BY GODWIN NZEAKAH
After carefully listening to and reading some of the presentations in the fierce polemics generated by Achebe’s controversial reference to Chief Obafemi Awolowo in his latest work There was a Country, perhaps one can now chip in a word or two with the hope of encouraging sanity and ceasefire,
Incidentally, the ugly episode is coming at a time when Nigeria is once again at a critical crossroads, where any false step or distraction in the form of this kind of wrangling among any of its geopolitical zones, the traditional underdogs in particular, could prove disastrous in a multiple of ways. My finding is that the unfortunate hullabaloo has occured mainly as a result of paucity of information, especially on Chief Awolowo’s role at various times and statements on issues before, during and after the war.
Although I am yet to read Achebe’s latest book to verify exactly what he said about Awolowo, let me state straightaway that it is not good to imput motive into his war-time official actions or inactions since no such presumptions ipso facto could be conclusively proved. In any case, even if we dwell on such sensitive issues till Kingdom come and for so long abuse ourselves the two million plus who perished in that avoidable war won’t come back to life.
What bothers me up to now, however, is that even when the need to say I am sorry stares everybody in the face today, with the war already steadily avenging itself on Nigeria, General Yakubu Gowon whose youthful blunder the costly clash symbolised has refused to budge an inch. Let Awolowo be, please. If the best way to end a war, as they say, is to prevent it in the first place, there is now ample evidence to prove that, as human as he was, the man tried his best.
Among other things, evidence has emerged that even at the eleventh hour when it was risky so to do Chief Awolowo, addressing a meeting of Western Leaders of thought in Ibadan in May 1967 did caution that “advocates of war should stop a little and reflect” because, “I can see no vital and abiding principle involved in any war…..If the East attacked the North it would be for the purpose of revenge…
If on the other hand the North attacked the East, it could only be for the purpose of further strengthening and entrenching its position of dominance in the country”. Turning to warmongers, he warned that: “two vital factors distinguished Lincoln’s campaign in America from the one now being advocated in Nigeria” The first he said is that “the American Civil war was aimed at the abolition of slavery….
The second factor is that Lincoln and others in the Northern states were English speaking people wedging a war of good conscience and of humanity against their fellow nationals”…. (Tribune, 20/10/12). Let me explain at this junction that I hold no brief for either the Achebe or Awolowo camp. It only behoves us, I believe, to uphold and tell the truth under any circumstances no matter whose ox is gored. I want to believe that ab initio the learned AG/UPN leader was not in support of any war not to talk of having any intension to exploit it. In other words, the man was a hapless, reluctant supporter of that opening shot in the Nsukka axis that heralded the genocidal war on that fateful July 6, 1967.
In the circumstance therefore, the only puzzle is this: Why didn’t he as a senior statesman and UPGA ally of the East take it easy with the Biafrans during or even at the end of the war? This, perhaps, is one mystery of the war and no less our politics that illustrates Charles de Gaule’s immortal statement that in politics there is no permanent friend but permanent interests. But did Awolowo believe in De Gaule’s theory? Well and good. Perhaps when some people make allusion to “inexorable mistakes of War” this could be one of them.
But then here we are faced with mistakes or oversights in course of war and not mistakes and oversights that caused the war because when the final stage for the conflict was set in 1964/66 Chief Awolowo was in prison. Even if we count the fracas in the Western House which he witnessed, he could still be exonerated because he was one man who clearly saw the despicable fraud that was the state of emergency declared in the Western Region in 1962, and did not mince words in condemning it.
Courageous, frank and candid even to a fault, Awolowo was already in prison when the farce that was the 1963 census result was announced and accepted by Chief S.L, Akintola to the chagrin of Dr Michael Okpara. If the man was there his immense voice would have certainly nullified the entire exercise just as in the case of Gowon’s census of 1973. In fact, in the same manner, given the glaring evidence of laughable manipulations and jiggerypokery in the 2006 enumeration, Chief Awolowo’s single voice would have been enough to cancel the result, was he still around.
As the sentinel of Nigerian politics Awolowo abjured the principle of live and let die, the adherents of which had forced him to make a gloomy prophesy in 1963 before Justice Sowemimo and in the end one misfortune after the other systematically dogged the polity, steadily hardening the hearts of the main political actors until the preventable coup d’etat of January 1966 overtook the country.
I called the Nzeogwu coup “preventable” on the ground that not less than four credible sources had revealed the plot to the Federal Government several days in advance, but Prime Minister Balewa inexplicably refused to take action. D.J.M. Muffett has the details in his work Let Truth Be Told Vol.1. One of such sources was the British Government whose leader Mr. Harold Wilson was coincidentally in Nigeria then attending a Commonwealth summit.
At the eleventh hour Mr. Smith offered Balewa sanctuary in a British Warship that was anchored opposite the Marina, Lagos, but the gesture was turned down. Others included Chief S.L. Akintola who, in a chartered flight, flew to Kaduna on the 14th January to inform Sir Ahmadu Bello that a coup was afoot. Even Dr. Kofi Busia a Ghanaian exile who monitored Dr Nkrumah’s activities from his hideout in France did send a note to Nigeria, revealing the plot, and yet Balewa was not moved and in that manner encouraged the coup which precipitated the pogrom and the genocidal war which Awolowo tried but in vain to stop.
So, today blaming Chief Awolowo is akin to looking at the footprints of a horse on sand and not at the horse itself. To be continued. Nzeakah writes from Lagos.