But when I went what did I see? I saw the kwashiorkor victims. If you see a kwashiorkor victim you’ll never like war to be waged. Terrible sight, in Enugu, in Port Harcourt, not many in Calabar, but mainly in Enugu and Port Harcourt. Then I enquired what happened to the food we were sending to the civilians. We were sending food through the Red Cross, and CARITAS to them, but what happen was that the vehicles carrying the food were always ambushed by the soldiers. That’s what I discovered, 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 that was a very dangerous policy, we didn’t intend the food for soldiers. … So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process, the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers suffered most.” –Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
We can either chose to live in denial and pretend that Awo never participated in the terrible decision to starve people of eastern Nigeria of foods and medicine during the Biafran War or own up to the fact he did it to save Nigeria, apologize for it, and then move on. The abuse of anyone who dares to raise the fact that Chief Awolowo was culpable for the death of millions of children as a result of the policy will not make this disastrous policy go away. Awoist and Chief Awolowo family need to stop getting unnecessarily defensive and antagonistic when this issue is raised. Fact is fact and nothing we humans do could suddenly turned facts into fiction or fiction into facts. Fact is Chief Awolowo championed the policy on starvation to win the war to use his words. There is no other way to look at it. It does not diminish the greatness of the man in terms of what he achieved for his people. We can even disagree on what motivates him to take that decision: ambition? Or statesmanship? But what should not be subject to pejoratives and needless harangue is the very fact that the decision happened at his watch.
Some have tried to put the blame on Gowon or the military leaders but Chief Awolowo’s own words is clear: “I decided to stop sending the food there.” It was not a military decision by Adekunle or Murtala. This is a decision made by the Finance minister of the federation, Chief Awolowo. He owned that decision in the interview quoted above. Whenever this issue is raised Awoist and the Awolowo family usually drew umbrage, assailing whoever called Awo out on this issue and generally attacking the character of those who dare to confront Awoist on the frailties of their leaders. It is time for Awoist to realize that Chief Awolowo is not infallible. He made some sound decision in governance as well as other horrendous decisions, one of which is this starvation policy. He might have done it to please the northern oligarchy who had promised to install him as president or he might have had a truly altruistic motive; whatever the case this is a sadistic policy that should never have been put in place by any Nigerian leader.
The impact on Biafra’s children reverberates around the world. It was such that over 40 years later, Steve Jobs referenced it in the interview for his biography written by Walter Isaacson. In fact it had such an effect on him that it turned him against the Christian God that would permit such a cruel injustice on poor children. Lets quote the biography: “In July 1969, LIFE magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. “If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?” The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.” Jobs then pulled out the LIFE cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?” We may not be able to know for certain if God knows about those children but we do know for a fact that Chief Awolowo knows and understand the impact of his decision on those children as evident from the above excerpted interview. To quote him directly, “So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process, the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers suffered most.”
What is more, Chief Awolowo, as an intellectual should have known better. The 4th Geneva Convention put in place in 1949 specifically require that civilians be protected during wars. It requires parties to the conflict in Part II, Article 15 to make provisions for food supply to the civilian persons in the war zones, either directly or through a neutral State or some humanitarian organization. Nigeria did contract with CARITAS but Chief Awolowo yanked the arrangement after visiting the liberated cities of Calabar, Port Harcourt and Enugu. As he stated in the interview I quoted above he did what he did because he believed the food was being used to feed the soldiers. That may well be true, but Nigeria suffered more public relation damage for that blockade than it gained. At that point in the war it was clear that Biafra had lost. Several strongholds had been liberated and are under control of Federal forces. What do we stand to gain by starving innocent children to death to punish soldiers?
Some Awoist have argued that Professor Achebe excused Dim Chukwuemeka Ojukwu; my response to them is to wait until Achebe’s book is out before rushing to judgment. And by the way, when does the other guy is also bad becomes a defense to genocide? The starvation policy led to the death of millions of innocent Igbo children and civilians. It is a moral disaster for the federal government of Nigeria and until the leaders of Nigeria own up to the depravity of that decision we will continue to drift as a nation. It is often said that a nation that will not learn from its history is bound to repeat it. If we can’t learn from such monumental loss of judgment by our revered leaders, our standing in the comity of nations will continue to slide, and our unity will remain a mirage.
I believe it is now incumbent on Awoist and the Awolowo family to finally accept the frailties of their leader before they trot out the many things he did to help the Ndigbo. Fact is Chief Awolowo helped many Ndigbo recover their properties in Lagos after the war. This is why the abandoned property saga is not as pronounced in Lagos as Port Harcourt. But all these will pale into insignificance if Awoist and the Awolowo family do not summon courage to confront the fact that Pa Awo was wrong on that starvation policy. You cannot deny the glaringly obvious inconvenient facts and expect others to appreciate your other good deeds. It is time for Awoist to stop living in denial. War is evil and the only true debt we owe posterity is to tell the truth about our past. When we do that we honor the memories of the dead and prepare ourselves to face the future with fortitude. It is only then that the labors of our heroes past will not be in vain.