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Achebe left “a moral vacuum for the Igbo writer to emerge and the conscientious writer to go under” – Damola Awoyokun

[In this in-depth and no-holds-barred essay on Achebe’s civil war book, THERE WAS A COUNTRY … which continues to generate tons of controversy, Awoyokun asserts that –

Achebe left  “a moral vacuum for the Igbo writer to emerge and the conscientious writer to go under” in presenting an ethnocentric writer who narrated – almost gleefully – the butchering of a “wandering Nigerian soldier” by Biafran soldiers while almost glossing over atrocities committed by Biafran soldiers in his latest book which seems to have taken Nigeria back to the war era. 

Awoyokun believes that Achebe, in this presumably last book, There Was A Country, “is the writer in whose company dangerous walls are rising up: walls of tribal hatred, walls of lies, walls of sloppy thinking and lazy research, wall of propaganda and walls of moral ineptitude”, an allusion to Mandela’s description of Achebe as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”

It IS a fairly long piece but I could not put it down till I had finished reading it – almost like a Ludlum book, especially the Bourne Trilogy!  TOLA, February 27 2013.]

Achebe and the Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent:
Biafra Files

Achebe and the Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent:
Biafra Files
A writer should not be an accomplice to lies. Even when thorns infect the
land, a writer must embody and defend the perennial destiny of high values
and principles. It is not the business of a writer to side with the
powerless against the powerful; the powerless can be thoughtless and wrong.
(The Nazi party was once a powerless group). A writer should not prefer
falsehoods to reality just because they serve patriotic ends. In times of
great upheavals in a multi-ethnic society, a writer should get out and warn
the society that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its
consequences. Pride in one’s ethnic identity is good, patriotism is
fantastic but when they are not properly moderated by other higher
considerations, they can prove more destructive than nuclear weapons.I was at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife when another round of the war of
self-determination and secession broke out between Modakeke and Ife. As the
war escalated, a single bullet wasn’t enough to kill the “enemy,” he had to
be butchered into little pieces and the severed heads displayed at each
other’s market squares to huge approval and celebration. Such was the power
of the mutual hatred unleashed from their pride in their respective ethnic
identities that these two communities were not rebuked by the fact that they
were both Yoruba, both Nigerians, or that the massacres were being
conducted around the famed cradle of Yoruba civilization.Patriotism when deployed must always be simultaneously governed by
something higher and lower than itself like the arms of a democratic
government. These provide checks and balances so that patriotism doesn’t
become a false conception of greatness at the expense of other tribes or
nations.

It is for this reason that we proceed to discuss Achebe’s patriotic autobiography,

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra in the light of something

higher than it: 21,000 pages of Confidential, Secret, Top Secret US State

Department Central Files on Nigeria-Biafram1967- 1969 and something lower:

The Education of a British Protected Child by Chinua Achebe himself.

…A Country is written for modern day Igbos to know from where the injustice
of their existence originated. Achebe’s logic is neat but too simple:

Africa began to suffer 500 years ago when Europe discovered it (that is,
there was no suffering or intertribal wars before then in Africa). Nigeria
began to suffer when Lord Lugard amalgamated it. And Igbos began to suffer
because of the event surrounding the Biafran secession. To Achebe, there
should have been more countries in the behemoth Lord Lugard cobbled
together called Nigeria. What Achebe does not take into account is the role
rabid tribalism plays in doing violence to social cohesion which makes
every region counterproductively seek a perfect answer in demanding its
own nation state.

There are over 250 tribes in Nigeria and there cannot be
over 250 countries in Nigeria. There are officially 645 distinctive tribes
in India and only one country. All over the world there are tens of
thousands of tribes and there are only 206 countries. What the tribes that
constitute Nigeria need to learn for the unity of the country is the
democratization of their tribal loyalties. And that inevitably leads to
gradual detribalization of consciousness which makes it possible to treat a
person as an individual and not basically a member of another tribe. That
is the first error of Achebe.

Instead of writing the book as a writer who is Igbo, Achebe wrote the book
as an Igbo writer hence working himself into a Zugzwang bind. In chess, once
you are in this bind, every step you make weakens your position further and
further. All the places that should alarm the moral consciousness of any
writer, Achebe is either indifferent to or dismisses them outright because
the victims are not his people. However, in every encounter that shows
Igbos being killed or resented by Nigerians, or by the Yoruba in
particular, Achebe intensifies the spotlight, deploying stratospheric
rhetoric, including quotes from foreign authors with further elaborations
in endnotes to show he is not partial. Achebe calls upon powerfully-
coercive and emotive words and phrasings to dignify what is clearly repugnant
to reason. Furthermore, not only does he take pride in ignoring the
findings of common sense, he allocates primetime attention to facts-free
rants just because they say his people are the most superior tribe in
Nigeria. The book, to say the least, is a masterpiece of propaganda and
sycophancy. And yet it is not a writer’s business to be an accomplice to
lies.

First let’s take Achebe’s Christopher Okigbo. Throughout the book, Achebe
presents Okigbo in loving moments complete with tender details: Okigbo
attending to Achebe’s wife during labour, Okigbo ordering opulent room
service dishes for Achebe’s wife in a swank hotel while millions were
allegedly dying of starvation and Achebe was out of the country, Okigbo
being a dearly beloved uncle to Achebe’s children, Okigbo opening a
publishing house in the middle of the war. Out of the blues he writes that
he hears on Radio Nigeria the death of Major Christopher Okigbo. Major?

The reader is completely shocked and feels revulsion for the side that killed
him and sympathy for the side that lost him. Unlike other accounts like Obi
Nwakanma’s definitive biography of Okigbo, Achebe skips details of Okigbo
running arms and ammunition from Birmingham to Biafra and also from place
to place in Biafra; he omits the fact that Okigbo was an active-duty
guerrilla fighter killing the other side before he himself got killed. Like
many other episodes recounted in the book, Achebe photoshops the true
picture so that readers would allocate early enough which side should merit
their sympathy, which side should be slated for revulsion. Pities,
cheap sympathy, sloppy sentimentalism, one-sided victimhood are what are on
sale throughout the book. Achebe of course is preparing the reader for his
agenda at the end of the book.

To Achebe, the final straw that led to secession was the alleged 30,000
Igbos killed in the North. He carefully structures the narrative to locate
the reason for this systematic killing/pogrom/ethnic-cleansing in the
so-called usual resentment of Igbos and not from the fallout of the first
coup in the history of Nigeria. Achebe dismisses the targeted
assassinations as not an Igbo coup. The two reasons Achebe gives are
because there was a Yoruba officer among the coup plotters and that the
alleged leader of the coup, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was Igbo in name
only. “Not only was he born in Kaduna, the capital of the Muslim North, he
was widely known as someone who saw himself as a Northerner, spoke fluent
Hausa and little Igbo, and wore the Northern traditional dress when not in
uniform(pg 79).”

Really? First, it was not mysterious that Azikiwe left the country in October

1965 on an endless medical cruise to Britain and the Caribbean. Dr. Idemudia

Idehen, his personal doctor, abandoned him when he got tired of the endless medical

trip. Not even the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference never held outside

London but hosted in Lagos for the first time in early January was incentive enough

for Azikiwe to return and yet he was the president of the nation.

In a revelation contained in the American secret documents, it was Azikiwe’s presidential bodyguards that Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the coup’s mastermind, used to capture the Prime
Minister, Abubakar Balewa. Once Ifeajuna and Major Donatus Okafor, the
Commanding officer of the Federal Guards tipped off Azikiwe about the
planned bloodshed, Okafor, Godfrey Ezedigbo and other Guards became freer
to meet 12km away in Ifeajuna’s house in Apapa to take the plan to the next
level. The recruitment for the ringleaders was done between August and
October 1965. Immediately Azikiwe left, planning and training for the
execution began.

Second, the eastern leadership was spared when others were brutally wasted.
Third, the head of state Major-General Aguyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, didn’t try
and execute the coup plotters as was the practice if it were a pure
military affair. (Ojukwu told Suzanne Cronje, the British-South African
author that he asked Aguyi-Ironsi to take over and told him how to unite
the army behind him. That was the reason he made him the governor of
Eastern Region.) Four, when Awolowo, Bola Ige, Anthony Enahoro, Lateef
Jakande, etc were imprisoned for sedition, they served their terms in
Calabar away from their regions as was the normal practice. When Wole
Soyinka was imprisoned for activities at the beginning of the civil war, he
was sent to faraway Kaduna and Jos prisons but the ring leaders of coup
plotters were moved from Lagos back to the Eastern Region, among their
people on the advice of Ojukwu. Five, during the Aburi negotiations, why
was full reprieve for the coup plotters put on the table? Six, a freed
Nzeogwu by April 1967 before the secession joined in training recruits in
Abakaliki for the inevitable war with Nigeria. He later died on the Nsukka
front fighting for Biafra. Yet that was Achebe’s Hausa-speaking,
kaftan-wearing Kaduna man, who is Igbo in name only. It was an Igbo coup.
(The same repackaging was attempted for the invasion and occupation of the
Midwest. It was called liberation of the Midwest from Hausa-Fulani
domination when it was simply another Igbo coup for Igbo ends planned in
Enugu albeit headed by a Yoruba, Colonel Victor Banjo)

The January coup didn’t foment a much more viscera response in Western
Region since their assassinated political leader was part of the corrupt,
troublesome, election-rigging class. To Westerners, the coup was good
riddance to bad rubbish. However to the Northerners who were feudal in
their social organization and Hobbesian in their consciousness, it was a
different matter.

Sir Ahmadu Bello, the slain Sardauna of Sokoto was their all in all;

he was the heir to the powerful Sokoto Caliphate and descendant
of Usman dan Fodio. More than Azikiwe and Awolowo, Sardauna was the most
powerful politician in Nigeria (pg 46). Murdering him was murdering the
pride of a people. Achebe chooses to ignore this perspective and more
importantly was the fact that Igbos in the North were widely taunting their
hosts on the loss of their leaders with Rex Lawson’s song “Ewu Ne Ba Akwa”
(Goats are crying) and others celebrating “Igbo power”, the “January
Victory.” Posters, stickers, postcards, cartoons displaying the murdered
Sardauna begging Nzeogwu at the gates of heaven or Balewa burning outright
in pits of hell, or Nzeogwu standing St George-like on Sardauna the
defeated dragon began to show up across Northern towns and cities.

These provocations were so pervasive that they warranted the promulgation of
Decree 40 of 1966 banning them. The Igbos didn’t stop. Azikiwe is more
honest than Achebe. In his pamphlet, The Origins of the Civil War, he
writes: “…some Ibo elements who were domiciled in Northern Nigeria taunted
Northerners by defaming their leaders through means of records or songs or
pictures. They also published pamphlets and postcards which displayed a
peculiar representation of certain Northerners, living or dead, in a manner
likely to provoke disaffection.” It was these images and songs that
eventually led to the so-called pogroms/ethnic-cleansing/genocide, not the
coup. The coup was in January, the pogroms started late in May, and the
provocations were in between.

However Igbos in the East did not sit idly by. They started the massacre of
innocent Northerners in their midst. Achebe chose to ignore this account
since it doesn’t serve his agenda so we return to Azikiwe:

 

 “Between August and September 1966, either by chance or by design, hundreds

of Hausa, Fulani, Nupe and Igalla-speaking peoples of Northern Nigeria origin
residing in the Eastern Nigeria were abducted and massacred in Aba,
Abakaliki, Enugu, Onitsha and Port Harcourt.”

 

It is important to note that these Northerners never published nor circulated

irreverent or taunting pictures of Eastern leaders unlike the Igbos of the North, they were just
massacred for being Northerners. The government of Eastern Region did not
stop these massacres. Neither did the Igbo intellectuals. Ojukwu, the
military administrator even made a radio broadcast saying that he can no
longer guarantee the security of non-Eastern Nigerians in the East,
Easterners who did not return to Igboland would be looked on as traitors.

This was when Professor Sam Aluko who was the head of Economics department
at University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a personal friend of Ojukwu fled back
to the West. Azikiwe continues in his book:

 

“Eyewitnesses gave on-the-spot accounts of corpses floating in the Imo River and

River Niger. [Faraway]Radio Cotonou broadcast this macabre news, which was

suppressed by Enugu Radio. Then Radio Kaduna relayed it and this sparked off the
massacres of September – October 1966 [in the North]”.

Achebe, like Enugu Radio, suppressed this information and goes on to pivot
the `pogrom’ on the fact that Igbos were resented because they were the
most superior, most successful tribe in the country. He claims they were
“the dominant tribe (pg 233)” “led the nation in virtually every sector –
politics, education, commerce, and the arts(pg 66),” which included having
two vice chancellors in Yoruba land; they the Igbos, are the folkloric
“leopard, the wise and peaceful king of the animals (pg177),” they
“spearheaded”(pg 97) the struggle to free Nigeria from colonial rule: “This
group, the Igbo, that gave the colonizing British so many headaches and
then literarily drove them out of Nigeria was now an open target,
scapegoats for the failings and grievances of colonial and post-independent
Nigeria(pg 67).” An Igboman, Achebe writes, has “an unquestioned advantage
over his compatriots…Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary
religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional
hierarchies…Although the Yoruba had a huge historical head start, the Igbo
wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty
years between1930 to1950 (pg 74).”

Beside the fact that this has a language consistent with white supremacist

literature, Achebe, to demonstrate he is not partial or a chauvinist, based

himself on a 17 page report by Paul Anber in Journal of Modern African Studies titled Modernization and Political Disintegration: Nigeria and the Ibos.
I looked up the 1967 journal. Curiously this `scholar’ was designated as “a
member of staff of one of the Nigerian Universities.” Why would a scholar hide
his place of work in a journal? I checked the essays and book reviews in
all the 196 issues of Journal of Modern African Studies from Volume 1 issue
1 of January 1963 to the last issue Volume 49 November 2011, there was
nowhere a piece was published and the designation of the scholar vague or
hidden. Also this Paul Anber never published any piece before and after
this article in this or any other journal. I wanted to start checking the
academic staff list of the five universities in Nigeria then until I
realized again that it says “he is a staff of Nigerian university;” I would
have to check the names of janitors and cleaners, and other non-academic
staff too.

The truth is Paul Anber is a fake name under which someone else
or a group of people possibly Igbo, is masquerading. And he/they never used
this name again for any other piece or books. So that this ruse would not
be found out was the reason he/they hid his/their university. And this
piece like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion has been the cornerstone of
books and widely quoted by other journals over a period 45 years. It is the
cornerstone of the chapter A History Of Ethnic Tension And Resentment which
Achebe used to skew the motive for Igbo people’s maltreatment from the
fallout of January 1966 coup and the inflammatory provocations they
published to resentment for being allegedly the most successful and
dominant tribe in Nigeria.

Had Achebe not been overdosing on rabid Igbo nationalism, he would have had
his chest-beating ethnic bombasts inflected by a deeper and more sobering
analysis of the Nigerian situation in the next essay in the Journal: The
Inevitability of Instability by a real and existing Professor James
O’Connell, an Irish priest and professor of government in a real and
existing institution: Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. O’ Connell argues
that the lack of constitutionalism and disregard for rule of law fuel
psychology of insecurities in all ethnic groups. He fingers as an
inevitable cause of our national instability, Nigerians’ “failure to find
an identity and loyalty beyond their primordial communities that lead them
constantly to choose their fellow workers, political and administrative,
from the same community, ignoring considerations of merit.”

The symbolism of Igbos heading the University of Ibadan and University of
Lagos both in Yoruba land was a positive image to assist Tiv, Hausa, Ijaw,
Urhobo, Yoruba, Ibibio, Igbo, Efik, etc students shed their over-loyalty to
their respective primordial communities and to fashion a higher sense of
identity that is national in character and federal in outlook. To Achebe,
the symbolism was an example of the dominance and superiority of Igbos. “It
would appear that the God of Africa has created the Ibo nation to lead the
children of Africa from the bondage of ages,”

Paul Anber quotes Azikiwe saying in his West African Pilot,

“History has enabled them not only to conquer others but also to adapt

themselves to the role of preserver… The Ibo nation cannot shirk its

responsibility.”

Anber says in his/their essay:
“The Ibo reaction to the British was not typically one of complete
rejection and resistance, though Ibos were militantly anti-colonial. Since
modernisation is in many respects basically a process of imitation, the
Ibos modelled themselves after their masters, seeing, as Simon Ottenberg
put it, that `The task was not merely to control the British influence but
to capture it.’ To some degree, it may be said that this is precisely what
they proceeded to do. Faced with internal problems of land hunger,
impoverished soil, and population pressure, the Ibos migrated in large
numbers to urban areas both in their own region and in the North and West …”

The spirit of inclusive humanism, the Martin Luther King Ideal, the Mandela
Example, the conscience of a writer should necessitate that if a child in
Sokoto goes to bed hungry someone in Umuahia should get angry. If a
pregnant woman in Kotangora needs justice someone in Patani should be able
to stand up and fight for her. If an Osu group is being maltreated in
Igboland, someone in Zaria should stand up and defend them. But to Achebe,
there should be no mercy for the weak in so far as he or she is unfortunate
enough to belong to the other side.

Take for instance the butchering of the lone shell-shocked “Mali-Chad mercenary”

wandering around “dazed and aimless” in the bush Achebe witnessed. To show the

fight-to-finish courage of his people in face of overwhelming force, he describes how Major
Jonathan Uchendu’s Abagana Ambush succeeded in destroying Colonel Murtala
Mohammed’s convoy of 96 vehicles, four armoured vehicle killing 500
Nigerians in one and a half hours.

 

 “There were widespread reports of atrocities perpetrated by angry Igbo villagers

who captured wandering soldiers. I was an eyewitness to one such angry bloody frenzy of
retaliation after a particularly tall and lanky soldier – clearly a mercenary from Chad

or Mali wandered into an ambush of young men with machetes. His lifeless body was found mutilated on the roadside in a matter of seconds (pg 173).”

Achebe does not tell us if he tried to prevent this cold-blooded butchering
even though there was an episode where he intervened to save the life and
chastity of a Biafran woman arguing with some wandering Nigerian soldiers
who wanted to requisition her goat for food (pg 201). If Achebe couldn’t
intervene in the butchering, what did he think of the killing then or now
that he is writing the book with the benefit of hindsight? Shouldn’t the
man have been handed over as a prisoner of war? Was his killing not a
violation of Geneva conventions which he so much accused the Nigerian side
of disrespecting (pg 212)? Did villagers behaving this way not rebus sic
stantibus
blur the lines between soldiers and civilians, hence making
themselves fair game in war? Also notice how Achebe starts the narration
with an active first person voice:

“I was an eye witness to…” and how he quickly switches to a passive third

person voice in the next sentence: “His body was found…” Achebe quickly

goes AWOL “in a matter of seconds” leaving a moral vacuum for the Igbo writer

to emerge and the conscientious writer to go under.

When atrocities are being committed against Biafrans, Achebe deploys strong
active voice (subject + verb), isolates the aggressive phrases of military
bravado with italics or quotation marks. But when Biafra is caught
committing the atrocity, he employs passive sentence structures, euphemisms
and never isolates pledges of murder in italics or quotation marks. Take
the “Kwale Incident (pg 218)” that eventually became an international
embarrassment for Biafra. Based on an unsubstantiated source, he writes,
“Biafran military intelligence allegedly obtained information that foreign
oilmen…were allegedly providing sensitive military information to federal
forces – about Biafran troop positions, strategic military manoeuvres, and
training.” So they decided to invade. “At the end of the `exercise’,”
Achebe writes, “eleven workers had been killed”

Also compare these two accounts: the background is the Biafran invasion of
Midwest. Despite Ojukwu’s assurance to them before the secession that he
would absolutely respect their choice of belonging to neither side, he
invaded them, occupied their land, foisted his government on them, took
charge of their resources, looted the Central Bank of Nigeria in Benin, set
up military check points in several places to regulate the flow of goods
and human beings, imposed dawn-to-dusk curfews, flooded the airwaves with
Biafran propaganda, imprisoned and executed dissidents on a daily basis
according to Nowa Omoigui’s The Invasion of Midwest and Samuel Ogbemudia’s
Years of Challenge
.

In fact, “The Hausa community in the Lagos street area
of Benin and other parts of the state were targeted for particularly savage
treatment, in part a reprisal for the pogroms of 1966, but also out of
security concerns that they would naturally harbour sympathies for the
regime in Lagos,”
Omoigui writes. The Midwesterners regarded Biafrans as
traitors. And the Nigerian army came to the rescue.

Achebe writes: “The retreating Biafran forces, according to several
accounts, allegedly beat up a number of Mid-Westerners who they believed
had served as saboteurs. Nigerian radio reports claimed that the Biafrans
shot a number of innocent civilians as they fled the advancing federal
forces. As disturbing as these allegations are, I have found no credible
corroboration of them (pg 133).” Yes, he can’t find it; they were not his
people. Also note his euphemisms: “allegedly beat up”… “shot a number of
innocent civilians”(shot not killed). He writes: “a number of innocents” to
disguise the fact that massacres took place. He also writes: “saboteurs.”
Midwesterners collaborated with federal forces to liberate their lands from
Biafran traitors and occupiers, Achebe calls them “saboteurs.” Now note in
the next paragraph how he describes what happened to his people when the
federal army in hot pursuance of the Biafran soldiers reached the Igbo side
of the Midwest. It is noisily headlined: The Asaba Massacre (pg 133).

“Armed with direct orders to retake the occupied areas at all costs, this
division rounded up and shot as many defenceless Igbo men as they could
find. Some reports place the death toll at five hundred, others as high as
one thousand. The Asaba Massacre, as it would be known, was only one of
many such post-pogrom atrocities committed by Nigerian soldiers during the
war. It became a particular abomination for Asaba residents, as many of
those killed were titled Igbo chiefs and common folk alike, and their
bodies were disposed of with reckless abandon in mass graves, without
regard to the wishes of the families of the victims or the town’s ancient
traditions.”

Then he goes on to quote lengthily from books and what the
Pope’s emissary said about it in a French newspaper, what Gowon said, what
was said at Oputa panel etc., etc. He found time to research. They were his
people unlike other Midwestern tribes’ sufferings he couldn’t find
“credible corroboration of.” Achebe is incapable of being interested in the
sufferings of others.

In the chapter The Calabar Massacre, Achebe not only totally blanks out the
well-documented atrocities including massacres Biafran forces committed
against the Efiks, Ibibios, Ikwerre, when they occupied their lands and
when they were retreating in the face of Federal onslaught, he goes on to
tell lies against the federal forces. Achebe writes:

“By the time the Nigerians were done they had `shot at least 1,000 and perhaps

2,000 Ibos[sic], most of them civilians.’ There were other atrocities throughout
the region. `In Oji River,’ The Times of London reported on August 2, 1968,
`the Nigerian forces opened fire and murdered fourteen nurses and the
patients in the wards.'” Achebe continues still referring to the same Times
article: “In Uyo and Okigwe more innocent lives were lost to the brutality
and bloodlust of the Nigerian soldiers
(pg137).”

How the fact checking services of his publishers allowed him to get away with these

is baffling. I looked up the 1968 piece of course. It is a syndicated story written by
Lloyd Garrison of the New York Times to balance the piece by John Young
which appeared three days before. In the piece Achebe quotes, there is no
mention of Uyo or Okigwe or Oji River at all.

This is what is in the piece – the journalist was quoting Brother Aloysius,
an Irish missionary in Uturu, 150km away from Abakaliki:

“But when they took Abakaliki, they put the 11 white fathers there on house

arrest. In the hospital outside Enugu, they shot all the fourteen Biafran nurses who
stayed behind, then went down the wards killing the patients as well. It
was the same thing in Port Harcourt.”

This missionary had believed the ruthlessly-efficient Biafran propaganda service.

Because of the atrocities Nigeria soldiers committed in the Ogoja –Nsukka front and the revenge killings in Asaba, the world had been alerted and it was hurting Nigeria’s
arms procurement abroad. So Gowon agreed to an international observer team made of representatives from UN general secretary and OAU to monitor the activities of the three Nigerian divisions and the claims of Radio Biafra. In their first report released on 9th October 1968, there was no evidence of the killings even though it was brought to their attention. Even Lloyd Garrison and other members of the international press corps in Biafra couldn’t find evidence of that particular killings in the hospital. Also note Achebe’s statement: “By the time the Nigerians were done they had `shot at least 1,000 and perhaps 2,000 Ibos[sic], most of

them civilians.'”

How can an intelligent mind write “they had shot at least 1,000” which an uncertainty, and then following it up with another uncertainty: “perhaps 2,000 Ibos”, and then say with certainty “most of them are civilians”? How can you say for sure that most of them are civilians when you are not even sure whether they are 1000 or 2000? It defies sense and logic to build a certainty on two concurrent uncertainties and then call it the truth. But that is the meaning of propaganda.

William Berndhardt of Markpress and Robert Goldstein were on contract from Ojukwu to handle Biafra’s marketing and propaganda. Nathaniel Whittemore’s seminal thesis, How Biafra Came to Be: Genocide, starvation and American Imagination of the Nigerian Civil War
revealed how they did it and how it worked.

Achebe proceeds to celebrate “the great ingenuity” of scientists from Biafran Research and Production Unit who developed “a great number of rockets, bombs, and telecommunication gadgets, and devised an ingenious indigenous strategy to refine petroleum.” Then he drops the most disingenuously incongruous jaw-dropping statement in the book: “I would like to make it crystal clear that I abhor violence, and a discussion of the weapons of war does not imply that I am a war enthusiast or condone violence (pg 156).” That is Achebe who pages before lamented the lack of weapons for his people; that is Achebe who travelled the world soliciting material relief including arms for Biafra; that is Achebe who watched the butchering of a lone mercenary without flinching; that is Achebe who told Rajat Neogy on pg 105: “Portugal has not given us any arms. We buy arms on the black market. What we cannot get elsewhere, we try and make.”

But there is a reason why he drops this dishonest statement here; he is
preparing us for what is coming next. We all know what happened in The
Godfather when Don Michael Corleone renounced Satan and all his evil works:

Achebe begins to praise the indigenously manufactured bomb, “Ogbunigwe”
(meaning mass killer, a translation unlike others Achebe doesn’t include in
the book for obvious reasons). He continues: “Ogbunigwe bombs struck great
terror in the hearts of many a Nigerian soldier, and were used to great
effect by the Biafran army throughout the conflict. The novelist Vincent
Chukwuemeka Ike captures the hysteria and dread evoked by it in a passage
in his important book Sunset at Dawn: A Novel about Biafra: When the
history of this war comes to be written, the ogbunigwe[sic] and the shore
batteries will receive special mention as Biafra’s greatest saviours. We’ve
been able to wipe out more Nigerians with those devices than with any
imported weapons”

If the other side dare uses “wipe out,” Achebe would have flagged it at an
evidence of the plan to “annihilate the Igbos” but here, he let it pass
without comment. It is from his side. And Ogbunigwe was not a product of
Igbo ingenuity; it was a “bespectacled” American mercenary from MIT
uncovered by the Irish journalist Donal Musgrave that was secretly training
Biafrans on how to use fertilizers to make bombs (cf 13 August 1968 cable
from American embassy in Dublin to the one in the Lagos).

In the book, Achebe narrates the many diplomatic missions – official and
unofficial – he embarked on for the secession. A particularly telling one
was to the President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor (pg162). He and Ojukwu were
attracted to Senghor because of his Negritude philosophical movement. [This
story of course is not true. Sam Agbam who Achebe claimed he travelled with
was executed alongside with Victor Banjo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Philip
Alale in Enugu on Saturday 23rd September 1967. What Achebe went to warn
Senghor about didn’t become an issue until June 1968 when Biafra was losing
and Ojukwu had to move the capital further south to the heartland of
Umuahia then to Orlu. And there was a monstrously centripetal migration of
Igbos towards the new capital which resulted in the humanitarian
catastrophe. And the Uli airport Achebe claimed they flew from hadn’t being
constructed before his travel companion Sam was executed on 23rd September
1967. It was constructed and opened for use in August 1968 because Enugu
and Port Harcourt which were Biafra’s only airports had fallen into the
hands of Nigerians. So let’s take Achebe’s story as story and move on].
Achebe tells us after days of bureaucratic obstacles, he directly delivered
to Senghor, Ojukwu’s personal letter that “informs him of the real
catastrophe building up in Biafra.” Senghor, Achebe writes, “glanced
through the letter quickly, and then turned to me and said he would deal
with it overnight…as soon as possible (pg 162).”

Throughout the book Achebe never says what Senghor’s response was. That alone
should alert the reader that the response wasn’t flattering to the Biafran
cause since Achebe usually suppresses unfavourable views and information.

In the Foreword, Senghor wrote during the war for Ralph Uwechue’s book,
Reflections on Nigerian Civil War: Call for Realism, we see the reason why
Achebe chooses to omit Senghor’s stand. Senghor delivers a classic rebuke
to Achebe, Ojukwu and the very idea of Biafra. First, Senghor effusively
praises Uwechue: “here at last, is a man of courage and sense,” who didn’t
forgo “his ibotism, but because in him this is transcended by a national
will, he thus acquires the force to judge both facts and men with serene
objectivity.” He said reading the manuscript and encountering arguments
“for the unity of Nigeria,” Ralph Uwechue “won him over at once.” Note that
with Ojukwu’s letter which Achebe brought, Senghor “glanced through”
“quickly” and promised to do something overnight. Then he started
discussing philosophy and literature with Achebe. Ojukwu’s letter never
“won him over at once.” Yet the letter warned of the urgency of Biafran
humanitarian calamity. Clearly, Senghor wasn’t falling for the emotional
manipulations the Biafrans are using the humanitarian situation to market
like salesmen of dubious goods. Uwechue’s says that all the countries
(African) that recognised Biafra as a state did so because of the
humanitarian catastrophe not that they saw any value in a sovereign Biafra.
He writes:

“The leaders of Biafra should understand that the sympathy which compelled
these countries to give them recognition was provoked by the suffering of
the ordinary people whom the Biafran leadership despite their earlier
assurances proved unable to protect and that the act of recognition was not
a premeditated approval of the political choice of secession. Like the
secession itself, it was more a REACTION AGAINST than a DECISION FOR.”

I recommend Ralph Uwechue’s book to every Nigerian not only because of the
analysis and conclusions he supplies about the war, but because the man is
coruscatingly intelligent. President Senghor praises him further: “what he
proposes to us, after presenting us with a series of verifiable facts, is
more than just a solution. It is a method of finding solutions that are at
once just and effective. Herein lies his double merit. Uwechue is a man
well informed and consequently objective. He is a man of principle who is
at the same time a realist. All through the length of the work, which is
clear and brief, we find the combination of practice and theory, of
methodical pragmatism and moral rationalism – a characteristic which marks
out the very best amongst the anglophones.” In other words, he is
everything Achebe is not.

Of course the epic humanitarian catastrophe was Biafra’s golden goose.
Their leaders were drumming give-us-guns songs and dances on the bloated
bellies of those kwashiorkor children. Achebe writes revealingly: “Ojukwu
seized upon this humanitarian emergency and channelled the Biafran
propaganda machinery to broadcast and showcase the suffering of Biafra to
the world. In one speech he accused Gowon of a `calculated war of
destruction and genocide.’ Known in some circles as the `Biafran babies’
speech, it was hugely effective and touched the hearts of many around the
world. This move was brilliant in a couple of respects. First, it deflected
from himself or his war cabinet any sentiment of culpability and outrage
that might have been welling up in the hearts and minds of Biafrans, and
second, it was anotheropportunity to cast his arch nemesis, Gowon, in a
negative light (pg 210; italics mine).” Ojukwu never made efforts to take
care of those little children as any leader with a heart would do. Instead,
Achebe continues: he “dispatched several of his ambassadors to world’s
capitals hoping to build on the momentum from his broadcast.” But the world
capitals refused to be duped. Their spies and diplomats were collating
objective facts and insider’s accounts. Sir Louis Mbanefo, the Biafran
chief justice, then emitted a nessum dorma howl: “…if we are condemned to
die, all right, we will die. But at least let the world, and the United
States, be honest about it (pg 211).”

Uwechue did what Achebe never did: acting from a firm moral base, he
berated Ojukwu and all the Biafran leaders for rallying Igbos to die en
mass for the secession. “Sovereignty or mass suicide,” he writes “is an
irresponsible slogan unworthy of the sanction or encouragement of any
serious and sensible leadership.” What could have caused a thinking man to
at least flinch, Achebe rejoices in. Here the unthinking man is narrating
the “explosion of musical, lyrical, and poetic creativity and artistry
(pg151)” that the Biafran war had brought about:

 

 “But if the price is death for all we hold dear,/ Then let us die without a

shred of fear…/Spilling our blood we’ll count a privilege;…/

We shall remember those who died in mass;…(pg 152)”

That is the Biafran national anthem, Land of the Rising Sun.

Achebe continues: “The anthem was set to the beautiful music of the
Finnish composer Jean Sibelius….” For Igbos to ever compare the Biafran
deaths to the Holocaust is to desecrate the Holocaust and cast insults on
the memory of the Jewish dead. European Jewry never had an anthem rallying
themselves to mass deaths this way.

Another telling episode in the book is the war-ready celebrations amongst
Biafran Christians in their houses of God: “Biafran churches made links to
the persecution of the early Christians, others on radio to the Inquisition
and the persecution of the Jewish people. The prevalent mantra of the time
was `Ojukwu nye anyi egbe ka anyi nuo agha’ – `Ojukwu give us guns to fight
a war.’ It was an energetic, infectious duty song, one sung to a well-known
melody and used effectively to recruit young men into the People’s Army
(the army of the Republic of Biafra). But in the early stages of the war,
when the Biafran army grew quite rapidly, sadly Ojukwu had no guns to give
those brave souls(pg 171).” Yes Achebe’s words: `sadly’… `brave souls’… in
the house of God? Yet pages before, Don Michael Corleone told us he had
renounced Satan and all his evil works.

The wrongheaded intransigence of Ojukwu to take another path in place of
secession that was even alarming to neutral observers never makes it into
this book unlike other books that recounted the stories. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s
Origins of Civil War lists the properties Ojukwu stole even before he
declared secession: how “he obstructed the passage of goods belonging to
neighbouring countries like, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and expropriated
them.” Achebe writes that wealthy Biafrans’ private accounts were used to
buy hardwares for the war. He never tells us that Ojukwu stole via armed
robbery, money worth billions in today rates at the CBN branches at Benin,
Calabar and Enugu because he had no money to prosecute a war he was
obsessed with fighting without thinking the consequences through very well.
Achebe never berates Ojukwu both then and now that he is recollecting with
benefit of hindsight on clearly stupid judgements.

For instance, swindled by propaganda, Dick Tiger, the Liverpool-based

Nigerian boxer renounced his MBE to come and fight on the side of Biafra.

Achebe writes: “Ojukwu made Dick Tiger a lieutenant in the army of Biafra

as soon as he enlisted (pg158.)” That is a man with no military training or

background was given over hundred fighters to command as an assistant of

a captain by just showing up in Nigeria.

Instead of upbraiding him, Achebe goes on to praise Ojukwu as a man who
needed little or no advice. “This trait would bring Ojukwu in direct
collision with some senior Biafrans, such as Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, [Dr]
Michael Okpara, Dr Okechukwu Ikejiani and a few others who were concerned
about Ojukwu’s tendency toward introversion and independent decision making
(pg119).”

The US State Department’s files on Ojukwu did not dignify dictatorship with

fanciful language the way Achebe does; they called it by its proper name. Here is

a telegram cabled to Washington and some other American embassies worldwide:

“Internal situation has changed a great deal since secession was first
declared. Ojukwu now rules as a dictator and moves about surrounded by
retinue of relatives and yes men. Responsible Ibos who had been advising
him at the start of the war have been eliminated in one way or the other
from the picture because they came to believe accommodation of some sorts
would have to be reached with FMG [Gowon’s Federal Military Government].
Situation is so bad that Biafran representative in Paris Okechukwu Mezu has
quit in disgust. Azikiwe refuses to go back to Biafra and is sitting in
London as an exile. Ojukwu’s propaganda machine, by succeeding in creating
the impression of some forward movement, masked the cold fact that Biafrans
are unable to break out of FMG’s encirclement.”

That was 2nd of February 1969. Had Ojukwu listened to the advice of
“responsible Ibos” in his inner caucus all along, more lives would have
been saved, instead he surrounded himself with irresponsible Igbos like
Achebe and other yes men. Take the chapter The Republic of Biafra: The
Intellectual Foundation of a New Nation. Achebe’s committee was National
Guidance Committee; his office was in Ojukwu’s state house. “Ojukwu then
told me he wanted the new committee to report directly to him, outside the
control of the cabinet. I became immediately apprehensive…Nevertheless I
went ahead and chose a larger committee of experts for the task at hand (pg
144).” Then the experts started to work on what was to become the Ahiara
Declaration which Ojukwu read on radio June 1, 1969 “very close to the end
of the war.” There was starvation, great panic, epidemic, anxiety,
bereavements and despair in the streets. Even according to Biafra’s
propaganda statistics over a million were already dead. The war was
obviously unwinnable. Federal forces had captured Enugu Biafra’s first
capital, Umuahia, the second capital, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, Calabar,
Nsukka and many places in Biafra. Biafran troops were desperately fleeing
and hiding. Yet Achebe and his Oxford and Cambridge Igbo intellectuals who
clearly had the ear of power to tell Ojukwu the truth and prevent further
deaths, were busy writing sycophantic declarations. [N.U. Akpan who was the
secretary to Biafran government was particularly scathing on these
“arrogant” “ignorant” intellectuals too in his account of the war] “The day
this declaration was published and read by Ojukwu was a day of celebration
in Biafra,” Achebe writes. “My late brother Frank described the effect of
this Ahiara Declaration this way:

 

`Odika si gbabia agbagba’ (It was as if we should be dancing to what Ojukwu

was saying). People listened from wherever they were. It sounded right to them:

freedom, quality, self-determination, excellence. Ojukwu read it beautifully that day.

He had a gift for oratory (pg 149).” It was a day of celebrations indeed. Now we
know that Abacha’s Ministers of Lies and Dishonest Fabrications, Comrade
Uche Chukumerijie and Dr Walter Ofonagoro had a common precedent.

The Americans too took note of the two and a half hour long Declaration and
cabled this commentary to Washington:

“Ojukwu repeatedly develops the theme that `our disability is racial. The
root cause of our problems lies in the fact that we are black.’ Considering
the humanitarian and political support in response to Biafran propaganda,
the level of relief flown in, and the concern expressed by private
organizations and governments, Ojukwu’s speech is almost unreal as he omits
even a passing reference to the International Red Cross, Caritas or French
military assistance.”
That is white people’s efforts for black Biafra. They
continue: “In his efforts to foster solidarity and support for continuing
the war and maintaining the secession, Ojukwu appeals as much to fear and
xenophobia… Ojukwu sees the Nigerian civil war in almost conspiratorial
terms. For example: he describes the war as the `latest recrudescence in
our time of the age-old struggle of the blackman for his true stature of
man. We are the latest victims of a wicked collusion between the three
traditional curses of the blackman: racism, Arab-Muslim expansionism and
white economic imperialism.”

All , the Americans knew of the ruthlessly-efficient Biafran
propaganda. They questioned how they arrived at the 20/30/50,000 killed in
the North before the war. Reviewing Ojukwu’s radio broadcast of 14th
November 1968, the Americans cabled this to Washington:

“Ojukwu claimed 50,000 were `slaughtered like cattle’ in 1966, adding that in

the course of war `well over one million of us have been killed, yet the world is
unimpressed and looks on in indifference.’ (Comment: this is the highest
figure we have seen him use for the pre-war deaths, and the one million
claimed killed since the war began is inconsistent with his assertion in
the same speech that 6,700 Biafrans have been killed daily since July 6,
1967.)

They also noted Ojukwu’s fabrications in his broadcast of 31st of October
1969 that President Nixon “had acknowledged fact of genocide,” that earlier
on, he, General Ojukwu called on Nixon “to live up to his words.” When at
the inception of secession, Biafran Radio broadcast the countries that had
recognised Biafra, the Americans informed Washington: “Following countries
have denied recognition of Biafra: US, USSR, Ethiopia, Israel, Australia,
Ghana, Guinea…wording of statements varies greatly, but all disapprove of
secession, or use words such as recognition, integrity of Nigeria, support
for federal government. (June 9, 1967)” In fact, Ojukwu and the Biafran
project were one long crisis of credibility. In the cable of 22nd of May
1969, the Americans cabled Washington: “How he (Ojukwu) can continue to
deceive his people, and apparently get away with it, is minor miracle, but
difficult to see how much delusions can last much longer.”

By the time truth finally triumphed over propaganda, the Biafrans had to
find another man to blame for the war and the deaths: Enter Chief Jeremiah
Obafemi Awolowo, the Losi of Ikenne (whom Achebe falsely claimed Ojukwu
released from prison). First to what the autobiography of Harold Smith, one
of the colonial officers the British Government sent to rig Nigeria’s
pre-Independent elections in favour of the North had to say about Awolowo:

But the British were not treated as gods by the Yoruba. In my experience,
the Yoruba regarded themselves as superior to the British and one only had
to read a book written by Awolowo, the Western leader, to know why. The
Yoruba were often highly intelligent and they taunted the British with
sending inferior people to Nigeria. The Igbo would be humble and avert his
eyes in the presence of a European. The Yoruba child would look at an
important European and shout, `Hello, white man,’ as if he were a freak.”

What is more: “Awolowo in the West had taunted the British by claiming that
his Government had accomplished more in the space of two or three years for
his people than the British had since they arrived in West Africa.” Of
course Achebe knows about these facts because he quoted from the book but
only the part favourable to his agenda. Smith again:

“The thrust of the British Government’s policy was against the Action Group
led by Chief Awolowo which ruled in the Western Region. Not only was the
British Government working hand in glove with the North which was a puppet
state favoured and controlled by the British administration, but it was
colluding through Okotie Eboh with Dr Azikiwe – Zik – the leader of the
largely Igbo NCNC which ruled in the East.”

More:

“We tricked Azikiwe into accepting to be president having known that Balewa

will be the main man with power. Awolowo has to go to jail to cripple his genius

plans for a greater Nigeria.”

Achebe reveals his own mentality we never suspected before: “We
[intellectuals] were especially disheartened by the disintegration of the
state because we were brought up in the belief we were destined to rule [pg
108].” He uses this mind-set of his to judge Awolowo:

It is my impression that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was driven by an overriding
ambition for power, for himself in particular and for his Yoruba people in
general…However Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacle
to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria – Biafra War –
his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his
dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to
reduce the number of his enemies significantly through starvation –
eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generation
(pg233).”

This is blood libel and an evil lie. It will stain Albert Chinualumogu
Achebe forever and ever. Awolowo built the first stadium in Africa, the
first TV station in Africa, the first high rise building in Nigeria, first
industrial estate, cocoa development board, Odua Investment Group like the
current Dubai World or Chinese Investment Corporation. He offered free
universal education and free universal primary healthcare that America has
been struggling to achieve for the past 200 years. What is more important,
Awolowo never situated all these in his hometown of Ikenne in Ogun state;
he spread them round the region he presided on. And the free universal
education and free primary healthcare were available to anyone of any tribe
or nationality including Nupe, Igbos, Ijaw and Ghanaians living in the
Western Region. Awolowo was interested in bettering the lives of everyone
not just the Yoruba.

On the so-called Awolowo Blockade:

To talk about a blockade of Awolowo on Biafra is to concede that the
control of Biafra’s borders was already under his control. The control or
defence of borders is the main aim of any war since the beginning of war
making all over the world. That is why the best of US battleships and
fighter jets are currently patrolling east and west coasts and airspace.
That was why Troy built impossibly high fortifications around their city.
One of the main reasons Roman empire collapsed was that its boundaries were
getting too vast to be defended by an incommensurate number of men and
resources. But the 34year old General, Lt Colonel Ojukwu Biafra to secede
based on only two thousand professional soldiers and extremely few
artillery; they didn’t have enough to defend their borders.

“If the Nigerian side had known the state of Biafran troops including their morale,
they would have pursued them even on canoes across the River Niger. Had the
Nigerians taken up such pursuit, they might have taken Onitsha, Awka and Enugu

that same day.”

That is Achike Udenwa who was a Biafran soldier and later became the governor

of Imo writing about the federal defeat of Biafra in the Midwest during the early

weeks of the war in his own recollection Nigerian/Biafra War. Even, the so-called

January boys, Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna both voiced their concern that the Biafran soldiers

were vastly underprepared for any kind of war. Achebe also admits that: “Biafran
soldiers marched into war one man behind the other because they had only one rifle

between them, and the thinking was that if one soldier was killed in combat the other would pick up the only weapon available and continue fighting(pg 153).”

Therefore, Before the first bullet was fired, the secession was not only a
failure but was an epic humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen. Awolowo
told Ojukwu one of the reasons the West won’t be able to join the secession
was because the region already occupied by Northern troops didn’t have
enough loyal men in the Nigerian army to defend the region. Weaned on the
hermeneutics of Yoruba history, Awolowo was not persuaded by the seductive
but senseless logic that the Nigerian forces would lose because they would
not be able to prosecute war on two fronts if the West joined the East in
seceding. At one point during the Kiriji war in the 19thcentury, Bashorun
Ogunmola (omo arogunde yo) the Kingdom of Ibadan’s generalissimo was
simultaneously warring with five neighbouring and far-flung kingdoms.
Ibadan never lost. To defeat Ibadan you don’t have to defeat even its
retreating soldiers only, you have to defeat those dull-looking but
patriotic hills surrounding it. In fact one of the reasons why Ibadan was
so belligerent in its history was that those mighty hills allowed her to
spend little resources defending and more on attacking. But Biafra was not
surrounded by hills literarily or figuratively. Her borders were so porous
that they fell easily into the opponent’s hand. Days after declaration of
secession, the sea boundary of Biafra was already being manned by Nigeria’s
battleships and boats. By the sixth week all the boundaries of Biafra were
already under the control of Nigerian government.

I conducted an experiment with my Igbo colleagues. Let us assume that
Awolowo or the entire West adopted a `siddon look’ approach. Draw the map
of Biafra complete with the Atlantic Ocean, Niger and Benue bridges as
Golden Gate Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge and call the place USA. I asked them
to outline the strategies to capture USA in the event of a war. Their
strategies were not different from the path the Biafran propaganda accused
Nigerian government of taking. And in fact had only Awolowo’s Western
Region seceded, the strategy to recapture it would not be at variance with
the one used against Biafra because the West is geographically an
enantiomer of the East. It was the same blockade Major Nzeogwu imposed
before going in to capture and kill in cold blood their targets: the
Sardauna and his senior wife; Ademulegun and his eight months pregnant
wife, Mrs. Latifa Noble in the presence of their two children Solape and
Kole. (As Solape recollects years later, Nzeogwu who pulled the trigger on
her mother was a family friend who used to come often to their house to eat
pounded yam and egusi soup. The little girl was even calling him Uncle
while he shot her mother in the chest their bedroom.) It was the same
blockade Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi imposed to capture Fani-Kayode and kill
Akintola, the Western Premier. It was the same blockade American Navy Seals
imposed around Osama Bin Laden’s hideout before they zoomed in.

“What about the neighbouring country, (Cameroon) whose side was it on?” One
of my participants asked. Of course Cameroon was firmly on the Nigerian
side yet they have a sizeable Igbo population and Azikiwe’s Igbo party was
NCNC – National Council for Nigerian and the Cameroons. But Ojukwu had
stepped on their toes: he had stolen enough of their goods and supplies
that they helped the federal side to take Calabar and cooperated with the
naval blockade of Biafra. As the US State Department’s cable of 29th
November 1968 discloses:

 

“GFRC[Government of the Federal Republic of Cameroon] continues to support

FMG [federal military government] and recently ordered the dissolution of newly-formed Cameroon relief organization (CAMRO) which was being organized to receive Biafran children in west Cameroon.”

Note to Ojukwu in case of next time: Be careful of the message your actions send to your friends. When they turn against you, they won’t be nice.

On the so-called Awolowo’s starvation policy.

In Achebe’s book one could see several places where Biafrans violated the
basis of Geneva conventions. You could see where villagers who were
non-combatants and should have been protected under Geneva conventions were
taking machetes to federal soldiers hence becoming legitimate targets of
war themselves. Another striking instance was when Achebe was with his
extended family and overnight their compound was turned into military base
without their consent (pg 172). Heavens forbid the Nigerian side bombed the
base. Yes, the Biafran propaganda machine would go to work that an innocent
illustrious family had been eradicated by the “genocidal Nigerian army” and
may even use it as an evidence of war crime. But the truth is that the
Biafran army that deserved condemnation for compromising Achebe’s household.

As part of security preparation for the last Olympics, the British Army
commandeered a strategic high-rise residential building and placed
surface-to-air missiles at the top. The residents protested and went to
court. Let us assume a war broke out and the enemy flatten the whole
building. He has not committed a war crime because it was the British army
that made the civilian residents a legitimate target in the first place.
Unfortunate though it may sound, schools, hospitals, churches, mosques,
relief centres become legitimate targets once military activities begin to
go on there in the event of a war. Check for instance the current Hamas
tactics against Israel or the bombing of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka
when it allowed itself to become the headquarters of local Biafran army
with several professors joining in expedition force to hunt down lost
federal soldiers in the bush and their wives back on campus took care of
wounded Biafran soldiers and students were going for daily drills and rifle
shooting practice under Prof John C. Ene, Dean of Faculty of Sciences and
Commander University Defence Corps as revealed in the US secret cable of
16/06/1967. Or the federal raid on the Catholic Cathedral of The Most Holy
Trinity, Onitsha when it was discovered Biafran snipers with their
ammunitions were operating from there.

When a plane or ship is designated as flying relief supplies to war
sufferers, it must not be used to supply arms. Once it does, it is no
longer covered by Geneva conventions. There was an Austrian Count, Carl
Gustaf von Rosen whom Achebe praises a lot for his humanitarian assistance
in flying relief efforts to Biafra. This is what the Count’s wife had to
say: “He told me he was going to Biafra but he didn’t say he would be
bombing MIGs (pg 300).” Achebe writes of the von Rosen: “He led multiple
relief flights with humanitarian aid into Uli airport – Biafra’s chief
airstrip. Fed up with Nigerian air force interference with his peaceful
missions, he entered the war heroes’ hall of fame after leading a
five-plane assault on Nigerian aircraft in Port Harcourt, Benin City,
Ughelli, Enugu, and some other locations. He took the Nigerian air force by
total surprise and destroyed several Soviet-supplied aircraft in the
process.” That was someone flying humanitarian aid. How would the federal
side begin to see other humanitarian flights that were supposed to be
carrying food and medical supplies to war-ravished children? Cyprian
Ekwensi a writer and head of external publicity for Biafra admitted in his
post-war reminiscences that the relief materials had arms built into them.
(The American documents too confirmed. The same Hank Warton which the
relief agencies were using to fly food into Biafra was the one Ojukwu was
using to deliver arms.)

Of course the Nigerian side knew this and mandated all relief flights to
Biafra to submit themselves for inspection at the Port Harcourt airport.
That was the interference Achebe claimed the Count was fed up with. (Anyway
the Count never claimed such in that 6th July 1969 interview he gave the
London Observer) Those planes that passed their inspection delivered their
relief. Those that did not were shot down. One particular case was the
Swiss Red Cross DC7 Flight heading towards the Uli strip (pg 101). After
repeated warnings to change course and land for inspection, it was shot
down. The Biafran propaganda went to work saying it was part of the
genocide policies of Nigerian military to destroy merciful food supplies
meant for the malnourished children.

Never mind that many of the relief supplies meant for the children were
either ambushed by soldiers or ended up in the black markets. Ekwensi
again:

“People were stealing and selling the food. You could buy it in the
market but you couldn’t get it in the relief centres.”

But why would Biafra rely on food from thousands of miles away when their

normal antebellum route of supply was merely tens of miles nearby in the

Midwest and Northern Nigeria, the food basket of the nation? It was because

of the supply of arms and ammunition. Ojukwu and the Biafran leadership

never cared about those poor children. In a memorandum to the White House,

Benjamin Read, the Executive Secretary of US State Department writes:

“Because of the absence of other airlines willing to make hazardous flights into

Biafra, the ICRC[International Committee Of The Red Cross] has been forced to

Charter planes from Henry Warton, an American citizen, who is widely known to be
Biafra’s only gun runner. In engaging Warton, the ICRC is risking its good
relations with the FMG, which has long feared that ICRC flights might
provide opportunity for gun running.” When Awolowo offered to reopen the
usual food corridors, Ojukwu flatly refused. Achebe writes: “Ojukwu like
many Biafrans, was concerned about the prospect that Nigerians could poison
the food supplies (pg211).” Awolowo let in the food supplies for the
children anyway working with the cover of Caritas and Red Cross. Achebe can
tell lies: “In America, the Nixon administration increased diplomatic
pressure on the Gowon administration to open up avenues for international
relief agencies at about the same time, following months of impasse over
the logistics of supply route. (pg 221)” There was neither pressure nor its
increment.

“The problem of disaster relief in Biafra is not the lack of supplies or
means of transport but the lack of access, particularly by a land corridor
to Biafra.” William B. Macomber, Jr, the Assistant Secretary for
Congressional Relations wrote in a letter dated 20 December 1968 to
Congresswoman Florence Dwyer when she sought clarification on the plight of
Biafran refugees she kept seeing in the media.

 

“The authorities [Biafran] on the spot, under the conditions of civil war have

given a higher priority to politico-military considerations than to arranging food

to be delivered to Biafra. In early November [1968] the Nigerian government told

the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] that it would agree to daylight
relief flights to the major airstrip now held by Biafra if the ICRC could give

assurances that the strip would handle only relief flight in daylight hours. We

welcome this step by the Federal Government (FMG), which would substantially

increase the flow of relief. So far, however, the Biafran authorities have refused to

agree. We find it incomprehensible that despite the millions of Biafran lives at stake,

the Biafran leadership has not yet given its agreement. The Nigerian government has

also offered to cooperate in efforts to open a land corridor to Biafran-held territory.

We hope that the Biafran authorities will respond positively to this but heretofore they
have alleged they fear the food may be poisoned while transiting FMG territory.”

Later when Awolowo visited the battlefronts and saw the heartrending impact
of kwashiorkor on the children, he asked about the food supplies, only to
discover that soldiers were ambushing the supplies, feeding themselves and
the top hierarchy so as to continue the war. They never cared about those
suffering children. Awolowo decided this “dangerous policy” must stop. To
protect those children who were suffering because of the war, he asked for
a stop to the food supply that was inevitably going to the soldiers and the
Biafran plutocrats unnecessarily elongating a war they would never win.

It takes deep wisdom to understand Awolowo’s concern for the poor Biafran
children. As he himself repeatedly said “only the deep can understand the
deep.” So let’s distil this wisdom for Achebe to understand. There was a
family of beggars from Niger Republic I once saw at Falomo roundabout, in
Ikoyi, Lagos. The useless parents lay idle all day and night under the
bridge and sent their children around to beg for alms. One would literarily
have a big stone in place of a heart not to help those children once they
approached you. They were really suffering and stinking. Church members
from of Our Lady of Assumption, Falomo (one of the richest in the country)
decided to help the children, bathing them, sprucing them up in decent
clothes and giving them nourishing food. By the following day, their
parents have redressed the children in tattered and stinking clothes
because that was the form that was needed to compel emotions from people
and get huge alms.

As someone who now understood clearly what the parents were using their
kids for, are you still supposed to be giving those children alms? (Once
Cameroon too realised that to the Biafran authorities, the suffering
kwashiorkor children existed for show business and arms trade, they not
only refused to take them into their country, they disbanded the newly-
formed relief agency dedicated to their welfare.) Now consider what these
manipulative parents of filthy children in Falomo, Ikoyi would say when
they discover alms are no longer coming in? `Look at these rich people from
a rich house of God; aren’t they supposed to be kind and merciful to
suffering little children?’

This perspective of irresponsible parents was the basis of accusing Awolowo of

genocide through starvation. What is more, Achebe boasts of Biafran prowess in

manufacturing Ogbuniwe, `the mass killing bombs’, he boasted of Biafran innovative

refinement of petroleum that kept Biafran vehicles on the road throughout the war

without western technological help, but the most basic of human necessities – the
production or the supply of food – they had no clue. And the farmers that
were supposed to grow food as the US documents noted were conscripted into
the Biafran army during planting season of 1967. The fertilizers that could
have been used to better their lands were used to make Ogbunigwe, the
mass-killing bombs. And yet Achebe claims the starvation was Awolowo’s
fault.

On The Twenty Pound Policy

Throughout the war, as the US State Department’s confidential files
disclose, there was no shortage of people and “isms” to blame for the
failure of war. Also, during several of his radio addresses, Ojukwu blamed
the war on the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson who supplied 15% of
Nigeria’s arms. He called the Kwashiorkor afflicting Biafran children
Harold Wilson Syndrome or Herod Disease. Like the biblical King Herod,
Ojukwu said, Harold Wilson wanted to exterminate the children of Biafra.
They believed him.

While the blame-Arabs/Hausa/Islam narrative, blame
Wilson/racism/imperialism narratives that were so potently alive during the
war are now safely dead, the blame Awolowo for starvation narrative is well
alive going viral from generation to generation To the Americans who
monitored and documented everything about the war, there was no time
Awolowo was blamed for the starvation or deaths in these 21,000 pages.
However, after the war, it was through this twenty pound policy that the
blame – Awolowo narrative began. To develop it, they seized on this policy
and worked their way back to include what Awolowo may have said or done, mix
it together form a narrative.

The twenty-pounds-for-every-Igbo was a myth; it never happened. What
happened then was a currency crisis. On the 30th of December 1967 during
the war, Awolowo decided to change the Nigerian currency in circulation in
order to render the £37 million Ojukwu had stolen useless for buying
foreign weapons. The Biafran leadership quickly took the loot, mopped up
the ones they could get in circulation and headed to Europe to exchange
them for hard currencies. Eventually they introduced Biafran notes as the
only legal tender. There were around £149 million Biafran pounds in
circulation by the end of the war – an average of £10 per every Igbo. After
the war, there was a general scramble to exchange these notes for the new
Nigerian notes.

As Awolowo explained, he didn’t know on what basis these notes were produced.

It is like someone bringing a single fifty billion Zimbabwean dollar note to the

bank and expected to be given fifty billion naira. The exchange rate should be known to determine the worth of the Zimbabwean dollar. Currently, 39 billion Zimbabwean dollars is worth 1 US dollar. In the case of Biafra, the worth of the currency was unknown; they
were produced out of desperation with lax security features to boot. In his statement of 1st February 1968, Dr Pius Okigbo, Biafra’s Commissioner of Economic Affairs said that

“the lack of international acceptance and lack of a commensurate exchange rate was

immaterial since the currency was intended only for circulation in Biafra.” In other words,

it is worthless outside Biafra. After the war those that have this junk money were carting
them to Nigerian banks hoping to get equivalent new Nigerian notes. No banker or

economists of sense would approve that. Awolowo in his move to rehabilitate the Igbos and restore economic normalcy approved the payment of 20 Nigerian pounds flat rate for every Biafran notes depositor. It was never £20 for every Igbo. £20 for every Biafran? That would have been around £300 million when Nigeria’s annual budget before the war was £342.22
million for a population of 57million.

On the Indigenization Decree.

The true winner of the civil war was the Nigerian military class which succeeded

in using everybody against everybody and continue their indefinite aggrandizement

of the self by fleecing the country to the bone as the next 30 years confirmed. After the

January coup, Aguyi-Ironsi used Dr Nwafor Orizu, the acting president, to capture

power. What Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna wanted to use bloodletting to achieve, he grabbed

it on “a scrap piece of paper” as Shehu Shagari’s eyewitness account Beckoned to Serve
discloses. The New York Times describes it as a coup within a coup. Gowon
used Awolowo for the war and to keep the country economically viable. He
took advantage of the failed secession to perpetuate himself in power. “Go
On With One Nigeria (GOWON),” he stumped. He was not only Nigeria’s longest
serving head of state, he was the longest looter of Nigeria’s treasury.

Ojukwu too as Wole Soyinka observes in his own ipsissima verba, You Must Set
Forth At Dawn,
was also interested in conquering Nigeria not only in seceding.

Unknown to Victor Banjo and his Third Force, Ojukwu had embedded special

companies within the Third Force to topple Banjo and hand control of Nigeria to him

in case Banjo succeeds in conquering the West and Lagos.

The indigenisation decree had nothing to do with disenfranchising the Igbos
or other Biafrans of economic power. As was the vogue in 14 African nations
then, indigenisation and nationalisation was the ruling military class and
their friends’ way of dressing their bottomless impulse to loot with the
populist cloak of fighting western imperialism and neo-colonialism. For
their roles during the war, Awolowo or Chief Anthony Enahoro should be
getting major oil blocks. But no, they were interested in nation-building
not treasury-looting. How can Achebe explain someone like Achike Udenwa who
fought for his people only to become a governor 40years later and rob his
people of billions? Did he use any indigenisation decree? The Nigerian
ruling thieves span all tribes, and so are their victims.

Indeed Awolowo could be `ethnocentric’. The Yoruba region like pre-European
Union Europe was always in a state of constant war. Ibadan vs Ekiti vs Egba
vs Ondo vs Ijebus vs Ife vs Ijesha vs Egbado etc. It was because of this
internecine war that made Yoruba land susceptible to easy French colonialism

to the west (Dahomey, Benin Republic) and British Royal Niger Company taking

the rest. When Awolowo “resuscitated ethnic pride,” he used it to rally Yoruba to

stop fighting and killing each other. This resuscitation wasn’t to elevate the Yoruba

so that they would dominate other tribes. Achebe observes:

“Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined

political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so

by meticulously galvanizing political support in Yoruba land and among the riverine

and minority groups in the Niger Delta who shared similar dread of the prospects of

Igbo political domination (pg45).”

Achebe never addresses this dread even though he mentions it in two other
places. Nowhere in the book does he stump for brotherliness or make a stand
for tribal harmony. In 1961 the British Cameroonians had to decide their
fate through a UN plebiscite since their lands were too small and
landlocked to stand as a country. The peoples of the Northern Cameroons
voted to belong to northern Nigeria while the peoples of the Southern
Cameroons not wanting to belong to the Igbos decided to belong to the
Republic of Cameroon even though they were French-speaking. The reason why
minorities need to be very afraid at the prospects of collaborating with
Igbos is an important topic Achebe conspicuously skips; instead he spends
the final pages of the book resurrecting the 44 year-old propaganda of
genocide.

Achebe litters the book with hyped phrases and sentences like “Smash the
Biafrans,” “presence of organized genocide”(pg 92)… “the Nigerian forces
decided to purge the city of its Igbo inhabitants (pg137)”… “the cost in
human life made it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history(pg
227)… “prospect of annihilation (pg 217)”… “Standing on the precipice of
annihilation (pg 217).” Those that can rightly talk of annihilation were
the people of Abudu. The American document of 15/10/67 noted:

“As the `Biafrans’ retreated from Benin to Agbor, they killed all the men, women
and children they could find who were not Ibos. The town of Abudu, one of
the larger places between Agbor and Benin, lost virtually all of its
population with the exception of a few who had escaped to the bush. Those
that can rightly talk of annihilation were the Jews. Not only do Nazi
policy documents say so, on-the-ground facts support that. In Poland,
Germany, Austria and the Baltic countries alone, Hitler aiming for 100%,
killed 90% of Jews. The writer, Cyprian Ekwensi, a chief of Biafran
propaganda says:

 

“We gave the number of children dying per day as 1,000. Can you prove that?

Can you disprove it? But can you believe it? That is propaganda.”

So let us take the Biafran propaganda at its highest and assume 3 million, i.e.

100,000 per month died in the 30months war. The Vietnamese genuinely lost

close to 3 million to the Vietnam War but they do not talk of American’s plan

to annihilate them.

Neither do the Japanese, the world’s first and only victims of nuclear
explosion. Azikiwe repeatedly argued that though Igbos were killed in the
North, it doesn’t mean the tribe was “slated for slaughter” as a policy.
Even Colin Legum, whom Achebe claims was the first to describe the 1966
revenge killings of Igbos in the North as pogroms, does not think so too.

(On pg 82 instead of stating the source of Legum article, Achebe references
his own interview inTransition.). In the London Observer of 26 May 1968,
Legum writes: “It is clear that there is no systematic attempt at
exterminating Ibos to justify charge of genocide.”

 

Also Ojukwu’s hitherto unknown Director of Intelligence and External Communications,

the American priest Rev Fr Kevin Doheny too said in a secret but frank conversation with
an American diplomat that the claim of genocide is “highly exaggerated but without it

Biafrans would have given up fighting long time ago.”

If there was any intention to exterminate Igbos, why, after Ojukwu had fled
and the Biafran military had been completely paralysed, did the Nigerian
military not use the opportunity to turn the guns on the defenceless
Biafrans and mow them down, or carpet-bomb them? They never did that.
Instead there were steps to welcome them back into the fold. It is wicked
of anyone to ever talk of “genocide” or “prospect of annihilation” when the
context and facts on ground say otherwise. It is insulting to the memory of
true genocide victims. “If you are blind, describing an elephant is easy.”
Achebe writes in The Education of a British-Protected Child. “You can call
it, like one of the six blind men in the fable, a huge tree trunk; or
perhaps a gigantic fan; or an enormous rope, and so on. But having eyes,
far from making such descriptions easy, actually complicates them.”

Achebe throughout the book choose the easy path of the blind over the complex

task of a conscientious writer. Having taken a low road, he wants to arrive at a
high point by invoking the Mandela Example in the final pages. Mandela
described Achebe as the writer “in whose company the prison walls fell
down.” With this his presumably last book, There Was A Country, Achebe is
the writer in whose company dangerous walls are rising up: walls of tribal
hatred, walls of lies, walls of sloppy thinking and lazy research, wall of
propaganda and walls of moral ineptitude.

– Damola Awoyokun, a Structural and Marine Engineer in London is also the
Executive Editor of Pwc Review. He can be reached at executiveeditor AT
pwc-review DOT com

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9 Comments on “Achebe left “a moral vacuum for the Igbo writer to emerge and the conscientious writer to go under” – Damola Awoyokun”

  1. Chika raphael christian Says:

    Awoyokun has proven to be a worthy devil’s advocate. The fundamental question lies thus unanswered- since achebe and his biafrans are liars and supremacists, why werent they allowed to be on their own in 1967? Why did nigeria attack them first? Is it wrong for biafra, territory of the arrogant, lying, and domineering people to be left to be on their own? Afterall, as at 1967, we all just had independence from britain seven years ago(1960). The entire people called biafra agreed as one to become one new and true nation, and fought for it. By the way, look at the nigeria millions have perished for. Pensioners are barely remembered, our educational system is zero, epileptic power supply, political thuggery, escalating human rights abusers and kleptocrats, etc Even without achebe talking, every nation knows how notorious nigeria is. May God forgive “NIGERIA”….truly and unbiasedly, there was a country.

    Like

    Reply

    • emotan77 Says:

      Dear Mr. Christian,

      Thanks for this.

      Facts are sacred but it seems in anything Nigerian, “facts” depend on ethnicity. Awoyokun & many others have written what they know as facts just as Achebe wrote what he wants the world to see as facts – and now your contribution, which are your facts.

      Your comments on the other essay has been trashed; I do not publish abusive comments.

      Regards,
      TOLA.

      Like

      Reply

      • Chika raphael christian Says:

        Tola,
        You are seriously mistaken. I am not aware of any abusive comment made by me. God bless you.

        Like

      • emotan77 Says:

        Dear Mr. Christian,

        Your other comment on Mr. Awoyokun referred to the well-reasoned and rational essay since it claims errors on the part of our respected Mr. Achebe as “trash” IS abusive.

        And you can see I did publish your other comments even though it is not in agreement with the essay. Blogger/commentators do not have to agree with views, but they do have to be civil.

        Regards,
        TOLA.

        Like

      • Fatai Bakare Says:

        Dear Mr Christian,
        Like she said, may God bless you. She is a woman as a journalist who is an epitome of high morals and respects for elders or leaders. She abhors the use of foul or disrespectful language to describe elders, leaders or other person whose opinions may be contrary to others. She corrected me one time when I referred to President Jonathan as ordinary Jonathan or using IBB or OBJ. No matter what, they are leaders and we should accord them respect. She is a woman who came from a part of Nigeria where morals and respects are held in very high esteem. I have not read any write-up by her using abusive language to criticize leaders just because she does not like what they do. Or if you know of one, refer us to it.

        Like

      • emotan77 Says:

        Thanks, Fatai.

        Regards, as always.
        TOLA.

        Like

      • Chika raphael christian Says:

        Mr. Tola,
        you call “trash” abusive, what about “an accomplice to lies…” or “…the thoughtless and powerless…”, etc?
        “Trash” is used towards a published write-up, but St. Awoyokun’s remarks refers to an elderly person and to a people respectively. Ethnicity at its best.
        God bless you.

        Like

      • emotan77 Says:

        Dear Mr. Christian,

        Thanks,
        TOLA.

        Like

  2. Fatai Bakare Says:

    This is a well researched presentation which I can call a complete Review of Achebe’s ”There was once a Country”. I hope Achebe reads this and should come out to re-air his views. Though I suspect that he may want to take solace in the saying that ”silence is the best answer for a fool” which will not be correct because Awoyokun is definitely no fool, he should however, also remember another saying, ”silence means consent or assent”. Whichever way he looks at it, we are able to know or sieve the truth from lies now, especially millions who were young at the time of the civil war or those not yet born then.
    It’s a pity that Nigeria thrives on lies and I am beginning to wonder whether Nigeria was conceptualized as a nation on lies when we look at the ways lies are flying about the country from those ruling us and even people who are in positions to influence the lives of the people and the politics of the country.
    May God deliver us.

    Like

    Reply

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