Indeed, There Was a Starved Country

04 Nov 2012

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Simon Kolawole Live!:

There has been some mayhem over Professor Chinua Achebe’s civil war memoir, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. Achebe accused Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the war-time finance minister, of masterminding the “diabolical policy” of starvation during the hostilities in order to reduce Igbo population in his “overriding ambition for power” and the “advancement of his Yoruba people”. Let me state clearly that this is not a review of Achebe’s book, so I would be commenting solely on the controversial bit on Awolowo, which is generating considerable uproar. Also, I am fully aware that I am walking into a war zone. I, therefore, neither desire nor deserve anybody’s sympathy if I get hit in the crossfire.

Achebe quoted Awolowo as saying: “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 us harder.” This quote is, however, being disputed. Chief Ayo Adebanjo, an Awolowo associate, has challenged Achebe to name his source. Achebe actually cited his source as Dan Jacobs in The Brutality of Nations. If indeed Awolowo said it, who was he calling “enemies”? Combatants? Civilians? Both? Ordinarily, it should be the combatants. But he was fully aware that civilians were also affected.

Awolowo had, according to a report reproduced in Punch newspaper on October 8, 2012, defended himself thus: “We were sending food through the Red Cross and Caritas to [Biafra] but the vehicles were always ambushed… and the food would then be taken to the soldiers to feed them, and so they were able to continue to fight. And I said as long as soldiers were fed, the war will continue, and who’ll continue to suffer? So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process, the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.”

Head of state at the time, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, has told us his own version too. Speaking in Lagos after watching highlights of a film, “Making of a Biafran Legend: Reminiscences of a Boy Soldier” by Basil Okafor, on May 7, 2012, Gowon said: “God knows how much effort I made to send food to [the starving Biafran] children, but it was sabotaged by propaganda that the federal troops had poisoned the food.” Another story was published by on October 15, 2012, based on an American diplomatic memo dated August 12, 1968. The memo noted that “[relief] flights have now been stopped… because Biafran arms planes have taken advantage of the reduced flak Gowon puts up against mercy flights...”

We are faced with many possible reasons for the humanitarian crisis, but Achebe believes the real motive was Awolowo’s “ambition for power” to be achieved by reducing Igbo population. I would, though, fault Achebe’s argument. If the Igbo were Awolowo’s obstacle to his “ambition for power”, then it was in his best interest to allow them to secede so that he would have Nigeria all to himself. He wouldn’t need to reduce their population, since they would no longer be part of the Nigerian federation anyway! Awolowo, on his part, said the supplies had to be stopped because Biafran soldiers were hijacking the consignments. Was this allegation true?

Nevertheless, I also fault Awolowo’s position on the blockade policy. The government should have creatively found a way around it when civilians started dying. There were still options available. Since Nigerian airplanes were reportedly bombing refugee camps, they could as well have been dropping food and medicines for the refugees if Gowon was really touched with their plight. Some will say it was the Igbo who brought the calamity upon themselves by going to war without enough bullets, but let’s remember that it was, basically, a fight between two “brothers” who had a bitter family quarrel over the state of the union. It was not like a war between Nigeria and Chad or Cameroon.

Now, this is what I think really happened. Midway into the war, the federal military government took advantage of Biafra’s underbelly: it was a landlocked territory. Without support from Cameroon and without access to the sea, Biafra was sooner than later going to run short of supplies of food and arms. This played into the hands of the federal government. Perhaps, the plan was that if civilians started dying, Ojukwu would be forced to surrender. Meanwhile, the Biafran leaders obviously didn’t have a Plan B in the event of a blockade. Before the war, somebody should have asked the crucial question: “Gentlemen, what if these guys block food supplies? What if they hem us in?” Second-guessing the enemy is a fundamental aspect of planning a war.

When the war was going awry and gory, why did Ojukwu reject the pre-conditions which would have allowed shipment of relief materials to save “Biafran babies”? Unable to stand the sight of dying children, the Great Zik withdrew his support for Biafra. What advice did Achebe give Ojukwu during this extremely tragic phase of the war? The suspicion that the food from the Nigerian government was poisoned could have been doused with a simple laboratory test. According to Achebe, a frustrated Canadian government criticised Ojukwu for being “more interested in getting arms than food and medical supplies” and accused him of making up reasons to reject humanitarian aid.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: no side was completely blameless in the human tragedy that followed the food blockade. Gowon and Awolowo could have done much more to help the dying and diseased civilians. And, clearly, Ojukwu fatally erred by refusing to accept the conditions for the delivery of relief materials. At some stage during the war, pragmatism was needed on both sides of the divide. But the hardliners had their way.

Left to me, the time has come to draw a line under the war and work more practically and sincerely for genuine reconciliation and national integration. If Nigeria is ever going to be a developed country, the Igbo have a vital role to play. This I believe.

And Four Other Things...

I was ashamed of Nigerian leaders, once again, as I observed the way US President Barack Obama, governors and mayors prepared for Hurricane Sandy last week. You could see a leadership that cares for its citizens. In Nigeria, we spent millions of dollars building a satellite in 2004 which we were told would predict the sort of flooding disaster that wreaked havoc on several states recently. Our leaders did nothing ahead of the disaster despite the warnings, only for them to be paddling canoes as PR stunt after the calamity. I imagine the fraud that would be going on in the name of “relief”...

When President Goodluck Jonathan set up the Nuhu Ribadu-led Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force in January, critics rejected it and declared it a waste of time. They even abused Ribadu for taking the job. Now that the report is ready and has allegedly uncovered large-scale fraud, the same chaps are now insisting it is Ribadu Report or nothing! It reminds me of the June 12 situation: those who rejected the transition programme quickly took over the arena when the presidential election was annulled. They started singing “On June 12 We Stand” and eventually pushed Chief MKO Abiola to his death. Opportunism.

If I were eligible to vote in the US presidential election on Tuesday, I would definitely vote for President Barack Obama for a second term. It has nothing to do with his colour, mind you. I have listened to his challenger Mitt Romney on several issues and I am yet to understand what he has to offer that is different from, or better than, what Obama is offering. Neither of them offers any clear-cut solutions to the major issues. In which case, I would rather stick to the devil I know than the angel I don’t…

When the body of Chief Rowland Osaoloro Oludoyi (aka “No Condition is Permanent”) was lowered into the grave yesterday, emotions overwhelmed me. I remembered my growing years, his humour, his candour. Mentally and physically, he was ever-strong. At 90, he was still driving himself, despite our protests. You couldn’t accuse him of dying young at 96. He was a shrewd businessman whose terrain covered transport, trade and real estate. Sometime in 1986, I wanted to travel to Ilorin in his commercial bus. He gave me the fare, called the driver aside and directed him to make sure I paid! My grandfather never mixed business with sentiments. Adieu, Odomode Soja (“The Young Soldier”).

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