Late Chief Obafemi Awolowo
I have vowed never to comment on Chinua Achebe’s controversial best seller titled “There was a Country” until I have had a chance to read it from cover to cover. Having read the book, I now feel at liberty to do a 3 part series on it starting with this one. I do not believe anyone can do justice to all of the issues raised in that book in one or two articles.
I have read some of the comments by prominent Igbo leaders supporting the central thesis of Chinua Achebe’s indictment of Obafemi Awolowo as the man who arguably crafted, engineered and implemented the genocidal policies that led to the Biafran War. Chinua Achebe has argued that Awolowo and by implication the Yoruba people as a whole should be held responsible for the more than 2 million deaths from Biafra and half that number or more from the Federal side because nobody was able to keep an accurate record of how many people died in that war on both sides. I was an Assistant Secretary (Army) in Defense Headquarters in Lagos and I know that to be the truth. All I can tell you is that there was needless loss of lives on both sides.
The Abagana disaster which was the most successful ambush of the Nigerian troops by the Biafran troops who effectively deployed the “Ugbunigwe” land mines against Federal troops in that war was a case in point. The inference can be drawn from Chinua Achebe’s analysis and conclusions and those who support him that Obafemi Awolowo and the Yorubas were the “fons et origo” of the Biafran apocalyptic misadventure. I would beg to disagree with that observation on hindsight. If Chinua Achebe in this book has added that here was plenty of blame to go around on both sides, and if he has gone ahead to correctly analyze and itemize those blames and those responsible for them, I would have been less critical of the learned Professor in this write-up. Why? Because the learned Professor to me remains one of the greatest literary giants Nigeria has ever produced. He has been a hero of mine from my Secondary School days when I first read his “Things Fall Apart”.
If I was one of the judges in the Board of Assessors for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, I would have picked the man before I pick my former Lecturer and fellow Yoruba juggernaut, Professor Emeritus of English Language, Wole Soyinka. I honestly consider “Things Fall Apart” as Chinua Achebe’s greatest literary gift to the Universe. The book has now been translated into more than 192 foreign languages the last time I checked. That to me is an eloquent testimony to the distinction of Chinua Achebe’s as Nigeria’s closest runners-up to William Shakespeare.
I will therefore be the last person to cast aspersion on anything Chinua Achebe has ever written. It is in fact beyond my pay grade to want to do that. But that said, I am a bit disillusioned that Chinua Achebe who is not saying anything new about what many among his tribe have said about Obafemi Awolowo and the Yorubas would choose this particular time of all times to start lending his powerful voice to uninformed speculations about any role Awolowo and the Yorubas must have played in cajoling Biafrans to fight a war in which they lost so much. The Achebe book could not have come at a worse moment for the South at a time the Jonathan Government has now finally agreed to allow the Sovereign National Conference to go forward.
The three dominant tribes in Nigeria i.e. the Hausa/Fulani Oligarchy in the North, the Igbos in the South East and the Yorubas in the Southwest and now the Ijaws in the South/South should not have to face this kind of wedge issue that could predictably weaken the solidarity of the South as we prepare for that conference to drastically restructure Nigeria for the good of the country. The Igbos and the Yorubas - two of the most progressive, educated, civilized and economically vibrant tribes in Nigeria would be doing ourselves a huge disfavor to go into that national conference with a mind set that emphasizes what divides us rather than what unites us. Chinua Achebe who I consider as one of the powerful voices to decide where Nigeria goes from here in that conference should not have allowed himself to be used as enabler to further divide the South at this time.
I personally regret that the Ikemba Odumegwu Ojukwu, the undisputed leader of the Igbos and the Commander-in-Chief of the Biafran forces in that war did not live long enough to complete his memoirs on that war like he had promised to do. That memoir would have cleared the air once and for all. The central thesis of Chinua Achebe in that book would have been more credible to me if that conclusion had come from the Ikemba himself. I could care less about what the so-called Commander of Biafran Army, “General” Alex Madiebo had said that Chinua Achebe had understated the hostility of Obafemi Awolowo to Igbo nation. I am fully aware of how Okwealieze Nwodo and Dr. Mbadinuju have already endorsed the Chinua Achebe’s view point in the book. I am also aware that former Governor Ezeife has issued a statement which I totally agree with that we must all remember that “Awolowo did not join the war against Nigeria and neither did he start the war against Eastern Region but he eventually joined Gowon”
What Governor Ezeife did not add and should have added was that Ogbuefi Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Igbos foremost leader who reportedly composed the Biafran National Anthem has also had cause to desert Biafra and to side with Gowon at the most critical phase of the war. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that the Azikiwe’s retreat or betrayal had dealt a far more fatal blow to the Biafran struggle than anything that Awolowo ever did. Ogbuefi Nnamdi Azikiwe far more than Odumegwu Ojukwu at the time was like the Ayatollah, the spiritual and ultimate leader of Iran while Ojukwu could be compared to Ahmadinejad the transient political leader of Iran. “Ayatollah” Azikiwe taking a U turn and siding with General Gowon at the time was a major blow to Biafra“ far more damaging than anything Awolowo ever did.
It was only a question of time before the Ikemba clearly saw the hand writing on the wall by quickly flying to exile in the Ivory Coast thereby leaving “General” Philip Effiong to handle the surrender formalities that ended the War. Chinua Achebe did not dwell so much on that development in his book but he found it convenient to put all the blame on Obafemi Awolowo and the Yorubas and their ambition to subjugate and forever humiliate the Igbos using genocide as a convenient weapon.
Socrates was right when he said that “what any man is saying or seeing is often a factor of where that man is sitting or standing at any given point” I will concede to Professor Chinua Achebe that he probably drew his conclusion based on where he was sitting or standing when he made his observation, But there is more to what really happened in that war than the totality of what Chinua Achebe has stated in that book. It was as if Chinua Achebe was less concerned about the sequence of events leading to the Biafran War in 1967 which included the murder of Ahmadu Bello in January 15, 1966, the assassination Aguiyi Ironsi at Ibadan 6 months later and the heroic role played by Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, a Yoruba man who laid down his own life rather than betray his Igbo Commander-in-Chief. Chinua Achebe seemed to forget that the Igbos and the Hausas dominated the Nigerian Military pre and post- Independence era because the Hausas dominated the rank and file of the Military in Nigeria while the Igbos clearly dominated the officer rank.
The Yorubas at that particular time in our history did not particularly value the Military and the Nigerian Police and the Para-military establishments in Nigeria as career points for our people. Yorubas preferred joining the Civil Service or going to teach than seeking a career in the Military. When I graduated from the University of Ife in June 1966 as the first child of all Nigerian veterans of the Second World War to win the British/Canadian Legion Scholarship to do my first degree, the Military should have been the first choice for me. I could easily have been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Nigerian Defense Academy in Kaduna. I was actually made an offer and encouraged to join the Army by then Major and late General Agbazika Innih as I recall. I rejected the offer because my mother would not let me take it because I was my mother’s only child.
I did not think I lost anything at the time because smart and educated Yorubas would rather take a teaching job or join the Civil Service than join the Military. I predictably ended up taking up a teaching job first at Aquinas College, Akure from June 1966 before crossing over to Igbobi College, Lagos from where I joined the Federal Public Service as an Administrative Officer in the Federal Ministry of Defense on January 3rd 1968 with late Yusuf Gobir from Kwara as my Permanent Secretary and late B. G. Popo as my Deputy Permanent Secretary.
It would have been naïve and foolish of the Yorubas under Awolowo to simply join forces with the Igbos to fight or confront the Hausa/Fulani dominance of Nigeria with only a few Yorubas in the Military at the time. That was one of Awolowo’s calculations. Awolowo was among the few prominent Yoruba men bold enough to visit the East to try to persuade Ojukwu to reconsider his declaration of war against Nigeria because he clearly told Ojukwu that the West was not militarily and mentally ready to join in, if the East decided to go forward with her plan to break away. The same Awo who did not suffer fools gladly did not hesitate to convey to General Yakubu Gowon in an unmistakable language that if the East is allowed to break away then the West would have no other choice than to separate from the North. It was an honest position to take because Awolowo had always demonstrated his preference to form a coalition with the East than with the North because he was convinced it would make more sense to team up with the East and the Yorubas supported him in that decision. If Awolowo was the kind of leader Chinua Achebe was painting him to be in that book he would have preferred going with the North which was more educationally backward and disadvantaged at the time.
Awolowo was by far the strongest Nigerian leader of that era who knew what he wanted and the courage to state his case very clearly. Another Yoruba leader who made it clear he totally supported the Igbos for wanting to break away because of the genocide unleashed on them in the North by the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy was Professor Wole Soyinka. The third Yoruba man who was a self-confessed confidant of Odumegwu Ojukwu and a great friend of the Igbos in general was the late Professor Samuel Adepoju Aluko who lectured for many years at the great University of Nsukka. There was also late Tai Solarin who wrote several articles opposing the killing of the Igbos in the North. These distinguished Yoruba men plus Colonel Banjo who actually gave up his life fighting under the Biafran flag and Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi who gave up his life like I said earlier, were all out rooting for the Igbos during the war. Let anyone with facts dispute the facts I am making here if they have them.
How for goodness sake can Professor Achebe not remember some of the peaceful and friendly overtures the Yorubas have made to the Igbos on so many occasions in the history of Nigeria. It baffles me that the Professor would not mention anything about these larger than life overtures the Yorubas have always made to the Igbos because we view the Igbos as being more compatible with us than the Hausa/Fulani Oligarchy and majority of us still feel the same way till now. The Yorubas have demonstrated that goodwill every now and then. When Nigeria became independent in 1960, Awolowo had proposed to Azikiwe for the NCNC and the Action Group to form a coalition to run the central Government with Awolowo agreeing to let Azikiwe become Prime Minister while he himself would be happy to settle for Finance Minister. The man did the right thing but Azikiwe turned him down. Look where the NCNC/NPC coalition has led Nigeria today 52 years later. Need I say more?
Azikiwe and the Igbos instead chose to go with the Northerners because they have made the calculation that the Igbos were going to be able to dominate the Hausas more than they could ever hope to dominate the Yorubas who were equally as educated as the Igbos. Come on folks. There is plenty of blame to go around, if we want to be realistic. The Igbos have made a few mistakes like the Yorubas. What the hell is Chinua Achebe talking about? Wasn’t Azikiwe going to become the first Premier of Western Nigeria while Imoke was going to be the first Premier of Eastern Nigeria? Who voted for the NCNC and Azikiwe to initially win the majority at Ibadan in 1952? Was it not the Yorubas? Can the Igbos ever point to any similar concessions for the Yorubas in their own enclave? If it exists let them say it if there is any. I am more than willing to learn.
The Yorubas have been great supporters of the Igbos for as long as any of us can remember. The NCNC led by Azikiwe have always won in Ibadan, Ilesha and Akure Metropolis even in Awolowo days? Akure as I recall was among the Yoruba towns begging the Igbos to not return to the East because they were guaranteed their safety in Akure and not one of their abandoned properties in Akure were taken over after they left Akure during the war. The properties were all kept safe for them till after the war, Compare that with what happened to the Igbo’s abandoned properties in Port Harcourt and much of River’s State after the war was over!
I am offended that Chinua Achebe has applied such a wide brush to use his book to chastise Awolowo and all the Yorubas as pursuing an agenda to suppress and humiliate the Igbos. That indictment is not supported by any reality check. It is sad that very few things are documented in Nigeria. There is no substitute for documented history. Those who know Awolowo very well would realize that he had political ambition to rule Nigeria but certainly not at the expense of the Igbos or any other tribe in Nigeria.
Awolowo predicted long time ago that the minority Ijaws are going to rule Nigeria. The prediction has come to pass with the coronation of Jonathan. Awolowo was fighting for Democracy and development and purposeful leadership to take root in Nigeria and not a one party dictatorship where the blind will be leading the blind. If Chinua Achebe reads Awolowo’s “Path to Nigerian Freedom” the “Voice of Reason” and The Peoples’ Republic he would appreciate that Awolowo was totally above those petty ethnic jealousies and squabbles. He wanted a Nigeria we all can be proud of, with Freedom for all and Life more abundant just like he did for the old Western Region.
I wish Awolowo were still alive to defend himself. I knew Obafemi Awolowo. Obafemi Awolowo was in many ways my mentor. I worked under him very closely for a year in the Federal Ministry of Finance. I was born into the Action Group, my father was one of the foundation pillars of the Action Group in the defunct Western Nigeria and in Akure the Ondo State Capital. Nigeria would never know a fighter and a braver Nigerian leader who fears nobody and will tell you his mind, come rain or shine. Awolowo was never a leader to be taken for granted or taken lightly. He drove himself far much harder than he drove others. Awolowo would look you straight in the face and tell you not what he thought you wanted to hear but what you needed to hear loud and clear.
I witnessed a little bit of that when in 1974 or 1975 he addressed a Convocation at the University that now bears his name. I personally prepared the first draft of the speech he was supposed to read as Chancellor of the University. I passed on the draft of that speech for clearance thru my then Deputy Permanent Secretary, Alhaji Aminu Saleh who passed on the draft to late Abdul Azeez Attah the Permanent Secretary who made a few cosmetic changes before passing the draft to Obafemi Awolowo as Federal Commissioner for Finance and Deputy Chairman of the Federal Executive Council at the time.
We were all expecting Awolowo to read our draft on the Convocation Day. Awo did not use a single word from the draft. He read the speech he himself had prepared without clearing it with Dodan Barracks or General Yakubu Gowon, his boss at the time. Awolowo was the only Federal Commissioner who could have done that without being queried by anybody. It took a lot of courage and hard work for him to do that because the speech he read was totally devoted to the 1973 or 1974 Census conducted by the Yakubu Gowon Government. Awolowo demolished the Census as dead on arrival because “it has defied all the known rules and norms of Demography in the whole world “ to use Awolowo’s exact words at the Convocation.
I have never in my life seen anything like that. The late President Leopold Senghor of Senegal and Prime Minister late Eric Williams of Trinidad and Tobago were in the audience to be honored by the University and so was Yakubu Gowon himself. By that single stroke Obafemi Awolowo killed the Census that day. When Murtala Mohammed took over from Gowon in 1975, one of his first actions as the new Head of State was to annul the Census altogether and to order a recount. He, Murtala Mohammed, had lifted verbatim part of Awolowo’s speech in so doing.
It is not for fun that the Ikemba himself, Odumegwu Ojukwu who had shown so much respect for Awolowo by describing “Awo as the best President Nigeria never had” I don’t know what Chinua Achebe is talking about. If the Ikemba has shared the views canvassed by Professor Achebe in this controversial book, he most certainly would have said so without mincing words.
I have personally read a narrative of Rudolf Okonkwo’s interview with the Ikemba carried verbatim by the Sahara Reporters before the Ikemba’s death. If the Ikemba truly believed that Awolowo was to blame for all the genocidal policies against Biafra, he would have said so without any doubt. Awolowo was neither the head of the Federal Government nor the head of the Military when the genocide occurred. He was the Federal Commissioner and the Deputy Chairman to Gowon in the Federal Executive Council at the time.
The policy was a joint decision of the Federal Executive Council at the time. It is totally disingenuous of Professor Achebe to now put the blame on Awolowo as if Awo was Head of Government. I totally reject that attempt.
Awolowo as Federal Commissioner for Finance had managed the finances of Nigeria at the time with distinction making sure that Nigeria did not borrow a penny to prosecute that war. He did so by persuading the Federal Executive Council to stop wasting money by creating white elephant missions abroad while the nation was engaged in a very expensive and destructive civil war. His colleague Okoi Arikpo could easily have condemned Awolowo for dabbling into the affairs of his Ministry at the time. He did not do so like because he knew Awolowo was right to champion such a cause and to master-mind and influence the implementation of that policy with clock-like precision.
That was Awo for all of us during his entire public life. Nigeria was blessed to have a man of his caliber managing the nation’s finances during the civil war. By the same token Awolowo personally confided in me when I worked under him about his rational for telling General Yakubu Gowon it made no sense for his Government to continue to prolong the war and to continue to enrich the pockets of all the war commanders who did not want the war to end at all because they were substantially benefiting from it.
If the war had continued beyond 3 to 5 or more years, the Biafra and Nigeria side would have lost a lot more than the 2 million Chinua Achebe wants Awolowo to be crucified for. Chinua Achebe has completely forgotten that Awolowo was an economist and a lawyer by training and profession. He realized that the Law of diminishing returns had already set in and it was his duty and responsibility as Finance Minister to stop the hemorrhage and he did by asking why it made sense to continue to actively feed the Biafran troops while they continue to have access to fresh supplies of arms and food supplies from Ivory Coast, Gabon, and one or two countries openly supporting Biafra at the time.
America, right now, has unleashed very tough and harsh economic sanctions on Iran today because they don’t want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Only God can tell how many Iranians are dying today from those sanctions or how many Libyans died when NATO forces led by America cut off supplies to Libyan troops and when America started giving drones to the Libyan opposition to topple Moammar Ghadafi.
When there is a war, compassion has to take a back seat. That is the plain truth that Awolowo as a leader clearly understood. Very few rational people would fault Awolowo for raising the points he has raised as the effective manager of the Nigerian finances at the time. Awolowo’s decision to persuade the Federal Government to all of a sudden change the Nigerian Currency half way thru the war so as not to allow Biafra to continue to spend the money they have looted from the Enugu branch of the Central Bank was exactly the right thing to do. The decision had forced the Biafra to go print her own money which was not internationally recognized at the time. Once Nigeria took away their financial capacity to continue the war, their Commander-in-Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu had to know it was time to end the war and he did as a rational leader. That was exactly what happened.
I can understand Chinua Achebe complaining out of sympathy for his own people but for him to then take the quantum leap and start putting all the blame on Obafemi Awolowo and the Yorubas leaving out General Gowon and the Northerners who started the war as less blameless is a total outrage as far as I am concerned. It is even a worse outrage that General Yakubu Gowon and many of his commanders who are still alive and many of the northerners who started and justified the pogrom against the Igbos in the North would not stand up to put defend Obafemi Awolowo who is no longer in a position to defend himself. One would expect the Yoruba war commanders like Benjamin Adekunle, General Adeyinka Adebayo, General Olusegun Obasanjo, General Alani Akinrinade who are still alive to come out in defense of Obafemi Awolowo and the Yorubas if the northern war commanders and Yakubu Gowon are too timid to do so .
I would be the first to admit that Awolowo, like every human being, is not perfect. But if you put all Nigerian leaders on a ranking scale, Awolowo without any question has proved himself to be a leader of consequence in Nigeria and a democrat without blemish. His track record in the old West has proved just that. That is why the man would continue to loom larger than life even in death.
When he started the free education and free health program in the old West in 1955 many nihilists said the program would not work. When it started working, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe tried the same concept in the former Eastern region. The whole thing collapsed in less than 3 years. Many Igbo and Hausa parents relocated to the old West to take full advantage of free education for their children. Awolowo did not stop them. All he did was to find a way to sustain and consolidate the program by creating what he called Modern Schools to absorb the excess from Awolowo schools.
Sad to say, Boko Haram is thriving today in much of the North and spreading like bush fire in the Harmattan because the northern leaders had failed to do for their own people what Obafemi Awolowo was able to do for the Yorubas. Awolowo had done what he had to do as a leader and I take off my hat for him. Let the chips fall where they may, Awolowo is not the villain that the learned Professor wants to make him with his new book written in flawless language as usual.
I rest my case.
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