1968 NAF Napalm air raid on Aba General Hospital
On May 18, 2013, the US-based online media outfit Sahara Reporters granted an interview to the Nobel laureate Professor Wole Soyinka. The interview was done a few days to the burial date of the late legendary writer, Professor Chinua Achebe, who passed on on March 21, 2013 in the US. Apparently, it was scheduled to provide Professor Soyinka an opportunity to offer his thoughts on the stature of Professor Achebe, recently reckoned by the US President Barack Obama as somebody who “shattered the conventions of literature”. Aside from Soyinka speaking on Achebe’s place in his calling, Soyinka also made statements on the late Biafran leader Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and the Nigeria-Biafra War and, of course, the genocide visited on the Igbo people before and during that war under Yakubu Gowon’s watch.
Reaching a decision on the appropriate time to write this piece delayed the article from being written until now. One did not want one’s thoughts to divert attention from the literary duels which Professor Soyinka’s controversial interview provoked between some of the ‘successor writers’ on the social media. Having read views on the interview such as one adduced by Mr. Ikhide R. Ikheola, someone I have come to regard as a master of witticism, I did not feel any pressure in getting it out there, which would have necessitated at least a passing comment on Soyinka’s perception of who Achebe is. Besides, my hands were full at that time. So, why waste time on such words likened to what Igbo elders would say is water poured on a spherical grindstone when it comes to Professor Soyinka’s perception and the global perception of the departed Achebe and Achebe’s art?
Therefore, statements like, “Yes, there was only one word for it- genocide” and “The Igbo must remember, however, that they were not militarily prepared for that war. I told Ojukwu this...” came with words that deserve one’s attention. These statements deserve one’s attention because there are so many young people in the contraption called Nigeria who were not born before the Nigeria-Biafra War. Some of these young people have not taken time in the past to read books written by unbiased Nigerians and foreign authors about the war. However, with the internet and its social media component, these young people are now interested in reading about the war. Many of them are still not reading books about the war but rely on snippets they get on it through the social media to form their impression about the war. Therefore, it is incumbent on opinion moulders with the stature of Professor Wole Soyinka to inject the critical facts into their thoughts when they talk about the war.
To begin with, the decision to declare the former Eastern Region a sovereign state to be known and called the Republic of Biafra was not single-handedly made by Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The weighty decision to pick up arms to defend the declared republic, the only secure space Easterners had at the time, after being hounded out of other parts of Nigeria and still being hunted down across Nigeria, was not single-handedly made by Dim Ojukwu. Dim Odumegwu-Ojukwu did not make the decision for the uncritical-minded Yakubu Gowon to repudiate the landmark Aburi Accord and engage in other untoward acts that led to the war, including the unilateral creation of states and declaration of war against the young republic. Our young people need to know about the Aburi Accord. They need to know that at Aburi an all-embracing agreement was reached and signed by representatives of all the components of the crisis-ridden Nigeria to restore normalcy in the country, after Gowon failed to keep his word as Ojukwu bowed to persuasion and asked Easterners to go back to their former stations only to be cut down in a second wave of killings, all in a bid to stave off war. Yakubu Gowon quite dishonourably abandoned the all important Aburi agreement on the advice of his foreign masters and some ‘super’ permanent secretaries in Nigeria. The greatest burden Dim Ojukwu bore till his death was caving in to that persuasion and allowing his people who miraculously escaped the first wave of massacre to return to their stations only to be so gruesomely killed.
There are five possible reasons why this sort of reductionist mindset of blaming Dim Ojukwu for the war persists, in spite of the facts that abound. These are ignorance; deliberate attempts to malign the leaders of Eastern Nigeria made up of some of the best brains of their time; convenient amnesia; living in denial, and deliberate attempt to hide the real issues from our young people.
On ignorance, anyone with the basic knowledge of who the Easterners are, especially the Igbo people, knows that they are neither feudal nor monarchical and therefore not servile to the extent of one individual enjoying a central authority. Perhaps, nothing captures the essence of who they are than what the Igbo elders say: Otu onye adighi a bu nna mu oha/An individual can never be everyone. According to Professor Aluko, whom Soyinka also cites, Ojukwu had been asked by his Igbo people to choose between leading them or bowing out. It is well recorded how a student of University of Nigeria, Nsukka set himself ablaze over Ojukwu’s reluctance to secede. Ojukwu admitted that one of his greatest mistakes was delay in declaring Biafra. Everything paints a picture of what played out in the case of the declaration of Biafra and implicitly the decision to defend Biafran territorial integrity after Yakubu Gowon ordered his military to proceed to the next phase of the genocide through the attack at Gakem on July 6, 1967.
The fact remains that there were bodies, the Eastern Region Consultative Assembly and the Advisory Committee of Chiefs and Elders, representing all the peoples of Eastern Nigeria that mandated the then young military governor of Eastern Nigeria, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, to declare Eastern Nigeria a sovereign state, the Republic of Biafra. Our young people need to know this. They should be informed that the Ijaws, according to Chief Melford Okilo, would have sided with Biafra, if Ojukwu had requested for a referendum. But would Gowon let that kind of process take place when he had already repudiated the Aburi Accord and unilaterally restructured Nigeria into 12 states? The youth need to know that a 67-year-old Dr. Alvan Ikoku whose wisdom and erudition was widely known, was the chairman of the Eastern Nigeria Consultative Assembly.
If it is not ignorance that is responsible for the sort of mindset that fuels this ‘blame Ojukwu for the war,’ then, it is a clear case of deliberate attempt to malign the leaders of Eastern Nigeria, consisting of dogged nationalists who were in the forefront of the struggle to free Nigeria from British colonialism. There were world-class academics cum astute university administrators, prudent and meticulous civil servants, brilliant unionists and notable chiefs. People must understand that when they engage in ‘blame Ojukwu for the war’ reductionist approach to the genocidal war, they are maligning outstanding individuals like Dr. Alvan Ikoku, Dr. M. I. Okpara, Dr. Akanu Ibian, Chief M. T. Mbu, Chief Eyo Bassey Ndem, Chief Jereton Mariere, Dr. K. O. Dike, Professor Eni Njoku, Mr. N. U. Akpan, I. S. Kogbara etc. for a thoughtful decision they reached, having weighed the options - extermination or slavery.
We are dealing with those struck with convenient amnesia, remembering only what they choose to remember, a choice, which is quite prevalent in Nigeria. Of course, there are those living in denial, and others making deliberate attempts to hide the real issues from our young people. Anyone who is willing to talk about advising Dim Ojukwu against the war, and willing to talk about the genocide should have known the importance of bringing the Aburi Accord into that mix as well as mentioning the indifference of Yakubu Gowon’s government to the first and second phases of the genocide, especially in Northern Nigeria that left 50,000 Easterners mainly Igbo people dead. Bringing the Aburi Accord into that mix has become quite important particularly now there seems to be intensification of the calls for a Sovereign National Conference, for obvious reasons.
Perhaps, it is this reductionist approach that made Professor Soyinka to believe that the elimination of Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon by the so-called Third Force scheme was the best way of solving the Nigerian crisis at the time rather than mobilizing for the implementation of the Aburi Accord. In a 4-part article written by Dr. M. O. Ene titled, ‘Who is the brain behind January 15?’ that was published on www.kwenu.com on January 15, 2007, Dr. Ene tried to probe and locate the proverbial route through which water entered the pipe of the pumpkin-leaf. Dr. Ene states thus, “From his own words and writings, on [one] can deduce that Soyinka was in the midst of pro-Awolowo and anti-Akintola forces in the ‘wild, wild West’ era and he was in Banjo-Ifeajuna Third Force scheme that tried to eliminate both Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Gowon.”
We should not forget that Pepper Clark, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Segun Awolowo, Victor Banjo and Emmanuel Ifeajuana were part of an Ibadan circle of young hot heads who were aggrieved by what was happening in Ibadan. This led Soyinka to occupy the Western Broadcasting Corporation in 1965, to prevent the airing of a speech by Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa. In effect, Soyinka’s action and the January 15, 1966 coup plot and the killing of Balewa weren’t unconnected.
In the same vein, Pepper Clark’s name comes up in discussions on the coup, as Clark it was who smuggled a helpless Ifeajuna out of Nigeria when the Lagos operation of the January 15, 1966 coup failed. To blame Ojukwu on whose laps this misconduct was thrown, and who was more cautious than the Soyinkas, who were playing ideological games, is quite puzzling.
Reading through Dr. Ene’s interrogatory piece one is left with the impression that there might have been a force or forces outside the military that consciously or unconsciously provided the poetic and militant spark that lit up the night of January 15, 1966. Young people need to explore this side of the war narration too to understand fully the events that led to the Biafra genocide.
Professor Soyinka in the past did acknowledge the inevitability of the war and did underscore the fact that what was going on was the implementation of, as he puts it on pages 21 to 22 of his book The Man Died “the doctrine of justifiable genocide”. In the same book, he expresses the fear that the situation may degenerate into “downright genocidal epidemic”.
Now, if someone, due to his human instinct could be moved to write the above haunting expressions, pray, why should the leaders of the former Eastern Region and later Biafra, fold their arms and wait for their people to be murdered en mass without making any attempt to defend themselves in their own homeland?
In relating the story of one Ibo [Igbo] photographer, Emmanuel Ogbona [Ogbonna], who was brutally murdered and thrown into the bush around September 1966, after being abducted from his studio at Odo Ona, Ibadan, with his known killers not being brought to book, and contrasting this with the sentencing to death of one man and giving various terms of imprisonment to eight others in Sokoto for mistakenly murdering Ojibo Uche asleep, a little brother of Mr. Joseph Uche, an Igala, thinking he was Igbo, after raiding his home and not finding him, Professor Soyinka had no problem in reaching the right conclusion and stating that:
The juxtaposition of these two sample events, even without the reminder of its large-scale horror context, the most comprehensive, undiscriminating savaging of a people within memory on the black continent, destroys the hypocritical disclaimers of the regime. It states one simple truth: that at the very least the machinery of justice existed all through and after the Northern massacres and that lack of the prevention of their exercise was a deliberate, selective decision of Yakubu Gowon’s government (The Man Died , 24).
The questions that should agitate the mind of anyone reading this at this point is, why do people always find it convenient not to blame Yakubu Gowon for the war, seeing this kind of fact and Gowon’s disavowal of the Aburi Accord? Why are people in the habit of exonerating the thief by blaming the victim for not securing his door properly when it comes to the Nigeria-Biafra War, as Olayinka Sule would ask? As our Igbo elders say, it is only a tree that will be told that it is going to be cut down and it will remain where it is.
It is worth quoting Professor Soyinka’s The Man Died elaborately here to present the deepness of the scar Easterners, especially the Igbo people, bore and still bear, which made them to feel secure only in the East and believe in Aburi, the only instrument that could keep them in their region at least for a period of time. I am quoting Soyinka elaborately so that people, especially young people, can appreciate why our parents needn’t have to have loads of arsenal before deciding to defend their right and those of their offspring to exist. Professor Soyinka writes:
The following fact is therefore stated merely as a matter of record: in September/October 1966, another ATROCITIES did take place all over Nigeria including Lagos, the seat of Yakubu’s government. But where it really manifested in grand style was in the North. The ATROCITIES were so public even in the South (Lagos) that delegates to a Constitutional Conference which had been launched by Yakubu Gowon were physically man-handled by Gowon’s Army right in view of the House of Assembly buildings where these constitutional talks did take place. Man-hunts publicized by machine-gun stutters, took place around Ikoyi where Gowon lived, and the executions and torture games that went on in his official residence, Dodan Barracks, on civilians who were simply arrested on the public road- Ikorodu checkpoint was the favourite kidnap point- were common daylight occurrences known to Yakubu Gowon. As for the events in the North- let us simply sum it up and say that ATROCITIES did take place on a scale so vast and so thorough, and so well-organized that it was variously referred to as the Major Massacres (as distinct from the May rehearsals), genocide and sometimes only as disturbances and this gem is by Ukpabi Asika- a state of anomy! Yakubu Gowon himself went far enough to put it under the broad sphere of ATROCITIES in his appeal. The word itself, appeal, is significant. It tells much about Mr. Gowon (119-120).
The appeal Professor Soyinka is referring to here was a short unserious speech Gowon made to fellow Northerners in which Gowon never failed to mention that ‘God in his power has entrusted the responsibility of this great country of ours, Nigeria, to the hands of another Northerner...’
In the interview referred to earlier, Professor Soyinka agreed that genocide was committed against the Igbo before the war. He said that genocide was committed on both sides during the war; he also said that the scale was more on the Nigerian side. I know that during the war, the Nigerian Air Force strafed markets in full session, sometimes killing up to 500 people in just one raid. I know that the Nigerian Air Force and their Egyptian collaborators strafed churches and schools that became refugee centres in Biafra. I know they flew so low and targeted homes; they bombed hungry refugees clogging main roads and moving wearily to the next town, which was yet to fall into the hands of the Nigerian forces. I know that the Nigerian Army summoned all males in Asaba and adjoining towns, and massacred them in cold blood.
I know that the Nigerian government used starvation as a weapon of war to send millions of children, women and the aged to a slow and pitiable death. I know that the Nigerian military shot down Red Cross and other relief airplanes bringing food and medicines to Biafran babies. And all these were directed at an ethnic group, the Igbo people.
Also, I know that the Biafran Air Force did successfully bomb power stations, petroleum product storage tanks and several Nigerian Air Force bases and took out some evil birds supplied by the then USSR, thus degrading their air capability for a while. I never knew the Biafran Air Force targeted any concentration of civilian populations. I never knew that the Biafran Army summoned all males in any town or group of towns and massacred them in cold blood.
According to the Encarta Dictionary, “genocide is the systematic killing of all the people from a national, ethnic, or religious group, or an attempt to do this.” Professor Soyinka records several incidents of genocide in his book, The Man Died, which took place under Yakubu Gowon’s watch. On page 23 of the book, Soyinka is of the opinion that those responsible for the genocide “must be named, denounced and forced to stand trial some day”.
More than four decades after these acts of genocide were committed no one has been brought to book. I think it is about time Professor Wole Soyinka capped his life of activism by calling on the international community to try Yakubu Gowon and his cohorts for genocide. Certainly, bringing the long awaited justice to the victims of Biafra genocide would be more like it for a Nobel laureate than defending and celebrating a mass murderer.