Chinua Achebe’s BIAFRA, 1969: Poem and Commentary

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BIAFRA, 1969

First time Biafra
Was here, we’re told, it was a fine
Figure massively hewn in hardwood.

Voracious white ants
Set upon it and ate
Through its huge emplaced feet
To the great heart abandoning
A furrowed, emptied scarecrow.

And sun-stricken waves came and heat crazily
About its feet eaten hollow
Till crashing facedown in a million fragments
It was floated gleefully away
To cold shores–cartographers alone
Marking the coastline
Of that forgotten massive stance.

In our time it came again
In pain and acrid smell
Of powder. And furious wreckers
Emboldened by a half a millennium
Of conquest, battering
On new oil dividends, are now

At its black throat squeezing
Blood and lymph down to
Its hands and feet
Bloated by quashiorkor.

Must Africa have
To come a third time?

— Chinua Achebe

SOURCE: Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (New York: Anchor Books, 2004).


Commentary

The Republic of Biafra emerged as a breakway country presaged by 1966 coups, ethnic distrust, crises, and Igbo-targeted pogroms and massacres. It would take about three year war course to crush the new nation and cause its restoration into the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

In Biafra, 1969, the poet portrays the impediments and obstructive forces to having a united close-knit country, one unanimously agreed upon by people with common interests; where no one tries to downplay the power of the other; where there are no pogroms; and where an oppressive block does not shove its domineering power down the throats of others.

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Achebe reflects on the realities of the Igbo, the emancipation and distinctiveness the Republic of Biafra offered the lot, and the stifling of the new nation by a Nigerian side with stronger military might.

In the first stanza of the poem, the poet persona lays bare the picture of the first emergence of Biafra; “a fine figure massively hewn in hardwood”. This first Biafra is not something the poet persona and his contemporaries witnessed; hence, his deployment of “we’re told”.

What the first Biafra looked like and what happened to it were related to his generation by the older generations. So, the beautiful hardwood hewn figure of the first Biafra is but a recollection to his generation.

In the second stanza of the poem, the poet persona reveals what happened to the first Biafra. The “voracious white ants” set upon the “fine figure” and eat it. And that marks the beginning to an end of the first Biafra. The “voracious white ants” within the context of the poem symbolise white Europeans, the British in particular, who came to exploit Africa. And we are beginning to see Biafra as the Africa before the coming of the exploitative Europeans.

Being particular, we may say it is the Igbo community before the intrusion of the European civilisation—the kind Achebe portrays in Things Fall Apart—fostered with unity, sense of belonging, collective responsibility, and a social structure that respects age and celebrates individual achievement.

The “voracious white ants” transform this beautiful culture the “fine figure” represents into “a furrowed, emptied scarecrow”. It is on record that British colonialists, for ease of administration, supplant the Igbo hierarchy with the introduction of warrant chiefs.

In the third stanza, the poet persona further accentuates the effect of the damage started by “voracious white ants”. “sun-stricken waves” come and heat it until the ant-eaten figure crashes “facedown in a million of fragments”. Hence, it is “floated gleefully away to cold shores”. And now, “cartographers alone” can mark the “coastline of that forgotten massive stance”.

The poet persona does not shy away from adumbrating how the first Biafra ends with the shipment of its heritage across shores. Also evident in this stanza is a particular reference to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade; “million of fragment … floated gleefully away to cold shores”. And now, the first Biafra is within the confines of a forgotten history; “coastline of that forgotten massive stance”.

In the fourth stanza, the poet persona introduces a revived Biafra which “in our time … came again”. Unlike the first instance of Biafra, the poet persona is a witness to this Biafra and in position to also tell the younger generation about it.

This time it came as a protest against ethnic cleansing and on a platform of war. The poet persona makes it known that the same forces are still at work: “furious wreckers emboldened by a half a millennium of conquest” are then same as “voracious white ants” that destroy the first Biafra.

The first Europeans (the Portuguese) first came to the shore of Africa in 1444 on Henry the Navigator. After over five hundred years of domineering in Africa, that they are being referred to can’t be gainsaid. Now, they are “battering on new oil dividends”.

The particular interest the European powers had in the Biafra war or Nigerian civil war bears down to their interest in the newly discovered crude oil in the Eastern parts of Nigeria or the then Biafra. Nigeria is a coinage and brainchild of colonialists — it only sounds logical for them to side it with necessary military and financial power. Biafra on the other side is African and no invention of the Europeans.

So, because of their selfish economic motives, the “furious wreckers” squeeze the new Biafra “at its black throat” of “its blood and lymph” that it becomes a sorry case of “bloated quashiorkor” – a blend of quash (defeat) and kwashiorkor (malnutrition in children).

The poet persona here is accusing the former colonial forces of being complicit in the gory Biafran/Nigerian war that lasted for three years and the plights of malnourished Biafran children because of their economic interests.

In the last stanza of the poem, the poet persona throws open a rhetorical question: “must Africa have to come a third time?” The first Biafra is interrupted by colonialism and the second Biafra by European interference (neo-colonialism).

The poet persona is particularly concerned about how African issues is decided by non-Africans.

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