For 42 years, Chinua Achebe, world acclaimed literary icon kept a literary silence about the Nigerian Civil war which lasted for three years – 1967 to 1970. However, recently, the 81-year-old celebrated author of the famous novel – Things Fall Apart, published his memoir on the war. Achebe’s new book is aptly titled: There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra.
In the book, Achebe vividly recounts some of the harrowing experiences the people of the former Eastern Nigeria suffered in the hands of the Nigerian Federal Forces during the war. He explains that the genocidal war still haunts Nigeria till date. In the classical book which is vintage Achebe, he poses some fundamental questions. Did the Federal Government of Nigeria engage in the genocide of its Igbo citizens – who set up the Republic of Biafra in 1967 – through punitive policies, the most notorious being “starvation as a legitimate weapon of war? Is the information blockade around the war a case of calculated historical suppression? Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, more than 40 years after its end? Are we perpetually doomed to respect the errors of the past because we are too stubborn to learn from them?
Displaying his unique style of writing, Achebe, the master story-teller who was one of the Biafran intellectual envoys, provides interesting insights into the role played by the two leading figures in the war, namely, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra and Yakubu Gowon, then Nigeria’s military Head of State. He also recaptures the ignoble role played by Obafemi Awolowo who was Gowon’s finance minister as well as Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, FEC, during and after the war. Achebe recalls that Awolowo came up with boatload infamous policies, the most callous of which was his declaration that starvation was a legitimate weapon in a war, specifically the Nigerian Civil War. He quotes Awolowo to have once declared: “I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder?”. According to Achebe, Awolowo collaborated with Gowon to introduce such punitive policies because he was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and his Yoruba people. “Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria – Biafra War – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case, it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation – eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations,” Achebe says,
The literary behemoth asserts that even after the war, the actions of the federal government with regards to its relationship with the Igbo race were not conciliatory but outrightly hostile. He recalls that as finance minister, Awolowo prevailed on the Gowon regime to adopt a banking policy that nullified any bank account operated during the war by Biafrans. This was why a flat sum of 20 Nigerian pounds was approved for each Igbo deposit, regardless of the amount of deposit. Achebe believes that this measure was put in place to stunt or even obliterate the economy of Igbo people.
Expectedly, the aspect of the book which touched on the ignoble role Awolowo played in the genocide of Ndigbo has stirred up a debate. Indeed, in the past few weeks, tongues have been wagging over the issue. Fredrick Fashehun, founder of O’dua People’s Congress, OPC, said that Achebe was living in the past, hence he was pouring out his bitterness against Awolowo whom he described as a nationalist. “Chinua Achebe is a frustrated person. He feels that attacking noble people like Awolowo is right. Awolowo has a reputable place in Nigeria’s history. The trio of Awolowo, Sardauna and Zik were leaders who did well for this country, hence their quality legacies should not be smeared in anyway. Achebe is living in the past”, Fashehun said.
Odia Ofeimum, poet, author and an arch Awoist, believes that Achebe had the opportunity of using his new book to set the records straight on the war but he failed to do so. He claimed that it was that Biafran leaders who committed genocide against the Igbo and not Awolowo. “They knew they had no guns; they knew they were unprepared for the war but took the Igbo to war. And because the rest of us were angry, we allowed ourselves to be misled by propaganda”, Ofeimum said.
Omololu Olunloyo, former governor of old Oyo State claimed that contrary to Achebe’s position, the civil war was started by the Igbo. He argued that in the course the war, Igbos killed many Yoruba, and Hausa/Fulani leaders, including Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Chief Ladoke Akintola, Festus Okotie-Eboh and many officers, including Ademulegun, Maimalari, leaving out their own, like Michael Okpara “Even while they (Igbos) were in government, the Igbo spared no thought of freeing Awolowo who was then in prison. So, why should the man be now labeled a tribalist?,” Olunloyo asked.
For Ebenezer Babatope, former transport and aviation minister, “while Achebe is free to write on any topic that suits his fancy, he has no right whatsoever to irresponsibly murder history by recklessly attacking a great leader like Papa Awolowo.” Apparently admitting that he had not read the book, Babatope said that Nigerians should expect, “detailed, honest, factual and objective replies to the Achebe nonsense after we have copies of the book in our hands.”
But some prominent Igbo leaders have risen up in defence of Achebe. Joe Achuzia, former secretary general of Ohaneze Ndigbo who was nick – named Air-Raid in the Biafran Army was emphatic that what Achebe wrote in his book cannot be faulted in any way. He insisted that Awolowo used his position as Gowon’s ally after his release from prison to extract a pound of flesh from his perceived enemies, the Igbos.
Professor Fabian Osuji, former minister of education who is now the director-general, Ikemba Odumegwu-Ojukwu Centre, Owerri disparaged Achebe’s critics. He explained that the controversy the book has generated was totally misdirected because most of his critics had not even read the book and so based their position purely on sentiment and pro-Awo loyalty rather than the historical fact in the book. Osuji who was an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan before the civil war erupted insisted that the people of the Eastern Region were forced to secede because of the pogrom that took place between January 1966 when the first coup took place and July 1966 when the counter coup was executed by Northern Military officers. To him, this showed clearly that Ndigbo were no longer wanted in Nigeria. He recalled that Igbos were massacred in the North and even in the South West, the Northern military officers had positioned themselves strategically from Asaba to Lagos and Ibadan. This, he said showed clearly that Ndigbo were in danger and when Awolowo who was released from the Calabar prison shortly after the war started, he devised strategies to subdue the Biafrans. He said: “Soon after the war started, Gowon released Awolowo from prison in Calabar and his main assignment was to help Gowon win the war. And he had to devise a whole lot of strategies. He said it quite clearly in conferences, meetings, and interviews with various media houses that starvation is a legitimate instrument of war. He was alive. And he lived for 17 years after the war”, Osuji said.
Osuji explained that as one of the participants in the war which lasted for three years, he was in a position to confirm what Achebe has written. “Nobody can now tell me that the things I saw, the things I read, the things I heard during the war were no longer true just because Achebe has made bold to write about them”, he said. Osuji believes that those criticizing Achebe’s book were doing so either out of ignorance or may be it could be that they were having loss of memory of past events.
Maxi Okwu, national coordinator of the Patriotic Alliance of Nigeria, PAN, described Achebe as a literary giant whose claims cannot be dismissed. He advised that the book should be treated on its merit and therefore people should not read ethnic meanings into Achebe’s memoir on the civil war.
Dozie Ikedife, immediate past president of Ohaneze Ndigbo, said that Achebe has presented the true historical facts in his book. “The facts are naked but only that truth is bitter. Igbos would not start another war but for Nigeria to move forward, she must acknowledge the injustices done to Ndigbo during the war… Ndigbo deserve an honest apology particularly from the major players in that unfortunate war”, Ikedife said.
Sam Azoka Onyechi, poet, author and managing director, Inspection and Tests Limited, ITL, told
Verbatim that Achebe has a right to say his piece because there is a truism that he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches. He was firm and unequivocal. He said: “Like the book or hate it, like Achebe or hate him, compare him with Soyinka or Shakespeare, even pit Yoruba, against Igbos in order to cause avoidable bad blood or whatever else controversy the book spirals into – the purpose is served. Institutionalized injustices and oppression of the Igbo by the Nigerian State is finally being discussed. Maybe that’s just what Achebe wanted and maybe he was ready to be given a bad name just like the dog you wish to hang for any reason you may trump up”.
Onyechi explained that Achebe waited 42 years after the civil war to rid himself of the haunting ghost of Biafra and so must have really thought about it. “He deserves to be heard without sentiment. It is left for us to ask ourselves pertinent questions: Were the Igbo massacred unjustly in a war of attrition? Were the Igbo given 20 Pounds by the administration of Nigeria which also seized Igbo property within their own country? Why was the 20 Pounds given to them and their wealth and property confiscated?
Was there an official decision to handicap the Igbo all round-socially, economically, educationally, politically etc? Is Nigeria treating the Igbo fairly even now?,” Onyechi asked. He insisted that until all the acts of institutionalized wickedness against the Igbo get good, truthful and factual answers, the fundamental issues raised by Achebe in his book can never be swept under the carpet.
Onyechi submitted that Achebe, like all globally important men and women cannot avoid being controversial simply from being misunderstood by lesser mortals. “That is the lot of an elephant being assessed by blind men. Soyinka, his contemporary elephant is also as controversial – there is nothing that has not been said about him. Please, let elephants be assessed by sighted men; it will help avoid jaundiced views of a glorious and magnificent being”, Onyechi told Verbatim.
Certainly, the harsh denunciations and effusive praise Achebe’s new book had elicited are not surprising. The fact, however, remains that Achebe has finally published his memoir on the war in which he was an active participant as Biafra’s roving cultural ambassador. As Allen Lane, a division of Penguin, publishers of the book aptly stated: “Now, years in the making, comes his towering reckoning with one of Modern Africa’s most fateful experiences, both as he lived it and he has now come to understand it”.