Chinua Achebe, Biafra and the travesties of war (2)

October 18, 2012
7 mins read

“As we reached the brink of full-blown war it became clear to me that the chaos enveloping all of us in Nigeria was due to the incompetence of the Nigerian ruling class.

They clearly had a poor grasp of history and found it difficult to appreciate and grapple with Nigeria’s ethnic and political complexity. This clique, stunted by ineptitude, distracted by power games and the pursuit of material comforts, was unwilling, if not incapable, of saving our fledgling new nation” –Chinua  AchebeTHERE WAS A COUNTRY: A PERSONAL HISTORY OF BIAFRA PG. 69

“Anybody with intellect, with a sense would consider carefully the implications of  a war. War is destructive. There’s no country that went to war that didn’t suffer, not one. When we went to war, we destroyed everything we had. That’s true”- the late Dr. OkechukwuIkejiani in op. cit. Pg. 216

LAST week, I ended my first piece on the controversy generated by Chinua Achebe’s new book, by quoting the words of the Russian writer, Tolstoy, that the main thing in art, as in life, is to tell the truth. As Achebe noted in his book, the Biafran war, was the first war of the modern television era; imageries of the war were broadcast into the homes of people every night, especially in Europe and America.

It was therefore a vital part of the strategy of the Biafran war, to exploit the imageries of starving children and the associated horrors, to win sympathy and secure diplomatic mileage. Ojukwu was particularly skillful in this and it ended up playing badly for him in the long run, especially when he refused corridors of food aid and other humanitarian assistance, which General Gowon was pressured to offer at very critical stages of the war.

Every student of the politics of war knows that truth becomes the first casualty in a crisis as tragic as the Biafran conflict. Achebe played a central role in the propaganda of his side.

“For most of us within Biafra”, he wrote, “our new nation was a dream that had become a reality- a republic in the strict sense of the word” (Pg. 143).

From the Harmattan of 1968, “Ojukwu invited (him) to serve on a small political committee that the Ministry of Information was creating….So I joined this group and set to work”. He added that “The Biafran leader was pleased with the committee’s work and invited me to serve as the chairman of a larger committee that he wanted to set up within the state house. He called this group the National Guidance Committee…The work of the National Guidance Committee eventually produced the treatise widely known as the Ahiara Declaration” (Pg. 144-145).

This background is important to appreciate the basis of the book that has generated much controversy in the past couple of weeks in the country. Achebe was a central figure in the Biafran story, having become disillusioned with the failure of Nigeria following the tragic events of 1966.

He gave his all to help create Biafra and his partisanship is central to his views about the roles played by enemies on the other side of the divide; from General Gowon, Chief Obafemi Awolowo to leading Nigerian war commanders, who he gave a short shrift. They ranged from General Murtala Muhammed, General IBM Haruna and Brigadier Benjamin Adekunle. He “bigged up” Biafran “generals” like “the radical Joseph ‘Air Raid’ Achuzia”, who he described as “Ojukwu’s ‘ace commander’ throughout the conflict, and he was often called upon to solve problems or build upon military advantages”.

It was part of this narrative of convenience that our greatest writer saw or remembered every massacre committed by the Nigerian side but never seemed to remember any by the Biafrans. His attitude to the use of mercenaries was similarly selective.

Nigeria use “Egyptian mercenary pilots” to fly Soviet-supplied aircraft, as well as ‘Malian, Chadian and Nigerien mercenaries”, according to him; but Biafra’s European mercenaries including Carl Gustaf Von Rosen, who he described as “a Swedish nobleman”, never saw his opprobrium.

The romance with war

We cannot romanticise war because of the losses and the bitter memories which trail it forever. But I look back, as a young boy growing up in the context of that conflict, we were rallied by the slogans of the period: “GO ON WITH ONE NIGERIA (formed from GOWON) and “TO KEEP NIGERIA ONE IS A TASK THAT MUST BE DONE”.

We read verses from the Qur’an everyday to seek speedy end of the rebellion and children were warned not to pick strange objects which might have been bombs dropped by the Biafran side. Houses were also kept dark in the night so as not to become targets of bombings by Biafran aircraft and the radio would broadcast songs in Hausa that no one will like to recall today because of the bellicosity of the tone! But that was war and on “our side”, the issue was to ensure that our country did not disintegrate! Achebe made the emotional points about the vast numbers of people who died in Biafra.

But two of my cousins died in the war, and who knows, they might have been killed in one of the many Nigerian deaths he reported so approvingly in his book. Another cousin returned from war that he enlisted for at the age of 18, psychologically destroyed, roaming the streets for years, before he eventually died. Long before the imperialist  philosophers of war invented the term known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we had veterans of the war to keep Nigeria one in our families, suffering those horrible symptoms of war!

I have wondered just what the United States would have been, if the Confederacy forces had not been defeated in the American Civil War. Poignantly, I am writing these lines in Houston, Texas, early on Tuesday morning!

Yet, the book is a vital contribution to Nigerian history and our coming to terms with the tragic events of history that continue to shape our destinies today. It is true, as Achebe said, that “there were real excesses to account for”, from that war. And I also agree that: “it is fundamentally important, indeed essential to our humanity, to ask the hard questions, in order to better understand ourselves and our neighbours”.

But I think he was still stuck in the hole of the Biafran propagandist, when he described the “diabolical disregard for human life seen during the war” as “due to the Northern military elite’s jihadist or genocidal obsession” (Pg. 232). The Nigerian army, made up of Muslims and Christians and people from different ethnic backgrounds could not be so described! In the end, he listed some economic grievances against Nigeria, along with those of crimes committed before and during the war against the Igbo.

These include the ten pounds policy (when all Igbo depositors in banks before the war got only ten pounds after); the banning of stockfish and second hand clothing and the Enterprise Promotion Decree of 1974, which he argued Chief Obafemi Awolowo used to empower his Yoruba people.

A cathartic role

In my view, the book served a cathartic role for Chinua Achebe and it was a final coming to terms with that tragic phase in history and a return to full Nigerian citizenship. “My generation had great expectations for our young nation”, he said. “After the war everything we had known before about Nigeria, all the optimism, had to be rethought.

The worst had happened, and we were now forced into reorganising our thinking, expectations, and hopes. We (the former Biafrans) had to carry on in spite of the great disaster that was military defeat and learn very quickly to live with such a loss.

We would have to adjust to the realities and consequences of a Nigeria that did not appeal to us any longer. Nigeria had not succeeded in crushing the spirit of the Igbo people, but it had left us indigent, stripped bare, and stranded in the wilderness”.

It has taken 42 years for Nigeria’s (and Africa’s) greatest writer, Chinua Achebe, to produce a book of the tremendous passion as his personal recollection of Biafra. It couldn’t have been less controversial! More fundamental is his re-engagement with our country.

His old passion to see it develop is embedded in the final words of the book; and in his characteristic candour and faithfulness, he surveys the scene today, asking Nigerians to destroy the prebendalism at the heart of our politics; improve drastically electoral management; fight the corruption that is killing the country and fundamentally re-order leadership recruitment: “it would not surprise any close observer to discover that in this inane system, the same unsavoury characters who have destroyed the country and looted the treasury and the nation blind are the ones able to run for presidency!”

He is worried about the menace of terrorism and anti-state acts of violence: “this mindless carnage will end only with the dismantling of the present corrupt political system and the banishment of the cult of mediocrity that runs it, hopefully through a peaceful, democratic process.

Achebe in the pantheon of heroes

His concluding paragraph in the book, speaks eloquently to the future which every patriot can organise around and in my view, it returns Chinua Achebe, our Achebe, to his rightful place in the pantheon of heroes of our country: “I foresee the Nigerian solution will come in stages.

First we have to nurture and strengthen our democratic institutions-and strive for the freest and fairest elections possible. That will place the true candidates of the people in office. Under the rubric of a democracy, a free press can thrive and a strong justice system can flourish. The checks and balances…and the laws needed to curb corruption will then naturally find a footing.

A new patriotic consciousness has to be developed, not one based on the well-worn notion of the unity of Nigeria or faith in Nigeria often touted by our corrupt leaders, but one based on an awareness of the responsibility of leaders to the led-on the sacredness of their anointment to lead-and disseminated by civil society, schools and intellectuals.

It is from this kind of environment that a leader, humbled by the trust placed upon him by the people, will emerge, willing to use the power given to him for the good of the people”!


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