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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>Achebe’s Memoir – A Preview
Thursday, 11 October 2012 19:18

Achebe’s Memoir – A Preview

Written by Obi Enweze, JD. FCA
Chinua Achebe Chinua Achebe

The fiercest battle within Nigeria’s social milieu these days is not over the substance of Chinua Achebe’s just published memoir, There Was A Country: A Personal Narrative of Biafra, but the arcane question of whether statements he made in the memoir are capable of disrupting the fragile ethnic relationship among Nigerians. If Achebe intended for his memoir to accomplish something other than convey the author’s trademark candor, that would be a sad comment on the exemplary and admirable life of Africa’s most widely read author. Fortunately, the manifest intent (judging from the text) is the brutal honesty of what the iconic Achebe feels based on his immense personal experience.

 

Like it, hate it or love it, the undisputed fact is that Achebe’s memoir will form an essential facet of the checkered history of Nigeria. The message of the erudite author is intellectually nourishing because of the great contemporary and historical significance of the events he recounts in his latest book.

 

The memoir’s contemporary significance is clearly evident in the way that Achebe captures the current state of affairs in Nigeria. Schooled by the type of wisdom that comes from a self-actualized old age, exposure, and first class scholarship, he marshals his quiet eloquence to express disappointment at the horror that is becoming all too normal in the Grand (Woeful) Experiment called Nigeria. Achebe writes:

 

"Nigeria’s federal government has always tolerated terrorism. For over half a century the federal government has turned a blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its citizens – mainly Christian Southerners; mostly Igbos or indigenes of the Middle Belt; and others – with impunity."

 

The foregoing lines are at once factual and prophetic. No sooner was Achebe’s memoir published than we started getting news of one barbaric murder after another. First, Nigerians woke up to the shocking news that over 40 unarmed and defenseless students of Federal Polytechnic, Mubi, were heartlessly slaughtered in cold blood. The young men and women were hurried out of the comforts of their beds, lined up, and killed after each had been ordered to announce his or her Christian name.  Where were the team of Nigerian soldiers and members of other armed forces drafted to protect the troubled zone marred by fanatical religious war? They seemed to be in sound sleep as the carnage went on, unabated, for over four hours. If the Nigerian Federal Government did not tolerate terrorism and did not give tacit approval to such dastardly act, tell me why the massacre, which lasted for so long, could have happened. How could such a gruesome act take place in an area where a "crack" team of a special force of soldiers and police were supposedly enforcing a curfew? And it was that curfew that got the victims trapped in their homes. The army and police were there, it appears, merely to create a false impression – that the government was protecting the citizens. The innocent and law abiding citizens would have taken steps to protect themselves better, or even gone back to their various states as often happens. They reposed faith in the instrumentality of the State, and they paid the ultimate price for their misplaced faith and confidence in the government. One feels certain that, but for the Army and Police enforcing a so-called curfew and creating a false sense of safety, most of the young students would still be still today. The federal government’s gross negligence was the direct cause of the massacre. That horror in Mubi vindicated Achebe’s position that the federal government condones the terrorist violation of citizens.

 

While Nigerians were still mourning the massacred students, cut down in their prime, a video of another savage event emerged to wide international circulation. This time, the horrific video came from Choba, Port Harcourt. It revealed how four students were lynched and burnt alive. The macabre scene was videotaped and uploaded on Youtube possibly by the perpetrators of the sordid crime. After watching that video, who would want to question Achebe’s position?

 

Achebe’s memoir is simply filled with riches that reward rereading. Mortimer Jerome, a popular author and philosopher, once said that a great book should be inexhaustible (it can be read again and again with benefit).

 

If the above standard is accepted, Achebe has just published one of the greatest books of our time. This book will be analyzed over and again by generations yet unborn. And each will benefit immensely from the prophetic and historical nature of the book. At present, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart makes the author the most widely read African author, period. A personal story will shed light into how Achebe’s style of writing appeals to generations. My aged father, now late, was visiting the US. I had reasons to travel to Nigeria and asked my father what I should get for him on my way back. His response surprised me: "A copy of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe." Even in his twilight years, my beloved and most cherished father was thinking of Achebe’s most popular book. I got to Nigeria and bought three copies of the book (easily available from street hawkers). I gave Father one and kept two copies. Till date, I still find the book exciting. With a more mature and discerning mind, the novel resonated with me even more powerfully. My prediction is that, when all is said and done, the memoir will have the same profound effect on people. I will likely be asking my child for a copy when I am over 80 years.

 

ACHEBE ON AWOLOWO AND GOWON  - NOW A HARVEST AND BAZAAR FOR ETHNIC JINGOISTS

 

The statement that has ignited a firestorm comes from Achebe’s take on the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo (most popularly called Awo) and Yakubu Gowon, Nigeria’s war-time head of state.

Those who know Chinua Achebe most intimately attest to his fearless candor and strength of character. These attributes were on full display in his refusal twice to accept Nigeria’s national honors on the grounds that the litany of leadership woes that adversely affect the lives of Nigerians still exists. That moral choice solidified his reputation as a man of unimpeachable principle. This type of gesture is absent in the lexicon of the highly questionable national honor. Let’s face it, many of our best intellectuals have been known to succumb to the temptation to partake in "the national cake," a phrase loosely used to rationalize illegal acquisition of wealth at the expense of the masses, either by accepting highly compromised government jobs or contracts.  Achebe has contributed tremendously to the intellectual and moral advancement of humanity and has stood in solidarity with the Nigerian masses by using his vintage position to zealously advocate for the poor and voiceless.

 

Moving on…….

 

The ignoble role of Gowon is pretty settled. As Nigeria’s military ruler, he prosecuted the genocide during the war. That is far from a controversial claim. The absence of extensive debates on the theories of genocide affirms this position. By contrast, Achebe’s statement about Awolowo has generated fierce and passionate debate, mostly along ethnic lines.

 

Achebe wrote: "It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations.

"However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles 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 numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations."

 

 

Some have argued that the late Awolowo, a widely revered Nigerian too, should not be blamed for any role in the Biafra genocide. Others have insisted that he should be held accountable especially with relation to the decision to strip members of the Biafran side of economic power by handing them a measly 20 pounds each at the end of the war. The sordid tale often called economic genocide or strangulation is simple to explain. Every Igbo adult was given a mere 20 pounds only in exchange for the assets they formerly owned. It did not matter if a person had 100 million pounds in the bank before the war. Many have blamed the late Awolowo, who was then the Finance Minister, for this policy of economic strangulation of the Igbo. He was the undisputed leader of the Federal Executive Council (FEC), the highest policy making body in Nigeria then. Being the brightest and most respected among the FEC members, Awo has now become the focus of debate on most of the obnoxious policies of the then Gowon regime.

 

Should we discountenance Achebe’s argument without the benefit of hearing him interviewed? To do so would be a gross disservice to fairness. Achebe is yet to grant interviews, as is customary after every great publication. As an amateur student writer cum journalist, I used to cherish a situation like this. It is a journalist’s paradise. Interview the great man and ask him questions, those are the opportunities that we should really be waiting for. Heckling on the Internet and local media is of little help.

Achebe’s place in world history is already engraved in glittering gold now and forever. It can never be dented, and his word goes very far. Therefore, we must all seek the golden opportunity of a credible interview on the subject.

 

 

It is sad that Achebe’s statement on Awo appears to have dealt a further blow to the often tense relationship between Yoruba and Igbo. Nigerian politics, notorious for its bare-knuckle ethnic warfare, appears to have gone up in flames. But many of the cyber-gladiators are missing the point by a wide margin. In-depth analysis has been replaced by insults, innuendoes and gossips. As usual, the number of unhygienic insults that you can haul at the other "adversarial ethnic group" now measures your "loyalty" to your ethnic group. Lazy intellectualizing by the best and brightest is now the trend. The facts remain that, when the dust settles, we must discuss the facts with a view to supporting or debunking the widely circulated story.

 

My position is simple. Unless proven otherwise, a super powerful Finance Minister will never be held harmless for any monetary policy by the government that he served. Otherwise, we must all absolve Ngozi Okonjo Iweala of all blame for the huge transfer of Nigeria’s cash to pay what some critics regard as a phantom debt during Obasanjo’s administration. If Awo, as a super powerful FEC leader and Finance Minister during and after the war, can never be discussed with respect to a monetary policy, who then should be discussed?

Dr. Val Ojo, a former lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University, has argued, "PA Awo made a war time decision." Maybe we should be all discussing along that line.

 

I searched and read a publication where the late Awolowo admitted to signing off on the policy, but not being responsible for drafting it. The publication wrote: "During the 1983 elections, Chief Awolowo was hosted to a town hall interview in Abeokuta, where in addition to other pertinent topics of the day, he spoke on his role in the civil war, the 20-pound policy, starvation as a weapon, change of currency, abandoned property etc. Collectors item.

Moderator: Yes Mr…….Mr. Oparadike.

 

TWENTY POUNDS POLICY

 

That’s what I did, and the case of the money they said was not given back to them, you know during the war all the pounds were looted, they printed Biafran currency notes, which they circulated, at the close of the war some people wanted their Biafran notes to be exchanged for them. Of course I couldn’t do that, if I did that the whole country would be bankrupt. We didn’t know about Biafran notes and we didn’t know on what basis they have printed them, so we refused the Biafran note, but I laid down the principle that all those who had savings in the banks on the eve of the declaration of the Biafran war or Biafra, will get their money back if they could satisfy us that they had the savings there, or the money there. Unfortunately, all the banks’s books had been burnt, and many of the people who had savings there didn’t have their saving books or their last statement of account, so a panel had to be set up.

 

I didn’t take part in setting up the panel, it was done by the Central Bank and the pertinent officials of the Ministry of Finance, to look into the matter, and they went carefully into the matter, they took some months to do so, and then made some recommendation which I approved. Go to the archives, all I did was approve, I didn’t write anything more than that, I don’t even remember the name of any of them who took part. So I did everything in this world to assist our Ibo brothers and sisters during and after the war.And anyone who goes back to look at my broadcast in August 1967, which dealt with post-war reconstruction, would see what I said there."

 

NOW,

 

Should Chief Awolowo be solely judged by those actions alone? Definitely not! I also took judicious notice of his response to some of the other questions asked. Some see his response as a moral apology, I leave you to your own conclusion. For completeness, find below other sections of the said interview.

 

AWO’S INTERVIEW  - 1983

 

During the 1983 elections, Chief Awolowo was hosted to a town hall interview in Abeokuta, where in addition to other pertinent topics of the day, he spoke on his role in the civil war, the 20-pound policy, starvation as a weapon, change of currency, abandoned property etc.

 

Collectors item.

 

CIVIL WAR

 

Moderator: Yes Mr…….Mr. Oparadike.

Question: Chief Awolowo, your stand on the civil war, however unpopular it may have been to the Biafran people…Your stand on the civil war, however unpopular it may have been to the Biafrans or Ibo people, helped to shorten the war. Today, you’re being cast as the sole enemy of the Ibo people because of that stand, by among others, some of the people who as members of the federal military government at that time, were party to that decision and are today, in some cases, inheritors of power in one Nigeria which that decision of yours helped to save. How do you feel being cast in this role, and what steps are you taking to endear yourself once again to that large chunk of Nigerians who feels embittered.

Awolowo: As far as I know, the Ibo masses are friendly to me, towards me. In fact, whenever I visit Iboland, either Anambra or Imo, and there’s no campaigning for elections on, the Ibo people receive me warmly and affectionately. But there are some elements in Iboland who believe that they can maintain their popularity only by denigrating me, and so they keep on telling lies against me. Ojukwu is one of them. I don’t want to mention the names of the others because they are still redeemable, but ….Ojukwu is irredeemable so I mention his name, and my attitude to these lies is one of indifference, I must confess to you.

 

I’ve learnt to rely completely on the providence and vindication of Almighty God in some of these things. I’ve tried to explain myself in the past, but these liars persist. Ojukwu had only recently told the same lie against me. What’s the point in correcting lies when people are determined to persist in telling lies against you, what’s the point. I know that someday the Ibos, the masses of the Ibo people will realize who their friends are, and who their real enemies are. And the day that happens woe betide those enemies. The Ibos will deal with them very roughly, very roughly.

 

That has happened in my life. I have a nickname now, if you see my letterhead you’ll find something on top, you’ll find a fish done on the letterhead. Some people put Lion on theirs, some people put Tiger, but mine is Fish. And Fish represents my zodiac sign, those of you who read the stars and so on in the newspapers; you’ll find out that there’s a zodiac sign known as pieces, in Latin pieces mean Fish.

 

So I put pieces on top, that’s my zodiac sign being born on the 6th of March,….er well, the year doesn’t matter, it’s the day that matter. And then on top of it I write Eebudola. All of you know the meaning of that. You know I don’t want to tell a long story but………………Awolowo school, omo Awolowo, the…… started in Urobo land, in mid-west in those days. They were ridiculing my schools, I was building schools –brick and cement, to dpc level, block to dpc level and mud thereafter. And so the big shots in the place.."ah what kind of school is this? is this Awolowo school? Useless school" and when they saw the children.."ah this Awolowo children, they can’t read and write, Awolowo children" that’s how it started, with ridicule, and it became blessing, and now they say "Awolowo children, they are good people" no more ridicule about it, that’s how it started, so the Eebu becomes honor, the abuse became honor.

 

And so when I look back to all my life, treasonable felony, jail, all the abuses that were heaped on me, to Coker Inquiry, all sorts, and I see what has happened to the people who led, who led all these denigration campaign, where are they today? Those that are alive are what I call Homo Mortuus- dead living, oku eniyan, that’s what they are, those that their lives have gone.

 

So when I look back, I come to the conclusion that all these abuses which have been heaped on me all my life for doing nothing, for doing good, they have become honor, and so Eebudola is one of my nicknames. So I’ve cultivated an attitude of indifference, I’ve done no evil to the Ibos.

 

During the war I saw to it that the revenue which was due to the Iboland- South Eastern states they call it, at that time..east central state, I kept it, I saved the money for them. And when they ….was librated I handed over the money to them- millions. If I’d decided to do so, I could have kept the money away from them and then when they took over I saw to it that subvention was given to them at the rate of 990,000 pounds every month. I didn’t go to the executive council to ask for support, or for approval because I knew if I went to the executive council at that time the subvention would not be approved because there were more enemies in the executive council for the Ibos than friends. And since I wasn’t going to take a percentage from what I was going to give them, and I knew I was doing what was right, I wanted the state to survive, I kept on giving the subvention - 990,000 almost a million, every month, and I did that for other states of course- South eastern state, North central state, Kwara and so on.

 

But I did that for the Ibos, and when the war was over, I saw to it that the ACB got three and a half million pounds to start with. This was distributed immediately and I gave another sum of money. The attitude of the experts, officials at the time of the ACB was that ACB should be closed down, and I held the view you couldn’t close the ACB down because that is the bank that gives finance to the Ibo traders, and if you close it down they’ll find it difficult to revive or to survive. So it was given. I did the same thing for the Cooperative Bank of Eastern Nigeria, to rehabilitate all these places, and I saw to it as commissioner for finance that no obstacle was placed in the way of the ministry of economic planning in planning for rehabilitation of the war affected areas.

 

TWENTY POUNDS POLICY

 

That’s what I did, and the case of the money they said was not given back to them, you know during the war all the pounds were looted, they printed Biafran currency notes, which they circulated, at the close of the war some people wanted their Biafran notes to be exchanged for them. Of course I couldn’t do that, if I did that the whole country would be bankrupt. We didn’t know about Biafran notes and we didn’t know on what basis they have printed them, so we refused the Biafran note, but I laid down the principle that all those who had savings in the banks on the eve of the declaration of the Biafran war or Biafra, will get their money back if they could satisfy us that they had the savings there, or the money there. Unfortunately, all the banks’s books had been burnt, and many of the people who had savings there didn’t have their saving books or their last statement of account, so a panel had to be set up.

 

I didn’t take part in setting up the panel, it was done by the Central bank and the pertinent officials of the ministry of finance, to look into the matter, and they went carefully into the matter, they took some months to do so, and then make some recommendation which I approved. Go to the archives, all I did was approve, I didn’t write anything more than that, I don’t even remember the name of any of them who took part. So I did everything in this world to assist our Ibo brothers and sisters during and after the war.

And anyone who goes back to look at my broadcast in August 1967, which dealt with post-war reconstruction would see what I said there.

 

STARVATION POLICY

 

Then, but above all, the ending of the war itself that I’m accused of, accused of starving the Ibos, I did nothing of the sort. You know, shortly after the liberation of these places, Calabar, Enugu and Port Harcort, I decided to pay a visit. There are certain things which I knew which you don’t know, which I don’t want to say here now, when I write my reminisces in the future I will do so. Some of the soldiers were not truthful with us, they didn’t tell us correct stories and so on.

 

I wanted to be there and see things for myself, bear in mind that Gowon himself did not go there at that time, it was after the war was over that he dorn himself up in various military dresses- Air force dress, Army dress and so on, and went to the war torn areas. But I went and some people tried to frighten me out of my goal by saying that Adekunle was my enemy and he was going to see to it that I never return from the place, so I went.

 

But when I went what did I see? I saw the kwashiorkor victims. If you see a kwashiorkor victim you’ll never like war to be waged. Terrible sight, in Enugu, in Port Harcourt, not many in Calabar, but mainly in Enugu and Port Harcourt. Then I enquired what happened to the food we are sending to the civilians. We were sending food through the Red cross, and CARITAS to them, but what happen was that the vehicles carrying the food were always ambushed by the soldiers. That’s what I discovered, and the food would then be taken to the soldiers to feed them, and so they were able to continue to fight. And I said that was a very dangerous policy, we didn’t intend the food for soldiers. But who will go behind the line to stop the soldiers from ambushing the vehicles that were carrying the food? And as long as soldiers were fed, the war will continue, and who’ll continue to suffer? and those who didn’t go to the place to see things as I did, you remember that all the big guns, all the soldiers in the Biafran army looked all well fed after the war, its only the mass of the people that suffered kwashiorkor.

 

You wont hear of a single lawyer, a single doctor, a single architect, who suffered from kwashiorkor? None of their children either, so they waylaid the foods, they ambush the vehicles and took the foods to their friends and to their collaborators and to their children and the masses were suffering. So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.

 

CHANGE OF CURRENCY

 

And it is on record that Ojukwu admitted that two things defeated him in this war, that’s as at the day he left Biafra. He said one, the change of currency, he said that was the first thing that defeated him, and we did that to prevent Ojukwu taking the money which his soldiers has stolen from our Central bank for sale abroad to buy arms. We discovered he looted our Central bank in Benin, he looted the one in Port Harcourt, looted the one in Calabar and he was taking the currency notes abroad to sell to earn foreign exchange to buy arms.

 

So I decided to change the currency, and for your benefit, it can now be told the whole world, only Gowon knew the day before, the day before the change took place. I decided, only three of us knew before then- Isong now governor of Cross River, Attah and myself. It was a closely guarded secret, if any commissioner at the time say that he knew about it, he’s only boosting his own ego. Because once you tell someone, he’ll tell another person. So we refused to tell them and we changed the currency notes. So Ojukwu said the change in currency defeated him, and starvation of his soldiers also defeated him.

These were the two things that defeated Ojukwu. And, he reminds me, when you saw Ojukwu’s picture after the war, did he look like someone who’s not well fed? But he has been taking the food which we send to civilians, and so we stopped the food.

 

ABANDONED PROPERTY

 

And then finally, I saw to it that the houses owned by the Ibos in Lagos and on this side, were kept for them. I had an estate agent friend who told me that one of them collected half a million pounds rent which has been kept for him. All his rent were collected, but since we didn’t seize their houses, he came back and collected half a million pounds.

 

So that is the position. I’m a friend of the Ibos and the mass of the Ibos are my friends, but there are certain elements who want to continue to deceive the Ibos by telling lies against me, and one day, they’ll discover and then that day will be terrible for those who have been telling the lies.

 

Obi Enweze, JD. FCA (Washington, DC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last modified on Thursday, 11 October 2012 19:26

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