Most Nigerians are too young to remember the devastating civil war that ripped their country apart more than four decades ago.
But for world-famous author and scholar Chinua Achebe, 81, the Biafran War of 1967-1970 is more than a moment in history. It is a lesson that should not be forgotten, especially as Nigeria witnesses a new wave of sectarian violence that threatens to split Africa's most populous nation again.
Achebe’s new memoir, “There Was a Country,” was published in the United Kingdom on Thursday. It will hit the shelves in Nigeria any day now, and will be available in the United States on Oct. 11.
It tells the story of Achebe’s experiences in the Nigerian Civil War, when he served as a diplomat representing the would-be breakaway republic called Biafra.
Achebe is most famous for his 1958 novel, “Things Fall Apart,” which won him international acclaim. He now makes his home in Rhode Island, where he is a professor at Brown University. But with his new memoir, he hopes to remind his countrymen of a conflict not so dissimilar from the one that threatens to erupt in Nigeria today.
The price of such a clash could be horrific, just as it was during the days of Biafra’s attempted secession. In total, up to 3 million people -- most of whom were civilians -- lost their lives during less than three years of civil war.
A Forgotten Story
As often happened during the era of African colonialism, the British carved out the territory of Nigeria with little regard for ethnic, linguistic and cultural variations. When the country gained independence in 1960, the differences between regions of Nigeria were stark. Most northern Nigerians followed Islam, whereas Christianity had taken root more easily in southern regions.
Southern communities had a stronger tradition of participatory democracy. They also suffered less poverty, having access to more natural resources than did the people in the semi-arid northern reaches of Nigeria.
Accustomed as they were to sovereignty and political efficacy, southern Nigerians were determined not to fall under the arbitrary rule of leaders who were culturally foreign to them. So when a 1966 coup put a northern general in control of the country, it did not sit well with southern leaders.
But the real tipping point was inter-ethnic violence, which erupted during the mid-1960s and was most frequently committed against members the southeastern Igbo tribe. In May 1967, after tens of thousands of Igbo people had lost their lives, an Igbo governor unilaterally declared independence for the southeastern region of Biafra.
The war officially began two months later, when Nigerian troops advanced into Biafra from the north. The south was heavily outgunned, especially since the Nigerian troops were supported by their former colonial power, Great Britain. But the Biafrans had the tactical advantage of a home battlefield and were able to repel many Nigerian advances.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. The southeast was finally overrun by Nigerian forces in January of 1970.
During the conflict, Achebe toured the world to garner support for the Biafran cause. He made little headway, partly because Nigeria was backed not only by Great Britain, but also by such diverse world powers as the Soviet Union and Egypt. But Biafra did achieve formal recognition from five sovereign nations: Haiti, Tanzania, Zambia, Gabon and the Ivory Coast.
A Lingering Legacy
What made the Biafran War particularly brutal was not any military offensive, but rather a fatally effective blockade. Nigerian troops essentially isolated Biafra, cutting it off from most trade and external assistance. A humanitarian crisis unfolded in result, with hundreds of thousands of people dying from starvation and a lack of medical resources.
Photographs of rail-thin children with distended bellies made international news during the conflict, and these are the images by which the world remembers the Biafran War today.
What is perhaps most troubling about the conflict is that it was never fully resolved. Tensions between Nigeria’s northern and southern regions are still high -- and the situation has lately been exacerbated by a terrorist group called Boko Haram. These insurgents target non-Muslims in northern Nigeria and seek to establish Islamic law in the region.
The group was founded in 2002 and has killed about 1,400 people since it accelerated military activities two years ago.
The presence of Boko Haram strains the already fragile relationship between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim northern communities and its predominantly Christian south. Today, the south enjoys a closer connection to the central capital city of Abuja and is generally more developed than the north, where poverty and unemployment make it easier for Boko Haram to recruit new members.
Development is key to solving this issue, but governmental corruption has been a persistent roadblock in these efforts. Despite the fact that the country has abundant reserves of crude oil and an impressive GDP of about $235 billion, more than half of Nigeria’s population still lives below the poverty line. Infrastructure in rural areas is underdeveloped, and the government has failed to invest in oil refineries to turn its crude into a usable domestic resource. Fiscal mismanagement and official corruption have discouraged international investments.
The Fight Continues
Although Achebe now lives in the United States, he knows very well that failed leadership lies at the heart of the problems that divide Nigeria.
He has advised Nigerian officials not respond to terrorism with blind retaliation, which could lead to escalation. Achebe remembers well how a similar wave of inter-ethnic and inter-religious clashes first sparked the brutal Biafran War more than four decades ago.
This year, in an open letter to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan addressing the economic woes and sectarian violence that plagues his homeland, Achebe was frank.
“Nigeria is witnessing a new escalation of sectarian violence, culminating in explosions that have killed or seriously wounded scores of people at churches and other centers of worship and local businesses,” he wrote.
But the solution he proposes is development, not revenge.
“The president should … champion significant cuts in the huge cost of running the various tiers of government and the luxuries that have become the signature of those who ought to protect the commonwealth, serve the people, and not exploit them,” he wrote.
“Besides, the culture of corruption and impunity in official quarters constitutes a grave threat to national security and to the country’s effort to establish a democratic culture and meaningful economic development.”