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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chika Unigwe Consider Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country

Nigerian-born writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chika Unigwe differ somewhat in their consideration of Chinua Achebe’s recently released memoir of the Biafran War, There was a country.

There Was A CountryThe Thing Around Your NeckNight Dancer

While Unigwe says in a review in the New Statesman that readers who have waited for Achebe’s personal account on this dark period in Nigerian history have been richly rewarded with the master storyteller’s “candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria”, Adichie writes in the London Review of Books that Achebe’s recollections are “tantalisingly brief, sometimes oblique”. “I longed to hear more of what he had felt during those months of war – in other words, I longed for a more novelistic approach,” she says.

Chinua Achebe’s first book in three years richly rewards his admirers’ patience. It is the work of a master storyteller, able to combine seriousness with lightness of touch, even when writing about the terrifying events of a war that cost the life of one of his best friends, the poet Christopher Okigbo, and the lives of millions of others. There Was a Country is a candid, intimate interrogation of Nigeria.

Divided into four parts and interspersed with poetry, the book provides an expansive, historical sketch of Nigeria from the colonial period to the present. It also pays homage to one of Achebe’s idols and one of Africa’s most respected leaders, Nelson Mandela.

Nigeria, at independence from British rule in 1960, was called the Giant of Africa. With a large population, an educated elite and many natural resources, especially oil, Nigeria was supposed to fly the flag of democratic success. It did not, and it is clear now, in retrospect, that it could not possibly have done so. Colonial rule, as a government model, was closer to a dictatorship than a democracy. Nigeria was a young nation, created in 1914, as Nigerian children would learn in history class in the endlessly repeated sentence: ‘Lord Frederick Lugard amalgamated the northern and southern protectorates to form one country and his wife gave it the name Nigeria.’

It is debatable whether, at independence, Nigeria was a nation at all. The amalgamation was an economic policy; the British colonial government needed to subsidise the poorer North with income from the resource-rich South. With its feudal system of emirs, beautiful walled cities, and centralised power systems, the North was familiar to Lord Lugard – not unlike the Sudan, where he had previously worked. In the South, the religions were more diverse, the power systems more diffuse. Lugard, a theorist of imperial rule, believed in the preservation of native cultures as long as they fitted his theories of what native cultures should be. In the North, the missionaries and their Western education were discouraged, to prevent what Lugard called their ‘corrupting influence’ on Islamic schools. Western education thrived in the South. The regions had different interests, saw each other as competitors, and became autonomous at different times; there was no common centre. A nation is, after all, merely an idea. Colonial policy did not succeed in propagating the idea of a nation: indeed, colonial policy did not try to. In the North colonialism entrenched the old elite; in the South it created a new elite, the Western-educated. This small group would form the core of the nationalist movement in the 1950s, agitating for independence. They tried to establish the idea of ‘nation’ and ‘tribe’ as binary, in opposition to each other, a strategy they believed was important for the exercise of nation-building. But the politicisation of ethnicity had already gone too far.

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