Friday, April 18, 2014

Chinua Achebe, Africa and the peril of monologue (Part 1), By Tunji Ariyomo

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Tunji Ariyomo

I grew up taking for granted the veracity of the account of what has been described as the most heinous crime committed against Africans by Europeans. Slavery. Until my father confronted me with hard questions wanting to know whether I had ever read of European invasions of Isikan, Akure, Iwo or Popo in raids for slaves, I never considered the possibility of a different narrative – that our famed slavery story could be slightly at variance with the entire truth of history. As I later discovered – powerful African kings and intolerant leaders of those days raided neighbours’ homes, sacked towns and villages and took fellow Africans as slaves – after which their European business partners involved in slave trade bought those slaves from them. I found out that recalcitrant opposition leaders and conquered enemies in ancient Africa were potential candidates for slavery. Those despotic kings saw slavery as an opportunity to acquire riches as well as permanently get rid of opponents. But the well-known slavery accounts by Africans conveniently overlook or understate this part of the entire business preferring to accentuate the evils of Europeans while conveniently burying in the belly of time the gruesome evils of our forefathers. That is the African version, our monologue which places the entire blame on the ‘doormouth of Oyinbos’.

Monologue is a powerful weapon that can easily lend credence to apostrophic chronicles. It grants its wielder the uncanny ability to act in a way that assumes that he is the only one involved – the only sane person in that exclusive universe of knowledge. Monologue’s use is not restricted to individuals or to just story telling. With monologue in place, a government can – in the language of the streets – do and undo. From the struggle against the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP) introduced by General Badamasi Babangida to the arguments advanced in June 2003 by the Nigerian’s federal government for increased fuel prices few days after a general election to the January 2012 removal of fuel subsidy by the Nigerian government and the well funded defences mounted by iconic Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, brilliant Lamido Sanusi and beautiful Diezani Allison-Maduekwe, the same trend run through – Nigerian leaders, like typical Africans, love monologues. With monologue established, whatever others say or think does not matter – they do not know, they are not technically proficient nor ‘do they see what we see from our vantage position as members of government’. When Christiane Amanpour in October 2012 looked President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea in the face and pointedly asked him if he did not think it was high time he abdicated his exalted democratic throne which he inherited in a military coup 33 years ago, he too rearranged himself on his seat, adjusted his voice and pointedly educated Amanpour that Western countries cannot understand African democracy! Catch him – he was using the power of monologue. In Mbasogo’s world, he and only he understood Africans’ understanding of African democracy.

From my primary school in Isikan to Aquinas College Akure, for every Yoruba friend I had on my street, I had two to four Igbo friends. We saw ourselves as people – not as Yoruba or Igbos. That was after the war. I learnt about the horror of the war from them, mostly accounts related to them by their parents, and a little bit more from my Yoruba friends whose parents were victims of the Ore encounter and the rest from my parents. When you combine what I learnt from them with other legendary tales from my father, at a very tender age, I became a moving encyclopedia on the why and why not of the war. From that tender age till we were old enough to ‘get scattered’ all over the world in pursuit of our destinies, there was never a single instance we learnt that the Igbos were being targeted for extermination in any Yoruba town or village in my country. My Igbo friends and I were always unanimous in condemning each incidence of ‘kill the Igbo’ that we heard about mostly from Northern Nigeria years after the civil war. Ambrose, one of the Igbo friends I grew up with in Isikan, once said the North was yet to end the war against the Igbos. My friends and I maintained a common ground because we were involved in a two-way discussion.

In October 2012, a book written by one of African’s legendary writers, Prof. Chinua Achebe, titled “There Was a Country” generously employed monologue in his retelling of the pogrom that consumed Nigeria between 1967 and 1970 and for which many Nigerians and many more on the Biafran side lost their lives. It must be stated that the philosophy of the war was wrong. The essence of the war was wrong. The motivation for the war was wrong. The premise of the war against the Igbos was basically that of domination. The motivation was domination. The purpose was domination – to dominate the Igbos and prevent them from exercising their right to self-determination. The question then arises, why despite conceding that the Igbos had the inalienable right to self-determination would this writer suggest that one of Africa’s most famous authors generously employed monologue? This is because while the fact of the heinous and avoidable bloodshed is never in dispute, the retelling of the tale as brilliantly executed by Prof. Chinua Achebe, especially his attempt to locate culpability where he deems appropriate, is patently skewed against historical evidence and did not reflect roles allegedly played by the ‘culprits’ within context – a situation akin to employing convenient tactical amnesia. I will cite the two examples that have been identified.

On Page 51 of the 333-page book, Achebe wrote “The original ideal of one Nigeria was pressed by the leaders and intellectuals from the Eastern Region. With all their shortcomings, they had this idea to build the country as one. The first to object were the Northerners led by the Sardauna, who were followed closely by the Awolowo clique that had created the Action Group. The Northern Peoples Congress of the Sardaunians was supposed to be a national party, yet it refused to change its name from Northern to Nigerian Peoples Congress, even for the sake of appearances. It refused right up to the end of the civilian regime.” As rightly noted by Monday Ateboh, despite the mighty significance of this weighty and damning assertion, Prof. Achebe did not did give any details regarding how and where the Northern and Yoruba leaders opposed the idea of a united Nigeria.

On Page 233 of the book, Achebe wrote “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. A statement credited to Awolowo and echoed by his cohorts is the most callous and unfortunate: all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder. It is my impression that Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power, for himself and for his Yoruba people. There is, on the surface at least, nothing wrong with those aspirations. 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. In the Biafran case it meant hatching up a diabolical policy to reduce the numbers of his enemies significantly through starvation — eliminating over two million people, mainly members of future generations.”

Why is it important to address the issues raised in the Achebe’s memoir? Principally because there is a need to place the monologue side by side with alternative narratives for prosperity. Also because of the stupendous power packed in the prose of Achebe that could legitimize his personal opinion and narrative nuances as unimpeachable facts of history. To underscore the significance of this, one only needs to examine the statement of leading British publisher Allen Lane on the Achebe’s memoir “There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid observation and considered research and reflection.” If reputable British outfits are already of the opinion that the memoir is a product of considered research and vivid imagination, then essentially, Prof. Achebe’s opinion is likely to be accorded the status of historical actuality if the rest of the world is unable to test the veracity of each damning or controversial claim.

The final part of this essay shall examine each of the earlier listed claims by this Africa’s iconic writer and situate each within the context of 1967 and 1970 as part of my contribution to knowledge.

Tunji Ariyomo

E-mail: oariyomo@nd-i.org; Phone: +447532127503

 

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