Obodo 9ja

Guest post by Adebiyi Olusolape*

I read Achebe’s piece in the Grauniad. The piece says nothing about his latest book, but it says a lot about Nigeria. What follows are some of my prejudices and misconceptions, stated in response to statements culled from Achebe’s piece:

I believe that it is fundamentally important, indeed essential to our humanity, to ask the hard questions, in order to better understand ourselves and our neighbours.

Spinoza’s exhortation immediately comes to mind, “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere”– “Not to laugh, not to weep, not to hate, but to understand.” I say let the man laugh, weep and hate, it humanizes. I, too, cherish understanding, but let Achebe laugh, weep and hate, it humanizes. I for my part will cherish understanding, deplore hatred, weep with them that weep and laugh with those who rejoice.

Achebe’s polemic is a study in Hate as fine art, but do we admit it? Because it is Achebe; because he’s an old man; because he is Igbo; because it’s about Biafra; because he knocks Nigeria, which is our national pastime and we are enamored with those who can knock Nigeria with panache and righteously; because the hate is so sublimely expressed– I think he has surpassed Conrad.

Achebe projects the image of Nigeria as “the other world,” the antithesis of Biafra and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.

Did the federal government of Nigeria engage in the genocide of its Igbo citizens…

Charles Dadi Onyeama was at the ICJ throughout the war. Was it not the Roaring Lion of Eke himself who once (in)famously observed that the Igbo domination of Nigeria was only a matter of time?

Some of Nigeria’s finest jurists were on the Biafran side: Louis Mbanefo, Chike Idigbe, Moses Balonwu, G.C.M. Onyuike, Chukwudifu Oputa, Anthony Aniagolu; Biafra was recognized by Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Haiti– why wasn’t a case of genocide brought before the ICJ?

I recognize Achebe’s question as part of a global process of working out what genocide means. I know there were pogroms before the war in which “Easterners” were sought out and attacked. I believe Federal soldiers have questions to answer over massacres in Asaba, Onitsha, Ihiala and Biafran soldiers over Urhonigbe.

To go off on a tangent, there is a concession in Achebe’s query although it may require some teasing out. It is that all through the war, the Igbos who pledged allegiance to Biafra, that allegiance notwithstanding, continued to be citizens of Nigeria. I have continued to wonder about the ramifications of the expulsion of non-easterners from the Eastern region even before the Federal “police action” began against the “rebellion.”

The world continues to work out what Genocide means. Witness the recent events in France and Turkey over the Armenian question, the recent Bosnian genocide trials. There is renewed interest in the Herero Genocide. I, only recently, made the acquaintance of a scholar who has written on the connections between everyday work and the Rwandan genocide. I can only hope those who have the courage of their convictions will go beyond the kinds of actions that created wartime propaganda to something concrete.

…punitive policies, the most notorious being “starvation as a legitimate weapon of war.”

Is there a weapon of war that is legitimate? Is war itself legitimate? Bear with me, I am still trying to learn Grotius properly: ius ad bellum, ius in bello. Pacifism? Didn’t both sides use starvation as a weapon of war? What does the evidence from when Bonny Island was held by the Federals say? What does the experience of Ogonis, in Biafran concentration and refugee camps, tell us?

Obi Iwuagwu’s ‘Food Shortages, Survival Strategies and the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria during the Nigeria Civil War’ identifies about ten factors that contributed to starvation during the Nigeria Civil War, the economic blockade being a significant factor.

Chima Korieh’s ‘Agricultural Transformation, State Policy and Agricultural Decline in Eastern Nigeria, 1960-1970 had already pointed me to two other factors. The refusal of relief supplies by the Biafran administration then becomes a thirteenth.

A reading of the various accounts of the civil war has made me wonder about a fourteenth: profiteers and corrupt administrators. Do I pursue understanding to the point of splitting hairs, into proximate and ultimate causes? What is the point? If we neglect other factors and focus on punitive policies alone, what does that help us understand? Are victim-hood and innocence the only grounds for insight?

Why has the war not been discussed, or taught to the young, more than 40 years after its end?

My mother used to tell me about the bombing of Yaba during the Civil War, and how civilians died, others were maimed. She told me direct hits were scored by a Biafran bomber on the area around Casino Cinema, and how after that the once vibrant commerce in that area ebbed away.

She grew up on Ondo Street, Ebute Meta, and is an alumna of Queen’s College and Yabatech. I, myself, am writing this on Raymond Street. Nowadays, the area around “Casino” bus stop, on Herbert Macaulay Way is one of the quieter spots on that long stretch of road. That has always had an extra significance for me.

What dread and pain that bombing brought, some of which my mother was able to communicate to me– what my mother communicated to me was enough to begin understanding the terror and harm that came to others who experienced indescribably worse under Federal aerial bombardment.

As to teaching the war, I was never one to confuse schooling with education. If this is about schooling, shouldn’t the crusaders be directing their practical-critical activity towards the various Ministries of Education in the federation?

I have been searching for a copy of that controversial History of the Nigerian Army (1863-1992) which the Nigerian Army Education Corps and School (NAECS) prepared and which I learnt dedicates over 10% of its content to the period 1966—1970.
I wonder, to cite just one example, whether the petition brought by none other than Prof. Ben Nwabueze, with the Ohaneze Ndigbo, before the Oputa panel and all the responses that petition provoked, especially that of the Ogbakor Ikwerre, can be considered a formal discussion.

I wonder, then, whether the publication of Matthew Kukah’s book, last year and all the related publicity, in which Kukah called upon government to deal with the findings of the Oputa panel, can be held to be another attempt to put these issues on the front burner.

I am struggling not to interpret Achebe’s statement as erasure, not to number him on the side of the successive administrations of the country, similar in their dismissal of the Oputa panel.

This calculation, the Biafrans insisted, was predicated on a holy jihad proclaimed by mainly Islamic extremists in the Nigerian army…

In 1992, a letter was written to the Sultan of Sokoto by the extremist Izalatu Islamic Group, seeking his assistance in waging a jihad in Zangon Katab. On the strength of that letter alone, should the Kataf crises be characterized as jihad?

In any case, the motif of jihad is one that recurs in Nigeria’s history, from the jihad of Uthman Dan Fodio to Boko Haram. I would like to know who the ‘Islamic extremists in the Nigerian army’ were.  I would like to learn about their proclamation of a holy jihad.

Why were there more small arms used on Biafran soil than during the entire second world war?

This is fantastic. I want to look at Achebe’s sources. In any case, ascertaining the sources and quantities of arms supplies to both sides should help us along in answering this loaded question.

Why were there 100,000 casualties on the much larger Nigerian side compared with more than 2 million — mainly children — Biafrans killed?

Tears come out of the skies every time somebody dies. Does one not ask for different skies as from the distance of another life? One trusts to Time to heal all those who were touched directly and in other ways by the staggering loss.

The unfortunate loss of our people is one other reason this country hasn’t made all the progress it should have. Nevertheless, I know the numbers are contested. I would love to know the basis of Achebe’s accounting.

‘The wartime cabinet of General Gowon, the military ruler, it should also be remembered, was full of intellectuals like Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others who came up with a boatload of infamous and regrettable policies.’

How then does Achebe justify his post-war relationship with the Commissioner for Health in that cabinet? What is Achebe’s position on the role of that Health Commissioner in the pogroms that preceded the war? I mean, does Achebe have a response to Ileogbunam’s allegations in Ironside, allegations which I have been told are corroborated by clues in Tanko Yakassai’s autobiography and the biography written by Alan Feinstein?

However, Awolowo saw the dominant Igbos at the time as the obstacles 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.

Awolowo’s roles in the conduct of the Civil War are a matter of fact but are his motivations and intentions? I am always wary of diviners of intention.

After that outrageous charade, Nigeria’s leaders sought to devastate the resilient and emerging eastern commercial sector even further by banning the import of secondhand clothing and stockfish — two trade items that they knew the burgeoning market towns of Onitsha, Aba and Nnewi needed to re-emerge.

What was the role of the government of the Mid-West State in the restoration of electricity supply to Onitsha, Enugu, Nsukka, and Nkalagu, enabling the rehabilitation of industries in the former East Central State?

Did Ogbemudia donate furniture and other resources to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to enable that institution resume the training of Nigerians? Did people all over the country, in various ways, lend a helping hand to friends, family, acquaintances and even perfect strangers?

Did Awolowo save, during the period of the war, the revenue due to the East Central State and release those funds as monthly subventions at the rate of £990,000 after the war?

Did Ikoku, the Commissioner for Economic Development in East Central State, aver that the Federal Government made available a £21,505,000 grant and £10, 620,000 in loans for his state?

Did Mbakwe’s administration draw any funds from the federal purse?

In the 90s, I would stay with the Uwezus, in Oke-Ayo, Ibadan, whenever my mother traveled to Aba. In those days, she used to buy Bangkok Linen, Garbadine and other cloth. She also brought back secondhand clothing, which she sourced from Ngwa road.
My grandmother had introduced her daughter to Aba, Ariaria, in the 80s, a few years before I was born. Does it matter that the Uwezus are from Mbaise? Does it matter that my grandmother had her primary education in Umuahia, or that she went on to Uli Girls although she had to complete her secondary education in Enugu?

My interest in Nigerian markets as drivers of economic growth may well be related to certain elements in my personal history. But, what exactly was the significance of secondhand clothing and stockfish to the ‘eastern commercial sector’?

Well, I have news for them: The Igbos were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness.

Have the Dukawas ever been integrated into Nigeria? Have the Katafs been reintegrated? The Tivs? An Ijaw man is President of Nigeria today and many Ijaw ex-militants have been placed in the lap of luxury, can we then say the Ijaws have been reintegrated into Nigeria since Adaka Boro’s Twelve-Day Revolution?

What exactly is meant by reintegration? What exactly are the privations peculiar to Igbos in Nigeria? For Achebe’s unqualified claim, Iweala adduced this, “A trip to the Igbo-dominated southeast reveals abysmal roads, bridges threatening to collapse, and a power grid that is all but entirely useless, all what many Igbos believe is a deliberate policy of neglect as punishment for the sin of secession.”

If Iweala is right, then I guess the Lagos-Ibadan expressway and the town of Ibafo are to be found in the ‘Igbo-dominated southeast.’ My goodness! Only last week, Dr Ajayi and I went to my house in Elebu, Ibadan. We had to park his car kilometers away from the house and continue on foot because the red strip of laterite that used to pass for a road has been terribly eroded as to become “unmotorable.”

We also waded through a stream because the bridge had long been washed away. I guess that’s because we were being punished for the sin of secession. In any case, we are all from Ado-Na-Idu, as B.O.N. Eluwa argues, in his posthumously published book on Igbo origins.

Is Philip Asiodu Igbo? Was Ukpabi Asika Igbo? Are Kalu Idika Kalu and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Igbo? Clearly, the things Achebe identifies correlate not to “Igbo” but to something deeper, something “Human.” Alas! Some men cling rather to the raft of old hatreds and prejudices than drown in humanity.

As for me, if I am to identify one of the main reasons for continued backwardness in Nigeria, it would be this unfortunate arrangement by which funds for development in, say, Oyo State are expected to come from, say, Bayelsa State.

I am opposed to the principle which is manifest in Decree 5 of 1969 and other revenue allocation measures since then, the recommendations of both the Ojetunji Aboyade Revenue Sharing scheme and the Pius Okigbo Commission on Revenue Allocation etc., etc.

M.I. Ahamba, in Twin Pillars of Unity, wrote, “[T]hose who believe in speaking their mind must develop patient ears.” The case for Nigeria’s unity will only be put beyond debate when this nation sacrifices certain majority interests in order to listen patiently to the voice of her minorities.

Nigeria has substantive ethnic issues to address; why is it that Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba loudmouths are always trying to corner the national discourse? Why does a dog lick its balls? I guess it’s because it can. Just because it can.


Adebiyi Olusolape is a journeyman collagist. He is poetry editor of Saraba Magazine.