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First, There Was A Country; Then There Wasn't: Reflections on Achebe's New Book
Biodun Jeyifo
Journal of Asian and African Studies 2013 48: 683 originally published online 20 October 2013
DOI: 10.1177/0021909613506483

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JAS48610.1177/0021909613506483Journal of Asian and African StudiesJeyifo

Article
JAAS
Journal of Asian and African Studies

First, There Was A Country; Then


48(6) 683697
The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0021909613506483
Achebes New Book jas.sagepub.com

Biodun Jeyifo
Department of African and American Studies and Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University, USA

Abstract
Chinua Achebe is one of the greatest realist writers in world literature in perhaps the last one and half
centuries. But the Achebe that appears in There Was a Country is to me entirely a new one. The challenge is
how to characterize this other Achebe that is standing beside the old, urbane and subtle writer in this new
book.

Keywords
Chinua Achebe, Igbo genocide, Nigeria, Biafra

Part one
Where one thing stands, another thing will thing stand beside it.
Achebe, 1989: 161

First, there was a country; then there wasnt. To anyone who has read Chinua Achebes recently
published book, There Was a Country, this statement that serves as the title of this reflection on the
book refers to Biafra. And indeed, Achebes book is a powerful and harrowing account of the crises
that led both to the creation and the destruction of the secessionist republic. But I am also adverting
to Nigeria in this statement. For implicitly but implacably, Achebes new book also hints at a
Nigeria that once wasor at least was on the verge of becomingbut is now vanished, seemingly
forever, leaving only the trace of a national desire that is now completely in ruins. Not since Wole
Soyinkas The Man Died (Penguin, 1972) has a book so grippingly taken us back to the very foun-
dations of how our country came into being, only to be almost immediately faced with the possibil-
ity of being stillborn, with only very vague hints at how, if we are courageous, truthful and fortunate,
we might yet realize the Nigeria that we wish for.
Thus, Achebes new book is almost at every turn aware of itself as the work of a writer, an intel-
lectual addressing other writers and intellectuals and challenging them on such fundamental issues
as the relationship of the writer to ethics and justice and the responsibilities of the true, humanistic

Corresponding author:
Biodun Jeyifo, Department of African and American Studies and Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard
University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
Email: bjeyifo@fas.harvard.edu

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684 Journal of Asian and African Studies 48(6)

intellectual to racial, national and ethnic others. Indeed, as much as Achebes book is also very
much conscious of the general reader and is for the most part mainly addressed to the international
community and the world at large, like Soyinkas 1972 book it is also a direct challenge to Nigerias
community of writers and intellectuals, especially those who see themselves in the progressive and
humanistic traditions of intellectualism. At any rate, this is the point of departure for this
reflection.
Chinua Achebe is of course one of the worlds preeminent writers and intellectuals. For mem-
bers of my generation of Nigerian and African writers, critics and academics, as we came to intel-
lectual and politicalactivist maturity, Achebe was a figure who exerted a powerful, authoritative
fascination for us, even if there were the inevitable occasional small disagreements and quarrels.
For me in particular, I have always regarded Achebe as one of the greatest realist writers in world
literature in perhaps the last one and half centuries. The proof of these assertions is the fact that
among all living writers and second only to Wole Soyinka, Achebe is the writer to whose works I
have returned again and again in the last three decades. However, there is another Achebe that is
almost completely new to me in There Was a Country. It is a challenge to precisely characterize
this other Achebe that is standing beside the old, urbane and subtle realist writer.
The writer as propagandist, media apparatchik and ideological zealotthis is the Achebe that
stands side by side with the great writer weve seen and admired since Things Fall Apart. As I went
through the middle two parts of the four parts of There Was a Country, I was startled by the recog-
nition of how close, from start to finish, Achebe had been to the Biafran political leadership. By his
own often repeated assertions and anecdotes in the book, Achebe was not only one of the most
important roving ambassadors for Biafra, he was also the star media and information propagandist
for the breakaway republic. And also going by his own assertions in the book, Achebe was a close
adviser and confidant of Ojukwu, the Head of State of Biafra.
To perceive one of the many ramifications of this aspect of Achebes self-presentation in his
new book, it is important to recognize that while some prominent intellectuals felt and expressed
major differences with the Biafran leadership during the warwith some actually being accused
of, tried and executed for treasonto the very end Achebe remained close to and intimate with the
Biafran leadership. In my view and unless I am mistaken, among all major and highly regarded
African writers in the 20th century, only Agostino Neto of Angola went farther than Achebe did in
Biafra in placing his writing and his intellectual capacities completely at the service of the state.
The point, though, is that while Neto, who was himself the leader of the anti-colonial nationalist
movement and Head of State of the independent Angolan state, was very open and even militant in
insisting that his intellectualism was indivisible from his role and actions as a politicianstatesman,
Achebe in There Was a Country operates under the presumption that regardless of how close and
faithful he was to the Biafran leadership, his independence and autonomy as a writer and intellec-
tual were intact. But this is at best a genuine but mistaken assumption; at worst it is more or less a
self-serving delusion and mystification.
In this reflection, I intend to bring these two Achebes that we encounter in There Was a
Country into a dialogical relationship with each other. On the one hand, there is the superb realist
writer and progressive intellectual; on the other hand there is the war-time propaganda and media
warrior and ethno-national ideological zealot. For those who might intuitively presuppose that I
have in mind a hierarchy, a higher and lower order of integrity between these two putative
Achebes, I hasten to say that this is not necessarily so. In other words, I will not be holding one
Achebe as a corrective, a benchmark for the other. Far from this, my central frame of reference,
simply, is that against Achebes own presuppositions we must keep both in viewthe writer and
the ideologue

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Achebes book is divided into four parts. In reality, the fourth and last part is really an epilogue
that brings the chronological, temporal ordering of the contents of the book from the past of the
first and second coups of 1966, the pogroms of May and August of the same year, and the Nigerian
Biafran war to present-day Nigeria. For those who might have either completely missed it or seen
it and not paid much attention to it, let me emphasize the fact that it is in this fourth part, precisely
on page 243, that Achebe for the first time in the book talks explicitly and substantially of a
Nigerian ruling class. Thus, for the main three sections of the book, there is not even a casual nod
to class; the focus is totally and uncompromisingly on tribe, on ethnicity.
For every one of us and especially for writers and intellectuals, this raises many questions. Was
this a deliberate choice on Achebes part? What particular kind of conception of ethnicity does he
deploy in There Was a Country? Was there no ruling class in the Nigeria of the pre-civil war
years? And in Biafra, was class so effectively and completely folded into ethnicity that it had little
or no relevance or significance? If Achebe quite deliberately decided to base the main sections of
his book on ethnicity while excluding class and other indices of social identity, what methodologi-
cal and philosophical pressures does this exclusion place on him as a writer and intellectual, espe-
cially in light of the fact that he is, first and foremost, a realist writer? Can the devastating case that
Achebe makes against the Nigerian ruling class in the fourth section of his book also be made
against the Biafran ruling class of which he was such a prominent and influential figure, especially
with regard to the central moral and human catastrophe at the heart of the book, this being the issue
of mass starvation and the alleged attempted and nearly successful genocide committed against the
children of Biafra?
These are extremely difficult questions for which there are no easy or simple explanations.
Achebes new book provides us with both a great challenge and a wonderful opportunity to engage
them honestly and rigorously.

Part two
Superficially, it was understandable to conclude that this was indeed an Igbo coup. However, scratch a
little deeper and complicating factors are discovered: One of the majors was Yoruba, and Nzeogwu himself
was Igbo in name only he was widely known as someone who saw himself as a Northerner, spoke fluent
Hausa and little Igbo, and wore the traditional Northern dress when not in uniform.
Achebe, 2012: 79
In the end, I began to understand. There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative. Those who secure
this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.
Achebe, 2000: 24

If in There Was a Country a Nigerian ruling class only appears in the narratives and reflections
of the author in the final fourth part of the book, this is only the most stunning aspect of the general
intellectual and discursive architecture of the book. This architecture, this grammar is none
other than the fact that for nearly all other parts of the book with the exception of that concluding
fourth part, all of Achebes explanations, all of his speculations in the book, are relentlessly
driven by ethnicity, and a very curious conception of ethnicity for that matter. Logically, inevitably,
the corollary to this is that explanations and speculations based on class, and more specifically
on intra-class and inter-class factors, are either completely ignored or even deliberately excluded.
As I shall presently demonstrate, this is a remarkable departure from virtually all of Achebes writ-
ings prior to this recently published book. For now, let me illustrate this startling matter of the

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complete subsumption of class into ethnicity in There Was a Country with two particularly telling
examples out of innumerable other instances in the book.
The first of our two selected examples pertains to nothing less than the 15 January, 1966 coup
itself, arguably the opening shot in the chain of events and crises that led to the NigeriaBiafra
war, the central subject of Achebes book. It so happens that there is quite a significant body of
both general and academic writings and discoursesas well as works of fictionon this signal
event. And indeed, Achebes long citation of his sources in the bibliographic section of his book
mentions many of these writings and discourses on the 15 January, 1966 coup. It is therefore
baffling that of the variety of motives or interests that have been ascribed to the coup plot-
ters, the single one that Achebe addresses in his book is tribe, ethnicity: was it, or was it not,
an Igbo coup?
There have been suggestions, there have been speculations that it was a southern coup, this in
light of the fact that most of the political and military leaders assassinated or inadvertently killed
were, overwhelmingly, either northerners or southerners in alliance with northern leaders. More
pertinent to the present discussion, there has also been an even more plausible speculation that
class and ideological interests were significant in the motives of influential members of the coup
plotters like Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Wale Ademoyega. Of the two alliances of the ruling
class parties of the First Republicthe conservative Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) and the
somewhat social democratic United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA)all those assassinated
belonged to the NNA, with the single exception of Festus Okotie-Eboh, the finance minister, who
was a right-hand man of the prime minister, Tafawa Balewa, and was effectively an ally of the
NNA. S.L. Akintola, the premier of the Western Region, was a diehard NNA chieftain; there is
compelling evidence that this was why he was assassinated while Michael Okpara, the premier
of the Eastern Region, was spared, not because he was Igbo but because he was a major figure
in the UPGA alliance. As a matter of fact, there is clear evidence that some of the coup plotters had
the intension of making or forcing Chief Awolowo to assume the office of prime minister in the
belief that the progressive northern allies of UPGA were far more regionally and nationally popular
and credible than the southern and conservative allies of the NNA.
Achebes book pays not the slightest attention to these other probable factors in assessing the
motives of the 15 January coup plotters. Was it, or was it not, an Igbo coup? That is all Achebe
is interested in exploringand disprovingin There Was a Country. Of the many threads that
form the complex fabric of that fateful coup dtat, this single thread of ethnicity or tribe is all
that Achebe strenuously tries to unravel in his book.
We might speculate that this may be because by the time of the terrible pogroms of May 1966
against Igbos in the north, all other plausible motives for the coup had been almost completely
erased by assertions, indeed pronouncements, that the coup had incontrovertibly been an Igbo
coup. And indeed, the pogroms targeted all Igbos whether they were members of the ruling class
or not, seeming therefore to completely subsume class into tribe. But class factors quickly
reinserted themselves into the unfolding catastrophes and crises so that by the time of the failed
constitutional talks that led to the declaration of secession and the outbreak of war, no commen-
tator, no writer, no intellectual could credibly and persuasively exclude class as a crucial vector
of analysis and reflection. And at any rate, Achebes book was written and published more than
40 years after the event and it had the advantage of both historical hindsight and a vast body of
accumulated research and discourses. For this reason, there is no other conclusion left for us than
a finding that Achebe almost certainly has a driving rationale for sticking exclusively to ethnicity
or tribalism while simultaneously ignoring or excluding all other plausible, and in some cases
factual, factors.

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This is precisely what Achebe repeats in the second of our two examples. This pertains to the
period of regional and nationwide crises between 1964 and 1966 that preceded the 15 January coup
and the NigeriaBiafra war. Here, in Achebes own words, is the particular case:

By the time the government of the Western region also published a white paper outlining the dominance
of the ethnic Igbo in key government positions in the Nigerian Railway Corporation and the Nigerian Ports
Authority, the situation for ethnic Igbos working in Western Nigeria in particular and all over Nigeria in
general had become untenable. (Achebe 2012: 77)

This is indeed a fact, but it is a partial fact, one aspect of a complex of facts and realities, many
of which Achebe chooses to ignore or obscure. It is useful to carefully state what these other facts
and realities were.
First, the government of the Western region to which Achebe alludes here was that of Chief S.L.
Akintola and his party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). Arguably, these were the
most perniciously right-wing government and party in southern Nigeria in the entirety of our post-
independence political history. Achebe completely ignores this fact and, fixing exclusively on this
governments anti-Igbo programs and diatribes, he quite deliberately implies that this government
was speaking for and acting on behalf of the people of the Western region. In actuality, Akintolas
government and party were not only extremely unpopular, they indeed turned their unpopularity
into a hardened, reified form of autocratic rule. More pertinently, they were not only virulently
anti-Igbo; they were also scurrilously anti-welfarist and anti-socialist. A brilliant orator and a mas-
ter of Yoruba rhetorical arts, Akintola tirelessly satirized a range of targets and issues within which
Igbos were only one composite group. He was particularly fond of spewing out twisted, parodic
visions of welfarism and socialism in which everything would be sharedwives, children, family
heirlooms and personal belongings. Lastly, Akintola and his party quite deliberately stoked the
fires of intra-ethnic tensions and resentments within Yoruba sub-groups and they took this as far as
founding a rival Pan-Yoruba organization to the Egbe Omo Oduduwa which they called Egbe
Omo Olofin. And for good measure, they tried, unsuccessfully, to instigate the late Duro Ladipo
to write and produce a play to counter Hubert Ogundes famous pro-Awolowo and pro-UPGA play,
Yoruba Ronu.
It must be emphasized that all these intra-class and intra-ethnic facts and realities were so well
known at the time that Achebe could not have been ignorant of them. We are left with no other
conclusion than that Achebe simply had no place in his book for any factors, any realities beyond
a pristine, autochthonous conception of ethnic identity and belonging in which no other aspects of
social identification are allowed to contaminate the singularity of ethnicity. This, I suggest, is
what we see in its quintessence in the argument expressed in the first of the two epigraphs to this
segment of this series to the effect that Nzeogwu being Igbo in name only, the 15 January coup
could not have been an Igbo coup.
I made the assertion earlier that Achebe is one of the greatest realist writers in world literature
in the last century and half. I now wish to clarify the relevance of that assertion to the present dis-
cussion. One of the most compelling claims of realism is that it is the mode or genre in which the
chain of representation in a work of literature or, more broadly, an intellectual treatise, comes clos-
est to the chain of causality in nature, history or society. In a laymans formulation of this big
grammar, this means that above all other modes, forms and genres, it is in realism that what is
presented in a work of art or a treatise is as close as you can possibly get to how things actually
happened. Another way of putting this across is to suggest that typically and unavoidably, there
being always and forever a big gap between how things actually happen and how they are (re)

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688 Journal of Asian and African Studies 48(6)

presented in writing, it is only the most gifted and talented realist writers who come close to bridg-
ing that gap.
In all of Achebes books on our pre-colonial and postcolonial experience, he had come closer
than perhaps any other writer to this conception and practice of realism. More specifically, ethnic-
ity, class and individuality had been superbly interwoven and productively explored in such titles
as No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Anthills of the Savannah, The Trouble with Nigeria and
Home and Exile. Thus, in my opinion, There Was a Country marks a radical rupture in Achebes
writings on our country, a rupture in which the realist rigour of his previous writings gives way to,
or is considerably modified by a mystique, an apologia in which an uncompromising promotion of
Igbo ethno-nationalism almost completely ignores or obscures class until the fourth and final part
of the book. But ethnic groups and communities never act or relate to one another solely on the
basis of tribe or ethnicity. This is particularly true in all modern, multi-ethnic nation-states in
which typically, axiomatically, classesor fractions of classesact as the pivot, the lever around
which, for better or for worse, in war or peace, ethnic groups relate to one another. Thus, Achebes
near total occlusion of class in this new bookfor the very first time in all his writingsamounts
to a great intellectual and ideological blind spot.
I do not think that Achebe took this path in his new book in a fit of absent-mindedness; to the
contrary, I think it is a decision, a choice he made in the book quite deliberately and purposively.
In the subsequent section, I shall deal extensively even if only speculatively with this choice, with
particular reference to what I personally regard as one of the most controversial aspects of There
Was a Country, this being the link that Achebe makes in the book between what he deems the
endemic ethnic scapegoating of Igbos in our country and the utter collapse of meritocracy in post-
civil war Nigeria.

Part three
Nations enshrine mediocrity as their modus operandi, and create the fertile ground for the rise of tyrants
and other base elements of the society, by silently assenting to the dismantling of systems of excellence
because they do not immediately benefit one specific ethnic, racial, political or special-interest group.
That, in my humble opinion, is precisely where Nigeria finds itself today!
Achebe 2012: 236

In the epigraph above, we have one of the many instances in There Was a Country in which Achebe
urges a strong, perhaps even determining link between what he deems, not without considerable
justification, an endemic ethnic scapegoating of Igbo people in pre- and post-civil war Nigeria and
the total collapse of meritocracy in our country. With the possible exception of the subject of mass
starvation and the claim of attempted genocide during the NigeriaBiafra war, I confess that within
the comprehensive and capacious scope of Achebes new book, nothing startled me more than this
particular topic. Let me explain.
Like most self-identified progressive commentators on the civil war and the events and crises
that both led to it and came after it, I had assumed that the mass slaughter of Igbo people in their
thousands in the pogroms before and after the July 1966 Northern coup constituted the core of
what had to be engaged, analyzed, understood and positively transcended in that dire, tragic period
of our history. In essence, this entails the thesis that dominant elements within the right-wing suc-
cessor state that came into being after the July 1966 coup not only stood by while Igbo people were
being slaughtered but were actually behind the pogroms. Any state that not only fails to provide
guarantees and protection for the lives and properties of large segments of its population but

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Jeyifo 689

actually oversees the perpetration of such crimes loses both its political sovereignty and moral
legitimacy. From this perspective, secession from Nigeria was both almost inevitable and a right to
survival. Moreover, with a bit of historical hindsight, it is not difficult to see that what we are
experiencing right now in the generalized climate of terror and insecurity around life, freedom of
movement and safety of possession in nearly all parts of the countryespecially in the north
have their distant but effective roots in those pogroms of May and August 1966.
Against this background, the theme of the link between the ethnic scapegoating of Igbo people
and the total overthrow of merit and excellence leading to a pervasive culture of mediocrity in
contemporary Nigeria constitutes a related but separate topic, one that I personally have never
encountered in the extraordinarily controversial and tendentious manner in which Achebe espouses
it in There Was a Country. In the genuine hope that I am neither oversimplifying nor distorting
Achebes ideas and claims on this subject in his new book, heres a succinct summary of what I
consider to be his five interlocking theses on the topic: (1) in a multi-ethnic nation like Nigeria,
differences pertain not only to language, culture and customs but, crucially, also to rates and levels
of effective absorption of education and currents of modern thought and culture; (2) by the time of
the first decade of the post-independence period, the Igbos had surpassed all other ethnic groups in
Nigeria (and the African continent) in education, the professions, politics, trade and commerce; (3)
this situation led to acts and expressions of thoughtless and exhibitionist arrogance among some
Igbos and deep resentment and envy among non-Igbos; (4) the characterization of the 15 January,
1966 coup as an Igbo coup provided the justification for an organized, systematic mobilization,
across nearly all other ethnic groups in the country, of resentment of meritorious Igbo intellectual,
professional, commercial and cultural achievements; (5) henceforth, merit was displaced as the
benchmark for conducting the business of the nation in all areas, to be replaced by an all-pervading
culture of mediocrity that was/is clothed in the garb of federal character.
The essential elements of Achebes ideas on this particular topic are contained in a short section
of Part One of There Was a Country titled A History of Ethnic Tension and Resentment (pages
7478). But this theme runs throughout all the four parts of the book like a leitmotif that undergirds
the comprehensive and compelling ethnographic history of Igbo resilience and achievement under
adverse historical and political conditions that Achebe celebrates throughout the book. In other
words, though Achebes new book also extensively deals with registering the traumas and trage-
dies that came with war, defeat and the post-war crises of reintegration into Nigeria, the central
intellectual theme of the book is the loss that Nigeria sustainedand continues to sustain to this
daywhen mediocrity effectively replaced meritocracy with the purging of Igbos from the intel-
lectual and professional centers of our public life in those fateful months between January and
August 1966.
It is important to emphasize the fact that though the essential ingredients of this theme of Igbos
as a dominant force, a collective benchmark for merit and excellence in our country had been ten-
tatively broached in Achebes previous writingsnotably in The Trouble with Nigeria and Home
and Exilethe author had been more cautious, more restrained and more comparative in those two
previous books. For example, in The Trouble with Nigeria, the essential argument was that though
the Yoruba had the advantage of a great historical and geographical head start over Igbos, the latter
caught up with the former in education and the professions within three decades of the mid-20th
century. And in Home and Exile, Achebes extensive reflections on the vigorous and enthusiastic
embrace of education and modernity by Igbo people had been made within the wider framework
of a powerful Pan-Africanist celebration of the elements within all African cultures that made them
sift and choose the good from the bad in the currents and forces of modernity. But in this new book,
Achebe takes this same nexus of ideas and makes of them a part of his startling claim that in the

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crises leading to the NigeriaBiafra war, the Igbos were made the collective ethnic scapegoat of a
nation caught in the paroxysm of an Igbophobia that was really and effectively a mask, a pretext,
a rationale for the overthrow of meritocracy and the consequent massive institutionalization of
mediocrity in our country.
In the fourth and final part of the book, as an illustration of the deliberate targeting of Igbo intel-
lectual and professional achievement in the pervasive post-war culture of mediocrity, Achebe gives
an account of how a former president of Nigeria deliberately unleashed on his own home state of
Anambra corrupt politicians with plenty of money and low IQs (Achebe 2012: 248). The for-
mer president in question is none other than Olusegun Obasanjo and the corrupt politician with
plenty of money and low IQ is of course the hapless Chris Uba. In his account of this notorious
case, Achebe makes much of the fact that this was happening in Igbo land and was connected to the
fact that this former president, Obasanjo, had a strong and punitive aversion toward Igbo people.
In other words, Achebe is deliberately insinuating here that this is a continuation of the pre-civil
war overthrow of meritocracy on the basis of a virulent Igbophobia. But what Achebe ignores,
consciously or unwittingly, is the fact that what Obasanjo was doing in Igbo land he was also doing
in Yoruba land in particular and, more generally, in the nation at large. For this same former presi-
dent imposed Alhaji Lamidi Adedibu, a professional thug, on Oyo State as the presiding political
boss who, just like Chris Uba, had powers of patrimonial control and manipulation over the elected
executive governor of the state. And it was the same Obasanjo that made Mrs Ette, an inarticulate
and barely literate hairdresser, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
In case the moral of this critique of Achebes link between ethnicity, meritocracy and medi-
ocrity is missed, let me point it out: each ethnic group in Nigeria has its own actual or potential
Chris Uba and Lamidi Adedibu. This is because neither mediocrity nor meritocracy is innate
in any ethnic group, each one being the determinate outcome of factors that pertain as much to
class as to ethnicity. More pertinently, Achebe is grossly mistaken to trace the roots of the culture
of mediocrity in our country to the purging of Igbo intellectuals and professionals in federal,
regional and local public agencies, institutions and enterprises in those fateful months of 1966
before the NigeriaBiafra war. For mediocrity preceded the crises leading to the civil war, as
Achebes own novel, A Man of the People, powerfully and memorably demonstrates. Moreover,
the culture of mediocrity in post-civil war Nigeria got exponentially much bigger when oil wealth
replaced the pre-war export crop economy as the primary means of surplus extraction by the politi-
cal class drawn from all of Nigerias ethnic groups, major and minor. In other words, in the new
oil-dominated national economy, valueincluding merit and excellencebecame disaggregated
from work, effort, thrift, and innovation. Thus, meritocracy, and its obverse, mediocrity, are both
too big, too complex as social and intellectual phenomena to be reduced to the single, determining
agency of tribe or ethnicity. Indeed, based on all his previous writings before this new book, this
truism is something that Achebe himself had explored vigorously and compellingly.
I have pondered long and hard on why Achebe in this new book seems to have such a desperate
need to give an unalloyed, supremacist twist to the incontrovertible historic achievements of Igbos
in education, the professions, the arts, commerce, politics, sports and culture. The immediate his-
toric context and justification for Achebe in this exercise seems to have been the indisputable fact
that after the 15 January, 1966 coup, there was a widespread but carefully manufactured fear of
Igbo domination in all federal institutions and parastatals. This manufactured fear served as the
basis, the pretext, for the right-wing Northern and Western regional governments of the period to
begin compiling data and statistics that seemed to reflect an orchestrated domination of the country
that involved all Igbo people, even though the alleged spheres of domination specifically entailed
middle- and upper-middle class professions. Ironically, what Achebes own list of Igbo

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professional and intellectual achievement in his new book does is to retroactively and inadvertently
produce that allegedand dreadeddomination by all Igbos. This observation needs careful
elaboration.
Achebe neither refutes nor impugns the accuracy of the figures and data in the lists compiled by
the Northern and Western regional governments of the period; he merely explains the data and
statistics away by more or less implying that the alleged Igbo dominance was justified by achieve-
ment, by merit. The problem with this explanation is that it conflates class with ethnicity. For if
the figures and data released by the NNA parties were accurate, this only reflects the fact that at
that point in time, Igbo middle and professional classes enjoyed a clear advantage over the middle
and professional classes of other ethnic groups, principally the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani who
then used the crises of 1966 to opportunistically wipe out that advantage. End of story? No!
The problem, the issues, did not end with the pre-civil war crises, as Achebe himself repeatedly
asserts in his new book. Thus, we are dealing here with a complex historical and social phenome-
non that, regrettably, Achebe grossly oversimplifies and distorts. Our task here is to try to under-
stand why a writer, an intellectual like Achebe who has never shied away from engaging the
complexities, even the perplexities of our historical and social experience, descends into superfici-
alities and distortions in his engagement of this particular topic in this new book. I think the begin-
nings of an answer might be found in two separate but linked processes. In the first place, we must
note that the intersection of fierce intra-class and inter-ethnic competition that led the Northern and
Western governments to begin compiling lists of Igbo dominance in federal agencies and corpora-
tions inevitably became closely linked to the pogroms of 1966 even though they were separate and
distinct events. Secondly, we must also pay attention to the fact that the foreign audience that con-
stitutes a large and significant part of Achebes obviously intended readership of There Was a
Country typically thinks of Africa in terms of tribe and ethnicity and hardly ever in terms of
class; there is ample textual evidence that Achebe panders a lot to this foreign audience in the book.
For these two reasons, Achebe refuses absolutely to concede the indisputable class advantage of
Igbo professional and middle classes in pre-civil war Nigeria; he prefers instead to reduce or keep
everything to the singularity of tribe. In other words, what he couldand shouldhave con-
ceded in terms of class, Achebe displaces into a fortress constructed around ethnicity. This act of
displacement he accomplishes by taking refuge in a mystique of meritocracy as an endowment, a
natural outgrowth of tribe or ethnicity. I repeat: I have never encountered a more tendentious, a
more regrettable treatment of a presumed link between ethnicity and meritocracy in any book by
an African author than what we encounter in Achebes engagement of the topic in his new book.
In the concluding section, we shall see how these same factors were deployed far more omi-
nously in the most harrowing issue raised in Achebes new book, this being mass starvation and the
alleged attempted genocide committed against the children of Biafra.

Part four
I will begin by stating that I am not a sociologist, a political scientist, a human rights lawyer, or a
government official. My aim is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions, and perhaps to cause
a few headaches in the process.
Achebe 2012: 228

The epigraph comes from the very first sentence in a section of the third of the four parts of There
Was a Country titled The Question of Genocide. This section is far and away the most explosive
segment among the dozens of segments in the entire book. For this reason, in saying that his aim

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692 Journal of Asian and African Studies 48(6)

in this segment is not to provide all the answers but to raise questions, and perhaps cause a few
headaches, Achebe is either being disingenuous or is deploying a penchant for ironic understate-
ment that is a central aspect of his novelistic art. In my own frank opinion, I think Achebe in this
opening statement of The Question of Genocide is being both ironic and disingenuous. At any
rate, instead of a few headaches, the spate of responses to this section of the book has been more
like an epidemic outbreak of violent seizures of the type that we find in either severe epileptic fits
or the death throes of a patient that has just been taken off a life support machine.
I am using the metaphors of severe epilepsy and final death throes here deliberately. Biafra was
not defeated, was not vanquished easily; relatively speaking, it took a long time of agony and
trauma for it to be subdued by the Nigerian forces. This was contrary to the initial over-confidence
of the Nigerian federal government that what would be needed to end the secessionist republic was
not a full-scale war but a police action that would take no more than three to six months. And
indeed, after the recapture of Benin and the Midwest region from the Biafran invasion force, there
were swift, decisive victories by the federal forces within Biafra itself.
Notable in this case were the captures of Calabar and Port Harcourt, both of which then enabled
concentration of the war offensive of the Nigerian forces on the Biafran heartland in the Igbo-
speaking areas of the breakaway republic. But thereafter and fatefully, the war became stalemated:
Biafran resistance became extremely fierce and resilient; the federal forces slowly but inevitably
came to the realization that they had more than a police action on their hands. It was in this long
drawn-out phase that the all-important question of mass starvation and an alleged deliberate and
systematic genocide against Biafransespecially women, children and the youngbecame the
primary human and moral issue of the NigerianBiafran war, not only while it lasted but apparently
now more than four decades later.
In my view, any and all discussion of this question of mass starvation and alleged genocide
ought to keep two crucial issues in mind because failure to do so almost inevitably leads to either
deliberate or unwitting distortions in analysis, interpretation and judgment. The first of these two
issues was the fact that, unexpectedly, this stalemate phase was the longest phase of the war.
Secondly, this phase of the war was also almost entirely concentrated on the Biafran heartland in
the Igbo-speaking areas of the secessionist republic and it came after most of the non-Igbo areas of
Biafra had been effectively captured, militarily occupied and administratively run by the federal
Nigerian forces. Before getting to these two issues, first a word on the human and moral dimen-
sions of the matter of mass starvation and alleged genocide, both of which Achebe in this book
engages with a combination of a master novelists artistry and passionate Biafran ideological
zealotry.
It is important to point out that most Nigerians were against the war and abhorred the senseless
violence that ensued as a result of the conflict, Achebe observes on page 233 of There Was a
Country. And earlier in the book, on page 108, Achebe had also asserted that the war came as a
surprise to the vast majority of artists and intellectuals on both sides of the conflict. This is the
voice of Achebe the humanistic and progressive thinker. Unfortunately, it is a part of the Achebe
that we confront in this book that has been almost completely buried under the bitterness and sever-
ity of the critical responses to the controversial and tendentious aspects of the book.
At the moral and human core of Achebes portrayal and evocation of so much suffering and
death of individuals and the masses in Biafra is the simple but profound humanist belief that the
claims of those who suffered and died on those who survived and are living can never be settled by
convenient or expedient answers to the question of whether genocide was intended or merely inci-
dental. In other words, while the matter of genocide has been largely framed by figures, data, sta-
tistics and probabilistic projections, the fact that millions of people did die and sufferperhaps

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Jeyifo 693

avoidably and needlesslycan never be in dispute. The elegiac poems, the harrowing prose evoca-
tions of death, trauma and madness of so many in Biafra that accompany the objective accounts
constitute powerful and moving parts of this book that nothing in the vast controversy that it has
engendered can diminish.
On that note, we come to the heart of the controversies. If the charge of organized and system-
atic genocide through mass starvation is the single most controversial claim of the book, the most
controversial observation or statement in support of this claim is contained in the following sen-
tences concerning Awolowo:

It is my impression that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for
himself in particular and for the advancement of his Yoruba people in general. And let it be said that there
is, on the surface, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbo at the
time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arosethe NigerianBiafran warhis
ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant
hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation
eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations. (Achebe, 2012: 233)

The charge of genocide, as advanced by Achebe in this book and as proposed by scholars like
Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe who Achebe cites, rests on many factors. Some of these are statements of
bloodlust credited to many field commanders of the Nigerian army; actual atrocities committed by
Nigerian forces in the Biafran heartland that went well beyond Geneva conventions and the norms
of civilized warfare; and the indisputable fact that the Nigerian government did use economic
blockade and the resultant mass starvation as a means of forcing the Biafrans to surrender. But the
charge of the diabolism of Awolowo in using genocide for the advancement of his personal ambi-
tion and as a means of once and for all time eliminating Igbos in the competition for dominance in
Nigeria is something else altogether. Let us address this observation carefully.
While Awolowo did make the infamous statement in justification of starvation as a legiti-
mate weapon of war and while, as a matter of fact, he made the statement after the fall of
Calabar and Port Harcourt and the consequent tightening of the noose of war on the Biafran
heartland, in order to achieve the diabolical project imputed to him by Achebe, Awolowo would
have had to possess the power to foresee the future and magically bring many things far beyond
his or anyones control into being. First, he would have had to know beforehand that the war
would drag on for more than the three to six months that the federal forces initially expected that
it would take to overwhelm Biafra; the over two millions that reportedly died of starvation died
because the war was stalemated for nearly two years. Secondly, Awolowo would have needed to
have the assurance that his alleged diabolical genocidal schemes would receive help from the
Biafrans themselves by the kind of resistance, the fight to the finish that they put up. Finally,
Awolowo would have needed the power to make the Biafran leadership reject the offer by the
Nigerian governmentof which he was a memberof a land corridor that would have enabled
food and other necessities to reach the blockaded Biafra. For if the Biafran leadership had
accepted this offer that was in fact very reluctantly made by Nigeria under intense international
pressure, the number of those that died in Biafra of starvation and kwashiorkor would have been
significantly less than two million.
At this point, I must confess that of all the controversial claims and statements made by Achebe
in his new book, the charge of a diabolical plot hatched by Awolowo to exterminate Igbo people(!)
in furtherance of personal ambition and ethnic advantage for his people seems to me so bizarre and
so irrational that I for one refuse to take it seriously. If Achebe had stuck to the claim, the charge
that some of Awolowos actions and policies during and immediately after the war objectively

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694 Journal of Asian and African Studies 48(6)

worked to the advantage of Yoruba middle and moneyed classes and interest groupswhether or
not these were Awolowos intensionshe would have been on more rational and plausible grounds.
For instance, by the time the Indigenization Decree came into effect, Igbo moneyed and propertied
classes and interest groups had little access to capital in sufficient quantities to make the best of that
unprecedented bonanza of post-civil war Nigeria for the kingpins of our countrys ruling class. As
I have stressed, once again we see in this absurd charge the conflation by Achebe of the class com-
ponent with the generality, the entirety of the ethnic group, whether the ethnic group in question is
Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa or others.

Part five
The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader,
who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes so
to speak, toward a deeper understanding of self or society.
Achebe 2012: 61

In bringing this critical reflection to an end, I must first acknowledge an error of literal fact that I
made earlier in the review. Please note that I say an error of literal fact, not of substantive analysis
or judgment.
This error concerns the assertion that I made in the first sub-section that it is only in the fourth
and final part of his book, precisely on page 243, that we find the term Nigerian ruling class. As
a matter of fact, Achebe actually uses the same term in the first part of the book, on page 69. Heres
the relevant sentence: As we reached the brink of full-blown war it became clear to me that the
chaos enveloping all of us in Nigeria was due to the incompetence of the Nigerian ruling class.
Indeed, I might as well add that in the second part of the book, on page 108, Achebe also uses what
could be regarded as a cognate term, this being the Nigerian ruling elite. And in this particular
instance, his critique of members of our countrys ruling elite/class is far more devastating, far
more unforgiving. This he does by analogizing them collectively to Anwu (sic), the wasp, a
notorious predator from the insect kingdom. I have no words to match Achebes own characteriza-
tion of the scale of the predatoriness of our ruling class: Wasps, African children learn during
story time, greet unsuspecting prey with a painful, paralyzing sting, then lay eggs on their body,
which then proceed to eat the victim alive. Well, this does mean that Achebe uses the term rul-
ing class more than the one time that I stipulated earlier. But there is more to this error than meets
the eye that remains fixated on the literal facts of the case.
After I wrote the first sub-section I discovered my error. I wondered why I had missed the two
previous occasions before the fourth part of the book when Achebe had indeed used the term rul-
ing class or ruling elite. It did not take me long to understand why. Simply stated, the substan-
tive truth, quite different from the literal fact, is that it is only in that final fourth part of his book
that, from start to finish, Achebe uses the term ruling class to analyze the terrible state of things
in our country. In other words, on the two previous occasions in Parts One and Two when he had
used the term, Achebe had merely dipped it into what could be described as the boiling cauldron
of tribe or ethnicity as his singular frame of reference. One proof of this is the significant fact
that in spite of his extremely damning indictments of both the pre- and the post-civil war Nigerian
ruling class, the term does not appear at all in the index to the book.
In effect, the claim that I made earlier still stands, this being the claim that it is a remarkable,
even defining feature of Achebes book that while the whole of the fourth part of the book talks of
the Nigerian ruling class as the frame of reference for understanding a great deal of all that is wrong

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Jeyifo 695

in our countrys affairs, in the other three parts of the book it is the tribe, the ethnic group
sometimes refracted through the Regions of the First Republicthat is the object either of Achebes
searing indictment or, with particular regard to his Igbo people, of his solicitude and solidarity. In
this connection, here is a typical observation from Part One of the book:

The original idea of one Nigeria was pressed by the leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region.
With all their shortcomings, they had this idea to build the country as one. The first to object were the
Northerners, led by the Sardauna, who were followed closely by the Awolowo clique that had created the
Action Group. (Achebe 2012: 51)

This statement is as false as it is unworthy of a progressive writer and public intellectual of


Achebes stature. From the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates in 1914 to
the brink of the outbreak of the NigeriaBiafra war, progressive politicians and intellectuals from
all parts of the country led the struggles for a united, equal and just Nigeria. From this perspective
and in my own personal opinion, the greatest objection to Achebes new book is that because for
much of the three substantial parts of the book class politics is completely subordinated to ethnic
politics and because Achebe apparently has no place in his book for class politics in pre- and post-
civil war Nigeria that was/is in fact separate and distinct from the Anwu predatory archetype, his
book almost completely leaves out of account the few but significant expressions and traditions of
progressive, radical class politics within and across Nigerias ethnic groups. Before I conclude this
review, I would like to briefly register and endorse some of the most moving and valuable parts of
this extraordinarily controversial book, some of these being paradoxically based on deep and
changing realities and sentiments around ethnicity and ethnic belonging as a positive value in our
continent and our world.
I dont think that it is overstating the case to observe that There Was a Country probably
aspired to be and will for decades be regarded as the definitive Igbo literary epic of this age. It
is an epic of suffering, endurance, resilience and survival. Like all great epics, it is based on the
rediscovery of fundamental moral and philosophical ideas that go to the core of communal sur-
vival and human worth, especially in seasons of great, overwhelming catastrophe. Again and
again in the book, Achebe dips into Igbo creation myths, folklore, legends and proverbs to
underscore the scale of the issues involved in the production of this epic. Definitely, he does on
occasion over-idealize aspects of traditional Igbo culture and worldview that he wishes to pro-
pose as self-defining and self-constituting counterweights to the festering cesspool of the
Nigerian spiritual and moral malaise. But the cultural capital of what Achebe attempts here is
undeniable and consistent with what other African writers like Soyinka, Ngg wa Thiongo and
Tanure Ojaide, in their essays and literary works, have done for Yoruba, Kikuyu and Urhobo
ethnic (sic) nations respectively: a powerful demonstration of the idea that ethnic groups have an
unfolding historic identity and can and should serve as repositories from which to rediscover and
rekindle the virtues of democratic republicanism and common human decency and dignity in this
new millennium. In this perspective, ethnicity, indigeneity and locality are not antithetical to but
are indeed consistent with universal values that link all of us in our country and our planet to a
common future, a common destiny.
But the ethnic provenience of the epic Igbo project of There Was a Country takes its toll on the
intellectual and artistic merits of the book. In a marked contrast with almost all the other books he
had written, there is in this new book a veritable collapse of the union and trust between writer
and readers that Achebe, in the epigraph to this concluding section, identifies as the basis of all
great writing. Let me carefully explain what this entails.

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696 Journal of Asian and African Studies 48(6)

I have stated repeatedly in this review that Achebe is one of the greatest realist writers in world
literature in the last one and half centuries. Among all other claims, realism bases itself on the abil-
ity, the unflinching resolve of the writer to let reality speak for itself, no matter where it leads the
writer, the artist, the philosopher. But this is easier said than done, for no writer, no artist can (re)
present the fullness, the infinity of reality; what the writer can hope for is that in what he or she
chooses from reality, nothing significant, nothing absolutely germane to the reality depicted is left
out. Where this happens the reliability of the writer is badly compromised and with this goes his or
her trustworthiness, if not across the whole spectrum of potential readers then among the most
discerning, the most astute and the most fair-minded of such readers. On this count, Achebes new
book evinces the collapse of realist writing and philosophy the like of which we had heretofore
never encountered in his writings. Let me put this in simple language: in this new book, whatever
is not compatible with Achebes epic ethnic Igbo project is simply left out, even if and where such
things were of great import in the affairs of the nation, especially as these pertain to relations
between ethnic groups and communities, both in Nigeria and Biafra.
The central issue here, as I have repeated again and again in this review, is the omission of class
in most of Achebes narratives, analyses and reflections in the book. There is also the additional
fact that in most of his ideas and assertions about ethnicity and regionalism in the book, Achebe
simply omits or oversimplifies many things that either complicate or run counter to his project of
an Igbo ethnic epic. Among the myriad of such omissions and simplifications in the book, I shall
cite only a few examples. First, in all of the first three and most substantive parts of this book, in
vain will the reader look for the signs, the evidence that beyond the ethnic/regional blocs, there
were class alliances of both right-wing and progressive ideological and political currents. Indeed,
there is no mention of the UPGA alliance between the National Council of Nigerian Citizens
(NCNC), the Action Group and the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), the three most
important social democratic parties of the First Republic that straddled the north and the south.
Secondly, there is no mention in the fourth part of the book of the fact that while the big, moneyed
interest groups among Igbo people in the post-civil war period have done badly compared to the
big, moneyed interest groups of Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani elites, the lower middle class of Igbo
traders, merchants and exporterimporters have done very well indeed compared with similar class
and interest groups of the countrys other ethnic groups.
Thus, on this count, one class segment among Igbosadmittedly the most potentially economi-
cally and politically influentialis far from being truly integrated into post-civil war Nigeria while
another segmentlower middle class merchants and exportersimportersis very well integrated.
Rather than acknowledge this indisputable fact of the interplay between class and ethnicity, Achebe
simply asserts in his book that (all) Igbos are yet to be integrated into post-civil war Nigeria.
Thirdly and within Biafra and during the war itself, Achebe is almost completely silent on the fact
that there were great tensions between the Igbo majority ethnic group and the non-Igbo minorities.
As a matter of fact, as one reads the two central parts of the book that deal with life (and death and
suffering) in Biafra, one slowly comes to recognize that for Achebe, Biafra and Igbo are inex-
tricably conflated in the authors mind. And yet, it is a simple fact of history that Biafra was a
multi-ethnic state. Finally, most independent and fair-minded historians and analysts of the Biafra
Nigeria war know and state that, like the Nigerian forces, Biafran troops also committed terrible
atrocities against civilian populations, most notably in the Midwest region during their brief occu-
pation and when they were in forced retreat before the advancing federal forces. And yet Achebe
blithely asserts in the book that he has not obtained independent confirmation of this fact!
For me personally, it is a matter of great regret that the reactions to Achebes book have been
divided almost entirely along ethnic and regional lines: to thy tents, O Israel! Well, not completely,

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so there is still hope that across our various ethnic and regional communities, we can still forge
alliances based on interests that combine the best and the most positive values of our historic ethnic
nations with progressive egalitarian values that will work for the vast majority of our peoples that
remain disenfranchised and marginalized, regardless of how well or how badly their rich and pow-
erful ethnic brethren and sisters are doing in Nigeria at large.
One last word and I am done. The decision to fight to the finish was the most fateful decision
taken by the Biafran ruling class of which Achebe was a morally and intellectually authoritative
figure. Coupled with this was the decision not to accept the offer of a land corridor for getting food
and supplies to the starving and suffering masses of people in Biafra that the international com-
munity pressured the Nigerian government to make. These two decisions played their own role in
the mass starvation and death of millions of the children of Biafra. Let it be known that by making
this observation I do not, whatsoever, intend any negative critique, any gratuitous moralizing. This
is because I am only too conscious of the fact that political and military history in all parts of the
world is replete with such terrible decisions in times of war. War hardens people immeasurably and
many decisions taken during war often seem totally incomprehensible later. I cannot imagine that
the political and military leadership in Biafra took those decisions lightly. If Biafra had survived,
the sacrifice would have paid off; defeat, on the contrary, makes it worse, infinitely. I cannot imag-
ine that Achebe is not haunted by the part that some decisions of the Biafran leadership played in
this particularly harrowing and gnawing tragedy of the BiafraNigeria war. How has he processed
this particular extra emotional, psychic burden of defeat? Not a word about this in There Was a
Country. I wonder; I really wonder.
For us all, the very least we can and must do is to begin to have a more complete, a more com-
plex and a more honest view of why and how mass starvation and the totally avoidable death of
millions, most of them children, did happen in Biafra. If we can achieve this, we will find it much
easier to come to terms with most of the other seemingly intractable issues raised in Achebes
book. Thus, getting a fuller and truer picture of mass starvation and the alleged genocide is a first
step, but it is a necessary one. More than any other book on the NigerianBiafran war, Achebes
new book, with all its contradictions and the fierce controversies it has generated, provides a pow-
erful basis for us to take this first step.

Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
sectors.

References
Achebe C (1958) Things Fall Apart. London: Heinemann.
Achebe C (1984) The Trouble with Nigeria. Ibadan: Heinemann Educational Books.
Achebe (1989) Hopes and Impediments, New York: Anchor.
Achebe C (2000) Home and Exile. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Achebe C (2012) There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. New York: Penguin.
Soyinka W (1972) The Man Died: Prison Notes. New York: Penguin.

Author biography
Biodun Jeyifo is Professor of African and African American Studies and Professor of Comparative Literature
at Harvard University. He has published widely in the fields of postcolonial theory and literary studies; drama
and theatre, and Anglophone African and Caribbean Studies. The two-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of
African Thought co-edited with Abiola Irele was published in 2010.

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