ON ACHEBE, AWOLOWO & THE CIVIL WAR – Duro Onabule

DURO ONABULE

Wars, whether civil or international, are by their very nature, ever
unpleasant, leaving in their trail, bitter memories with accounts,
personal or official, ever partisan and even if credible, ever liable to
be disputed. Every account depends on the author and the critic.
There can never be an end to such accounts. Till today, Americans,
whose grandparents were not yet born at the time of their country’s
civil war, still engage in academic exercise of the war with special
focus on their wartime leader, Abraham Lincoln, and the opposite
confederals. There are also fresh books on the last two world wars of
1914-1918 and 1939-1945. On the Nigerian civil war, which ended barely
42 years ago, the compelling need for various accounts and observations
is, therefore, yet to be exhausted, especially by those who were
directly involved or affected. Such accounts are ignoble if they do not
generate controversy.

The latest is Chinua Achebe’s book titled “There was a country.”
Whatever the bad feelings of his critics, Achebe’s reputation, unlike
his contemporaries, is that of a straightforward man. He has never been
known to be cowardly, neither does he cringe before nor collaborate with
any local or international establishment. Achebe’s character is
definite as he does not charade in the day only to be settled at night.

The author of the book “There was a country” should therefore be
viewed from that angle. Notably, Chinua Achebe faulted one of Nigeria’s
founding fathers, Obafemi Awolowo, for acclaiming starvation as a
legitimate weapon in a war, specifically, Nigerian civil war. It is, by
the way, wrong to accuse Achebe of writing his book over forty years
after the civil war ended. Indeed, it will be a surprise if Achebe’s
book is the last to be written on the civil war by a Nigerian.
Furthermore, Chinua Achebe has never hidden his disagreement with
Obafemi Awolowo.

In fact, when the latter died in 1987 and was widely attributed as a
nationalist, Achebe weighed in with his verdict that Awolowo was a
tribalist. How correct is Chinua Achebe in his criticism of Obafemi
Awolowo for acclaiming starvation as a weapon in a war? Even if Awolowo
was not in the position to effect his belief in starvation as a weapon
during the war, the fact remains that he (Awolowo) publicly took that
position and was widely reported in the media in Nigeria and abroad. In
fact, years after the war, critics of Awolowo, understandably from the
Biafran side, so accused him and he could not deny as the evidence was
there.

For a devastating effect, Awolowo expressed his view on the
starvation controversy as the second (though not necessarily most
powerful) man in Nigerian government. As a major figure in Nigerian
politics, Awolowo should therefore have counted both the short and long
term omnibus consequences of such controversial views. The higher the
position, the more the restraint or responsibilities. It is not as if in
any war, starvation does not arise or is not employed by the stronger
side to weaken the opponents. With blockade leading to shortages of
essential items like food and drugs, surely starvation sets in and the
stronger side pretends ignorance of the deteriorating situation on the
other. In reality, therefore, starvation becomes a weapon.

But such weapon is never officially or callously acknowledged as a
weapon. In the build up to Second World War, German leader Adolph Hitler
operated a concentration camp at Dachau under the most inhuman
conditions, including starvation, mainly to contain or discourage
dissidence at home. When the war began in 1939, Hitler opened another
camp at Belsen, mainly for starving hundreds of thousands of Jews and
other prisoners of war. But Hitler never officially or publicly hold out
starvation as a deliberate or legitimate weapon of war.

In Africa, starvation also emerged in civil wars in Congo and Rwanda.
And less than twenty years ago during the Bosmian war in the defunct
Yugoslavia, starvation and ethnic cleansing resulting in deaths of
hundreds of thousands in Srebrenica, alarmed the world, such that
culprit Bosnia leaders were later tried at International Criminal Court,
Hague for crimes against humanity. Ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor
was also tried in the same court for alleged crimes against humanity in
the Sierra-Leone civil war.

The difference therefore with these stated examples compared to the
starvation in the Nigerian civil war was that no government official or
public office holder came out to acknowledge that starvation was being
employed as a deliberate and legitimate policy. Fortunately, during the
Nigerian civil war, there was no International Criminal Court under
which genocide (implication of starvation of opponents to death) is
treated as crime against humanity.

Is Chinua Achebe fair to Awolowo in his criticisms? The appropriate
preceding question is: Was Awolowo fair to himself (not to mention
federal side) when he publicly upheld starvation as a legitimate weapon
in war, moreso during a civil war in which the outside world was
disgusted with television visuals of thousands of starving and
malnourished innocent children? Did Awolowo justify starvation as a
weapon during a war, in his personal or official capacity as
vice-chairman of Federal Executive Council headed by General Yakubu
Gowon? In whatever capacity, even outside government, Awolowo,
considering his high status in Nigerian politics especially as one of
the country’s founding fathers, should not have endorsed starvation as a
weapon.

If Awolowo was ever to speak on the war, such view expressed
publicly, must comply with government policy on the conduct of the war.
Clearly because Awolowo’s endorsement of starvation was against the
stated policy of Federal Government, General Yakubu Gowon, in great
embarrassment, had to dispatch delegations to different parts of the
world, even Africa, to re-assure that starvation was not his
government’s policy on the civil war. In truth, Awolowo created the
problem for himself, moreso as he was not the prosecutor of the war.

The chief prosecutor of the war was General Yakubu Gowon, who, even
if he endorsed starvation, never said so publicly or officially
throughout the war. Instead, Gowon, thereafter, approved, perhaps under
pressure from concerned foreign governments, the opening of safe
corridors through which relief materials passed to the war victims.

There were also high-ranking politicians of Obafemi Awolowo’s
generation in Gowon’s government who concentrated on their assignment as
federal commissioners. Among them were Aminu Kano, Shehu Shagari,
Joseph Tarka, Winike Briggs, Shettima Ali Monguno, Dr. Adetoro, Femi
Okunnu. Tony Enahoro, (erstwhile lieutenant of Obafemi Awolowo) as
Federal Commissioner for Information and Culture, for some unknown
reasons, sold to the outside world the idea of a Nigerian federation
with strong centre except that not only did he break with Awolowo but
also his last twenty years on earth in total regret of his federation
with strong centre and therefore through NADECO and PRONACO sang a new
tune of weakening of the centre in favour of more powers for the states.
There was, of course, Admiral Wey as Chief of Staff, Supreme
Headquarters.

Since Admiral Wey, by the way a Yoruba, and other federal
commissioners (except Tony Enahoro) did not make any provocative
statements throughout their tenure and the war, nobody is criticising
them today. Obafemi Awolowo should have realised that he was not a
pedestrian figure in or out of government throughout the war and the
weight of his every word, must consolidate an aspiring national leader
in a complex country like Nigeria. Former North regional premier Ahmadu
Bello, for example, could afford the luxury of his reservation about
allowing an Igbo an inch of opportunity because, according to him
(Ahmadu Bello) he, (Igbo) would from there occupy a yard.

Ahmadu Bello made this view known in an interview with a BBC
television correspondent now reproduced on You Tube. But then, Ahmadu
Bello contented himself with a regional premiership. It was a completely
different story with Abubakar Tafawa Balewa throughout his nine years
(1957-1966) as Prime Minister of Nigeria, as he lived up to the national
standing of that office. Even when Ahmadu Bello said he did not
recognise the state of Israel, thereby creating diplomatic tension,
Tafawa Balewa asserted himself as Prime Minister by assuring the world
that Nigeria had friendly ties with all member countries of the United
Nations including Israel.

Another example was deputy leader of Action Group and later Premier
of Western Region, S.L. Akintola who was more vitriolic than Awolowo on
anything Igbo. But Akintola never aspired to lead Nigeria and could
afford to alienate any section of the country, as undesirable as that
might be. Akintola’s humorous analogy of the name of Dr. Ikejiani was
classic. Whatever the meaning in Igbo, the translation of Ikejiani in
Yoruba was politically convenient for Akintola to complain against
majority federal appointments for Igbos.

According to Akintola in his memorable broadcast on the regional
radio, (now also available on You Tube) there might be nothing wrong in
the first appointment (Ikini ani) second appointment (Ikeji ani) third
appointment (Iketa ani) etc going to Igbos, but that Yoruba too must
share in the appointments.

Nobody wound reject such seeming justifiable submission except that,
the humour apart, Akintola’s aim was to undermine Yoruba support for
Awolowo in their supremacy battle in the defunct Western region. How
about Daddy Onyeama, a prominent and well-respected independent-minded
judge who in his younger days was enjoying an evening with friends
(mainly Yoruba) at Island Club Lagos? Onyeama’s social friends teased
him with the low status of Igbo in the scheme of things. Such ‘yappings’
are common among friends on those joyous occasions.

Onyeama, innocently in return and perhaps to disarm his tormentors,
assured that “Igbo domination is a question of time.” Complete political
capital was thereafter made out of an otherwise social evening banter
among friends, in total disregard of the circumstances. Is Chinua
Achebe’s criticism of Awolowo necessarily evidence of his (Achebe’s)
hatred for Yoruba?

That cannot be because Achebe knows too well that on the federal side
during the civil war, conscientious objectors were among only Yoruba,
with some of them like Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka clamped into
indefinite detention. Also, at the end of the war, the first non-Igbo to
appear in Biafra in a sole-rehabilitation effort was a Yoruba – Tai
Solarin. Also, unknown to the public, even some close associates of
Awolowo did not agree with him on the war.

At least, one of them from Ijebu-Ode, now deceased, years after the
end of the war, confided in me. That aside, Achebe’s critics on his
latest book, especially Yoruba, should objectively read “AWO”, Obafemi
Awolowo’s autobiography, in which throughout, there is not a single
sentence complimentary to Nnamdi Azikiwe, portrayed as an ethnic
jingoist. When I read the maiden edition of that book in 1961, I could
then understand why NCNC (Zik’s party) rejected the offer of an alliance
by Awo’s Action Group in 1959, even conceding Prime Ministership to
Azikiwe. Similar offer of alliance between Awo’s party and Zik’s party
in 1979 and 1983 was also laughable. The two men were uncompromisingly
incompatible to give Nigeria a workable and durable political alliance.
Yet, Awolowo’s criticisms of Azikiwe were never mischievously
interpreted as hatred for Igbos.

Nobody of Achebe’s status and with terrible experiences of the civil
war could be expected to write his recollections without justifiable
criticism of starvation as a weapon throughout the war. His critics just
have to be realistic rather than being emotional.

Awolowo’s election campaign pledge to ban importation of second hand
clothes and stockfish could have been better sold (by Awolowo himself)
to Nigerians than the impression that it was targeted at economically
weakening a particular section of the country. Suppose the need to ban
continued importation of the two items had been linked to a
determination of (Awo’s) government to improve the living standard of
the low class, such that it would no longer be necessary to dress in
second-hand clothes and that with a stronger purchasing power, Nigerians
would feed better on mainly nutritious items. Awolowo did not become
head of Federal Government. Yet, since 1979, far less Nigerians today
depend on second-hand clothes for their dresses. Equally, stockfish is
no longer a delicacy at dinners or lunch. It is all due to the
improvement in the living standard of Nigerians, the very aim of Awolowo
in his pledge to ban the two items.

Either by accident or by design, no aspiring head of Nigerian
government can risk ambiguous or potentially misleading
posture/controversy, which was the lot of Awolowo on sensitive issues
like starvation as a weapon during a war, banning of second-hand clothes
and stockfish, since all these touched on the physical and economic
survival of a particular section of the country. By the way, some of
Achebe’s critics are amusing as they don’t seem to understand why Biafra
had to invade Mid-West and Ore on the way to Lagos.

The logic is simple. Biafra initially said its war was with the
North. But Yoruba salesmen on the federal side at home and abroad
countered that it was a war of Nigeria’s survival. The war drumbeat was
“To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.” At that stage, any
part of Nigeria – Ijebu-Ode, Ore, Benin city, Paiko, Makurdi, Wushishi,
Gombe, or Lasa – because a legitimate target for the opposite side.

Advertisements

7 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Unclejoe Nnachi said,

    Great writer with great ideas. This is a wonderful write up ,garnished with verifiable facts,not with mere tribal sentiment.

  2. 2

    Bella said,

    The first intelligent response I have seen from a Nigerian. Very Good.

  3. 3

    Anonymous said,

    Is loudmouthed Femi Fani Kayode listening to his superiors? After a bout of Igbo(cannabis) he comes smoking with lies like a hunted rabbit. He is yet to come to terms with the fact that it was the deprivation of Ndigbo through d economic policies of Awo n d likes of his father that gave him cheap scholarship abroad. He should tell Nigerians what he achieved as a person other than availing himself as a barking dog to abuse pple who are his father,s superiors.

  4. 4

    Anonymous said,

    Every one knows that the truth is always bitter and that is why they will hardly take and accept this truth but it has been spoken and was spoken by one who is not interested of their loot, seeking nothing from them, he who said to hell with their national honours, one that will not be found in the midst of scornfuls, not ready to compromise. Until the matter is properly taken care of, the nation may not be at peace.

  5. 5

    Ohanube Goodluck said,

    This could termed a CRITICAL APPRAISAL of the nigerian politics.

  6. 6

    Nnamdi Nnake said,

    This is a great piece. I have learnt a lot from it. Thank you…

  7. 7

    Your style is unique in comparison to other folks I’ve read stuff from. Thanks for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this site.


Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s