Written by TONY NWAEZEIGWE
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.