Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Why There was a Country? Why does Chinua Achebe write There was a Country?***


Incomparable

Just a few months before his 28th birthday, in 1958, Chinua Achebe writes Things Fall Apart, the classic restorative narrative of African affirmation which subverts the European conqueror’s frantic efforts to construct a historiography of African-memory erasure in the wake of a devastating conquest. This is the foundational opus on which the African World’s reply to Europe and the world and a redefinition of itself and subsequent aspirations is codified. Chinua Achebe’s achievement is incomparable.

Fifty-four years later, just a couple of months before his 82nd birthday, in 2012, the perceptive and literary interventionist genius publishes There was a Country, an indefatigable reminder to an oft-complacent world of the Igbo genocide, 29 May 1966-12 January 1970, the foundational genocide of post-(European)conquest Africa, and the incredible survival of Igbo people. 3.1 million Igbo people, a quarter of this nation’s population, were murdered by Nigeria and its allies during those 44 months of indescribable barbarity and carnage not seen in Africa since the German-perpetration of the genocide against the Herero people of Namibia in the early 1900s. There was a Country is a priceless gift to a much-beleaguered people, and the world, a compulsory reference to our understanding of Africa of the last 50 years – this turbulent age of pestilence. Chinua Achebe’s achievement is incomparable.


(Herbie Nichols Trio, “The prophetic” {Vol I} [personnel: Nichols, piano; Al McKibbon, bass; Art Blakey, drums; recorded: Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, US, 6 May 1955])

We mustn’t forget that Achebe, himself, narrowly escaped capture by the genocidist army in Lagos, where he worked as director of the external service of Nigeria’s public radio broadcasting corporation, during the first phase of the genocide. Safely back home in Biafra with his family, Achebe was appointed roving cultural ambassador by the fledging resistance government of the new republic to travel and inform the world of this heinous crime being perpetrated in Africa, barely 20 years after the Jewish genocide. Achebe recalls with immense satisfaction the successes of his travels in Africa, Europe and North America during the period – meeting leading writers and intellectuals, addressing church, human rights, and humanitarian caucuses. Achebe praises, especially, the writings and campaign work of opposition to the genocide by Jean-Paul Sartre, Francois Mauriac, Auberon Waugh, Kurt Vonnegut, Herbert Gold, Harvey Swodos, Geoffery Hill, Douglas Killam, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Stanley Diamond. On Diamond, particularly, Achebe notes: “This world-renowned anthropologist … galvaniz[ed] a formidable American and Canadian intellectual response to the tragedy” (Chinua Achebe, 2012: 106).

Anaesthesia, edifice, denialism

These responses to the genocide from abroad are a sharp contrast to the appalling position of Nigerian intellectuals, Achebe’s own contemporaries of writers and academics mostly from the University College Ibadan, essentially Nigeria’s pioneer post-conquest circle of scholars who emerged in the mid-1950s. Apart from a handful, a stretch of Nigerian intellectuals supported the genocide or were complicit in this crime by their deafening silence: “We expected to hear something from the intellectuals, from our own friends. Rather, what we heard was, ‘Oh, they had it coming to them’, or words to that effect” (68-69). Furthermore,
[a]s many of us [who survived the first phase of the genocide] packed our belongings to return [home] some of the people we had lived with for years, some for decades, jeered and said, ‘Let them [Igbo] go; food will be cheaper in Lagos’. That kind of experience is very powerful. It is something I could not possibly forget. I realized suddenly that I had not been living in my home; I had been living in a strange place. (68)
Okwudiba Nnoli, the political economist, who, equally, cannot forget the nonchalance and hostility of Nigerian colleagues and others then, recalls: “[a]t that time, Nigeria seemed morally anesthesized” (Okwudiba Nnoli, 1980: 245). This “moral [sic] anaesthetisation” will foreshadow the very calculated squalid politics of denialism which Nigeria has tried to operationalise, subsequently, with respect to this staggering crime against humanity. On this, one is aptly reminded of distinguished genocide scholar Gregory Stanton’s key injunction on the genocidist regime’s use of “denial” as one of its lethal weapons in this armoury of mass murder 
(http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocide/tenstagesofgenocide.html):
Denial is the final stage that lasts throughout and always follows a genocide.  It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide … try to cover up the evidence … They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims … They block investigations of the crimes, and continue to govern until driven out of power by force, when they flee into exile ... The response to denial is punishment by an international tribunal or national courts 
It is precisely this dual-track mission of There was a Country that has been most troubling to those fanged assailants of Achebe’s memoirs, particularly those hinged to the edifice of Obafemi Awolowo, this chief “theorist” of the genocide, this head of the finance ministry prosecuting the genocide, this deputy chair of the prosecuting junta of the genocide. Any reminder of the Igbo genocide and, particularly, the Igbo survival therefrom, riles the sensibilities of assailants whose life’s quest is to continue to dart around the crumbling edifice of a doubtful sage, more demonstrably a genocidist “theorist” who insensately advocated and co-supervised the murder of 3.1 million children, women and men. The Igbo genocide marks the beginning of Africa’s current age of pestilence. What a burden of a legacy for anyone to wish to prop up; truly, a dreadfully punishing ordeal. It is instantly recognisable by everyone that the Igbo survival from the genocide is a monumental repudiation of this reptilian legacy whatsoever guises it appears to be recycled. It is pointedly what the assailants of There was a Country are struggling to come to terms with. As I have indeed argued elsewhere, even if the Igbo were not subjected to this cataclysmic genocide, they, just like any other peoples, have a right to declare themselves free from Nigeria or any other states they find themselves domiciled. This right to freedom for a people, for all peoples, is inalienable. It is the state that is transient; definitely, not the people

The perpetrators of the Igbo genocide, who subsequently seized and pillaged the rich Biafran economy, have by and large escaped sanctions from the international community. The consequences for Africa have been expansively catastrophic. Various vicious and autocratic regimes on the continent have felt they could go on similar killing sprees with impunity. Forty-four years on, since 1970, 12 million additional Africans have been murdered in the ever-expanding genocidal killing fields of the continent in Rwanda (1994), Zaïre/Democratic Republic of the Congo (variously, since the late 1990s with the slaughter of 6 million people), Darfur – west of the Sudan – (since 2004), Abyei – south of the Sudan – (ongoing), south Kordofan – south of the Sudan – (ongoing) and Nuba – south of the Sudan – (ongoing) and in other wars in Liberia, Ethiopia, Congo Republic, Somalia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, Mozambique, Algeria, Libya, Kenya, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Angola, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Mali.

Phase-IV

Achebe reminds his readers that the perpetrators have still not shown any form of remorse for this crime (234-236). On the contrary, Nigeria’s genocidal campaign against the Igbo people has been followed, post-January 1970, by the implementation of the most dehumanising raft of socioeconomic package of deprivation in occupied Igboland, not seen anywhere else in Africa. Once again, chief genocidist “theorist” Obafemi Awolowo, and a grouping of Yoruba and Edo lawyers and economists and business affiliates from west Nigeria, oversees the conceptualisation and implementation of the first seven of the following 11 distinct features of this package:

1. Seizure and looting of the multibillion-(US)dollar capital assets across Biafra including particularly those at Igwe Ocha/Port Harcourt conurbations and elsewhere in Nigeria

2. Comprehensive sequestration of Igbo liquid assets in Biafra and Nigeria (as of January 1970), bar the £20.00 (twenty pounds sterling) doled out only to the male surviving head of an Igbo family – in effect, hundreds of thousands of Igbo families whose “male heads” have been murdered in the genocide 
do not receive this dole payment

3. Exponential expropriation of the rich Igbo oil resources from the Abia, Delta, Imo and Rivers administrative regions

4. Blanket policy of non-development of Igboland

5. Aggressive degradation of socioeconomic life of Igboland

6. Ignoring ever-expanding soil erosion/landslides and other pressing ecological emergencies particularly in northwest Igboland

7. Continuing reinforcement of the overall state of siege of Igboland

8. Twenty-one cases of premeditated pogroms against the Igbo, particularly in north Nigeria, between 1980 and 2014

9. Ninety per cent of the 54,000 people murdered in Nigeria by the state operatives and agents since 1999 are Igbo people, according to the December 2011 research by the International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule Of Law – an Onicha-based human rights organisation****

10. At least eighty per cent of people murdered by the Boko Haram islamist insurgent group’s attacks across swathes of lands in north/northcentral Nigeria since Christmas Day 2011 to date are Igbo.

11. Deportation of Igbo people from Lagos to Igboland
(http://re-thinkingafrica.blogspot.com.br/search?q=%20deportation+of+igbo+from+lagosaccessed 24 April 2014)

These latter features, especially numbers 1-7 which inaugurated phase-IV of the Igbo genocide on 13 January 1970, constitute one of the five acts of genocide explicitly defined in article 2 of the December 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide: “deliberately inflicting upon the group conditions of life designed to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2012, 
http://www.oas.org/dil/1948_Convention_on_the_Prevention_and_Punishment_of_the_Crime_of_Genocide.pdfaccessed 29 January 2014).

There was an extensive coverage of the Igbo genocide in the international media throughout its duration. Yet in most countries of Africa in addition to the Organisation of African Unity, the continent’s supranational body, there was no condemnation of the Igbo genocide. On the contrary, in one conference communiqué after another issued throughout the 44-month duration of the slaughter, most of Africa considered the genocide a “Nigerian internal affair” (Achebe: 96-99). Achebe himself was part of the Biafra delegation to one such conference in Kampala, Uganda, in May 1968 (Achebe: 166-167). It is precisely because the perpetrators of the Igbo genocide appeared to have been let off the hook for their crimes that Africa did not have to wait very long before the politics of the Nigerian genocide-state metamorphosed violently beyond the country’s frontiers. Leaders elsewhere on the continent would subsequently wage their own versions of the liquidation of “opponents” of subjugated nations and nationalities as ruthlessly and horrifically as they could, à la Nigeria, because they expected no sanctions from either their African colleagues or from the rest of the international community. As a result, as already indicated, the killing fields of Igboland expanded almost inexorably across every geographical region of Africa.

As for the United Nations, it, too, never condemned the Igbo genocide unequivocally. Achebe appropriately uses the word “silence” (Achebe: 211) to capture the UN response to the tragedy. U Thant, its secretary-general, consistently maintained that it was a “Nigerian internal affair” (Achebe: 211-212). The UN could have stopped the genocide, instead of protecting the interests of the Nigeria state (Achebe: 212). In the wake of the Jewish genocide of the 1930s-1940s, Africa was, with hindsight, most cruelly unlucky to have been the testing ground for the presumed global community’s resolve to fight genocide subsequently, particularly after the 1948 historic UN declaration on this crime against humanity (cf. Hugh McCullum, 2012). Only a few would have failed to note that U Thant’s reference to “internal” is highly problematic, for genocide, as had been demonstrated devastatingly 20-30 years earlier in Europe, would of course occur within some territoriality (“internal”) where the perpetrator exercises a permanent or limited/partial/temporary sociopolitical control (cf. Nazi Germany and its programme to destroy its Jewish population within Germany itself; Nazi Germany and its programme to destroy Jewish populations within those countries in Europe under its occupation from 1939 and 1945). Between 1966 and 2014, the world would witness genocide carried out against the Igbo, the Tutsi, the Darfuri, and multiple nations and peoples in “internal” spaces that go by the names Nigeria, Rwanda, the Sudan and Zaïre/Democratic Republic of the Congo respectively. The contours of the territory where genocide is executed do not therefore make the perpetrators less culpable, nor the crime permissible as the United Nations’s crucial 1948 genocide declaration states unambiguously. Mere focus on the presumed territorial theatre of this crime rather than the more expansive and rigorous characterisation of the crime, itself, can often amount to evasive excursions or worse, denialism (See, for instance, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, “Can’t be overstressed: What ‘civil war’ is not",
http://re-thinkingafrica.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/cant-be-overstressed-what-civil-war-is.html, accessed 26
April 2014)

The central role played by Britain in this campaign no doubt reinforced the failure of the United Nations to protect Igbo people during this catastrophe. Britain, a fully-fledged member of the United Nations – indeed a founding member of the organisation who enjoys a permanent seat on its security council and participated in drafting the anti-genocide declaration – supported the Igbo genocide militarily, politically and diplomatically. Britain was deeply riled by the Igbo lead-role in the 1930s-1960s in the struggle to terminate its occupation of Nigeria. A senior British foreign office official was adamant that his government’s position on the international relief supply effort to the encircled and bombarded Igbo was to “show conspicuous zeal in relief while in fact letting the little buggers starve out” (Roger Morris, 1977: 122). Indeed as the murder of the Igbo progressively worsened, Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who Achebe describes as “villain of the peace” (Achebe: 214), was unfazed when he informed Clyde Ferguson (United States State Department special coordinator for relief to Biafra) that he, Harold Wilson, “would accept a half million dead Biafrans if that was what it took” (Morris: 122) Nigeria to destroy the Igbo resistance to the genocide.

Justice and restoration of Igbo sovereignty

Achebe embarks on his all-important memoir by quoting that engaging Igbo proverb that reminds everyone of the urgency of trying to come to terms with a catastrophic history: “a person (sic) who does not know where the rain began to beat them cannot say where they dried their body” (Achebe: 1). Thankfully, for the interest of posterity, this subject, the Igbo genocide, is one of the most documented crimes against humanity. Leading university and public libraries across Europe (particularly in Britain, Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden) and North America have invaluable repositories of books, essays, articles, state papers (including, crucially, hitherto classified material now declassified as part of mandatory timeframe provisions and freedom-to-information legislations), church papers, human rights/anti-genocide/anti-war groups’ campaign papers, reports, photographs and interviews, Red Cross/other third sector papers, reports and photographs, newspaper/newsmagazine/radio/television/video archives and sole individual depositories, some of which are classified as “anonymous contributors”. 

These data variously include extensive coverage of news and analyses of varying features of the genocide between May 1966 and January 1970 as well as still photographs and reels of film footage of the devastating impact of the genocidist’s “starvation” attack on Igbo children and older people, the air force’s carpet bombings of Igbo population centres (especially refugee establishments, churches, shrines, schools, hospitals, markets, homes, farmlands and playgrounds) and the haunting photographs and associated material that capture the murder of tens of thousands Igbo in north Nigerian towns and villages and elsewhere during the first phase of the genocide in May-October 1966. A stream of these archival references has flowed steadily onto the youtube website as well as other internet outlets and much more material on the genocide will be available online in the months and years ahead. On the whole, this documentation is a treasure-trove for the conscientious scholar and researcher on the genocide.

Genocide is a crime against humanity. There is no statute of limitations in international law for the apprehension and punishment of those responsible for this crime. Igbo seek and will achieve justice for the perpetration of this crime. Igbo seek and will achieve the restoration of their sovereignty.

***(Paper presented on a panel at the 2014 Chinua Achebe Colloquium on Africa, Brown University, 1 May 2014Other members of the panel: Obiora Udechukwu, professor of  the arts, St Lawrence University, New York (chair), EC Ejiogu, professor of history, University of the Free State, Professor Chukwuemeka Callistus Akanno, California, Apollos Nwauwa, professor of history, Bowling Green University, Ikhide R Ikheola, literary critic and commentator, Maryland)


References (non-internet citations only)

Achebe, Chinua Achebe, There was a Country: A Personal History of BiafraLondon: Allen Lane, 2012.

Ekwe-Ekwe, Herbert, Readings from Reading: Essays on African Politics, Genocide, Literature. Dakar and Reading: African Renaissance, 2011.

Morris, Roger, Uncertain Greatness: Henry Kissinger & American Foreign Policy. London and New York: Quartet Books, 1977.

Nnoli, Okwudiba, Ethnic Politics in Nigeria. Enugu: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980. 

Twitter @HerbertEkweEkwe

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