When Africa’s stormy politics turns into real, blood and iron war, writers find themselves in a position where they must take sides but must they grab a gun and head for the trenches or employ the explosive power of the written word? Chinua Achebe and Christopher Okigbo chose the gun. Okigbo would be killed in the process prompting Kenya’s Ali Mazrui to try the dead poet for dabbling into a business best done by other people
The recent release in Britain of the long-awaited memoirs of Chinua Achebe, the man often referred to as the father of modern African literature, was a major event in the annals of African literature.
Centred on the Biafra secessionist war that nearly wrecked Nigeria, the memoirs, titled There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra, focus on Achebe’s experience during the civil war that saw his Igbo-dominated native eastern Nigeria secede as the Republic of Biafra, a development Achebe assiduously supported.
That four and a half decades later Achebe is still ruminating on that particular event in the history of his country amply confirms the extent to which leading African writers like him, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have been affected by war and other forms of turbulence in Africa.
Coming hot on the heels of Ngugi’s Dreams in a Time of War, a recollection of Ngugi’s childhood that includes his growing up in the shadow of the liberation struggle in Kenya, Achebe’s memoirs also fit into a growing collection of long-awaited historical reflections by globally revered writers, including Wole Soyinka, who made history by becoming the first African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Also known as an indefatigable political activist, Soyinka in 2007 published the now widely acclaimed You Must Set Forth at Dawn: A Memoir.
That widely-acclaimed major work joined the Nobel laureate’s earlier Ake: The Years of Childhood in chronicling the turbulence of his life in a perennially troubled country.
Going by their most recent memoirs, it becomes amply clear that Achebe, Ngugi and Soyinka, all acknowledged pioneers of African writing, have to a major extent been preoccupied with their own life experiences.
Evidently – and logically – their works have been inspired by the turbulence, suffering and wars that have bedevilled Africa over the centuries, and which they witnessed firsthand during their lifetimes.
But these major African writers are by no means the only ones whose worldview and literary consciousness have been heavily influenced by the widespread general havoc that has marked Africa’s history from the colonial times and persisted well into the continent’s post-independence era.
On the contrary, a close reading of the African literature produced over the decades reveals that African wars of the last century were always a great source of inspiration for many of the continent’s writers and poets.
Not surprisingly, themes relating to these devastating wars have for years provided material for the continent’s creative minds.
Margaret Dickinson’s anthology, When Bullets Begin to Flower, for instance, showcased the greatest poets from Portuguese-speaking Africa.
With almost all the writers and poets of the former Portuguese dominions drawing their themes from the protracted anti-colonial armed struggles in the former Portuguese colonies, collections like Dickinson’s inevitably became classics of resistance literature.
From Mozambique and Angola to Cape Verde and Sao Tome, Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea, the creative consciousness of the colonised was inevitably fired by the sheer brutality of the colonial situation and the protracted armed struggles it gave rise to.
The same had happened earlier in Kenya and Algeria, where the armed struggles for independence captured the imagination of top writers, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi in Kenya, as attested to by their focus on the Mau Mau war in their earliest literary works.
At the same time, the wars in both Kenya and Algeria captured the interest of non-indigenous writers like Graham Greene and Robert Ruark in the case of Kenya and Albert Camus and Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born French-Algerian psychiatrist in the case of Algeria.
As for pre-independent South Africa, apartheid and the armed struggle it elicited provided crucial material for the country’s literary set, whether black, white, coloured or Indian.
It is indeed practically impossible to conceive of an authentic South African body of literature had the spectre of apartheid not catalysed the country’s creative minds into action.
The same cannot be said about the secessionist crises in the Congo and later in Nigeria, where the Katanga and Biafra flashpoints captured the attention of the local intelligentsia while not necessarily providing the germ for the regions’ literary traditions, which had existed and even crystallised long before the secessionist raptures.
Nonetheless, in Nigeria, the aftermath of the Nigeria-Biafra war was poignant in its almost total arrest of the attention of Nigeria’s creative fraternity, whatever side of the political divide they found themselves on before, during and after the devastating conflict.
As it happened, Biafra was also the home of leading Igbo intellectuals like Chinua Achebe, who doggedly espoused the Biafra cause.
The price he had to pay was that, together with members of his immediate and extended family, he was among those directly affected by the war, particularly after his house in the eastern city of Enugu was bombed.
Earlier, in Lagos, the perilous situation had forced Achebe to send his pregnant wife Christine and two of his children, Chinelo and Ikechukwu, to his Ikenga village in Ogidi, his hometown.
In the meantime, according to Ezenwa-Ohaeto, an earlier biographer, the writer himself continued to take refuge in the home of Frank Cawson, the then British Council representative in Lagos.
Fearing for his safety in Lagos, Achebe later fled the capital and joined his family in the village soon afterwards.
Other Igbo writers marooned in the secessionist state included the poet Christopher Okigbo, who fought as a major in the Biafra army and eventually died in action during the civil war.
It was that renowned poet’s tragic decision to become actively engaged in the Biafra cause that was to inspire Kenyan political scientist and writer Prof Ali Mazrui’s famous book, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo.
In that book, Mazrui questioned the rationality of writers and poets taking up arms and laying their lives on the line for whatever political causes they might espouse.
But however audacious or foolhardy Okigbo’s move was, other Igbo writers based in Biafra during the civil war certainly did not follow suit.
Apart from Chinua Achebe, among those based inside the secessionist state were already well-known writers like Flora Nwapa, Cyprian Ekwensi, John Munonye, Chukwuemeka Ike, Gabriel Okara and other many if lesser writers.
Although not going as far as to replicate Okigbo’s direct engagement in the conflict, many of these writers embraced the Biafran cause, and in fact met regularly to strategise on how to concretise support for it.
In fact, as things turned out, in later years many of them would write books on the conflict, describing its horrors in the most vivid terms.
Apart from Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died, numerous other books – both fictional and non-fictional – sprung from the Biafra war.
Among the works of fiction inspired by the war were the late Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace, Eddie Iroh’s Forty-eight Guns for the General, Flora Nwapa’s Never Again, Andrew Ekwuru’s Songs of Steel and Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn.
As for later generations of Nigerian writers, they were to continue struggling with the Biafra genie many decades later.
Many of their works were to focus on the war and the rapture it wreaked on Nigerian society.
That preoccupation with the Nigerian civil war is particularly salient in the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Andichie’s award-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun.
“I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war,” she told one interviewer, “because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present.”
She added that in her opinion many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in contemporary Nigeria, and explained: “Writing Half of a Yellow Sun has been my re-imagining of something I did not experience but whose legacy I carry. It is also, I hope, my tribute to love: the unreasonable, resilient thing that holds people together and makes us human.”
The spirit of combat had however captivated older writers like the then already internationally renowned Achebe.
During the crisis, the denizen of African literature had become an avid roving ambassador for the rebel state, and had in person proclaimed its legitimacy from Dakar to Kampala to London, New York and elsewhere.
However controversial his stance became, Achebe remained unapologetic to the end, and openly distanced himself from the Nigerian federal entity that had been his motherland before the birth of Biafra.
Having throughout the conflict been categorical about where his loyalties lay, he indeed did not mince words when responding to a letter in the British paper, The Times.
In that letter Dame Margery Perham, the famous British scholar famed for assisting people like Kenya’s populist politician the late Josiah Mwangi Kariuki – who was later assassinated – had called on the Biafran secessionists to surrender.
In her view, the move was necessary if they were to stem the brutal repression directed at them by the federal forces and their western backers.
Irked by that call by Dame Perham, who had at first supported the Biafrans but later changed her mind, and whom Achebe referred to as a person he had hitherto considered to be “a powerful friend of the Biafrans”, the writer was unremitting in his renunciation of Federal Nigeria and support for the Biafra cause.
“I was a Nigerian and a great believer in Nigerian unity,” he wrote under right of reply in the same British paper, and categorically added: “I knew and loved Nigeria. Now I do no longer.”
That stance put Achebe on a collision course with anti-secessionist non-Igbo intellectuals like the writer, playwright and poet John Pepper Clark, probably best known for America, Their America, his fiery anti-imperialist treatise.
As it became obvious, Achebe’s and Clark’s views on the Biafra question were so disparate as to cause a harsh exchange of words when the two erstwhile close friends and associates met face-to-face at the London offices of Heinemann, their publisher.
Recalling the encounter later, Clark described it as “one of the most chilling experiences” and added: “Achebe felt that I had betrayed him and Chris [Okigbo]”.