Friday, April 25, 2014

Chinua Achebe, Africa and the Peril of Monologue (Part 2) By Tunji Ariyomo

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Tunji Ariyomo

In the first part of this essay, I examined how what I called monologue has become a powerful weapon and instrument for conveniently disguising or altering historical narratives and how it has been extensively used in Africa especially by despots and their lieutenants as well as hundreds of African tribes and ethnic nationalities with the goal of altering historical perspective. I also indicated that one of African’s iconic writers, Prof. Chinua Achebe, generously employed this in his retelling of the Biafran account in his memoir “There was a country”.

On Page 51 of the 333-page book, Achebe wrote that “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.”

What Achebe penned partly violently disagrees with what actually happened thus reinforcing the assertion that he was merely deploying the power of monologue as part of a convenient history retell in loyal service to his tribe. Herbert Samuel Macaulay from Isale Eko (part of Western Region of Nigeria) and the grandson of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (originally from Osogun in present Oyo State), it was who crystallized events in his days that fermented into concepts and ideals that later energized other future nationalists that an independent and united Nigerian state was feasible. He actually led the first pan-Nigerian struggles favouring Nigerians being in charge of governance, which later culminated into the struggle for the independence of a united Nigeria. Twice the British jailed him as a direct result of his activities, which placed him in confrontation with the colonial power at that time. Before Macaulay, Nigerians’ aspirations were mostly along ethnic and tribal lines. Macaulay took his initiative beyond mere ideals by forming the first political party in Nigeria in 1923, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), which was recognized by the Clifford Constitution of 1922. By the time Azikiwe was born in Zungeru in 1904, Herbert Macaulay was already 40 years and 2 days old while his legendary exploits against the British was already well established. It can be comfortably said that Macaulay inspired the likes of Nnamdi Azikiwe (who would later play very critical role) and other nationalists at that time. This is what agrees with history.

James S. Coleman, in his scholarly work published in 1958 titled “Nigeria: Background to Nationalism” acknowledged the pioneer role of Macaulay and that he was the dominant personality and the bane of the British indirect rule. According to Coleman, Nigerians regarded Macaulay as a great nationalist crusader and the father of Nigerian nationalism at that time. Some of those interviewed by Coleman for his work were Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello. If Azikiwe did not dispute the superior and preeminence of this Yoruba man in the nationalistic struggles for Nigeria in his days, how would Achebe’s 2012 A.D narrative, which presented the contrary pass credibility test? Achebe was not born until 7 years after Macaulay had formed the first national political party that laid the foundation for future self-rule. So effective was Macaulay that he was the bête noire of the British’s indirect rule. They disliked him so much for his role that they happened upon him jail convictions to arrest his strides.

By his statement, Achebe overlooked the roles of nationalists like Dr. J. C Vaughan (Yoruba), Ayo Williams (Yoruba) and Ernest Ikoli (Ijaw) who inaugurated the Union of Young Nigerians with the goal of galvanizing the interest of Nigerian youths in national affairs in 1923 and later sought to take the quest beyond Macaulay and Dr. John Ran Randle or the role of people like Dr. C. C. Adeniyi-Jones or that of Ladipo Solanke from Abeokuta who founded what would later be known as the West African Students’ Union (WASU) in 1924 which until 1945 remained the principal social and political centre for galvanizing Nigerian students in the United Kingdom (all identified in Coleman’s work) towards national awakening and a possible Nigerian nationhood.

Having extensively addressed the role of chronology and pre-eminence that showed that other Nigerian regions were involved and could even be said to be ahead in championing the ideals for an independent Nigeria, the role of Nnamdi Azikiwe was equally central, critical and it is not the intention of this writer to play down his significance. Azikiwe was to later join and serve under the aging Macaulay when they formed the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC) in 1944. The explanation provided inter alia was meant to present the facts of history in their undiluted form in order for Nigerians to be able to situate them in context and side by side with the Achebe 2012 narratives.

Other facts of history that will pass credibility test and which would directly dispute Achebe’s claims are the roles of other nationalists like the late Anthony Enahoro (from the then Western region) who successfully moved the historic first motion for the independence of one united Nigeria as part of the Action Group (AG) agenda in parliament in February 1953. The AG leader was another personality from the Western Region named Obafemi Awolowo. After Enahoro succeeded in moving the motion and it was tabled for debate in parliament, Northern delegates in the Federal House of Representatives rejected the 1956 date and moved an amendment that would lead to independence for Nigeria when applicable (i.e., without a date). Thus AG’s motion was defeated by majority vote of northern members (Whiteman, 2011) under the leadership of Ahmadu Bello because they were opposed to self-rule at the time. This bold historic action by a party led by Western Region rising stars was not in vain as it cemented their place in history as frontline leaders of the quest for independence and succeeded, as noted by Whiteman (2011), in pressurizing “the British into political advance, and shook the north into accepting a faster pace towards independence”. It must be quickly added that the NCNC founded by Macaulay which was then under the leadership of Azikiwe, following the former’s death, was wholly involved and actively supported the effort of the Western Region-led quest for independence and joined the Action Group in staging a walk-out in protest of the action of northern delegates. These are facts of history relating to the roles of leaders of the various regions and not a tale.

Another part of Achebe’s memoir where he employed what I have described as monologue is his account of the role of Obafemi Awolowo in the prosecution of the civil war. This is contained on Page 233 of the Achebe’s memoir. Using a combination of carefully constructed suggestio falsi with embellished hearsays, Achebe challenged history and attempted to substitute his opinion as a fact. This is the portion that panders most to ethnic solidarity and that has now cemented Achebe’s place as a champion of the Igbo cause since it resonates with millions of young Igbos. Dwight Eisenhower said that “the search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions” ― just hang unto it the entire fault! Of course “excuses changes nothing, it would only but make everyone feel better” – Mason Cooley.

It must be stated that within the context of that time and now, the idea that Awolowo would seek to exterminate the Igbos as a way to secure political advancement is most incongruous. The Northern part of Nigeria had a majority advantage politically. This was still a relevant fact in 1967 and it is still a relevant political fact in 2012. Exterminating the Igbos would only turn the South West into a minority region as the North would then be an absolute majority.

On the direct allegation of starvation, the fact of history shows that as federal commissioner of finance, following the lingering war and the state of finances of the nation, Awolowo visited the warfront only to discover that the food meant for the war-ravaged Eastern region never got to the Igbo people. He saw many starving children and women while it was discovered that Biafran soldiers seized the food meant for the people. As Awolowo re-stated in 1983 in Abeokuta, this led to the decision of the federal government to prevent airlifting of food to Biafran soldiers – opting instead for supplies through land in manners that would enable the Red Cross coordinate delivery of food to civilians while enabling the federal government to be sure that what would be delivered were indeed food and medicine and not arms. Up till that time, Biafran forces, for which Achebe then served as a roving ambassador, orchestrated the most infernal and villainous wartime crime that saw the soldiers diverting aid food supplied by the International Red Cross from the target civilian population to rebel fighters thereby starving to death the civilian population.

This is the account corroborated by active participants on the Biafran side such as Ambassador Ralph Uwechue who facilitated French support for Biafra and Robert S. Goldstein, who served as Public Relations Representative of Biafra in the United States. The discovery of this crime in fact was chiefly responsible for Goldstein’s angry resignation. Earlier, Goldstein was principally responsible for petitioning the US State Department, which resulted in more food, medicine and milk being sent to the “only available ports open for immediate shipment to ‘Biafra’ via land routes through Federal and Biafra territory, under the auspices of world organizations such as the International Red Cross among others”. His annoyance resulted from Ojukwu’s rejection of these food items and his insistence that food could only be “acceptable until there was a complete ceasefire, and that an airlift was the only solution to feed the starving”. Tagging it an inconceivable act, Goldstein further stated that “It is inconceivable to me that you (Ojukwu) would stop the feeding of thousands of your countrymen (under auspices of world organizations such as the International Red Cross, World Council of Churches and many more) via a land corridor which is the only practical way to bring in food to help at this time. It is inconceivable to me that men of good faith would try to twist world opinion in such a manner as to deceive people into believing that the starvation and hunger that is consuming ‘Biafra’ is a plot of Britain, Nigeria and others to commit genocide.)” – From Goldstein’s letter of resignation, published in the Morning Post, Lagos, August 17, 1968.

It must be noted that as history clearly recorded the facts of those horrific years, before the invented Awolowo’s anti-Igbo policy as expressed by Achebe in his memoir, Biafran children and women were already starving to death. A non-monologue narrative would acknowledge who was responsible for that. This is the clear difference between the position of Ambassador Ralph Uwechue and Prof. Chinua Achebe. Such questions as raised by Achebe in his memoir which he claimed would be debated for generations on the security reasons behind Ojukwu’s rejection of Nigeria’s federal government’s proposal for a road corridor had been eternally settled by Goldstein. The federal government would not be responsible for the handling of food meant for the Biafran territory. The International Red Cross and the World Council of Churches already took up that responsibility! This erased the possibility of food being poisoned by the federal government. Hence, the real motive for the rejection of the road corridor proposal was because Ojukwu needed the starving children as primary driver of world sympathy as documented by Goldstein in his resignation letter.

On the allegation that Awolowo deliberately devised a diabolical plan to reduce the numbers of his enemies, Achebe was only hammering home a conclusion based upon the shuffled premises he has established.

To further examine the issues in the context of that time, it is good to briefly touch the rivalries that culminated in possible enmity. In terms of political power, the Northern Region under Ahmadu Bello and ably supported by Azikiwe was the dominant obstacle to Awolowo’s legitimate quest for the leadership of Nigeria. Awolowo had brought to the scene a vivacious political energy and unprecedented organizational capacity that was premised upon a philosophy that made proper education of each member of the voting public a prerequisite to nation building and the abiding need for would be leaders to convince the voting masses rather than defaulting to feudalistic hegemony that commanded followership as a matter of hereditary right or social status. Because of his belief in a united Nigeria, he actively made forays into several other regions in search of potential believers in his political ideology. Awolowo even made frantic overtures to Azikiwe so that both could form the first government in 1960. Azikiwe rejected the opportunity and that marked the descent of the new nation into an abyss it has found difficult to recover from. Granted that the NCNC led by Azikiwe at the time ultimately colluded with the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) to sponsor division in the Western Region, it was first and foremost a schism orchestrated by the NPC. Facts of Nigerian history confirmed that Azikiwe-led NCNC teamed up with the NPC under Ahmadu Bello to undermine Awolowo’s leadership in the Western Region and eventually had Awolowo jailed. That was the first blood.

Interestingly, as Achebe launched his anti-Awolowo attacks, he was full of praise for his kinsman, Nigeria’s first ceremonial President, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, who he described as the father of African independence. “The father of African independence was Nnamdi Azikiwe” (page 41) “There is no question at all about that. Azikiwe, fondly referred to by his admirers as “Zik,” was the preeminent political figure of my youth and a man who was endowed with the political pan-Africanist vision”. This effusive praise was showered by Achebe upon Azikiwe despite the latter being on record as having been part and parcel of the federal government’s apparatus that worked to undermine Achebe’s Biafran dream at the time.

Achebe’s thought on Chief Obafemi Awolowo evident concealed hatred and envy. He was willing to deploy his powerful prose in sidestepping historical facts if only to posthumously indict Awolowo and rubbish his reputation hence his readiness to cast him out of context. Get it right. Achebe is an iconic writer. He like all others who witnessed the horror of the war has the right to express their opinion on the civil war. As an elder statesman however, who has had the opportunity of years behind him to reflect on facts of that era and the various revelations by the dramatis personae as well as the mighty significance of stories to the emergence and progression of human dynamics, neighborliness and unity, his expression of his opinion would be expected to be guided by the facts of that history in order not to lend his powerful voice to the propagation of untruths that could further stoke enmity and prepare ground for future pogroms.

Despite the recast of Awolowo as desiring to cause his Yoruba people to dominate the Igbos, as attempted by Achebe, after the war, Awolowo’s Yoruba people ensured that the properties of the Igbos in the South West region never remained abandoned properties. The policies they put in place in Lagos ensured that even if the government were to seize such properties as a punitive measure against leading members of the rebellion, government would fail. Ojukwu himself later exploited this in claiming his father’s estate in Lagos when the successor government tried to take those properties. Other states like Rivers frustrated the Igbos. Today, the Yoruba Region of Nigeria remains one of the safest places for the Igbos, rivaled only perhaps by the South East Region while it does appear that the Igbos and the Yorubas intermarry more than they do with their brothers and sisters from the Northern part of the country.

It is logical to look back and imagine what the fatality of that war could have been had Awolowo not intervene by ensuring that enemy soldiers were not being fed at the expense of the starving folks of the Eastern Region. It is also important to note that Ojukwu, the supreme figure of the Biafran resistance gave Awolowo that unique epithet after the latter’s death ‘The greatest President Nigeria never had” as well as acknowledging him as “one of the most principled leaders he had ever met”. I postulated as a teenager that the reason Ojukwu did that was his guilt from missing a unique opportunity to partner with a forthright and honest Nigerian – a foe without malice – who if he told you it was one o clock, you would never need to check your watch.

The iconic poet, Odia Ofeimun, in a television interview confirmed one thing my father told me, whenever a man takes Awolowo on, if you conduct an independent research, you are most likely to discover that Awolowo was right and that man in the wrong. If our icon, Prof. Chinua Achebe had put Awolowo’s contribution into context and his memoir devoid of envy and tribal solidarity – the part that deals with the person of Awolowo and the Yoruba people would have read differently. Storytelling or tale bearing is easy because the writer is only limited by the extent of his own imagination. Writing histories is however difficult because of the need to keep within the facts of time.

Tunji Ariyomo

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

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