By Obi Nwakanma
Publication, this past week, of Chinua Achebe’s memoir of Biafra, There Was A Country, had the Awoist camp up in arms. The Awoists – followers and defenders of the legacy of Chief Awolowo- have expended a lot of verbal grapes on the person of Chinua Achebe. It felt like a dangerous mob unleashed on one of the world’s most important cultural icons. All Achebe did was tell the truth about Awo.
In his new book, Achebe writes about many things. His memoir is a deeply reflective tour de force into the events that shaped the Achebean era – an era of great promise that slipped into great infamy. Chinua Achebe has given shape and form to the truths of this era.
But truth, particularly if it is uncomfortable and disconcerting is also dangerous. It unsettles too many comfortable myths.Awo is a great industry for mythmakers. Among the provocative truths that Achebe tells in his book is Obafemi Awolowo’s war crime of genocide by the “diabolical policy” of starvation against Biafrans.
I should say here, that it is a bit sad that out of the very many important issues that Achebe raises and explores in his new book, the one that has gained so much attention is his comment on Awolowo because Awoists do not want such dirty linens aired. It makes them nervous and uncomfortable. It drives them to tears and to rage.
Achebe calls out other important members of the Gowon administration like Anthony Enahoro and Allison Ayida, including Gowon himself, on the same issue of genocide against Biafrans. The clear evidence of Achebe’s allegation is based on Awo’s own statement: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war…” But we do know that all is not fair in war.
There is something called the “Geneva Convention” and Awo’s war policy violated it. You do not starve civilian populations in war. It is called a war crime. Awo’s storm troopers and Brownshirts have nonetheless trooped out in great strength and have come only short of calling for Chinua Achebe’s head for his exposure of Awolowo. Calls ranging from a ban of all his books to a “Nuremberg trial” of him and all the Biafrans have been made in response.
An obscure two-penny actor, who also claims to write books by the name Femi Robinson says Achebe’s books, from Things Fall Apart, should be banned. Ayo Opadokun has made innuendos of ethnic cleansing by reminding the Igbo that much of their property is in Lagos, and presumably the Igbo, like Achebe, should be circumspect about the war.
It is a great wonder what Igbo property in Lagos and Yoruba magnanimity“permitting” the Igbo to reside and thrive in Lagos has to do with Achebe’s book, except to draw, as did many of such fierce and ignorant diatribes, Achebe as somehow voicing an “Igbo agenda.” I think Ayo Opadokun exhibits not only pitiable small-mindedness but ought to be censored and warned.
Meanwhile, the Igbo do not seek his permission or anybody’s permission for that matter to live and thrive in Lagos. Igbo who came to Lagos, and who reside everywhere in Nigeria do so because they can. They are Nigerians and have a right to live and prosper anywhere in Nigeria and be protected under the laws of Nigeria.
They do not need the magnanimity or permission of Ayo Opadokun who himself is a settler in Lagos much like the Igbo residents. Ayo Adebanjo, Femi Fani-Kayode, Biyi Durojaiye, and Ebenezer Babatope all threw their hats in the ring in challenge of Chinua Achebe’s view of their idol.
But it seems as though against Achebe’s articulate and textured views, these are Calibans learning their first curse-words against their master! They “cuss out” the writer, Achebe, but they are yet to contradict him. It is not just enough to defend Awolowo. It is important to defend him with facts; to show that Achebe has lied against him. But the evidence is too compelling. Achebe has not lied against Awo.
Even in his 1983 interview re-published to prove and indemnify his innocence, Awolowo does not deny his policy of starvation. He accounts for how he visited the East in the heat of the conflict, in his official capacity; saw “Kwashiokor children” and found out that the food allegedly sent by the Red Cross and Caritas was being hijacked by soldiers: “So I decided to stop sending the food there.
In the process the civilians will suffer. But the soldiers will suffer most.” This is illogical and counterintuitive,and it is a compelling evidence of Awolowo’s deliberate policy of starvation. It is enough to bring him before the International Criminals Court to face the kind of Justice meted out to Milosevic and Charles Taylor in whose company he belongs.
But, no! his followers say. Awo was right in using the strategy of mass starvation to end the war. These guys do not belong to a civilized century and have learnt nothing from war!The poet Odia Ofeimun for instance has spent an entire career on Awo, laboring to turn him into the first modern political saint in all of Africa. Odia’s project of apotheosis makes him mouth, in reaction to Achebe’s work, what I can only describe as blasphemy. He wants Achebe and those in Biafra who defended themselves against the Nigerian onslaught to face a “Nuremberg-style trial.”
In Mr. Ofeimun’s rather strange and, dare I say, warped logic, those Biafrans who knew about starving children without surrendering should be put to trial for genocide. But not Awo who ordered the starvation of children. He blames the victim. It is not just enough that Odia Ofeimun continues to defend atrocities meted against other humans, like all zealots, he is incapable it seems of honesty in this matter. He defends a legacy that includes genocide.
The Biafrans did not start the war and therefore did not prepare for a vicious war. They were pushed to war when the Federal Army began a two-pronged attack and they defended themselves.
The Biafrans made serious efforts before and during the war to avoid war and settle the Nigerian question amicably. At each point, they were subverted by the Federal government. People who come under siege defend themselves, Mr. Ofeimun; they do not surrender. The Biafrans did not hide the fact of massive starvation.
In fact they made it a central issue, and on each occasion when it came out, Enahoro and other Awoists in Gowon’s government denied it and put it down to “Biafran propaganda” until compelling evidence pushed them in the Niamey talks in 1968 to make starvation a “legitimate instrument of war.” Biafrans always pushed for settlement, but without precondition.
Awo wanted nothing less than to “crush” Biafra by any means as he declared during the Commonwealth Conference of Prime Ministers in London in 1969: “This war must be fought to the finish and the federal government is poised for the final push” Mr. Ofeimun may have forgotten; the honest accounts of that war are available, and among the great chroniclers of the event is a woman called Suzanne Cronje whose book published in 1972 indicts Awolowo and the Nigerian government. I recommend that Nigerians seeking honest intellection read this book side by side with Achebe’s and the truth will set us free from writers who wish that other writers be tried for telling the truth.