By Pini Jason
There is something eerie and surreal about the rationalisation by Awo and General Gowon that the use of mass starvation was a means of quickly ending the war.
So the quickest way to end the war was to starve Biafran children, women and the vulnerable to death? It sounds to me as haunting as the argument about the most humane way to execute human beings! Use lethal injection! Or lethal gas!
Even war has rules of engagement. You can kill as many of your enemy soldiers as possible to win the war, but you cannot levy war on un-armed innocent civilians or even kill a wounded enemy soldier or prisoner.
That was the principle on which the Swiss-born Henri Dunant founded the Red Cross in 1863 after the battle of Solferino! You cannot bomb or strafe churches and hospitals, refugee camps or those engaged in humanitarian duties as medics. But Nigeria did all these!
You can fight all you want with all the arsenals at your disposal but one arsenal that is not available to you, according to conventions, is to deliberately mass starve civilian population, especially in a war touted as a war of unity!
That is the lesson of Kosovo and the trial of Serbian Radovan Karadzic at The Hague today. That is simply an immoral way to win a war of unity or to quicken the end of the war! The same logic would have been used if Biafran civilian population had been gassed!
One thing that holds this country down is that Nigeria has never been honest with itself and has never accepted responsibility for its failings.
One of the most debilitating burdens we carry is that we cannot even speak the truth about our country without fragmenting it into pallets of ethnicity.
We are never going to realistically deal with our problems as a nation if we continue to obfuscate the debate about our country by hauling abuses across ethnic divides or if we believe that once we manage to stridently deny a fact, the truth would change.
That is simply like the illusory denial of a kid who covers a wound with sand to deceive his parents, believing that by so doing the wound would heal. Unfortunately it doesn’t. It only degenerates to a more putrid and life-threatening ulcer!
Many Nigerians think that the Biafra experience is something you can wave away. Some have even begun to deny that Easterners were victims of genocide, just as some anti-Semitics say that the holocaust did not happen!
Just as Nigeria seems to have vowed never to forgive the victims, Biafrans have also vowed never to forget the lived experience! How often are the Igbo reminded that their citizenship is a privilege they should not have because they were Biafrans?
As far as I can see, the shooting just stopped, but the war against Biafrans continues. But the difference now is that Nigeria is the greater victim of the continuing war. Nigeria is the one now bleeding!
For example, Nigeria has boxed itself into a condition of perpetual mediocrity! And I will illustrate.
I am sadly amused that today, oil and gas technology is still a mesmerizing myth that any upstart who wants to be noticed announces himself as “into oil and gas” even if all he does is to retail diesel in jerry cans! Come on! Biafra demystified oil refining technology and refined its fuel needs in every backyard, even while on the run from the invading army! Why, 42 years after the war, is Nigeria still unable to refine its domestic needs? Why is Nigeria not ashamed of the sleaze, the stealing, the incompetence and the mediocrity that has forced Nigerians to queue everyday for ordinary kerosene just as Biafrans queued for relief materials?
Some Nigerians wrote off Biafran inventions and everything connected with ex-Biafrans, including Dr Njoku Obi’s cholera vaccine, as “crude”. But the most remarkable thing that can be said about Nigeria today is that we are still importing toothpicks! For over 20 years Nigeria has failed to fix the road between Shagamu and Benin!
And it is not that Nigeria has not produced world class talents, but as Prof Tekena Tamuno said in his famous valedictory at Ibadan, “all things bright and beautiful Nigeria kills them all”.
To hold the Igbo down, Nigeria has held itself down! Nigeria today abhors competence and has devised a system that fights and frustrates competent people away from public office! And we cannot even honestly own up to that!
Why, after 42 years has criminality and corruption taken over the land? To be corrupt, excuse me, to be a thief, in Nigeria today is to be celebrated. The masses are very weary and emasculated and have decided to join the fray with such anger that blood freely flows in the land.
And what does our government do? In the words of Achebe, “government leaps beyond the precipice, dismisses itself and joins ranks with crime”. Today it is impossible to prosecute the thieves because they are connected at the highest places of the Federal Government! These are the anomalies Achebe wants us to discuss!
The import of Achebe’s book, in my view, is not to blame or exculpate persons or any ethnic group, but to remind us that we are not out of the wood yet because we have failed to deal with the contradictions that pushed the nation to war.
What the needless controversy wanted to obscure is the important question we need to ask, why after 42 years, we seem to have failed to reconcile the contradictions that led us to war, especially now that the allies of the Federal Government in that war seem to be regretting and are now turning their guns on the Nigerian state they once defended with their lives!
Those who gloat about the defeat of Biafra as if it confers any superior citizenship on them must be oblivious or take for granted that it has not been easy for Biafrans to be Nigerians again!
The Nigeria that Biafrans returned to is worse than the troubled Nigeria they left. Nigeria has continued to slip down the human development index since the end of the war. Since 1970 Nigeria has institutionalized a culture of mediocrity, incompetence, lethargy, corruption, violence, debauchery, bestiality, self-immolation and debilitating immorality; and all these by choice! So please spare Biafrans the gloating!
Biafra will remain a poser to Nigeria: Why after Nigeria’s swift victory through starvation has it remained starved? Why after its victory through genocide has it turned the muzzle on itself? Why after a war of unity has Nigeria remained deeply divided and is seriously threatened with disintegration?
You may fault some of Achebe’s “impression” about some of the events but you cannot fault his characteristic candour. It seems some people had difficulty understanding and perhaps appreciating that Achebe had to transport himself back in time into Biafra and write as a Biafran, which he was, not as a Nigerian, which he is today, albeit with its disappointments and pains.
Hence a few, especially the younger generation, could not reconcile the truth of that past, as recollected by Achebe, with his realities of the present. I am referring to a past when a Nigerian graduate could get any job of his or her choice and a present when a Nigerian graduate cannot even dream of a job!
I believe we can still get Nigeria out of the dingy hole of enduring rot. But we must first ask the necessary questions with candour. We have to dig deep into the past of Achebe’s generation when there was a country where things worked. Achebe has opened a debate, no doubt.
But as he recalled during an incident in his wife, Christie’s home during courtship, “Even when there was a strong disagreement, one had to remember to be discordant with respect”.