As the controversy created by Chinua Achebe’s new book, “THERE WAS A COUNTRY”, rages, social critic and poet, Odia Ofeimun – who has been thrown in the eye of the storm because of his first reaction which sought to exonerate Pa Obafemi Awolowo, who served as Vice Chairman to the ruling body of the Nigerian government and whom Achebe accused of war crimes because of the Nigerian government’s war-time policy which allegedly led to the starving of Igbos – presents in this piece never-before-revealed perspectives. This is the first part.
The most comprehensive and almost cover-all organization of the documents of the Nigerian Civil War remains AHM Kirk-Greene’s CRISIS AND CONFLICT IN NIGERIA, A Documentary Sourcebook 1966-1970 Volume 1, and Volume 2, published by Oxford University Press London, New York and Ibadan in 1971. Volume One, according to the blurb, “describes the prelude to the war and the succession of coups from that of 15 January1966 which initially brought a military regime to power in Nigeria”.
The volume takes the story up to July 1967 when the war began. Volume Two covers July 1967 to January 1970, that is, between the beginning of hostilities, and when, as testified by the last entry in the volume, General Yakubu Gowon made a Victory broadcast, The Dawn of National Reconciliation, on January 15, 1970. No other collection of civil war documents, to my knowledge, exists that compares with these two volumes.
And none, as far as I know, has attempted to update or complement the publications so as to include or make public, other documents that are absent from Kirk-Greene’s yeoman’s job. Yet, as my title pointedly insists, there have been some truly ‘forgotten’ documents of the Nigerian Civil War which ought to be added and without which much of the history being narrated will continue to suffer gaps that empower enormous misinterpretations, if not falsehoods.
In my view, the most forgotten documents of the Nigerian civil war, which deserved to be, but were not included in the original compilation by Kirk-Greene – are two. The first is the much talked-about, but never seen, Ifeajuna Manuscript. It was written by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the leader of the January 15 1966 Coup that opened the floodgates to other untoward events leading to the civil war.
The author poured it all down in the “white hot heat” of the first few weeks after the failed adventure that ushered in the era of military regimes in Nigeria’s history. Not, as many would have wished, the story of how the five majors carried out the coup. It is more of an apologia, a statement of why they carried out the coup, and what they meant to achieve by it. It is still unpublished so many decades after it was written. The Manuscript had begun to circulate, very early, in what may now be seen as samizdat editions.
They passed from hand to hand in photocopies, in an underground career that seemed fated to last forever until 1985 when retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, after his first coming as Head of State, quoted generously from it in his biography of his friend, Major Chukuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the man who, although not the leader of the coup, became its historical avatar and spokesperson. Indeed, Nzeogwu’s media interviews in the first 48 hours after the coup have remained the benchmark for praising or damning it. Ifeajuna’s testimony fell into the hands of the military authorities quite early and has been in limbo. Few Nigerians know about its existence. So many who know about it have been wondering why the manuscript has not seen the light of day.
The other document, the second most forgotten of the Nigerian Civil War, has had more luck than the Ifeajuna Manuscript. It happens to be the transcript of the famous meeting of May 6th and 7th 1967, held at Enugu, between Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Military Governor of Eastern Region, and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Leader of the Yoruba and an old political opponent of the leaders of the Eastern Region. Awolowo attended the meeting at the head of a delegation of peace hunters in a bid to avert a shooting war after the pogrom against Easterners which presaged the counter-coup of July 29, 1966.
The transcripts of the meeting, never publicly known to have existed, entered public discourse formally when a speech by Chief Obafemi Awolowo delivered on the first day of the meeting was published in a book, Path to Nigerian Greatness, edited by MCK Ajuluchuku, the Director for Research and Publicity of the Unity Party of Nigeria, in 1980. The speech seemed too much of a teaser. So it remained, until it was followed by Awo on the Nigerian Civil War, edited by Bari Adedeji Salau in 1981, with a Foreword by the same MCK Ajuluchuku.
The book went beyond the bit and snippet allowed in the earlier publication by accommodating the full transcripts of the two-day meeting. Not much was made of it by the media until it went out of print. Partly for this reason and because of the limited number in circulation, the transcripts never entered recurrent discussions of the Nigerian civil war. The good thing is that, if only for the benefit of those who missed it before, the book has been reprinted. It was among twelve other books by Obafemi Awolowo re-launched by the African Press Ltd of Ibadan at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, in March 2007.
Important to note is that among other speeches made by Awolowo, before during and after, on the Nigerian Civil War, the transcripts are intact. They reveal who said what between Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his Excellency Lt. Col. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Sir Francis Ibiam, Chiefs Jereton Mariere, C.C. Mojekwu, JIG Onyia, Professors Eni Njoku, Samuel Aluko and Dr. Anezi Okoro, who attended the meeting. Unlike the Ifeajuna Manuscript, still in limbo, the transcripts are in respectable print and may be treated as public property or at least addressed as a feature of the public space.
I regard both documents as the most forgotten documents of the civil war because they have hardly been mentioned in public discourses in ways that recognize the gravity of their actual contents. Or better to say, they have been mentioned, only in passing, in articles written for major Nigerian newspapers and magazines since the 70s, or parried on television, but only in figurative understatements by people who, for being able to do so, have appeared highly privileged. The privilege, grounded in the fact that they remained unpublished, may have been partially debunked by the publications I have mentioned, but their impact on the discussions have not gone beyond the hyped references to them, and the innuendos and insinuations arising from secessionist propaganda during the civil war.
The core of the propaganda, which reverberated at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference at Harvard University in September, 2007, is that Awolowo promised that if the Igbos were allowed, by acts of commission or omission, to secede, he would take the Western Region out of Nigeria. In a sort of Goebellian stunt, many ex-Biafrans including high flying academics, intellectuals and publicists who should know better, write about it as if they do not know that the shooting war ended in 1970. What Awolowo is supposed to have discussed with Ojukwu before the shooting war has been turned into an issue for post-war propaganda even more unrestrained than in the days of the shooting war.
The propaganda of the war has been dutifully regurgitated by a Minister of the Federal Republic, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, twice on loan to the Federal Government of Nigerian from the World Bank, in the book, Achebe: Teacher of Light(Africa World Press, Inc,2003) co-authored with Tijan M. Sallah. They write: “The Igbos had made the secessionist move with the promise from Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Southwest that the Yoruba would follow suit. The plan was if the southeast and southwest broke away from the Nigerian federal union, the federal government would not be able to fight a war on two fronts. Awolowo, however, failed to honour his pledge, and the secession proved a nightmare for the Igbos. Awolowo in fact became the Minister of finance of the federal government during the civil war.” (p.90).
Forty years after the civil war, you would expect that some formal, academic decorum would be brought into play to sift mere folklore and propaganda from genuine history. But not so for those who do not care about the consequences of the falsehoods that they trade. They continue to pump myths that treat their own people as cannon fodder in their elite search for visibility, meal tickets and upward mobility in the Nigerian spoils system.
Rather than lower the frenzy of war-time ‘huge lies’ that were crafted for the purpose of shoring up combat morale, they increase the tempo. I mean: postwar reconstruction should normally forge the necessity for returnees from the war to accede to normal life rather than lose their everyday good sense in contemplation of events that never happened or pursuing enemies who were never there. Better, it ought to be expected, for those who must apportion blame and exact responsibility, to work at a dogged sifting of fact from fiction, relieving the innocent of life-threatening charges, in the manner of the Jews who, after the Second World War sought to establish who were responsible for the pogroms before they pressed implacable charges.
Unfortunately, 40 years does not seem to have been enough in the Nigerian case. Those who organized the pogrom are lionized as patriots by champions of the Biafran cause. Those who sought lasting answers away from blind rampage are demonized as villains. The rest of us are all left mired in the ghastly incomprehension that led to the war.
Those for whom the civil war was not a lived, but a narrated experience, are made to re-experience it as nightmare, showing how much of an effort of mind needs to be made to strip the past of sheer mush. As it happens, every such effort continues to be waylaid by the sheerness of war propaganda that has been turned into post-war authoritative history. It is often offered by participants in the war who, like Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu himself, will not give up civil war reflexes that ruined millions.
In an interview in Boston on July 9th 2001, Ojukwu told a questioner: “We’ve said this over and over again, so many times, and people don’t understand: they don’t want to actually. If you remember, I released Awolowo from jail. Even that, some people are beginning to contest as well. Awo was in jail in Calabar. Gowon knows and the whole of the federal establishment knows that at no point was Gowon in charge of the East. The East took orders from me.
Now, how could Gowon have released Awolowo who was in Calabar? Because the fact that I released him, it created quite a lot of rapport between Awo and myself, and I know that before he went back to Ikenne, I set up a hotline between Ikenne and my bedroom in Enugu. He tried, like an elder statesman to find a solution. Awolowo is a funny one. Don’t forget that the political purpose of the coup, the Ifeajuna coup that began all this, was to hand power over to Awo. We young men respect him a great deal. He was a hero. I thought he was a hero and certainly I received him when I was governor.
We talked and he was very vehement when he saw our complaints and he said that if the Igbos were forced out by Nigeria that he would take the Yorubas out also. I don’t know what anybody makes of that statement but it is simple. Whether he did or didn’t , it is too late. There is nothing you can do about it. So, he said this and I must have made some appropriate responses too. But it didn’t quite work out the way that we both thought. Awolowo, evidently, had a constant review of the Yoruba situation and took different path. That’s it. I don’t blame him for it. I have never done”.
This was quoted in Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo’s article, reporting the Okigbo International Conference, on page 102 of The GUARDIAN, Monday, October 1, 2007. Quite an interesting one for anyone who wishes to appreciate the folkloric dimensions that mis-led many who listened to Radio Biafra or have followed the post-war attempts to win the war in retrospect instead of preparing the survivors, on both sides of the war, to confront the reality that mauled them and could maul them again unless they shape up.
Against Ojukwu’s self-expiatory remarks, it is of interest to read Hilary Njoku, the head of the Biafran army at the start of the war. In his war memoirs, A tragedy without heroes, he declares that the meeting between Obafemi Awolowo and Ojukwu had nothing to do with the decision to announce secession. Njoku writes that: “…most progressive Nigerians, even before him, saw ‘Biafra’ as a movement, an egalitarian philosophy to put Nigeria in order, a Nigeria where no tribe is considered superior to the others forever…….
It was the same Biafran spirit which led Chief Awolowo to declare publicly that if the Eastern Region was pushed out of Nigeria, then the Western Region would follow suit. When Ojukwu moved too fast recklessly in his ostrich strategy, the same Chief Awolowo led a delegation of Western and some Midwestern leaders to Enugu on 6th May, 1967 and pleaded with Ojukwu not to secede, reminding him that the Western Region was not militarily ready to follow suit in view of the weaknesses of the Western Command of the Nigerian Army and the dominant position of the Northern troops in the West. Ojukwu turned a deaf ear to this advice maybe because of his wrong concept”.(p.141)
Anyone wishing to, or refusing to, take Ojukwu’s word for it may do worse than read what I am calling the forgotten documents. I am of the view that there are immovable grounds for refusing to take Ojukwu’s word on faith. Or, may be, faith would be excusable if one has not read the transcripts of the Enugu meeting in addition to the mileage of information provided by many post-civil war narrations since Alexander A. Madiebo’s opener, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. What seems to be unknown to hagiographers of the civil war is that the meeting about which they have told so much was actually documented.
The transcripts of the meeting are no longer secrets. They have been in the open for more three decades, providing a basis for recasting the seduction of the propaganda which pictured the meeting as a secret one with participants being the only ones who could vouch for what was or was not said. Arguably, dependence on sheer memory, living in a folklorist’s paradise, may well have enabled all and sundry to feel free to mis-describe what transpired, to build an industry of deliberate falsification, leaving common everyday information to be whispered about as to their earth-shaking impact, as if a loud comment on them would bring the sky down. Indeed, it can be imagined how the old propaganda lines about what happened at the Enugu meeting helped to shore up morale on the secessionist side during the civil war while, on the Federal side, absolute silence or ‘rogue’ mis-use and abuse of their supposed truth-value, powered official indifference, somersaults and snide reviews, in speech and action.
Since there are many on both sides of the civil war who have had rationales for not letting the whole truth survive, it may be seen as quite convenient to have found a man like Awolowo, too much of a thorn in the flesh of many, as a necessary scapegoat. It explains why no proper history of the Nigerian Civil War is to be found which looks with dispassion at the issues and without contrived gaps. Few, without the benefit of the light that the two forgotten documents bring to bear on the issues, have been able to interrogate the purveyors of the falsehoods – the big men who did not know the truth but have had to say something authoritative about it; or those who know it but have had reasons, personal and public, for not vouchsafing it.
Besides, there exists a gaggle of revisionists and post-war hackers who do not want the truth to be known because it hurts their pride as inheritors of the falsehoods. They prefer, through a brazen parroting of unfounded folklore, to swindle generations that, as a result, have become unavailable for the building of genuine nation-sense that can accommodate all Nigerians. So over-powering has been their impact that logically impossible and groundless historical scenarios, deserving of contempt by all rational people, are trussed up and served as staple. I believe that given such poor historical accounting, the benign, intelligent, form of amnesia that, after a civil war, helps people to deal with the reality, has been repressed by voluble folklore.
Therefore, let me make a clean breast of it: my one great rationale for wanting to see the documents ‘outed’ is to help shore up nation-sense among Nigerians by rupturing the culture of falsehoods and silences that have exercised undue hegemony over the issues. I take it as part of a necessary revolt against all the shenanigans of national coyness and the culture of unspoken taboos that have beclouded and ruined national discourse. What primes this revolt is, first and foremost, the thought of what could have happened if the forgotten documents had seen the light of day at the right time.
How easy, for instance, would it have been to stamp the January 15, 1966 Coup as being merely an Igbo Coup if it was known that the original five majors who planned and executed it were minded to release Awolowo from Calabar Prison and to make him their leader – as the Ifeajuna Manuscript vouchsafed in the first few weeks of the coup before the testimonies that came after? What factors - ethnic frigidity, ideological insipidity or plain sloppy dithering could it have been that frustrated the coup-maker’s idealistic exercise since they were not even pushing for direct seizure of power? I concede that knowing this may not have completely erased the ethnic and regionalist motivations and overlays grafted by later events.
But it could have slowed down the wild harmattan fire of dissension that soon engulfed the initial salutary reception of the coup. Were the truth known early enough, it could have obviated many of the sad and untoward insinuations, and the grisly events to which they led, before during and since the civil war. At the worst, it could have changed, if not the course of Nigeria’s history, at least, the manner of assessing that history and therefore the tendency for much civic behaviour to derive from mere myths and fictional engagements.
To say this, I admit, is to make a very big claim! It suggests that the problems of nation-building in Nigeria would have been either solved, ameliorated or their nature changed rather dramatically if these documents had come alive when they were most needed. This claim curry’s sensation. It casts me, who can make it, in rather un-fanciful light in the sense of putting an onerous responsibility on me to explain how come the manuscripts were not made public when they should have had the implied impact. And what role I have played in their seeing or not seeing the light of day!
This was actually what was demanded by a writer in The Sun newspapers in 2007 who argued that only I had claimed in public to know about the existence of the Ifeajuna manuscript and only President Olusegun Obasanjo by quoting generously from it in his book , Nzeogwu, had proved that he, among the well-placed, knew about and could rely on the document. The writer had threatened that if President Obasanjo would not release the documents, I owed a responsibility to do so.
I wish to be upfront with it: that what has been known about the documents in Nigeria’s public space largely surfaced as a result of decisions I had taken at one time or the other. As Bari Salau points out in his own preface to Awo on the Nigerian civil war, I was active in turning the Enugu transcripts into public property. I should add that I was later responsible for the outings that the Ifeajuna Manuscript had, whether in Obasanjo’s book or in newspaper wrangles in the past two decades.
Almost ritually, I drew attention to the forgotten documents in my newspaper columns as Chairman of the Editorial Board of the now defunct Tempo magazine and in interviews granted to other print media and television houses. During the struggle over the annulment of the June 12 1993 elections, I placed enormous weight on the evidence of the manuscripts in attempting to correct some of what I regarded as the fictions of Nigeria’s history. All the while, I found myself in a quandary however because I based my arguments on documents that were not public property.
They were like mystery documents that I seemed to be pulling out of my fez cap to mesmerize those who were not as privileged as I was. All the effort I had made did not appear sufficient or proficient enough to relieve me of the obligation to complete the circle of their full conversion into public property. It has been quite bothersome to see that the issues they contain remain ever heated and on the boil.
They are issues that have stood in the way of due and necessary cooperation between Nigerians from different parts of the country. I happen to know that in some quarters, merely to mention knowledge of the existence of the documents is viewed as raking and scratching the wounds of the civil war. It is a preference, it seems, for the murky half-truths and out-rightly contrived lies, much of them horrid residues of war propaganda, that have mauled our public space and ruined civic projects so irremediably since the war. Yet so insistent are the issues, so inexorable in everyday political discussions, so decisive in the sentiments expressed across regional and ethnic lines, that to continue to let them fester in limbo is to be guilty of something close to intellectual treason.
To meet the challenge of the propaganda, it has become necessary, in my view, to provide a natural history of the documents, first, as a performance in genealogies, to audit the processes through which the documents passed in order to arrive at where they are. I consider this important so that those who may wish to dispute their veracity can do so with fuller knowledge of their odyssey. I am minded to distinguish between offending the sensitivities of those who shore up the myth of we never make mistakes, and others who simply wish for bygones to be bygones. As against bygoners, I think a country is unfortunate and ill-served when it carries a pernicious history on her back that has been garnished by rumour peddlers and fiction-mongers who may or may not derive any benefits from traducing the truth but have been too committed to a line that makes looking the truth in the face unappealing
. To keep silent, or to shelve a corrective, in the face of such traducers, is almost churlish. It is certainly not enough to break the silence by outing the forgotten documents. The way to begin to discharge the responsibility is to narrate how I came to know about and have followed the career of the two documents.
To begin with, it was in Ruth First’s book, Barrel of a Gun, that I first encountered hints about the existence of the Ifeajuna Manuscript. Ruth First was one of the most daring of the instant historians who took on the writing of post-independence Africa as the continent began to be mauled by those whom Ali Mazrui would describe as the militariat and who operated on an ethic that Wole Soyinka has described as the divine right of the gun.
She, who was so determined to uncover the roots of the violence that was overtaking African politics, was fated to die later through a parcel bomb sent by dirty jobbers of her native Apartheid South Africa. Her narrative took on the insidious goings on behind the scenes in several coups across Africa at a time when the issues, participants and sites were still hazy. It was like looking ahead to a future that a free South Africa needed to avoid. In a way, it prepared me to pay attention to the footnote to line 16 of JP Clark’s poem, ‘Return Home’ in his collection, Casualties, published in 1970. In the footnote, JP wrote: “A number of papers.
Major Ifeajuna left with me on the night of our arrival at Ikeja the manuscript of his account of the coup, which after due editing was rejected by the publishers as early as May 1966 because it was a nut without the kernel”. This footnote made him post-facto accessory to the coup as he could have been charged by one later-day military dictator down the road. But how did the manuscripts get to be handed over to JP? Which publishers rejected the manuscript? This was left to the grind of the rumour mill for decades.
Nothing more authoritative on what happened came from JP Clark until twenty years later when in his Nigerian National Order of Merit Award lecture of December 5, 2001, serialized in the Guardian between 10th and 14th December 2001, he filled in a few more gaps. He said: “My main encounter with the military , however, was played off stage many years before that.
In Casualties, my account in poetry of the Nigerian Civil War, so much misunderstood by my Ibo readers and their friends in quotes, I said at the time that I came so close to the events of 15 January 1966 that I was taken in for interrogation. Shinkafi was the officer, all professional, but very polite. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna had given me his account of the coup to edit and arrange publication. The authorities thought I had it then in my custody”. JP does not quite say how the authorities knew. Or show that they knew where he kept it.
My first inkling of what happened, regarding the Ifeajuna Manuscript, came to me as a result of a quirk in my biography that made me write a poem, The Poet Lied, which pitched me into the maw of an unwitting controversy on the wrong side of JP Clark. The Poet Lied, was part-response to the Nigerian crisis and civil war dealing with a segment of the political class, all those, including writers, politicians, religious leaders and soldiers - who were in a position to change the images and symbols by which we interpreted our lives but who flunked their roles during the civil war. JP Clark was riled by the poetic imputations, convinced that, as the poet agrees but not the poem, he was the one, or among the ones, satirized. He importuned my publishers, also his own publishers, Longman UK, to withdraw the collection from the market.
Or face dire consequences! It was in the course of negotiating with the publishers, between the UK office and the Nigerian branch, how not to withdraw the manuscript from the market that I ran into stories of how one manuscript proffered by JP Clark had brought so much trouble to them two decades earlier. From bits and snippets in informal conversations, here and there, I got to know more about the Ifeajuna Manuscript which JP Clark sent to them to publish.
As I gathered, the Longman office in Nigeria had sent the manuscript to Longman UK where it was seen as being too hot to handle. The multi-national, doing good business in Nigeria, did not want to antagonize a military dictatorship that had just come to power. The UK office therefore sent the manuscript to the Nigerian High commission office in London to find out if the manuscript would pass something of a civility test.
QUESTIONS: Which book did Achebe write which captured all but a coup, of all that was happening wrongly in the country during the First Republic? Was Nnamdi Azikiwe sounded out by Igbo officers on the possibility of carrying out a coup in 1964, two years before the January 1966 coup? What was the plan of the coup makers of 1966 for Awolowo? Was Awolowo privy to what the eventual coup makers planned to do with him? What was so important about the Emmanuel Ifeajuna manuscript that Olusegun Obasanjo wanted to get to read it? There are many questions but the ones above are dealt with in the next part of this series