I am a historian and I have always believed that if we want to talk history we must be dispassionate, objective and factual. We must take the emotion out of it and we must always tell the truth. The worst thing that anyone can do is to try to re-write history and indulge in historical revisionism. This is especially so when the person is a revered figure and a literary icon.
Sadly, it is in the light of such historical revisionism that I view Professor Chinua Achebe’s assertion (which is reflected in his latest and highly celebrated book titled ”There Was A Country”) that Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the late and much loved Leader of the Yoruba, was responsible for the genocide that the Igbos suffered during the civil war. This claim is not only false but it is also, frankly speaking, utterly absurd. Not only is Professor Achebe indulging in perfidy, not only is he being utterly dishonest and disingenuous but he is also turning history upside down and indulging in what I would describe as ethnic chauvinism.
I am one of those that has always had tremendous sympathy for the Igbo cause during the civil war. I am also an admirer of Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu who stood up for his people when it mattered the most and when they were being slaughtered by rampaging mobs in the northern part of our country.
At least 100,000 Igbos were killed in those northern pogroms which took place before the civil war and which indeed led directly to it. This was not only an outrage but it was also a tragedy of monumental proportions.Yet we must not allow our emotion or our sympathy for the suffering of the Igbo at the hands of northern mobs before the war started to becloud our sense of reasoning, as regards what actually happened during the prosecution of the war itself.
It is important to set the record straight and not to be selective in our application and recollection of the facts when considering what actually led to the starvation of hundreds of thousands of Igbo women, children and civilians during that war. And, unlike others, I do not deny the fact that hundreds of thousands were starved to death as a consequence of the blockade that was imposed on Biafra by the Nigerian Federal Government.
To deny that this actually happened would be a lie. It is a historical fact. Again I do not deny the fact that Awolowo publicly defended the blockade and indeed told the world that it was perfectly legitimate for any government to impose such a blockade on the territory of their enemies in times of war. Awolowo said it, this is a matter of historical record and he was quoted in a number of British newspapers as having said so at the time.
Yet he spoke nothing but the truth. And whether anyone likes to hear it or not, he was absolutely right in what he said. Let me give you an example. During the Second World War a blockade was imposed on Germany, Japan and Italy by the Allied Forces and this was very effective. It weakened the Axis powers considerably and this was one of the reasons why the war ended at the time that it did. If there had been no blockade, the Second World War would have gone on for considerably longer.
In the case of the Nigerian civil war though the story did not stop at the fact that a blockade was imposed by the Federal Government which led to the suffering, starvation, pain, death and hardship of the civilian Igbo population or that Awolowo defended it. That is only half the story.
There was a lot more to it and the fact that Achebe and most of our Igbo brothers and sisters always conveniently forget to mention the other half of the story is something that causes some of us from outside Igboland considerable concern and never ceases to amaze us.
The bitter truth is that if anyone is to be blamed for the hundreds of thousands of Igbos that died from starvation during the civil war, it was not Chief Awolowo or even General Yakubu Gowon but, rather it was Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu himself. I say this because it is a matter of public record and a historical fact that the Federal Government of Nigeria made a very generous offer to Ojukwu and the Biafrans to open a road corridor for food to be ferried to the Igbos and to lessen the suffering of their civilian population.
This was as a consequence of a deal that was brokered by the international community who were concerned about the suffering of the Igbo civilian population and the death and hardship that the blockade was causing to them.
Unfortunately Ojukwu turned this down flatly and instead insisted that food should be flown into Biafra by air in the dead of the night. This was unacceptable to the Federal Government because it meant that the Biafrans could, and indeed would, have used such night flights to smuggle badly needed arms and ammunition into their country for usage by their soldiers. That was where the problem came from and that was the issue.
Apart from that, Ojukwu found it expedient and convenient to allow his people to starve to death and to broadcast it on television screens all over the world in order to attract sympathy for the Igbo cause and for propaganda purposes. And this worked beautifully for him.
Ambassador Ralph Uweche, who was the Special Envoy to France for the Biafran Government during the civil war and who is the leader of Ohaeneze, the leading igbo political and socio-cultural organisation today, attested to this in his excellent book titled ”Reflections On The Nigerian Civil War”. That book was factual and honest and I would urge people like Achebe to go and read it well.
The self-serving role of Ojukwu and many of the Biafran intelligentsia and elites and their insensitivity to the suffering of their own people during the course of the war was well enunciated in that book. The fact of the matter is that the starvation and suffering of hundreds of thousands of Igbo men, women and children during the civil war was seen and used as a convenient tool of propaganda by Ojukwu and that is precisely why he rejected the offer of a food corridor by the Nigerian Government.
When those that belong to the post civil war generation of the Igbo are wondering who was responsible for the genocide and mass starvation of their forefathers during the war they must firstly look within themselves and point their fingers at their own past leaders and certainly not Awolowo or Gowon. The person that was solely responsible for that suffering, for that starvation and for those slow and painful deaths was none other than Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the leader of Biafra, himself.
I have written many good things about Ojukwu on many occasions in the past and I stand by every word that I have ever said or written about him. In my view he was a man of courage and immense fortitude, he stood against the mass murder of his people in the north and he brought them home and created a safe haven for them in the east.
For him, and indeed the whole of Biafra, the war was an attempt to exercise their legitimate right of self-determination and leave Nigeria due to the atrocities that they had been subjected to in the north. I cannot blame him or his people for that and frankly I have always admired his stand.
However he was not infallible and he also made some terrible mistakes, just as all great leaders do, from time to time. The fact that he rejected the Nigerian Federal Government’s offer of a food corridor was one of those terrible mistakes and this cost him and his people dearly. Professor Chinua Achebe surely ought to have reflected that in his book as well.
When it comes to the Nigerian civil war there were no villains or angels. During that brutal conflict no less than two million Nigerians and Biafrans died and the Yoruba who, unlike others, did not ever discriminate or attack any non-Yoruba that lived in their territory before the civil war or carry out any coups or attempted coups, suffered at every point as well. For example prominent Yoruba sons and daughters were killed on the night of the first Igbo coup of January 1966 and again in the northern ”revenge” coup of July 1966. Many of our people were also killed in the north before the outbreak of the civil war and again in the Mid-West and the East during the course and prosecution of the war itself. It was indeed the predominantly Yoruba Third Marine Commando, under the command of General Benjamin Adekunle (the ”Black Scorpion”) and later General Olusegun Obasanjo, that not only liberated the mid-west and drove the Biafrans out of there but they also marched into Igboland itself, occupied it, defeated the Biafran Army in battle, captured all their major towns and forced the Igbo to surrender. Third Marine Commando was made up of Yoruba soldiers, and I can say without any fear of contradiction that we the Yoruba therefore paid a terrible and heavy price as well during the war because many of our boys were killed on the war front by the Biafrans.
The sacrifice of these proud sons of the South-West that died in battle to keep Nigeria one must not be belittled, mocked or ignored. Clearly it was not only the Igbo that suffered during the civil war. Neither does it auger well for the unity of our nation for Achebe and the Igbo intelligentsia that are hailing his self-serving book to caste aspersions on the character, role and noble intentions of the late and revered Leader of the Yoruba, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, during the civil war.
The man may have made one or two mistakes in the past like every other great leader and of course there was a deep and bitter political division in Yorubaland itself just before the civil war started and throughout the early ’60’s. Yet by no stretch of the imagination can Awolowo be described as an Igbo-hating genocidal maniac and he most certainly did not delight in the starvation of millions of Igbo men, women and children as Achebe has tried to suggest.
My advice to this respected author is that he should leave Chief Awolowo alone and allow him to continue to rest in peace. This subtle attempt to denigrate the Yoruba and their past leaders, to place a question mark on their noble and selfless role in the war and to belittle their efforts and sacrifice to keep Nigeria together as one will always be vigorously resisted by those of us that have the good fortune of still being alive and who are aware of the facts. We will not remain silent and allow anyone, no matter how respected or revered, to re-write history.
Simply put by writing this book and making some of these baseless and nonsensical assertions, Achebe was simply indulging in the greatest mendacity of Nigerian modern history and his crude distortion of the facts has no basis in reality or rationality. We must not mistake fiction and story telling for historical fact. The two are completely different. The truth is that Professor Chinua Achebe owes the Awolowo family and the Yoruba people a big apology for his tale of pure fantasy.
Femi Fani-Kayode was a former Minister of Culture & Tourism and Aviation.