Odia Ofeimun, poet and public affairs analyst, rips up Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country. He speaks with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE and NEHRU ODEH
You have read Achebe’s There Was A Country. What does it say to you about the man?
Let me start by saying the overreactions to Chinua Achebe are attempts to demolish the book. And sometimes, you can see that people are attempting to demolish Achebe himself. At 80, Chinua Achebe cannot be demolished. He has done enough work for any criticism of him to be fair because seriously, it is strong enough for us to do even unfair criticisms. It is helpful to a country to be able to take on one of its icons in the way people are doing.
I have said in an earlier response that I like the overreactions because they touch on some of the most important issues in our history. Let all of us take the issues from whatever perspective we choose, but from the standpoint of correcting what he should have said but did not say, ensuring that his misdescriptions of Nigeria and of Nigeria’s history are corrected and, at the same time, providing some kind of leeway farther from what certain psychological constraints prevented him from dealing with it. I mean, the worst thing that can happen to any country is to have an idol that you are only allowed to worship and you cannot allow even your sputum to touch while you are doing the worshipping.
Achebe has been one of the luckiest writers in Africa. We loved him so much for what he wrote that we hardly ever challenged some of the most contentious positions in his novels and in his non-fiction writings. Achebe said many things that are thoroughly wrong and that we ought to have contested very sharply and strongly. He is too important to be allowed to think badly and there are so many areas in which Achebe thought badly that we all should have contested before now. But the worshipful approach to him enabled us to raise to the level of a philosophy many things we should have dismissed as trite. I believe what he has done for the rest of us by writing this book is to help create a level playing ground.
Very many young people, who could not have dared to look him in the face, are going to engage the facts of this book and say: ‘Haba! This is not true, this cannot be correct, this is overdone.’ We could not do this with his fictional works. And except for a few of us who did not like his The Trouble With Nigeria, many people think that The Trouble With Nigeria is a great book. It is a very bad book; a bad book that did not understand Nigeria ’s story, which is embarrassing for some of us. He did not know Nigeria ’s story enough to have such authoritative views about what he talked about. And the embarrassment is extended by the fact that all around, you see so much respect for those views. And because of the respect we all have for him more and more people are buying into these bad views. In my view, it is dangerous for a country.
What did you find wrong with The Trouble With Nigeria? The theme seems to be principally on bad leadership, isn’t it?
The Trouble With Nigeria is not just bad leadership. That is the first bad point. It is about the values a people uphold. And when you reduce it to simply a question of values, it means it is only the protagonists, the entrepreneurs, who are allowed to have power and authority. You tend, when you overplay the role of the leader, to deprive the rest of us of the responsibilities we owe in whatever we do in our various ways of living to be the moulders and the defenders of our society.
The emphasis that is placed on leadership is rather dangerous for a society, which brings up the question of how you create values. In every society of the world, the creators of values are usually in the areas of the religious, the artistic, even before the political. We tend to overplay the role of the political leader and devalue the role that families and communities play in bringing up children. And when I talk about communities here, in most cases, it is not about a particular leader. It is about the collective ascension to certain values – we don’t do things like this. It is that which prescribes whether a man can emerge as a leader because if the values of the basis on which a leader emerges are wonky, the leaders that emerge would be wonky. And those values, as I said, are created largely by artistes and religious leaders. And that kind of way in which the language that you use in your society is in itself what in modern times you call parliamentary, a language that is not based on a necessary reduction of the value of the next human being.
If all of us are trained to use that kind of language and we adhere to it, there is a tendency in which when things are going out of turn, the education you have received simply tells you that is not the way it is supposed to be. But if you must wait for that particular leader to show us the way, then that society is already losing the way. So when you look at the overconcentration on the leader, the search for a leader, it misleads. It misleads because the very writer who is demanding leadership is a leader. If he gets his presentation of values wrong, he misleads more people than the political leader. We do need to take a hard look at what our writers say; we need to debate them more, we need to argue about the things they say and do because those are the elements, the building blocks that help make up the values upon which leaders emerge in society.
I say this because the overemphasis on these things in The Trouble With Nigeria plays out in certain forms that could be embarrassing. I give you one example. We are told in The Trouble With Nigeria that Obafemi Awolowo and Nnamdi Azikiwe had this grand aim of building themselves up financially before they entered politics. And that they worked very hard at it. And Achebe is angry that our leaders wanted to be financially strong before they moved into politics. That is a bit odd. Odd that you want leaders to move into leading their own people without building themselves up, educating themselves, ensuring that they don’t turn the public space into an area where they merely just go for the means of self-aggrandisement or turning themselves into super citizens.
Any time I get to that part of that book, I have always asked myself what made Achebe criticise Awolowo and Zik for saying Before we go into politics let us be strong, let us be disciplined? The route taken by Azikiwe and Awolowo in their pre-political struggles are different. I mean the kind of discipline Awolowo acquired is different from the kind of discipline Azikiwe acquired. You can say Awolowo was a one woman man. Everybody knew that Zik was a man of the world. He loved women and never hid it. I remember when we were doing the PPA (Progressive People’s Alliance ) negotiations in Maiduguri and all those Kanuri girls were dancing with their backsides really throbbing.
Azikiwe nudged Waziri Ibrahim, who was on his right, and said: “That is life!” He pointed his thumb at Awolowo, who said he didn’t understand. I mean, there was fun in it. But it was good that these were leaders who prepared themselves well before they became leaders of their own people. But who did Achebe praise in that very section? Aminu Kano. He is praised for not being a money-oriented leader. And we are supposed to forget that this man who wasn’t money-oriented was obliged to have to depend on his opponents, literally, to get things done. Now, anybody who knows about Aminu Kano’s career will realise that in all moments of crises, he moved rightwards. Awolowo always moved leftwards in crises. That is to say he voted for the masses rather than voting for himself. But in crises, Aminu Kano voted for the right. You can explain it by the lack of preparedness.
In fact, what Achebe blamed Awolowo for is precisely what makes leaders strong in moments of crises because they have something inside them to stand upon, built over years of a certain sense of self-reliance. It sustains them and eventually sustains the movement of which they are about, which is why even when the whole weight of the federal authority, intelligence and security was brought to pound Awolowo, it never worked. He always managed to emerge better than those who pounded him. Now, it is good never to forget it that what saved Awolowo was not just leadership. It was because of the values he had ensured percolated throughout his own organisation. Because it was not enough for you to have a leader; it was the kind of values on the basis of which your leaders did things. We need never to forget that. That is what builds societies. I mean, a leader may be all powerful; some use force, others use persuasion. Those who use persuasion have to learn to depend on those values because if they don’t exist, irrespective of the forces that you deploy, you are wasting your time.
It is important that in responding to The Trouble With Nigeria, we take a hard look at untruths, terrible untruths that in my view are philosophical lapses. One of them that I responded to immediately the book was published was what Achebe said about the1951 elections in the Western Region. I mean Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot reported after that election that Azikiwe’s party, the NCNC, had 25, the Action Group had 15 and Independents 40. Anybody who knew the Western Region knew there was something wonky with that way of presenting the results. Because that particular election was run on the basis of very many ethnic organisations. People ran on the platform of Otuedo in the Benin-Delta area, Ibadan Peoples’ Party in Ibadan , Ondo Improvement League and so on and so forth.
The only part of Nigeria where political parties existed properly was Lagos . NCNC swept all the five seats in Lagos . But it was because the NCNC swept all the five seats in Lagos , and journalism and communication was strong in Lagos , that almost all the Lagosians and, therefore, supposedly Nigerian public opinion came to believe that Azikiwe won. The truth is that if you win in Lagos , you did not win in the Western Region. But that belief that Azikiwe won, in spite of what his own newspaper reported, became folklore. And people forgot that among the 40 people, whom Azikiwe’s paper regarded as independents, were people who said they owed allegiance either to the NCNC or the Action Group.
The Action Group was just being formed as a party and the NCNC was entering regional party politics for the first time. So you have these big political parties on which platforms candidates did not run because their people did not know them.
So it was after the election that many of them were coming out. But something had happened. Before the election, the electoral officer insisted that the two political parties that were claiming candidates should bring a list of their candidates. Only the Action Group published a list of their candidates before the election. And it was on the basis of that list that the Action Group was claiming that it had won. So because the NCNC apparently did not present a list, it could claim seats that it did not win. That was where the problem is. And what was interesting is that Zik never stopped repeating it that he won, but that it was on the floor of the House that people cross-carpeted.
No, it was not on the floor of the House. Between November 1951 and January 1952, when the House actually met, where all the candidates belonged to had become well known and obvious. But you know political parties never stop asserting strengths that they may not possess. So you had a situation where the newspapers were wrangling over who had moved to this side or who was moving to the other side. Many of the candidates moving this way and that way, of course, were being lured by many things. Some of them had been members of Egbe Omo Oduduwa. Naturally, they were close to the organisation that Awolowo led. There were those who did not care about any ethnic organisation. The individual party members were simply looking for their own deal.
The six members who came from the Ibadan People’s Party were shifting this way and that way, as the wind blew them. Most of the people who won on the platform of the individual parties wanted to know which of the two parties was likely to form a government. Akinloye, after zigzagging, stood with the Action Group because the Action Group was particular about one thing: it wanted the brightest and the best. Akinloye had just come with a first class degree from Europe and, therefore, they wanted him at all costs.
Awolowo just wanted the best in the place and offering Akinloye a job was one easy winner. And by the time Akinloye was offered a job, it was already clear that the Action Group had more seats in parliament than the NCNC. On the day the parliament actually met, the Action Group – and anybody who knows how Awolowo organises would understand that – moved to the House of Assembly as one team. They worked as one team, all of them brandishing Action Group plaques on their chest. Awolowo was their head; they followed him. When Awolowo got to the door and discovered that all the NCNC members were scattered all over the place, he said: “No, we shall not enter until they move to one side.”
The pattern in any serious parliament, as per the traditions of the House of Commons, is that parties stay on their side of the House. So, he insisted they must do so before they would enter. The traditional rulers came there and begged, saying: “Please, not in this new dispensation. Don’t let’s spoil it with rancour.” Awolowo never listened to such debates. He told them that until they moved, he and his men would not enter.
It is possible that Chinua Achebe was actually there on the spectators’ gallery and so he must have seen it when all the NCNC members moved to one side. Maybe that was what he saw because, as he later said, he was there on the floor of the Western House of Assembly when all the NCNC members moved to the AG. No, it’s wrong. It was not NCNC members that moved to the AG; it was the NCNC members being asked to clear to one side so that the AG can enter and sit down. Now, this is how folklore has always overridden history in Nigeria . The truth is that the Hansards of the House showed that after the two parties had positioned themselves and sat where they were supposed to, those who discovered that the AG had more seats started moving to the Action Group side. Only three people cross-carpeted on the floor of the Western House of Assembly. The first carpet-crosser in Nigeria ’s history was Kensington Momoh. He was representing Kukuruku, what is now Etsako/Afenmai. There was Awojorisha Remi and G.G. Ako, who represented constituenties in the Delta.
Ekuyasi was Igbo representing the Otuedo, a Benin party, in the House. I need to bring him in because many people who talk about how liberal Nigerian communities were need to know that at that time, one of the representatives of Benin in the Western House of Assembly, was an Igbo man. It is important that we know these things so that you will see the climate within which that thing took place. But forever and after the NCNC, that is, Zik’s followers, and especially the Igbo across Nigeria , were made to believe that Zik was swindled. They believed their leader’s story. And Zik was, therefore, encouraged from that moment on to go claiming he was swindled.
As late as 1953, he could still tell people that he had 43 seats and that overnight, they cross-carpeted and he had only 18 left. It never happened that way because I can also tell you that if you read Bola Ige’s book, Politics, Parties and Politicians you’d see that where the problem worsened was over how to send parliamentarians to the central legislature in Lagos . You will discover that even Bola Ige was critical of his own party because Ige believed that the Western House of Assembly, which was the Electoral College, should have voted for Azikiwe as their party leader. Ige said that out of a certain liberal House of Commons approach to politics that the leader of the other side should just have been voted for by the whole house. But this was what happened.
Azikiwe had cobbled together a number of associations – political groupings, Christian organisations and debating societies – so that the NCNC, properly speaking, was not a party. It was what political scientists call a congress. And one of the political organisations that was part of the NCNC was represented by Dr. Olorunnibe. That man wanted to be Mayor of Lagos. But Azikiwe had sympathies for Mbonu Ojike. And as far as Olorunnibe was concerned, he was the only proper Lagosian among the five parliamentarians voted for by Lagosians.
Zik himself came from the East and the others came from various parts of the Western Region. TOS Benson was from Ikorodu which, at that time, was not part of Lagos . And that man just felt he had a right to be the mayor. But if his party leader did not support him, he did not see why he should support his party leader in the business of going to the Federal House.
When Zik put his name on the ballot, he too put his name on the ballot. And when all the other people discovered what was happening, they too put their names on the ballot. Bola Ige told the story of how they went to the Oba of Sagamu to ask the man to convince his own son to step down for Azikiwe.
Bola Ige, like most young Nigerians, was a Zikist activist. He said the Oba asked Zik if the place he wanted to go – for which he wanted his son to step down – was a good or bad place. Zik said it was a good place. That man looked at Zik and said: “You are not my friend. How can you see a good place and you say I should tell my son not to go there?” The Oba had no interest in party discipline or party politics. It was a new order and many people did not know by what rules you had to play. And so Adedoyin put his name on the ballot and when the Western House of Assembly voted, Azikiwe lost. Azikiwe was bound to lose if you consider the fact that, although he was well known as a big newspaper man in Lagos , all the other candidates came from particular communities in the Western Region. Sagamu people or Remo people would vote for Adedoyin and the people from Ogbomosho would vote for their man. Ikorodu people or whoever was close by would vote for their man.
To a certain extent, you may be right to say that tribalism was what cost Zik his seat, but the truth is that it was a peculiar form of tribalism. It was not the kind of thing that we talk about in these general terms today. And besides, there was a lot of bribery involved, plenty of money. Adedoyin started bragging in public, and he was quoted in newspapers, as saying he doesn’t take peanuts. One had to respond to The Trouble With Nigeria by telling this story, and I must confess in my own response, I try to be nice about it without pushing so many issues. But it was just one part of the cloudy and clouded way of looking at the Nigerian history that messed up our story. Because a whole nationality, the Igbo nationality, was fed on this lie and because they bought it and many other Nigerians bought it, it corrupted their approach to politics for generations.
The fact that people cross-carpeted became an issue in Nigerian politics. Very few of the academics, who studied the Western Region, had the gumption to narrate it properly. But even while they were narrating it, they threw in their own dislocating views, which hurt the truth. And in my view, Nigerians have lived under the burden of such falsehoods. There are very many. In 1941, before Awolowo became a personality to talk about, he campaigned for Ernest Ikoli. Azikiwe campaigned for and voted for Akinsanya.
That should have provided the finest fibre for national politics; that is, the fact that Awolowo voted against his own brother in favour of an Ijaw man and Nnamdi Azikiwe voted for a Yoruba. But that was turned by Azikiwe and the Western African Pilot into an ethnic issue and it was that 1941 issue that was added up to the 1951 issue to build up this goblin of tribalism as the nether hub of Nigerian politics. It was all lies and our people have functioned under the weight of these lies for too long. It was necessary for somebody to puncture it. My response to The Trouble With Nigeria is part of that attempt. Ever since, I have tried wherever I had an opportunity, to deal with it.
Because you actually meet a lot of Igbo young people brimming with progressive ideas, but the moment you mention a cooperation with the Yoruba for a serious project, you start hearing all sorts of distracted and distracting views. They have been made to believe – in fact even children in the womb are poisoned with the idea – that between the Yoruba and the Igbo, there can be no meeting ground. I can assure you that Nigeria would have been a much better country if those views were not planted and sustained over the years by, in my view, horrid propaganda. The propaganda has been worsened by a big man like Achebe; a leader in a way that Azikiwe was not because more children have read Achebe than have read any line by Azikiwe.
If you ask me, the first issue to deal with in order to understand the issues that are being raised in There Was A Country is an appreciation of how much Achebe is part of the debilitating falsehoods that ruined Nigeria in the first place. In almost every chapter of Ezenwa Ohaeto’s biography of Chinua Achebe, that 1951 crossing of the carpet is made an issue. And the hatred for Awolowo was promoted on a grand scale by ethnic unions, political parties, debating societies, you just name it.
Now, what is your take on Achebe’s There Was A Country?
Part of the problem with There Was a Country is that the book was written at different times and patched up. Therefore, if you can feel it, there is a certain lyricism in the earlier chapters, which you lose as you move on. Achebe became a mere reporter. Although he did plenty of reportage in the initial period, you could feel it that what he was doing was a different kind of job. But those were the moments he sowed the very seeds through which we should not only critique this book. I mean the early parts provide the moments that should help us to not only do a critique of this book but all Achebe’s earlier books. Because there are three positions that come out in those early pages.
One is about Achebe’s love of Igboland and his apparent, not inability, lack of motivation to learn about other people. His personal make-up as an individual, his love of, as he said himself, making change gently. That philosophy is played up in Things Fall Apart, where Obierika is supposed to be the philosopher. Obierika is a very bad philosopher and Achebe has now fully identified with Obierika.
The philosophy Obierika pushes is the philosophy of middle of the road, and the middle of the road is latched upon as a matter of principle, not contingency. It chimes with something that Achebe later wrote in an essay. He said the one in front sees nightmares, the one behind develops crooked fingers, the one in the middle is a child of fortune. And if you take such a position as a matter of principle, you are actually in advance opposing all the progressives in the society.
Because all progressives had to move in front, they are intiators, the creators of new positions, the people who fight for great things, the people who get hurt, who actually see nightmares. And nightmares are imposed on them by the society because where the road is blocked, they want to unblock it. If you accept this position and you now take it like a broomstick for going through all Achebe’s books, you begin to understand a lot of things – why Okonkwo had to commit suicide. I mean suicide was not such a common thing among our people. But the point is this: Okonkwo was a man with a very personal zeal and there is a sense in which he was the kind of man who would have been a freedom fighter in any society. But the freedom fighters are usually those that the middle of the road people oppose.
I am going to sound a bit out of tune if I try to put Achebe and Zik together in this regard. If you read Azikiwe’s An Ideology for Nigeria, you will find that the African nationalists whom he criticised most vehemently were the ones who took up arms to fight against colonialism. It was probably a way of defending the Nigerian approach which got independence on a platter of gold. But it is one of those ways in which those who like the middle of the road always oppose the more progressive people who move in front and are prepared to die.
One of the reasons I found Awolowo a stronger intellectual, a better philosopher than almost all of them is that Awolowo realised how much unity came to society as a result of whatever nature of communalism there was. But he was quick to also let us know the danger imposed to generalised well-being, popular welfare of everybody, which is precisely why all through his life he insisted upon an enlightenment programme for his own people. From his first book, Path To Nigeria Freedom, you could see how critical he was of the traditional system and how he felt he could change it. The point is that what Awolowo meant to do with his own ethnic group as they themselves wrote in their manifestoes was something they wanted for all ethnic groups.
The proper way to have dealt with the African situation, the African problem, was to ensure that all the knowledge in the English alphabet was transferred to the indigenous languages and that all the knowledges in the indigenous languages were transferred to the English. We would equalise with the white man and would be able to stand up to them in almost every area. That project was knocked sideways by the charge of tribalism against the Egbe Omo Oduduwa, which corrupted our attitude to our own indigenous society.
Chinua Achebe talked about how the zeal of the Igbo has not been properly harnessed as it should have been done. It is the intellectual frailty of the class that was educated at that time that contributed to it. I said so in Taking Nigeria Seriously that Awolowo should have been the leader of the Igbo, a people with a lot of energy and ebullience, who needed a man with a focused vision of how to make a society work and change.
Awolowo always thought that he would be leader of a country that would be so forward-looking. He needed a people with that kind of energy and he never hid it. But since they have ruptured the political space by so much talk of tribalism, which did not exist, it was impossible for them to have any clear view of how to move on. I mean, you still find a lot of Nigerians – Igbo, Yoruba and others – talking around Awolowo. People are afraid to mention Awolowo’s name when they are pursuing progressive causes. They are afraid that if you tell them the idea is Awolowo’s own, people will run away from it. But that has been the pattern in Nigeria . People are prepared to murder their own children because they don’t want to do the right thing.
People opposed free education because it was Awolowo’s view; because the lie that has been sown over the years that Awolowo was not a man you could do business with. But they were purposely told lies, aimed at ensuring that in the struggle for power he was disabled. Frankly, it disabled Awolowo a lot; it disabled Nigeria . But look at our intellectuals and see how they were disabled by the ethnic factor, as I said in another essay which some people may have read. Even our own Wole Soyinka said it after Awolowo died; he said if he had come out to identify with Awolowo when Awolowo was alive, people would have said he was merely praising a tribesman.
What do you think is wrong with the book?
There are facts he just mixed up. And when a man of Achebe’s stature mixes up his facts and puts a very strong opinion and life view on the basis of those mixed-up facts, he sends out a very dangerous message, one that can confuse nations and destroy people.
Let’s have the facts that he misrepresented.
Start by remembering in the book what you would have regarded as simple typographical errors. It tells you Aguiyi-Ironsi became a Head of State in May 1966. You and I know it is not true, but it is repeated more than once. But if you say it like that, it enables you to commit other errors and they are dangerous errors because if you remember, May of that year was when the pogrom began. If you put Ironsi becoming a Head of State in that month, the implications are too varied to even consider. But more than that, is this: In the narration, we are not told anything about that first coup in a way that can help you understand what may have led to the pogrom. You don’t get that picture of what may have led to that incendiary position taken by many northerners.
The truth is that it was not an Igbo coup. It was a coup by some hot-headed Nigerians who believed that their country needed to be better run. It just so happened that many of them were Igbo-speaking. Ademoyega was not Igbo-speaking, but they couldn’t have gone on looking for a rainbow coalition to plan a coup. That is the surest way to ensure a failure of the coup. They spoke to only those who they could work with. They knew that if Nzeogwu was on your side you were on your way to success. Nzeogwu was the first properly trained intelligence officer in the Nigerian Army. He was sufficiently disciplined; one of the few non-drinking, non-smoking, non-womanising soldiers you had in Nigeria . And so they got him. That group was a very naive group, but they also said they themselves did not trust that they could govern well.
They knew one man who they believed had the gumption and the capacity to run a country properly and that was the man the NCNC-NPC coalition had put in jail – Awolowo. At the point of that coup, Awolowo had successfully engineered a response to the take-over of the Western Region by that coalition. He had vowed before he went to jail that if they took over the Western Region by untoward methods, he would make the place ungovernable.
And he set out to train people to do that job. It was that sending out of people to do that job that the ruling coalition regarded as a plan for a coup. To be very honest, if you are planning to make an area ungovernable, you couldn’t, properly speaking, say that it could not lead to a coup. But Awolowo did not plan to overthrow the federal government in the sense which the charges in the court presented it. At that time, every political party in Nigeria was training people for the purpose of fighting the other party. The NPC had their own thugs, but they were even smarter. They even had people specially trained within the Nigerian Army that they meant to use as their own personal thugs when the time came because they sent people into the Army for that purpose. The NCNC was doing exactly the same and they were in coalition with the NEPU, which was already helping the Sawaba party in the Cameroun to train guerrilla fighters in Eastern Europe.
Nigeria had reached that point where violence was what all the political parties were thinking about. So what the Action Group was doing was just in line with what all the other political parties were doing. But because it was an opposition party, a treasonable felony charge was foisted on it. A treasonable felony charge was something the NCNC did not mind because the plan of the NCNC was to take over the Western Region and, as they thought, they would then confront the North with a southern solidarity. A southern solidarity built upon the destruction of the Action Group would not have made sense, but that was what the NCNC wanted to do.
The NCNC first wanted to form a coalition with Samuel Adegoke Akintola’s party, but Akintola wanted the NPC. They knew what they wanted. Just as the minorities in the East, after the AG leaders had been thrown into jail, they realised that a proper coalition was not with the NCNC or whatever but with the NPC. They preferred to form a coalition with the NPC rather than with the NCNC, which was the oppressor party in the Eastern Region. I mean, people should always remember that when you make a move, other people have the right to defend their own move.
Unfortunately for the 15 January boys, the coup failed. The coup failed because the Eastern arm of the execution was not carried through. Those who would have treated the coup as the very first popular coup, therefore, started having second thoughts. The coup was hijacked by a clique of Igbo officers who thought that those 15 January boys were bastards. Ojukwu and Madiebo, in all the stories they have told, confirmed it. As for Ironsi, he should never have been allowed to be Head of State because he did not have the breadth of mind to govern a multi-ethnic society and he did not have the personal discipline to learn about what was happening in his own government.
So when things were happening, he knew next to nothing about them. Even when information was presented to him, he never had time to look at it. People have said it was because he was a drinker. But many officers were drinkers and they never let any of such things pass. And that was why he did not know about the seriousness of the northern resentment to the 15 January coup. And what he thought was a solution – going on tour – was the last thing he should have imagined at that time.
Achebe did not know that it was NEPU which galvanised the North against the 15 January coup. The truth is that you need now to piece the information together from several sources. Aminu Kano’s autobiography, The African Revolutionary, already explains what he called the smouldering anger, which Aminu Kano viewed as what happened in the coup. The NEPU had supported the coup; they were happy that Ahmadu Bello was dealt with until they realised and were being jeered by Igbo traders in Kano and in several other places that it was no longer a matter of political ideological difference with Ahmadu Bello but a matter of regional difference between those who hijacked the coup of 15 January and those who were about to be punished by the coup makers. And I used the word hijacked very advisedly.
Many northerners refused to see that there was a distinction to be made between the 15 January boys and those who took over the coup. That refusal was what helped to stamp it that this was an Igbo coup. But it was not an Igbo coup. Those who took over the coup behaved as if the only Nigeria they wanted was a Nigeria based on the falsehoods on the basis of which they had been operating.
In fact, the 15 January boys, as I said, were very naive. Awolowo went to jail partly because he was fighting for the creation of states across Nigeria and was, therefore, seen as destabilising the other regions, including his own. Awolowo made sure that the Western House of Assembly voted for the creation of Midwest Region because that was one of the conditions – the region from which a state is to be created needed to vote for it. He made sure that by 1955, his region had voted for it and it was actually on the basis of that vote that Midwest was eventually created in 1963. And he was asking the two regions to do exactly the same: vote for the creation of minority states out of your own.
If he succeeded in doing it, the North would have ceased to be a hegemony. And there was no chance in hell that they would accept that. The NCNC, obviously, could not accept it at the time Awolowo went to jail because oil had been discovered in the minority areas of the East. And anybody asking for creation of states at that time was like saying, Let us take the money-making part away.
So the issues were gruelling. To be honest, looking at it from this distance, the Action Group argument threatened the whole structure of the federation. If they didn’t send him to jail, probably there would have been a way of arranging it. But the other side had decided from as early as 1958 that the proper way to do it was after independence; to put Awolowo in jail, share his region and move on. But there was no way you could move on because the people of the West were among the most educated Nigerians and the free education that had gone on for about six years had so changed the environment. The West was only a small part of Nigeria . But the policy that Awolowo had pursued had turned that part of the world into the kind of thing we now see in Gabon . And clearly, there was a line to be drawn between the hardworking Igbo people, who had no government but their individual zeal, and the Western region where your individual zeal was extensively supported by the policies of your state.
It became the case that you could hardly convince any Igbo man that that was a proper way to do it because of the old tribalism that their leaders had helped to sow. I mean, people will tell you that the reason free education failed in the East was because there was no money. It wasn’t so. It was unplanned. Zik attacked free education in the West and then went to the East and attempted to do it. There was no way it could have worked because he never studied what the West did. And he was not democratic. Everybody always said Awolowo was the undemocratic leader, but Awolowo never started any project without getting the people involved. All the owners of schools in the West knew five to six years in advance what Awolowo was going to do. And he kept talking to them.
When there were riots against the free education or free health levy, Awolowo sent policemen to the area to beat them to submission. He told them, “You may abuse me today, but I am sure your children will pray for me.” And today, everybody is praying for Awolowo. It did not happen in the East because their leaders did not care enough for their people to take care of them. And the pattern is still going on.
Leaders from the East do not do it. And they have supported a national confluence of such leadership traits. If you ask me, that is why Nigeria is in a backward state; that the people with the zeal to industrialise started supporting governments that pursued policies which had nothing for them. It is a long time we have heard about Aba , Nnewi and places like that as areas where individuals on their own were pursuing industrialisation. They never had governments on their side. The Eastern regional government did not know how to do it, even till today. Due to pure brazen, unguarded tribalism, those who would have supported Awolowo and moved Nigeria forward did not do so. They are still playing the game till tomorrow. To the extent that they always managed to oppose Awolowo’s position, they are actually teaching their people how not to develop because the positions Awolowo took yesterday, today and tomorrow are still the correct positions.
What is your take on the most contentious aspect of the book: the genocide accusation?
There was genocide in the Nigerian civil war. Don’t let anybody deceive you. The pogrom was pure genocide. Once the war started, were you thinking that the hatred that led to the pogrom had suddenly dissipated? Of course, not. That hatred was still very much there. Just mention that you were a saboteur, whether in Biafra or in Nigeria , and you were gone. The way both sides went after their opponents did not abide always by the Geneva Convention. Don’t let anybody sing to you that it was just Nigeria against Biafra . The Biafrans committed genocide against their own people and against Nigerians. Nigerians did the same. The reason the case of Nigeria is the one that is being played up was because Ojukwu managed to do two things. He built up a propaganda machinery, serviced by very well-known writers like Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi, which successfully painted a picture that made genocide look one-sided. It was certainly not one-sided.
When Biafra invaded the Midwest , were they coming there to give us a party? When Achebe in his There Was a Country says he does not accept the testimonies that Biafrans did terrible things in the Midwest , who is he deceiving? Me? I was a reporter in the Midwest after the Biafran civil war. I know many stories he cannot imagine. There are some of those stories we need to tell because if we don’t tell them enough, we will begin to have the impression that our people are angels and good people.
No people are good; it is the way you manage them that turns them into good people. The more you go on presenting this view that it was a one-sided thing, the more you end up giving a very false picture that empowers the devils on the other side. The genocide on both sides of the war was unbelievable. But if you ask me, the greater genocide took place in Biafra and it was not the federal government genocide. First, in acceding to the idea of Biafra , the central leadership committed pure genocide. They knew their people were not ready for war; they themselves did not make proper preparations for the war. I am not a soldier. I merely read insurgency and counter-insurgency in my Political Science class.
I know that when a man wants to win a war there are things he must do. Ojukwu did not do any of those things. People worried about supply – where would your ammunition come from and where would your food come from? Awolowo never allowed us to forget that soldiers moved on their stomachs. If you don’t feed them, you are asking for trouble. And in this particular case, they knew very early in the war that there would be no food.
The entrance into Midwest was negotiated in order that Biafra might have food. That was one primary reason and, of course, they needed hard currency with which to do a lot of things. That must not be forgotten. The Midwest State cabinet under Ejoor voted six to three – the six were Igbo-speaking – for Biafra to move into Midwest . So when you hear some people make it look like it was a capture, it was no such thing. They were invited to enter. They entered, it was very peaceful. And in Achebe’s book, you hear it being said that Ore is part of Midwest . Ore was not part of Midwest and is not part of Midwest . Ore was already in Western Region. But I can tell you something: Banjo was either a very good soldier or a great lover of his own Yoruba people.
Once he got to Ore , he obviously realised that he was carrying an army to take over the region that was not ready for them. All the Yoruba senior officers in the army wanted nothing to do with Biafra . Those who thought that you could oust Gowon, oust Ojukwu and recreate a new basis for action knew they had very fragile, very brittle ground for it. Soyinka helped very hard to help build that kind of position. Awolowo had told them that they had a virtual army of occupation in Western Nigeria . He told Ojukwu that. And if Ojukwu thought he was going to use a ramshackle army to take over the West, he certainly wasn’t talking like a General because the army that moved into Midwest was like a group of attack traders. They did not come like soldiers. They came like people who wanted resources and were going to mop them up. Anybody who had observed that movement can tell you that it was not a group that could have faced Lagos by any chance, because although the Federal government at that time was not even well-positioned to fight a proper war, they still needed to buy more ammunition.
The group that was sent just wasn’t in a position to do anything that was viable towards the military might of the Federal side. And if Awolowo was a serious leader, as everybody believes he was, he would not have supported that kind of hair-brained project. There was no way he would have supported it because he had told Ojukwu when they met that they were not ready for war. Awolowo also said Ojukwu was not prepared for the war he was about to embark upon.
The thing is, to return to the genocide picture, people did terrible things to one another. Once you called somebody a saboteur, he was dead before people found out what was the matter. If you heard people talking about genocide, it was everywhere. Biafrans shot at houses and buildings as they were retreating. It didn’t matter whether there was a Nigerian soldier there or not. And so don’t let anybody overstretch this matter of genocide. On both sides, there was genocide. In Asaba, you’d hear of people being lined up – people who could just have been arrested, put in lorries and sent to either a prison house or camp – and shot.
On the other side, in the way that Benjamin Adekunle’s Black Scorpion was shooting down people in the South East, Achuzia was shooting down Igbo people just like that on his side of the war. He is very much praised in Achebe’s book for resisting the Federal onslaught. But on both sides, there were just murderers doing their jobs. When there is a war in a multi-ethnic society and you shoot a guilty person from another ethnic group, you can be accused very easily of genocide. If you kill a soldier from the other side you can be accused very easily of genocide. And in most cases when you hear about the genocide, what it talked about, and what Achebe is emphasising, is the starvation business, which is where Awolowo’s own statement that starvation is a weapon of war is turned into a case for which very many would want him taken to a Nuremberg-type trial and dealt with.
Food was at the heart of the Nigerian civil war; the lack of it and the need to supply it was at the heart of the civil war. Anybody who pretends that it was otherwise cannot explain or deal with the issue of genocide as it is being described. The truth is that if you had no food you could not continue with the war effort. And if you were deprived of food, you were actually being deprived of weapons. The Biafrans fought valiantly as any people would fight who believed that they had moved to their citadel, as Achebe says, and needed to defend themselves. They fought valiantly; even without weapons they held the Federal forces at bay. The Federal forces, frankly, always did not fight like an army out to smash the other side. There are stories that can be told of the dereliction of duty on the federal side, which would make you wonder whether we were fighting a foreign country. On the Nigerian side, there were those who just thought it was a means of making more money. When you are fighting a war, there are two issues involved.
First, do you want to feed your opponents to kill you? You have to decide how to balance it; how a welfare programme or a food programme for your opponent can amount to suicide for you. You need to work it out, what is correct about it. And you do need to constantly ask yourself why is the other side, short of food and ammunition, refusing to surrender. People will say it was because the Biafran side was totally committed to the war effort. It is not true. It was bad judgment on the side of the generals in Biafra because most of the dead did not come from the shooting, most of the dead came from starvation, kwashiorkor and the general incommoding of people that takes place during a war situation. You would have thought that they would be negotiating a way to reduce it. But Ojukwu did not want to negotiate; he actually wished to use the starvation in Biafra as an international propaganda weapon and it worked.
Let us not deceive ourselves. Ojukwu’s propaganda worked; it was effective. I mean I was a sympathiser of the Biafra cause as a reporter. I did not want Biafra to exist because I can tell you a personal story and it is the story by which I have judged many things in relation to the East-West struggle. There was a classmate of mine, John Ezike, who joined us in Primary Three. He was first in Primary Three till when we got to Six. I only beat him in one exam, an entrance examination to the local model school. I celebrated it. John was a fantastic kid. When I entered secondary school and I was driven away for school fees in my first year and I went to the market to buy a pair of boxers, I met him selling in his uncle’s shop and I said, “Joe, you are not at school?” He looked at me and just smiled and said, “Ah ah, whether we go school or we no go school, na money all of us dey look for. Small time, money go come.” He just laughed. That image never left my mind.
Any time I met an Igbo politician or intellectual who did not support free education, I saw him as a personal enemy. I mean, the brightest kid in my class didn’t go to school? And then the war came. I never heard of John Ezike after that. I don’t want anybody coming here to tell me rubbish stories about genocide. They were not ready for war and they went for it. They killed a lot of people in the process and all they want to do now is point at the other side. The truth is that the Igbo were not prepared for war. All the generals in Biafra who knew how to fight a war told Ojukwu that. He locked up some, killed some and did whatever he thought was right to continue.
When you read Achebe’s story, the first thing that hits you is that he never describes what happens in Biafra except in terms of his personal effort. He was part of the decision-making structure, yet he never describes the quality of decision-making that was coming out of Biafra . Why did he do that? Why did he shield the power structures in Biafra from actual decision-making that would have reversed all that harm being done to the people. The book is very painful to read along those lines. In Chimamanda’s review, she said Achebe did more of telling rather than showing. A novelist ought to do it well, ought to show. But if Achebe tried to show, he would have painted a picture of an Igbo society that he would not be proud of. What he would have presented of the Igbo society would have been a story of pure betrayal of the people of the East. But Achebe does not want a system of which he was a great apparatchik to be laughed at.
Source: PM News
The truth is that you Odia Ofeimun, have special hatred for Igbos. I have read some of your articles about Igbos. They are never palatable. You, Odia knew well that Ojukwu did not declare war. It was Nigerian Government, led by Gowon that started shooting first. If it were you, perhaps you would defend yourself. It was also Gowon who backed out on the Aburi Agreement. You and all Awo apologists do not see that as improper, do you?
Perhaps if your tribes men and women (Ishan) were slaughtered the way Igbos were, you would watch and smile and embrace the killers. It is people like you who are cowards. Ojukwu remains a hero to all Igbos who know the truth.
You are not up to half of what Ojukwu and Achebe are. Stop insulting them because they are not your age mates.
As for Chimamanda, she can write what she likes. Writers like her whose works are published abroad and later published and sold in Nigeria would not want to offend their Yoruba publishers and readers. Well, not Achebe. There Was A Country contains the bitter truth which Ofeimun wants buried.
Ofeimun, I challenge you to publish the photos of those you claim Biafran soldiers massacred in Western Nigeria. You claim you were a reporter then. Please stop insulting Igbos. You should be cured of Igbophobia.