Achebe and the Biafran Memoir

11 Oct 2012

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 “…I had sent one copy of the novel (A Man of the People) to J.P. Clark two days earlier. When J.P. arrived at the meeting his voice rang out from several hundred feet away. ‘Chinua, you know, you are a Prophet. Everything in this book has happened except a coup!’ That very evening, unbeknownst to us, a military coup was being launched that would change Nigeria forever..”

Courtesy of Mallam Abba Kyari, I got on Monday a copy of Professor Chinua Achebe’s latest offering, “There Was A Country (A Personal History of Biafra)." Released in the United Kingdom last Thursday and due in the United States today, it is a book I will gladly recommend to anyone who wants a better understanding of our country and how we arrived at our current bind. But I have followed the debate (or lack of one) on the internet as Igbo writers, comprising mostly those in the Diaspora, and their Yoruba counterparts trade abuses, curses, insults and even threats.

 It all started on October 2 when The Guardian of London published excerpts lifted from pages 233 to 236 of the book. There Achebe wrote: “The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don't see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder. It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. 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 the opportunity arose - the Nigeria-Biafra war- his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation - eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”

 This interpretation of Awo’s role in the course of the war and what Achebe considers his (Awo’s) place in history has been a long-held position by the author. But the late Biafran leader, Ikemba Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, had a better appreciation of Awo within the context of Nigerian politics and his view was at variance with Achebe’s. Ojukwu is on record as having said: “In political terms, he (Awolowo) would be considered an adversary of the Igbo given the intense rivalry between him and Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe. As a leader of the modern cast, he has left Nigeria standards which are indelible, standards beside which future aspirations to public leadership can be eternally measured. He was, for a long time, the only Nigerian leader that enunciated principles and played down personalities. He was a brilliant political administrator and a most erudite teacher.. At his death I had the singular honour of proposing for him this epitaph that has endured as the best President that Nigeria never had… Nigeria must continually regret that he never, for many reasons, had the opportunity to serve at the presidential level. That he did not fulfill a presidential ambition cannot detract from his leadership, and us, poor us, who were not his people, must continue to regret that our own leaders had not led us as he did his people or achieved for us as he did for his people.”

 What the foregoing suggests is that Achebe is not an authority in this matter, and does not have the last word on Awo, so he is entitled to his opinion. The book is broken into four sections and is interspersed with interesting Igbo anecdotes that is vintage Achebe. It is easy for readers to see how his worldview was shaped by an inquisition into the traditions of his people. It is also quite revealing that Achebe actually got a scholarship to study Medicine at Ibadan but after spending a year, he had to follow his heart by changing to English, History and Theology yet by doing so he lost the bursary and would have paid tuition but for providence. Such providential intervention in his life is even more vivid in the story of his novel, “Things Fall Apart”. The account should inspire every aspiring writer who has faced rejection because given the naivety he recounted, the hand-written manuscript could even have been lost and the world would have missed what is without doubt the number one novel to come from Africa.

However, considering the patently Igbo-centric slant of his narrative, Achebe’s memoir will provoke a lot of reactions, especially from the North and the South-west but my hope is that the challenge will be only at the intellectual level so that our nation can benefit from the engagement that can only enrich our quest for a better society. There will be disputes about some facts and figures in the book while questions indeed would be asked about Achebe’s attempt to paint the Igbo people as the only ones who believed in the idea of one Nigeria and solely worked towards one.

According to Achebe, the pre-independence structure of the country was such that “there was an inbuilt power struggle among the ethnic groups, and of course those who were in power wanted to stay in power. The easiest and simplest way to retain it, even in a limited area, was to appeal to tribal sentiments, so they were egregiously exploited in the 1950s and 1960s. The original idea of one Nigeria was pressed by the leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region. With all their shortcomings, they had this idea to build the country as one. The first to object were the Northerners, led by the Sardauna, who were closely followed by the Awolowo clique that had created the Action Group. The Northern Peoples Party of the Sardaunians was supposed to be a national party, yet it refused to change its name from Northern to Nigerian Peoples Congress, even for the sake of appearances…”

 However one may feel about his account, Achebe provided the philosophical underpinning for his thesis by arguing that African writers should have “some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest. In my definition I am a protest writer, with restraint…the whole pattern of life demanded that one should protest, that you should put in a word for your history, your traditions, your religion, and so on.”

I am aware that many Yoruba people feel offended by what they consider Achebe’s unfair characterization of Awo. But whether we agree with him or not--and I certainly don’t, given Awo’s documented rebuttal of these same claims in the past--the fact remains that Achebe has been consistent because he wrote nothing in the book that he has not said before about Awo. Besides, what I expect is that those who contest his position should write their own account, not insult Achebe who deserves nothing but respect.

 In the book, Achebe also raised pertinent questions about the late Ojukwu and the events leading to the war. He explained his role in the Ahiara Declaration while giving rare insights about Biafra that were never provided by anybody before. There is also an interesting account of how he and Christopher Okigbo declined from publishing Emmanuel Ifeajuna’s manuscript on the January 1966 coup because they considered it a vain attempt at self-glorification aside the fact that Nzeogwu had dismissed it as containing “lies”.

 In all, there can be no doubt that Achebe is disappointed with what Nigeria has turned out to be. But can we honestly say he is alone? Instructively, there is the anecdote of a pre-civil war period in Lagos when some soldiers invaded his office with one of them saying he would find out which was more powerful, their guns or Achebe’s pen. While his pen has endured long after the last shot was fired, at the end what comes out of Achebe’s efforts is a regret of what might have been not only for Biafra but also our beloved country, Nigeria.
Between Kukah and Chapter Two
When the Bishop of Sokoto, Matthew Hassan Kukah clocked 60 about three weeks ago, he decided it was better to let the day pass without any fuss before informing friends and admirers. Because he knew what would happen if he had as much as hinted about it: There would have been a competition for space in the media by people who would send in congratulatory adverts thus turning what he wanted to be a solemn moment into banal one as we often witness in this clime. So last Thursday, to mark the event, Kukah organised a panel discussion on the topic, “Breaking the Mould: Making Chapter Two of the Nigerian Constitution Justiciable”.

 Chaired by Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Aloma Mariam Mukthar, some of the contributors to what in practical terms was the challenge of governance in Nigeria included Speaker Aminu Waziri Tambuwal; former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammad Lawal Uwais; Governor Adams Oshiomhole; Prof. Pat Utomi; Mrs. Maryam Uwais; Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba; Dr Chidi Odinkalu and CBN Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi with Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, moderating. In attendance were also former Kaduna Governors Balarabe Musa and Ahmed Makarfi; Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Chief Anyim Pius Anyim and Chief Tony Nnacheta who put everything together.

 In arriving at the idea, Kukah said he has for many years spent considerable time reflecting on human history as it relates to human rights. But his consciousness, he argued, was roused in large part by the years he spent at Oxford and Harvard universities and his experience at the ‘Oputa Panel’.

 Two years ago, the Bishop started a centre anchored on the ideals espoused in Chapter Two of our Constitution as he envisions a country where success would be a reward for hard work, not who you know or what religion you profess and where people can demand and secure their rights under the law. Kukah reiterated his belief in the Nigerian possibilities as he dreams of “a day we will have a Samson as governor of Sokoto and an Alhaja somebody as Governor of Cross Rivers”. For a man who has devoted the better part of his life not only in the service of his God but also extending the frontiers of social justice in our country, Bishop Kukah is a national treasure. I wish him many more rewarding years ahead.
Remi Oyo @ 60
Erstwhile president of the Guild of Editors, former presidential spokesperson and the current News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Managing Director, Mrs Oluremi Oyo, will be 60 tomorrow. While I intend to engage in the near future her remarkable strides at NAN, I wish auntie Remi happy birthday in advance.

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