Today’s event may yet make a Christian out of me – since, from my admittedly imperfect recollection of the Christian bible – somewhere, it is written: to him who hath, even more shall be given. Despite the numerous explications I have encountered from childhood regarding that problematic passage, I have never been at ease with its implicit inequity. Today however, I am setting aside all such objections. I was a beneficiary of the liberal educational policy – at tertiary level - of the man whose memory we are here to honour, and now, today, I find myself recipient of yet another largesse, an inestimable honour at the hands - albeit posthumously – of that same sage. As a small return therefore, in tribute to some of those qualities which, in varying degrees, many of us admired in him, such as the principle of forthrightness, I intend to be blunt. When you live in an environment of the progressive insemination of fear as an agency of faith, it is no time for palliatives of speech and timorous euphemisms. As the poet Langston Hughes, a product of generations of intolerance, observes in one of his poems:
“There is no lavender word for ‘lynch’.
In this nation, the morbidity count for religious intolerance has surpassed the level of the intolerable. The triumphalism that first annunciates, then celebrates the brutal decimation of our own kind and thus, the diminution of our common humanity, is the veritable face of obscenity.
What is on fire today is not only within the mind, but the very nation space in which we all draw breath. Look left and right, check morning and night and you stumble on new minted issues that drain your vitality and compress the mind’s scope of functioning. Every individual, even infants, must have their own pertinent instances that illustrate our very topic. Let us make our entry point with a recent mild, but provocative event – admittedly on the lower rungs of the ladder of intolerance - nonetheless potent with assisted access to the very apex of discontent. It offers a most providential setting for the main body of this address.
At issue, very often, is the very banality, or the banalisation of Power: Illustrating that constant in social life was, conveniently, the decision of some civil servants to prevent school pupils from taking a general, universal examination because they were dressed in the moslem hijab. What, may I ask, does the choice of a hijab have to do with invigilating or sitting a public school examination? How does it compromise, or detract from the integrity of the tests?
There are differences and distinctions. It is not as if we are speaking of a private or public school, established on secular or religious principles and thus, requirements. When you are a club member, you observe the rules of the club. As I have persistently espoused - including in my recent publication – Harmattan Haze on an African Spring - all institutions have the right to set their own rules - as long as these do not violate constitutional rights - including dress codes and accessories that are symbolic of the school’s founding principles, philosophy or ideology. The West African Examinations Council exercise however – known as WAEC – is a general, all-comer, all-purpose arena for the testing of aptitude, knowledge and application, one that should be devoid of religious , national, or sectarian considerations at any level. Wherever its venue happens to be, that venue is neutral grounds. Why then should an examiner object to a choice of habiliments that do not disrupt the process of that educational test? This is what creates turmoil – the misappropriation of the designated province of Authority through the territorial rapacity and distortions of Power. It is crude, dictatorial, and avoidable.
As a student of such excesses, it has become routine for parallels to spring immediately to mind – and from multiple directions. The first contender was an occurrence in the United Kingdom some years ago, where two medical practitioners, trained with public funds, and sworn to the Hippocratic oath, refused to treat moslem women in their clinics unless they presented themselves appropriately – in the hijab. Need one really say more? Alas, there is indeed so much more to say.
Our late sage, Obafemi Awolowo, would surely have been baffled by such encroachments on human volition, wondering at the arbitrary limitations on entitlements to educational opportunities or – health. We only need to make one particular extraction from his humanistic vision, and we are instantly enlightened by its profound implications for humanity. Awolowo, a staunch Christian and leader in a predominantly Christian state, set up a Pilgrims’ Board in 1958 to assist the moslem faithful in fulfilling one of the requirements of the Seven Pillars of Islam. Such a policy, in my view, considered in all possible ramifications, deserves to be nominated one of the Seven Pillars of Nationhood. Translated in plain, practical terms, it establishes the principle that Religion should be recognised as a right, not a privilege, and that a citizen’s desire for spiritual fulfillment deserves to be assisted - as a basis for both social understanding and governance equity.
Now, that is the ideal. Is it however an absolute? When taken in the context of a multi-religious nation, it asks questions of the scaffolding that should uphold a nation – whether such state intervention is truly harmless, or can become an entrapment for unforeseen negative developments in the structuring of nation being. Let us begin with the banal. For instance, that policy became a springboard for demands for parity by islam’s main religious rival – christianity. It is my view that some of those demands should have been dismissed outright - certainly that of government assisted pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Nothing in the Christian religion makes pilgrimage mandatory to any destination in the world – so there is really no basis for claims of parity.
All it has resulted in, predictably for us in this nation, has been an encouragement to our affluent classes for extended tourist destinations, this time under the guise of religious obligation. It was only a matter of time before this class also felt that the act of tourism was not enough. There had to be a title for the outlay on that personal excursion, and thus came into usage the title of JP – no, not Justice of the Peace but – Jerusalem Pilgrim. You style yourself el-Hajj, I call myself JP. Of course, it all has to do with the promiscuous environment of ostentation that had become the hallmark of national life. Let me make it clear that I am speaking here of national trends, not of exceptions. Even long before independence or the oil boom, there were individuals who fulfilled their private spiritual yearnings by finding their way to Jerusalem and other places of christian pilgrimage without fanfare – among them, Chief Awolowo himself.
What we witness today however is the evolution of a new religious elitism that virtually looks down on those who have never stepped on the Mount of Olives, known to moslems as the Noble Sanctuary.
It is a pity that traditional religions, such as the Orisa, did not also demand their pound of flesh. The principle, after all, is what counts, and what principle for nation building could be more
crucial than one of religious equity? For a substantial proportion of citizens however, the principle of the separation of Religion and State is even more primary, no less crucial to Nation being than that pillar on which rests a nation’s accommodation of Religion – but strictly as a private engagement with unseen forces, where and however they are held to manifest themselves, and by whatever names they are known.
It would be absurd – I have to make this unambiguous, since there is such a tendency to take words out of their context and twist them to suit stubbornly held preconceptions – it would be even impious to lay the blame for the nation’s current dilemma on the shoulders of any leader who set the nation on a path of the harmonisation of religious preferences through the inauguration of an enabling board for pilgrims. More than even the practical aid, the gesture speaks volumes. It is to our discredit that this visionary proceeding has been poorly repaid, and in a measure that no one living even at that time could have foreseen. Obafemi Awolowo evinced foresight beyond any other national leader, but he never claimed to be a seer. He was, and remains till today, the nation’s preeminent sage. And so, not even he could have foreseen that, after over three decades of military dictatorial rule, and a civil war that lasted over two years at a cost of over two million souls and years of developmental retardation, a war – let this always be emphasized – a war that was fought specifically for national cohesion – he could not have foreseen that any state would unilaterally opt out of that resulting conglomerate, and declare itself a theocratic state, to be followed by eight others in a copycat relay of unilateralism – unchallenged. However, if all this had indeed unraveled before his eyes, and then he had learnt of a movement that had sprung up within that nation’s borders, demanding that the President of the nation converts before it ceased to blow up humanity in offices, on the streets, in factories, in market-places and in places of worship, I believe that his only surprise would have been that such a nation, supposedly filled with students of history, was expressing so much surprise.
But do we even have to be students of history to anticipate, and be pro-active against such developments? We have eyes to see and ears to listen with. Millions are addicts of CNN, BBC, Al Jezeera, SABC and other instruments that convey the march of history in contemporary, real-life tempo. In any case, even before the advent of such instant communication agencies, there are wisdoms that we imbibe with infant gums. Here now is a morality tale that has stayed with me since kindergarten school:
“A Bedouin on a journey through the desert camped down for the night, his camel tethered to a peg outside the tent. A while later, the camel pleaded: Master, the desert air is cold, can I just put my nose inside the tent to warm it a little? The Bedouin considered it odd, but decided to gratify his camel’s whim. Next, the camel, meek as ever, proposed that his neck follow suit. Again, the Bedouin felt that he had nothing to lose, just a little space, so he let in the neck. The head nosed its way up and down the tent, sniffed the air and wiggled its ears. His shoulders, the camel now pointed out to the owner, were not particularly broad, indeed they would take up far less space than his hump, so could he just intrude his shoulders a little further…..
The rest of the story is easily guessed. After the incursion of shoulders, the front leg, then two, chest, hump and rump, the camel began to grumble that the tent was getting cramped, and that even a blind man could see that there was not enough room for both…… Still vivid in my mind is the accompanying illustration – the astonished Bedouin sailing through the air from a powerful kick of his camel’s hind legs.
The lesson of that morality tale is unlikely to be missed, but just in case, permit me to ask you to recall the role that religion has played in the devices of history, the wars it has engendered, its imperialism of both the physical and mental estates – from the moment that this penetrative force of the ineffable was let loose on the world. From sticking its mere nose in the secular tent, the proverbial camel has moved to occupy centre stage – and in a most imperious manner, in the lives and schemes of humanity. This intrusion has often taken place in defiance and subversion of the real, the material, the palpable and even the productive – by which I mean, the means to the reproduction and enhancement of human existence. Never content with merely ministering to the ineffable – the soul – from the fount of the Ultimate Ineffable - godhead in whatever language – it moves to occupy the material space and dictate – I repeat – dictate the fortunes, pace and survival strategies of society.
Shall we turn yet again to another instance from the healing pursuit, one to whose discoveries – both for preventive and - when that fails – remedial application we all turn in time of need?
How recently was it that HIV-Aids cut its destructive swathe through southern and Eastern parts the continent? A Christian bishop, who presumably was in direct text or email correspondence with his deity, had no doubt whatsoever about God’s position on the matter. And so, in a region already half decimated by the disease, he mounted an aggressive campaign, preaching that the condom is in fact an instrument of Satan designed to infect its users with the very scourge it is meant to prevent. AIDS, he claimed, was God’s punishment for the promiscuity of modern society.
As the expression goes however, let us thank God for small mercies. At least he did not pick up his AK47, summon his catechist or verger, hijack an okada motor-cycle and proceed to mow down the anti-HIV campaigners caught distributing condoms in his diocese. This was the criminal recourse embraced by his self-declared islamic counterparts in Northern Nigeria – how recently? We no longer remember. That horror has been supplanted – is daily displaced by new, self-surmounting horrors. Nine female health workers mown down in an orgy of hate, and commitment to the will to dominate. One’s first response is primarily the shock, next, recognition of the animalistic in man which makes one feel that an apology is due to beasts. The mental conditioning between the two aggressors is however identical. One condemns fellow humanity to the possibilities of a slow, lingering death from HIV-Aids, the other settles a one-sided score once for all - arrogant, homicidal and unrepentant. Ground beneath both left and right theocratic heels is – my and your humanity.
Let me, before we go any further, establish the context within which I situate the manifestations of certain human phenomena – summed up in two words: Power, and Freedom. That binary provocation will come up again and again in this address. The first, Freedom, is a familiar caller on the portals of humanity. It is easiest grasped in tandem with the other – Power - and in a context that makes large claims, yet narrows down the seizure of the phenomenon of history to a most simplistic level. I readily admit that it does feel reductionist to propose that we view the complex evolutionary processes of that organism known as society through a straightforward, oppositional binary which, to make matters worse, happens to be essentialist. Freedom, however fervidly as it is pursued and valued as a humanistic defining goal, is largely essentialist. It is not material in any sense of being quantifiable or palpable. It has no dimensions, no taste, no texture, no GNP, it is not cited on the Stock Exchange - yet it is so real that millions have laid down their lives in its pursuit. Freedom is humanity’s eternal quest.
‘The other end of my proposed binary opposition – Power - also qualifies as being essentialist. To propose that this axial tension summarises human history must therefore sound like seeking signposts from the immaterial for an understanding of the material – the clearly tangible convulsions that characterise our actual world. Usually I find myself allied with those who decry such ‘undialectical’ references – far too loose, vaporous, almost theological in approach – how, we may ask, is this different from claiming that society is a product of the struggle between good and evil? Or its ideological version - that history is propelled through the ideological struggle – variously translated as - between progressive and retrogressive forces. Or a much favoured variant of that last, which lays claim to “scientific” verification – that history does indeed advance through that same process of binary oppositions within the class structure, but of an ascending dialectical order. In short - that the polarised struggle takes place between social classes, one supplanting the other, until history culminates in the final showdown between approximations of the middle class and the proletariat, and in a victory for the latter. Finally however – the thesis continues - such a struggle concludes in an elimination of that very process – an end of the serial binary contests which throw up a predominant class, and thus eliminates classes altogether. Humanity would have arrived at utopia, where all classes have vanished and their inherent social contradictions no longer exist. I have tried to be very fair-handed in that necessarily rapid excursion: I hope I have succeeded. If there is disatisfaction, here is some consolation.
I simply invite you to cast a prolonged overview to the north of this very spot where we are gathered, making a detour towards that region known as Somalia, then on to Egypt. Don’t stop at Egypt but proceed to Syria. Leap across to the former Soviet Union – the mothering state of satellites that finally jettisoned doctrinal tyranny and a long enduring – and complicating - Personality Cult. Then decide if the reality of our world today has not inflicted far greater demolition to that theoretical – and utopian - end to the phenomenon of social conflicts. By Personality Cult, I would like you to feel free to substitute, quite accurately, the Cult of Power, as an end in itself, not merely as a motivating factor but the craved end. I am speaking of the phenomenon of Power as an Absolute, one that is so glibly understated and/ or simply brushed aside, so as not to create untidy ends for a predictable grasp of History’s unveiling.
I am however fortunate to have emerged from a culture that pays due respect to the symbolic figure of the god Esu, who, as you know, makes nonsense of the “well-laid plans of mice and men”. Or tidy, precision calculations. Esu is the deity of the random factor, which perhaps explains why I have been averse to the dominion of mathematics all the way from school. I accord that discipline its place – it is awe inspiring - but completely reject its application to non-mechanistic functioning – such as the workings of the human entity – its psyche, temperament, hormones, its irrationalities and inconsistencies. Thus I remain unrepentant in my conviction that the motoring force of human history – to which the very evolution of society is subject - is best apprehended - indeed, most accurately understood - as the non-measurable, non predictable, time-immune tension between two axial ends of human striving – Power at one end, and Freedom at the other.
All human socio-political choices – including the economic - I find, are grouped around these compelling drives. The neutrals are drawn, sooner or later, into one polarity or the other through their sheer magnetic – that is, compelling – fields of force, or else are flung off from the centrifugal effect of the spinning axis. It does not matter whether we are speaking of a society driven on secular or theocratic ideologies; sooner or later the basic tendencies become clarified in those two opposing allegiances. It is what accounts also for internal splits, and counter splits within all social pulsations – so that even when, for instance, an organised movement, or even a mere ideological notion invades society and is embraced as a liberating force, it invariably mutates into yet another agency of human repression, and the struggle commences all over again. The two new polarities that have sprung from what was once a unified – and from our point of view, progressive - axial end begin to tear at each other’s throats. Barriers go up, and the lettering reads: yes, we have come this far but - no further! Or: this is the ONE direction we must now take, and all other propositions are reactionary, ungodly, unrealistic, subversive etc. etc. Voices raised in renewed opposition suddenly become secret agents, dangerous revisionists, fifth columnists and all, who must be wiped out. Liberation turns into Power and Dictation, confronting a new polar end of which it was once a part - Freedom and Resistance. Nothing appears to change, only the personnel, the tempo and intensity of struggle. To be enslaved once is bad enough. To be enslaved the second time, third and fourth, indeed a limitless number of times, provokes a level of humiliation that leads to desperation.
Of the contributory binaries that have propelled, even through costly, self-sacrificial routes, the course of human history, Religion and Nation – the power of Faith, and the romance of Nation – appear today to be the most resilient. That contrariness has come into the open, and with such impact that some in positions of authority and public responsibility feel compelled to seek out reasons, or simply voice out frustrations as to why intended binding structures , such as ‘nation’ appear, to disintegrate before their eyes, thanks to the encroachment of trans-border allegiance to that rapacious rival – Religion. They begin to interrogate the composition of the elements within that very crucible – nation – within which the ingredients of existence are supposed to be mashed to provide a homogenous paste, without particles, without granules, without impurities, in which all the contributory characteristics have been subsumed.
Of course such a paste does not exist, and it is best to explore, promote, and exploit differences but – creatively, productively, and positively! For purposes of variety – the many in one. Of all the ingredients that go into that crucible, the most obvious, the most stubbornly resilient is the element we have identified as – Religion. You can eliminate classes, you can eliminate inequalities – or at least grind them down to levels of inconsequentiality. You can miscegenate your population until even the colours blend or cease to matter – so that you arrive at a level when you declare your nation colour blind, or speak of a rainbow coalition, or whatever else. Brazil, for instance, likes to boast that it has become a raceless society – often disputed, but that the claim is made at all is most indicative of human aspirations. You may eliminate gender inequality through social policies, through progressive re-education and, in any case, except in Aristophanes, and recently in a recent threat of a sex boycott from Uganda, who can really conceive of a war between the genders. You can diminish extreme nationalism and internal micro-nationalisms through progressive governance policies and opportunities, and the strengthening of international organs for conflict resolution. It can be achieved through liberal educational policies that bring xenophobia to its knees. In short, at one level or the other, the human identity appears transformable, which implies that society itself, is. Only one irreducible is left and that is, alas – Religion. That appears to be the final bastion of resistance to the transformative end of the human psyche at its most revealing, most contumacious, most subversive of any vision of social oneness.
I must single out at least one example of those who have begun to break the mould of silence and warn publicly against this apocalyptic spectre called Religion. Normally it is a theme over which one would expect the executive director of the apex financial system to remain reticent. He has more than enough on his mind, such as closing down rogue banks and pursuing their predatory managing directors, yet, out came this recent indictment by the Chairman of the nation’s Central Bank. It was a cri de Coeur, a cry uttered straight from the heart. In summary, what he said was that he was not against spirituality, but that he wished that Religion would vanish off the surface of that earthly portion occupied by the nation It is a cry that echoed a lifelong frustration that I have myself articulated on various fora and discourses, the most recent being September last year in the conference hall of the United Nations, at a gathering dedicated to promoting the culture of peace. Permit me to repeat a paragraph from that address:
To such a degree has Religion fueled conflict, complicated politics, retarded social development and impaired human relations across the world, that one is often tempted to propose that Religion is innately an enemy of Humanity, if not indeed of itself a crime against Humanity. Certainly it cannot be denied that Religion has proved again and again a spur, a motivator, and a justification for the commission of some of the most horrifying crimes against humanity, despite its fervent affirmations of peace. Let us however steer away from hyperbolic propositions and simply settle for this moderating moral imperative: that it is time that the world adopt a position that refuses to countenance Religion as an acceptable justification for, excuse or extenuation of - crimes against humanity.
I wish to repeat that last section:
“It is time that the world adopt a position that refuses to countenance Religion as an acceptable justification for, excuse, or extenuation of – crimes against humanity.
In the same vein as our young banking crusader however, I have been at great pains not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I recognise the definition of man as an innately spiritual being, indeed, laud those nations who accept the responsibility to protect a human essence that demonstrates its ability to reach out to causes beyond man and immerses his being in the potential of forces outside the provable circuit of his minuscule being. Religion is a different kettle of fish however, a kettle that is perhaps filled with that species known as the electric eel.
Sleek, sinuous and inviting, it shocks when least expected. As illustrated in the morality tale of the camel - Religion is never content to occupy its own sphere of competence, which is ministering to the irrational but psychologically therapeutic cravings of mankind. Because of this propensity, it is stubbornly subversive of the secular order of human intelligence that deduces, and builds upon the evidence of the material world, on evidence that is palpable to human senses and can be apprehended as a commonality of experiencing – with the freedom to embrace or reject their insights.
Current events may appear to have provoked these reflections, but they are not dependent on those events themselves. Even comparatively stable societies, founded on democratic principles, continue till today to question the place and the role of Religion in national life. The only different between such a nation and ours is that, over yonder, it is not being pursued as a life-and-death issue, but as a fundamental, character forming principle of nation being. On this continent, it is a life-and-death issue, and thus constitutes an immediacy that transcends theorizing. It is actual. It demolishes humanity. It threatens to incinerate – no, not even erode – but incinerate the very scaffoldings that hold up the yet uncompleted structure that goes by the name of nationhood. It is therefore imperative that we place emphasis where emphasis is due and, while acknowledging contributory factors to the nation’s current dilemma, dismiss escapist theories in which we can comfortably bury our heads, taking refuge in propositions that all we have to do is eliminate poverty, eliminate unemployment, eliminate class distinctions, eliminate alienation, eliminate illiteracy to achieve that smooth paste in which all granules are atomised and attain the harmonious ideal. Yes indeed, this shopping list of contradictions must form a background consciousness of what is desirable, but they only provide us a cosseting picture of the totality. It is an understandable tendency in human nature to concentrate on what seems performable: what seems beyond immediate solution however had better be accorded proportionate space and attention.
Nation and Religion, alas, are two ancient principalities seeking privileged access to, and precedence to that same commodity – Power. Their warring ground is – Humanity, and its innate pursuit of - Freedom. The bedrock issue then, the constant that continues to narrate the history of mankind is the contest between Power and Freedom, of which Nation and Religion – when all else is eliminated – threaten to remain ‘the last duo standing’. It is within this struggle that the intractable is lodged. Intractable because essentialist, yet it is within that nexus that other abstractions, including societal virtues such as tolerance – are to be found. It is the final battleground of nation being and the winding down of human history.
Let us not underestimate the protean reach of Power – its exercise, abuses and appropriation – apprehending it only in its formalised, and often spectacular array: an ecstatic field of millions mesmerised by a ranting Adolf Hitler; an Idi Amin methodically reducing a nation to fear and obsequiousness; a Sanni Abacha and his sinister brigade of hitmen and so on and on – yes indeed, these are the more notorious templates of power: usually a Goliath of state versus David and his civilian slingshot. We tend to fasten on the concept of Power only when a brutal dictatorship is squatting on our faces and obstructing even the simple instinct of breathing. However, Power, even in a democracy, can become the foraging field of even marginal elements of society, such when a Kalashnikov confronts us, cradled snugly in the crook of the arms of an armed robber who has broken into the home in middle of the night - sometimes a youth young enough to be one’s grandchild, points that agent of subjugation in our faces and orders us to lie face down – or else! Power is experienced by the victim of rape, helpless under the brutal violation of her innermost being. Power is in evidence when a telephone call is received from a family member, friend or colleague, who informs you that they have been kidnapped and marched into the depths of the forest, and you have to choose between raking up the ransom or mounting a rescue operation – whichever choice we make – ransom or rescue – the fact is that our choices are set for us outside our own volition, our lives are interrupted and thus our freedom – snatched from us for an unpredictable duration. Indeed, the very fear that is instilled in the average citizen today at these very possibilities, fears which place a crimp on our choice of movements, anxieties that dictate the choice of life-styles, these are the many faces of the exercise of Power at its crudest and physical.
There is even phantom power that is nonetheless palpable and humiliating in its exercise and effect. Such is encountered when a creature of mere circumstance, but with a will to dominate environment in inverse proportion to demonstrable intellect and proven capabilities, when such a being, devoid also of constitutional existence, exhibits an unhealthy propensity towards appropriation of public funds to feed her phantasmagorical projects, her illusions of power, delusions of grandeur and allied obsessions. There is much more to be said in that vein, but today is dedicated to addressing issues far more worthy of our attention than a narcissistic streak, for which even a three-day resurrection is not enough, but must aspire to a full week of days.
We shall take leave of that distraction – at least for now - with this parting admonition: Aspire to be a Lady first, then a First lady.
There are manifestations that are more subtle, more insidious and profound in their effects, though these may also be exercised stridently. Of such manifestations, none is more humanly reductive and more sinister than the exercise of power over the mind, reducing us to merely glorified zombies, subject to the dictatorship of clerics of all hues, an exercise that relegates the functions of the mind, the rational quotient in our human make up, to the provenance of the absolutist intermediation of another mortal. Such a mere mortal then proceeds to attempt to control every action, every choice, from what we consume internally to the external covering of our bodies, dictates our modes of relating to one another, dictates our very sensibilities towards, and derivations from environment, attributes what is palpably inimical to our well-being to the will of unseen deities and, in sum – preaches the theology of meek submission to whatever they, mortals like us, prescribe – this power that saps the holistic apprehension of our human potential and reduces it all to the private interpretations of textual theology – this is the most insidious challenge to our full seizure of human potentiality, exercised in freedom.
It is this Power to propose inferior status, penury and beggary as divinely ordered conditions – even more than state neglect – that constitutes the last frontier for social liberation. It is this Power that releases its deadly toxin in the serial slaughter of nine female health workers, and the detonation of home-made devices in the market concourse of farmers and traders. It is this Power that so benumbs the mind that we become addicted to remedial incantations that only lead us into the escapist mode of ignoring the tyranny of the origination. This origination, which grants advance absolution for no matter what atrocity, is that of the painstaking, assiduous corrupters of malleable minds, who would rather see a generation of polio-stricken youths on our streets, than accept their presence in our midst as whole citizens of a common wealth.
A truthful recognition of this bedrock of the eternal human assertion – the choice between Power and Freedom, between Submission and Liberation, inevitably decides the agencies that we decide upon for confronting the violence that is unleashed in our midst. Yes indeed, we do applaud such measures as the overhaul of those breeding grounds for mind corruption, the religious schools where, from infancy, the impressionable mind is taught that the material world is a chimera, and that reality lies only beyond the present, in the hereafter, where certificates of pleasure earned in self-denial in this world can be cashed. Yes indeed, measures such as the establishment of supervised schools is essential. Side by side also is the unpleasant but mandatory responsibility of immobilizing those who threaten the very existence of the inhabited world with their own agenda of eliminating its humanity – unless it adopts its own warped reading of reality. However, even the sometimes enforced duty of violence as legitimate resistance to violence requires its own dual proceeding. We are after all, dealing with a phenomenon of the genie that has escaped from the bottle or, to deploy another metaphor, locking the door of the stable after the horse has escaped. The hordes are out in the open, infecting new sensibilities, not in the enclosures of the madrassas, but in scattered fields of indoctrination, remote from state controls. So, bombing versus bombing? All right, but with what material? I have yet to learn of a strategy – for instance, of raining down enlightenment leaflets instead of bullets. It is the minds that need most desperately to be bombed as part of state strategy. The airwaves need to be bombarded with counter indoctrination to what has already taken hold of the minds of these addicts of the untenable. Listen to the following gleeful , obscene declaration of a follower of al-Shabbab, broadcast only a few days ago:
We shall win, because we have nothing to lose. When any of us is killed, we rejoice, since we know he has gone to join the ranks of the martyrs, but when we kill the other side, they go into mourning.
That cast of mind has divided the world into teo geo-spiritual zones: The School of Life, and the Ministry of Death. But it goes beyond this apocalyptic effusion. What, in the profoundest sense, that individual and thousands like him are saying to the world is this: I exercise power over you. I am free, you are chained. You are chained because you cling to life. I do what I like with you. Let us stop foisting our own analysis over a freely conceded, and boastful declaration. That individual does not say, I am hungry, I am marginalised, therefore I kill. He tells you to your face: you have only one choice: Submit! I want to take possession of your mind. So what shall your response be? In what form? No, I shall not answer my own questions – at least, not openly. What I do have a duty to publicly express is this: whatever response you have, do not base it on the social condition you impose on that speaker. Listen to what he has actually said, follow what he does to actualise his proclaimed intent, not to your own sense of guilt or that of the society you inhabit. Yes of course, clean up the fertile ground in your own backyards on which such mental disposition has been cultivated, offer social options that wither its easy recruitment grounds. But first, in order to do this, you must ensure your survival, and that requires a response that is sometimes unpalatable, since it requires – to put it bluntly – neutralising such forces to keep them from inflicting further harm on society, and with all the capabilities you can muster. There is only one caveat: we must not become like they, in our choice of methodologies. We must not offer dehumanisation for dehumanisation.
Let us continue to stress this: nothing new is happening in this nation, only the final suppuration of a boil that has been left to fester, and the burden that it is happening during a period of greater accessibility to both sophisticated and home-made technology of instant and massive destruction. The child behind a AK47 has taken a quantum leap in evolution from the guileless child that was merely bred in the Nigerian madrassa, or the forest camp of a Joseph Kony, the Christian warrior of Uganda. That new being has tasted power, and is massively transformed beyond the pale of humanity. Call him a monster – such expressions are accurate but unhelpfully emotional. He will be restored only if he is fortunate to be captured alive – or escapes his captors. But there are differences.
Go and study the recovery processes of the child soldiers of Liberia, Sierra Leone and other warring fields – that early model of obedience, now grown into an ageless killer – will be restored only through time-tested rituals. In one model, he is taken back to the village where he has committed atrocities, put through a process of reclamation that takes him back to the age of lost innocence and emerges, blubbering like a child and asking forgiveness. But that distorted human entity was never a product of religious indoctrination – therein lies the difference. Joseph Kony may be a christian claimant and a deviant who has imbibed the dangerous cocktail of fanaticism and crude politics, but he does not preside over schools where the child is immersed, as it were, in a deeply penetrative bombardment, day after day, hour after hour, of religious principles that make the outside world a sub-human aberration, a heretical environment, and above all – enemy of a Supreme Deity whose virtues, attributes and commands form the daily, and virtually only diet of the mind. Joseph Kony’s or Charles Taylor’s child recruits are victims of Power who in turn embrace the pressure of power in order to survive, then come to relish the trickle-down ration of that same ambrosia that is enjoyed by their original captors, the desecrators of their innocence. They are, in the main, redeemable. Sooner or later, the effects of hashish and other lethal cocktails wear of. Not so those others who believe that the hereafter continues to be a heightened enjoyment of that same ambrosia of power preferment, where unimaginable, sensuous delights await them on attaining martyrdom.
How do you wean such a generation from their delusion and whose responsibility is this? Of course it is ours, collectively. But primarily it is the responsibility of those whose religion has been distorted into one of a hate machine – that is, those who recognise this. And many such voices are raised daily, deploring the consequences of this ideological distortion, if not outright desecration of the essence of that religion. They are the ones who must come to the front – with all the attendant risks, admittedly – by furnishing from within that original Faith the intellectual weapons of counter indoctrination, those who will say bluntly, not merely that this is the false face of islam, a distortion and desecration of the faith, but take the lead in a sustained campaign of re-enlightenment, beamed at that ultimate battleground – the mind.
I address you in all frankness. Leadership in the currently troubled regions of the nation has been remiss. The signs were over-abundant. I have lamented, on numerous platforms, the delinquent silence of religious and community leaders where the religious rights of others were trampled upon, often terminally, where again and again martyrdom became commonplace – yes, the genuine martyrdom - made up of innocents, singly, in sectors, often brutally but always with the confidence of immunity. The sanguinary appropriation of the word ‘martyr’ today leaves one sick in the pit of the stomach. I acknowledge the exceptions to my plaint of indifference: I remember Shekarau, then governor of Kano state who made a point of going to worship with christians in a church after one such atrocity, not just to sympathise with the victims but to demonstrate the spirit of oneness despite the different approaches of faith. And even earlier, the act of a young man, Jacob Mishali, to whom we awarded the Ken Saro-wiwa Prize for Minority Rights and Conflict Prevention. Let me tell you how that young man responded to a rampage of butchery that had overtaken some neighbouring towns and was consuming humanity like harmattan twigs.
Mishali gathered the elders of his village together and pleaded: all religious tendencies have lived together peacefully for generations. There is madness going on all around us, community after community submitting to the affliction. Let us all agree to make this community an exception. Whenever we encounter any attempt to sow dissention or incitement, let us denounce it immediately and expose it. They agreed. The fires raged just outside their community. That village remained immune.
The tragedy of the nation is that these, and allied initiatives did not find emulation remotely proportionate to the incidents and intensity of violent bigotry and impunity – and at levels that they deserved. So it is not merely staunching the grounds for recruitment that is the problem. There is also the issue of leadership. Of wrongful silence and inertia. The folding of arms and the buttoning of lips when leadership – and not merely localized - desperately needed to lead and inflict exemplary punishment on violators of the freedom of belief, and existence of others. The examples are too numerous and depressing, and this is hardly the occasion for a recital of human derelictions that only stir up negative memories. During that period of serial violations, we missed the strength, the vigorous conviction of voices such as we have heard in recent times, voices of community and traditional leaders, political figures of iconic stature. I refer to declarations such as that of Hassan Mohammed who was recently quoted as saying:
“It is laughable to describe these characters as pro-north or as defenders of Islam. They are evil anarchists who have not only killed almost every imam in the Maiduguri area, but are hell bent on eliminating our political and traditional rulers as well.”
Yes, we missed such intensity of conviction, such stern, uncompromising denunciation when individuals, with or without public profile, were being systematically mown down for alleged religious offences, some of which took place, not even within our borders but in remote, frozen regions as the Scandinavian nations or the United States. Again and again, the innocents, the real martyrs paid the supreme price. My intention is not to weigh down any sector of this nation with the burden of guilt but to say to you, to me, to all of us: No more evasion. The knives, the cudgels, the matchbox and burning tyres that decapitated Akulaku, that incinerated the female teacher and invigilator Oluwaseesin and a host of others, including school children and infants, at the slightest or no provocation have given way to far more efficient but indiscriminate means of human disposal – but still in the hands of the same malformed minds, now grouped under the fatalist banner of the Party of Death. Individually and collectively, we are at war, and the enemy is not hidden. Of its own volition it has given itself a name, a profile, and an agenda. Others have sprung up, geared to outdo their obsessed predecessors. Let each community look into its past, and see how both inertia and covert gleefulness have fueled the raging inferno. Nowhere is immune, not even those which presently appear unaffected. Now is the time to close ranks. Making up for past derelictions is not a sectional task, but a collective undertaking. Protection of our hard won Freedom – against any threat - is the imperative of our times.
Francis Fukuyama, whose briefly famous work, The Last Man and the End of History I have deliberately invoked – as some of you will have recognised – in my choice of a title, predictably revised his earlier views in a later work and essays, acknowledging that he had failed to take into account the power of culture in his calculations. Of the various forms of culture, the religious exercises the most powerful, unpredictable influence on human conduct, more potent and domineering, evidently more enduring than secular ideology. As long as Religion exists as a facilitator for Power, we have little choice but to make Freedom its challenger, and contest their sinister alliance. Settling for the title - ‘Winding down History’ in preference to Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History’ is of course an acknowledgment that we must learn to be less presumptuous. Let our assignation with History read modestly as ‘Work in Progress’, but with a clear projection of this ideal as terminus - a vision of that state of social – and global – equilibrium in which, not only conflicts, but hostile contradictions have come to terms with humanity as the only permanence, where the final combatants – Power and Freedom – have come to that accommodation where Power is transmuted into Authority, Authority as a commodity that is earned, ceded to the management organs of society, not brutally exacted under whatever guise. That force of change continues in the spreading arena of democracy, capturing – though not without the occasional recidivism – grounds that were formerly surrendered to power. Take a look at the map of the world. Where is the former Soviet monolith?
What has happened to the banner of colonisation? Of Imperialism? Where is the Libyan dictator who once preened himself The King of Africa? What was the end of Milosevic? How do we view the necropolis of Pol Pot? True, their errors haunt us till today, especially here on this continent, but no less in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia. The withering of ideology throws up ever new contestants for that constant – Power and Domination – against which Freedom is equally eternally ranged.
Yes, indeed, history is winding down, faster in some places than in others, as the multiple series of binary forces of propulsion lose their validity, wither, are proven to be hideous and costly fallacies, and become increasingly untenable. The question is whether or not this winding down will prove to be a shroud that also winds round our existence as nation, and drags us down into oblivion. Let me again recall us to my earlier declaration, and insist that I do not lay all the world’s ills on Religion, perhaps because I have come to accept that it is a yet unidentified loop within the DNA spiral. This means that I also dread what else might take its place – let us not underestimate the negative inventiveness of idle humanity! I do however vehemently denounce the use to which Religion has been put, and that means, I indict such abusers. And we must not be afraid to expose them. To defend ourselves against them. To isolate them.
Where they have intruded on our peace – or even fragile mutual accommodation - we must hunt them down, in here, or pursue them wherever lodged. To Mauritania. To Somalia. Or Mali.
Arrest them where we can, and re-educate them. If they have committed crimes against humanity during their period of delusion – ensure that they make open restitution before competent institutions before re-admittance into the parent community. If they refuse, if they prove incorrigible, then we must punish them. Openly, not secretively, as indication that we, as rival theologians of the Religion of Freedom, will not submit to the tyranny of the few.
The primary, yet ultimate implacable binary challenges us all, as history winds down to its ultimate resolution – that binary remains Power and Freedom. And we must learn to identify the camouflage of power. Secular or theocratic, that camouflage must be ripped wide open so that the real contender – the latest, smirking, unctuous face of Power in whatever guise, is exposed, and neutralised.
Only then shall we have truly fulfilled our existence and deserved our Freedom, only then would we have concluded our final assignation with – History.
HE represents an institution: Chief Jeremiah Obafemi Awolowo, GCFR. His name conjures leadership by example. He was one hero that believed in building institutions and developing human capital. And it is no surprise that his name resonates across the universe because of what he stood for and demonstrated as a quintessential leader. Because of his unparalleled legacy, the refrain in official and private circles within and outside Nigeria is, if he were here today, what would Nigeria be like?
Indeed, a man was here, as he touched the lives of many, who have continued to shape the destiny of the country, nay humanity. The sage, who was born this day in 1909, invested in human capital, because of the established fact that the human being is the most prized resource of a nation. So, decades after his glorious transition, Awo, as he is fondly called, remains the issue in a country that is so endowed, yet groaning from the fangs of leadership crises.
He was deep and through his exceptional intellect, he was able to redefine the Nigerian society and left it better that he met it, carving a niche for himself in different areas and fields. His lectures and books are timeless intellectual works. From the onset, he was determined to create an identity for himself. A self-made man, he rose from a humble background in Ikenne-Remo to become a global figure in different spheres of life.
In a lecture he delivered to the Western leaders of thought on May 1, 1967, Awolowo defined the make- up of a true leader from the perspective of service.. He stated, “The aim of a leader should be the welfare of the people whom he leads. I have used ‘welfare’ to denote the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the people.”
Throughout his sojourn on the earth, he anchored his life on that principle. He never allowed any feeble mind to obscure his vision, especially in politics, which he said many had tended to use to oppress the vulnerable members of the society. He said, “For too long have the good people of this country been taken for a ride by some political leaders who, shamelessly, propound the false doctrine that politics is a power game. As far as I am concerned, politics is the art of selfless service to our fellowmen. Let me assure you that I can never and will never play pranks with the sufferings masses of our country. To do so, as some others had done and are still doing would be despicable and damnable.”
But way back in 1961, Awolowo had provided a clear a analysis on the relationship between the wealth of a nation and leadership visa-vise the welfare of the citizenry. His painstaking exercise was meant to put the young Nigerian nation on a true path of steady rise to greatness and prosperity. In a lecture tagged, Philosophy for Independence which he delivered to Nigerian students at the Conway Hall, London on September 3, 1961, he stated, “The influence which a nation exerts, the respect which it enjoys, and the prestige accorded to it on the world scene, depend on two important factors: the size of its wealth and the calibre of its leadership. Granting an incorruptible, courageous, public-spirited, enlightened and dynamic leadership, the wealth of a nation is the fountain of its strength. The bigger the wealth, and the more equitable its distribution among the factors and agencies which have helped to produce it, the greater the outflow of the nation’s influence and power.”
His legacy in politics is best captured in number of his views on party politics. Awo recognised what he described as the popular misconception that politics was a dirty game. But he situated such misconception on the character of a few of the players. His words: “We all have heard it said times without number that `politics is a dirty game’. The description of politics as a game is `a felicitous one, and it looks as if it is a contradiction in terms to daub a game as dirty. Speaking generally, any game at all, other than a game of chance, is good. But the manner of playing it may be clean or dirty, all depending on whether or not the players observe the rules for playing the game which mankind has laid down in conformity with universally accepted standards of decency and ethics. In other words, whether the game of politics is clean or dirty will depend wholly and solely on the manner in which a particular set of politicians play it.”
Awolowo cherished integrity, which formed part of the cornerstone of his brand of politics. He would not compromise on honour and would categorically declare so before the people any time anywhere. An instance will suffice. In his speech heralding the birth of the Unity Party of Nigeria [UPN] in the Second Republic, he told Nigerians, “I had never let you down in the past; and I will not now or in the future, fail you.” In the views of many, that is the hallmark of a leader and hero.
The sage was prophetic and would avail the country of his wisdom through wise counsel when situations demanded it. He was never deterred or discourage even if his frank and constructive criticisms did not go down well with necessary official quarters. However, he was usually vindicated.
A military top brass, Chief Olutunji Olurin, was among senior citizens, whose summations of the life and times of Awolowo are remarkable. In his tribute to the inimitable Awo, had declared, “Now here lies the legendary Awo; Here lies a great patriot; here lies a great nationalist; here lies the prophetic Jeremiah of Africa, Here lies the end of an era.” According to many, Awolowo’s glory is not in the quality and number of monuments named in his honour. Neither is it about the scholarly books he churned out but his impact on nation-building, creation of institutions and generating progressive ideas.
He believed in Nigeria and was familiar with its heterogeneous structure. In his first address as the president of the defunct Action Group on April 28, 1951 in Owo in the present Ondo State, Awolowo unequivocally recognised the unity in diversity of the Nigerian federation. According to the sage, the peoples of the country have a common root, adding that, “It is true we speak different languages; but it does not require any laborious research to discover that, broadly speaking, we originated from common stock; and that in any event our political and cultural associations have been of such long standing as to make us look upon one another as close relations. And above all, we are Nigerians whom both Nature and Constitution have joined together. It is within our power to remain together.”
A nationalist, author, writer, lawyer and philosopher, Awo was not just an quintessential leader, but one man another nationalist and cerebral politician, late Dr.Mogwuko Okoye, described as a “man of exceptional intellect, courage, and organizational ability,’ who accelerated the educational, economic and political development of the country. He was a symbol of party discipline, a factor he emphasised during the formation of the formidable AG in the First Republic. He had said about the birth of AG, “I would like to say that this, in my humble opinion, is the first time in the annals of Nigeria that a political party is reared on a really scientific basis. For if all the leading members in the Action Group have more or less identical conceptions as to the principles which shall guide their activities, and jointly evolve common methods of applying those principles, it is my firm conviction that the organization will be successful and lasting. Only we must make sure about two things, namely: that our principles are just, and that our methods are practical. For nothing defeats their own ends so easily as unjust principles and impractical methods of approach.”
It is difficult to capture the essence of the legendary Awolowo in a single piece. But this is what Professor Ade Adefuye, then of the University of Lagos [UNILAG] wrote about Awolowo in 1987. “Obafemi Awolowo was not born great. He did not have greatness thrust on him. But events of the recent past showed that if Awo was great while alive, he was even greater in death.
Awo’s road to greatness was long and eventful. Perhaps, the most admirable aspect of Awo’s life is that, after achieving success, he did not forget how he rose, and did not remove the ladder by which he climbed. In fact, his economic and political philosophy was centred on the determination to make it easier for children born in circumstances similar to his own to cross and climb the social order.”
One of the timeless words of Awolowo was made 1951. It was contained in an address he delivered before his party men. He said, “After almost 100 years of British rule, our land is still riddled with unspeakable ignorance, disease and want. An ignorant and poverty-stricken people are the easiest preys to political enslavement and economic exploitation. Diseases of all kinds follow in the wake of ignorance and want.” How far has Nigeria been able to tackle those vices as it prepares to mark its centenary as a federation? What would Awo have said today about the country?
As a child, I grew up reading many novels. Among the authors I read then were Chinua Achebe, Ola Rotimi, Wole Soyinka, James Hardley Chase and all the Pacesetter series I could lay my hands on. My Reverend Sister principal almost suspended me for reading Mills&Boon, the most popular among girls of my age. The most read authors then were Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, and both were highly respected. In fact, my generation has benefited hugely from the documentation both have done.
Things Fall Apart, the epic novel written by Chinua Achebe, is a reaction to Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, a novel about a Nigerian youth who was not successful in his career in the British Colonial service. Professor Achebe has written history before. Unfortunately, however, his recently released memoir has made things to fall apart and the centre can no longer hold. Emotions are high and seeds of bitterness have been sown.
Speaking on how he got inspiration for his novels, Achebe said Mister Johnson struck him as superficial and fired his determination to write his own novels about Nigeria. This he has said repeatedly.
This time around, if one may ask the highly revered professor, where did he get the inspiration to write his memoir the way he did? Not a few will agree that his memoir has further sown the seed of discord among Nigerians – something that was unexpected from a father figure like Achebe. The war is over and the people that prosecuted it declared there was no victor, no vanquished. So why has the professor stirred the hornets’ nest?
My opinion is that Achebe is an angry man desirous of spewing his anger on someone or some people he, rightly or wrongly, believes are deserving of such. Even now, I suspect Achebe is still out to take it on Professor Wole Soyinka who he has never seen as the rightful winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature. It is now clear why he has rejected the National Honour bestowed on him severally.
In African tradition, which Achebe loves to narrate, an elderly man in the family makes sure he settles all disputes among his children before he dies so that he could rest in peace. If he were to be judged by the standard of the African tradition, Achebe would be declared a failed father for his inability to unite his children even in old age.
His memoir has generated bad blood among Nigerians and further intensified ethnic distrust among Nigerians. Perhaps, one of the most benumbing and confounding issues raised in the memoir was that relating to the role of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo during the civil war. Achebe painted Awolowo as enemy of the Igbo. For sure, generations unborn in Igboland would read the memoir and relate to their chldren how a Yoruba man masterminded the killing of their people.
Whether he intended it or not, Achebe has reopened old wounds, and not many would forgive him for that. But Nigerians will like to know the role Achebe played during the war. Just last week, a lady told me how she was attacked verbally by a trader who she had no business with in a building materials market. According to the lady, she was negotiating the prices of some building materials in a shop next to his and had jokingly told the Igbo shop attendant: “Shylock Igbo man, don’t waste my time.”
But the man in the other shop heard this and shouted at her: “See you. You whose grandfather starved Igbo to death.”
Though she said she didn’t see the face of the man, only his back through the net that demarcated the two shops, when his insults became profuse she replied him thus: “Your grandfather Ojukwu ambushed the food Awolowo sent for his soldiers and later described Awolowo as the best president Nigeria never had. The same Ojukwu came to contest the presidency of Nigeria, but your brothers didn’t vote for him. Even his funeral was modeled after that of Awolowo.”
When she realised she was outnumbered by the Igbo in the area, she wisely left the scene, thus avoiding what easily could have become a mob action on her; though the Igbo trader continued to hurl insults at her.
Professor Achebe, this is the fruit of the seed of discord you have sown. The very fragile relationship among the ethnic groups in Nigeria has finally fallen apart and only God can make the centre hold again. An average Igbo man now hates the Yoruba for the distorted history created by you. This is exactly what Joyce Cary did in Mister Johnson that led you to write Things Fall Apart. History has repeated itself, this time by your distortion of facts and sowing of evil seed among Nigerians, and who knows where this will lead us? Is this the kind of legacy you want to leave behind? This is not how a father should depart.
I am glad some of your kinsmen have come out to speak the truth. But what of the damage that has been done? Would the man at the building materials market understand the damage control? What of the generations unborn who will have access to your memoirs? I repeat, this is not the way to depart. The world now knows that your memoir is written to fight a personal war, not the cause of the Igbo.
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.
A participant and apparent living encyclopedia of the events that led to the fratricidal civil war in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970, Col Joe Achuzia (Air raid), has joined issues with critics of celebrated novelist, Prof. Chinua Achebe, who in his latest work: “There was a country,” blamed former Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon (retd), and the Yoruba political leader and Vice Chairman of the then National Executive Council, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, of formulating policies that led to the horrendous genocide against the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria.
Achuzia yesterday told Daily Sun that Gowon and Awolowo were responsible for the genocide, while dismissing critics of Achebe.
Pointedly, he accused Gowon of playing the ostrich while brazen murders of his military superiors and massive genocide were being perpetrated under his watch.
He also accused Awolowo of using his position after his release from prison to extract a pound of flesh from his perceived enemies, whom he believed, unwittingly, through the NPC/NCNC Accord (Northern Peoples Congress/National Council of Nigeria Citizens) contributed to his imprisonment.
Achuzia, who is putting finishing touches to his own civil war memoirs, said that when released, it would finally settle the issue and put the duo in vintage position as prime perpetrators of the genocide of more than three million Easterners, who were said to have died during the strife.
He went down memory lane to exhume salient facts to buttress Achebe’s stand: “I landed in the country from overseas on the day of the July 29 coup. I had known the late Murtala Mohammed and knew he was one of those involved in the crises at the time. He met me at the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos and arranged accommodation for my family and me for two days before we departed for Benin.
“There was intense struggle for power between Murtala Mohammed and Gowon before and during the Coup. The middle belt, which had more numerical strength in the army, supported Gowon.”
He continues, “When Gowon took over, he relied more on Awolowo and the permanent secretaries – Allison Ayinda, Phillip Asiodu, in formulating policies. Immediately Awo was released from prison, which (late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu) Ojukwu was instrumental to, thinking he had a friend, strong anti-Igbo sentiments welled up in the government. Unfortunately Awo never forgives nor forgets.
“The events that led him to prison were never lost on him and, somehow, the NPC/NCNC accord was the issue. He became the minister of finance and went after the Igbos through his policies. I was in prison when Gowon held the so-called security meeting that declared police action. The strategic studies institute was originally planned to be located in the Mid-West then. Gowon, at the meeting, directed that I should be released from prison and head the institute. The then head of prisons, Giwa Osagie, divulged the information to the late Anthony Enahoro and Awo. He suggested that instead of sitting down in a house for the discussion, since walls have ears, they should drive about and talk in the car, so that his secrets would be secured. He forgot that the driver of the car was an Igbo man, who later ran to the superintendent of prisons at Kirikiri and squealed.
“The prisons superintendent summoned me and asked the driver to narrate his story again. Thereafter, I demanded to see Barrister Okuzo and the late Chief Collins Obih of ACB (African Continental Bank). They came in the morning to see me and I narrated what I heard to them. Later, they reached out to the military hierarchy, including Gowon. Four days after the incident, Osagie was sacked and it caused a lot of commotion. That was in 1970.
“Achebe got to know about these and he reflected them in his new book. These two people were responsible for the formulation of policies and execution of the civil war, including the genocide. When I release my own book, which is in the making, many things will come to the fore. I remember that after the declaration of police action by Gowon, I urged those who used their position to unleash horror and death on innocent people, before and during the civil war, advising those that are still alive among them, to seek for forgiveness and atonement of their sins against humanity.”
Source: Sun Newspaper