by Major General Alexander Madiebo
Many people have been commenting on Professor Chinua Achebe’s comment on Chief Obafemi Awolowo in his book, There was a Country. What Achebe said, as I told some people, in all aspects, is correct. In fact, I went further to say that if I am to give my own account of the war and Awolowo’s role, I would even have said more.
But that is as far as I can go. I do not want to draw attention on Achebe’s book to myself. This is because I haven’t written any book and I do not want to steal the show or act for Achebe. Achebe is well qualified to defend himself but one thing you notice is that, of all the people who have been criticising Achebe, no one had said what he said was wrong. If there is anybody who has said that, then I have not been able to read or hear it. Nobody is saying that Awolowo did not give the Igbo £20 at the end of the war; that he did not starve the Igbo during the war, and all that Achebe had to say. This is because what he (Achebe) said are true. Awolowo’s people agreed that he had to do them to win the war. So, what is the bone of contention? There is no basis for controversy because one person has given the facts, and the other person is trying to justify the facts. They are all entitled to that. Now, I have more. I keep a lot of documents and materials on the war and the participants. If I had to write my own, I might not even mention any of the things that Achebe said. I mean, he has written as a civilian and I will write as a soldier. What he said are all correct and everybody agrees, I mean all the tribes.
The question now is, is he justified to do those things just to win a war. That is for anybody to answer.
One of his followers, Chief Ayo Adebanjo, said that food supply was stopped because the soldiers hijacked the food being sent to the East and didn’t allow it to get to the people.
Obviously, that is a talk of an idle civilian. How can you be giving food to soldiers? I was commanding the Army throughout the war. For the first two months, we had no problem of food. As far as I know, throughout the war, Nigeria did not give food to any warfront or any part under the control of Biafra. This is common sense. The only thing was that we had the support from the Caritas (it is a church organisation) and the Red Cross. I think Caritas is based in Rome. It is a very big relief organisation. To get food from them, their flight only came in the night and completely under bombardment by the Nigerian command to prevent the food from coming in. He said he was giving Biafrans food. If I were a Nigerian, I won’t give Biafrans food. We did not have the means to hijack food coming, with the sophisticated planes from Nigeria. How could we have hijacked them with helicopters? The point is that, officially, unofficially or in any way, Biafra got no food from Nigeria at all.
There was a brief period when we benefitted from Nigerian food by accident. It was when Biafran troops cleared Owerri and cut off a lot of Nigerian soldiers. The Nigerian Army started dropping food for their soldiers inside Owerri. Obviously, we discovered that what they were doing was that they asked their soldiers to spread white clothes in the areas where they were and they would drop food for them. The Biafran soldiers cleared other areas and spread white clothes and they were dropping food for them mistakenly. They soon found out. They didn’t at any time during the war give Biafrans food. If they captured any part of the original Biafra, they had to feed the people there, but not Biafrans.
The agitation for a Biafran nation is still ongoing in some quarters. Frankly, if one wants to be realistic, you cannot achieve Biafra again as we used to know it. First of all, the old Biafra presently consists of eight or nine states. There are five in Igboland and four in the South-South. I am just saying this off hand. There are about eight states now made up of the old Biafra. How on earth are you going to start reuniting all these people who have enjoyed a lot of progress and have seen the fruit of local independence? How can you join them again under one state? It is not possible. It is not necessarily the political independence of about eight or nine states. They cannot lump themselves together again.
Biafra stands for justice. People who are agitating for Biafra are, in fact, agitating for justice. They are agitating for an end to the marginalisation of a certain part of Nigeria.
Chief Uwazuruike who is pursuing the project in a way, is useful to the Igbo. It is not useful to the extent of getting independence for the Igbo. He is the only pressure group now the Igbo have to let the rest of Nigeria know what our problems are. In fact, there was a time that I would say he achieved more than all the South-East (Nigerian) governments put together. Under these governments everybody is trying to get maximum benefit for himself and his family and not for the Igbo really. After the war, the Igbo who joined political parties were just the second fiddle, not hoping to achieve more than satisfying their families. Under Abacha, an Igbo man, Kalu, formed ‘ Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha, to have Abacha there permanently, not an Igbo man. Abacha was not an Igbo man. Nobody has the ambition of reuniting the Igbo. They just became nuisance in a way, individually.
But now, people are beginning to realise that you don’t achieve much by trying to shine in the midst of poverty. The Igbo are uniting again.
Why was I not promoted when Gowon and Unegbu were promoted? I don’t know.
People are asking why Professor Achebe is reliving the civil war issues after over 40 years. They believe we should not be looking at what divided us in the past but for something that will unite us.
That is the point. The issue of the civil war or Biafra is not coming back. One single person wrote a book. I haven’t read the book. All I know about the book is what I have read in the newspapers or from different journalists. I am not aware that the issue of Biafra is coming up again except that Achebe wrote his memoirs. Nobody talked about many other things he wrote but only about Awolowo. As if he wrote about only Awolowo. Maybe, he did, I don’t know. But I understand that he wrote a book called ‘There was a country, Biafra’. Which is true. When Ojukwu died, he was buried as a General and Head of State. His coffin was carried by Generals. In fact, it was the first burial that looked like a Head of State’s in the history of Nigeria. Ex-Heads of State came, those who recognised Biafra. Nigeria was, indeed, trying to recognise that there was a country.
What are we arguing about? If somebody says it, he gets into trouble. If he went beyond it and said that Awolowo did this or that, he gets into trouble. He just said the truth but it is left for people to justify if Awolowo did it because he wanted to win the war. In fact, there were other things Awolowo may have done which are part of his job. This is the way I look at it. I don’t think there is any need for controversy over it. If somebody had said that Awolowo never gave the Igbo £20 after the war or that he didn’t change currency during the war, then I would start wondering whether I had forgotten. But nobody has said that. All they are saying is that he did this purely to succeed in his job. He was given a job. Whether he did it in order to punish the Igbo, I don’t know. After all, he never consulted the Yoruba for any decision he took. He was acting as an individual, not as a Yorubaman, but as a Minister or Commissioner of Finance. It has nothing to do with his tribe. Why should his tribe be angry if he took wrong decisions or if he showed any overzealousness in anything he did? After all, there were other things credited to him. To start revealing those things now would obviously try to draw blood. I know that if at any time that there was anything necessary to say, that would be in my own memoirs. I am not going to support somebody else’s book. Supporting a book that you have not read, one must be carefully moderated. What I am saying is that, as far as I am concerned, everything already credited to him by Achebe are absolutely correct.
As a commander during the war, you were familiar with every section of Biafra and, perhaps, Nigeria. Was Bakassi within the geographical zone of Nigeria? Bakassi is an example of the evils of inter-tribal politics, evil of colonialism and of North-South dichotomy. If I tell the story of Bakassi, it may take too long but we started losing Bakassi in 1959. That was when we lost South -West Cameroun. You know South-West Cameroun is Adamawa in the North and Barmanda in the South. They were part of Nigeria because the League of Nations after the Second World War shared Cameroun into two. It belonged to Germany. It gave the East to France and the West to Britain. Britain then shared its own into two, administered the North as Adamawa Province with the Northern Nigeria and the South with Eastern Nigeria. In 1959, most colonies were to get independence and the British thought of what to do with this Western Cameroun being administered by Britain under Nigeria. Britain decided to give the Southern Cameroun back to France and the Northern one, Adamawa to Nigeria. Do you know why? Britain was adjusting population so that the North should have overall majority in Lagos. I took part in the United Nations plebiscite which was to decide who goes where. I was the only Nigerian indigenous officer that took part in that exercise. The British realised that South-West Cameroun under Hendeley was NCNC. That was why they called it National Council for Nigeria and Cameroun (NCNC). They had 14 seats in Nigeria in the Eastern Region and one seat at the centre. That seat at the centre was won by Hendeley and he became Minister of Labour. Hendeley won 13 of the14 seats in Enugu. Funcher was being used by the British to remove Cameroun from Nigeria. Funcher won only one seat, yet when the plebiscite came, he defeated Hendeley who had 13 seats. It was possible because Sardauna and Awolowo saw it as an opportunity to reduce the representation of the NCNC both in Lagos and in the East. You know this is shortsightedness. I won’t dwell much on that, so eventually we lost that. Having lost that part of Cameroun, Britain and Nigeria were rejoicing that NCNC’s wing had been clipped. They didn’t realise that after losing it they had given the North over 52 per cent representation over the South. They didn’t need anybody in the South to rule Nigeria. That was the beginning of the end. When the civil war came, having taken that part of the Cameroun, they were too happy to bother about demarcating the area. We decided to bring all our weapons from the Cameroun. Ahidjo, the president of Cameroun said he didn’t know where the boundary was, so we should carry on. He was blackmailing Nigeria. If that place had remained open, Nigeria would have defeated Biafra, but it would have taken about 10 to 15 years.
Gowon told Ahidjo to select the boundary and close it after the war, ‘we shall discuss’. Ahidjo said, okay thank you sir. Ahidjo then went and told Biafra enough is enough. He marked the boundary and policed it. Eventually, we lost the war. At the end, Nigeria went back and said that was not the boundary. Ahidjo reminded Gowon that he told them to mark the boundary. ‘‘We marked the boundary, you won the war forget it’’. Ahidjo, being a Fulani, each time he wanted to discuss the Nigerian border with Cameroun, he might even go to Sokoto and speak in vernacular. Journalists wouldn’t even know what they were saying. That was how they took Bakassi. We tried from 1972, they started enforcing it with soldiers. People would say you can’t eat your cake and have it; you sacrificed Bakassi for Biafra. If you say take what you want, we want Biafra, you have got Biafra, so you have lost Bakassi. It is unfortunate that they are our brothers. My troops were there and, if we are to be truthful, that place is Nigeria. But if you have in anyway given it to them, let them have it.
It is now over 40 years since the civil war ended, have the Igbo have been reintegrated into the polity? I’d say reintegration of the Igbo has been a slow process. You can never reintegrate the Igbo fully as it used to be before the war. Now the Army was completely against the reintegration of the Igbo into the Nigerian society because of selfishness. The soldiers thought that if Igbo officers came back, they (Nigerian soldiers) would be relegated to the background because Igbo officers were, on the whole, senior to all of them. This is because after independence, most of the senior officers were Igbo. So, reintegration did not start at all until the military regime stopped, probably with the exit of Obasanjo. Now, since then, we have had some progress. For instance, for the first time, we are having Chief of Army Staff as an Igbo man. The Igbo are getting attention in various senses, both in politics and in other ways, but there is a long way to go. There are people who are determined that the more you draw the Igbo into the society, the more they are threatened. I have the details of the reintegration of the Igbo but I can’t give you all. What I am merely trying to tell you as briefly as possible is that the Igbo have not been fully reintegrated into Nigeria.
Major General Alexander Madiebo was a war commander of the Biafran Army during the civil war otherwise known as the Biafran War. Excerpts from his interview with National Mirror