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Understanding Achebe’s There Was a Country – By Emmanuel Onwubiko

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In early October 2012, long before the latest work of scholarship ‘There was a Country’ by the internationally respected Novelist, Essayist and the critically acclaimed original father of African indigenous literature Professor Chinua Achebe hit the book stands in Nigeria, I was worried to my marrows about the emerging trend of highly misinformed criticism targeted against the renowned author by some persons masquerading about as leaders of the Yoruba nation over a comment in this 333 pages well-crafted and beautifully produced book on the infamous role of General Gowon and late Obafemi Awolowo who imposed economic and food blockade on the then Biafra.

I was worried because of the emerging pattern of hardline ethnic coloration that these so-called critics who have never set their eyes on the book gave to the author of the book ‘THERE WAS A COUNTRY’ Professor Chinua Achebe who rightly recorded these historical facts of the thirty months brutal and uncivil war waged against the then Biafra Republic headed then by popularly acclaimed late General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu by the then military dictatorship of General Yakubu Gowon in whose war cabinet the late Cief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the finest politicians out of South West of Nigeria, served then as the Federal Commissioner for the Economy/Finance.

I was very worried not because Professor Achebe is incapable intellectually wise or otherwise to defend himself against these ethnically charged emotional outburst by a section of the South West of Nigeria against his claim in the book that Chief Awolowo’s decision to impose economic blockade created some of the World’s most atrocious genocide and mass hunger that led to the untimely and gruesome killings through a range of health challenges such as malnutrition/kwashiorkor of phenomenal dimension, of over three million Children, Old Women and elderly civilian men who had nothing to do with the then Nigeria/Biafra civil war since they were not involved in the war fronts in combat against the Nigerian troops supported actively by Britain, Russia and other major world powers who were scheming for the vast Nigeria’s Crude oil reserves.

Why will I be worried about the above sentiments I have expressed since even the metaphysical import of the author’s name ‘CHINUA’ means GOD FIGHTS MY BATTLE? Achebe as well as millions of lovers of truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth will fight for his freedom to express his opinion as opposed to the position of the reactionary forces who would rather prefer that he maintained conspiratorial silence about that bloody genocide of the then military Government against the then Biafran civilians. Sadly, even the main actor in that mass killings of civilians General Gowon regrettably stated recently here in London, United Kingdom, that he has no regret to have taken that brutal action that created the worst human misery of modern World.

The reason for my well-considered apprehension was because of the fact that the attitude of some and/or all of the trenchant critics of the book ‘THERE WAS A COUNTRY’ in which case most of these ignorant critics that colored their thoughts published extensively in the print media in Nigeria with heavy political and ethnic sentiments is precisely because it is an act of anti-intellectualism of the most primitive dimension for someone to seek to deny historical body of evidence regarding the Nigeria/Biafra war that has gone down in history as the first War in the whole wide World to have been recorded and televised to the whole World while the atrocities of Nigerian Government’s imposed genocidal hunger through economic and food blockade against the civilian populace of the then Biafra took a toll on millions of innocent Children, Women and the elderly who perished because they were denied access to basic food reliefs that ought to flow in from the international community.

I was also worried that some of these self -acclaimed political leaders of the Yoruba race in Nigeria who have expressed anger at the isolated statement that Professor Achebe made regarding the inappropriate and inhumane application of economic blockade recommended to the then military junta of General Yakubu Gowon by his then Finance minister Chief Obafemi Awolowo as a way of ending the war and actively promoted and defended by the late Chief Awo and some of his die-hard supporters are actually trying to generate ethnic tensions between the Yoruba and Igbo peoples of Nigeria.

Fortunately, their diabolical scheming to stoke the embers of ethnic warfare between the Igbo and Yoruba have backfired since most of them were the same persons that have consistently betrayed the Yoruba cause at the national level which as I had earlier stated in my earlier published article ‘Achebephobics, Biafran Story and the Truth’, culminated in the denial of the democratic mandate bestowed by majority of Nigerian electorate during the ill-fated 1993 Presidential elections in which the now ‘state’ murdered politician-Chief Kashimawo Olawale Abiola reportedly won.

Some of these half-baked critics of the latest book of Professor Achebe, indeed conspired with the then military junta of the late General Sani Abacha to deny the late Abiola of his mandate. Now they are parading themselves as the new leaders of the Yoruba race and are using the latest World acclaimed historical autobiography of Professor Chinua Achebe as their launch pad. They have failed woefully.

So, in the last twelve days that I have being on brief holiday in the United Kingdom, I have taken the liberty of my presence in London to procure copies of the book ‘THERE WAS A COUNTRY’ and I have also digested the contents and have also found out that these critics of this latest work of scholarship are the worst species of anti-intellectuals who only feasted and still feast on the gullibility of some Nigerians from their own part of the Country to play on ethnic passions even when the author exercised his poetic and literally license and freedom to record these historical facts which he rightly titled his personal history of the Nigerian/Biafran War which also find support extensively in various recorded accounts of some the World’s finest scholars and journalists who were active participant/observers during those dark days of the Nigeria/Biafra war of 1967 to early 1970. Even the first black African winner of the Nobel Prize for literature Professor Wole Soyinka told journalists recently in the United Kingdom that he believed that the Igbos suffered genocide during the Nigeria/Biafran war.

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As can be read from several accounts and also reflected by Achebe in his latest work, in the estimation of General Gowon, Nigeria only suffered the death in active combat of about one hundred thousand soldiers but international observers have widely recorded that the then Biafra made up of the South East and parts of South/South suffered huge losses of human beings put conservatively at three million and also the massive destruction of public utilities and the infrastructure of the entire region of the South East [that were never repaired soon after the war] that came under intense bombardments by the well armed then Nigerian soldiers and AirForce that callously threw bombs at market places, hospitals and red cross relief centers inside the then Biafra.

In page 231 of the book ‘THERE WAS A COUNTRY’, the then United States President Richard Nixon categorically branded the strategies adopted by the Gowon-led brutal war time military regime against Biafra as genocide even as the Catholic Pontiff at that time Pope Paul vi branded it as some of the worst cases of agony and mass killing when he addressed the Ugandan Parliament in the summer of 1969.

Achebe wrote in page 231 of the beautifully colored and error-free book thus; “In what is likely to be the most compelling statement of the era from the American President,Schlesinger provides this powerful extract from Richard Nixon’s campaign speech of September 10th, 1968: ”Until now effort to relieve the Biafran people have been thwarted by the desire of the central government of Nigeria to pursue total and unconditional victory and by the fear of the Igbo people that surrender means wholesale atrocities and genocide. But GENOCIDE IS WHAT IS TAKING PLACE NOW-and starvation is the grim reaper. This is not the time to stand on ceremony, or to ‘go through channels’ or to observe the diplomatic niceties. The destruction of the entire people is an immoral objective even in the most moral of wars. It can never be justified; it can never be condoned”.

Achebe simply expressed his view which is a notorious fact among right thinking rational human beings around the World regarding the eternal evil that the economic blockade imposed by General Gowon under the watchful eyes of his trusted Cabinet member Chief Awolowo on the people of the then Biafran Republic. On page 233 of the critically acclaimed book ‘THERE WAS A COUNTRY’ Achebe wrote thus; “It is my impression that Chief Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself in particular and for the advancement of of his Yoruba people in general. And let it be said that there is, on the surface, at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when opportunity arose-the Nigeria/Biafra War-his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it mean hatching up diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation-eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations”.

This writer is of the opinion that whomsoever denies the fact that millions of innocent lives of Children, Women and the elderly of the then Biafran Republic were callously wasted by the impact of the economic and food blockade of the then military regime of General Gowon is in the same frame of mind as the HOLOCAUST DENIERS like President of Iran Mr. Ahmadinejad and the other anti-Semitic writers who oppose sacred facts of life as recorded in history.

Even Chief Awo during his life time never denied the negative impacts of the economic blockade but sought to justify it by claiming that Biafran soldiers were stealing the food reliefs meant for civilians. Papa Awo also believed that in war every action taken to bring it to an end is justifiable.

But this claim has been debunked by lots of scholars and even the Geneva Convention is clearly against this sort of class genocide through bad economic embargoes as were practiced by the then Gowon-led military dictatorship under which the late Papa Awo served as Finance Minister during the war.

Also in this book, Professor Achebe addressed the inefficiency of the hierarchies of both the United Nations and the then Organization of African Unity [OAU] now renamed African Union [AU] to effectively and impartially mediate in war situations to bring conflicts to an end. The United Nations is still very weak and incapable of saving the civilians of Syria from the bloody attacks of the brutal dictatorship of President l-Assad who is backed by Russia and China. The African Union is at best a mere contraption that has stood by watching Somalia and Mali collapsed into relentless state of anarchy.

This weakness of the United Nation led to the genocide that took place not more than two decades ago in Rwanda under the watchful eyes of the United Nations so-called peace keepers.

On page 212, Achebe wrote thus; “…but as the humanitarian catastrophe worsened, leading ultimately to the starvation and death of millions, even the most committed anarchists would have expected greater United Nations involvement. That did not happen, and I and several others believe that had the United Nations been more involved, there would not have been as many atrocities, as much starvation, as much death”.

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Also as a good objective observer of history who actively took part in the Nigeria/Biafran war, Achebe also carried the views of General Yakubu Gowon/Awo in the page 236 of the four segments 333-pages book and he also laid the groundwork on how Nigeria can get it right by extensively canvassing moral revolution and aggressive anti-corruption war devoid of partisan politics, the type that both the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and ICPC are waging to the consternation of most right thinking Nigerians.

On page 249 of the book where he treated corruption and indiscipline, Achebe stated unequivocally and rightly so that ”Corruption in Nigeria has passed the alarming and entered the fatal stage, and Nigeria will die if we continue to pretend that she is only slightly indisposed.”

Only recently, the Nuhu Ribadu-led Crude oil Revenue probe panel found out that several hundreds of millions of United States Dollars of Nigeria’s public fund were stolen by those Government officials who are running the Petroleum sector in the last ten years including the current administration.

Anyone who reads THERE WAS A COUNTRY by Chinua Achebe with an open and rational mindset would understand that the writer means well for Nigeria because it is a mortal sin of monumental proportion that successive Nigerian Government have failed to teach the younger ones about the events of the thirty months old civil war and these political actors forgot that any nation that fails to learn from the lessons of her history is inevitably condemned to repeat those same blunders on wider scale which is why armed non-state actors in the guise of Islamic rebels have launched unrelenting war of attrition against the Nigerian State and have unleashed targeted violence and terrorism on Churches, Government institutions and also have killed several moderate Muslims in the North.

Achebe captured this scenario also in his book from pages 250 and 251 whereby he stated the obvious that; “In many respects, Nigeria’s Federal Government has always tolerated terrorism. For over half a century the Federal Government has turned a blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of it’s citizens-mainly Christian Southerners; mostly Igbos or indigenes of the middle Belt; and others-with impunity. Even in cases where their hands were found dripping in blood, the perpetrators have many a time evaded capture and punishment. Nigeria has been doomed to witness endless cycles of inter-ethnic, inter-religious violence because the Nigerian Government has failed woefully to enforce laws protecting its citizens from wanton violence, particularly attacks against non-indigenes living in disparate parts of the country. The notoriously [some say conveniently so] incompetent Nigerian federal Government, and some religious and political leaders, have been at least enablers of these evil acts.”

Achebe is one hundred percent correct because only recently when some prominent politicians from Borno state including the serving Senator representing Borno Central Senatorial zone was fingered as one of the financiers of the ongoing terror-related violence in parts of Northern Nigeria, the Federal Government including President Jonathan, the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, watched as mere spectators as the indicted Senator and the immediate past Governor of Borno State dissipate energy engaging in media war over who is to be blamed for the growth of terrorism in Northern Nigeria.

The notoriously incompetent national police hierarchy has just issued a propaganda media statement that the indicted Senator including Senator Mohammed Ndume and the former Governor of Borno State Alli Modu Sherrif are under close security scrutiny. This is laughable because it is inconceivable that people considered as security risk to the nation are busy globetrotting and even attending Government sanctioned meetings and drawing salaries, the same Nigeria Police is making jest of Nigerians by lying that these same political elite blamed by a large segment of the Nigerian society for alleged sponsorship of the armed insurrection are under investigation.

Nigerians know better that the weak Nigeria Police Force were the same retrogressive forces that gave way for the total breakdown of law and order and the near-endless anarchy that has set in in Northern Nigeria. President Jonathan recently said his government was searching for truce with the armed terrorists in the North because the perpetrators of these mass killings are ‘our brothers and sisters’ and only very recently when these armed terrorists announced their decision to negotiate peace appointing General Mohammadu Buhari as is head of delegation to discuss with the current Nigerian Government on possible truce in faraway Saudi Arabia, the Presidential Spokesperson Dr. Reuben Abati expressed Government’s happiness at this turn f event. This is a good evidence that Government deliberately tolerates terrorism for no justifiably reason while allowing millions of victims of these occasional and intermittent mass killings and terror violence to go leak their wounds since Government is not ready to give them social justice and the most desired closure to the violent murder of their loved ones and bread winners by these armed non-state actors who are beautiful brides of the Nigerian Government. Sad.

In the thinking of international scholars including Nadine Gordiner, Margret Atwood, the influential Time magazine of the United States of America, Tony Morrison and the global moral leader Dr. Nelson Mandela of South Africa who wrote copious comments on the back page of THERE WAS A COUNTY, Achebe is one of the finest thinkers of our contemporary World.

So, why is anybody unhappy with this wonderful book of scholarship authored by the World’s respected Novelist Chinua Achebe? We won’t get tired of defending the truth.

+Emmanuel Onwubiko, Head, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria, wrote in from Sidcup Highstreet, London, United Kingdom but blogs @www.huriwa.blogspot.com.

 

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