- Post 16 October 2012
- Last Updated on 16 October 2012
- By 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.