“The first casualty of war is the truth.”
I never witnessed events of the Civil War having been born about a decade after the last shot in anger had been fired. I heard some accounts of the war from various people. I heard how it was important to be able to speak one’s own native tongue so as to establish that one didn’t belong to the enemy. A friend of my father told me he witnessed two Igbo friends of his get killed by a Hausa soldier after the Mid West Region was liberated from the Biafran forces. His cry of horror brought his presence to the attention of the soldier, and he only escaped joining his recently departed friends because an officer showed up and rebuked and disarmed the soldier just before he pulled the trigger. We do not teach the War in our schools; most times we act like it never happened. All my Social Studies books seemed to have to say on the subject was, “We fought a war from 1967-1970. Nigeria won. No Victor, No Vanquished. The end.”
Americans, by contrast, have written countless books on the American Civil War. Movies have been made telling events from both sides of that war. They haven’t tried to forget that there was a time when brother turned on brother and neighbours went to war. Their civil war history is not missing from the pages of their school books.
Accordingly, the news that Chinua Achebe had written an account of the Nigerian Civil War, titled “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra” was received with great enthusiasm. Achebe, an African intellectual and literary titan, witnessed events first-hand from the Biafran side of the conflict, having held various posts in the Ojukwu-led Biafran government.
When the book came out, it immediately received praise in some quarters, opprobrium in others. Replies were written, rejoinders were written to replies, and articles of all flavours flooded the newspapers and internet. A four part series by Odia Ofeimun titled “Awolowo and the Forgotten Documents of the Civil War” saw the internationally respected poet take Achebe to task for his account of events, and receive the sort of abuse not even reserved for the most egregious looters of the public till.
I was fortunate to obtain access to a copy of the book recently, and found it to be an absorbing read, benefitting immensely from Achebe’s inimitable prose and command of language. He tells us about himself, and gives an account of events from the first coup d’état in 1966 to the pogroms which saw Ndigbo flee Northern Nigeria, to the declaration of the Republic of Biafra. He narrowly escaped death numerous times, and it is nothing short of amazing that he and his family survived the war intact despite his position in the Biafran government and importance to the short-lived Igbo nation.
Sadly, the book is not the objective account of the war which many have craved. Pretty early on, Achebe begins to take some rather amazing liberties with the truth, not least in his jaw-dropping assertion that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was the “father of African independence.” That this claim totally ignores the irreplaceable contribution of Herbert Macaulay to the independence movement is cringe worthy in the extreme. Herbert Macaulay founded the first Nigerian political party, and proceeded to win election after election. The fact that Herbert Macaulay and Nnamdi Azikiwe founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) together and Macaulay was its first President somehow totally escaped Achebe’s notice! In fact, leadership of the NCNC only passed to Azikiwe following the death of Macaulay in 1946.
Obafemi Awolowo is portrayed as a tribalist who was terrified of Igbo political might. Even my forebears in the Mid West were not spared, as I got to read that we too were so terrified of creeping Igbo influence that we banded with the Western Region to halt the glorious Igbo nation in its tracks. This in turn, ignores the fact that until this day, the Obi of Onitsha cannot be crowned without the representative of the Oba of Benin being present, or that administratively, Asaba was under the Benin province until Delta state was created and, thanks to the influence of the then First Lady, Asaba was named as the capital of the new state, to the consternation of Warri. The idea that Mid Westerners would be scared of the Igbo is so absurd that I actually guffawed when I read that particular piece of literary ingenuity.
General Ojukwu, the leader of the Biafran revolt, is portrayed as this hero of his people, a man deeply consumed with concern for their welfare. Despite this rose-tinted view of the man, Achebe inadvertently lets slip a few things. For instance, during the economic blockade of Biafra, and with images of starving Biafran children flooding the international media, Gowon offered to allow supervised relief convoys into Biafra. Ojukwu refused and chose additional air lifts of food instead. His reasoning was that the Nigerian troops would poison the food, and Achebe applauds this decision because that’s what all Biafrans felt! The fact that there were several things wrong with that decision doesn’t even enter the great man’s account. Off the top of my head, it is glaringly obvious that poisoning relief supplies would severely damage the credibility of the Federal Government, and probably lead to increased pressure on the United Nations to actually step in. Indeed, my Machiavellian side would suggest Ojukwu poison the food himself and blame Gowon. Nobody would believe Gowon didn’t order such a thing no matter how hard he denied it.
Achebe’s account of the invasion of the Mid West Region by the Biafrans was similarly lacking in any sort of objective analysis. By his own account, the Biafran troops numbered about 1000, and swarmed into Benin in an assortment of lorries and wagons, with a Peugeot 404 as their command vehicle! He describes them as not even having uniforms.
Achebe makes no mention of the atrocities committed by Biafran troops in Benin; he says there is no evidence of genocide! I have heard accounts of Biafran troops going around killing people, but Achebe clearly never heard of that happening. He cannot, however, avoid mentioning that the Biafran government (mercifully) briefly imposed on the Mid West acted more like an occupying force than the liberators they claimed to be. Accordingly, people in the Mid West organised themselves into resistance groups and made sure the Biafran troops had a most uncomfortable stay.
Victor Banjo, the Commander of this “army” was then expected to immediately march on Lagos. His hesitation to carry out what was undoubtedly a suicide mission due to the fact that Lieutenant Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo’s federal troops were in his way, would lead to Banjo’s court-martial by Ojukwu for “treason” and “plotting to overthrow the government” and his execution. Now, if that isn’t evidence that Ojukwu was dangerously unbalanced, I don’t know what is. It smacks of Hitler’s demands that the German 6th Army hold Stalingrad to the last man, despite being totally surrounded by Soviet troops and cut off from any supplies.
Achebe’s refusal to comment on the rationality, nay, utter irresponsibility of sending such a poorly equipped rabble on that sort of mission is quite telling. He doesn’t even acknowledge that executing Banjo and Emmanuel Ifeajuna for “treason” and “plotting to overthrow the government” when all they did was fail to carry out an insane mission for which they were almost comically unprepared, was at the very least incredibly unfair. All he says is that history will debate whether Banjo was a traitor or a misunderstood hero!
His recounting of the reasons for his refusal to publish the manuscript of Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna’s account of the January 1966 coup was another spotlight shone on his own bias. Here he was with a chance to publish a first-hand account of one of the seminal events in the country’s history, and he refused because he felt Ifeajuna built himself up as the hero of the tale. He also helpfully remembers that the final nail in the coffin of the manuscript was being told by Christopher Okigbo that Major Kaduna Nzeogwu considered the Ifeajuna manuscript to be “Emma’s lies”. He then says he regrets not publishing the manuscript regardless of his misgivings. Surely, the responsible thing to do would have been to publish the manuscript and then ask Major Nzeogwu to tell his side of the story? Somewhere in their accounts, a clearer picture of the events of the January 15, 1966 would have emerged. Indeed, the fact that publishers abroad turned down the Ifeajuna manuscript because they were scared it was too incendiary and it has since vanished from public view is proof of the fact that Achebe committed a serious blunder, and all because his great friend, Christopher Okigbo, admired and respected Nzeogwu.
It is also quite telling that despite his best attempts, some facts about Ojukwu’s character cannot help but slip out. For instance, he recounts that when he was asked by Ojukwu to head the National Guidance Committee and that the Committee was to report directly to him, he was apprehensive because he felt that Ojukwu wanted to hold on to the organs of power, but despite this realisation that he was working under a dictator, he went ahead and formed the Committee anyway! Is this the great Igbo “democratic spirit” that he hailed constantly in the book?
Another inadvertent revelation was that Ojukwu deeply resented the fact that Gowon, despite being junior to him in rank and age, had been chosen as head of state after the Northern officers-led counter coup. He states that one of Ojukwu’s positions at the much-vaunted Aburi conference was that he did not recognise Gowon’s leadership of the Federal Government. It thus becomes clear that ego played a huge part in Ojukwu’s decisions and no doubt clouded his judgment. Not that Achebe saw anything wrong with that, oh no.
Achebe also fails to make any judgment of Ojukwu’s desertion of his people and his flight to the Ivory Coast when the war was lost. That the same Ojukwu who had expected Banjo to conquer Lagos with 1000 hilariously under-equipped troops or die trying, abandoned his country in the dead of night for safe haven abroad, is clearly not something Achebe feels comfortable discussing. Even Hitler had the grace to commit suicide rather than flee or be captured when his “thousand-year Reich” came to a screeching halt in 1945.
Achebe then goes on to deliver the coup de grace to any notion that “There Was a Country” is anything other than a painstakingly assembled propaganda piece, and an attempt by him to settle some old scores. We are all aware of the crisis that engulfed Anambra state when Governor Chris Ngige was abducted and locked in a toilet. Achebe points the finger of blame (rightly) at the Federal Government, then says that it was due to then President Obasanjo’s deep resentment of the Igbo people, stemming from the Civil War, that led him to endorse the events in Anambra. Achebe blithely ignores the fact that it was actually two Igbo men, the Uba brothers, who were responsible for that particular hot mess. And he also ignores the fact that it was Tafa Balogun, a Yoruba Inspector-General of Police, who got the Governor rescued and restored to office. He also fails to lambast Ngige for signing an undated resignation letter and handing it to the Uba brothers, for such was his desperation to become the Governor of the state. That the hand of the Obasanjo administration was shamefully evident in that crisis was due to the brand of “politics” being practiced in Nigeria, and not some residual hatred of Ndigbo.
There are other astonishing claims made in the book, including his assertion that the Igbo were a constant thorn in the side of the British and forced them out of Nigeria single-handedly. No mention is made of the fact that it was Anthony Enahoro who first moved the motion for independence in 1953. From Chinua Achebe’s perspective, all other ethnicities in Nigeria harboured bitter resentment and hatred for the Igbo from the beginning of time and vowed to exterminate them.
“There Was a Country” turned out to be a bitter disappointment. While a certain amount of airbrushing is always present in such first-hand accounts of monumental events, the sheer magnitude of pure propaganda it contained was quite unexpected and saddening. Indeed, for someone who took the view that Ifeajuna’s account of the January 15, 1966 coup was full of lies, Achebe certainly dished out more than his fair share of whoppers in this astonishingly inaccurate account of the Civil War. Ultimately, the book serves as a timely reminder that even venerated authors are prone to incredible errors of judgment and debilitating hubris.