There is an ancient proverb/curse of alleged Chinese origin that goes thus “May you live in interesting times”. The weeks after the release of excerpts of Prof Chinua Achebe’s new book “there was a country, a personal history of Biafra” has really been interesting. It started a new battle but this time around, it is a battle of words with the battleground being the internet (online media and social media like the facebook and twitter) and the print media. And the aggressors’ weapons are their pens and keyboards. I have read articles written by journalists, politicians, intellectuals and social commentators all churned out to criticize the author for his views on Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Each tried to outdo the other in the rush to denigrate Prof Achebe. It seems there is a prize to be collected for who has the ability to bash the egghead the most. People who have probably never read any literature about the Nigerian civil war in their entire lives joined the fray. All that matters to them is that this man, Achebe who has the guts to write uncomplimentary words about “our late sage, Awolowo” must also have a piece of our uncouth tongues.
The critics of Achebe have seen it as a new war that must be fought and won, the reputation of Chief Obafemi Awolowo must be defended, and his integrity protected since he is not alive to do it himself. Funny enough, as at the time the critics were busy fuming and suffocating in their self-professed righteous indignation, they had not read the 333-page book. They only read parts of the excerpts that were released to publicize it. Nevertheless, to them, the book should be discarded because in their thinking it did not portray Awolowo in a good light. They hurled invectives at the erudite writer for penning down his memoir. In any case, you do not tell someone how to write a personal account of his life. You do not tell someone to distort his personal recollections to suit your whim. Prof Achebe wrote his own account of the Biafra war and what makes this memoir unique is that it is coming from a renowned author with several books and awards to his kitty. The author was at a stage an ambassador of Biafra, who traveled to Europe and America to appeal for aid for the people who were starving during the war. He did his best to publicize the appalling condition of his people during the war. With his vantage position at that time, he saw it all . He therefore has a right to say it as he saw it. But, his traducers do not want to hear this. It irks them that he exhumed what they wish should remain buried and forgotten.
The critics believe that Prof Achebe made a cardinal mistake by saying that Awolowo initiated the policy that caused the starvation of millions of Igbo people during the civil war. A sacrilege! They cannot believe he said it. The Lilliputians went defensive and took it personal on the octogenarian for telling his side of the story. They conveniently forgot this quote by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, which he made on July 28th 1969 that “all is fair in war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder”. It can easily be goggled from the net. It is funny indeed to see Lilliputians who do not measure up to the scholar at all call him names. One of them in an infantile outburst went as far as calling on the federal government to withdraw the magnum opus “things fall apart” from the classrooms. The Wikipedia has this to say about the book, “it is the most widely read book in modern African literature”. A book that has been highly acclaimed worldwide and has been translated into over three hundred languages worldwide. A book that has been ranked as one of the 50 most influential books in the world. It was not enough; the annual national honours award bazaar, which the principled author rejected twice, became an issue for his critics. So, what is the grouse of the critics? Their grouse is why should he bring it up now after so many years? What does he want to achieve by reminding the world about the atrocities that were committed against hapless people during the war? What does he want to achieve by reminding the world that millions of people were bombed in schools, churches, markets, houses, and other places where they sought refuge? Why should he make them feel guilty? Why is he revealing information that will reveal the true colours of their demigod? They know that his works are respected worldwide and they know this present work will not be an exception. They feel it will cause more dent to the late sage’s name coming from the respected author and that is therefore unforgivable. That is the crux of the matter.
The victims of the starvation policy do not count in the opinions of the critics. They believe those unfortunate souls are collateral damage which should not be mentioned at all. Niyi Aborisade captured the essence of the whole hullabaloo by the critics in this sentence “apart from Oduduwa the progenitor of the yorubas, Awolowo was the only person that held the title of Asiwaju Yoruba (leader of yorubas) until he breathed his last in 1987” in his article entitled “And a scholar(Chinua Achebe) will destroy them (Nigerian)”. But they probably did not know that the same Achebe graciously acknowledged Awolowo as a great man in the same book which is the cause of their rage. According to an online medium, Premium Times.com “ on page 45 of the book, Mr Achebe wrote of Mr Awolowo: By the time I became a young adult, Obafemi Awolowo had emerged as one of Nigeria’s dominant political figures. He was an erudite and accomplished lawyer who had been educated at the university of London……Chief Awolowo and his close associates reunited his ancient Yoruba people with powerful glue-resuscitated ethic pride and created a political party, the Action Group, in 1951…..”. He was the greatest politician to come out from the west until now. None of the politicians there can ever beat his legacies. That is why they bandy his name when they want to contest elections.
One undeniable fact is that Chief Awolowo was a principal actor in the Biafra genocide. His policies helped in winning the war. He was not infallible and made mistakes which led to the death of millions of people so all those shouting themselves hoarse on his behalf are probably crying more than the bereaved. I took time to read the 1983 town hall interview Awolwo granted in Abeokuta that surfaced on the internet because of this controversy. He did not deny his role in the war. He defended his actions robustly and gave his reasons for stoppage of food to the Biafrans (the starvation policy in contention now), the change of currency, the 20 pounds given to the victims after the war and many more.He did not deny.Yes,he accepted responsibility for his actions but with reasons which he thought was legitimate. From all indications, he was good at what he did. There is nothing new about what Achebe said about the starvation policy, any history student would definitely come across stories of how the Igbos died in tens of thousands of hunger and malnutrition during the course of the war.
As a young lad with an excessive thirst for novels and storybooks, I remember that while rummaging through my father’s library, I saw books like The Nigerian revolution and the Biafra war by Alexander. A. Madiebo (brigadier), Requiem Biafra by Joe O. G. Achuzia, The Biafra story by Forsyth Frederick and some others. Those books are still in my father’s library. I shuddered when I read of the inhumanity by man against man as recounted by those authors. I started asking questions, I remember the horrifying stories I heard from war veterans in my village, I remember the tales I heard from elders in my village who experienced the war. My parents told me their bit; at least my father was already a young man at the time. I remember being told of how all meats became edibles, even rats and lizards were not left out. I
remember going to the farm and leaves, which I do not even think people use in cooking now were pointed out as edibles then. I remember being told that sometimes after cooking a particular soup with strange leaves and condiments, the head of the family would volunteer to take some and wait for a particular period and if he does not die the whole family would eat. In most cases of extreme hunger, they just eat together and wait for the consequences. I remember hearing that salt was an essential commodity. I remember hearing tales of extreme hunger and thirst that drove people mad. Such hunger, you do not even wish for your worst enemy. I know how it feels without food for a whole day not to talk of days and weeks. Then you can imagine what it looks like for days without food and when the food is seen, it is too minute to quell the ravenous worms in the stomach. I imagine innocent children screaming in hunger and begging their parents to give them food. I imagine them not understanding why the food is not available. I imagine parents crying as they see their kids dying in their presence because of food that was obviously stopped from getting to them because it will fall into the hands of soldiers. Chief Awolowo said “So I decided to ‘STOP’ sending the food there. In the process the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most”. What am I trying to say? People died because of the starvation policy. It may seem like folk tales to some of us now. We may play tribal politics with the truth but it is there staring us in the face. The facts are there, documented and archived. History! Starvation was and is still one of the most inhuman methods of extermination of a people. That should be the focus and not tribal sentiments.
The sentiments that were wiped up because of the book have highlighted a serious problem besetting us in Nigeria. The issue of tribalism and ethic bigotry. It has eaten deep into the fabrics of our lives even more than we think. Many people seem to have the convoluted and jaundiced thinking that the excerpts on Awolowo are also a blanket indictment on the Yoruba people. They therefore resorted to verbal attacks on the Igbos in return. I was shocked on reading puerile comments online where some people said they Igbo race deserved what they got. Some even said it was war and therefore any weapon used to win the war was justified. Some critics even issued press releases threatening fire and brimstone against innocent Igbo people. Their only offense is that they come from the same tribe as the author. Some even went as far as linking the book to the quest for Igbo presidency in 2015. Do I blame them? No! When it comes to tribal politics, people behave childishly. This has shown that issues cannot be discussed objectively in our society without recourse to one’s tribe.
In most of the threads, I read online, it was annoying to see people divert from the content of the book and resort to name-calling. This shows that Nigeria has a lot of way to go. That is the reason some of our national leaders will not change because even when it is obvious that they are wrong, we all queue up blindly to defend them along tribal lines. That is the reason when a politician loots our commonwealth, you see someone from his tribe rise in defense with the following words “na him be the first person to embezzle our money? Other people have been stealing money. Is it because he is from my
tribe? Please, leave him alone, he has taken part of the national cake”. That is the reason why people avoid discussing about the civil war. That is the reason studies on the civil war cannot be integrated in the curriculum of our universities so that students can learn from the mistakes of the past. Tribal politics! I do not think Achebe will dignify his critics with a response because he did so long ago with these words “if you do not like someone’s story, you write your own”. That is an apt response to all his critics. One good thing though, the fuss about the book has ensured that the book has gotten much publicity and the critics are probably waiting impatiently to buy the book.