BIAFRA: The Facts, The Fiction

• Ojukwu reviewing a parade of Biafran soldiers

• Ojukwu reviewing a parade of Biafran soldiers

Placed side by side independent accounts of the Nigerian Civil War, Professor Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country is a pot-pourri of deliberate misrepresentations, outright inventions and a one-eyed view of events

A writer should not be an accomplice to lies. Even when thorns infect the land, a writer must embody and defend the perennial destiny of high values and principles. It is not the business of a writer to side with the powerless against the powerful; the powerless can be thoughtless and wrong. The Nazi party was once a powerless group. A writer should not prefer falsehood to reality just because it serves patriotic ends. In times of great upheavals in a multi-ethnic society, a writer should get out and warn the society that the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences. Pride in one’s ethnic identity is good, patriotism is fantastic but when they are not properly moderated by higher considerations, they can prove more destructive than nuclear weapons. Four months after America dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, the dead eventually totalled 240,000. In the ethnic rivalry between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, within two months 500,000 were murdered with ordinary machetes.

Patriotism, when deployed, must always be simultaneously governed by something higher and lower than itself, like the arms of a democratic government. These provide checks and balances so that patriotism does not become a false conception of greatness at the expense of other tribes or nations. It is for this reason that we proceed to discuss  Chinua Achebe’s patriotic autobiography, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, in the light of something higher than it: 21,000 pages of Confidential, Secret, Top Secret US State Department Central Files on Nigeria-Biafra 1967-1969 and something lower: The Education of a British Protected Child by Chinua Achebe himself.

There Was A Country is written for the modern day Igbo to know why they are suffering in the Nigerian federation and who should be fingered for the cause. Achebe’s logic is neat, but too simple: Africa began to suffer 500 years ago when Europe discovered it (that is, there was no suffering or inter-tribal wars before then in Africa). Nigeria began to suffer when Lord Lugard amalgamated it. And the Igbo began to suffer because of the events surrounding the Biafran secession. To Achebe, there should have been more countries in the behemoth Lord Lugard cobbled together. What Achebe does not take into account is the role rabid tribalism plays in doing violence to social cohesion, which makes every region counter-productively seek a perfect answer in demanding its own nation state. There are over 250 ethnic groups in Nigeria and there cannot be over 250 countries in Nigeria. There are officially 645 distinctive ethnic groups in India and only one country. All over the world there are tens of thousands of ethnic nationalities and there are only 206 countries. What the ethnic nationalities that constitute Nigeria need to learn for the unity of the country is the democratisation of their tribal loyalties. And that inevitably leads to gradual detribalisation of consciousness, which makes it possible to treat a person as an individual and not basically a member of another tribe. That is the first error of Achebe.

• Ojukwu reviewing a parade of Biafran soldiers
• Ojukwu reviewing a parade of Biafran soldiers

Instead of writing the book as a writer who is Igbo, Achebe wrote the book as an Igbo writer, working himself into a Zugzwang bind, a position in chess that ensures the continuous weakening of your position with every step you make. All the places that should alarm the moral consciousness of any writer, Achebe is either indifferent to or dismisses them outright because the victims are not his people. But in every encounter that shows the Igbo being killed or resented by Nigerians, or by the Yoruba in particular, Achebe intensifies the spotlight, deploying stratospheric rhetoric, including quotes from foreign authors with further elaborations in end notes to show he is not partial. Achebe calls upon powerfully coercive emotive words and phrasings to dignify what is clearly repugnant to reason. Furthermore, not only does he take pride in ignoring the findings of common sense, he allocates primetime attention to fact-free rants just because they say his people are the most superior tribe in Nigeria. The book, to say the least, is a masterpiece of propaganda and sycophancy. It is not a writer’s business to be an accomplice to lies.

First, let’s take Achebe’s Christopher Okigbo. Throughout the book, Achebe presents Okigbo in loving moments complete with tender details: Okigbo attending to Achebe’s wife during labour, Okigbo ordering opulent room service dishes for Achebe’s wife in a swanky hotel, while millions were allegedly dying of starvation and Achebe was out of the country, Okigbo being a dearly beloved uncle to Achebe’s children and Okigbo opening a publishing house in the middle of the war. Out of the blue, he writes that he hears on Radio Nigeria the death of Major Christopher Okigbo. Major? The reader is completely shocked and feels revulsion for the side that killed him and sympathy for the side that lost him. Unlike other accounts, like Obi Nwankama’s definitive biography of Okigbo, Achebe skips details of Okigbo running arms and ammunition from Birmingham to Biafra and also from place to place in Biafra; he omits the fact that Okigbo was an active-duty guerrilla fighter, killing the other side before he himself got killed. Like many other episodes recounted in the book, Achebe photoshops the true picture so that readers would allocate early enough which side should merit their sympathy, which side should be slated for revulsion. Pity, cheap sympathy, sloppy sentimentalism, one-sided victimhood are what is on sale throughout the book. Achebe, of course, is preparing the reader for his agenda at the end of the book.

 Real Reasons For The Pogroms

To Achebe, the final straw that led to secession was the alleged 30,000 Igbos killed in the North. He carefully structures the narrative to locate the reason for this systematic killing/pogrom/ethnic-cleansing in the so-called usual resentment of the Igbo and not from the fallout of the first coup in the history of Nigeria. Achebe dismisses the targeted assassinations as not an Igbo coup. The two reasons he gives are because there was a Yoruba officer among the coup plotters and that the alleged leader of the coup, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, was Igbo in name only. “Not only was he born in Kaduna, the capital of the Muslim North, he was widely known as someone who saw himself as a Northerner, spoke fluent Hausa and little Igbo and wore the Northern traditional dress when not in uniform (p79).”

Really? First, it was not mysterious that Azikiwe left the country in October 1965 on an endless medical cruise to Britain and the Caribbean. Dr. Idehen, his personal doctor, abandoned him when he got tired of the endless medical trip.  Not even the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference, never held outside London, but hosted in Lagos for the first time in early January, was enough incentive for Azikiwe to return, yet he was the  president of the nation. In a revelation contained in the American secret documents, it was Azikiwe’s presidential bodyguards that Major Ifeajuna, the coup’s mastermind, used to capture the Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

Once Ifeajuna and Major Okafor, Commanding Officer of the Federal Guards, tipped off Azikiwe about the planned bloodshed, Okafor, Ezedigbo and other guards became freer to meet 12 kilometres away in Ifeajuna’s house in Apapa to take the plan to the next level. The recruitment for the ringleaders was done between August and October 1965.  Immediately Azikiwe left, planning and training for the execution began.

Second, the eastern leadership was spared when others were murdered. Third, the head of state, Major-General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, did not try to execute the coup plotters as was the practice in a purely military affair. Ojukwu told Suzanne Cronje, the British-South African author, that he asked Aguiyi-Ironsi to take over and told him how to unite the army behind him. That was the reason he made him the governor of Eastern Region. Four, when Awolowo, Bola Ige, Anthony Enahoro, Lateef Jakande were imprisoned for sedition, they served their terms in Calabar, away from their regions as it was the normal practice. When Wole Soyinka was imprisoned at the beginning of the civil war, he was sent to Kaduna and Jos prisons, but the ring leaders of the coup were moved from Lagos back to the Eastern Region, among their people on the advice of Ojukwu. Five, during the Aburi negotiations, why was full reprieve for the coup plotters put on the table? Six, a freed Nzeogwu by April 1967, before the secession, joined in training recruits in Abakaliki  for the inevitable war with Nigeria. He later died on the Nsukka front, fighting for Biafra. That was Achebe’s Hausa-speaking, kaftan-wearing Kaduna man, who was Igbo in name only. It was an Igbo coup. The same repackaging was attempted for the invasion and occupation of the Midwest. It was called liberation of Midwest from Hausa-Fulani domination when it was simply another Igbo coup for Igbo ends, planned in Enugu and headed by a Yoruba man.

However, the January coup did not foment a much more visceral response in the Western Region since their assassinated political leader was viewed as part of the corrupt, troublesome, election-rigging class. To Westerners, the coup was good riddance to bad rubbish. But to the Northerners, who were feudal in their social organisation, it was a different matter. Sardauna was their all in all; he was the heir to the powerful Sokoto Caliphate and descendant of Usman dan Fodio. More than Azikiwe and Awolowo, Sardauna was the most powerful politician in Nigeria (pg 46). Murdering him was murdering the pride of a people. Achebe chooses to ignore this perspective and more importantly the fact that the Igbo in the North were widely taunting their hosts on the loss of their leaders. Celestine Ukwu, a popular Igbo musician, released songs titled Ewu Ne Ba Akwa (Goats Are Crying) and others celebrating “Igbo power”, the “January Victory.” Posters, stickers, postcards, cartoons displaying the murdered Sardauna begging Major Nzeogwu at the gates of heaven or Balewa burning outright in pits of hell or Nzeogwu standing St. George-like on Sardauna, the defeated dragon, began to show up across Northern towns and cities. These provocations were so pervasive that they warranted the promulgation of Decree 44 of 1966 banning them. The Igbo did not stop. Azikiwe is more honest than Achebe. In his pamphlet, The Origins of the Civil War, he writes: “Some Ibo elements, who were domiciled in Northern Nigeria taunted northerners by defaming their leaders through means of records or songs or pictures. They also published pamphlets and postcards, which displayed a peculiar representation of certain northerners, living or dead, in a manner likely to provoke disaffection.”  These images and songs eventually led to the so-called pogroms/ethnic-cleansing/genocide, not the coup. The coup was in January, the pogroms started late in May and the provocations were in between.

However, the Igbo in the East did not sit idly by. They started the massacre of innocent Northerners in their midst. Achebe chose to ignore this account since it does not serve his agenda so we return to Azikiwe: “Between August and September 1966, either by chance or by design, hundreds of Hausa, Fulani, Nupe and Igala-speaking peoples of Northern Nigeria origin residing in the Eastern Nigeria were abducted and massacred in Aba, Abakaliki, Enugu, Onitsha and Port Harcourt.” It is worthy to note that these Northerners never published nor circulated irreverent or taunting pictures of Eastern leaders unlike the Igbo of the North; they were just massacred for being Northerners. The government of Eastern Region did not stand up to stop these massacres. Neither did the Igbo intellectuals. Ojukwu, the military administrator, even made a radio broadcast, saying he could no longer guarantee the security of non-Eastern Nigerians in the East and that Easterners, who did not return to Igboland, would be considered traitors. This was the time Professor Sam Aluko, who was the head of Economics department at University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and personal friend of Ojukwu, fled back to the West. Azikiwe continues in his book: “Eyewitnesses gave on-the-spot accounts of corpses floating in the Imo River and River Niger. Radio Cotonou broadcast this macabre news, which was suppressed by Enugu Radio. Then Radio Kaduna relayed it and this sparked off the massacres of September – October 1966 [in the North].”

I Above Others

Achebe, like Enugu Radio, suppressed this information and goes on to pivot the “pogrom” on the fact that the Igbo were resented because they were the most superior, most successful nationality in the country. He claims (on pg 233) that they were “the dominant tribe,” “led the nation in virtually every sector – politics, education, commerce, and the arts (pg 66),” which included having two vice-chancellors in Yorubaland; they the Igbo are the folkloric “leopard, the wise and peaceful king of the animals (pg177),” they “spearheaded (pg 97) the struggle to free Nigeria from colonial rule.” “This group, the Igbo, that gave the colonising British so many headaches and then literally drove them out of Nigeria was now an open target, scapegoats for the failings and grievances of colonial and post-independent Nigeria (pg 67).” An Igboman, Achebe writes, has “an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots…Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies…Although the Yoruba had a huge historical headstart, the Igbo wiped out their handicap in one fantastic burst of energy in the twenty years between 1930 and 1950 (pg74).” Besides the fact that this has a language consistent with white supremacist literature, Achebe, to demonstrate he is not partial or a chauvinist, based himself on a 17-page report in Journal of Modern African Studies, titled Modernisation and Political Disintegration: Nigeria and the Ibos by Paul Anber.

I looked up the 1967 journal. Curiously this “scholar” was designated as “a member of staff of one of the Nigerian universities.” Why would a scholar hide his place of work in a journal? I checked the essays and book reviews in all the 196 issues of Journal of Modern African Studies, from Volume 1 Issue 1 of January 1963 to the last issue Volume 49 November 2011, there was nowhere a piece was published and the designation of the scholar vague or hidden. Also, this Anber never published any piece before and after this article in this or any other journal. I wanted to start checking the academic staff list of the five universities in Nigeria then until I realised again that it says “he is a staff of a Nigerian university.” The truth is: Paul Anber is a fake name under which someone else or a group of people, possibly Igbo, is masquerading. And he/they never used this name again for any other piece or books. So that this ruse would not be found out was the reason he/they hid his/their university. And this piece, like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has been the cornerstone of books and widely quoted by other journals over a period of 45 years. It is the cornerstone of the chapter, A History Of Ethnic Tension And Resentment, which Achebe used to skew the motive for Igbo people’s maltreatment from the fallout of January1966 coup and the inflammatory provocations they published to resentment for being allegedly the most successful and dominant tribe in Nigeria.

Had Achebe not overdosed on Igbo nationalism, he would have had his chest-beating ethnic bombasts inflected with a deeper and more sober analysis of the Nigerian situation in the next essay in the journal: The Inevitability of Instability by a real and existing Professor James O’Connell, an Irish priest and professor of Government, in a real and existing institution: Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. O’Connell argues that the lack of constitutionalism and disregard for rule of law fuelled psychology of insecurities in all ethnic groups. He fingers as an inevitable cause of our national instability, Nigerians’ “failure to find an identity and loyalty beyond their primordial communities that lead them constantly to choose their fellow workers, political and administrative, from the same community, ignoring considerations of merit.”

The symbolism of the Igbo heading University of Ibadan and University of Lagos, both in Yorubaland, was a positive image to assist Tiv, Hausa, Ijaw, Urhobo, Yoruba, Ibibio, Igbo, Efik etc students shed their over-loyalty to their respective primordial communities and to fashion a higher sense of identity that is national in character and federal in outlook. To Achebe, the symbolism was an example of the dominance and superiority of the Igbo. “It would appear that the God of Africa has created the Ibo nation to lead the children of  Africa from the bondage of ages,” Paul Anber quotes Azikiwe saying in his West African Pilot: “History has enabled them not only to conquer others but also to adapt themselves to the role of preserver… The Ibo nation cannot shirk its responsibility.” Anber says in his/their essay: “The Ibo reaction to the British was not typically one of complete rejection and resistance, though Ibos were militantly anti-colonial. Since modernisation is in many respects basically a process of imitation, the Ibos modelled themselves after their masters, seeing, as Simon Ottenberg put it, that ‘the task was not merely to control the British influence but to capture it.’

To some degree, it may be said that this is precisely what they proceeded to do. Faced with internal problems of land, hunger, impoverished soil, and population pressure, the Igbo migrated in large numbers to urban areas, both in their own region and in the North and West…”

The spirit of inclusive humanism, the Martin Luther King Ideal, the Mandela Example, the conscience of a writer should necessitate that if a child in Sokoto goes to bed hungry, someone in Umuahia should get angry. If a pregnant woman in Kontagora needs justice, someone in Patani should be able to stand up and fight for her. If an Osu group is being maltreated in Igboland, someone in Zaria should stand up and defend them. But to Achebe, there should be no mercy for the weak in so far as he or she is unfortunate enough to belong to the other side. Take for instance the butchering of the lone shell-shocked “Mali-Chad mercenary” wandering around “dazed and aimless” in the bush Achebe witnessed. To show the fight-to-finish courage of his people in the face of overwhelming force, he describes how Major Jonathan Uchendu’s Abagana Ambush succeeded in destroying Colonel Murtala Muhammed’s convoy of 96 vehicles, four armoured vehicles, killing 500 Nigerians in one and a half hours. “There were widespread reports of atrocities perpetrated by angry Igbo villagers, who captured wandering soldiers. I was an eyewitness to one such angry bloody frenzy of retaliation after a particularly tall and lanky soldier–clearly a mercenary from Chad or Mali–wandered into an ambush of young men with machetes. His lifeless body was found mutilated on the roadside in a matter of seconds (pg 173).”

Achebe does not tell us if he tried to prevent this cold-blooded butchering, though there was an episode where he intervened to save the life and chastity of a Biafran woman, arguing with some wandering Nigerian soldiers who wanted to requisition her goat for food (pg 201). If Achebe could not intervene in the butchering, what did he think of the killing then or now that he is writing the book with the benefit of hindsight? Should the man not have been handed over as a prisoner of war? Was his killing not a violation of Geneva Convention, which he so much accused the Nigerian side of disrespecting (pg 212)? Did villagers behaving this way not blur the lines between soldiers and civilians hence making themselves fair game in war? Also notice how Achebe starts the narration with an active first person voice: “I was an eye witness to…” and how he quickly switches to a passive third person voice in the next sentence: “His body was found…”Achebe quickly goes AWOL “in a matter of seconds”, leaving a moral vacuum for the Igbo writer to emerge and the conscientious writer to go under.

When atrocities are being committed against Biafrans, Achebe deploys strong active voice (subject + verb), isolates the aggressive phrases of military bravado with italics or quotation marks. But when Biafra is caught committing the atrocity, he employs passive sentence structures, euphemisms and never isolates pledges of murder in italics or quotation marks. Take the “Kwale Incident (pg 218)” that eventually became an international embarrassment for Biafra. Based on an unsubstantiated source, he writes: “Biafran military intelligence allegedly obtained information that foreign oilmen…were allegedly providing sensitive military information to federal forces – about Biafran troop positions, strategic military manoeuvres, and training.” So they decided to invade. “At the end of the ‘exercise’,” Achebe writes: “Eleven workers had been killed.”

Also compare these two accounts: the background is Biafran invasion of Midwest. Despite Ojukwu’s assurance to them before the secession that he would absolutely respect their choice of belonging to neither side, he invaded them, occupied their land, foisted his government on them, took charge of their resources, looted the Central Bank of Nigeria in Benin, set up military checkpoints in many places to regulate the flow of goods and human beings, imposed dawn-to-dusk curfews, flooded the airwaves with pro-Ojukwu propaganda, imprisoned and executed dissidents on a daily basis, according to accounts of Nowa Omoigui and the recollections of Sam Ogbemudia. In fact, “The Hausa community in the Lagos Street area of Benin and other parts of the state were targeted for particularly savage treatment, in part a reprisal for the pogroms of 1966, but also out of security concerns that they would naturally harbour sympathies for the regime in Lagos,” Omoigui writes. The Midwesterners regarded Biafrans as traitors. And the Nigerian Army came to the rescue.

Achebe writes: “The retreating Biafran forces, according to several accounts, allegedly beat up a number of Midwesterners, who they believed had served as saboteurs. Nigerian radio reports claimed that the Biafrans shot a number of innocent civilians, as they fled the advancing federal forces. As disturbing as these allegations are, I have found no credible corroboration of them (pg 133).” Yes, he cannot find it; they were not his people. Also note his euphemisms: “allegedly beat up”… “shot a number of innocent civilians” (shot not killed). He writes: “a number of innocents” to disguise the fact that massacres took place. He also writes: “saboteurs.” Midwesterners collaborated with federal forces to liberate their lands from Biafra, Achebe calls them “saboteurs.” Now, note in the next paragraph how he describes what happened to his people, when the federal army in hot pursuit of the Biafran soldiers, reached the Igbo side of the Midwest. It is noisily headlined: The Asaba Massacre (pg 133).

“Armed with direct orders to retake the occupied areas at all costs, this division rounded up and shot as many defenceless Igbo men as they could find. Some reports place the death toll at five hundred, others as high as one thousand. The Asaba Massacre, as it would be known, was only one of many such post-pogrom atrocities committed by Nigerian soldiers during the war. It became particular abomination for Asaba residents, as many of those killed were titled Igbo chiefs and common folk alike, and their bodies were disposed of with reckless abandon in mass graves, without regard to the wishes of the families of the victims or the town’s ancient traditions.” Then he goes on to quote lengthily from books and what the Pope’s emissary said about it in a French newspaper, what Gowon said, what was said at Oputa Panel e.t.c. He found time to research. They were his people unlike other Midwestern tribes’ sufferings he could not find “credible corroboration of.”

Massacre In The East

In the chapter, The Calabar Massacre, Achebe not only totally blanks out the well-documented atrocities, including massacres Biafran forces committed against the Efiks, Ibibios, Ikwerre, when they occupied their lands and when they were retreating in the face of federal onslaught. Achebe writes: “By the time the Nigerians were done they had shot at least 1,000 and perhaps 2,000 Ibos [sic], most of them civilians.” There were other atrocities throughout the region. “In Oji River,” The Times of London reported on August 2, 1968, “the Nigerian forces opened fire and murdered fourteen nurses and the patients in the wards.” Achebe continues still referring to the same Times article: “In Uyo and Okigwe, more innocent lives were lost to the brutality and bloodlust of the Nigerian soldiers (pg137).” How the fact-checking services of his publishers allowed him to get away with these is baffling. I looked up the 1968 piece, of course. It is a syndicated story written by Lloyd Garrison of The New York Times to balance the piece by John Young, which appeared three days before. In the piece Achebe quotes, there is no mention of Uyo or Okigwe or Oji River at all. This is what is in the piece–the journalist was quoting Brother Aloysius, an Irish missionary in Uturu 150km away from Abakaliki: “But when they took Abakaliki, they put the 11 white fathers there on house arrest. In the hospital outside Enugu, they shot all the fourteen Biafran nurses who stayed behind, then went down the wards killing the patients as well. It was the same thing in Port Harcourt.” This missionary had believed the ruthlessly efficient Biafran propaganda service. Because of the atrocities Nigeria soldiers committed on the Ogoja –Nsukka front and the revenge killings in Asaba, the world had been alerted and it was hurting Nigeria’s arms procurement abroad. So, Gowon agreed to an international observer team made of representatives from UN General-Secretary and OAU  to monitor the activities of the three Nigerian divisions and the claims of Radio Biafra.

In their first report released on 9 October 1968, there was no evidence of the killings, though it was brought to their attention. Even Lloyd Garrison and other members of the international press corps in Biafra could not find evidence of that particular killings in the hospital. Also note Achebe’s statement: “By the time the Nigerians were done, they had shot at least 1,000 and perhaps 2,000 Ibos [sic], most of them civilians.” How can a man of Achebe’s stature write: “They had shot at least 1,000,” which is an uncertainty; follow it up with another uncertainty: “perhaps 2,000 Ibos” and then say with certainty, “most of them are civilians”? How can he be sure that most of them were civilians when he was not even sure whether they are 1,000 or 2,000? It is bizarre to build a certainty on two concurrent uncertainties and then call it the truth. But that is the meaning of propaganda. William Berndhardt of Markpress and Robert Goldstein were on contract from Ojukwu to handle Biafra’s marketing and propaganda. Nathaniel Whittemore’s seminal thesis, How Biafra Came to Be: Genocide, Starvation and American Imagination of the Nigerian Civil War, freely available on the Internet, revealed how they did it and how it worked.

Achebe proceeds to celebrate “the great ingenuity” of scientists from Biafran Research and Production Unit, who developed “a great number of rockets, bombs, and telecommunication gadgets, and devised an ingenious indigenous strategy to refine petroleum.” Then he drops the most disingenuously incongruous jaw-dropping statement in the book: “I would like to make it crystal clear that I abhor violence, and a discussion of the weapons of war does not imply that I am a war enthusiast or condone violence (pg 156).”  That is Achebe who, pages before, lamented the lack of weapons for his people; that is Achebe who travelled the world soliciting material relief, including arms, for Biafra; that is Achebe who watched the butchering of a lone mercenary without flinching; that is Achebe who told Rajat Neogy on pg 105: “Portugal has not given us any arms. We buy arms on the black market. What we cannot get elsewhere, we try and make.”

But there is a reason why he drops this gem of dishonesty here: He is preparing us for what is coming next. Achebe begins to praise the indigenously manufactured bomb, Ogbunigwe (meaning mass killer, a translation, unlike others, Achebe does not include in the book for obvious reasons). He continues: “Ogbunigwe bombs struck great terror in the hearts of many a Nigerian soldier and were used to great effect by the Biafran army throughout the conflict. The novelist Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike captures the hysteria and dread evoked by it in a passage in his important book, Sunset at Dawn: A Novel about Biafra: ‘‘When the history of this war comes to be written, the Ogbunigwe and the shore batteries will receive special mention as Biafra’s greatest saviours. We’ve been able to wipe out more Nigerians with those devices than with any imported weapons.”

If the other side had used the phrase “wipe out”, Achebe would have flagged it as an evidence of the plan to “annihilate the Igbo”. But here, he let it pass without comment. And Ogbunigwe was not a product of Igbo ingenuity; it was a “bespectacled” American mercenary from Massachussets Institute of Technology, uncovered by the Irish journalist Donal Musgrave ,that was secretly training Biafrans on how to use fertilisers to make bombs (cf 13 August 1968 cable from American Embassy in Dublin to the one in the Lagos).

Propaganda and Diplomatic Moves

In the book, Achebe narrates the many diplomatic missions–official and unofficial–he embarked on for the secession. A particularly telling one was to the President of Senegal, Leopold Senghor (pg162). He and Ojukwu were attracted to Senghor because of his Negritude philosophical movement. This story of course is not true. Sam Agbam, who Achebe claimed he travelled with, was executed alongside Victor Banjo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Philip Alale in Enugu on Saturday 23 September 1967. What Achebe went to warn Senghor about did not become an issue until June 1968 when Biafra was  losing and Ojukwu had to move the capital further south to the heartland of Umuahia, then to Orlu. And there was a monstrously centripetal migration of Igbos towards the new capital, which resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe. And the Uli Airport Achebe claimed they flew from had not been constructed before his travel companion was executed on 23 September 1967. It was constructed and opened for use in August 1968 because Enugu and Port Harcourt, which were Biafra’s only airports, had fallen into the hands of Nigerians. So let’s take Achebe’s story as story and move on. Achebe tells us after days of bureaucratic obstacles, he directly delivered to Senghor, Ojukwu’s personal letter that “informs him of the real catastrophe building up in Biafra”. Senghor, Achebe writes, “glanced through the letter quickly, and then turned to me and said he would deal with it overnight…as soon as possible (pg 162).” Throughout the book Achebe never says what Senghor’s response was. That alone should alert the reader that the response was not favourable to the Biafran cause since Achebe usually suppresses unfavourable views and information. In the foreword Senghor wrote during the war for Ralph Uwechue’s book, Reflections on Nigerian Civil War: Call for Realism, we see why Achebe chooses to omit Senghor’s stand. Senghor delivers a classic rebuke to Achebe, Ojukwu and the very idea of Biafra. First, Senghor effusively praises Uwechue: “Here, at last, is a man of courage and sense,” who did not forgo “his ibotism, but because in him this is transcended by a national will, he thus acquires the force to judge both facts and men with serene objectivity”. He said after reading the manuscript and encountering arguments “for the unity of Nigeria” Uwechue “won him over at once”. Note that with Ojukwu’s letter, which Achebe brought, Senghor “glanced through” “quickly” and promised to do something overnight. Then he started discussing philosophy and literature with Achebe. Ojukwu’s letter never “won him over at once”. Yet the letter warned of the urgency of Biafran humanitarian calamity. Clearly, Senghor was not flipping for the emotional manipulation the Biafrans were using the humanitarian situation to market. Uwechue says all the countries (African) that recognised Biafra as a state did so because of the humanitarian catastrophe, not that they saw any value in a sovereign Biafra.

“The leaders of Biafra should understand that the sympathy, which compelled these countries to give them recognition was provoked by the suffering of the ordinary people, whom the Biafran leadership, despite their earlier assurances, proved unable to protect and that the act of recognition was not a premeditated approval of the political choice of secession. Like the secession itself, it was more a REACTION AGAINST than a DECISION FOR,” Uwechue writes.

I recommend Ralph Uwechue’s book to every Nigerian, not only because of the analysis and conclusions he supplies about the war, but because the man is coruscatingly intelligent. President Senghor praises him further: “What he proposes to us, after presenting us with a series of verifiable facts, is more than just a solution. It is a method of finding solutions that are at once just and effective. Herein lies his double merit. Uwechue is a man well informed and consequently objective. He is a man of principle who is at the same time, a realist. All through the length of the work, which is clear and brief, we find the combination of practice and theory, of methodical pragmatism and moral rationalism – a characteristic which marks out the very best amongst the anglophones.” In other words, he is everything Achebe is not.

Of course, the epic humanitarian catastrophe was Biafra’s golden goose. Achebe writes revealingly: “Ojukwu seized upon this humanitarian emergency and channelled the Biafran propaganda machinery to broadcast and showcase the suffering of Biafra to the world. In one speech, he accused Gowon of a ‘calculated war of destruction and genocide’. Known in some circles as the ‘Biafran babies’ speech, it was hugely effective and touched the hearts of many around the world. This move was brilliant in a couple of respects. First, it deflected from himself or his war cabinet any sentiment of culpability and outrage that might have been welling up in the hearts and minds of Biafrans. And second, it was another opportunity to cast his arch-nemesis, Gowon, in negative light (pg 210). Ojukwu never made efforts to take care of those little children as any leader with a heart would do. Instead, Achebe continues: he “dispatched several of his ambassadors to world’s capitals hoping to build on the momentum from his broadcast”.

But the world’s capitals refused to be duped. Their spies and diplomats were collating independent facts and insiders’ accounts. Sir Louis Mbanefo, the Biafran Chief Justice, then emitted a Nessum Dorma howl: “…If we are condemned to die, alright, we will die. But, at least, let the world and the United States, be honest about it (pg 211).”

Uwechue did what Achebe never did: acting from a firm moral base, he berated Ojukwu and all the Biafran leaders for rallying the Igbo to die en masse for the secession. “Sovereignty or mass suicide,” he writes, “is an irresponsible slogan unworthy of the sanction or encouragement of any serious and sensible leadership.” What could have caused a thinking man to at least flinch, Achebe rejoices in. Here, he is narrating the “explosion of musical, lyrical, and poetic creativity and artistry (pg151)” that the Biafran war had brought about. “But if the price is death for all we hold dear/ Then let us die without a shred of fear…/Spilling our blood we’ll count a privilege…/We shall remember those who died en mass…(pg 152)”

That is the Biafran national anthem, Land of the Rising Sun. Achebe continues: “The anthem was set to the beautiful music of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius….” And for any group to compare the Biafran deaths to the Holocaust is to desecrate the Holocaust and cast insults on the memory of the Jewish dead. European Jewry never had an anthem rallying themselves to mass deaths this way.

Another telling episode in the book is the war-ready celebrations amongst Biafran Christians in their houses of God: “Biafran churches made links to the persecution of the early Christians, others on radio to the Inquisition and the persecution of the Jewish people. The prevalent mantra of the time was ‘Ojukwu nyeanyiegbekaanyinuo agha’ – ‘Ojukwu give us guns to fight a war.’ It was an energetic, infectious duty song, one sung to a well-known melody and used effectively to recruit young men into the People’s Army (the army of the Republic of Biafra). But in the early stages of the war, when Biafran army grew quite rapidly, sadly Ojukwu had no guns to give those brave souls (pg 171).” “Sadly”… “brave souls”… “in the house of God” are all Achebe’s words.

Ojukwu’s wrong-headed intransigence to take another path in place of secession that was even alarming to neutral observers never makes it into this book unlike other books that recounted the stories. Azikiwe’s Origins of Civil War lists the properties Ojukwu stole even before he declared secession. How “he obstructed the passage of goods belonging to neighbouring countries like, Cameroun, Chad and Niger, and expropriated them”. Achebe writes that wealthy Biafrans’ private accounts were used to buy hardwares for the war. He never tells us that Ojukwu stole via armed robbery, money worth billions in today‘s rates, at the CBN branches at Benin, Calabar and Enugu, because he had no money to prosecute a war he was obsessed with, fighting without thinking the consequences through. Achebe never berates Ojukwu, both then and now that he is recollecting with benefit of hindsight on clearly invalid judgements. For instance, swindled by propaganda, Dick Tiger, the Liverpool-based Nigerian boxer, renounced his MBE to come and fight for Biafra. Achebe writes: “Ojukwu made Dick Tiger a lieutenant in the army of Biafra as soon as he enlisted (pg 158.)” That was a man with no military training or background being given over a hundred fighters to command as an assistant of a captain by just showing up in Nigeria!

Instead of upbraiding him, Achebe goes on to praise Ojukwu as a man who needed little or no advice. “This trait would bring Ojukwu in direct collision with some senior Biafrans, such as Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Michael Okpara, Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani and a few others, who were concerned about Ojukwu’s tendency toward introversion and independent decision making (pg119).” The US State Department’s files on Ojukwu did not dignify dictatorship with fanciful language the way Achebe does; they called it by its proper name. Here is a telegram cabled to Washington and some other American embassies worldwide:

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“Internal situation has changed a great deal since secession was first declared. Ojukwu now rules as a dictator and moves about surrounded by retinue of relatives and yes men. Responsible Ibos, who had been advising him at the start of the war, have been eliminated in one way or the other from the picture because they came to believe accommodation of some sorts would have to be reached with FMG (Gowon’s Federal Military Government). Situation so bad that Biafran representative in Paris, Okechukwu Mezu, has quit in disgust. Azikiwe refuses to go back to Biafra and is sitting in London as an exile. Ojukwu’s propaganda machine, by succeeding in creating the impression of some forward movement, masked the cold fact that Biafrans are unable to break out of FMG’s encirclement.”

That was 2 February 1969. Had Ojukwu listened to the advice of “responsible Ibos” in his inner caucus all along, more lives would have been saved. Instead, he surrounded himself with yes men. Take the chapter, The Republic of Biafra: The Intellectual Foundation of a New Nation. Achebe’s committee was National Guidance Committee; his office was in Ojukwu’s State House. “Ojukwu then told me he wanted the new committee to report directly to him, outside the control of the cabinet. I became immediately apprehensive…Nevertheless I went ahead and chose a larger committee of experts for the task at hand (pg 144).” Then the experts started to work on what was to become the Ahiara Declaration, which Ojukwu read on radio 1 June 1969 “very close to the end of the war”. There was starvation, great panic, epidemic, anxiety, bereavements and despair in the streets. Even according to Biafra’s propaganda statistics, over a million were already dead. The war was obviously unwinnable. Federal forces had captured Enugu, Biafra’s first capital; Umuahia, the second capital, Onitsha, Port Harcourt, Calabar, Nsukka and many places in Biafra. Biafran troops were desperately fleeing and hiding. Yet, Achebe and other Igbo intellectuals, who were clearly in a position to tell Ojukwu the truth and prevent further deaths, were busy writing sycophantic declarations. N.U. Akpan, Secretary to the Biafran government, was particularly scathing on these “arrogant” “ignorant” intellectuals in his account of the war. “The day this declaration was published and read by Ojukwu was a day of celebration in Biafra,” Achebe writes. “My late brother, Frank, described the effect of this Ahiara Declaration this way: ‘Odikasigbabiaagbagba’ (It was as if we should be dancing to what Ojukwu was saying). People listened from wherever they were. It sounded right to them: freedom, quality, self-determination, excellence. Ojukwu read it beautifully that day. He had a gift for oratory (pg 149).”

The Americans took note of the contextual inanities of the two and a half hour-long declaration and cabled this commentary to Washington: “Ojukwu repeatedly develops the theme that our disability is racial. The root cause of our problems lies in the fact that we are black.” Considering the humanitarian and political support in response to Biafran propaganda, the level of relief flown in and the concern expressed by private organisations and governments, Ojukwu’s speech was almost unreal as he skipped even a passing reference to the International Red Cross, Caritas or French military assistance. The Americans continue: “In his efforts to foster solidarity and support for continuing the war and maintaining the secession, Ojukwu appeals as much to fear and xenophobia… Ojukwu sees the Nigerian Civil War in almost conspiratorial terms. For example, he describes the war as the ‘latest recrudescence in our time of the age-old struggle of the blackman for his true stature of man’. We are the latest victims of a wicked collusion between the three traditional curses of the blackman: racism, Arab-Muslim expansionism and white economic imperialism.”

All along, the Americans knew of the ruthlessly efficient Biafran propaganda. They questioned how they arrived at the 20/30/50,000 killed in the North before the war. Reviewing Ojukwu’s radio broadcast of 14 November 1968, the Americans cabled this to Washington: “Ojukwu claimed 50,000 were ‘slaughtered like cattle’ in 1966, adding that in the course of war, ‘well over one million of us have been killed, yet the world is unimpressed and looks on in indifference.’ It was the highest figure we have seen him use for the pre-war deaths, and the one million he claimed killed since the war began is inconsistent with his assertion in the same speech that 6,700 Biafrans have been killed daily since July 6, 1967.”

They also noted Ojukwu’s dishonest fabrications in his broadcast of 31 October 1969 that President Nixon “had acknowledged fact of genocide”, that earlier on, he called on Nixon “to live up to his words”.  When at the inception of secession, Biafran Radio broadcast the countries that had recognised Biafra, the Americans informed Washington: “Following countries have denied recognition of Biafra: US, USSR, Ethiopia, Israel, Australia, Ghana, Guinea…wording of statements varies greatly, but all disapprove of  secession, or use words such as recognition, integrity of Nigeria, support for federal government (June 9, 1967).” In fact, Ojukwu and the Biafran project were one long crisis of credibility. In the cable of 22 May 1969, the Americans cabled Washington: “How he (Ojukwu) can continue to deceive his people, and apparently get away with it, is minor miracle, but difficult to see how much delusions can last much longer.”

 Blaming Awolowo

By the time truth finally triumphed over propaganda, the Biafrans had to find another man to blame for the war and the deaths. Enter Chief Obafemi Awolowo, whom Achebe falsely claimed Ojukwu released from prison. First, this is what the autobiography of Harold Smith, one of the colonial officers the British Government sent to rig Nigeria’s pre-independence elections in favour of the North, had to say about Awolowo:

“But the British were not treated as gods by the Yoruba. In my experience, the Yoruba regarded themselves as superior to the British and one only had to read a book written by Awolowo, the Western leader, to know why. The Yoruba were often highly intelligent and they taunted the British with sending inferior people to Nigeria. The Igbo would be humble and avert his eyes in the presence of a European. The Yoruba child would look at an important European and shout, ‘Hello, white man,’ as if he were a freak.”

What is more: “Awolowo in the West had taunted the British by claiming that his government had accomplished more in the space of two or three years for his people than the British had since they arrived in West Africa.” Of course, Achebe knows about these facts because he quoted from the book in his (pg 50), but only the part favourable to his agenda. Smith again:

“The thrust of the British Government’s policy was against the Action Group led by Chief Awolowo, which ruled in the Western Region. Not only was the British Government working hand in glove with the North, which was a puppet state favoured and controlled by the British administration, but it was colluding through Okotie-Eboh with Dr. Azikiwe – Zik – the leader of the largely Igbo NCNC, which ruled in the East. We tricked Azikiwe into accepting to be president having known that Balewa will be the main man with power. Awolowo has to go to jail to cripple his genius plans for a greater Nigeria.”

Achebe reveals his own mentality we never suspected before: “We [intellectuals] were especially disheartened by the disintegration of the state because we were brought up in the belief we were destined to rule [pg 108].” He uses this mind-set of his to judge Awolowo:

“It is my impression that Chief Obafemi Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself in particular and for his Yoruba people in general…However Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacle to that goal, and when the opportunity arose – the Nigeria-Biafra War – his ambition drove him into a frenzy to go to every length to achieve his dreams. In the Biafran case, it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the number of his enemies significantly through starvation – eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generation (pg233).”

It is a mystery that a man of his stature could be so persuaded. Awolowo built the first stadium in Africa, the first TV station in Africa, the first high-rise building in Nigeria, first industrial estate, cocoa development board and the Odua Investment Group. He offered free universal education and free universal primary healthcare. Remarkably, Awolowo never situated any of those landmarks in his hometown of Ikenne in Ogun State; he spread them round the region he presided on. And the free universal education and free primary healthcare were available to anyone of any tribe or nationality including Nupe, Igbo, Ijaw and Ghanaians living in the Western Region. Awolowo was interested in bettering the lives of everyone, not just the Yoruba.

Of course, we know that the lasting legacy of the Biafra war was the creation of a well-organised Yoruba-bashing industrial complex headquartered in Igbo consciousness, working with machine regularity from generation to generation and whose genuine aim is to fundamentally deflect blame from Ojukwu and his sycophants like Achebe until misunderstandings are perverted into evidence of Yoruba guilt, outright lies are perverted into undisputed truth.

Undoubtedly, Awolowo was a master architect of the war to defeat the secession. Therefore, the case against him requires scrutiny.


To talk about a blockade on Biafra is to concede that the control of Biafra’s borders was already in Awolowo’s hands. The control or defence of borders is the main aim of any war since the beginning of war making all over the world. But the 34-year-old Ojukwu led Biafra to secede based on 2,000 professional soldiers and extremely few artillery; they did not have enough to defend their borders. “If the Nigerian side had known the state of Biafran troops including their morale, they would have pursued them even on canoes across the River Niger. Had the Nigerians taken up such pursuit, they might have taken Onitsha, Awka and Enugu that same day.” That is Achike Udenwa, who was a Biafran soldier and later became the governor of Imo State, writing about the federal defeat of Biafra in the Midwest during the early weeks of the war in his own recollection, Nigerian/Biafra War. Even, the so-called January boys, Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna, both voiced their concern that the Biafran soldiers were vastly underprepared for any kind of war. Achebe writes: “Biafran soldiers marched into war one man behind the other because they had only one rifle between them, and the thinking was that if one soldier was killed in combat the other would pick up the only weapon available and continue fighting(pg 153).”

Therefore, even before the first bullet was fired, the secession was not only a failure but was an epic humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen. Awolowo told Ojukwu one of the reasons the West was not keen to join the secession was because the region already occupied by northern troops did not have enough loyal men in the Nigerian Army to defend it. Weaned on the hermeneutics of Yoruba history, Awolowo was not persuaded by the seductive but flawed logic that the Nigerian forces would lose because they would be incapable of prosecuting war on two fronts if the West joined the East in seceding. At one point during the Kiriji war in the 19th century, Bashorun Ogunmola (Omoarogundeyo), the Kingdom of Ibadan’s generalissimo, was simultaneously warring with five neighbouring and far-flung kingdoms. Ibadan never lost. To defeat Ibadan you did not have to defeat even its retreating soldiers only, you had to defeat those dull-looking hills surrounding it. In fact, one of the reasons Ibadan was so belligerent in its history was that those mighty hills allowed it to spend little resources defending and more on attacking. But Biafra was not surrounded by hills, literally or figuratively. Its borders were so porous that they fell easily into the opponent’s hand. Days after declaration of secession, the sea boundary of Biafra was already being manned by Nigeria’s battleships and boats. By the sixth week all the boundaries of Biafra were already under the control of Nigerian government. What remained was zooming in. In fact, had only Awolowo’s Western Region seceded, the strategy to recapture it would not be a variance with the one used against Biafra because the West is geographically an enantiomer of the East. It was the same blockade Nzeogwu used to capture and kill their targets, Sardauna and his senior wife; Ademulegun and his wife, Latifa, who was eight months pregnant, in the presence of their two children, Solape and Kole. As Solape recollected years later, Nzeogwu, who shot her mother, was a family friend that regularly visited to eat pounded yam and egusi soup. The little girl was even calling him uncle while he shot her mother in the chest in their bedroom. It was the same blockade Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi used to capture Remi Fani-Kayode and kill S.L Akintola, the Western premier. It was the same blockade American Navy Seals used to capture and kill Osama bin Laden.

What about Cameroon? Whose side was it on? Of course, Cameroun was firmly on the Nigerian side, yet it had a sizeable Igbo population and Azikiwe’s party was NCNC – National Council for Nigerian and the Cameroons. But Ojukwu had stepped on their toes: he had stolen enough of their goods and supplies that they helped the federal side to take Calabar and cooperated with the Naval blockade of Biafra. As the US State Department’s cable of 29 November 1968 discloses: “GFRC [Government of the Federal Republic of Cameroon] continues to support FMG [Federal Military Government] and recently ordered the dissolution of newly formed Cameroon Relief Organisation (CAMRO) which was being organised to receive Biafran children in west Cameroon.”

Starvation Policy

In Achebe’s book one could see several places where Biafrans violated the basis of the Geneva Convention. You could see where villagers who were non-combatants and should have been protected under Geneva Convention were taking machetes to federal soldiers, hence becoming legitimate targets of war themselves. Another striking instance was when Achebe was with his extended family and overnight their compound was turned into military base without their consent (pg 172). Heavens forbid the Nigerian side bombed the base. Yes, the Biafran propaganda machine would go to work that an innocent illustrious family had been eradicated by the “genocidal Nigerian army” and may even use it as an evidence of war crime. But it was the Biafran army that compromised Achebe’s household.

As part of security preparation for the last Olympics, the British Army commandeered a strategic high-rise residential building and placed surface-to-air missiles at the top. The residents protested and went to court. Let us assume a war broke out and the enemy flattened the whole building. He would not have committed a war crime because it was the British Army that made the civilian residents legitimate targets in the first place. Unfortunate though it may sound, schools, hospitals, churches, mosques, relief centres become legitimate targets once military activities begin to go on there in the event of a war. Check for instance the current Hamas tactics against Israel or the bombing of University of Nigeria, Nsukka, when it allowed itself to become headquarters of local Biafran Army, with several professors joining in expedition force to hunt down lost federal soldiers in the bush and their wives back on campus took care of wounded Biafran soldiers and students were going for daily drills and rifle shooting practice under Prof.  John C. Ene, Dean of Faculty of Sciences and Commander, University Defence Corps, as revealed in the US secret cable of 16 June 1967. Or the federal raid on the Catholic Cathedral of The Most Holy Trinity, Onitsha, when it was discovered Biafran snipers were operating from there.

When a plane or ship is designated as flying relief supplies to war sufferers, it must not be used to supply arms. Once it does, it is no longer covered by Geneva Convention. There was an Austrian Count, Carl Gustaf von Rosen, whom Achebe praises a lot for his humanitarian assistance in flying relief efforts to Biafra. This is what the Count’s wife had to say: “He told me he was going to Biafra, but he didn’t say he would be bombing MIGs (pg 300).” Achebe writes of von Rosen: “He led multiple relief flights with humanitarian aid into Uli Airport – Biafra’s chief airstrip. Fed up with Nigerian Air Force interference with his peaceful missions, he entered the war heroes hall of fame after leading a five-plane assault on Nigerian aircraft in Port Harcourt, Benin City, Ughelli, Enugu, and some other locations. He took the Nigerian Air Force by total surprise and destroyed several Soviet-supplied aircraft in the process.” That was someone flying humanitarian aid. How would the federal side begin to see other humanitarian flights that were supposed to be carrying food and medical supplies to war-ravished children? Cyprian Ekwensi, writer and head of external publicity for Biafra, admitted in his post-war reminiscences that the relief materials had arms built into them. The American documents too confirmed. The same Hank Warton, who the relief agencies were using to fly food into Biafra, was the one Ojukwu was using to deliver arms.

Of course the Nigerian side knew this and mandated all relief flights to Biafra to submit themselves for inspection at the Port Harcourt Airport. That was the interference Achebe claimed von Rosen was fed up with. In any event, he never claimed such in that 6 July 1969 interview he gave the London Observer. Those planes that passed their inspection delivered their relief. Those that did not were shot down. One particular case was the Swiss Red Cross DC7 Flight heading towards the Uli Airstrip (pg 101). After repeated warnings to change course and land for inspection, it was shot down, disgorging its arms and ammunition. The Biafran propaganda went to work, saying it was part of the genocide policies of Nigerian military to destroy food supplies meant for the kwashiorkor-stricken children.

It is also a fact that some of the relief supplies meant for the children were either ambushed by soldiers or ended up on the black market. Ekwensi again: “People were stealing and selling the food. You could buy it in the market, but you couldn’t get it in the relief centres.” But why would Biafra rely on food from thousands of miles away when their normal antebellum route of supply was merely tens of miles nearby in the Midwest and Northern Nigeria? It was because of the supply of arms and ammunition.

In a memorandum to the White House, Benjamin Read, the Executive Secretary of US State Department, writes: “Because of the absence of other airlines willing to make hazardous flights into Biafra, the ICRC [International Committee Of The Red Cross] has been forced to charter planes from Henry Wharton, an American citizen, who is widely known to be Biafra’s only gun runner. In engaging Wharton, the ICRC is risking its good relations with the FMG, which has long feared that ICRC flights might provide opportunity for gun running.” When Awolowo offered to re-open the usual food corridors, Ojukwu flatly refused. Achebe writes: “Ojukwu like many Biafrans, was concerned about the prospect that Nigerians could poison the food supplies (pg211).” Awolowo let in the food supplies for the children anyway, working with the cover of Caritas and Red Cross. “In America, the Nixon administration increased diplomatic pressure on the Gowon administration to open up avenues for international relief agencies at about the same time, following months of impasse over the logistics of supply route,” writes Achebe on pg 221. There was neither pressure nor its increment.

Independent evidence from the US declines to support this. “The problem of disaster relief in Biafra is not the lack of supplies or means of transport but the lack of access, particularly by a land corridor to Biafra. The authorities [Biafran] on the spot, under the conditions of civil war have given a higher priority to politico-military considerations than to arranging food to be delivered to Biafra. In early November 1968, the Nigerian government told the ICRC that it would agree to daylight relief flights to the major airstrip now held by Biafra if the ICRC could give assurances that the strip would handle only relief flight in daylight hours. We welcome this step by the Federal Government (FMG), which would substantially increase the flow of relief. So far, however, the Biafran authorities have refused to agree. We find it incomprehensible that despite the millions of Biafran lives at stake, the Biafran leadership has not yet given its agreement. The Nigerian government has also offered to cooperate in efforts to open a land corridor to Biafran-held territory. We hope that the Biafran authorities will respond positively to this but heretofore they have alleged they fear the food may be poisoned while transiting FMG territory,”  William B. Macomber, Jr, Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations wrote in a letter dated 20 December 1968 to Congresswoman Florence Dwyer, when she sought clarification on the plight of Biafran refugees she kept seeing in the media.

Later when Awolowo visited the battlefronts and saw the kwashiorkor-ravaged children, he asked about the food supplies, only to discover that soldiers were ambushing the supplies, feeding themselves and the top hierarchy so as to continue the war. Awolowo decided this “dangerous policy” must stop.

If Awolowo was a devil as contemporary Igbo folklore and Achebe’s private demonology have him, he would have arranged for the food supplies to be poisoned, knowing they were going to the soldiers. To protect those children, who were suffering because of the war, he asked for a stop to the food supply that was inevitably going to the soldiers and the Biafran plutocrats unnecessarily elongating a war they would never win.

Once Cameroon too realised that to the Biafran authorities, the suffering children existed for show business and arms trade, they not only refused to take them into their country, they disbanded the newly formed relief agency dedicated to their welfare. What is more, Achebe boasts of Biafran prowess in manufacturing Ogbunigwe and the Biafran imaginative refinement of petroleum that kept Biafran vehicles on the road throughout the war without western technological help, but the most basic of human necessities – the production or the supply of food – they had no clue. And the farmers that were supposed to grow food, as the US documents noted, were conscripted into the Biafran Army during planting season of 1967. The fertilisers that could have been used to better their lands were used to make Ogbunigwe. And so the starvation was Awolowo’s fault.

On The Mythical £20 Policy

Throughout the war, as the US State Department’s confidential files disclose, there was no shortage of people and “isms” to blame for the failure of war. At different times and to different audiences, Biafrans blamed racism, neo-imperialism, colonialism for the war. When Ojukwu sent Pius Okigbo to the mainly Latin American countries to solicit for funds and arms for Biafra, he blamed the war on “the desire of Arab Muslims who saw Biafra the only obstacle to the spread of Islam in Africa”. Okigbo noted to his audiences that “Biafra is 60% Catholic and 40% Protestant.” Also, during several of his radio addresses, Ojukwu blamed the war on the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who supplied 15% of Nigeria’s arms. He called the kwashiorkor afflicting Biafran children Harold Wilson Syndrome or Herod Disease. Like the biblical King Herod, Ojukwu said, Wilson wanted to exterminate the children of Biafra.

While the blame-Arabs/Hausa/Islam narrative, blame-Wilson/racism/imperialism narratives, that were so potently alive during the war are now safely dead, the blame-Awolowo-for-starvation narrative is well alive, going from generation to generation. To the Americans, who monitored and documented everything about the war, there was no time Awolowo was blamed for the starvation or deaths on any of these 21,000 pages. However, after the war, it was through the £20 policy that the blame-Awolowo narrative began. To develop it, they seized on this policy and worked their way back to include what Awolowo may have said or done, and mixed it together  to form a narrative.

The £20-for-every-Igbo was a myth. What happened then was a currency crisis. On 30 December 1967, Awolowo decided to change the Nigerian currency in circulation in order to render  useless the £37 million Ojukwu had for buying foreign weapons. The Biafran leadership quickly took the loot, mopped up the ones they could get in circulation and headed to Europe to exchange them for hard currencies. Eventually, they introduced Biafran notes as the only legal tender. There was around 149 million Biafran pounds in circulation by the end of the war–an average of £10 per every Igbo. After the war, there was a general scramble to exchange these notes for the new Nigerian notes. As Awolowo explained, he didn’t know on what basis these notes were produced. It is like someone bringing a single 50 billion Zimbabwean dollar note to the bank and expecting to be given N50 billion. The exchange rate should be known to determine the worth of the Zimbabwean dollar. Currently, 39 billion Zimbabwean dollars is worth 1 US dollar. In the case of Biafra, the worth of the currency was unknown; they were produced out of desperation, with lax security features to boot. In his statement of 1 February 1968, Dr. Okigbo, Biafra’s Commissioner of Economic Affairs, said “the lack of international acceptance and lack of a commensurate exchange rate was immaterial since the currency was intended only for circulation in Biafra.” In other words, it was worthless outside Biafra. After the war those that had this money were carting them to Nigerian banks, hoping to get the equivalent in new Nigerian notes. No banker or economist worth that description would approve that. Awolowo, in his bid to rehabilitate the Igbo and restore economic normalcy, approved the payment of 20 Nigerian pounds flat rate for every Biafran notes depositor. It was never £20 for every Igbo. Twenty pounds for every Biafran? That would have been around £300 million, when Nigeria’s  annual budget  before the war was £342.22 million, for a population of 57 million.

Indigenisation Decree

The true winner of the civil war was the Nigerian military class, which succeeded in using everybody against everybody and continued its indefinite aggrandisement of the self by fleecing the country to the bone as the next 30 years confirmed. After the January coup, Aguiyi-Ironsi used Dr. Nwafor Orizu, the acting president, to capture power. What Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna wanted to use bloodletting to achieve, he grabbed it on “a scrap piece of paper” as Shehu Shagari’s eyewitness account, Beckoned to Serve, discloses. The New York Times describes it as a coup within a coup. Gowon used Awolowo for the war and to keep the country economically viable. He took advantage of the failed secession to perpetuate himself in power. “Go On With One Nigeria (GOWON),” he stumped. Ojukwu, too, as Wole Soyinka observes in his own ipsissimaverba, You Must Set Forth At Dawn, was also interested in conquering Nigeria not only in seceding.

Unknown to Victor Banjo and his Third Force, Ojukwu had embedded special companies within the Third Force to topple Banjo and hand control of Nigeria to him in case Banjo succeeded in conquering the West and Lagos. The Indigenisation Decree had nothing to do with disenfranchising the Igbos or other Biafrans of economic power. As was the vogue in 14 African nations then, indigenisation and nationalisation was the ruling military class and their friends’ way of dressing their bottomless impulse to loot with the populist cloak of fighting western imperialism and neo-colonialism. For their roles during the war, Awolowo or Enahoro should be getting major oil blocs. But they did not. Can Achebe blame the maltreatment on the Igbo populace by many of the governors in the zone on any indigenisation decree?

Indeed Awolowo could be ‘tribalistic’. The Yoruba region, like pre-EU Europe, was always in a state of constant war. Ibadan vs Ekiti vs Egba, Ondo vs Ijebu, Ife vs Ijesa, etc. This internecine war made Yorubaland susceptible to easy French colonisation to the west (Dahomey) and British Royal Niger Company taking the rest. When Awolowo “resuscitated ethnic pride”, he used it to rally Yoruba to stop fighting and killing each other. This resuscitation was not to elevate the Yoruba so that they would dominate other tribes. Achebe observes: “Awolowo transformed the Action Group into a formidable, highly disciplined political machine that often outperformed the NCNC in regional elections. It did so by meticulously galvanising political support in Yorubaland and among the riverine and minority groups in the Niger Delta, who shared similar dread of the prospects of Igbo political domination (pg45).”

Achebe never addresses this dread, though he mentions it in two other places. Nowhere in the book does he stump for brotherliness or make a stand for tribal harmony. In 1961, the British Cameroonians had to decide their fate through a UN plebiscite since their lands were too small and landlocked to stand as a country. The peoples of the Northern Cameroons voted to belong to northern Nigeria, while the peoples of the Southern Cameroons not wanting to belong to the Igbos decided to belong to Republic of Cameroon despite being French-speaking. The reason minorities needed to be very afraid at the prospects of collaborating with the Igbo is an important topic Achebe conspicuously skips. Instead, he spends the final pages of the book resurrecting the 44-year-old propaganda of genocide.

To prepare us to be swindled, he litters the book with hyped phrases and sentences like “Smash the Biafrans”, “presence of organised genocide” (pg 92)… “the Nigerian forces decided to purge the city of its Igbo inhabitants (pg137)”… “the cost in human life made it one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history (pg227)… “prospect of annihilation (pg217)”… “Standing on the precipice of annihilation (pg 217).” Those that can rightly talk of annihilation were the people of Abudu. The American document of 15/10/67 noted: “As the ‘Biafrans’ retreated from Benin to Agbor, they killed all the men, women and children they could find who were not Ibos. The town of Abudu, one of the larger places between Agbor and Benin, lost virtually all of its population with the exception of a small who had escaped to the bush.” Those that can rightly talk of annihilation were the Jews. Not only do Nazi policy documents say so, on-the-ground facts support that. In Poland, Germany, Austria and the Baltic countries alone, Hitler aiming for 100 per cent, killed 90 per cent of Jews. Cyprian Ekwensi, a chief of Biafran propaganda says: “We gave the number of children dying per day as 1,000. Can you prove that? Can you disprove it? But can you believe it? That is propaganda.” So let us take the Biafran propaganda at its highest and assume three million, i.e. 100,000 per month died in the 30-month war. The Vietnamese genuinely lost close to three million to the Vietnam War, but they do not talk of America’s plan to annihilate them. Neither do the Japanese, the world’s first and only victims of nuclear explosion. Azikiwe repeatedly argued that though Igbos were killed in the North, it does not mean the tribe was “slated for slaughter” as a policy. Colin Legum, whom Achebe claims was the first to describe the 1966 revenge killings of Igbos in the North as pogroms (pg 82), does not think so, too. This is curious. Instead of stating the source of the Legum article, Achebe references his own interview in Transition. In the London Observer of 26 May 1968, Legum writes: “It is clear that there is no systematic attempt at exterminating Ibos to justify charge of genocide.” Also, Ojukwu’s hitherto unknown Director of Intelligence and External Communications, the American priest, Rev Fr Kevin Doheny, said in a secret but frank conversation with an American diplomat that the claim of genocide is “highly exaggerated but, without it, Biafrans would have given up fighting long time ago”.

If there was any intention to exterminate Igbos, why after Ojukwu had fled and the Biafran military had been completely paralysed, did the Nigerian military not  use the opportunity to  turn the guns on the defenceless Biafrans or carpet bomb them? Instead, there were steps to welcome them back into the fold. It is disingenious of anyone to talk of “genocide” or “prospect of annihilation” when the context and facts on ground say otherwise. It is insulting to the memory of true genocide victims. “If you are blind, describing an elephant is easy,” Achebe writes in The Education of a British-Protected Child. “You can call it, like one of the six blind men in the fable, a huge tree trunk; or perhaps a gigantic fan; or an enormous rope, and so on. But having eyes, far from making such descriptions easy, actually complicates them.” Achebe, throughout the book, chooses the easy path  of the blind over the complex task of a conscientious writer. Having taken a low road, he wants to arrive at a high point by invoking the Mandela Example in the final pages. Mandela described Achebe as the writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down”. With There Was A Country, Achebe is the writer in whose company dangerous walls are rising up: walls of tribal hatred, walls of lies, walls of sloppy thinking and lazy research, walls of propaganda and walls of moral ineptitude.

—Damola Awoyokun/London

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