Saturday 6 October 2012

There Was A Country… A memoir of ethnic fury

With his pedigree as Africa’s literary giant, whose work is revered across the world, I doubt if Prof Chinua Achebe needs controversy to sell his new book There Was A Country.

However, the responses, which the book is currently receiving show that the literary icon’s latest work is, perhaps, soaked in ethnic vituperation.

This book, more importantly raises question on the responsibility of those who are privileged with letters in managing post-war emotion and fury for peaceful co-existence. Has Achebe lived up to this responsibility or would his book fuel post-Nigerian civil war fury? 

Achebe writes in the book: “Throughout the conflict, the Biafrans consistently charged that the Nigerians had a design to exterminate the Igbo people from the face of the earth. This calculation, the Biafrans insisted, was predicated on a holy jihad proclaimed by mainly Islamic extremists in the Nigerian Army and supported by the policies of economic blockade that prevented shipments of humanitarian aid, food and supplies to the needy in Biafra.”

He therefore argued that the then leaders of Nigeria such as General Yakubu Gowon and Chief Obafemi Awolowo should be charged for war crime based on the UN chatter of 1946. 

 He writes: “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. 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’. 

“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 Igbo at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose with 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.” 

Prof Achebe should read his argument again. Gowon and Awolowo were/are Christians, and one wonders where "a holy jihad proclaimed by mainly Islamic extremists in the Nigerian Army," fits into Achebe's argument; it does not add up sir.

However, it should not be a surprise if Achebe’s There Was A Country ends up as another one side of a story. For example, it would make an interesting reading, and perhaps stress the writer’s revered intellectual quality if he has released similar energy in highlighting the events that led to the Nigerian civil war. It is on record that six years after Nigeria’s independence, an Igbo man, Major Nzeogwu led one ethnic-dominated coup and killed Nigeria's first prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Chief Ladoke Akintola, Festus Okotie-Eboh, Ademulegun and others.

Achebe’s argument of the coup suggests that his revered intellectual quality has been sacrificed on the altar of tribalism and ethnic bigotry. According to a review of The Guardian, London: ‘Although most of the coup-plotters were Igbo, Achebe disputes that it was an "Igbo" coup, partly on the basis that its leader, Major Nzeogwu had grown up in the north and was Igbo in name only.’ 

Suddenly been born or raised outside one’s ethnic geographical base strips you of your natural origin, so suggests Achebe’s argument. Anthropologists, I guess have a task here to either prove Achebe wrong or join him in challenging Chukwu (God of the Igbo). 

Indeed, Achebe has not said anything new about Nigeria's  starvation strategy against Biafra, but the lessons we all have to learn from the war is more important. And the real lesson is how not to start a conflict. Reason: when conflict of arm struggle starts, it could be very complex to define or set the rule on how to fight it. For example, did Achebe expect Awolowo to wait and allow Lagos and the rest of the southwest fall into the hands of the advancing Biafran army? If the leader of the Biafran army, Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu or Achebe were to be in Awolowo's situation, i am sure he would also device any means possible to end the war. 

Although it is a statement of fact that the Nigerian political elite is corrupt, but it sounds like another ethnic fury that Achebe has exempted Igbo from the retrogression plaguing Nigeria. If his argument is potent, the five states of Igboland – Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, – which have been ruled by Governors of Igbo extractions since 1999 should have shown the rest of the country how to make progress.

Condemnations by prominent Yoruba leaders, of Achebe's There Was A Country, have been given wide attention in some sections of Nigeria's media in the last few days.   Such responses came from Ayo Opadokun, Assistant Director of Organisation of the late Chief Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and Secretary of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO); former Transport and Aviation Minister, Chief Ebenezer Babatope; a chieftain of the pan-Yoruba organisation, Afenifere, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi; former governor of old Oyo State, Dr Omololu Olunloyo; secretary General of Yoruba Council of Elders (YCE), Chief Idowu Sofola (SAN); a chieftain of the group, Chief Ayo Fasanmi; Founder of Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC), Dr. Fredrick Fasehun; human right lawyer, Yinka Odumakin; Prof. Tony Afejukwu, an Itsekiri leader. 

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