Nigeria: Achebe Stirring Up A Desirable Controversy
Prof. Chinua Achebe’s latest book titled, There was a country: A personal history of Biafra”, has expectedly stirred up an important but desirable controversy, notably from the disciples of the late Pa Obafemi Awolowo. This was predictable. Achebe, true to his character, will be unfazed by the insults and abuses, but will welcome criticisms. A writer of his stature should be used to all these.
In my view, the controversy, including the orgy of abuse is desirable because it brings out into the public domain, bottled-up and vile ethnic prejudices. In my view also, it is preferable for such prejudices to be aired rather for them to remain and fester in the innermost recesses of ethnic minds, to be secretly whispered around from door to door, neighbour to neighbour and passed on from generation to generation. Closet ethnicism, to me, is very dangerous and militates against nation-building.
There are many who believe that certain things are best not said at this time. I disagree. It is best for these things to be said so that brethren and compatriots will be aware of what others truly think of them. Therefore, let the criticisms, insults and even abuse continue to come out into the open so we can better understand ourselves as individuals, and as micro-nations within the macro-nation Nigeria.
Three write-ups and interviews, one by Ayo Turton, the national legal counsel to Egbe Omo Yoruba U.S.A and Canada, posted on October 11, 2012 (Sahara Reporters), the second by, (T Mr. Odia Ofeimun, a diehard Awoist on Sunday, October 14, 2012he Guardian) and the third by Alhaji Femi Okunnu on Monday, October 15, 2012 (Tribune) engaged my attention. I was particularly shocked by the anger and language of Ofeimun who said: “All that rubbish of children with ribs and swollen stomachs and the rest of it, what did you expect in a war?” Ofeimun has three more shockers from me. One, “If Awolowo did not say that starvation is a weapon of war, he needed to have said so because it is a weapon of war”. Two, “Many of the children who died in Biafra died because their leaders took stupid decisions”. Three, “True, all the Igbo killed in the pogroms in the North are Nigerians, and their families needed to grieve and mourn, but if you want to grieve and mourn, do you slaughter the next generation of your family?” Alhaji Okunnu, who is about the same age as Achebe, says that “It is Ojukwu who used starvation as a weapon of war”. These quotes speak for themselves and I shall not respond to them.
Given the kind of vitriol spewed by Ofeimun, my recommendation to him is to please write his own “personal history” as Achebe has done. Ofeimun is a writer, and we all shall benefit one way or another from his book. Meanwhile, my generation is grateful to Achebe for writing his book on Biafra because to us, it offers an opportunity for national conversation and catharsis, a kind of cleansing and purging of the Nigerian soul of the evil of pogrom, genocide and mass-starvation to death of millions of innocent Biafran children in a “war of unity”.
At this stage, it is important for me to point out to Achebe’s traducers and abusers that his latest book is not about Awolowo. It is not about General Yakubu Gowon either. The book, as the title clearly states, is about Biafra and Achebe’s “Personal Account” of what transpired. Achebe was careful and thoughtful to state that it was a “personal history”. The book (333 pages) is about the events, the principal actors, the victims, those that died on the Biafran side, especially the over two million children who starved to death in what the Times of London in its full-page leader of June 28,1968 described as a “Policy of Famine”. It is also about those Biafrans who survived, for some of whom the trauma persists till date. Achebe, who was present in Biafra to the end, owed us, a duty to write his story. Others, including his critics should write their own stories. We have a right to know what happened.
Chief Ebenezer Babatope has observed correctly that Achebe’s views on Pa Awolowo (and other Nigerian leaders) were lucidly stated as far back as 1983, in his angry booklet titled “The Trouble With Nigeria”. In that book, Achebe took very serious swipes at Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and had kind words only for Mallam Aminu Kano. Achebe wrote this book in 1983, almost 30 years ago, so what is new about his views on Awolowo?
There are several facts, which stand out in Achebe’s latest book. I shall dwell on seven of these facts in this write-up. Before I do this, let me point out that enormous literature exists on the subject of the Nigerian Civil War, or the Nigeria-Biafra War, if you choose. Indeed, archival materials and pictures have found and are still finding their way to various internet outlets. Continuing to ignore the subject or clinging to the position that certain things are best left unsaid is playing the ostrich and it amounts to self-deception.
Fact Number One is that there was pogrom, genocide and mass starvation of innocent children directed against Ndigbo in Nigeria in 1966 and from 1967-1970. The celebrated writer, Frederick Forsyth, devoted an entire chapter (pages 257 to 271) to this vexed issue. A writer of Achebe’s stature cannot, therefore, ignore this fact. One of the duties of a writer is to tell the truth, especially inconvenient truths. This is also what is expected of an Nze in the Igbo society. And these are precisely two obligations that Achebe has discharged by writing his latest book.
Lest we forget, haunting pictures of Biafra’s starving innocent children abound on the internet; they are also there on the front page of LIFE magazine of July 12, 1968 titled: “Starving Children of Biafra War” (pages 20 – 29). Ditto LIFE magazine of 23, 1968 (pages 50 – 52). The late Steve Jobs, co-founder of APPLE Computer Company, renounced Christianity indignant over the matter of Biafra’s starving children.
By September 4, 1968, a massive airlift of starving innocent Biafran children to Sao Tome was initiated by Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Relief Agency. This was followed on October 31 of same year by similar airlift of the starving children to Albert Schweitzer Hospital at Lambarene, Gabon on the initiative of the daughter of the late Nobel Peace Laureate, Dr. Albert Schweitzer. A statement issued in late 1968 jointly by United Nations Children’s Fund, the World Council of Churches, and Caritas Internationalis was clear that Biafra was its biggest emergency since World War II. And yet ours was a civil war, a brother’s war, a war of unity!
And in case we have forgotten, Mr. Bruce Mayrock, a 20-year-old from Westbury, New York, a part-time student of Columbia University, died of burns after he had set himself afire outside the UN Headquarters with a sign that read: “You must stop genocide – please save nine million Biafrans”. We shall not say more?
Fact Number Two is that anyone who was in Biafra, that is at the receiving end of the pogrom and genocide, and lost loved ones in those days of starvation of children, and bombing and strafing of churches, hospitals and markets, carries a big emotional scar of those horrific days. This includes Achebe as is evident from his account of why, when and how he fled Lagos, and his account of the war. To trivialise Achebe’s story, the Biafran story, our story, is wrong and it hurts. To trivialise pogrom and genocide and mass starvation of innocent children is wrong. Genocide dirties the soul and diminishes a nation. Achebe has simply told our story fearlessly and truthfully. We have waited for this book and Achebe has not disappointed us. May God bless him. Others should tell their own stories. And may all Nigerians learn lessons from the past so that we can build a more caring society.
by A.B.C Nwosu
Culled From UNCH