By Douglas Anele
These include the problem of constructing a viable Nigerian nation based on justice, equity and fairness for all ethnic nationalities, post-war deliberate depredation and exclusion of the Igbo and Igbo heartland from the commanding heights of national politics, the economy and infrastructural development by successive administrations at the centre, and the question of proper restitution for atrocities committed during the war against Biafrans by the Nigerian army.
Some of these topics have been discussed before by Achebe himself in his little but thought-provoking book, The Trouble with Nigeria. This time around, Achebe touched a sensitive nerve by exploding the myth of Saint Awolowo who, in the eyes of his fawning disciples “could do no wrong” and reproblematising the lingering inequalities of the distorted Nigerian federation.
In that regard, name-calling and sentimental regurgitation of half-truths cannot serve any useful purpose. Therefore, instead of the belated and tedious historical revisionism by the likes of Odia Ofeimun aimed at immunising Awolowo from appropriate criticism, Nigerians, irrespective of ethnic affiliation, should critically and dispassionately examine the salient themes of injustice, restitution and accountability in Achebe’s book and come up with imaginative ways of reconstructing Nigeria on a solid foundation. That is a task which must be faced with wisdom and patriotic zeal if Nigeria is to survive.
Another point of interest is that most initial commentators on Achebe’s new book had not even read it; they merely responded to excerpts from the book especially in foreign media. Preoccupation with, and ethnic hysteria over Achebe’s critical comments on Awolowo, though understandable because of the iconic status of the late politician in the consciousness of Awoists many of whom occupy prominent positions in the south-west geopolitical zone, are regrettable. As I stated earlier, it has the unfortunate effect of diverting attention from other serious problems of the Nigerian federation highlighted in the work.
It is ridiculous that Initial Awoist vitriolic critics of Achebe who had not even seen the book, let alone read it from page one to last, made categorical statements about it in a hurry without considering the possibility that an attentive study of the entire book might provide genuine novel insight regarding the civil war which, till date, remains the most serious threat to the survival of Nigeria as a single geopolitical entity.
That said, given Achebe’s antecedents as a forthright and courageous commentator on national issues, there is no doubt in my mind that his book, There was a country, is a thoughtful reappraisal of the civil war, from the perspective of a Biafran official.
Collectively, all serious literature on the war point to one inescapable conclusion: war is an avoidable tragedy in which leaders on both sides tend to allow desire for victory override ethical and humanitarian considerations – hence the moral indignation with respect to the use of starvation against Biafrans as an instrument of war.
Gowon’s comments, widely reported in the media, that he did not regret the decisions he took during the civil war is fascist, pompous and insensitive to the agonies of the vanishing group of disabled ex-Biafran soldiers and other survivors who lost loved ones and valuable property as a result of the conflict.
Is Gowon suggesting that if the same set of circumstances presents itself again, he would take precisely the same wrong decisions he took between 1966 and 1970? Was he actually justifying the deliberate emasculation of Igboland by his administration from 1970 until he was forced out of office in July 1975? The media in Nigeria are fond of dressing prominent Nigerians in borrowed robes.
For example, Gowon is sometimes described as a statesman. Illoegbunam’s account of General Ironsi’s murder during the counter coup, explains why Gowon did not make sincere effort to bring those that murdered Aguiyi-Ironsi to justice – he was the biggest beneficiary of the revenge coup of July, 1966.
Also consider this: when the then Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon was at the threshold of becoming head of state, he still had in his pocket a speech intended to declare the secession of Northern Nigeria. Furthermore, Illoegbunam cites Suzanne Cronje, a well-known author, who wrote in her book, The World and Nigeria: The Diplomatic History of the Biafran War, 1967-1970, that shortly before the civil war the British High Commissioner in Lagos, Sir Francis Cumming Bruce, played a crucial role in dissuading Gowon from pulling the North out of Nigeria.
From the foregoing, despite Gowon’s attempts to create an image of a respectable statesman who fought to keep the country united, there are indications that, deep-down, he did not govern Nigeria with fairness to all ethnic nationalities, as a genuine statesman would.
At crucial moments, especially during the araba or secessionist riots of 1966 when Southerners living in the North, especially Ndigbo, were massacred, Gowon did not distance himself from prominent Northern politicians and military officers who actively supported the pogroms.
As we pointed out a moment ago, Gowon and his Northern cohorts wanted to secede, but were persuaded to change their minds by western diplomats more concerned with the preservation of the colonial amalgam, Nigeria, for the benefit of western capitalist imperialism. Keep in mind that all I have said thus far concerning responses to Achebe’s thought-stirring book is neither an attempt to defend Achebe nor a complete exoneration of Biafran leaders from the horrors of the war.
Achebe, as a courageous, world-class, intellectual is very capable of defending himself against the irredentist lynch mob that lined up against him. In my view, the late Biafran leader, late Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, was far more humble and sincere than Gowon when he reportedly told Karl Maier, in This house has fallen, that the civil war was a monumental waste – thereby indicating some level of soul-searching, self-indicting, reappraisal of the horrible consequences of the war, especially for the Igbo.
My argument that Achebe’s controversial book offers a new impetus for critical reassessment of the foundational principles of our experiment in nationhood would still be valid if another ethnic group other than Igboland had been subjected to the pogroms which precipitated the civil war and the marginalisation it faced afterwards. Justice and equality are cardinal universal values which transcend ethnicity.
To be continued