As “Civil Peace” is set in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War, it is almost essential that a reader understand that context to truly appreciate the story.
Historical Context of the Story
Nigeria, a former British colony, won its independence in 1960 and began creating a parliamentary democracy. The political landscape revolved around three major ethnic groups: the Muslim Hausa and Fulani of the North, the Muslim and Christian Yoruba of the Southwest, and the Christian and Animist Igbo of the Southeast. The cultural distinctions were significant – and as is the case with many African nations, the boundaries of the country reflected only colonial interests and not those of the people. In other words, people extremely different from one another had been forced to identify themselves as part of the same country.
The tension between Northern and Southeastern Parts of Nigeria
Tension built between the populous North and the Southeast, where Nigeria’s most profitable export, oil, was located. In January of 1966, a group of Southeastern army officers overthrew the Nigerian parliament, abolished the constitution, and instated a military government. In July of the same year, a counter-coup installed a dictatorship of Northern military personnel who began to violently oppress the Igbo people. An estimated 30,000 Igbos were killed, and roughly 1 million living in the North and Southwest became refugees as they fled back to their ancestral homes in the Southeast (Philips).
Despite the many notes of optimism that ring throughout the story, a darker undercurrent runs through it, which is discernible from the very first paragraph. When the narration enumerates Jonathans most important blessings as the lives of three of his four children, no regret for the little boy who was lost is evident. In the second paragraph, the narrative style turns even grimmer as the boy is obliquely compared to the bicycle, which Jonathan buried during the war ”in the little clearing in the bush where the dead of the camp, including his own youngest son, were buried. After the war had ended, the bicycle is metaphorically and physically brought back from the dead, becoming a miracle,” but the boy is never mentioned again. Another dark note is tacitly raised by the Iwegbu children’s mango-selling business. They collect the fruit near the military cemetery, and with this minor detail, the narration implies that any present success of Nigeria will be based only upon the deaths of those who suffered during the war.
Sympathize with his loss, Jonathan displays composure. He has neither the inclination, nor the time, to share their regret. Significantly, as they are speaking their words of commiseration, Jonathan has mentally and physically already moved on. ‘I count it as nothing,’ he told his sympathizers, his eyes on the rope he was tying. (Achebe). His eyes are fixed on the future the rope that represents the earnings that will come his way through his hard work and that of his family. Also significantly, Jonathan imputes no blame on his neighbors.
Hidden violence in Civil Peace
Though rarely referenced directly, an undercurrent of violence runs through the story “Civil Peace”. This violence is hidden and never fully described or witnessed. Overall, the use of violence parallels the way Jonathan has learned to ignore the violence of the past in order to move forward.
This theme is ever-present. The death of Jonathan’s son is only briefly alluded to, and Jonathan is able to bury and recover his bicycle from the burial ground, seemingly without much emotional grief. Later, in the capital, Jonathan’s surviving children pick fruit by a cemetery, another oblique reminder of the war’s carnage. And finally, the violence of the climactic robbery always remains unseen, reminding the family and the reader that ever-present, impending violence can often be as threatening as explicit and direct violence can be.
Diction for the Portrayal of Violence
“That night he buried it in the little clearing in the bush where the dead of the camp, including his own youngest son, were buried. “Narrator. The only explicit reference to Jonathan’s deceased child in “Civil Peace” is buried in an anecdote about the near-theft of a bicycle. This passage is present in the anecdote. Instead of emphasizing grief, the language is active, detailing the decision Jonathan makes in order to move forward. The death here is not, as might be expected, an anecdote of its own, but simply serves as a marker in the scenery of another story, one about progress rather than reflection. This approach is representative of the way violence is portrayed throughout “Civil Peace”; it serves a subtext, always present but rarely directly referenced. And further, it establishes the reason Jonathan prefers a perspective of that sort: it allows him to succeed.
No Civil War, No Civil Peace
“No Civil War again. This time na Civil Peace. No be so?” Thief Leader
This passage, spoken by the thief leader, not only gives the story its title but also underlines its central irony. The aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War is neither peaceful nor civil. The threat of violence lurks throughout, despite Jonathan’s positive outlook: a man is robbed of his money outside a government building, and thieves roam residential neighborhoods robbing and potentially assaulting families. The barrier between Jonathan and the violence of the Civil War is thin, both literally and figuratively – the thief’s knocking threatens to tear down the door, and Jonathan finds his family completely unprotected by society. In this way the ‘Civil Peace’ is not completely different from the Civil War. All of the story’s questions about personal responsibility are framed by the danger implied in this ironic phrase.
The Main Situational Conflict in the Story
The main situational conflict in “Civil Peace” is the condition of destruction and lawlessness that exists in Nigeria as a result of colonialism and the Nigerian Civil War. Jonathan Iwegbu faces hardship with hard work and a positive outlook, however. Although his house has been damaged in the fighting, it is still standing, and Jonathan thankfully has it repaired. His whole family chips in to rebuild their lives in whatever way they can – Jonathan’s children pick mangoes, his wife makes items to sell, and when Jonathan himself is denied his old job in the coal mines, he opens a bar for soldiers out of his home. There is extra help also from the government, which gives each family a cash payment of 20 pounds in exchange for their Biafran currency.
The Windfall Opens the Door for Conflict
This windfall opens the door for the immediate conflict in the story, which is heralded by the arrival of robbers at Jonathan’s house. The robbers demand Jonathan’s money, and he can get help against them neither from his neighbors nor the law. Jonathan gives them the money, and continues on the next day with his optimism and resolve intact. He reasons that he has little to complain about since a day earlier he did not have the extra 20 pounds anyway, and he continues to toil away to rebuild a life for himself and his family in the face of whatever adversity may come their way.
The Thematic Conflict in “Civil Peace”
“He had come out of the war with five inestimable blessings–his head, his wife Maria’s head, and the heads of three out of their four children.” Narrator. An early sentence, this passage reflects the thematic conflict of the story, between Jonathan’s optimism and the war-torn world around him. He succeeds largely because he is able to focus only on the former. The sentence structure here focuses on the surviving family members and introduces the death of Jonathan’s son only indirectly. Though the death of Jonathan’s son represents his most devastating loss, it remains relatively hidden throughout “Civil Peace”. It is only mentioned once more, almost incidentally, when the narrator describes the place Jonathan buried his bike. However, the survival of the remaining family members is mentioned several more times, highlighting the story’s emphasis on “blessings” instead of losses. The horrors of the Civil War remain a dark undercurrent but never overwhelm Jonathan’s constructive and hopeful approach to life. In this way, he is a model, both for other individuals and for struggling governments.
That a reader can find both optimistic and pessimistic, both earnest and cynical, messages within the text of a story as brief as ”Civil Peace” should come as a little surprise. The instability of a post-war period may easily engender ambiguity within all aspects of society and generate vastly different responses from those who live through it. Jonathan Iwegbu and the energetic hope with which he approaches the reconstruction of his life, combined with the undercurrent of insecurity inherent in Nigeria, represent a wide gamut of that country’s experience. In a 1969 interview, Achebe declared,
“I believe it’s impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, and some kind of protest.”
“Civil Peace” is Achebe’s protest against the anguish the Nigerian civil war has brought and his message of brighter hopes for the future. What it seems the author wants his audience to understand is the basic concept of human nature, while a person’s culture certainly has an effect on his upbringing, people do not become who they are solely because of their culture or race. People are shaped by various influences and their perceptions of such.