( By Nuradin Jilani)

The famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe wrote this essay in 1968 explaining his involvement in the secessionist cause of Biafra, Eastern Nigeria.

My intention in revisiting that sad event now is to draw conclusions from Achebe’s experience in the Biafran war as a fellow African who now confronts (in Ethiopian occupied Ogaden) something similar to the ethnic cleansing and massacre Achebe’s people, the Igbos, had gone through at the hands of the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1967, and how that ‘tragic event’ had radically changed Achebe’s views and attitude towards his native country Nigeria and transformed him from a nationalist Nigerian writer to a rebel fighting for a secessionist cause.

The African Creative Writer

Achebe begins his essay by examining the role of the creative African writer and says that an artist is someone with ‘heightened sensitivities’, a person who “must be aware of the faintest nuances of injustice in human relations.” He adds: “The African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant—like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.”

In order to analyze the roots of the present dilemma confronted by Africa and her writers, Achebe goes back to the past in a typical Orwellian “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future” and thereon connects the dots.

Achebe divides the ‘European menace’ of Africa in the last four hundred years into three periods: the slave trade; colonization; and decolonization. Each period had its defining feature. During the period of Slavery, the ‘basic assumption’ behind that horrible practice was a “belief that the slave is somewhat less than human,” argues Achebe. This basic assumption of superiority exists even today and governs how Europe deals with Africa, “in somewhat attenuated form,” he adds.

The African creative writer’s response to these pressures (of slavery, colonization, decolonization) equally came in three phases. According to Achebe, an ex-slave by the name Olauda Equiano (pen name Gustavus Vassar the African) was the first African writer in English language to respond “to Europe’s first assault on the life and dignity of Africans during the period of the slave trade” in an autobiography he wrote in 1789 which was published in London. Achebe says Equiano’s ‘primary concerns’ in writing that autobiography was “to do battle against those fundamental assumptions” in European thought and practice of African inferiority at the time and concludes: “Equiano then represents the African writers’ response to Europe’s first assault on the life and dignity of Africans during the period of the slave trade”.

The second period – which was the middle period – culminated in that infamous Berlin Conference of 1884 when “European statesmen met in Berlin and simply divided the land of the blacks among themselves.” This period was characterized by European attitudes of ‘arrogance, contempt, and levity’ towards Africans. The creative African writer’s response to the arrogant European colonizers of this period was fierce, combative and defiant, not only asserting their dignity and honor but also accusing Europeans of the ‘rape and murder’ of Africa.

 

The Cameroonian poet David Diop was one of the most vocal and fierce representatives of African creative writers of this period. Repudiating the Whiteman’s moral justification for colonizing Africa (the jargon of ‘civilizing the savage races’ of black Africa) best represented by the imperial poet Richard Kipling’s ‘The Whiteman’s Burden’, and the French notion of La mission civilisatrice, Diop wrote:

 

The white man killed my father

My father was strong

The white man raped my mother

My mother was beautiful

 

Thus by characterizing as Rape and Murder the self-righteous European notion of enslaving and colonizing Africans for their benefit and advancement, Diop was describing how the colonized Africans felt, literally and figuratively, towards this ‘civilizing’ European colonial mission in its basic manifestation. As such, he was only putting into words their horrible experience at hands of those supposedly enlightened European colonizers. But there were other writers who adopted a more ‘conciliatory’ tone (“no accusations of rape and murder”), like Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, in the hope that “once a good case had been made for [their] people’s culture and institutions, the rest could be left to the good sense of the reader,” notes Achebe.

 

Notwithstanding their little differences however, the creative African writers of the middle period on the whole had risen to the task of both battling the ‘arrogance and contempt’ of European colonialism and in showcasing the beautiful side of their people and culture at the same time.

 

This brings us to the period of independence. Achebe lists a litany of the things that went wrong shortly after independence in Nigeria and shows how Britain “made certain on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country which had played no part in the struggle for independence.” He was referring to the mainly Muslim Northern elite of Nigeria who dominated that country’s politics after independence. However this situation was not unique to Nigeria; it was experienced by many African states after they were granted ‘flag independence’. The postcolonial African state – its geographic composition, makeup, constituent parts, and the elite that were tasked to run it – was not an expression of Africans but colonialist imposition. The intention was, as Achebe correctly notes, to “ensure Nigeria’s obedience even unto freedom”. And what was true for Nigeria was true also for other African states as ethnic based conflicts flared up in several parts of the continent due to the unequal distribution of power and resources.

 

When the great expectations of independence did not materialize for Nigeria and the nation sunk deep into corruption, misrule and nepotism, the creative Nigerian writer could not keep quiet about this sad state of affairs – and this is the reason, Achebe says, he wrote Man of the People, a devastating novel depicting the Nigerian situation of the time.

 

Of this period, Achebe notes, the Nigerian writer “found that the independence his country was supposed to have won was totally without content. The old white master was still in power. He had got himself a bunch of black stooges to do his dirty work for a commission.

As long as they did what was expected of them they would be praised for their sagacity and their country for its stability.”

 

However things changed (or at least seemed to have changed) after the army seized power in a military coup in 1966 and Nigerians celebrated the fall of the hated regime. This jubilation did not last long however as there was a counter coup a mere few months later which led to the Nigerian civil-war.

 

The plotters of the counter-coup had made sure from the start to portray the initial coup plotters and their supporters as “a sinister plot by the ambitious Ibos of the East to seize control of Nigeria.” As a result the Igbos found themselves deliberately targeted, rounded up and thrown into jails. A civil war was ignited and thousands of Nigerians, mostly Easterners, were killed in the ensuing chaos. “In short,” says Achebe, “thirty thousand citizens were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed and violated, their homes and property looted and burned; and no one asked any questions.”

 

It was in this terrible situation that Achebe, together with the young poet Christopher Okigbo, who later died in the war, and other intellectuals from Eastern Nigeria, fled to Igbo land and joined what was to become the Biafra secessionist movement.

 

After listing the atrocities committed against his people (the Igbos) in Biafra, Achebe concludes his long essay by saying: “Biafra stands in opposition to the murder and rape of Africa by whites and blacks alike because she has tasted both and found them equally bitter.” David Diop, the African writer who described the European colonialism of Africa as rape and murder, Achebe notes, “unfortunately died too young. He would have known that the black man can also murder and rape.”

 

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