Open Letter to Awoists: It is time to apologise to Ndigbo for that starvation policy

by Adewale Francis

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.

Comments (17)

  1. Unfortunately, while I don't think Awo was a saint, I must disagree with Francis. The Geneva convention also ban soldiers from apropriating foods bound for civilians. Which is better: bring the war to a speedy end or prolong it and sacrifice millions of kids?

  2. @OMO YOTUBA ATATA,,,,u r d biggest fool dat eva walked on planet earth and for mentioning late Dim Ojukwu's name, may d devil seal dat gutter u call a mouth……fucking bastard…….dats y i hate u yoruba pple,2faced cowards……as for dat ur stupid awo or wotever he calls himself,may d hotest art f hell where is is rotting continue to heat hotter n hotter by d seconds…..bunch of stupid peodophiles.

  3. Dis would not be d last of books or stories we would hear about d War, der would claims and counter claims.But we have to move forward pls

  4. Whoever writes this piece is rather insane or a bastard! A lot of the things people say on here makes me really think something is wrong with their sanity.

    1) why did ojukwu start a war he knew there was never a chance of him winning?

    2) why did the soldier ambush the food sent by awo?

    3) why no soldier suffered starvation but only the civilians & children?

    4) why did ojukwu ran away & left his people for the dead?

    5) why & how did ojukwu look bulky during & after the war? Is he so self-centred that he shared the food with his soldiers & not civilians?

    & lastly, 6) who started the war? were you guys really expecting help from people you want dead? That's funny I really laughed!

    Rip to the dead. But no rip for ojukwu, he's a moron!

  5. The blockade was to stop WEAPONS from getting to Biafrans. The Federal Govt. Offered to supply food AFTER inspection which the Igbo refused. Even BEFORE the food blockage was stopped, Awo saw stavation in civilian population and decided that the food was being seized by the Biafran army. So Awo caused the starvation reported in the write up? Also in what way will this write up enhance the unity of the country. If we are to Blame anybody for the Biafran issue, its the Igbo soldiers that. Killed leaders from other sections of the country while sparing theirs. This lead to the counter coup and the first killing of Igbo in the North. That lead to Igbo being afraid in the country and thinking the solution is to seek their own country. So who is to blame? Who started the chain reaction. But we gain nothing from going to the past. Let's face the future as a nation.

  6. if awo didn't stop food supply to the east, the children could still have starved because the soldiers were taking all the food. I don't believe that the awo family owes anyone an apology, am sure awo might have regretted his decision but I guess it was a necessary evil. Only a mad man would keep feeding his enemies/ opponents. Its was a war,and why aren't the biafran soldiers and their hero Ojukwu getting any blame in this. The policy might have starved the civilians but it might also have helped end the war faster which overall was to the benefits of the civilians in question. Av alwaz believed that because the younger have little information about the war, that's y nigeria is still in this merry-go-round, we failed to learn from this war and move on.

  7. As beautiful and elegant as this expository piece is, it is unfortunate that it is not balanced. You have quoted the part where Awolowo accepted that he championed the policy and gave his reasons for it, but shunned the reasons Prof Achebe gave for it and which he has now documented for generations yet unborn (i.e that it was unbridled ambition to rule Nigeria at all cost and give the Yorubas the advantage to dominate the ibos drove Chief Awolowo to starve millions of Ibos to death). This is what is throwing the Awolowo family and the Yoruba leaders into a frenzy.

    Personally, I believe Prof is entitled to his opinions whether accurate or not, but you must also understand that false allegation a person nay a race is a crime and distortion of historical for facts for mundane motives is a crime against humanity especially when put in a written form to endure generations.

    Yes, Chief Awolowo championed the policy, did he do it to exterminate the entire ibo race so that the yorubas can rule Nigeria? This is laughable. That part is illogical based on verifiable facts. Was he the one who declared the Biafran war? You too have captured the fact that even when the food was being sent, the children had already been ravaged by kwashiorkor meaning the food and medicine were not getting to the civilians. So the Nigerian state should continue to feed the soldiers at the expense of civilians and thereby prolong the war and the attendant suffering? How many million more could have died had the war been prolonged?

    A spade does not have another name but a spade, Prof Achebe's assertion is not based on facts other than his own opinions and imagination of what could have pushed Chief Awolowo to do what he did and hence could not be free of whatever bias or grudges he hold against him as a person. However, this is supposed to be a historical fact and not fiction.

    On the call for apology, the head of that government had done that and declared that 'no victor, no vanquished', what more does Achebe want after 40 years? But hey, it is the Achebe's memoirs and no matter what his motives are or the sentiments they might inadvertently raised, it is his personal view and account of Chief Awolowo's role in the civil war and should be treated as such.

  8. *Yawns* I'm deeply disappointed that a seemingly great man like Awo will initiate a policy like that bearing in mind that civilians will suffer but soldiers will suffer most….. Doesn't. Sound like an intelligent excuse, @Wummi no one said the Nigerian govt should send food to biafra, there was a blockade by the nigerian govt get ur facts right! I pray for my country, the truth is so glaring tho' we are a deeply divided people. God bless us all

  9. Hi All, I am Yoruba (not that it should matter) but I write this with a deep sense of objectivity and I hope that anyone who reads this will remove any tribal sentiments and remain objective.

    I never witnessed the war and I know that no explanation by whosoever can justify the capital price that was paid the loss of human life (ranging from 100k – 2 million depending on who you're listening to).

    But let's get things clear, a war is a war. Once a people decided to secede from a nation, i am safe to assume that they find it fit to be self sustaining. Ojukwu declared an INDEPENDENT republic of biafra and expected Nigeria to feed it? It's like south Sudan accusing North Sudan of starving its people.

    Secondly, history teaches us that offers were made to Ojukwu to establish a clear food channel between Nigeria and Biafra but the General refused insisting instead that food be sent by air (a move he made with the hope of being able to bring in arms).

    There are several other documented facts to be considered like the capture of the mid-west for their food, or the other minority tribes affected, but we must look deeper…

    This IS not a time to trade blame but to HEAL! I strongly agree that Jerome Okolo ( that we must find a way to heal the hurts, but blaming CANNOT do that.

    Awolowo in himself was a great leader but like every man, not without shortcomings and we can say the same for Dim Ojukwu too….They have lived and died, but we remain and have an opportunity.

    Many of us did not see the war but we inherited hatred, indifference and a false sense of pride.It is my candid opinion that we must look back and learn, stand here and heal, look forward and build.


  10. All these simply boils down to the fact that we do not love one another! Even when it comes to people of the same ethnic group nigerians tend to look after his/her ownself before anyone else. Come to think of it, if ojukwu had refrained his starving soldiers from ceasing the food meant for the civillians and it is understood that 100 percent of the food sent to them indeed gets to them, would Awo have initiated the starvation policy? The truth is that even ojukwu did not love his civillian subjects to the point of denying his soldiers food, his soldiers ranked higher in his scale of preference hence, he made certain that the food sent by the federal govt gets to the soldiers first, and after having their fill or enough to keep them fighting in the next forseeable future, they pass the rest to the dying civillians. What is the end result? Prolonged fighting and at whose expense? First, the many biafran civillians whose ration would be shortened by the soldiers and secondly the soldiers who get injured or killed at the hands of the biafran soldiers they are indirectly feeding! I blame ojukwu as much as Awo. Who in his right frame of mind will feed his enemy only to make him stronger? Had ojukwu agreed to let the food meant for the masses of biafra he claims to be fighting for gotten to them in one piece, I doubt the issue of starvation policy would have come up at all, it suffices to say that ojukwu himself was ready to accept the starvation of his people as a price for winning the war(if he ever hoped he could win). Now is the starvation policy the only evil perpetrated during the war that made innocent civilians die? Did all the soldiers that fought on the biafran side volunteered to fight? Where they all ibos? What happened to the young men from the south-south and the mid-west who were not biafrans and were not willing to become biafrans? Where they not forced to the battle front by biafra? What led to the killing of those civilians at the hands of murtala? The starvation policy is just a segment of the injustice that occured then! Attention should be paid to all these and many others on the part of the biafrans also, afterall everything is fair in war!

  11. Wow…i have to admit that this piece put me to shame…in the midst of all this saga…my concern was: rehashing and trading blames now how does that solve our present condition and this piece elegantly answered all that. Thank You

  12. All these jobless freelance writers who many a time may be using fake names to catch limelight.
    Anybody who is below the age of 65 presently has no say in this matter. Mr writer ,how old are you to judge the event of 42 years ago.

    Some guys planned & executed an ethnic cleansing coup, it back fired, they went to print currency and started annexing neighbours properties and were heading to Lagos – Then Nation's Capital. ……
    Please stop lecturing us on false history. Everybody is guilty of counter-offensive and that was war.

  13. We always look for people to blame for our collective or individual mistakes, now awolowo is evil, but d man who started d war from d eastern region is exonerated today, and a politician who brought his own civilian advice is blamed for advising d govt, why did d military ruling council not reject d advice if it was a bad advice to everyone dem perspective, no wonder people who can give reasonable advice don't help our country. The simple truth is dat Ojukwu should not have started d War, n he should not have killed Innocent Yoruba civilians in some part of Ondo state, he should have attacked only military formations alone. I rest 4 now

  14. Well written sir..the starvation policy was ill advised. Great injustice was done to the igbos, the same injustice that made them want to leave the entity called nigeria in the first place. National integration would be only achieved if the rest of nigeria admit that they treated the igbos badly. Even up till now, the injustice has not ended because igbos are still at the receiving end of major ethnic killing especially in the north.

  15. Thank you for this write-up and factual statements. You have thrown more light to this Awo/Igbo saga through the quotation. God will always stand up for you as you have stood up for the truth against all odds.

    God Bless.

  16. "THE CIVILIANS WOULD SUFFER, but the soldiers would suffer most. That's where am deeply concerned whenever I read the interview. Why shud d civilians suffer? Awo was a great man and he'll be remembered for many admirable feats, but I believe that part of greatness is being able to admit if u're wrong as a leader. There can be no other better act of bravery. The federal forces would have won the war anyways, even if the biafran soldiers were feeding well. Almost everyone knew d outcome before it ended. I deeply respect awo's legacies and I even believe his ideologies, but on this policy I beg to differ. Awo was wrong. I rest my case.

  17. So true. Awo, Zik, Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, Macaulay, et al, even Ojukwu: these were great men, no doubt, but they had their flaws, deeply enmeshed in selfish interests and it didn't work out well for the entity called Nigeria, as evidenced by the civil war just 6years into the "newborn" and the successive "bloodful" and bloodless military coups; People of the regions where these men are from should accept the bitter pill of truth and swallow their pride. It is obvious that bringing these regions together into a country didn't work, hasn't worked and doesn't seem like it's going to work anytime soon, given all the racial discord and tribal nepotism rife in the country. 2 options: we split peacefully, after talks or agree to be regionally governed and contribute equally to the centre, again after negotiations. Nice statement of fact. I like the fact that you are Yoruba.

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