"Then, and more so, even now, I still believe that despite the intellectual foundations of the book, it can only serve to draw us back and to divide us further as a nation. And everything that I have read on both sides of the controversy had only strengthened my belief. Permit me, most kindly, to repeat what I wrote at the time. In the first paragraph of the three part series I had made the following observations.
“I wept for Nigeria when the excerpts of Chinua Achebe’s MEMOIRS were published in Nigeria. I instinctively knew that the season of media and social lynch-mobs had started. It is one of the inevitable, but unintended consequences of that book.
Wounds which were gradually healing might once again be re-opened depending on how we handle the intellectual bomb handed to us. It is my strong belief that we should defuse it; for, if we fail, the results will be disastrous beyond our wildest nightmares.”
It was an appeal to Igbos and non-Igbos to let sleeping dogs lie and to allow peace to reign despite the explosive statements in the book. There was no doubt in my mind that no Igbo person would fail to support it and no Yoruba or even non-Igbo would fail to condemn it.” – Dele Sobowale
I join you to thank the Lagos state governor, Babatunde Fashola, for honoring the invitation to be the keynote speaker at the Chinua Achebe Colloquium Fair, held at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA. Gov. Fashola himself admitted that he had already accepted the invitation to partake in the annual event long before Prof. Achebe released his latest epic publication “There Was A country – A Personal History of Biafra”. The governor’s decision to honor his promise portends well for his credulity as an individual and as a rising political leader of note on the national scene. In my opinion, he would have done himself enormous harm politically if he had opted to hide behind his Awoist persuasions to deny himself a unique opportunity to demonstrate his mettle way beyond the borders of Nigeria. I am pleased to learn that you, as an Awoist, would have also showed up at the colloquium if an invitation had been extended to you. That is the right frame of mind to be in, even about topical issues that may cause you some anxiety. I don’t intend to belabor my retort to some of the views you have eloquently expressed below. So, let’s get on to business.
It is obvious that you played a leading role in heralding the “the season of media and social lynch-mobs” which was orchestrated through the Lagos press to assail Professor Achebe for mustering the guts to portray your political icon, Obafemi Awolowo, in his new book in ways that could have riled the sensibilities of the politician’s ardent admirers. Well, I can see where you are coming from. I would have reacted impulsively in a similar fashion if someone who I hold in very high esteem is portrayed in a not-so-complimentary fashion. But after the initial impulsive reaction, there ought to have been a more profound rethink of the whole phenomenon. My question to you is this. Were there specific characterizations of Awolowo in Achebe’s book that are factually challenged? If so, what are they? Chief Awolowo was the number two person in a ruling junta that waged a murderous war which resulted in the loss of millions of lives, mass starvation and extreme deprivation inside Biafra during the Civil War. As the civilian second in command at Dodan Barracks, were there strategic and tactical decisions made about the prosecution of that horrendous war that Chief Awolowo disagreed with? If there were, they ought to be shared with the rest of us. What Achebe did and rightly so, was to hang the tragic consequences of that war on the chief perpetrators’ neck. Awolowo happened to be the next in line after General Gowon. Leadership has its perks as well as responsibilities. Chief Awolowo sure enjoyed and exploited the leverage of his high position in the country’s top leadership echelon. Why should anyone, therefore, lose sleep over the fact that he was also tagged with the responsibility for the brutality that resulted from the judgmental call made by the junta in which he was the Vice Chairman?
Perhaps, what irks most on the receiving end is the immediate post-war policies which were definitely punitive in nature against fellow countrymen who just emerged from 30 months off hellish existence inside the war zone. If Awolowo was a man of conscience to the extent that his admirers tend to suggest, he would have regretted his decision to contribute in further impoverishing the war survivors by his £20-pound policy when he was the overall boss at the Ministry of Finance. He was in the position to show mercy and human compassion, but he chose to act otherwise. At conclusion of the Civil War, 70% of the private industrial manufacturing capacity in Nigeria was controlled by foreign-owned companies. The ruling junta passed a decree to indigenize these foreign companies; a process which compelled their owners to sell participatory equity, virtually for peanuts, to Nigerians who could pony up the cash to pay at the time. The industrial manufacturing capacity of post-war Nigeria was put on auction sale per se and you would bet that £20 could not pay for even the padlocks used by the gatekeepers at Unilever, Kingsway, UAC, Lever Brothers etc. I hope that you are still with me.
Now, let’s take look at your “Handshake Across the Niger” proposition. Unless I have missed something, the object of your suggestion is to “convene a colloquium ……. to bring the South East and the South West together”. But you were unclear in stating the discussion themes for such a get-together. Your allusion to Dr. Ekwueme’s demand for “Igbo presidency at the earliest possible time” appears to be the bait for getting the Southeast to partake in the proposed colloquium. Yes, the Igbo presidency cannot be accomplished with Southeast votes alone. I can bet you also that a combination of Southeast and Southwest votes cannot cut the muster either. How about a handshake across the Benue? Hear me. There are multitudes of Southeasterners and Igbo who don’t consider the so-called Igbo presidency as significant in extricating the country from the mess in which is currently mired. Some don’t actually consider it as even desirable before any visible commitment of the Nigerian polity to the principle of equity in relating to all geopolitical interest groups in the country. The pre civil-war handshake across the Niger ended up meaning nothing to write home about. What makes you think that the variant being proposed by you now shall have a better luck?
Let me conclude by reminding your ilk that the unwarranted verbal assault on Achebe’s person for writing his memoirs on Biafra is a knee-jerk reaction that is devoid of levelheaded thought. It is indeed funny that some have blamed the master storyteller of our times for opening up a wound that has supposedly healed or that is in the process of healing. What actually is the basis for such a supposition? A deep deliberately inflicted wound does not just heal because it was neglected for decades. Such a wound does not heal; it festers instead. It may form a scab over its surface, but it remains raw underneath. All it takes is an accidental poke into the scab and the pussy ooze shall indicate that the neglected wound is far from being healed.
Obviously, what appears to have missed the attention and interest of the “media and social lynch-mobs” attacking Achebe is the fact that tens of millions of fellow Nigerians were profoundly traumatized by the melodrama that was played out nationwide before, during and after the Civil War. As a veteran of that cataclysm, my sensibilities are clearly riled by those who would rather devote their energies to shield personalities who, one way or the other, contributed in inflicting untold misery on the lives of millions who were caught up in the mayhem which they, individually, did nothing to unleash. Millions of fellow compatriots found themselves neck-deep in the civil-war melee before they even could fully appreciate what was amiss. As is often the case in barely literate societies, such as ours. the intrigues of a handful of elites do end up determining the fate of millions, most of whom usually have no clue about the real issues at play. Nigeria had its problems in the immediate post-Independence era, but it was managed by the nation’s founding fathers the best way they knew how. Bloodshed was a rare happenstance before arrival of the military at the apex of political power. Murder incorporated took over the affairs of Nigeria since its governance emanated from muzzle of the gun. Irrational excesses of military strongmen at the helm legitimized wanton murder as a veritable political tool. That one of Nigeria’s founding fathers would readily become an accessory to this deviant governance mantra, under whatever pretext, shall remain an object for study for this and future generations to come. This is what Chinua Achebe’s “There Was A Country” all about. Unless the present generation would muster the guts to face and frontally deal with the mess of the civil-war era, Achebe’s memoirs must be hailed as sincere revelations about a murderous war that its perpetrators would like to forget. If this generation cannot face up to its reality and find appropriate closure to it, maybe the next generations would.
Countries that are serious about their nationhood do not simply bury their heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich and hope that the shared trauma which have severely afflicted their citizenry, such as civil wars, would simply heal themselves with mere passage of time. It is probably only in Nigeria that such a bizarre expectation is given currency. Countries opt to immortalize such national catharses as permanent object lessons for their future nation building endeavors. In Nigeria, some of us are only interested about sweeping everything under the carpet as soon as possible for reasons that are indeed very hard to fathom. Is anyone in a hurry to hide something here from prying eyes or inquiring minds? There is an element of disingenuousness and treachery involved in this mad rush to bury the lessons of the Civil War without any interest to learn a thing from its many instructive experiences for the Nigerian nation. I am surely one of those who say, not so fast. What Achebe’s civil-war memoirs have done is to reaffirm and authenticate my kind of mindset on the matter. It is self-defeatist to hurry into burying the memories of the civil war long before we have learnt anything from it.
What we need is a colloquium to talk about the real lessons of the civil war, not merely to mouth off over the so-called Igbo presidency in a polity which is fast losing its way within the wilderness of political and economic opportunism, sea of corruption, ethnic jingoism, religious fundamentalism, ignorance, mass unemployment and material poverty that is contemporary Nigeria. Do you, in true conscience, expect folks like me to believe that the nation we have today is a suitable recompense for all the hell that was visited on fellow Nigerians before, during and after the Civil War?
Unless you entertain such an illusion, Prof. Achebe ought to be lauded for his patriotism in baring his mind, not chided as some like you have elected to do.
Okenwa's response was to Dele Sobowale's article "Achebe Visit: Thanks Gov. Fashola"
Okenwa's response was to Dele Sobowale's article "Achebe Visit: Thanks Gov. Fashola"