There is a sense in which the name of the malaise afflicting Nigeria is Biafra. I have argued before—and I must do so again—that Nigeria’s refusal to confront and address the sore of the Biafran War is the chief reason no nation has been able to materialize out of the space called Nigeria, no peace has been had in that space, and no real progress—much less development—has been recorded. As the world watches, riveted, Nigeria is spinning and spinning in a dizzying, ridiculous, violent dance, racing ever closer to the edge of that jagged precipice we have all romanced for fifty-four years—if not before.
The wound called Biafra haunts Nigeria precisely because Nigeria imagined that it could get over Biafra through cheap sloganeering (no victor, no vanquished), the mere invocation of the mantra of the Rs—reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation—through silence and willed forgetfulness—indeed, by playing the ostrich.
I’m not going to be detained by contested, contending accounts of the Biafran struggle, or even questions pertaining to whether the quest for secession was inevitable. At minimum, we ought to agree that Nigeria, from the moment of its British conception, was neither essential nor natural. It was, above all, convenient and profitable for the British. And all the logic that informed its constitution made eminent sense, finally, mostly from the prism of British interests.
When the British removed their bodies—but not necessarily their spirits and ghosts—from the Nigerian space, we all had a historical duty. That duty was to pause and ask the question, what does Nigeria mean? It was to determine whether we all—the 400 odd ethnic collectivities that the British bracketed inside the space called Nigeria—wished to maintain the shape of this British design. It was to discern whether we all—the constituent elements of the space—felt sufficiently animated by the prospect of living together, fraternizing as a people with shared aspirations and common destiny. In the event that we all found Nigeria an irreducible, compelling proposition, then we should have hatched out the terms of our coexistence. We should have sketched out our imagination of Nigeria and spelt out what it meant to be called a citizen of Nigeria. In other words, we should have commenced the task of remaking the British-delineated space called Nigeria into a veritable, vital, and robust nation. Had we done this, we would have acquired some kind of compass for navigating our self-fashioned nation towards the direction of our own envisioning.
We did not as much as attempt to grapple with that arduous, messy, but inescapable process of nation-formation. We settled for the British-made illusion. We were content to take the British confection of a Nigerian idea and run with it. We pretended that there was some inherent logic to Nigeria, that it was coherent and organic, a full redemption of some promissory note, almost a divinely designed imperative.
Perhaps we shirked this duty out of laziness, a sense of convenience, or a naïve faith in the British. Perhaps, then, we believed that Nigeria was a nation just because imperial Britain had seen fit to outfit the space with roads that linked its different parts as well as such accouterments of the modern state as postal and telegraph services, railways, the police, prisons, schools, and a cadre of civil servants.
We neglected to pay attention to the fact that, at every opportunity—especially when our “nationalist” figures pressed the case for Independence—British officials had insisted that Nigeria was not a nation but a collection of “nations.” In retrospect, we should have paid attention to the British. They owned the patent on Nigeria; they knew that they had not achieved a nation—indeed, that they had not intended to achieve one—when they set out to cobble together the space called Nigeria.
It was a monumental error, this collective failure to examine the crisis-prone, top-down edifice called Nigeria. We all found ourselves in the nightmarish situation of belonging to an ostensible nation that reflected little or no sense of community. Instead, life in Nigeria was marked by strife and disillusionment and mutual distrust and—above all—a pathological brand of competitiveness. Forced to belong within a space that had no spirit-lifting narrative, no pathos or inspiring ideal to impart, Nigerians became fascinated with “eating” the flesh of their hollow bequest unto death.
It is no surprise that the metaphor of the “national cake” was a central, if not dominant, part of the Nigerian discourse. In the literature, journalism and politics of the country, each group exhibited an obsession with cornering its own “share of the national cake.” Nigeria made sense to Nigerians only as a banquet, a delectable dish, as something to be consumed.
A nation is dreamed and then carefully, deliberately, consciously designed and built. No people in history have ever “eaten” their way into a nation. If Nigeria were a true nation—or even one with prospects—we would all have been concerned with working hard to lift it to great heights. We would have been bakers, baking Nigeria into a grand cake, not just devourers bent on cornering ever-larger slices of the Nigerian cake.
Truth be told, the Igbo appeared the most committed of any group to the idea of realizing Nigeria. They dispersed to all corners of Nigeria and threw down roots. Wherever they settled, they built homes and learned the language and opened businesses or began careers as civil servants. They seemed to have taken more seriously than most the summons to inspirit Nigeria with national consciousness.
The pogroms of the Igbo, especially in 1966 and 1967, exposed the fragility of the British-fangled space and amounted to a profound, blood-soaked repudiation of the Nigerian project. Consequently, Biafran secession became the most significant interrogation of the unformed, ill-formed, malformed project named Nigeria. Biafra was far from an idyll; it actually had its imperfections and contradictions, including the cooptation of the ethnic minorities of the Niger Delta. Even so, it was a charter for justice, a demand by a besieged people to be left alone to arrange their lives in a separate space, apart from their tormentors.
Nigerians had not taken time to audit the content of what they inherited from the British, but they were quite willing to sacrifice more than two million lives in a little more than thirty months in order to sustain their unexamined, British-made project. The Biafran aspiration—which was the first time a group had risen to question a colonial arrangement—was ultimately squelched, the better to uphold the inviolability of Nigeria.
Alas, the defeat of Biafra birthed monsters that have since menaced all of us, exposing the seams and fissures in a space that continues to pretend that a nation already exists within it.
The concluding part of this column will be published next week. Please follow me on twitter @ okeyndibe
The most famous member of Beatles, John Lennon wrote the letter and returned MBE (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) medal in September 1st 1969 to the Queen on the protest of British involvement in Nigeria-Biafra war. Queen Elizabeth made Beatles -"Members of the Order of the British Empire in 1965, in recognition of the huge revenues they generated when they opened the U.S. market to British pop music. In 1969, Lennon sent his MBE medal back with the letter."
John Lennon photo: Michael Putland/Hulton Archive
I am returning my MBE as a protest against Britain's involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts.
With love. John Lennon of Bag "
*Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN), Nigeria's former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, speaks on Nigeria-Biafra civil war years to Gbenro Adesina of PM News
What are your recollections of the Nigerian Civil War?
The Nigerian Civil War is now part of our history. The war has come and has gone and Nigeria is stronger for it. One of the major unfortunate aspects of that war is that many Nigerians who know so much about it have not told the truth about what happened. This makes it correct to say that there are certain things in Nigerian history that may not see the light of day for a very long time to come. I was in the parliament when the first coup took place; I was there before independence. I had access to a great deal of information, some of which will never see the light of day. That is understandable because people like to leave certain facts to future historians. The three critical persons during that period are all dead: Chief Obafemi Awolowo from the West, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe from the East and Sir Ahmadu Bello from the North. To me, it is clear that as at that time, Nigeria was not a nation, but a country. Meanwhile, I must admit that today, Nigeria is a nation not a country. The forces at play at that time have played themselves out. We must admit that what really triggered the war was the coup of 15 January 1966. If that coup had not taken place, the history of Nigeria would have been totally different. Though young at that time, I had access to certain important information. When I entered the parliament in my 20s, we were using the British system for intelligence gathering. The people that had enormous access to information at that time were British and a lot of it will not see the light of day. Let us thank God today that Nigeria is a single, solid country. We are one and we will remain one forever.
You said Nigeria was a country, but is now a nation. But considering the agitation for self-determination, zoning of the presidency and other fault lines, do you think it is right to describe Nigeria as a nation?
A nation is like one family. All the forces that work regard themselves as an entity. In a nation, all the components see themselves as one. We are already a nation. Nigeria is a nation, not a country. The fact that Nigeria has 36 states doesn’t mean we are a country; we are a nation. The zoning you mentioned is a duty of political parties to decide where they want the president to come from. It is not in our constitution.
What were the roles played by each of the critical persons you mentioned in the civil war?
Chief Awolowo, Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello were very critical to the history of the country. It is impossible to write the history of this country without those people. They played very critical roles. That is the truth. And the roles they played have not been critically analysed by our historians. I have read a lot of history books, but I am yet to see the type of objective and critical analysis as they do in civilised countries and I like to believe that when we do the analysis, their roles are going to be very critical because we could not have created what really emerged without the solid foundation of what those people did.
You were quoted in the secret US diplomatic dispatches we published as saying that Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was subconsciously seeking revenge for his early rejection by his father as well as trying to seek the recognition he was denied. Could you throw more light on this?
The reasons for the war are very many. Possibly, what you just said is one of them. But the immediate cause was the 1966 coup. The Igbo people felt they suffered too much in the North and that many of their people were killed. But many important people from other parts of the country were also killed in that coup. How do we explain the deaths of Balewa, Ahmadu Bello from the North; S.L. Akintola, Ademulegun and others from the West?
Don’t you think the fact that the Igbo felt persecuted made the war a necessity?
It was most unnecessary. The American Civil War became necessary because it was forced on Abraham Lincoln, not because Lincoln wanted it. He was determined that America must remain a nation and no part should be allowed to break away. In Nigeria, the government at that time, headed by Yakubu Gowon, believed that Nigeria should not break up and therefore, like America believed that if it needed a war to preserve the unity of the country, they just had to do it.
Who should get the blame for the genocide on the Igbo?
I don’t accept there was genocide. During the First World War, a lot of people died. The same thing happened during the Second World War. But nobody calls those two events genocide. Therefore, it is absurd to call what happened in Nigeria as a consequence of an all-out war genocide. Nobody could have prevented it. During crisis, there is bound to be casualties and we should know that.
How well did you know Ojukwu?
I knew him, but not very well. He was quite a brilliant person and well brought up. He attended very good schools in Nigeria and UK and he spoke very well. I liked him very much. The biggest mistake he made was to have put the country through an unnecessary war. He had to leave the country when he realised he would lose the war. He should have negotiated and secured a political solution rather than going to war, which is too evil and bad for any nation.
What are the lessons from the war?
The first lesson is that we should not fight such a war again. No matter how difficult, we should always negotiate because we are brothers and sisters. There was no need for the war and the evil that followed it.
The US documents also quote you as saying that Ojukwu suffered from “Hitler-like megalomania”
Hitler was a very peculiar person. Though there might be something in Ojukwu which might be similar to some traits in Hitler, but Ojukwu was far better than Hitler. I will not say that he was as bad as Hitler. But I would have preferred that he didn’t go to war at all. I had the privilege of drafting the instrument of pardon that President Shehu Shagari instructed me to do, which Shagari signed to give Ojukwu pardon. Whatever he might have done was forgiven by that presidential action and all those are now part of our history.
Do you blame all Ojukwu did on his father’s unwillingness to accept him?
It is difficult for me to make a statement on that because I did not speak to the father, so I don’t know his own side of the story. I did not speak with Ojukwu either.
So, how did you come to your conclusion on Ojukwu, as recorded in the US dispatches?
I made my judgment on the information I collected from certain sources.
Who are the sources?
I don’t want to mention the sources.
Considering that Nigerians continue to be aggrieved about uneven distribution of wealth, perceived marginalisation and sundry issues, how do you think we can move forward and avoid another civil war?
I believe we are moving forward. I believe President Jonathan has been excellent and I don’t think someone else would have done better. Nigeria is moving forward. Nigeria is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. This is recognised globally by economic writers and political commentators. Those who are running Nigeria down have been unfair to the government and Nigeria. The economic growth of Nigeria is unbelievable. It is better than that of Europe or America.
Agu Imo has been a friend and elder brother for almost two decades now, so when he called about two weeks ago to say there is an old man he wanted me to meet, he knew I couldn’t say no to his request. When he mentioned the name, Rev. Moses Iloh, I was even more enthusiastic since the man remains one of the most respected Christian
leaders in Nigeria today. But what Imo said next shocked me: “I want you to meet Rev Iloh because he is now 83 and he is someone with whom I am close and he has some interesting perspectives to share about our country. He is not getting younger and I don’t want him to die without telling his story and, for me, you are the only person who can do justice to his account. You know of course that Rev. Iloh was the head of Red Cross in Biafra…”
At that point, my enthusiasm wavered a bit. Biafra? That is one topic I told myself I would avoid and for good reasons. Ever since Professor Chinua Achebe published his memoir, “There Was a Country”, I have watched as several Igbo and Yoruba commentators tore at one another on the Internet. Abuses, curses, threats and all manner of hate mongering were deployed on a daily basis. It all started with Achebe’s characterization of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, which was then misinterpreted to be an assault on the Yoruba people regardless of the fact that Achebe’s own daughter is married to a Yorubaman.
Thanks to Mr Abba Kyari who regularly indulges me with gifts of new books, I was one of the first Nigerians to read Achebe’s book and I was disappointed by the undisguised bitterness the revered writer displayed in his clearly one-sided and Igbo-centric account of the civil war. But I was even more disappointed with some of the Yoruba respondents, who perhaps did not even read the book before publishing their diatribes against Achebe. Since elementary science teaches that actions and reactions are equal and opposite, it was no surprise that their Igbo counterparts would also jump into the fray. Even though the Biafran war was not fought between the Igbos and Yorubas, that is the impression any reader would get on the internet. For that reason, I have since told myself that I would not get caught in the virtual crossfire of a war that was fought, won and lost at a time I was not even old enough to be enrolled in primary school!
Having apparently noticed my hesitation, Imo added, “there is no problem Segun if you are too busy to meet the man…”
Of course I instantly said I would. What would be my excuse? If an Igbo man was trusting enough to believe that a Yoruba man was the one he could consider to listen to a Biafran story, I felt that I could not possibly disappoint him so I met Rev Iloh last Friday. And after spending just two hours with the old man, I am already seeing the prospect of a first biographical work, which could explore the human drama of the Biafran tragedy.
Born in Ropp, a mining village in Barkin Ladi Local Government in the present Plateau State on February 13, 1930 to Igbo parents from present day Imo State, the first language spoken by Iloh was Hausa, followed by English and then Igbo. The account of his early life, including his adoption by some American missionary at age 10, was not only interesting, but laid the foundation for the faith that would later define him. But I want to begin the story from his days as the president of the Jos-based Nigerian-African Miners Workers Union when, because a white man called one of the workers “monkey”, Iloh led a strike action; asking the British Queen not to come to Nigeria on an already scheduled visit in 1958. But as it would turn out, the same Iloh was chosen to lower the British Red Cross flag at Nigeria’s independence parade in 1960.
However, back in 1958, the white establishment at the Amalgamated Tins Company of Nigeria, which he worked for, believed Iloh was too dangerous for their operations and decided to offer him a very juicy appointment that technically promoted him into redundancy. He was posted to Lagos to head Inter Cotra, a shipping company. They added as sweetener an official residence on Ikorodu Road, a cook, a steward and a chauffeur-driven car. When the offer was made, Iloh said he initially declined because he knew the idea was simply to get rid of him. But his union members saw it differently. “Many of them said they were happy for me. ‘Take it, you have worked hard enough, go and enjoy’ was the consensus of the workers”. In Lagos, Iloh had an office in Apapa with a full complement of staff, all doing nothing! The British certainly knew how to neutralize their enemies, and at the same time make a bribe seem both innocent and desirable!
Every morning Iloh would be driven to Apapa like the big man he had become but in reality the post was a sinecure. The only fulfillment Iloh found was his volunteer job at the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) that he had joined right from his days as a Mine worker in Jos. Working with then National President, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, who was Chief Justice of the Federation and Justice Joseph Adetunji Adefarasin, the Chief Judge of Lagos, who headed the state chapter, Iloh took the Red Cross as his primary assignment. Eventually, he was invited to join the organization as a full-time staff, with a pay that was half what he was collecting from the mines job. He accepted.
In Lagos, Iloh followed all the uneasy developments of the post-independence Nigeria but after the July to September 1966 pogrom in the North that claimed the lives of several Igbo people, he decided to go back to Jos. He was shocked by the devastation of his kinsmen, many of whom had lived all their lives in the North. But no killing affected him more than that of a childhood friend called “Boy Joe”, who was with them in the union. At a special meeting of the mine workers held at his instance, Iloh asked them why even “Boy Joe” had to die before he added: “You mean if I was here you people would have killed me too?!”
When Iloh returned to Lagos, he decided he would be of more use in the East as a Red Cross man. He saw war coming and he knew there was no preparation for relief measures in the East. He first went to meet Justice Adetokunbo Ademola to explain that he would want to go to Biafra, but the idea was not well received. He also discussed with Justice Adefarasin who also felt unpersuaded by the idea. Eventually, Iloh found favour with the National Secretary, Alhaji Saidu Mohammed, who now convinced the others. Iloh said his exposure at the Red Cross had made him to sense that Igbo people were unprepared for the calamity that was coming and he felt he could be of help. As he explained: “eventually both the Chief Justice and Justice Adefarasin allowed me to go to Biafra if I could get there.”
Even before the federal government of Nigeria launched what it described as a “police action” against Biafra in July 1967, it had become practically impossible for any Igbo man to cross River Niger from the Asaba end to Onitsha at the other side. Fortunately for Iloh, on getting to the Bridge where they were sending people back, he saw from distance one policeman by name Pius Efosa. “It was divine intervention because Efosa used to be my typist in Jos. He saluted me and was able to arrange my passage to the other side. The moment I crossed over into Onitsha, I went straight to the Enugu Red Cross office where as a national officer I took charge immediately. I knew the suffering that was coming as people were arriving Biafra, especially from the North with nothing. I knew we were going to witness tragedy but at that time, I had no inkling of the unprecedented human sufferings and harvest of deaths that was coming.”
Iloh said he began his assignment with people who had no experience in disaster management or relief efforts. But the first challenge was persuading the political operators that Red Cross is a neutral organization whose first responsibility is to the poor and displaced. Some of the Biafran top people wanted to hijack some of the Red Cross relief materials for themselves. This was a constant source of friction and it took the intervention of Ojukwu for Iloh not to end up at the gallows, following an executive session in which his role was a subject of deliberation.
Aside the economic blockage by Nigeria, which came with devastating consequences, the Federal Government on June 30, 1969, banned night flights of food aid to Biafra. By taking effective charge on both sides, the Nigerian authorities stopped the Red Cross from coordinating relief materials to civilians. “The Nigerian troops did not play by fair rules or any rule at all. Even in our office, I mean Red Cross where we were distributing materials, Nigerian planes would fly low and begin to rain bombs on the people. I am talking of civilian targets, not soldiers. And then with Awolowo’s policy, come and see hunger in a manner I pray mankind never experiences again.”
With poverty, hunger and disease ravaging the land, Iloh told moving stories of desperation and deprivation and
how practically everyone in Biafra became a refugee as they ran away from bombs from Federal troops. He also narrated how malnourished Biafran children had to be taken to countries like Gabon, Ivory Coast and Guinea and how many in the process got lost and how many died. “There were days we would bury up to about 200 children, all in one grave. You give a Biafran child milk and it comes straight down through his anus. Children were the worst hit during the war with many ravaged by disease and hunger.” Iloh, however, had kind words for the late Gabonese dictator, Omar Bongo, who died in 2009 as Africa’s longest ruler after 41 years in office. “When Omar Bongo died, I believe the Igbo people did themselves a disservice by not sending emissaries to pay respect. That man built hospitals for Biafran children, put many in school and generally helped us,” Iloh said.
Because of the blockade, food could only come by air so Iloh had to travel to several countries to solicit for food and drugs for the Red Cross. The cargo planes were usually provided by France, the only European power that declared its support for Biafra. Because of the series of bombings by the Federal troops, they usually flew into Biafra by night. Iloh recalled a particular trip where the Red Cross flight from Lisbon had been forced to land in Cameroun whose authorities insisted on searching the plane on the suspicion that there were some people inside. But the French pilot insisted that he would not allow the plane to be searched and that the Cameroonian authorities would have to accept his word that he was only carrying Red Cross relief materials. Meanwhile, inside was Iloh and the wife of the late Dr Pius Okigbo. With the two personages hidden under the seats of the plane, the argument went on for two hours that night but eventually the plane was let off. “Those two hours were like eternity but thank God that the French pilot stood his grounds otherwise the outcome might have been different,” said Iloh.
By the end of 1969, it was clear Biafra was at a dead end and Ojukwu sent words to the senior people to leave. He personally called Iloh that he should get out. But at that point Iloh’s wife was pregnant so he had to stay and after the surrender, he was captured at Abba in Orlu district of Imo state by Federal troops when one Igbo officer identified and pointed him out as “Ojukwu’s friend” while he was driving his wife to the hospital. The drama that would follow was as tragic as it was humiliating; but at least Iloh succeeded in getting his wife out of harm’s way before he was asked by the men who directed him at gunpoint to drive them to “Kampalla”.
The war was over but having been captured like many other top Igbo people, even though his own case was peculiar as an internationally recognized Red Cross official, Iloh was matched to “Kampalla” by Nigerian soldiers. Kampalla turned out to be a military post in Port Harcourt. “I met important people in Biafra. Respected professionals, engineers who were being marched into a room. As they were walking in, one of them, without looking in my direction said in Igbo: ‘Whatever you will do to help yourself please do, but don’t let them take you to where they are now taking us because those who went before us never returned and we know they are also taking us in simply to kill us’.”
At that moment for Iloh, there was a divine intervention. “There was this tall lanky officer among my captors whose name was Dogonyaro, at least that was what I heard the officers calling him. As he came aggressively, I addressed him in what he would know was perfect Hausa, that he should allow me to go outside to talk with the man in the Red Cross vehicle that was parked within range. I guess the language I spoke threw him off guard because his demeanour changed immediately and from that moment, he became my guardian angel. After asking me a few questions, he allowed me to go and meet the Red Cross driver but warned that if I tried to escape, he would just shoot me dead. I assured him that I would not do that because I believed God had used him to protect me and I would not betray that. When I got there, I told the man to help get a message to Sir Adetokunbo Ademola and Justice Adefarasin that I had been captured.”
Within 24 hours, Iloh’s name was being announced on the radio and International Red Cross had waded in, demanding his release.That became the saving grace for Iloh who was eventually taken before a military court martial to explain why he deserted his job as a Red Cross official in Nigeria to cross over to Biafra. He replied that he took permission before he went to Biafra and at the end of his brief trial, he was discharged.
With the war over, Iloh thought he could resume his life but then one morning, he heard on the radio that the Administrator of Eastern Nigeria, Mr Ukpabi Asika, had made an edict that Moses Iloh should never be given any appointment in Eastern Nigeria and that government officials should have nothing to do with him. “Ukpabi Asika pronounced me a dangerous man. This was a man whose two children were brought to me during the war and God used me to save them. Ukpabi Asika, a man whose name was poison in Biafra,” Iloh said with a contempt that he could not disguise.
But Iloh’s problem had just begun as he would recollect: “One morning, I was driving the small car given to me by the Red Cross on the street of Enugu when I was blocked by several police men who were in a convoy. As I argued with them, I saw the then Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria, Justice Godfrey Ubaka Agbakoba, father of this young man, Olisa Agbakoba. This was a man I had known and respected from his days as a lawyer in Jos. He told me bluntly: ‘Iloh, I have orders to take this car from you from the administrator.’ As I tried to argue with him, his police orderlies bundled me out of my car and drove away, leaving me stranded on the street of Enugu. And this was not even a government car.”
If Iloh thought that was the end of his ordeal, a worse fate was awaiting him in Lagos. “I returned to Lagos where I thought I would begin life anew. The white men who ran the Mines in Jos were fair-minded people because they paid all my gratuities and the Red Cross also paid in some money for me. I had been operating an account with the First Bank since 1951 and during the war, I managed to get some money from it. But the day I arrived Lagos and went to the bank, my manager told me that because of a policy from Awolowo, I was only entitled to 20 pounds! I was dazed…”
For a septuagenarian father of five (and grandfather to five) who has undergone considerable transformation, from a unionist to charity worker, to a successful entrepreneur and then a Clergy man, Iloh looks very good for his age. Perhaps it is just as well for the accomplished sportsman who played football with the likes of Thunder Balogun and was for a long period President of the Nigerian Cycling Federation. Even though he now lives a Spartan lifestyle at his Ikeja, Lagos residence, spending most of his time in Christian counseling, Iloh is an intellectually sharp and witty old man who, despite varied life experiences has no hint of bitterness. However, from my exploratory talk with him, I can draw some conclusions.
One, there was no doubt that the Federal troops crossed the line in the conduct of their military operations during the war and contributed to the death of several civilians. It may not be up to the scale being touted but the indiscriminate bombings and the economic blockade accounted for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people on the Biafran side. What is important here is that one needless death of a fellow human being is one death too many. Crucially, Rev Iloh’s account has been corroborated by Bernard Kouchner, the French doctor who volunteered with the International Red Cross and came to Biafra. It was his experience with the Red Cross, attending to war casualties in Biafra, that led him to join others in 1971 to establish ‘Medecins Sans Frontiers’ (Doctors Without Borders).
Two, as a nation we have not exorcised the ghost of Biafra because the scars seem very deep and the old generation of Igbo are passing on the story of the tragedy to the coming ones. And the more the Nigerian Project fails to work, the more the nostalgia about a “Biafran Eldorado” that existed only within the realm of imagination. This is particularly significant when there remains a perceived feeling of continued marginalization of the Igbos in Nigeria which is not entirely without foundation.
Three, the Igbos, not just Professor Achebe and Rev Iloh, strongly believe that Chief Awolowo dealt them a fatal blow that ensured they not only lost the war but several of their people suffered an even bigger personal loss after the war with the federal government 20 Pounds policy which Chief Awolowo initiated and implemented.
Four, even from my little interactions with Iloh, it was very evident that the Red Cross he led was not completely neutral but then in his position, would I be? Of course I have several questions for him and we will explore all of them in details in the weeks ahead, but one thing I found fascinating was his reverence for Ojukwu. He rarely called him by name for most of the period of our encounter, it was “His Excellency”. To him, Ojukwu was a great man. “The Igbos have a lot to thank Ojukwu for”, he would say as he recounted heroic stories about the late Biafran leader who, he argued, sacrificed everything, including personal comfort and family wealth for his people.
Five, there were also tell-tale signs of corruption even within Biafra. Recounting the experience of the last days (when it was evident that the Biafran Titanic was sinking and people were bailing out), Rev Iloh told of one particular night when many of the big shots were struggling to enter a plane at Uli airport. “I will never forget that night because as these senior officials were struggling to enter the plane, the briefcase of one Biafran Permanent Secretary opened and bales of Dollar notes began to fly all over the place.”
Six, Iloh and most members of his generation do not believe Yorubas did anything against them in the course of the war and do not hold Yoruba people responsible for what most of them consider a betrayal by Awolowo. They may not say so directly but the tales most tell of the way they were helped by one Yoruba friend or another when they returned to Lagos is quite revealing. That of Rev Iloh was not different. Besides the fact that he met his property intact and the help he received from friends like the late Ambassador Segun Olusola, Rev Iloh recalled how he became a rich man almost overnight. “When the federal government came up with the indigenisation policy, there was this company that was involved in installation of underground tanks for petroleum companies. I wanted to buy it but knew I could never raise the kind of money it was going for so I called a friend of mine, Dapo Gbalajobi and told him my predicament. He said he knew one Union Bank manager and would take me to him so the man could help. He took me to the bank and introduced me to the man who I was meeting for the first time. I was given forms to open an account, paid in some deposit and was subsequently given the money to buy the company. I had never met the bank manager before, he didn’t know me but just accepted me on the recommendation of Dapo Gbalajobi. With that I eventually became a very wealthy man with several engineers working for me and I had offices in several capital cities across the country.”
Of course on account of his Christian faith, Rev Iloh has since given up the company and his wealth in a remarkable way that is a compelling story on its own.
While my exploratory discussion with Rev Iloh has helped me to put in perspective Achebe’s book, there are several angles to the Biafran tragedy that I believe have not been explored and I intend to stretch him along that line in the weeks and months ahead. The lesson of it all, however, is that those who talk glibly about wars don’t know what they are talking about. Yes, Nigeria is not working and there are sufficient grounds to question some of the assumptions on which our nationhood is predicated. But to beat war drums at the least provocation is a sign that we have not come to terms with our past and the price so many people paid; indeed that we have not learnt the lessons of this tragic episode in our history, or that we have forgotten what lessons we learnt. That would be an even greater tragedy for our nation.
I HAVE not yet read the controversial personal history of Chinua Achebe, and as a professional historian, I don’t really think it is ethical to speak on a work one has not read. However, I have endeavoured to read Noo Saro-Wiwa’s review of the book posted on The Guardian of London on-line. I have also read the numerous comments on the book with specific reference to the roles of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the civil war.
I could recall that this subject of Achebe’s attack on Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the Dr. Frederick Fasehun’s welcome address to me during my meeting with him on Thursday, October 11, 2012, at his Century Hotel, Okota, to discuss the subject of Igbo Presidency in 2015. Still on the same subject matter, while en route Nsukka by Ifesinachi luxury bus, just few kilometers to Ore, I received a call from Ghana, this time by the renowned Igbo literary critic and mathematician-turned historian, Professor Chinweizu, imploring me to comment on the controversy.
Over-flogged and irrelevant subject
I have, therefore, decided to comment on a subject I strongly feel is both over-flogged and irrelevant at this point of our history. However, to the professional historian, no literary work is an end to itself, not even the one coming from such literary icon as Professor Chinua Achebe. Every work of literary art is, therefore, to the professional historian, a means to an end, a tool and source-material for the professional historian in pursuit of the end. That end is definitely the solution to the intractable political socio-economic, and allied problems of mankind.
Achebe no doubt, like other writers and commentators has done his bit of contribution towards that end. However, whether Achebe’s contribution is adjudged to be positive or negative in orientation, it remains a matter literary conjecture, since every writer is entitled to his personal opinion based on his exclusive perception of a given subject matter. In this regard, the title of the book is self-explanatory. One does not, therefore, understand why the personal view of an individual will constitute a whole lot of an enveloping controversy. Or, could be because such a comment is coming out of the mouth of a “Professor Chinua Achebe”? Just like a Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, or a Mungo Park discovering the source of River Niger. I ask this question because the subject matter is no longer new, as it has over the years formed one of tools against possible Igbo-Yoruba common front against a perceived common enemy.
The fact remains, however, that the issue of Chief Awolowo’s anti-Igbo roles during the civil war is highly over-bloated with irreconcilable body of evidence. This issue was fully explained in my October 1998 Guest Lecture to the Department of
Political Science, University of Lagos, titled: “Ethnicity and the Politics of Igbo-Yoruba Relations: case of a celebration of defeat?”
In the first instance, the Igbo first lost the golden opportunity to have Chief Awolowo fully on their side when, neither General Ironsi nor Col. Ojukwu failed to see the wisdom in releasing the former from prison custody in Calabar. Chief Obafemi Awolowo had to wait for the six or seven months before he could be released and granted amnesty by General Yakubu Gowon, who subsequently elevated him.
There was no doubt that the Yoruba under the leadership of Chief Awolowo were ready to secede along with the Igbo, had circumstances on ground not prevented the scheme. Fundamental in that circumstance was the presence of the Northern troops in Ibadan, Abeokuta and Lagos. Since the Yoruba at that time lacked the needed military presence in the army to confront the occupying forces, there was little they could have done. The Yoruba leaders had actually demanded for the withdrawal of the Federal troops from their territory to enable them carry out their scheme of secession. It was actually on account of that demand that the Federal authorities announced on Thursday, May 25, 1967 that the Northern troops would be withdrawn from the West Region.
However, that withdrawal eventually meant the withdrawal of troops at Ibadan and Abeokuta for the reinforcement of the Lagos garrison as well as for the strategic
cities of Jebba and Ilorin. Even the acting Military Governor of the Western Region at that tme, Col. Adebayo, in his subtle protest on May 26, described the presence of Northern troops at Ikeja as “this outstanding problem,” and pleaded with his people to exercise patience since he was discussing the matter with General Gowon.
It was under this charged political atmosphere that Gowon announced the
following day, May 27, the creation of the 12-State structure. That action eventually led to the fission of Yoruba minds towards secession, particularly since the indigenes of the new Lagos State saw their new status as a freedom from the domineering image of Chief Awolowo. The subsequent elevation of Chief Obafemi Awolowo to number two position was to erase the idea of a Yoruba secession.
It could also be recalled that on March 3, 1967, the Biafran leader, Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, then still acting on the capacity of a Regional Governor, affirmed this evident incapacitation of the West by the occupying Northern troops. Odumegwu-Ojukwu had said that both Governors of the two Southern Regions of West and Midwest were in full support of his position against the North, but could not do much because of the presence of Northern troops in their territories.
Chief Awolowo’s inability to carry out his threat of secession if the East seceded could not therefore be interpreted as an act of betrayal. Beyond the matter of sentiments, objective judgment agrees that there can never be secession without a back-up military force. Comparatively, the Yoruba had thrown a much stronger loyal support to the leadership of Nnamdi Azikiwe than the Igbo ever exhibited toward Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Thus in speaking of Awolowo’s roles in the civil war, objectivity demands that reference be made also of such Yoruba-born pro-Igbo partisans of the war, like Professor Wole Soyinka and those who chose to fight and die for Biafra like Colonels Banjo and Ademoyega.
There was no doubt that Professor Chinua Achebe, from the accounts of his civil war experiences was a privileged Biafran citizen who only watched but never suffered the gruesome experiences of hunger, diseases and homelessness during the war. If the father of African literature actually wants to be objective concerning the conduct of the civil war, then he should first focus his literary search-light at the internal mechanisms of the conduct of the war on the side of Biafra.
In other words, if any blame were to be apportioned for the defeat of Biafra and the suffering of the Igbo masses, it cannot be targeted at external forces such as Awolowo, but at the internal elite who masterminded the failed civil war policies of the leader, like Achebe himself. One would want Professor Achebe to explain to
Nigerians in general and the Igbo in particular, what happened to the millions in foreign currency raised abroad in support of Biafra but which never got to the shores of Biafra? How much of such money were actually raised and who were those Igbo leaders of Biafra entrusted with the duty of bringing the fund to Biafra?
What also happened to the millions given to such people as Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe and Mojekwu, a relative of Odumegwu-Ojukwu for the purpose of purchasing arms and ammunition to prosecute the war? Did they not cart away with the money and never returned to Biafra until after the defeat? Where again could one place those who sold relief materials meant for the poor and suffering citizens of Biafra, when it was meant to be distributed free? Were all these atrocities against the Igbo equally masterminded by Chief Obafemi Awolowo?
Viewed critically, even the literary icon himself, acting on the capacity of Biafra’s Minister of Communication, could not have supported any policy that would have given the Federal Government undue advantage over Biafra. Even the Federal Government’s policy of an all-round twenty pounds exchange cannot be faulted by any economic theory given the undetermined value of the Biafran currency. It is important for Professor Achebe to know that the Igbo of today fully understand who their actual friends and foes are in the present Federation.
Abandoned property saga
The 1966 pogroms against the Igbo were Hausa-Fulani schemes and not those of the Yoruba. Many Igbo lived unmolested in Yorubaland throughout the war. The coup d’etat that toppled General Aguiyi-Ironsi was a Northern act and not a single Yoruba soldier was involved. The abandoned property saga did not take place in Yorubaland.
Above all, although there could exist a situation of mutual rivalries between the Igbo and Yoruba, such competitions never for once degenerated into a state of anti-Igbo riots, with countless loss of lives and property. The Igbo thus know who their friends are, and they know that the Yoruba are not their foe. In conclusion, it is important to let Professor Achebe understand one evident fact: if any Igbo leader could have one-quarter of Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s vision for the Yoruba, then the Igbo are saved the pains of recurrent political idiocy.
• Dr. Nwaezeigwe is Senior Research Fellow, Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu meant different thing to different people. To the authorities of Kings College then, he could have been a stubborn student. But the venom which gave young Ojukwu the push to beat up a white tutor for molesting a black female staff, was not stubbornness but abhorrence for injustice and unquenchable desire to fight for the less-privileged. Ojukwu was a human rights activist who could not describe himself.
To his influential father, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu could have passed as a disobedient child for refusing the course his father chose for him and opting for another. But Ojukwu may just have shown leadership in the pursuit of independence of mind, clear vision and sense of responsibility. After all, the right to say no, it is said, is the first condition of freedom. A freedom that carries responsibility for the consequences. Ojukwu’s father, wherever he is today, must be proud of his son. Just as, coincidentally, the Chairman of Ojukwu’s burial committee, Rtd. Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, is, today, proud of his son, Charlie Boy, who also disobeyed him in the choice of career.
To the Nigerian military, Ojukwu was a surprise entrant, being the most educated recruit into the military at that time. But Ojukwu’s mind was focused. He wanted to imbibe the discipline that the military offered and stood for and to make a success of it, without allowing the more mouth-watering opportunities his big certificate could offer him to distract him.
Ojukwu fought against indiscipline in the military when he insisted on the right person, Brig. Samuel Ogundipe, the most senior military officer then, succeeding the late Gen Aguiyi Ironsi. The person Ojukwu insisted on was not an Igbo. He was a Yoruba. Ojukwu wanted to maintain esprit de corps in the military which was supposed to stand as an example of a disciplined force. Ojukwu was overruled without a convincing reason, and he refused to take orders from one he conceived as not being the next in command, Gen Gowon. The ghost of that indiscipline in the military which was allowed to stand, is still haunting Nigeria as a nation today. It laid the foundation for the culture of impunity and the rule by cabals. Who were those cabals? Are they still very much around today, or are we battling with their long shadows? Before President Jonathan contested the last election, some prominent Nigerians, most of them already adults at the break of the civil war, threatened to make Nigeria ungovernable if Jonathan dared declare his interest or goes on to win the election. They wanted him to be disciplined and stay on line. How soon can we forget? Well, could that truly be why there are explosions everywhere?
Ojukwu showed what good leadership and accountable government are all about. After the fall of the First Republic, Ojukwu was appointed the Administrator of the Eastern Region. In all the constitutions of advanced countries, the primary duty of government is the protection of lives and properties of its citizens. When it became obvious to Ojukwu that the protection of lives and properties of people from Eastern Region was no longer guaranteed in Nigeria under the watch of the Federal Government, he weighed the options he had – gather his people together and show leadership, or abandon ship and seek personal safety. He exhibited courage and chose the former. He gathered the survivors of his people and declared a state of Biafra, which was the only way he could go if he had to save the lives of his people, who were no longer secure in Nigeria. He never declared war against Nigeria. Ojukwu, like Moses, only asked to let his people go. But Nigeria, like Pharaoh, said no. Ojukwu wanted to be a true Nigerian, but he was forced into a secessionist. He wanted to be a true leader, but he was forced into a warlord.
Notable dramatis personae of the period are still very much with us – the persons of Generals Yakubu Gowon, Danjuma, Obasanjo, etc. And what is more, many of them profess the Christian faith. Which brings me to the Bible and the issue of Nigeria Prays, a pet project of Gen Gowon. To this writer, Gen Gowon epitomises the quintessential of courage garnished with humility. Humility, according to Roberts Dilts and Judith DeLozier, “involves knowing your limits and having appreciation for the intentions, strengths and perspectives of others”. Gowon had the courage to prosecute the civil war. At the end of it, and with his appreciation of the cause, coupled with his experience on the field, he knew the war was over and won, but not the battle. The battle is not over because the sins that led to the civil war are still with us. These are sins of impunity, indiscipline, injustice and bad governance. These are the sins Ojukwu fought against and died fighting. He never gave up and the battle is on. It just needs a new arrowhead. Gowon, nevertheless, had the wisdom to proclaim “no victor, no vanquished” and to launch his post-war three-pronged programme of the famous 3Rs – reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation.
Embedded in humility, of course, is the recognition of a higher force. So it is not surprising that out of power and with the addition of a doctorate degree to his cerebral prowess, it was time for him to launch his innate quality of humility. That, to me, came out as a finished product in Nigeria Prays.
The efficacy of prayers, for believers, is not in doubt. But no one can mock God. The Bible prescribes procedure. In sum, it says that if people can humble themselves, confess their sins and pray, God, in turn, will hear their prayers and heal their land. Right now, Nigeria prays. But has Nigeria first confessed her sins? This writer doesn’t think so. Which, perhaps, is why the more Nigeria prays, the more Nigeria boils. Though some positivists can argue that it could have been worse.
In the continued but obviously reluctant implementation of Gowon’s 3Rs post-war programmes, an offshoot of his “no victor, no vanquished” stand, a lot of rehabilitation and reconstruction have been done. Today, rising from the ashes of the civil war and the imposition of the limit of twenty pounds on ex-Biafrans – irrespective of the value of Biafran currency possessed at the end of the war – Biafrans, and Igbos in particular, have moved on and gradually played themselves back into the mainstream of Nigerian socio-economic and political life. Of recent, Igbos have been IG, Senate President, Chief of Army Staff, etc. Today, an ex-Biafran is the President of Nigeria. I understand that some ex-Biafran fighters who were enlisted in the Nigerian military before the civil war were recently recalled and retired with benefits. So, yes, in the area of rehabilitation and reconstruction, post-war Nigeria has moved on. But same cannot be said in the area of reconciliation.
In a capitalist economy, like Nigeria, the most prominent signpost of wealth and power is land. It is argued that the Gowon’s regime created the 12 states out of the then existing four regions to principally break the rank and bond of Biafra, by taking a larger chunk of the oil-bearing lands out of Ojukwu”s control. Gowon had every right as a soldier to employ any strategy that could help him win the war, provided such does not amount to war crime. So Gowon, one could argue, prosecuted the war as fair as he could – with the exception of being accused in some quarters of using starvation as a weapon of warfare based on advice by some rehabilitated opportunists – won it, and exhibited his humility by the pronouncements he made and the programmes he instituted and tried to implement.
It appears, however, that those who succeeded Gowon were not happy that Biafra and, in particular, the Igbos, were not pronounced “conquered” by Gowon. They felt that the strategy of creating more states, though a good one, was not enough guarantee to ensure that Biafra did not regroup. There was the further need to create permanent enmity between Peter and Paul so they don’t form a tag-team anymore. And the best way, they thought, was to rob Peter to pay Paul. So, either out of sheer wickedness or as a strategy for winning the minority Biafrans to Federal side and bequeathing to the incoming civilian administration a self-destruct ex-Biafran region, the Obasanjo-led Federal Military government did what has never been done in any civilised nation – appropriation of private property by state without compensation for reallocation to private new owners. Such an act of state is against the Bill of Rights in all the constitutions used by all the governments in all the civilised world. It is a crime against humanity. The Obasanjo-led Federal Military government, as a parting gift to Nigeria, took away the properties of Igbos in Port Harcourt, called them Abandoned Properties, and appropriated same to the Federal government without further assurance, via Decree no 90 of 1979. The Decree, made on 28 September 1979 – two days to Obasanjo’s handover of power – is herein reproduced, for effect and accuracy:
ABANDONED PROPERTIES ACT
An Act to make provisions for the sale, registration and maintenance of abandoned properties by the Implementation Committee set up for the purpose.
[28th September, 1979]
1.(1) Every sale or disposition of abandoned properties conducted by the Abandoned Properties Implementation Committee (hereinafter in this Act referred to as “the Committee”) set up by the Federal Government shall be deemed to have been lawful and properly made and any instrument issued by the Committee which purports to convey any estate or interest in land, shall be deemed to have been validly issued and shall have effect according to its tenor or intendment.
(2) Any abandoned property sold pursuant to subsection (1) of this section shall vest in the purchaser free of all encumbrances without any further assurance apart from this Act.
(3) The Registrar or any other person in charge of registration of land, instruments, deeds or rights affecting land shall, upon presentation to him of any contract of agreement signed by or on behalf of the Committee, expunge from the relevant register the name of any person in whose name any interest is registered in respect of any property affected by this Act and substitute therefore the name of the new owner.
2. Any person who contravenes or fails to comply with any of the provisions of section 1 of this Act shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for one year without the option of a fine.
3. (1) Any member of the Committee or any person acting on its behalf shall stand indemnified and no suit or other proceedings shall lie at the instance of any person aggrieved in respect of any property sold by the Committee or anything done in compliance with the direction of the Federal Government in respect of abandoned properties.
(2) The question whether any provision of Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has been, is being or would be contravened by anything done or purported to be done by the Committee shall not be inquired into in any court of law, and, accordingly, sections 40, 42 and 220(1)(b) of the Constitution shall not apply in relation to any such question.
(3) Any proceedings against the Committee or members of the Committee or any person acting on its behalf (whether criminal or civil) commenced before the date of commencement of this Act shall cease and any order or ruling already made shall be null and void and of no consequence whatever.
4. This Act may be cited as the Abandoned Properties Act.
•Ugwuanyi, LLM, Bl, is a Lagos-based legal practitioner. 08033269501