It has been only a few weeks since the prolific and renowned author, Professor Chinua Achebe’s personal account of the 1967 Nigerian Civil War, “There Was a Country” was published, yet the firestorm it has generated in the Nigerian public sphere still rages on. Admittedly, many, including yours truly haven’t read the book, but the little we have gleaned of it, from the book’s synopsis in the UK Guardian, has driven many into a frenzy and is further straining Nigeria’s fractious unity.
My intention here is neither to review nor critique the book, as others have done a better job of critiquing, deconstructing and disputing some of Achebe’s alleged inaccurate depiction of events and personalities of the Nigerian Civil War. Max Siollun a Nigerian historian questions Achebe’s claims of non-integration of Igbos in Nigeria, Ibraheem A. Waziri disputes Achebe’s jihadist colouration of events, Jumoke Verissimo writing for African Arguments points out the ethnocentric slant to Achebe’s book, Chris Ngwodo analyses the disconnect between Achebe’s generation and the “post-civil war generation” and many others have written or cited credible evidence to dispute a number of Achebe’s claims and one-sided portrayal of events.
However, my particular grouse with Achebe’s latest treatise is that it disappointingly feeds into an increasingly disturbing trend in public discourse on national issues in Nigeria, of a perceived Nigerian exceptionalism, and the deployment of such to excuse the failures of nation-building, socio-economic development and social cohesion in Nigeria.
Proponents of this view of Nigerian exceptionalism (defined as the perception that a country or society is unusual or extraordinary in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules or general principles) believe Nigeria occupies a unique place in the world stage because it is an artificial British creation, from an amalgamation of the Northern and Colony and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria for administrative purposes in 1914. This artificial creation is chiefly responsible for the present dysfunction of the Nigerian state, according to this view, and thus, social cohesion and national unity will forever remain elusive as Nigerians are “not one”.
The advocates of this view also assert that certain events in Nigeria’s immediate post-colonial history, especially the 1967 Civil War, its intrigues and aftermath of creating a unitary-federalism have and are still holding Nigeria back, and therefore, it’s necessary to regularly exhume the debris and the horror of these events, as Achebe has done. Thus, we are now in 2012 inundated daily with news clippings of the 1960s Nigeria-Biafra War, sad pictures of emaciated starving children in Biafra over four decades ago and many other horror stories, because the war according to this view was a monochrome event between the forces of “good” and “evil” and nothing else in-between.
These two historical events according to proponents of this view, mostly but not exclusively account for why Nigeria is so “different” from other countries in the world and for its continuous dysfunction.
On closer examination though, Nigeria is certainly not different and this perception of exceptionalism for all intents and purposes smacks of intellectual escapism of shying away from Nigeria’s most pressing problems, shirking away from complicity in Nigeria’s present challenges and the otherness syndrome that characterizes who we blame for Nigeria’s development challenges. It’s the 1914 Amalgamation, the post-independence elites, key instigators and participants of the Civil War many of whom are now deceased, or as Achebe has recently done, its everyone else’s fault in Nigeria for marginalizing his own ethnic group. It doesn’t matter who it is, so long as it is someone else, the finger always points away somewhere.
Looking at the basis of this “uniqueness”, Nigeria is obviously not the only “artificial” colonial creation based on arbitrary drawing-up of boundaries. The boundaries of much of Africa, with the exception of countries like Ethiopia and Liberia were artificially created by Britain, France, Germany, and other European colonial powers. The case of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is particularly appalling as it was not just a colony, but at some point, it was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium.
Most countries that make up today’s Middle East and North Africa were carved out of the defunct Ottoman Empire from the 1920s by Britain and France after the latter’s defeat in World War I. It’s the same story in much of South America and South-East Asia and most of these countries are till date grappling with their own nation-building challenges. Take for example, the case of the Kurds in Iraq who have for years, been agitating for their own sovereignty.
Similarly, Nigeria is not the only country in the world to experience a terrible Civil War. Many countries, even the “developed” ones have gone through particularly bloody civil wars at some point. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 between the American federal government and the secessionist southern states (ring any bells?) led to the death of over 750,000 soldiers and yet to be determined civilian casualties; Britain, Spain and France had their shares of bloody civil wars and in the developing world, much of South America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia have gone through tumultuous wars with the particularly bloody ones including but not limited to China, Russia, Cambodia, Burma, Yugoslavia, Sudan, DRC, Liberia and Sierra Leone with in most cases, millions of lives lost. These wars significantly scarred each of these countries, though I doubt the stirring up events of the past is a key task those which are now more politically stable frequently embark upon.
Since Nigeria is not the only “artificial creation” neither is it the only country to have experienced a civil war, one wonders why some of our “intellectuals” thrive on exhuming buried sentiments of decades past and why they obstinately insist on invoking demons of a traumatizing past of which no side can claim to be wholly innocent or wholly guilty. Why are they fixated on distracting Nigerians from more relevant issues of the present with direct bearing on the future? Well, Achebe states that his “aim” of rousing such emotions “…is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions and perhaps to cause a few headaches”.
One truly wonders if this is really a “headache” Nigeria needs at this juncture when many parts of Nigeria still lack electricity, quality healthcare and education, and other basic infrastructure that many countries have for long overcome; when Nigerian youths are having a crisis of self-discovery in the absence of sufficient jobs, economic opportunities and worthy role models and when none of these ills discriminate among Nigerians on the basis of religion or ethnicity. Yet Achebe’s contribution is to pitch young Nigerians against one another as we squabble over events we neither witnessed nor participated in, and which we cannot change.
The truth is people like Achebe greatly traumatized by a painful past have been perpetually subjected to view the world through a two-dimensional lens of black and white, preventing them from realizing that Nigeria has considerably evolved with all shades of grey in between. When Achebe claimed for instance that his Igbo ethnic group “…were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria…” and haughtily refers to this marginalization, as the primary source of Nigeria’s backwardness, one wonders if the American-based Professor has in the last two decades or so, been to the section of Kaduna Central Market where Igbo women selling crayfish and the finest palm oil are comfortably nestled close to the Hausa butchers. One wonders if Achebe has ever wandered around Park road in Zaria or Ahmadu Bello Way in Kaduna where hundreds of Igbo dealers sell a vast array of Japanese, Taiwanese and lately Chinese manufactured electronics; curtains, cooking gas, furniture and apparel. Max Siollun provides further evidence of Igbo “integration” in politics and the economics in Nigeria.
So far Nigeria is not unique for having these problems but will attain an “exceptional” status when she gets her act together, becomes a strong nation built on the richness of her diversity, has a robust middle class riding on the back of a roaring industrializing economy, provides moral and socio-economic leadership and well-springs of business opportunities to Sub-Saharan Africa and indeed the black race, and provides equal opportunity for her citizens irrespective of religion and ethnicity. Then Nigeria will truly become exceptional, not when she lacks basic infrastructure, when almost 70% of the population wallow in abject poverty in the face of stupendous wealth of the mostly decadent few, when monumental corruption persists, and the mostly young citizenry are further polarized and engaged in futile squabbles stoked-up by intellectuals like Achebe who should otherwise be beacons of social cohesion. Then Nigeria remains another African country that just can’t get it right.
After all is said and done, Achebe is entitled to his opinion, no matter how prejudiced or ethnocentric it may seem. One hopes that Nigerians and foreigners alike remember that this remains a personal opinion, and just one piece of the intricate puzzle of Nigerian historical dynamics. Importantly, Achebe’s is one side of a story, that of Biafra and for those interested in the complete story, the Nigerian side deserves attention as fundamentally, there are two sides to every story just as there are two belligerents in every war.