Published Date

May 1, 2004

Resource Type

Archival Resource, Primary Source


Military, Political, Slavery



This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “Biafra, Nigeria, the West and the World” by David Trask. 

Chinua Achebe is an Igbo writer who served as a leader in the effort to promote support for the Biafran cause outside Nigeria.  This talk was given in 1968 to explain why African writers need to become involved in larger humanitarian causes rather than simply to focus on their own day-to-day writing activities.  Along the way in this essay, he also reviews the causes of the trouble from his perspective.  The author has written numerous books and essays and is recognized as a major world writer today.

Analyze this document from your own perspectives but also from the view point of the moment when this paper was read.  What are Achebe’s critiques of Europe and Great Britain?  What are his critiques of Nigerian leaders?  To him, where does Biafra fit in African and world history?  What factors account for the situation in Biafra in the 1960s?  How does this analysis mesh with the other readings in this section? Which points were raised only by Achebe?  What points were raised in the other readings that do not appear in the Achebe essay?

The African Writer and the Biafran Cause

… It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant–like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames. And let no one tell me that if this was true for African writers, it must also be true for others. The fact is that some of the great issues of Africa have never been issues at all or else have ceased to be important for, say, Europeans. Take, or instance, the issue of racial inequality which—whether or not we realise it—is at the very root of Africa’s problems and has been for four hundred years. It has become fashionable to beguile ourselves into believing that all “reasonable” people accept the idea of human equality and that the minority who do not accept it are mentally sick, and will be cured in due course.

To take this comforting view is regarded as being level-headed and civilised. To keep hammering at racial insults is extremist and tiresome and may even show racism in reverse. We all know the little joke of the African in London who ordered coffee and then stormed out of the restaurant when he was asked “white or black”. To be able to make such jokes against ourselves is of course a most welcome sign of self-confidence. Obviously it would be a ridiculous waste of energy to go through life fighting imaginary insults. At the same time, to go through life swallowing real insults is to compromise one’s self-respect. Whether we like to face up to it or not Africa has become the most installed continent in the world. Africans’ very claim to humanity has been questioned at various times, their persons abused, their intelligence insulted. These things have happened in the past and have gone on happening today. We have a duty to bring them to an end for our own sakes, for the sake of our children and indeed for the safety and happiness of the world. And ‘we’ includes writers.

In the last 400 years Africa has been menaced by Europe. We may break these four centuries into three important periods:

  1. the slave trade
  2. colonisation
  3. decolonisation

During these three periods the inherent assumptions of Europe with regard to Africa have not changed as much as we like to think. Admittedly if a John Hawkins were to fit out a slave ship from Plymouth today, he would be universally condemned. The world would not stand for it. That much progress must be conceded. But let us look beyond Hawkins’ action to his basic assumptions. We will find there a belief that the slave is somewhat less than human. Whether we like to admit it or not, this kind of belief is not entirely obsolete. It certainly was present (no doubt in a somewhat attenuated form) in colonisation. No one arrogates to himself the right to order the lives of a whole people unless be takes for granted his own superiority over those people. European colonisers of Africa had no difficulty in taking their own superiority for granted, Neither do their present descendants (and this includes America and Russia) who set out to manipulate emergent Africa.

This assumption of superiority becomes particularly dangerous when—as in our case—it gets mixed up with colour and race.

How then does all this affect the writer?

If an artist is anything he is a human being with heightened sensitivities; he must be aware of the faintest nuances of injustice in human relations. The African writer cannot therefore be unaware of, or indifferent to, the monumental injustice which his people suffer. Among the very earliest African writers in English was an ex-slave, Olaudah Equiano who called himself Gustavus Vassa, the African. In his most remarkable autobiography published in London in 1789, one of his primary concerns was to do battle against those fundamental assumptions of which I speak. Equiano described with great feeling and longing the simple beauty of his half-remembered African childhood. ‘We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians and poets,’ he wrote. In another place he said, ‘Our women too were, in my eyes at least, uncommonly graceful.’ I suppose he had to put in that subjective qualification-in my eyes at least-to make the thing at all plausible-so unpropitious were his times. It must have taken a lot of courage to fight that lonelv battle in London in 1789. In taking the colourful name of Gustavus Vassa the African, Equiano no doubt sought to bring to his cause the magic and success of the Swedish patriot who led his people to freedom.

(I might add with pride and no chauvinism, I hope, that Olaudah Equiano was born in the first half of the eighteenth century in that part of West Africa called Biafra today.)

… Let us now turn to the middle period-one might almost say the middle passage—which saw the colonisation of Africa by alien races. While few people today would try to defend the slave trade period, there are apologists who will point to the many benefits which came to Africa in the wake of colonisation. For instance the foundations of future nation states were laid; Africa was introduced to the arts of civilisation and given the true religion, etc. These arguments need not detain us as they are hardly relevant to the main point I am making. I am concerned here with the underlying attitudes of people to people. If the attitudes arc wrong then a whole lot of other things go awry. Depending on how it is given, a gift could become an insult, and a juicy morsel turn to gall. A giver’s face is eaten, says a proverb, before the gift in his hand.

What then were the underlying attitudes of the European coloniser to Africa and its people? In 1884 European statesmen met in Berlin and simply divided the land of the blacks among themselves. The blacks were of course divided alongside the land on which they stood. Then one fine morning, Queen Victoria remembered her cousin the Kaiser’s birthday and gave him Tanganyika with many happy returns!

Arrogance, contempt, levity these were some of the attitudes. That great imperial poet Kipling called the African ‘half devil, half child’.

There is a touch of almost disarming levity in all this. But it had its serious moments, too, when the ‘blond beast’ bares its ivory teeth and the white latex of the Congo rubber turns red,

‘The white man killed my father,” cried David Diop
“My father was strong
The white man raped my mother
My mother was beautiful.”

But most African writers adopted a more moderate tone—a tone of almost sweet reasonableness, reminiscent of Equiano.

They call us cotton heads and coffee men and oily men.
They call us men of death.
But we are men of the dance whose feet only gain power when they beat the hard soil

That was Senghor, of course. But even he could on occasion be overwhelmed by the wickedness and hypocrisy of Europe, of diplomats who today will still barter with black flesh. …

… Dr Emmanuel Obiechina is right when he sees in West African writing ‘… a purpose, implicit or explicit, to correct the distortions of the West African culture, to recreate the past in the present in order to educate the West African reader and give him confidence in his cultural heritage, and also in order to enlighten the foreign reader and help him get rid of the false impressions about the West African culture acquired from centuries of cultural misrepresentation’.

The third phase of Europe-Africa relationship opened just over ten years ago with the independence of Ghana. ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom,’ said Nkrumah, ‘and all other things will be added unto you.’

In Nigeria the national freedom movement created a freedom song:

Freedom, freedom
Everywhere there will be freedom!
Freedom for you and freedom for me
Everywhere there will be freedom!

And we sang it to a swinging, evangelical hymn-tune from Sacred Songs and Solos. And danced it until our feet gained power beating the hard soil. And Europe capitulated. Or so we thought. In the words of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe Nigeria was given her freedom ‘on a platter of gold’. Like the head of John the Baptist, this gift to Nigeria proved most unlucky. The British who had done precious little to create a spirit of common nationality in Nigeria during the fifty years they were in control, made certain on the eve of their departure that power went to that conservative element in the country which had played no part in the struggle for independence…

The point I want to make here is that the creative writer in independent Nigeria found himself with a new, terrifying problem on his hands. He found that the independence his country was supposed to have won was totally without content. The old white master was still in power. He had got himself a bunch of black stooges to do his dirty work for a commission. As long as they did what was expected of them they would be praised for their sagacity and their country for its stability.

As everyone knows Nigeria was upset in January 1966 by five young army majors. Nigerians were wild with joy at the fall of the corrupt and hated governments of the federation. Britain writhed in pain. It is said that the British intelligence service in Nigeria was rebuked and completely reorganised.

Meanwhile the story got around that the military coup which had been so well received was in fact a sinister plot by the ambitious Ibos of the East to seize control of Nigeria. In a country in which tribalism was endemic this interpretation did not wait too long to find acceptance. Many people were quickly persuaded that their spontaneous jubilation in January had been a mistake. A little later it became a fact that onlv the lbos had rejoiced. A Nigerian poet who had dedicated a new book ‘to the heroes of January 1966’ had second thoughts after the counter-coup of July and sent a frantic cable to his publishers to remove the dedication.

The story of the massacre of thousands of innocent Eastern Nigerians need not be retold here. But a few of its salient features should be recalled. First it was a carefully planned operation. Secondly it has never been condemned by the Nigerian government. In short, thousands of citizens were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded and maimed and violated, their homes and propertv looted and burned; and no one asked anv questions. A Sierra Leonean living in Northern Nigcria at the time wrote in horror: ‘The killing of the lbos has become a state industry in Nigeria.’

… Biafra stands in opposition to the murder and rape of Africa by whites and blacks alike because she has tasted both and found them equallv bitter. No government, black or white, has the right to stigmatise and destroy groups of its own citizens without undermining the basis of its own existence. The government of Nigeria failed to protect the fourteen million people of its former Eastern Nigeria from wanton destruction and rightly lost their allegiance.

Secondly Biafra stands for true independence in Africa, for an end to the 400 years of shame and humiliation which we have suffered in our association with Europe. Britain knows this and is using Nigeria to destroy Biafra.

Makerere University, Uganda, 1968