Chinua Achebe who died in March was quit simply a giant of African literature. His 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart has sold more than 10 million copies and in this writers opinion his Anthills of the Savannah is the finest novel ever to come out of Africa. This posthumous memoir is at the same time a lament for the lost independence of the state of Biafra and also for the general decline of Nigeria which since being granted independence from Britain in 1960 has gone on to be regarded rightly or wrongly as just another African basket case state. Achebe credits this decline directly to the Biafran war of 1967-70.
Achebe was member of the Igbo people from eastern Nigeria and who made up the overwhelming majority of the population of the region known as Biafra. In his telling, the Igbo aroused hostility because of their intelligence and success. Because they had always been a democratic, well-educated and progressive people they flourished in Nigeria. Between 1960 and 67 the other ethnic groups within Nigeria became jealous of their influence which led to measures that have some echo the persecution of the Jews in Germany in the 1930s.
In 1967 Biafra seceded from Nigeria and civil war erupted. Over the next three years a million people died either as a direct result of the war or Nigeria's ultimately successful attempts to starve Biafra into surrender. Achebe contends that the Igbo have never fully recovered and that Nigeria then slid into a morass of corruption as a result of the upheaval the war caused.
Throughout the war Achebe was closely involved with the Biafran struggle for independence. For a while he was an emissary for Biafra and was widely known in the world. Long after the war he turned down an honour from the Nigerian government.
I'm not entirely sure that all Nigeria's woes can be laid at the door of the Biafran war - the country was cobbled together by the British from such an incredibly diverse range of ethnic groups, religions and tribal entities that it would have been a miracle had it managed to function as a stable democracy in the long term - but as an eye witness to the events Achebe is a powerful and convincing narrator.
The book is worth reading alone as a memorial to the the thousands of Igbo civilians in the north of Nigeria who were killed between May and September 1966 and for finally laying to rest the popular rumour that the personal ambition of the Biafran leader Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu was the main cause of the war. It wasn't though the mendacity and stupidity of the British as the concerned ex-imperial power very much was.
Poetic, emotive, brilliantly lucid you don't need to know anything about the history of Nigeria or Biafra to enjoy this book but you will be a wiser man, or woman, for having read it. The Kindle edition is only £5.99 at the moment. One more reason to buy it.