A close associate of late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Ayo Adebanjo in his interview with ALLWELL OKPI, refutes the claims of Chinua Achebe in his recent memoir. He speaks of Nigerian politics before and after the civil war and the relationship between the Yoruba and Igbo.
Achebe’s ‘There was a country,’ accused late Chief Obafemi Awolowo of maliciously formulating policies for the extermination of Igbos during the Civil War. Do think that what Awolowo did was fair?
The question is not whether it was fair or not. We were in a battle. As it is said, all is fair in battle. But the point I think everybody is missing is the insinuation of Achebe that Chief Awolowo did what he did to exterminate the Igbo, whom he regarded as his main opponents, because he wanted to rule the country. That cannot be. When the war came, Awolowo was faced with the question of using everything to win the war and that was after he had had an interview with Ojukwu and persuaded him not to go to war but Ojukwu reneged. Would you now say that as part of the efforts to save Nigeria, he shouldn’t do anything to win the war? When they realised that the soldiers were cornering the food meant for the civilians, they said it was not right for them to be feeding their enemies. So, they stopped it. They stopped it and the war ended early in the interest of Nigeria. It’s unfair of Achebe to insinuate that that the war was conducted to eliminate the Igbo so that Awolowo could become the leader of the country. That is not consistent with history. Even before the war, in 1959, when the election was contested by the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, the Action Group and the Northern People’s Party, Awolowo offered that he and Nnamdi Azikiwe should come together and that he preferred to serve under Azikiwe, as the Premier and he (Awolowo) as the Commissioner for Finance. He made that offer when there was no war. I want to refer to the publication of Micheal Okpara in the New Nation Magazine, where he said he regretted not supporting that move by Awolowo for a coalition between the NCNC and the Action Group. Nobody has refuted that.
Do you also think Achebe’s insinuation that Awolowo, as well as Yoruba, hated Igbo people?
We have passed the stage of Achebe trying to bring enmity between the Igbo and the Yoruba. Awolowo facilitated the return of Igbo people to the country after the war. He wrote letters to all prominent Igbo abroad, including Achebe, saying, ‘come back home everything is all right now.’ Is that the attitude of somebody who hates a race? Among those he persuaded to come was MCK Ajuluchukwu, the editor of the West African Pilot, owned by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Awolowo wrote to him and facilitated his return home with his wife. He paid all the expenses and also got a job for his wife at the teaching hospital. Upon that, he employed Ajuluchukwu, an Igbo man, as the Director of Research and Information in the Unity Party of Nigeria. Are these actions consistent with somebody who hates a nation in words and action? Remember that while he was serving in the National Executive Council, after the creation of states, Awolowo, as the Commissioner for Finance, kept all the allocation for the East Central State, which he gave them after the war. That has not been refuted. Is that the attitude of somebody who hates a race? So when I say Achebe is suffering from Yorubaphobia and Awolowophobia, it is because all these actions that I have stated are the consistent with some who wants to wipe out a race.
You said Awolowo’s aim was to keep Nigeria one. Is Nigeria now one nation?
Well, that’s another matter. You remember that Awolowo left the government after the war; he was not removed. He said he joined the government because he wanted to keep Nigeria one. He said, ‘the war has ended, the country is one, I have no business to be in government.’ So, what happened thereafter cannot be attributed to Chief Awolowo. It can only be attributed to his successors who did not keep to the principle and ambition of those who fought the war.
The civil war ended over 40 years ago and there has not been a Nigerian President of Igbo extraction. Some Igbo leaders attribute that to hatred for Igbo. Do you think that is true?
If you look at the facts after war, the Igbo themselves didn’t help themselves. The principle of creation of states was meant for the recognition of all ethnic nationalities; that no ethnic nationality is inferior to the other. And we were fighting that the constitution of the country should be made in such a way that everybody should have access to the top. So, when the opportunity came for us to fight for that, the Igbo didn’t support us. Immediately they were offered a juicy position by the northerners, they joined them. That was what happened after the election, instead of Azikiwe joining the UPN, he teamed up with the NPN. And these are the people you claim to have conducted a pogrom against you. Even Ojukwu himself, when he came back from exile, he joined NPN. Many people do not know that. And from my experience with Igbo people for over 60 years, there are very few Igbo that we in the West are ready to trust. Prominent Igbo, who should have joined in the fight to unite the East and the West to solve the inequality in the country, refused because they took advantage of the fact that the people in the North wooed them and gave them some inferior positions. Go put these points to the prominent Igbo, who were around at the time I’m talking about. The Igbo are their own fatal enemies. Igbo people were not massacred in the West. Even during the war, all the property of Igbo people was kept intact. But when the opportunity came for Igbo to rearrange the country, it was those who massacred them that they teamed up with. Igbo should be told that. They are their own enemies.
Nigeria seems to still have a problem of unity, with recent agitations for secession, in Ogoni and Bakassi. What do you think is the solution to this problem?
There has to be a sovereign national conference. All the ethnic nationalities must sit down and negotiate. You cannot force unity. The question of people saying that the unity of the country is not negotiable is nonsense. It shows complete ignorance. There is nothing more negotiable than the unity of this country. If we want to live together we must agree on what terms we live on. We cannot be one by mouth. If you are in a club, you have to be satisfied that there is an advantage in joining that club and you pay the price to be there. And if you are in a club, where you have benefits, you won’t want to do anything that will make you to be expelled. If we are in a country and some people say they want to get out, why? It means they are not satisfied. It means they feel cheated. Let’s sit down and discuss.