By NDUBUISI ORJI
For a long time to come, the issue of the Nigerian civil war would continue to generate serious discourse in the country. Nigeria had waged a bitter war against the defunct Peoples Republic of Biafra between 1966 and 1970.
The defunct Eastern Region under the leadership of the late Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu had planned a secession from Nigeria and christened itself the Peoples Republic of Biafra. Thereafter, the then Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon declared a police action to crush what he termed Ojukwu’s rebellion. The police action eventually snowballed into a civil war that lasted for 30 months. It was a very fierce war.
While the federal government fought hard to stop the defunct Eastern region from breaking away, the Biafrans fought harder to maintain their newly found independence. In the process all kind of weapons were deplored in the war. When the war was taking more time than anticipated, the federal government allegedly decided to blockade Biafra. Consequently, the new republic could not get food from the outside world to feed the populace.
The aim of that alleged blockade broke the will and fighting spirit of the Igbos and brought them back into the federation. Following the blockade, there was hunger, anguish and a cocktail of diseases triggered off by malnutrition. Eventually, this led to death for millions of Igbos especially women and children. It was indeed the pictures of malnourished Biafran children with bloated stomachs and tiny legs that drew the attention of the world to enormity of the suffering of the citizens of the young republic.
There were alleged cases of bombardment of civilians in markets, hospitals and refugee camps within the Biafran enclave by the federal troops. When the centre could no longer hold for Biafra, General Philip Effiong, Ojukwu’s deputy, who was in charge of the secessionist republic following the latter’s trip in search of peace surrendered to the Federal Government and the war ended. At the end of the war, Easterners particularly Igbos were confronted with a new challenge. Most of their properties outside Biafra before the outbreak of war were declared abandoned property. That was not all.
All Easterners who had money in various banks before the war started three years earlier were given a paltry sum of 20 pounds irrespective of whether they had millions or billions of pounds in the banks. The economic woes of the people were exacerbated by the indigenization policy of the Federal Government which came on stream in 1974, four years after the end of the civil war. For a people just recovering from the ruins of war, it was near impossible for a vast majority of Igbos to participate in the exercise which was designed to transfer ownership of some foreign companies in the country to Nigerians.
The events of the civil war and others immediately after it are the thrust of Professor Chinua Achebe’s memoirs, “There was a country: a personal history of Biafra.” Since the release of the book, all hell has been let loose. Public commentators have risen up in arms, some in commendation, others in condemnation of Achebe depending on which part of the country the commentators hail from. In the book, apart from accusing former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon of genocide against the Igbos during the war, the author also accused former Premier of Western Region, and war time Minister of Finance, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo of spearheading a policy aimed at annihilating the Igbos during the war in order to advance his political cause and that of Yorubas in Nigeria.
Awolowo was Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council during the war. Achebe, a man who is never afraid to call a spade by its real name pointedly said in the book that “it is my impression that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power for himself in particular and for the advancement of his Yoruba in general. And let it be said there is, on the surface, at least nothing wrong with those aspirations.
However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose-the Nigeria-Biafra War- his ambition drove him into a frenzy to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafra case, it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation-eliminating over two million, mainly members of future generations”. Achebe said the policies and others before them were geared towards obliterating the economy of a people.
He holds Gowon and Awolowo and other members of the Gowon regime responsible. In his view, the duo spear headed “boatload of infamous and regrettable policies” against the Igbos during and immediately after the civil war. This is not the first book on the Nigeria Civil war. But none of the other books before it has generated so much tension and emotions as it is doing. But in writing about Awolowo, Achebe touched a raw nerve in the Yoruba nation.
And since the review of the book was published by the Guardian of London, it has been controversy all the way. But ironically, both Gowon and the late former Premier of Defunct Western Region had defended the blockade of Biafra, the 20 pounds policy and the indigenization policy, saying that they had no regret over the roles in the war and their policies after it. Gowon, in a recent interview denied that his administration engaged in the mass killing of Igbos during the war. He also said that the federal government did not also use hunger as a weapon to dislodge the dissidents.
“It was the Igbo that objected to the creation of corridor for movements of medical aid and food supplies to the civilian population at the period; on this, I am ready to face the International Criminal Court of Justice at the Hague for prosecution over the role played by me during the war,” he said. While Awolowo had stated in a town hall meeting in 1983 that he was actually sending food to the civilians in Biafra during the way but had to stop when he discovered that it was being hijacked by the soldiers.
“So, I decided to stop sending food there. In the process, the civilians will suffer but the soldiers will suffer most,” he explained. The explanation of both men notwithstanding, there has been no let up in the controversy. Former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode said the blockade Biafra during the war was a natural thing to do in war situation. He is peeved that author of Things Fall Apart is linking Awolowo with the blockade of Biafra which led to hunger, diseases and death. Fani-Kayode said it is therefore “unfair, unreasonable, it is irrational and it is responsible” for Achebe to lay the blames on Awolowo.
He added that “There was a war and in that war there was a blockade which the Nigerian government placed against the Eastern Nigeria. They did so because it was a standard practice in any war.” But Professor ABC Nwosu sees the stance of Awolowo towards Biafra during the war as a betrayal of friendship. According to him, “Achebe and Ndigbo do not hate Pa Awolowo as a person. It is noteworthy that Ndigbo and Biafrans do not attack Pa Awolowo for the swift change of the Nigerian currency.
What they quarrel with is Chief Awolowo’s robust defence of the Federal Military Government’s inhuman policy of mass starvation as a result of which millions of Biafran children died. He added that “Ndigbo also quarrel with Pa Awolowo and the Federal Government’s policy in 1970 of expropriating Igbo funds lodged in Nigerian banks (after the war of unity had been won and lost) in exchange for the “ex-gratia” award of 20 pounds for each Igbo person who could authenticate his account, no matter the sum in that account.
I must emphasize that this “ex-gratia award” was not for every Igbo person who survived but only for those who had bank accounts.” However, Mr Brady Chijoke Nwosu, acting National Publicity Secretary of Njiko Igbo, a political pressure group in the South east says the controversy arising from this Achebe’s book is not necessary now. According to him, all that Achebe wrote in his memoirs are known facts.
He added “The issue of 20 pounds for all the money you have is an open wound. It is a known fact. Since the book was published, I have read the counter reaction of Ebenezer Babatope, I have that of Fani Kayode. I look at all these write ups, they even mentioned where Awolowo concurred based on that policy. In warfare now, America will throw bomb at you on one hand and give you food on the other hand.
They want you to eat while you are alive, when you are dead you are dead.” Though a few analysts have even argued that it would have been better if Achebe has allowed sleeping dogs to lie, but is imperative that story of that era be documented by both observers and key participants so that future generations can read and judge for themselves.