Achebe got it all wrong on Tribalism in Nigeria and Africa – a review

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Oct 29th, 2012

by Mwongera Kioga
This review is from: There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra (Kindle Edition)

Chinua Achebe is a great writer, with well thought out and concise work that is well presented and easy to read. However while his writing talent is unquestioned, I really

feel his views in this book are biased and will result in the increase of tribalism, hence corruption and suffering of his beloved Igbo ethnic group as well as all Nigerians. Therefore he fails in his attempt to create unity and reduce tribalism and corruption which he so loathes.

In the Chapter “The Role of the Writer in Africa”, he says that a writer should align himself with the weak and powerless against the strong. This is an agreeable point. However, he tries to cast his Igbo people as the victims in Nigeria while ignoring the sufferings of other ethnic groups brought upon by the Igbos. This is not a recipe for national reconciliation.

In the Chapter “Cradle of Nigerian Nationalism”, he tries to cast the Yoruba Leader, Chief Alowolo as a tribal leader who reunited his ancient Yoruba people “with a powerful glue of resuscitated ethnic pride, hence creating the “Action Group” political party that reduced the dominance of the Igbo dominated NCDC. The irony here is that Achebe sees no problem with the NCDC being Igbo dominated while he complains about the Action Group being Yoruba dominated. This double standards is not a recipe for national reconciliation.

In the same chapter, while calling Alowolo’s Action group a tribal party, he says, without any misgivings, that it also galvanized support from not only the Yoruba, but also the Riverline and minority groups in the Niger delta who “dreaded the prospects of Igbo political domination”. This proves two points. That the Action Party was not an exclusive Yoruba tribal party like the NCDC was becoming. Second, that the Riverline and Minority eastern Tribes “dreaded” the prospect of Igbo domination. So the Igbo’s are starting to look, not like the poor victims, but a ruthless tribe that will dominate others with impunity. Again, Mr Achebe’s biased, pro-igbo views will not improve unity in Nigeria.

In the chapter “The Decline”, Mr Achebe says that the original idea of a “One Nigeria” at independence was pressed by Eastern (read Igbo) leaders and intellectuals, especially Nnamdi Azikiwe. This is true because the Igbo were dominating every sector in Nigeria and they saw that a unified Nigeria would benefit them. They did not care about what other tribes felt.

Initially, the the Northerners led by the Sardauna, Ahmadu Bello, resisted the idea of a “One Nigeria”. Achebe tries to cast the Northerners as short sighted and not working to remove the British colonist, but their objections were based on a legitimate and true fear of dominance by the Igbo. Why would the northerners want to remove one oppressor, the British (who were actually competent and knew how to run a non-corrupt government), and bring in another oppressor, the Igbo ( who were corrupt and tribalistic)?. So Mr Achebe, your Igbo leaders should have been less greedy and less short sighted and tried to understand why the Northerners resisted a One Nigeria idea. Maybe the whole Nigerian people would be in a better position today.

Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to the Sardauna in his own words here ( […] ) explaining the legitimate fear the northerners have about the Igbo. I think the Igbo, instead of arrogantly dismissing such feelings, should have taken them into consideration and tried to live in harmony with other tribes instead of trying to dominate them.

In the chapter named “January 15, 1966 Coup”, Mr Achebe shows his extremely biased attitude in favor of his Igbo tribe. This is the classic definition of a tribalist. He tries to minimize the January 15, 1966, coup as one led by “junior officers” protesting corruption, but he fails to accurately portray the tribal nature of that coup. The Sardauna , Sir Ahmadu Bello and Samuel Akintola, the greatest leaders of the North and West respectively were killed, along with numerous others from same regions, but there was no Igbo killed. Achebe says the coup was led by “junior officers most of them igbo” led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu from northern city of Kaduna. This is misleading. Major Nzeogwu was not a northerner. He was an Igbo born in Kaduna. Same applies to Emeka Ojukwu, Biafra’s secessionist leader, an Igbo born in the North. So if he calls Nzeogwu a northerner, he should also call Ojukwu a northerner. This coup was a totally tribal affair and trying to say otherwise will not help improve the tribalism issues in Nigeria.

In the chapter “The Dark Days”, Mr Achebe, having minimized the coup as “non-tribal and one led by Junior officers protesting corruption and decay”, starts railing against other tribes when they took revenge, rightfully so, against the Igbos who had killed their most senior leaders. He says that in a country where tribalism is endemic, the “rumor of an Igbo Coup” began to gain acceptance. I find it unbelievable that Mr Achebe would take such a position. This January 1966 coup, WAS AN IGBO COUP, there is no doubt about it, and denying that will not further Achebe’s goal of reducing tribalism in Nigeria.

In the same chapter, he says that other tribes started attacking Easterners, taking out their resentment against the Igbos who “had led the nation in every sector – politics, education, commerce and arts and had driven out the colonizing British from Nigeria”. This comment brings two points to light. He tries to portray “Easterners” as one victimized group but this is not truth. As he said before, many minority Easterners “dreaded the prospect of Igbo domination”, hence their joining of the Yoruba “Action Party” group.

Second point is that he tries to portray other tribes as being driven by envy at Igbo’s success. Mr Achebe, remember the Igbos triggered this by launching a coup and killing people from other tribes. Second, a nation will never be united if one group dominates all the rest. This is the biggest mistake we have in Africa. One tribe tries to dominate and shut out others, the others fight back and we all end up losing, just as we see in Nigeria, and so many African nations. So Mr Achebe, please try to be far sighted and use your talent to guide your Nigerian people (all tribes) to be more unified and not celebrate the Igbos for dominating the rest, and congratulating them for being superior, or for being the “Jews of Africa” as has been said before.

Mr Achebe then describes his experience leaving Lagos. For those who don’t know, Lagos is in western Nigeria, in Yoruba land and many Igbos had settled there as well as many other parts of the country. However we don’t hear of other tribes settling in Igboland. This skewed migration tendencies were bound to bring problems. It is a fact that migratory tribes in Africa never assimilate with their host tribes, unlike the United States where different people integrate, learning English and adopting a common mainstream culture.

So you when people from a different tribe come to your area, they are basically “not your neighbors” but an alien people just occupying your land. When Mr Achebe says he found it “a strange and powerful experience” when his non-igbo “neighbors” whom he lived with for decades started jeering him and saying that “food will be cheaper in Lagos” when Igbos leave, he is not being genuine. I can bet that he never socialized with the locals, learned their language, or tried to integrate with their culture. Even after living in Lagos for decades, he maintained his Igbo culture and language and probably had mostly Igbo friends. Not surprising, even his “intellectual non-igbo friends” said that he should have known what was coming to him as an Igbo.

This point about Tribalism is illustrated again when Mr Achebe, fleeing to the east, arrived in Benin City in the Mid-west and he says there was a “distinct atmospheric change”. There he found Igbo policemen who welcomed him as a brother, cheering him, saying “Oga, thank you”. They cheered him just because he was a prominent Igbo man, even if he spent most of his life in Lagos or other regions. I bet non-igbos living in the East would never receive such treatment. So Mr Achebe should realize that tribalism goes both ways. Everyone, even the Igbos are tribalistic. So we should accept that fact and then we can start discussing how we can live together with justice for everyone.

In the Chapter “A History of Ethnic Tension and Resentment”, Mr Achebe clearly illustrates that there is something about the Igbo that makes other Nigerian tribes resent them so much. He points out that in his book, “The Trouble with Nigeria”, that Nigerians will “achieve consensus in no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo”. He says that while the Yoruba had a huge historical and geographical head start, the Igbo, “in one fantastic burst of energy in the 20 years between 1930 and 1950″ managed to wipe out that advantage. He also illustrates from the book by J.P Clark an image of “ants filing out of the wood”, how the Igbo moved out of their forest home and scattered and virtually seized the floor.

This scenario, as I said before, is a recipe for disaster in Nigeria and other African countries. When one tribe starts to invade other peoples territories and due to cultural, language and other factors, start to dominate everything there, that will definitely create resentment and conflict. The Igbo’s congratulate themselves for being “superior” and “competent”, and for being able to dominate other tribes in a fair competition, but they should also know they are not very smart because other tribes will resents them and drive them out, just as it happened, and they will end up losing.

If Mr. Achebe is smart and loves Nigeria, he should not be celebrating Igbo “superiority” over other tribes. He should use his talents trying to think how different tribes can work together to ensure everyone gets a fair shake so that the whole nation can utilize its talents for the good of everybody.

To his credit however, he concedes that the Igbos are prone to “hubris and overweening pride, thoughtlessness, exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness” which can offend others.

However, he fails again because he continues to argue that in Nigeria’s context, they “get the achievers (meaning Igbos) out and replace them with less qualified individuals from the desired ethnic background to gain access to resources of the state”. I have heard this argument in Kenya where I come from, but it does not hold water.

First, achieving “access to resources of the state for all tribes” is the only good and fair thing to do. There is no reason why Igbo’s should to take over all jobs just because they “are more qualified” because competence is not exclusive to only one tribe. I live in the US and can tell you that you will find smart people from all backgrounds, all tribes and all races.

Mr Achebe displays his scewed and totally wrong position by saying he was “dismayed” by a 1966 publication called “The Nigerian Situation: Facts and Background”, which demonstrated the complete unfairness existing in Nigeria where 45% of managers were Igbo, over 50% of the posts in Nigerian Railways, over 70% of posts in Nigeria Ports Authority and foreign service were occupied by Igbos. Remember the Igbos account for only 18% of Nigeria’s total Nigerian population.

I don’t know why Mr Achebe would not find such discrepancies disturbing and why he would be “dismayed” when someone reveals them. The only reason I can think of is because his Igbo people were on the benefiting end of this. This again, Mr Achebe, is not the attitude you should adopt if you want a Nigeria for everyone.

In the Chapter “The Army”, Mr Achebe again tries to minimize the “Igbo Coup” led by Major Nzeogwu saying that it was actually not an “Igbo coup”. He tries to deny that Major Nzeogwu was an Igbo, saying that he was born in Kaduna (north) and spoke fluent Hausa and wore northern traditional dress. That did not stop him from massacring Northern and Western leaders like Sir Ahmadu Bello. Achebe also claims that the coup was stopped by General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo. However, he continues to note that General Ironsi refused to court martial the coup plotters and transfered them East where they were eventually released by Ojukwu. So Ironsi is not as non-tribal and fair as Mr Achebe tries to portray him.

After trying to minimize the “Igbo Coup”, Mr Achebe goes all the way to condemn the resulting “counter coup” by northern officers to revenge the “Igbo Coup”. He says the killing of General Ironsi and Fajuyi were part of a larger and bloody coup led by the northern General Murtala Mohamed. This kind of double standard is not lost on anyone. Once again, Mr Achebe fails by trying to unfairly promote his tribe and minimize their failings while maximizing their opponents failings. This will not result in a unified Nigeria.

In the Chapter “The Pogroms”, Mr Achebe again goes overboard trying to minimize the “Igbo Coup” by saying that it was an “Idealistic Coup” that proved to be a disaster for the Igbo. I find it just unbelievable that a man of Mr Achebe’s intelligence would not realize that his biased views will make other tribes think of him as just another unrepentant Igbo tribalist. Here again, he fails in his stated goal of unifying Nigeria for all its people.

In the Chapter “Aburi Accord”, Mr Achebe claims that majority of the Easterners had grown contemptuous of General Gowon’s federal government for its failure to bring the culprits of the mass murder in the North to Justice. While this may be true, he also fails to say that his beloved Igbo General Ironsi failed to bring the “Igbo Coup” plotters to justice when he had the chance. He even transferred them to the East where they were released. This kind of double standard, again is not going to promote unity in Nigeria.

In the chapter “The Nightmare Begins”, after General Ojukwu seceded Biafra from Nigeria, General Gowon responded by declaring a state of emergency and dividing the nation into 12 states based on tribe. The federal government position was that this would foster unity and stability in Nigeria. This is actually a valid point. If different tribes have control of their areas and free from domination by other tribes, this can create stability, unity, justice and eventually success. However, the Igbos, arrogantly thinking that it was their birthright to dominate other tribes, saw this as “a Machiavellian Scheme to landlock Igbos into the East Central State and isolate them from oil producing areas”, areas which in truth, don’t belong to them.

Mr Achebe seems sympathetic to this Igbo view although he inadvertently validates the Federal government’s point by saying that the Non-Igbo minority easterners “dreaded for years – the prospect of Igbo domination”. So again, Mr Achebe fails by aligning himself with the Igbo desire to dominate others, which eventually led to the destruction of Nigeria, Igbos included.

In the Chapter “The Republic of Biafra”, Mr Achebe shows his support for the secessionist nation of Birafra by defining the intellectual foundation of the new nation as one “which the supreme power lay with the citizens and respected the freedoms of all mankind”. However he fails to mention the plight of more that 5 million minority Easterners in Biafra who “dreaded the prospect of Igbo domination for years”.

He also mentions his admiration for president Nyerere of Tanzania who supported the new State of Biafra by standing for equality, self determination and respect for human values. The Biafra leaders would have been well served if they followed Nyerere’s example. Nyerere succeeded in creating the only non-tribal country in Africa where there is no tribalism, unlike Biafra, which was founded as a result of extreme tribalism.

In the Chapter “Death of the Poet , Daddy don’t let him die”, Mr Achebe reveals a great irony. While he earlier described the “Igbo Coup” leader Major Nzeogwu as an “idealistic junior officer” whose thoughtless actions brought disaster to the Igbos, and while he earlier said that Major Nzeogwu was “an Igbo only by name”, he now says that Nzeogwu’s death in the war was a big blow to Biafra because he was a “darling and enigmatic hero who had risen from anonymity to legendary heights in a short period”.

This reveals two things. That Mr Achebe was not too upset about the “Igbo Coup” itself, and the resulting massacre of people from other tribes, but was upset it eventually turned out badly for the Igbo, when other tribes took revenge. He also reveals that Major Nzeogwu, whom he earlier tried to dissociate with the Igbo on account of his being born in Kaduna (north), was actually regarded as a hero by his Igbo tribesmen. Again, Mr. Achebe reveals he is a tribalist and fails in his stated goal of uniting all Nigerians.

Mr Achebe tries to cast blame to everybody else other than the Igbo themselves. In the Chapter “The Silence of the United Nations”, he bemoans how in October 1969, on the losing side, General Ojukwu desperately pleaded with the United Nations for mediation to no avail. His Opponent, General Gowon insisted on Biafra’s surrender and rightly noted that “the rebel leaders had made it clear that it was a fight to the finish and no concessions will ever satisfy them”. The Biafra Igbo rebels, in their “hubris, overweening pride, confidence and thoughtlessness” provoked a war and were not able to finish it. So they blame everybody else except themselves. Again, Mr Achebe fails. He is not interested in justice and truth, but in the welfare of only his Igbo people and not all Nigerians.

Nothing demonstrates the folly of tribalism better than the case of Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first president, an Igbo. At independence, he campaigned against the British colonialists under a “One Nigeria” mantra, when it was beneficial for the Igbos because they were dominating other Nigerian tribes and taking over all resources. When things turned awry for the Igbos and they seceded, he suddenly forgot his earlier principles of “One Nigeria” and supported the new Igbo secessionist state of Biafra. However, he could not defend a challenge to his new position and had to turn back like a coward.

So in the Chapter “Azikiwe Withdraws Support for Biafra” Mr Achebe tries to blame British intellectuals in northern universities and the Nigerian Army for challenging Azikiwe to explain why he suddenly changed his lifelong beliefs of a “One Nigeria” and now supported the breaking of Nigeria. Azikiwe was unable to explain that and decided to withdraw his support for his tribesmen’s new state. Again, Mr Achebe fails. He is not interested in fairness and principles to benefit all Nigerians, but will support whatever benefits the Igbo at that particular time.

The chapter named “1970 and the Fall” reveals the hypocrisy of Mr Achebe. He says that in the end, Biafra collapsed and there were thousands of children dying every day of starvation. He goes on to say that the “Notoriously incompetent Nigerian Government was not responding to those needs, and that with ill-advised Bravado, General Gowon was busy banning relief agencies that helped Biafra”. I find this level of hypocrisy amazing. Where is Ojukwu in all this mess. He started the war, he was responsible for the death and starvation of millions of Biafrans. Remember Biafrans were fighting General Gowon and inflicted heavy casualties on his soldiers. So, to blame Gowon and completely forget the other responsible person, Ojukwu, is just unbelievable.

Some other points I wish to note are in the chapter named “Gowon Responds”. He was asked about Igbo property being taken over by the Government of New Rivers State. Something was said to the effect that the people of that state “felt like tenants in their own state” because the Igbos owned everything there. Again I want to reiterate that there will be no united Nigeria (or other African countries) when some tribes start dominating others with impunity, and in their own territory no less.


In the Chapter “Nigeria’s Painful Transitions: A Reappraisal” , Mr Achebe talks about the crime happening in his beloved, Igbo state of Anambra. He says it was encouraged by the federal government and by an unnamed former president of Nigeria, “whose attitude to this part of Nigeria, which he and some like him consider responsible for the troubles of Nigeria’s Civil war”.


Mr Achebe, I have news for you. This part of Nigeria IS RESPONSIBLE for the Nigerian Civil war. That is the truth and trying to deny it is folly. Again, you fail because this denial will not endear you to Nigerians of other tribes, hence will not help to create a unified Nigeria.


In one of your last chapters “State Resuscitation and Recovery” you ask how Nigeria can be salvaged and “bring all the human and material resources to bear on its development”, how to end “organized ethnic bigotry” and “corruption”. I am encouraged that you are thinking in this direction.


I am no expert in nation development and reconciliation, but I can tell you that TRIBALISM, like the one exhibited by the Igbo, is one of the main causes of our backwardness in Africa.


We have to deal with tribalism, ensure that no ethnic group moves to other ethnic group areas and try to dominate their resources. I believe the formation of states based on tribal lines will help. Or at least grouping together tribes that are in friendly terms and can live together in harmony. Then every tribe will control the resources in their state and ensure justice and welfare for their people and remove the danger of domination by other supposedly “more competent” tribes.

In conclusion, Mr Achebe is a great author, with superior talent. But he is also biased and is a tribalist. Here he fails like a majority of our other brilliant, (or not-so-brilliant) Africans leaders and intellectuals.



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