Nigeria: Achebe’s There was a country, stirrring up a desirable controversy

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Nov 1st, 2012
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By Dr A. B. C Nwosu

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 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.

>>>>>>>>>>>“All that rubbish of Biafran children with ribs and swollen stomachs and the rest of it, what did you expect in a war?” – Mr Odia Ofeimun (62).>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

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 Mr. Odia Ofeimun, a diehard Awoist on Sunday October 14, 2012, (The 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 Mr. 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?” Mr. 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 Femi 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 Mr. Ofeimun, my recommendation to him is to please write his own “personal history” as Prof. Achebe has done. Mr. Ofeimun is a writer, and we all shall benefit one way or another from his book. Meanwhile, my generation is grateful to Prof. 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 Pa Obafemi 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 Biafra side, especially the over two million children who starved to death in what the Times of London in its full-page leader of 28th June 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 Pa 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 Pa 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 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 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 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). Mr. 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 (UNICEF), 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, 20 years old of Old Westbury New York, a part-time student of Columbia University, died of burns after he had set himself afire outside the United Nations 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 Prof. 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.

Fact Number Three is quintessential Achebe: He apportioned blames for the pogrom, mass starvation of innocent children and genocide. He singled out General Gowon as the Head of State/military government at the time. He singled out Chief Awolowo as the deputy chairman of the Federal Executive Council and Federal Commissioner for Finance. He singled out the British government and its Prime Minister at the time, Mr. Harold Wilson, and finally the United Nations, and its Secretary General U Thant. Achebe clearly does not subscribe to the concept of “unknown soldier”, and “unknown government officials” so as to be politically correct.

 

As expected, Achebe’s traducers and abusers have focused their attack mainly on the infamous policy that “starvation is a legitimate instrument of war”, which was very robustly defended by Pa Awolowo on behalf of the Federal Military Government. True to his honest self, Chief Awolowo admitted this and gave his justification. His 140-page book titled “Awo On The Civil War” published in 1981, reprinted 1982, by John West Publishers, Ikeja told his story. This book also contains the verbatim report of the two-day meeting in Enugu in 1967 between Lt.-Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu and Chief Awolowo leading the National Conciliation Committee comprising Prof. Aluko, Chief Mariere and Chief Onyia. Achebe’s abusers should please read this book to know who said precisely what at the Enugu meeting.

With regard to the explosive policy of “starvation as a weapon of war”, more damaging evidence abound especially from non-Nigerian writers. I shall quote one of these in full.

Mr. John de St. Jorre, Oxford-educated and author of “The Brothers War: Biafra And Nigeria” (1972) was explicit. He wrote on pages 243 and 244: “In the federal camp the Hardliners, who included some of the leading soldiers, politicians (Notably Awolowo) and many of the top civil servants who were concerned about the internationalisation and cost of the war, advocated the Quick Kill. For them, starvation was a legitimate weapon of war and Awolowo defended the concept publicly”. He continued: “The moderates of the federal side notably Gowon thought differently. For as Gowon often said, the war was not against innocent Igbo masses but was designed to win them back to the federal side. Nourishing their bodies was one way of retrieving their hearts and minds and it consistently featured in Gowon’s thinking and actions”.

 

These comments are from John de St. Jorre, not Achebe. Others abound. The books are freely available in Nigerian bookstores. Expectedly Frederick Forsyth’s book: The Biafra Story, also treated this issue exhaustively in Chapter 11, pages 194 to 241. Achebe’s traducers should deal with the evidence and not resort to abuse.

Achebe and Ndigbo do not hate Pa Awolowo as a person. It is noteworthy that Ndigbo and Biafrans do not attack Pa Awolowo for the swift change of the Nigerian currency. What they quarrel with is Chief Awolowo’s robust defence of the Federal Military Government’s inhuman policy of mass starvation as a result of which millions of Biafran children died.

 

Ndigbo also quarrel with Pa Awolowo and the Federal Government’s policy in 1970 of expropriating Igbo funds lodged in Nigerian banks (after the war of unity had been won and lost) in exchange for the “ex-gratia” award of 20 pounds for each Igbo person who could authenticate his account, no matter the sum in that account. I must emphasise that this “ex-gratia award” was not for every Igbo person who survived but only for those who had bank accounts. Ndigbo lost so much money by this inhuman policy, through which Nigeria saved an enormous amount of money. For Ndigbo, it did not make any sense for Nigeria to further savage Biafra by this 1970 inhuman policy, while at the same time announcing to the world a so-called “Marshall plan type agenda of the 3 Rs”. Ndigbo are intrigued by Pa Awolowo’s defence that he merely approved the recommendations of committees set up on this matter. He was the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council and Federal Commissioner of Finance. The buck on matters of finance stopped on his table on their way to council. Ndigbo believe that the policies of starvation and 20 pounds “award” (not full payment of one’s legitimate savings) could not have been the handiwork of Igbophilic Nigerians. So much for these.

 

Fact Number Four is very closely related to and intertwined with the starvation agenda of the Federal Military Government at the time. It concerns the Relief Politics. On this subject, there is also a surfeit of evidence. It is a well-documented fact that the Federal Military Government, the International Committee on the Red Cross (ICRC) and other relief agencies played a cat and mouse game over the ferrying of food to the starving children of Biafra.

It is also a fact that a Nigerian MIG fighter shot down a Red Cross DC-7 aircraft carrying tons of food from Fernando Po to Biafra’s starving children. All crew members (foreigners) died. The aircraft did not carry any arms, simply food supplies.

 

With regard to relief corridors, the literature is again replete with evidence as to who did what. Achebe’s traducers should read “Biafra: A Facts on File Publication” edited by Peter Schwab: War Of Nigerian Unity, by Sir Rex Niven, and Mr. Kirk-Greene’s two volumes of “Crisis And Conflict In Nigeria”. It will be obvious that both sides had serious reservations and objections to routes proposed by the other being used to military advantage. Certainly, Nigeria flatly rejected third-party guarantees along the proposed corridor as demanded by Biafra; and used its diplomatic and military advantages to frustrate the issue of relief corridor.

 

For Femi Fani-Kayode, Odia Ofeimun and shockingly Alhaji Femi Okunnu to suggest that Biafra rejected a relief corridor so as to use pictures of starving children for propaganda purposes is extremely wicked of them. Their view is sick and twisted. Nigerians are better than this. Nigerians are not this inhuman and can all work together to build a caring society.

 

To these sick and twisted minds, I say that Ndigbo abhor the shedding of blood and love their children dearly. Ndigbo have a strong sense of family and loved ones, and the starvation of the children of Biafra is a very sore point with them especially in a “Civil” war designed to unite the country. The starvation of innocent children was most painful and Achebe has soothed our pains by letting it out. \

To the poet, Ofeimun, who insists that we should be held responsible for our starving children because we declared “a sovereign state of Biafra”

without formidable arms, I wish to refer him to another poet Claude McKay (1891 to 1948) and his poem titled: “If We Must Die”. A few lines will suffice:

“If we must die, let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot

While around us bark the mad and hungry dogs

Making their mock………………”.

The circumstances that induced Claude McKays poem were less tragic and horrid than those that led to the declaration of Biafra.

Fact Number Five concerns the acquiescence and the deafening silence of our compatriots, neighbours and friends as the pogrom and genocide unfolded. What can we really say on this? Except to express our amazement and our pain as close confidants, workmates, schoolmates, boyfriends and girlfriends, watched silently, said nothing, did nothing as we were hounded out of Nigeria. I concede that our friends and sympathisers may have been powerless to do something. Therefore, to those like Dr. Tai Solarin and Prof. Soyinka and others who did something, we remain thankful. Perhaps if our friends and sympathisers had found their collective voice, the war may have been averted especially after Aburi and Nigeria may have been a better country by now. We will never know.

Fact Number Six is the infamous role of the British Government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Achebe has called him a “villain” and we should let the matter rest, except to remind ourselves that it was Britain that choreographed the pogrom, arms supplies and diplomatic cum economic blockade that frustrated relief supplies to Biafra’s starving children. Prominent Biafrans like Sir Francis Akanu Ibiam renounced his British Knighthood. Dick “Tiger” Ihetu, Africa’s most celebrated boxer to date, renounced his Queens honour. Need we say more?

Fact Number Seven concerns post civil war neglect and marginalisation of Ndigbo and the South-East geo-political zone of Nigeria, and Achebe’s insistence that the neglect persists till today. The evidence on this is weighty and again in Achebe’s favour. Indeed, the well-recorded persistent and unrelenting struggle by the leaders of the South-East in the past two decades to redress their marginalisation in Nigeria, and the current agitation for a sixth state in the zone so as to achieve parity with other zones bear out Achebe’s assertion. Given the economic and political disadvantages of this matter of sixth State in the South-East, Achebe is very right.

I have a most interesting pamphlet by Major-General Phillip Effiong (who signed the Biafra surrender document) titled “Rehabilitation: True or False?”. The pamphlet included Effiong’s detailed letter to the Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, submitted through General Olusegun Obasanjo. The letter addressed matters like relief supplies to survivors; security of lives and property; post-war rehabilitation; the 20 pounds “ex-gratia” award; re-absorption of civil servants; absorption and/or demobilisation of ex-Biafran armed forces personnel, among others. True to his honesty and character, General Gowon commented on the margins of the letter and signed his comments dated January 19, 1970 (19.1.70.) The letter and comments speak for themselves.

In conclusion, let me reiterate that Achebe’s book, Truths, Warts and All, is a very serious book that tells his story of the Civil War. I believe that it has not been an easy book for Achebe to write because he spent over 40 years to reflect on it. Don Burness, one of the reviewers of the book, states that “one senses that this has been a painful book to write and that is why it has taken Achebe so long to write it”. In writing the book, Achebe has discharged his duty to self and community. When the present frenzy subsides, it is my expectation that Nigerians will evaluate dispassionately what Achebe has written because it is precisely how most Ndigbo feel on the subject of the Civil War. It is also my expectation that since Nigeria has trivialised its “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (Oputa Commission), Achebe’s latest book on Biafra may provide us with an opportunity for national healing. Nigeria needs to come to terms with its past. Nigeria needs a soul to transform effectively into a nation. As the poet, Khalil Gibran, writes: “Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.” “Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero.”

“Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.”

“Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”

abc nwosu

— By Prof. Nwosu [pictured] is Ex. Minister of Health, Fed Republic of Nigeria.

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