Chinua Achebe publishes Biafran memoir

Biafran army soldiers and captives - May 1967 More than one million people died during the Biafran conflict

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Renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has published his long-awaited memoir, There Was a Country, about the brutal three-year Biafran war.

He acted as roving cultural ambassador for Biafra when the south-eastern area tried to split from Nigeria in 1967.

For more than 40 years he has remained silent about his war experiences.

One of Africa's best known authors, Mr Achebe's debut 1958 novel Things Fall Apart has sold more than 10 million copies.

It has been translated into more than 50 languages and focuses on the traditions of Igbo society and the clash between Western and traditional values.

'Birth pangs'

Analysis

This is a memoir filled with sadness - sadness at the deaths of so many of his fellow countrymen and sadness too at the fate that has befallen Nigeria.

The book begins by recalling the coup and counter-coup that left Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Northern premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello dead.

Thousands of Igbo people were killed in retaliation. At the end of May 1967, Biafra declared independence and there was a rapid descent into war.

Achebe portrays the Nigerian government as ruthless in its suppression of the rebellion.

A statement is attributed to Chief Obafemi Awolowo which summarises this attitude: 'All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don't see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.'

Soon images of malnourished children filled the international press. Achebe accuses the United Nations of following Nigeria's lead, and standing idly by as Biafra was crushed. As Achebe puts it: "You see we, the little people of the world, are ever expendable."

The author writes movingly about the final days in January 1970: "In the end, Biafra collapsed. We simply had to turn around and find a way to keep those people still there alive. It was a desperate situation with so many children in need, kwashiorkor rampant, and thousand perishing every week... some people said: 'Let's go into the forest and continue the struggle.'

"That would have been suicidal and I don't think anybody should commit suicide."

The prizing-winning 81-year-old author and academic has written more than 20 works - some fiercely critical of politicians and a failure of leadership in Nigeria.

But he has never addressed the atrocities of the Biafran war, in which he was caught up with his young family - except occasionally in his poetry.

More than one million people died during the conflict in fighting and from famine - photographs of starving children from Biafra became synonymous in the media with the conflict.

BBC Africa analyst Martin Plaut says Achebe's memoir is filled with sadness - sadness at the deaths of so many of his fellow countrymen and sadness too at the fate that has befallen Nigeria.

He portrays the Nigerian government as ruthless in its suppression of the rebellion, our correspondent says.

Mr Achebe's UK publisher Allen Lane says: "There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid observation and considered research and reflection."

"It relates Nigeria's birth pangs in the context of Achebe's own development as a man and a writer, and examines the role of the artist in times of war."

Achebe ends the book with a poem: 'After a war.'

"After a war life catches desperately at passing hints of normality like vines entwining a hollow twig; its famished roots close on rubble and every piece of broken glass."

Mr Achebe has lived in the US since he suffered a car accident in 1990, which left him paralysed and in a wheelchair.

The memoir is published in the UK on Thursday and is due to be released in Nigeria shortly and in the US on 11 October, AFP news agency reports.

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