by Stanley Azuakola
It was bound to happen. You don’t speak ill of one of the greatest Yorubas of all time and not expect a backlash. Not even if you are a legendary world icon like Prof. Chinua Achebe.
The literary giant recently released his civil war memoir titled There was a Country last week, in which he asserted that war-time Head of State General Yakubu Gowon and the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo both formulated policies that promoted genocide against the Igbo nation.
Achebe wrote in the book that: “Almost 30 years before Rwanda, before Darfur, more than 2 million people- mothers, children, babies, civilians-lost their lives as a result of the blatantly callous and unnecessary policies enacted by the leaders of the federal government of Nigeria.”
He said: “Throughout the conflict, the Biafrans consistently charged that the Nigerians had a design to exterminate the Igbo people from the face of the earth. This calculation, the Biafrans insisted, was predicated on a holy jihad proclaimed by mainly Islamic extremists in the Nigerian Army and supported by the policies of economic blockade that prevented shipments of humanitarian aid, food and supplies to the needy in Biafra .”
Then the part of the book which has riled lots of Yorubas. Speaking about Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council and minister of Defence, Achebe said: “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 Igbo at the time as the obstacles to that goal, and when the opportunity arose with 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.”
As expected, some eminent Yorubas have been reacting to Achebe’s claims. According to reports on this and you can read excerpts of that report below:
Mr. Ayo Opadokun who was Assistant Director of Organisation of the late Chief Awolowo’s Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and later Secretary of the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), described the Achebe assertion as “typical”.
“It is a reharsh of the perverted intellectual laziness which he had exhibited in the past in matters related to Chief Obafemi Awolowo. When Achebe described Awo as a Yoruba irredentist, what he expected was that Awo should fold his arms to allow the Igbo race led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, to preside over the affairs of the Yoruba nation,” Opadokun said.
Opadokun pointed out that some of his colleagues who played prominent roles in liberating Nigeria from the clutches of military rule, such as Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu (rtd), Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe (rtd), Dr. Arthur Nwankwo, Alhaji Abulaziz Ude and others who he described as “men of honour and integrity”, are Igbo. But he found it difficult to believe that a scholar of Achebe’s stature could be so unforgiving.
He said, “Let our Igbo brothers be reminded that about three-quarters of their assets not in the eastern Region are in Lagos and we have been very liberal and accommodating. We have allowed them to live undisturbed.”
Senator Biyi Durojaiye shares Opadokun’s view. He said: “My view is that you don’t expect somebody on the receiving end of a war to say something pleasant about the winners.
“I don’t share Achebe’s view that Awolowo did all he did for personal political aggarandisement. It was all in the process of keeping Nigeria one. What he and General Gowon did was in the process of preserving the integrity of Nigeria .”
He urged the Igbo to be more charitable, seeing that both sides of the war are now benefiting from its outcome. He enjoined all to join hands in facing the challenges of the moment, insisting that the way to go is for all Nigerians to support a Sovereign National Conference and restructuring of the polity. Mr. Jacob Omosanya who participated actively in Action Group politics as a member of the Action Group Youth
Association AGYA), said Achebe and many of his kinsmen in public life are tribalistic and “that is what he has exhibited in this new book.”
“It is not new. He canvassed similar views in The Trouble with Nigeria. Dr. Azikiwe and his people should be grateful to the Yoruba who have always been liberal. When Zik was on his way back home from the United States, he ran into trouble in the Gold Coast. It was a team of lawyers led by the late H. O. Davies that saved him. This is a fact of history that should not be lost on the Igbo.”
Mr. Omosanya said he had expected that people intellectuals such as Achebe, would be bridge builders and avoid inflaming passions.