THERE WAS INDEED A COUNTRY
WHY CHINUA ACHEBE IS STILL ANGRY
Snippets from Chinua Achebe’s memoirs on Biafra-‘There was a country’, has already began to generate controversies. The most unfortunate part of this controversy is its ethnic dimension, Yoruba vs Igbo. Prominent Yoruba leaders believe that the good name of their icon Chief Obafemi Awolowo is being toiled with, while Igbo leaders feel that Professor Chinua Achebe said what needed to be said. Other Nigerians from my generation and younger are probably like ‘what the F%&&$k??’
Of course I did not experience the Biafran war but my parents did and so I have ‘indirectly’ re-lived their various war experiences.
My father was born and bred in Lagos during the 1940s, he grew up on Lagos Island, Lafiaji to be precise and his mastery of the Yoruba language was and still is flawless. My mother was born in Lagos too and her Yoruba also flawless. The war broke out long before my parents even met each other but they both had distinct life changing experiences.
As at the time Biafra was declared, my father was a young banker in Lagos, a bachelor and a typical ‘Eko for show’ fun loving guy. As soon as my father noticed the suspicion his presence elicited among his Yoruba hosts he quickly moved to a new location and wait for it...changed his name. My father became known as Mr Johnson in his new location, spoke his Yoruba even more fluently and being very dark skinned no one could mistaken him for an Igbo.
But eventually, he was ‘outed’ by a former neighbour; his story is that in spite of Federal government’s stance on unity, there were some rogue ‘unknown Northern soldiers’ who were fond of rounding up Igbos in Lagos and summarily executing them. And these soldiers did come to Mr Johnson’s compound, all my Dad could remember on that fateful morning was sounds of people outside shouting, “yibo ni wan, yibo ni wan.” He quickly made for the back door balcony of his first floor apartment, and jumped out dislocating his right leg in the process. He then limped towards the back fence and scaled over it, still landing with the same dislocated leg. My dad describes the pain as ‘unbelievable’ but he escaped, that’s why I’m here today. He still walks with a limp till this day.
On my mother’s side, she and her family ran out of Lagos and moved to her father’s house in Port-Harcourt, thinking it was a safe haven. Port Harcourt quickly fell to Federal forces and they all moved to their ancestral home in the present Imo state. What my maternal family experienced in their own village was probably worse than all her experiences with the non-Igbos combined.
Apparently, returnee Igbos from outside the Eastern region were discriminated against by their own people. Back then, Igbos weren’t fond of building solid houses in their villages, many had built their houses in Lagos, Port Harcourt and the North. And so, as my mum and her family became penniless returnee Igbos, many people within her community who even benefitted from her family’s pre war benevolence mocked them. They said things like, “Foolish people, you all went to build houses on foreign lands, why didn’t you carry the houses on your heads and bring it over?”
The Biafran soldiers on the other hand were something else, young boys were summarily conscripted into the army. Rape by Biafran soldiers was so rampant that young girls were advised to make themselves ugly and smelly on their way to the market so that soldiers will not find them attractive.
So, as it were, the Federal government slapped Biafrans on one cheek and the Biafran authorities also slapped Biafrans on the other cheek. But the most decisive slapped ended up being the ‘food blockade’ allegedly designed and implemented by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. I heard stories of how thousands of ‘Aje butter’ Biafran children died off within weeks into the food blockade.
Chinua Achebe’s position is that this singular action eventually wiped off over two million people mainly children and can safely be termed as genocide. Those on Awolowo’s side believe that it was a ‘necessary evil’ needed to make the war end quickly; afterall, how can you feed your enemies? Giving them energy to keep on fighting you.
Both schools of thought are correct.
We have seen wars in Africa that have lasted for over fifteen years, but the Biafra war lasted for just three years. Ironically, many of the ‘long term’ wars in Africa boasted of casualties in their thousands while the Nigerian Civil war of just three years posted a ‘gallant’ figure of over two million dead.
I feel Chinua Achebe’s pains; a man that lived to see an entire promising generation wiped out right in from him. I understand Obafemi Awolowo’s stance, ‘the war just needed to end quickly so that the nation can move on.’
However, the question is, could there have been a better way to end the war? What if the ‘Aburi accord’ had been strictly adhered to? What if the South west region which today is the most vocal on the call for a sovereign national conference stood by the Eastern region back then and demanded for true federalism or con-federalism? I have never met Chinua Achebe and maybe I never will, but I’m thinking these are some of the thoughts that haunt him every day. Especially when he looks at todays Nigeria and the persistent calls for true federalism by many, including ‘descendants’ and ‘followers’ of Awolowo.
I’m an Igbo man and I guess I 'deserve' the right to be biased about this issue. However, I strongly believe that all the parties involved in the Nigerian civil war meant well for the Nigerian nation. Although, there’s a popular saying that ‘the road to hell is filled with good intentions.’
Did the deliberate food blockade on Biafra lead to a quick end to the Nigerian civil war? It did, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was right.
Did this deliberate food blockade also lead to the untimely deaths or genocide of over two million Biafrans? Yes it did. Chinua Achebe is right.
Unfortunately, many still believe that the word ‘Genocide’ is only appropriate when the instrument of death used are gas chambers, guns and machetes.
Starvation is also an instrument of death and unlike others; it’s very slow and extremely painful.