- The Struggle for Modern Nigeria: the Biafran War 1967–1970 by Michael Gould
In autumn 2012, only a few months before he passed away, Chinua Achebe published his long-awaited account of the Nigerian Civil (or Biafran) War, There Was a Country: a personal history of Biafra. Achebe’s book, while eminently readable and impressive as a personal memoir full of melancholy, is likely to disappoint the student of political and military history. Achebe’s depiction of broader political issues in and around the war remains shallow and onesided – unsurprisingly so, given Achebe’s role as a leading intellectual supporting the Biafran secession at the time. Still, due to Achebe’s status as a literary giant, his book – alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2006 novel Half of a Yellow Sun, depicting life in Biafra – is likely to strongly influence views and perceptions of the Civil War, especially by readers outside Nigeria. Earlier in 2012, the British historian Michael Gould had published a decidedly different account of the war. His book provides a welcome counterbalance to what is in effect the Igbo-centric perspective on the war presented by Achebe and Adichie.
Gould reviews major debates surrounding the political and military history of the Civil War: why did the unity of Nigeria collapse within only a few years of independence? How was the war actually fought on the ground, and why did it take so long to end it? Did the federal military strategy really amount to genocide, and what role did propaganda play in the popularization of this term? What were the interests and contributions of foreign actors to the war? Questions such as these have been debated ever since the first major works on the Civil War were published in the 1970s. A good number of autobiographical accounts have added insight into the thoughts and beliefs of some of the main protagonists. More recently, the opening of relevant Western archival holdings has offered additional perspectives, leading to a re-evaluation of the (limited but previously largely neglected) importance for the conflict of Niger Delta oil.
Gould does a good job in evaluating these sources and debates and he makes excellent use of interviews with key military personalities, including Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu Ojukwu, held in 2007 and 2008. While the book does not contain major revelations, Gould shows convincingly that the war, especially at its beginning, was driven by the calculations and miscalculations of a handful of key military leaders. In the early phase of the war, bold military actions – especially the Biafran incursion into the Mid-West – were aimed at a quick victory. But they failed, and the fighting turned into a war of attrition. This ‘inexorably’ (p. xvi) led to Biafra’s defeat against a much more resourceful federal army, as no strong international support for Biafra’s bid for secession materialized. This overall view of the war history is widely accepted.
Gould is balanced overall with regard to questions of the political and military history of the war. However, while he rightly rejects the claim that the Lagos government intended genocide, he may stand criticized for neglecting the humanitarian catastrophe that the war created – a dimension captured so powerfully by authors such as Achebe and Adichie. Perhaps this has not been the main task of Gould’s book; however, leaving the last word about victim figures to David Hunt, the controversial, strongly anti-secessionist British Ambassador to Nigeria during the war (p. 203), does not do justice to the fact that the vast majority of Biafran war victims were ‘indirect’ war casualties who died of hunger or disease. Similarly biased, in the book’s postscript Gould’s discussion of the repercussions of the war, and of its long-term effects on the position of the Igbo people within Nigeria, remains cursory at best. The book provides virtually no explanation for the resurgence of the pro-Biafran nostalgia [End Page 343] and even activism...