I write in memory of silence. In deep veneration for all those whose bones still lay beneath the sands long after the booms of the guns and clanging of bayonets had ceased.
This is the first time I will be writing a line about Biafra; a subject whose victims. I hold in utmost reverence.
In my solemn odyssey through time and deep introspection, I have asked again and again, should we be writing about this tragedy now? This pogrom called Nigeria civil war, worse still, personalising this horror inspiring episode.
But then a historian or any writer at that lives for his write choice. And he has a right to write when he chooses. And so Chinua Achebe, a professor and undoubted genius chose to write “There was a Country, A Personal History of Biafra”
I have called Achebe here a genius considering that he was less than 30 years of age when he wrote his epic and indeed timeless novel, Things Fall Apart with a language and poetry of an 80 year old sage.
Now, let me make a candid confession. I have not read Achebe’s most controversial book yet. But an excerpt from the book has stirred the soul of Yoruba nation, if not Nigeria. Achebe accused late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Yoruba’s most revered political icon of masterminding the policy of starvation of the Ibos during the Nigeria civil war. Awo as he was called was the Federal Commissioner for Finance and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council. I would however urge Awo’s fans and foes alike to sheathe their swords as Achebe’s literary hypothesis is personal and with candour he said so on the cover as the title suggests. It is his right. But because Achebe seemed to have over exercised his own right and freedom of expression by infringing on other people’s rights, he unwittingly laid his own freedom on the slaughter slab and invites us to have a say. I will have mine.
First, while I respect the genius of Achebe’s literary art, I will find it difficult to believe anything he says or writes about Biafra because he has shown that his awesome intellectual capacity is blurred by emotions if the theme of a discourse is Biafra. Otherwise, how could he single Awo out for the hammer over the collective policy of a federal government in a war to block the sea and land routes and change the currency of the country to weaken their enemy and quickly win the war. If anyone has to be blamed for the starvation of children in Biafra and that is, if all is not fair in war, then General Gowon is the man. I say so because the buck stops at his desk. And he is the one that defeated the Biafrans led by Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. He is the man that won the war. He takes all the glory. Certainly not Awo.
Achebe had shown his disdain for Awo when this man of uncommon sagacity passed on on May 2, 1987. In the defunct Thisweek magazine of June 15,1987, while Nigerians and African political maestri poured encomiums on Awo, Achebe chose to insult the dead. In a rather insipid piece he titled the Apotheosis of Awolowo, Achebe wrote, “Chief Awolowo was a great Nigerian leader in so far as he was a Nigerian and a leader. But his contribution to Nigerian public affairs of the last 40years did not qualify him as a great national leader…… to turn the burial of a tribal leader to a state funeral with invitations to foreign countries is both absurd and unacceptable”. But the novelist and poet was not done yet. His words got more pungent and caustic. “It is in the light of this simple fact that the decision of the federal government to accord the status of a Head of State to him in death should be seen as no less than a national swindle” As a parting short, the former professor of English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka summarised, “Despite the clowning circus of ex-politicians and would –be politicians in Ikenne in recent weeks, there is no doubt that serious minded Nigerians are highly critical or even contemptuous of the expensive hocus-pocus which is now being staged in their name”.
The question I asked after digesting Achebe’s article then was, If late Chief Joseph Tarka, a politician from the middle belt, a light weight political figure, could be given a state burial, how is it that Awo, one of the founding fathers of the Nigerian state, could be adjudged by Achebe to be undeserving of same recognition. To say that this great author’s view is jaundiced in this case is to put it mildly.
And it is important to note that I have not exonerated Awolowo from the pogrom in Biafra. Even Awo did not proclaim his innocence. In his response to this burning question, he said in an unambiguous language that Nigeria was sending food to Biafra but that the Biafrian soldiers often lay ambush for the cars carrying relief materials and consequently prevented the foods from getting to the civilian target. Then he added tersely, “where was it ever recorded that armies fed their attackers in the course of a war? Even Bernard Shaw’s Chocolate Soldier could not have done that”
In any case, if Awolowo played such a morbid role in the course of the war, Ojukwu, the head of Biafra, would not have described him as “the best President Nigeria never had” on hearing the news of his demise. When some jesters tried to misinterpret Ojukwu’s statement, claiming it was a sarcasm, the Ikemba came out to clear the air by stating that what he said in simple language was that Awo would have been Nigeria’s best president.
But Achebe’s book at least, has been made more popular in Nigeria with the few lines on Awo. I doubt it would be visited with the same noise if General Yakubu Gowon was the one he accused of being the brain behind the policy of starvation that led to the horror called kwashiokor. This explains why all the jangling discords of intellectual sounds have revolved around the Yoruba sage.
In all, I think strongly that Achebe should have researched more on Awo’s role in the Nigeria civil war rather than just air the narrow acoustics of hate for Awo by many Ibos with lame knowledge of the Biafrian story. If the great writer peeped deeply through the carapace of rumours that often blur or totally shield the real story, he would have found out that Awo, probably more than any Nigerian, living or dead, did more to avert the civil war.
Awolowo it was who led the National Conciliation Committee (NCC) that included Chief J.I.C Onyia, Jereton Mariere and Professor Samuel Aluko to Enugu to see Ojukwu on May 6, 1967. The object of their mission was to persuade Ojukwu to drop his belligerent disposition and embrace dialogue through sending a delegation to attend the peace conference in Lagos.
Despite Awolowo’s patience and strong words of persuasion, Ojukwu’s final words left him helpless. Hear the Ikemba, “On the specific question of whether there is a possibility of contact with the North, the answer is at the battlefields”.
Even as hot headed Northern young soldiers that included Murtala Mohammed threatened to kill him for demanding the evacuation of Northern soldiers from the west in his quest to bring about peace, Awolowo remained undaunted. Here was a man who only left Calabar prison on August 3, 1967 and barely survived his prison ordeal because of the justice of his noble and imperishable cause. He threw himself into the battle to find a confluence of hope between the North and the East in a rendezvous of peace in Nigeria.
But the man who was from the East, the Right Honourable Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was, in fact, Biafra’s Peace Envoy, in the heat of the looming war, disappeared unceremoniously in the name of a medical check – up in London.
Awo stayed. He fought relentlessly to stop the war because he knew that the price of peace is so cheap though the likes of Ojukwu couldn’t afford it. He had to accept, at long last, the offer of the Federal Commissioner for Finance to join hands with others to ‘keep Nigerian one’.
I share the view that Biafra has a right of self determination and their tragic fate in then Northern Region was more than enough to activate this clause in the charter of the United Nations.
They fought for this and for me, remain heroes of this war. International politics of interests more than any factor frustrated the noble cause of Biafra. Awolowo should not be blamed by Achebe or anyone at that. He deserves a good place in Nigeria’s civil war story. And even a better place in our history as a nation.