Simon Kolawole: Indeed, there was a starved country

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.

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”).



Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

Comments (5)

  1. Yoruba neo-fascist revisionist at work. At no point did he acknowledge that Awolowo's targeting of civilians was a war crime. How can Adebanjo contest Awolowos policy which he not only pushed with zeal but sent out his lieutenants like Bola Ige, Anthony Enahoro etc. to canvass globally and publicly? No amount of bare-faced lies will change the immutable fact that you committed genocide against Igbos and murdered 3 million of them, 2 million being women and kids. The more you lie, the more you look shabby and untrustworthy and the more bitter the conflict till the end of time.

  2. I really appreciate the few people like Simon Kolawole who tries to be fair and objective.

    I was in the Biafra military in the Biafra Air Force as Air Defense Specialist at Uli Airport protecting the Relief planes and breaking the Nigerian Blockade. During our training at Umuahia, I know what the Biafran leadership told us: our role was to save our people from starving due to Nigeria Blockade by defending Uli Airport- the only link with the outside world. Space does not allow me to go into details here. But I want to tell you that Ojukwu and the Biafran leadership were pained by the Nigerian policy of stravatiion(Blockade) as weapon of war. I know because I personally witnessed the pain and frustration by Ojukwu and Biafrans. Have you noticed that none of those attacking Achebe including Gowon has expressed any regrets for the loss of innocent lives during the bloody Nigerian-Biafran War? Yet these claim to be humans and Christians!! When I saw Ojukwu at one of his last public Igbo leaders Summit in Owerri, we disscused the the war and futur of the Igbo people.Both of us deeply regretted the suffering and loss of lives during the war although we had to fight to defend our people and nation(Biafra) from Nigerian aggression. The point is that any human being must regret the loss of lives and suffering during the war and after unlike Gowon who said that he and Awolowo had no regrets about the war and Nigerian policies/actions. No regrets about 3 million Biafrans who perished during the war? No regrets about bombing churches, markets, hospitals, schools, villages? No regrets about 20 pounds "extra gratia" policy after the war despite ones bank account? No regrets about empty "No Victor, No Vanquished" policy after the war despite the fact there was a Victor and the Vanquished? Why was i detained, interrogated, tortured and threatened to be shot by Nigerian soldiers after the war?

    I am an eye-witness to Nigeria's daily and nightly bombardment to prevent Relief Planes from delivering food and medicines to starving Biafrans. I was blockaded, starved, bombed, etc by Nigeria during the war. Nigeria felt that humanitarian assistance to Biafra was prolonging the war and that Biafra was exploiting night flights to bring in arms.Please do not confuse Biafra's refusal of Nigeria's proposal for land corridor as refusal of relief supplies. Biafra had its own proposal of air corridor which Nigeria refused. Who was appealing to the world to save starving Biafrans? It was Ojukwu or Biafrans.who was accusing Nigeria of genocide(blocade, starvation, indiscrminate bombings, etc) throughout the war and who was denying it? Nigeria had a "Quick Kill" policy and to keep Nigeria One at all costs including Blockade(stravation).

    Surely Biafra made some mistakes as Simon Kolwole said. But the root cause of the starvation was the Blockade and Nigerian "Quick Kill" policy.

    Interstingly, nothing has changed in Nigeria as to starvation and other genocidal actions by Nigerian governments. The pro-democracy group suffered genocidal actions under Abacha. Odi and Zaki-Biam experienced the same genocidal policy under Obasanjo. the primitive disregard for the sancicty of human life and impunity are Nigerian trade marks. The power/political elite unleashed starvation and death on the masses using corruption with impunity. Boko Haram unleashed death and destruction on innocent civilians using terrorism with impunity.

    I am more interested now that Truth and Reconciliation take place and that Lessons be learned to prevent future bloodshed and starvation and mass destruction of the people. As you can see starvation(deprivation), death and destruction by Nigerian governments continues today, almost 42 years after Biafra.

    All Nigerians are now Biafrans- seeking safety, security, food, medicine, social justice, peace and freedom.I beg the Nigerian power/political elite to stop starving the people as they did to Biafrans over 42 years ago. Evil leadership, Igbophobia, reneging(lack of integrity), Injustice, corruption (starvation), bloodshed and impunity are weapons of war today as they were during 1966-1970 Only the truth set us free.

    Again, thanks Simon Kolawole. Continue to be fair, balanced and objective. Emeka Njoku, London Canada

  3. This is another material in circulation that may also interest your readers. Another landmine, handle with care;


    FROM Robert S. Goldstein
    Public Relations Representative of Biafra in the United States

    (Published in the Morning Post, Lagos, August 17, 1968)

    As your Public Relation’s Representative in the United States, it is my distasteful duty to tender my resignation based on the following points:

    POINT 1 – In November of 1967 when we met in Umuahia, yo
    u and

    your Cabinet were very impressive. You told me of the woes of your little Republic, that thousands of people had died, were dying and more were prepared to die for freedom’s sake.
    You and your Cabinet told me you believed world opinion would help your cause if you could get your story across.
    You expressed the opinion that very few if any people in the United States knew of the plight of the Biafrans.
    You asked me to tell the world that Britain had teamed up with Russia in a conspiracy with the Federal Government of Nigeria to murder every Ibo in Biafra. You suggested I use my talents to induce the Press to write about the Biafran side of the war, as at that time all news came out of Lagos.
    You will recall I did not take the asssignment that day but stayed on several days before deciding to take that job.

    To help win the peace

    At that time I stated to you and your cabinet that I was taking the assignment making it crystal clear I would try my best to help win the peace not the war.

    POINT TWO – I immediately arranged the first world Press conference in Biafra inviting the US Press as well as journalists and television people from England, France, Switzerland, Africa and other parts of the Globe. This was the first news break through. I arranged regular trips into Biafra for the world Press, helped set up stringers, etc., so that your statements and the statements of your Cabinet would be heard.
    At that time, I was absolutely positive you were right and your cause was a just one in the best interests of the free world and your countrymen.

    POINT THREE – Finally the Republic of Biafra was recognized first by Tanzania, then quickly followed by Gabon, the Ivory Coast and Zambia. Our public relations work was paying off, world opnion was starting to side with us.
    Peace talks were arranged at Kampala. I thought that if anyone walked away from the table it would be the Federal Government. But to my dismay it was Biafra that left the Conference. After all the fighting and killing, I knew that peace would not come easy but I could not understand leaving the Peace Conference until the last point was negotiated and the avenue explored.

    POINT FOUR – Then urgent telex messages were received from ‘Biafra’ telling of tens of thousands of people starving in the refugee camps, the villages, the bush country – stating if something werent done in the next few months over a million women, children and aged would be starved to death. I immediately contacted the Press, urgently petitioned the State Department for action on their part. Food, medicine and milk were sent to the only available ports open for immediate shipment to ‘Biafra’ via land routes through Federal and Biafra territory, under the auspices of world organizations such as the International Red Cross among others.
    Then came the incredible answer from ‘Biafra’ that land corridors could not be acceptable until there was a complete ceasefire, and that an airlift was the only solution to feed the starving.
    You then appeared before the various Heads of State and representatives of the OAU at Niamey in Niger. I fully expected you to at least accept the world help that was offered your starving throngs. However, you delayed, hoping to use these unfortunates with world sympathy on their side as a tool to further your ambition to achieve war concessions at the upcoming peace talks in Addis Ababa. Thus innocent victims continue to perish needlessly of starvation, the most agonising death that can befall any living creature.

    POINT FIVE – This was incredible to me. I am now convinced that I have been used by you and your cabinet to help in military adventures of your origin….using your starving hordes as hostages to negotiate a victory.
    If at some later date, following the isuance of this letter, you do concede to allow a mercy land corridor…would you expect me to agree to espouse before the world Press the incredible delay of your decision. What explanation could I honestly give for the needless prolongation of this horror.

    Inconceivable acts

    I pray this communication may in some small way influence you to move affirmatively, allowing the mercy land corridor to be born.
    It is inconceivable to me that you would stop the feeding of thousands of your countrymen (under auspicies of world organizations such as the International Red Cross, World Council of Churches and many more) via a land corridor which is the only practical way to bring in food to help at this time. It is inconcivable to me that men of good faith would try to twist world opinion in such a manner as to deceive people into believing that the starvation and hunger that is consuming ‘Biafra’ is a plot of Britian, Nigeria and others to commit genocide.

    POINT SIX – I cannot in all conscience serve you any longer. Nor can I be a party to suppressing the fact that your starving thousands have the food, medicine and milk available to them… can and is ready to be delivered through international organizations to you. Only your constant refusal has stopped its delivery.
    I am this date, tendering my resignation and am returning to Mr. Collins Obih of the African Continental Bank all the fees you have given me (Letter of Credit No. 354 $400,000 US.)
    I have sent your representative in New York a Bond in the amount of 800.000 pounds that I was holding in your behalf. I have also this date, sent the Bond of 200,000 pounds issues by the Central Bankl of Nigeria back to them for disposal.

    POINT SEVEN – I am now convinced that one Nigeria is the only solution to peace. I also call upon you Mr. Ojukwu to allow your starving people to be fed. Their well-being is of deep concern to me as well as other right thinking people of the world. Your acting in the utmost haste in this matter is in my opinion the first step toward any lasting peace in your country.
    Courtesy: Nowa Omoigui

  4. Simon,your diplomacy is interesting, but your judgement with regards to anything related to the civil war will always seem impaired because you did not feel the pain, neither did your close relatives.

    What the average Igbo person does not want is for someone from any other region in Nigeria to say "LETS FORGET IT HAPPENED AND MOVE ON". The truth is that it will never be forgotten especially with the current situation in the North where Boko Haram's activities are very similar to those that necessitated the secession of Easten Nigeria.

    Paschal, at least, someone prominent of South-Western origin finally admits there was something wrong with Awolowo's decisions. All great men have flaws and have erred at some point in their lives. I think what the Igbos want is for every Nigerian to accept that whatever happened was not fair, and that nobody should defend any of the major actors.

    Secondly, Achebe was also concerned about the influence of Islamic extremists in the pogrom/war and their continued influence today in the same Northern Nigeria. It affected the Igbos most and somehow still does (thanks to Boko Haram). His pain is that "The country which was", would have faired better without such religious influence". The average South-Western does not feel any direct pain from the violence in Northern Nigeria, because very few of their kinsmen dwell in the North. In Lagos, the pain we Yoruba folks feel is the increase in the price of Ram, Yam and Beans. The average South-Eastern guy will rather take the risk and strive any where, no matter the danger, than stay stagnant at home.

    God knows why Nigeria is still one country. May God Bless us all.

  5. "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?"

    This shows you either have no clue as to what I started out to write. That Igbos were an obstacle in the schema of Awolowo as outlined by Achebe doesn't mean removing the Igbos from Nigeria others he woulda persuaded the Feds to allow them go. It is however to weaken them in order to b lord. What he didn't know is that that group has a 'terrible' drive at survival.

    Was nearly a waste of reading time on this one. Nearly every paragraph is filled with same absurd thinking.

    Tapping a little truth from two sides of a line is not being intelligent or objective. Its being a disease and a danger to the whole system. Best not speak at all if you can't go all the way.

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