By Chukwuma Ajakah
Frontline democracy activist and prolific author, Arthur Agwuncha Nwankwo (1942-2020) wrote extensively on topical issues bordering on the socio-economic and political development of Nigeria, thereby, leaving a legacy that would etch the ideals he stood for in the conscience of many Nigerians. This legacy is predominantly expressed in his books on the advancement of democracy in the country and the need to genuinely reposition the country as a truly egalitarian society by infusing positive lessons garnered from past experiences such as the Civil War fought between 1967 and 1970 into the developmental process.
Prominent among his literary works in Nigeria: The Challenge of Biafra, published in 1972 by Rex Collings Ltd, London which chronicles Nwankwo’s insightful observations of the traumatic war and highlights the inherent benefits. The author’s portrayal of the Biafran situation reveals the positive and negative effects of the imbroglio on the people. Nigeria: The Challenge of Biafra is a 117-page book that revolves around the Civil War with emphasis on how the initial optimism accompanying the prospects of birthing a new nation was replaced by palpable apprehension and disillusionment as the biting reality of the inauspiciousness of the dream hit the people.
The book is crafted into five chapters with diverse thematic concerns embedded in subtitles such as “Night after Dawn”, “The Leadership”, “The Armed Forces”, “Among the Populace” and “The Challenge”. Nwankwo’s other works of note include African Possibility in the Global Power Struggle, On the Brinks of Disaster, Shadow Over Breaking Waves, Zik: Emancipation as a Paradigm-A Tribute to Ideas and Thought, Before I Die: Olusegun Obasanjo/Nwankwo Correspondence on the One-Party-State and African Dictators: The Logic of Tyranny and Lesson from History. Nigeria: The Challenge of Biafra unveils the inner workings that accounted for the might of Biafra as due largely to the formidable organizational structure which was enshrined in the various directorates and administrative committees such as National Guidance Committee, Directorate for Food Production, Research and Production Unit and External Publicity Bureau. Concerning the quality of leadership Biafra had, Nwankwo remarks that “Although it could not be maintained that Biafra at this time was perfect, it did have a certain asset that most countries strongly desire – a leadership and following that were closely attuned to the same aspirations. Dissidence was considered ‘un-Biafran’ and would be tolerated by neither the government nor the people.”
The minority question, as well as equitable representation which remains unanswered in contemporary Nigeria, is also addressed in the book: “Biafra’s solution to the minority problem was the division of the country into twenty provinces nine of which were in the non-Ibo speaking areas. It followed this up by appointing more minority people into high positions in the government. This was reflected in the appointment of the city commissioners and in the Army Commands were one of the two Biafran generals was a non-Ibo.”
The author observes that Biafra’s leadership sustained the support of the populace because “the Northern massacres lent credibility to the fear for the security of the Ibos. Whatever tune Biafra propaganda played, this was its central theme and even till the end, it retained its appeal.” Moreover, he notes that “The secret behind the success of Biafra’s propaganda machine lies in its coherence and its power of focusing. One issue was taken up at a time. Even though the language of communication changed with the audience, the central theme was always the same.” He recounts that the loss of Enugu and the Mid-West to Federal forces brought about demoralization, suspicion and disenchantment that grossly reduced the tempo of progress that Biafra was making:
“The fall of Enugu and the loss of the Mid-West marked a definite change in the attitude of Biafrans to the war. Emphasis shifted from the concept of Biafra as a militarily powerful black nation. The idea of a people fighting frantically for survival began to take hold. The emphasis was now on ‘super resistance’, ‘heroic resistance’, and ‘insuperable will to survive.’ Smashed too was the concept of a speedy war. It was replaced by the idea of a long, tedious, protracted people’s war.” The author explores the possibility of building a stronger and more united Nigeria by leveraging on the innovative improvisations and purposive determination that characterized Biafra and avoiding the loopholes that brought the entire country to the brinks of near collapse. He depicts the “Challenge of Biafra” from a tripod perspective, encompassing the people’s great expectations, a deflation of that confidence and the lessons that could be pragmatically extended to develop Nigeria.
Nwankwo reveals that Biafra had begun to demonstrate a remarkable advance in maturity in almost all fields despite the obstacles confronting her. He describes what should have been the beleaguered country’s darkest hour as her “finest hour” because despite losing about a third of her territory to the Federal might, her creative ingenuity came alive resulting in amazing inventions. He asserts that “This period bore the promise of Biafra: the promise of the first technologically advanced black nation. It was during this period that Biafra established its tradition for adaptability and improvisation which marked the Biafran resistance. Ingenious improvisations were made for scarce commodities. Coconut milk proved as good as any brake fluid. A mixture of diesel and grease served as engine oil. Worn-out engine parts were remoulded and made fit for use again. Motor mechanics built new engines from scraps.” Nwankwo cites the arrowhead of the Biafran cause, Ojukwu, as describing the new concept of the war at this stage thus: “It is the latest recrudescence in our time of the age-old struggle of the black man for his full stature as man…It is a positive commitment to build a healthy, dynamic and progressive state, such as would be the pride of black men the world over.” With regards to Ojukwu’s role in the conflict, Nwankwo stresses that “We must remember that whatever Ojukwu’s faults, whatever the calculations or miscalculations of his advisers, a man is made hero or heretic by circumstances as well as personality.”
Tracing the factors that led to the secession, Nwankwo recalls that “The combination of events, times and places that came to be called the Republic of Biafra must be made known in order to see what benefit can be derived from that phenomenon.” The author cautions against trading the blame game insisting that all Nigerians are culpable and should brace up to the consequent reality:
“Now that the war has ended, it is time to come out of our emotional cocoons and face raw facts. We must admit that all Nigerians had civil war coming. We deserved it and we had it. It is no use laying the blame on individuals or groups of persons. It serves nothing to accuse individuals or groups of callous ambitions or lust for power”. He instantiates this assertion with the maiden military coup in Nigeria; “Since most of the casualties in the January 1966 coup were Northerners, it did not take much talent to convince the people of Northern Nigeria that Ibos were planning to dominate and colonize them; that the Sarduana was killed to facilitate this plot; and that there would be other killings. Ridiculous as these fears were, they were accepted by Northerners.”
The author stresses that “When interested parties dropped their hook, the gullible masses swallowed them. The result was the eruption of bestialities – the massacre of thousands of people of Eastern Nigeria origin residence in the North.”
Similarly, he recapitulates on the scenario of Easterners fleeing from other parts of the country: “It has been asserted that the ‘call home’ was motivated by a desire to fan hate in order to gratify personal ambitions. Would anybody whose security was assured have heeded such call? In the face of such wide-scale killing, isn’t it natural that the call succeeded? Wives had seen their husbands killed, mothers had seen their daughters slaughtered, and children had seen their parents mown down. The survivors naturally believed anything. Very few people would do otherwise under similar circumstances.”
The author summarizes the pervading mood in the Biafran enclave during the war: “By May 1967, most Eastern Nigerians preferred secession to any other form of association with the rest of the Federation. By January 1970, most Biafrans wanted the war to be called off no matter how.”
He observes that the facts that occasioned the change of mind were “products of political, social and economic factors. These factors, at first, interacted throughout all Nigeria, but later, they worked most intensely within the densely populated confines of Biafra.” Nwankwo observes that “Scarcity of food and other necessities made living almost intolerable. Three meals a day became a luxury which can be enjoyed only by the top few…. Under such hardships, weeds of decay began to creep into the society and the gleam of the Biafran promise began to fade. Fraud became common in the directorates… Food meant for men in the trenches was diverted to homes and market stalls.”