Home » Articles, Columnists, Kunle Ojeleye, NNP Columnists » Biafra by Other Means: Achebe, Awolowo and the Civil War of 1967-70 – By Dr. Kunle Ojeleye

Biafra by Other Means: Achebe, Awolowo and the Civil War of 1967-70 – By Dr. Kunle Ojeleye

By Dr. Kunle Ojeleye | Calgary, Canada | Oct. 13, 2012 – The recently released civil war memoirs of Prof. Chinua Achebe There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra has generated a violent and virulent furore in regards to comments made by the author in regards to late Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s conduct as a cabinet minister during the civil war years.

Whilst I do not intend to join the fray of brick bat throwing between Achebe apologists and Awolowo supporters, I find it very sad and disappointing that a man of Prof. Achebe’s status, a man that most of us have come to regard as one of the beacons of hope and light in a nation overcome by darkness, has made such comments.

In this piece, what I aim to do is logically examine the statement credited to Achebe vis-à-vis the information I have about the civil war which is also in the public domain.

  • “The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies”.

As Achebe himself stated, the “boatload of infamous and regrettable policies” were from many within Gowon’s cabinet, not just Awolowo. Also, when looking back at a war, there would be found regrettable and infamous policies, conducts, statements, actions and inactions that were exhibited in the heat of conflict. I have no doubt that in reviewing and looking back at the course of the civil war, Ojukwu had his own full boatload of such regrets.

  • “A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder”.

In his lifetime, Chief Awolowo is noted to have explained his reason for taking such an action. Right or wrong, that was what happened during the war. And going back to Achebe’s statement that I first quoted above as well as the pronouncement of various members of the then federal government, implementation of the policy was not without approval of other members of the cabinet including the C-in-C.

Awolowo may have espoused the idea, but others could have turned it down and/or not implement it. Yet, all the blame that can be imagined in regards to the prosecution of the war has been laid at his doorstep, especially for the economic policies of the federal government of which he was one body amongst many. Awolowo was neither the head of government nor the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Why is there so much fixation on one man amongst many in the federal government’s prosecution of the civil war?

Castigating Awolowo alone for the collective deed of the federal government is what the Yorubas refer to as “making the one that took the oil from the ceiling guiltier than the person that actually collected and disposed of it”.

  • “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.

This assertion, in my opinion, is where Prof. Chinua Achebe allowed his own personal feelings overwhelm what was initially a rational summation of the events of that period.
I still find Achebe’s summation of Awolowo’s actions and inactions as absurd and not fitting any logical reasoning. If Awolowo was so blinded in his ambition for power, would extermination of 13 million Biafrans be the means? Whose vote would he count on for election in a democratic dispensation? Assuming he could become a President after exterminating 13 million Biafrans, would he rule over an empty and desolate land?

  1. The fact remains that Awolowo was in jail when the Biafran war started. So, he did not instigate the war as Achebe’s statement may make us to believe.
  2. The fact is Awolowo tried as much as he could to stop the war at an early stage but Ojukwu refused all entreaties.
  3. Based on records, the fact remains that it is mostly in the South West (Yorubaland) where Awolowo held sway and influence, that the Igbos abandoned their properties and came back to it after the war not only to reclaim ownership without a fuss, but with accumulated rent in hand. At least this is in contrast to the Igbo experience in Port Harcourt and environs – the Abandoned Properties Issue. And in Nigeria today, the South West remains the only known safe haven for anyone from the South East/South South outside their homelands.

In a situation of war, two objectives are of utmost importance to both sides of the imbroglio – survival and if possible victory. As long as the conflict is conducted in compliance with the existing rules of conflict engagement, policies and manoeuvres to achieve these two objectives are fair.

With the benefit of hindsight and deep sense of sadness for the needless deaths and destructions caused to the Igbos by the civil war, the bitter truth that needs to be re-stated was that Biafra was not prepared for the military conflict that attended the declaration of secession. This has been made clear not only by independent assessment as can be found in diplomatic postings of that period but also in the accounts that have emanated from the Biafran side.

One is won’t here to quote Arthur Nwankwo Nigeria: The Challenge of Biafra who accused Ojukwu of promising arms and ammunitions that never arrived to pursue the war apart from “a waste of energy” on the Biafran side with the infighting between the emergency recruits of the war and the professional returnee-soldiers to Biafra from the Nigerian Armed Forces. Alex Madiebo’s account of the war also suffices in this respect even though in the present hullabaloo of Achebe’s book, he seems to have forgotten the military and political deficiencies of Biafra as he chronicled in his book The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. Ntienyong Akpan (a non-Yoruba) in The Struggle for Secession: A Personal Account of the Nigerian Civil War accused Ojukwu of being a helpless prisoner ‘of his personal glory, ambitions and idiosyncrasies, a prisoner of the will and caprices of those he trusted and upon whom he heavily relied, a prisoner of fear and self-deception, and finally, a prisoner of the mob’ in view of the latter’s declaration of Biafran secession. Others saw Ojukwu’s action as fanning the embers of secession to further his personal ambition of ruling an empire by joining the army.

In spite of these views about Ojukwu’s conduct, in the course of my research work on the civil war as a Yoruba man, I could not but conclude that it is unfair and “inaccurate to lay all the blame for the secession of Biafra and the emergence of the Nigerian civil war at Ojukwu’s door”. I was and I am still convinced that given the circumstances in which the Igbos found themselves in Nigeria of 1966, the political decision of going it alone as made by Ojukwu in 1967 through the declaration of secession was not only logical but also justifiable.

In the same light, I have no reason not to conclude that whatever policies Chief Awolowo pursued within his areas of responsibility during the war were born out of the necessities and realities of the war effort on the federal side. As he himself explained, the food situation was one in which items meant for the civilian population were being hijacked by the military on the other side.

Even then, let us assume that Awolowo did what he has consistently been accused of. With the Biafran forces invading the mid-west in 1968 headed for the west, coupled with the fact that some so-called relief planes headed to Biafra were also found to be loading arms and ammunitions for the Biafran military rather than food and medical supplies for the civilian situation, would Achebe have done otherwise if he was in Awolowo’s shoes?

Following my initial post on a social media network, an Igbo friend called me to illustrate his experience of the civil war. According to him, he was about ten years old then and knew what it meant to go hungry. The surprising thing for me was his corroboration of Chief Awolowo’s explanation that there was no rationale for the federal side to be feeding the “enemy” to enable the latter to continue to fight. Looking back, my friend felt so much anger at the Biafran elites because he could remember that whilst his family and others were dying of starvation, the Biafran elites/military were not only having a good time feeding fat on the food meant for the civilian population, they were also busy throwing excess food into the dustbin as if the land was in abundance.

Whatever Gowon, Ojukwu, Awolowo and all the key protagonists did or did not do during the civil war will always be a matter of debate.

In a country ruled mostly by sentiments – primordial, religious, etc., such assessments would not be devoid of mostly subjective analysis, whereas what is needed in this crucial time of fragile unity is an objective assessment to lay and accept appropriate blames so that we can all find a closure to the trauma, pains and agonies of that period of Nigerian history.

It is this objective analysis that I feel is lacking in the final part of Achebe’s statement quoted above. Hence my curiosity as to what purpose he aimed to achieve by such remarks at this hour of his life and this trying times of the country.

I am sure Prof. Achebe does not give a hoot if we label him a racist, an ethnic champion and a Yoruba hater who, as a marketing strategy, has generated unnecessary controversy in order to sell as many of his book as possible in light of his scribbles in his memoirs.

Nevertheless, if he genuinely loved Nigeria as he had always professed, as an elder statesman and a father to many, he should have kept his personal opinions and prejudices which could destroy the fragile unity of Nigeria to himself as so many of his generation have wisely done.

Is Prof. Achebe indirectly telling us “To Your Tents O Nigerians” by deliberately driving a wedge between the Igbos and the Yorubas so that we can all conclude that there is no basis for fighting for the Nigerian project?

As a mouthpiece of the defunct Biafra, is Achebe trying to pursue Biafra by other means in his twilight years when we ought to be celebrating him?

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