By Ocheherome Nnanna
THE current tribal face-off between Igbo and Yoruba commentators over Professor Chinua Achebe’s book: There Was a Country is an automatic reflex.
That is the kind of row you kick off in Nigerians whenever you criticise any act of the champions of Nigeria’s ethnic and regional politics, particularly the trio of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Ahmadu Bello. The last bit of fighting occurred almost a year ago when Ojukwu died and his place in history was discussed in the public arena.
It unleashed a three-cornered fight between the Big Three: Igbo, Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba. The funny thing is that many people engage in the fight without fully understanding what it is all about. An excerpt of Achebe’s book, which is currently circulating in the ‘Net’ makes the point that the way the Federal side treated the Igbo during the civil war amounted to “genocide”.
He pointed an accusing finger at the Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, as the brain behind the use of starvation as an instrument of warfare, and alleged that about two million Igbos, mainly children, died from starvation. He calls the use of hunger as an instrument of war a “crime against humanity”.
That is the major point that draws the battle line between the two Southern giants. I really do not know why Yoruba commentators are angry with Achebe.
Awo never denied he authored that policy. He merely justified it, through cold logic, as his own sure means of ending the war as quickly as possible. By blockading and starving the enemy, three quarters of the war was won. The shooting war’s end became a matter of time.
It was a barbaric, cold-blooded strategy to win a “civil” war. But literary legend, William Shakespeare, long ago declared” “All’s fair in love and war”.
Those who criticise Awo should first put on his shoes. If they found themselves in his position, with every incentive to help defeat a close rival and inherit all his booties which the two struggled bitterly for control before the war, what would they do?
Before you answer the question, bear in mind that the East, West and North were engaged in bitter war of sectional rivalries, with each one looking for means of undermining, belittling and disadvantaging one another.
For instance, the East allied with the North, after the 1959 federal elections, to form the first post-independence indigenous federal government.
The North produced the Prime Minister (Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa). The East produce the ceremonial President (Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe), leaving the West to produce the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament (Chief Obafemi Awolowo). The East and the North shared power at the Centre, and many Yorubas in Awolowo’s party (such as Chief Samuel Akintola) felt themselves outsiders.
They argued that the West was better served in an alliance with the North. They started a rebellion in Awo’s camp and the North loved it and encouraged them. The crisis in the West was a consequence of this. It did not bother the East, until their friendship with the North started slipping.
Secondly, the East partnered with the North to create the Mid Western Region from the old West, and thus reduce the size of the latter.
When Awolowo was convicted of “treasonable felony” and cast into jail, the East felt it gave them greater political opportunity. North’s intention was to obliterate Awolowo as a political force and empower an Akintola as a Western lackey.
Thereafter they would turn against the East, and the conquest of the South would be complete. The January 1966 coup, and the ensuing bloody quarrel between former allies, the East and North, became a major lifeline for Awo. A North-dominated military government furiously courted his cooperation to scuttle the political power of the Igbos.
The West had given as much as it was being given. It was the West that fomented Minority headaches of the East (Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers, COR Movement) and North (Middle Belt Movement) and used its ethnic-based federalist ideas to justify their aspirations for autonomy.
It was also the North and West that came together to encourage the Western Cameroons to win the plebiscite to leave Eastern Nigeria for Cameroun by a slim margin of votes.
They were the ones who ceded Bakassi to Cameroon after the war and signed illegal treaties to sanctify it. Though Bakassi is on Minority soil, it was really the Igbos both sides had in mind in taking that action.
When the civil war was about to begin, the creation of 12 states cutting off the Igbo from the sea, the establishment of the sea blockades and the use of hunger as a means of winning the war were all actions taken in an alliance between the North and West in tandem with the rest of Nigeria to eliminate the Igbo political stake in the country.
Bearing this mutual backstabbing in mind, it will be difficult for any objective analyst to accuse Awolowo for doing something extraordinary when he was only playing the game, just like everyone else.
The Big Three were wicked to one another and to their regional Minorities. And the regional Minorities were equally wicked to their Majorities whenever they found the opportunity to hit back. They did this by seeking alliances with bitter rivals of their regional Majorities.
Again, it may not be accurate to see the besieged Biafrans as mere victims with halos circling their innocent heads. The invading forces probably lost more able-bodied men than the rag-tag Biafran Army, which scored heavy casualties through booby traps and the deployment of Ogbunigwe, the “crude” weapon of mass destruction.
At the end of the war, there were no recorded cases of war prisoners coming out of Biafran jails because there simply were no jails! Biafrans took no prisoners!
I therefore summarise this first instalment with the following conclusion: It was not what happened during the war that mattered so much. It was more of what happened after the war. We will go into it on Monday, God permitting.