Interview: Achebe’s Biafra Book Full Of Lies – Odia Ofeimun

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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

1 COMMENT

  1. 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.

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