There was a country, there was starvation (1)
By Pini Jason
THIS is not a defence of Chinua Achebe. He does not need one. No amount of abuse can dent his global standing. Ban or burn all his books, as someone suggested, he would only feel sorry for you, not angry.
Achebe has since outgrown certain sentiments. On the other hand, if Chief Awolowo were alive, he would have cautioned people against some of the vituperative effusions, especially by people craving relevance with Awo’s name and who cried more than the bereaved.
Awo’s daughter, Ambassador Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, made one of the most mature reactions. She simply said if what was said to have been written was true, she was disappointed but would not say more than that until she read the book!
Awo was an accomplished and fulfilled man before he died. Nothing said now by ethnic jingoists and fake Awoists can add any value to his eminent standing.
What the nation has witnessed since the publication of an excerpt of a review of Achebe’s There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Guardian of London is a classic decline of intellectual discourse in Nigeria.
At the time the needless controversy ensued, not more than 10 people would say they had read the book. The first few copies available in Nigeria at the material time were review copies sent to some journalists by Dr. Chidi Achebe.
Others were those who travelled to countries where the book had been published and were able to buy a copy, or were sent a copy by friends abroad. Therefore all those who plunged into attack and counter-attack based on excerpts of a review simply embarrassed themselves. It really did not mean that the outcome would have been radically different if more Nigerians read the book.
I say so because Nigerians read with two brains. While one is reading what was written, the other is busy formulating what the reader believes you wrote! It is therefore not surprising that, in this kind of situation, the combatants in the futile but emotionally charged controversy quickly took cover behind ethnic parapets!
Last week I finished reading a copy sent me by Chidi and I felt more disappointed with the entire hullabaloo about the book and the abuses that went all round. In the first place, the duty a writer of Achebe’s status owes humanity is to shock it with the truth whenever it develops amnesia.
Achebe did just that with his book, 42 years after the civil war. He seems to have succeeded in rousing us from our amnesia, except that the intellectual debate is yet to ensue, and except also that, in Nigeria, my truth is a lie, and your lie is the truth! Secondly, it was wrong to make it seem as if Awo was the subject of the book. He was not even the important point in the book.
The controversial reference to Awolowo did not appear until page 233 of a 333-page book, including appendices, notes and index! Nevertheless, those who have been reading will tell you that Achebe did not say anything new about Awolowo nor has he ever hidden his views about the Yoruba leader!
Nature of Nigerian debate
It is the nature of Nigerian debate that those who insistently make Awo an ethnic champion often turn round to accuse others of diminishing Awo’s status, making me wonder if those who swear in Awo’s name really knew him. For example, Femi Fani-Kayode who effusively described Awo as “much loved leader of the Yoruba” easily turned round, tongue in cheek, to accuse Achebe of “ethnic chauvinism”.
There are not many Yoruba who locate Awo beyond the ethnic enclave to a national stage, unless you tell me that Nigeria begins at Mokola and ends at Dugbe! It took Chief Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to posthumously elevate Awo to “the best President Nigeria never had”.
One thing any reader of Achebe would confess is that the man tries his best to choose his words carefully. The controversial portion of the book came under the subheading, The Case Against the Nigerian Government. There he took not only Awolowo, but also, Allison Ayida and Anthony Enahoro to task.
And he prefaced his criticism of Awo’s motive for employing starvation as a weapon of war with the words, “it is my impression that…” We can debate whether Achebe’s impression was wrong without name calling, ethnic baiting or profiling.
And that is, if we have any intellectually honest reason to read that portion in isolation of everything else he wrote elsewhere in the book about Awolowo and Yoruba nation!
A few hard questions can be asked: Did Awo have ambition for power for himself and for the advancement of his Yoruba people? Yes he did.
That was an ambition he spent all his political life pursuing. Did Awo see the dominant Igbo as obstacle to that desire? You may argue that Awo was not the only one who saw the Igbo as obstacle but you cannot deny what happened to Zik in Ibadan in 1951.
Hear my friend Ayo Opadokun: “What he (Achebe) expected was that Awo should fold his arms to allow the Igbo race led by Zik to preside over the affairs of the Yoruba nation” (The Nation 5 October 2012). Further, he admitted that “it was clear that the East and West were in contest for socio-economic and political power”. Tell me, could Achebe have put the matter any clearer than Opadokun did?
Just as Achebe conceded that there was nothing wrong with Awo’s aspirations, there was nothing wrong with contest between the East and West for socio-economic and political power, except that no ethnic group in Nigeria wants to contest with Igbo on equal terms or compete on a level playing field. Nigeria obviously felt happy that it has removed the Igbo obstacle by inscribing the Federal Character in the constitution.
And we cannot deny that there was a sing-song of “Igbo domination” in the years leading to the crises that led to the coup and the war. Unfortunately, the fear of “Igbo domination” not only created an enduring conspiracy to cripple the Igbo but also left an unsettled issue of citizenship that has created the dichotomy of “settler” and “indigene” for which blood flows in the Plateau today.
In defence of Awo
I think it was futile to defend Awo on the matter of starvation as a weapon of war after he proffered his own personal defence. In his well publicised 1983 interview, Awo did not deny the charges levied against him by Biafrans.
He simply rationalised his actions. Respected elder statesman and one of the living authentic Awoists, Chief Ayo Adebanjo apparently based his defence of Awo on this interview (Thisday 13 Oct 2012). We can appreciate Awo’s rationalisation or disagree with them. I disagree with some.
Awo said he went to Calabar, Enugu and Port Harcourt shortly after their liberation. “I saw kwashiorkor victims…Then I enquired what happened to the food we are sending to the victims…but what happened was that the vehicles carrying the food were always ambushed by the soldiers…and the food would then be taken to the soldiers to feed them, and so they were able to continue the fight”.
The flaw in this rationalisation is that people may conclude that Awo stopped food supply because Biafran soldiers were hijacking them. In the first place, Nigerian NEVER supplied food to Biafra.
Whatever food Nigeria supplied was to those “liberated” areas behind Biafran lines. Those areas were under the control of the Nigerian army.
Therefore if the vehicles conveying the food were ambushed by soldiers, it could only be by Nigerian soldiers! Food that came into Biafra were direct from World Council of Churches, Caritas, International Red Cross and French NGOs.
These supplies were directly administered by the churches, priests and Red Cross through their feeding centres.
The humanitarian disaster in Biafra was exacerbated when Nigeria closed the air corridors by shooting down some of the relief planes. The argument about using land corridors approved by Nigeria to supply food to Biafra was still on till the war dramatically ended.