This brilliant second novel has deservedly become a best-seller and prize winner.
C N Adichie has great gifts for story-telling and character-drawing which she
applies in this book to the valuable historical material she painstakingly assembled.
While memories were still fresh she interviewed members of her family and many others
who were caught up in the civil war in Nigeria. I also had the opportunity to talk to many
people in Onitsha and Orlu about their experiences and to Tony Saville who left the
Service to help run the relief effort from Isi just east of the Uli airstrip. I can vouch for
the accuracy of the account she gives of the failed attempt at secession led by Ojukwu.
The author is the latest in the long line of eminent writers in English from the
countries of our Empire. Education in our literature and language was arguably the
greatest benefit which we provided during our occupation. The Nigerian writers led by
Chinua Achebe have been among the most successful in their appeal to a wide audience.
That is why this book is so important.
Born in 1977 Chimamanda Adichie was brought up in the University town of Nsukka
where Chinua Achebe was a neighbour. But her family were from the country village of
Abba and she was therefore versed in Igbo customs and beliefs. This is important
because the novel depicts the attitudes and opinions of the academic community and
their impact on an intelligent and ambitious country boy who comes to Nsukka as a
domestic servant. Her account of the relationships and conflicts between the principal
characters gives a fascinating picture of a society at a cross-roads. The dialogue and
portrayal of personality are convincing. The story is riveting.
In her account of the background to this conflict she captures the feelings of horror
and fear induced by the terrible massacres inflicted on Igbos resident in Northern
Nigeria. Not for the first time Igbos had reason to fear the Hausa - I was there when a
previous massacre occurred. This coloured opinions expressed in this book blaming the
British colonial power for the constitutional arrangements they left in place at
As long ago as 1907 dissatisfaction had been expressed with the artificial division of
Nigeria between North and South. Lugard put an end to the discussion and to the
proposal to move the capital from Lagos. Later the South was partitioned into West and
East. By the time the re-division came to be discussed again in the 1950's the three main
political rivals for power had established their bases in these Regions and resisted any
subdivision. The Federation of North, West and East was fatally flawed. I think we must
share the blame for this. Further subdivision was inevitable and was carried out by the
military government of Gowon after the Biafran rebellion.
Chimamanda also blames the British Government for its support of the Federal
Government and refusal to recognise Biafra. The criticism is totally unjustified.
Every effort had been made by the Federal Government led by a Christian General Jack
Gowon to achieve a settlement. Ojukwu the Biafran leader was intent on establishing a
Unlike his father Sir Odumegwu Ojukwu, whom I got to know well in Nnewi and who
became an admired adviser to the colonial government, his son Emeka was a powerseeker
with dictatorial attitudes. The Igbo people followed him into war with enthusiasm
but were misled into the beliefs that they should secede and had a chance of victory.
This book recounts the gradual disillusion which set in as the character of Ojukwu's
regime was revealed. In the end he scuttled out of the country leaving others to clear up
the mess. In the meantime as the Federal forces advanced the population fled from fear
induced by the massacres in the North. The refugees crowding into the Igbo heartland
around Orlu caused famine and terrible suffering. There were incidents of brutality and
widespread burning and looting but no genocide.
Ojukwu should have realised that a rebellion by a small and poorly armed force could
not succeed - he was a Sandhurst trainee. That apart, his rivals in the Federation were
never likely to allow Igbos to dominate the oil resources in the Niger Delta and
monopolise the wealth beginning to accrue from that source. Moreover, the East was
itself an artificial creation and included a number of tribal groups, of which the Igbos
were only one. The peoples of the Delta disliked the Igbo.
By the time I revisited Nigeria in 1985 the need for One Nigeria was generally
accepted even among the Igbos although suspicions of the Northerners were still strong.
Ojukwu's reputation was tarnished by over-ambition.
The British Government could not have supported a breakaway from the Federation in
these circumstances - or indeed recognised such an illegitimate seizure of power.
The Biafran propaganda at the time caused much anxiety in Britain but in the event
the feared genocide did not occur. The initial euphoria and subsequent disillusionment
are vividly described in this book. It is also a very good read - even for those who have
no knowledge of or interest in Nigeria.