakaway state in the south east of the country. 

These were times of great hope, as Biafrans fought to break away from the corruption and ethnic imbalance of the government of post colonial Nigeria. The newly formed Biafran state attracted celebrated sympathisers such as Joan Baez, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Achebe gives a fascinating account of the special position, and indeed as he sees it, responsibility of writers and intellectuals like himself to act as leading lights for change. His own family are forced to flee and flee again, as around three million of his people are mercilessly slaughtered in a brutal war.

And he makes harsh judgement on the role of the British Government in the war, under the leadership of Labour's Harold Wilson, who Achebe feels was more concerned with protecting the interests of British oil companies in the region, than seeing that any sense of humanity, justice, or fairness prevailed. 

This book is not only moving and illuminating as a historical testament; Achebe argues forcefully that the Biafran War needs to be understood in order to address the problems, including endemic corruption, which continue to plague modern Nigeria just as much as they did in the 1960's. This is a powerful and brilliantly recounted book which deserves to be widely read - it is a further tragedy that it is not likely to be.

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