Africa is sad within
The Democratic Republic of Congo is burning. Renamo in Mozambique has indicated it may go back to war. Zambia’s Western Province as well as Namibia’s Caprivi Region are dying to secede from the mainland.
One day, if Africa does not struggle to contain civil wars, its children will look back and say “there was a country once”.
Indeed, this is what Chinua Achebe reminds us in his narrative, ‘There Was a Country: a Personal History of Biafra’, his 2012 memoirs on the Nigerian civil war now known as the Biafran War that raged from July 1967 till January 1970.
Although the simplistic explanation proffered for the Biafran War was economic, ethnic, cultural and religious intolerance, journalist Alex Mitchell’s memoir titled ‘Come the Revolution’ says at the centre of the civil war were the British, Dutch, French and Italian oil companies battling for the rich Nigerian oilfields.
And there is no doubt that this is what the DRC is suffering for. While Renamo’s current threats are not clear, it’s a known fact that the rebel group was created by the Rhodesians and apartheid South Africa to counter Frelimo that had given Zanla bases to operate from.
The Zambian and Caprivian issues are a result of artificial boundaries created by colonialists.
That was Nigeria’s case when in 1960 at independent; there were more than 60 million people from about 300 different ethnic groups.
What is Nigeria today was an area that once was inhabited by all these hundreds of ethnic groups. In 1914, the British, represented by Lord Frederick Lugard, forced all the groups into one entity by carving out artificial boundaries.
But just like in Rwanda and the DRC, about three tribes – the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani ‑ dominated the rest in Nigeria.
There was one big problem though – all the three groups had different political structures, which meant that the dominant group had to force the others to believe and belong to its structure.
The Igbo were autonomous while the Hausa and Yoruba were autocratic.
Among many other reasons, this is what caused the Nigerian-Biafran War that sucked in people from all walks of life including Chinua Achebe and poet Christopher Okigbo who actually joined the army and died in combat.
The Nigerian-Biafran War cost more than a million lives and had many others jailed. The war also drew sympathy from respected people around the world.
One of the Beatles founders, John Lennon, gave back his 1965 MBE to the Queen, accusing her of supporting the massacres in Biafra.
Lennon wrote to the Queen on November 25, 1969: “I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”
Achebe remembers Okigbo in the Biafran War. In one paragraph he writes about how after he had heard about Okigbo’s death, he got to his home and broke the news to his family.
“When I finally got myself home and told my family, my three-year-old son, Ike, screamed: ‘Daddy don’t let him die!’ Ike and Christopher had been special pals. When Christopher came to the house the boy would climb on his knees, seize hold of his fingers and strive with all his power to break them while Christopher would moan in pretended agony. ‘Children are wicked little devils,’ he would say to us over the little fellow’s head, and let out more cries of feigned pain,” he writes.
Achebe recounts how, when the war started, he survived by a whisker after soldiers besieged his house in Lagos during raids on Igbos.
When they could not get him, they bombed his Citadel Press offices, “Having had a few too many homes and offices bombed, I walked away from the site and from publishing forever,” he writes.
Achebe also recalls how another Nigerian writer, the Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka, was jailed for his critical stand against the war.
“When he returned to Nigeria, the authorities arrested him and accused him of assisting Biafra in the purchase of weapons of war,” he writes.
There were various other writers involved in the Biafran conflict such as Cyprian Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, John Munonye, Flora Nwapa and Chukwuemeka Ike who have all written about the conflict.
Africa’s struggle in this situation should be the effort to bring together its peoples under the theme of nationalism to avoid the bitterness that seeps through Achebe’s memoirs.
The continent should forget the troubled past and heal the wounds while forging ahead so that there is not ethnicity but Africans.
But to do this, the people themselves must take the lead and make sure that politicians do not take advantage of the different tribal groupings.
Maybe this fact is evident when Achebe writes about how integration in Africa has been just artificial. His anger could be the same anger felt by all people seeking secessions.
“There are tons of treatises that talk about how the Igbo were wonderfully integrated into Nigeria. Well,” he writes, “I have news for them: the Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness, in my estimation.”