There Was A Country: Babatope’s Vindication of Achebe By Ikeogu Oke

Ikeogu Oke
Ikeogu Oke

 “And I have wondered if it ever occurred to Chief Babatope that he also, by implication, answered his interviewer’s question on Igbo marginalisation in the affirmative.”

“There was a strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo … That epiphany made us realize that Nigeria ‘did not belong we,’ as Liberians would put it.”

– Chinua Achebe,

There Was a Country, a Personal History of Biafra

“… I cannot talk on behalf of the Igbo people; they would talk for themselves. I can talk for my Yoruba people and I can equally talk for the people of Nigeria…” – Ebenezer Babatope, The Guardian, December 2, 2012

Let me begin by stating that no irony is implied in the title of this piece. That the title is factual is, I think, easy to discern from an integral reading of the quotes above. The first quote is from page 87 of the autobiography entitled There Was a country, a Personal History of Biafra (2012), by Chinua Achebe. The second is from an interview granted by the self-confessed disciple of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and politician Chief Ebenezer Babatope, to Obire Onakemu, published on pages 58 and 59 of The Guardian of December 2, 2012. The interview appeared under the main and subsidiary titles of “BABATOPE: There Was A Country Not A Product Of Intellectual Research” and “We’ll Write Our Own Books To Counter Achebe – Babatope” respectively. Needless to say that, as these titles suggest, Chief Babatope’s posture in the interview was critical of There Was A Country.

The quote of Achebe is his rather climactic quip after detailing and analysing a chain of events that he believed convinced the Igbo that other Nigerians did not regard or treat them as their fellow citizens, which compelled them to declare the secessionist state of Biafra. The quote of Chief Babatope was his response to the question by his interviewer: “Are Igbo people still being marginalised in this country?”

However, if the above title implicates an irony, it is the situational irony that Chief Babatope might have thought that he had succeeded in undermining the credibility of Achebe’s book. But then, as if by a miracle that escaped his notice, the book’s credibility asserted itself through his utterance, vindicating Achebe. That utterance is his above quote.

Now for how it vindicates Achebe: that Chief Babatope responded to that question by stating that he “can … talk for the people of Nigeria” but “cannot talk on behalf of the Igbo people” signifies that, for him, “the Igbo people” are not part of “the people of Nigeria.” I regard this apparently inadvertent revelation by one of the most vocal critics of Achebe’s There Was a Country as a Freudian slip, an eruption of a secret locked in the unconscious mind, made more intriguing by the obliviousness of the owner of that mind.

In effect, there is no qualitative difference between Achebe saying, in There Was A Country, that the Igbo realised that “Nigeria ‘did not belong we’” and Chief Babatope saying that he “cannot talk on behalf of the Igbo people” even though he “can …talk for the people of Nigeria.” By that remark, Chief Babatope has confirmed about forty-five years later what Achebe said the Igbo realised before they declared Biafra, that other Nigerians regarded them as outsiders, people whom the likes of Chief Babatope, in high and low places, cannot speak for or stand by as they would their tribesmen and their fellow Nigerians, and against whom they could feel free to unleash the type of cold-blooded carnage Achebe describes in the book, assured that the law of their country and its enforcers would forever ignore their crimes because of the identity of their victims.

If I had the opportunity to meet Chief Babatope, I would ask him: If, as you have said, you can talk for the people of Nigeria but cannot talk for the Igbo, then where does it place the Igbo in your Nigerian equation – not outside? Can’t you see that such an attitude, of yours, validates Achebe’s statement in There Was A Country that what you call “the people of Nigeria” would rather not have the Igbo in their fold though they continue to make pretences to the contrary? Do you expect your charge that There Was A Country is not a product of intellectual research to stand even though your own words, as I have analysed here, have proven its contents to be true on their face value?

And I have wondered if it ever occurred to Chief Babatope that he also, by implication, answered his interviewer’s question on Igbo marginalisation in the affirmative. For his response that he can “talk for the people of Nigeria” but not also for the Igbo implicates marginalisation of the Igbo; for it places the Igbo on the margin, outside in fact, of his voluntary verbal representation, as it were. And did Achebe not say on page 235 of There Was a Country that “the Igbo … continue not to be integrated into Nigeria.” Again, Chief Babatope vindicates him by disintegrating the Igbo from “the people of Nigeria” as his words imply. What a way for a man to prove the baselessness of his animus against a truthful book through his own words – while criticising the book! What a fascinating irony!

But it is partly this tendency of such “controversial” views by Achebe to prove unassailably true to the open-minded, and the courage with which he expresses them to deepen our common humanity, that has won him my eternal respect. Alas, some of the critics of There Was a Country, especially those who see nothing wrong in committing mass infanticide by starvation, in starving millions of innocent children to death in order to win a war, because they believe “all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war,” have merely shown how deeply humanity has decayed in our country. Yet, I believe that the decay is not irreversible, thanks to the hope signified by the responses of the likes of Wole Soyinka and Duro Onabule to the book, responses that portray them as men whose love of truth and justice transcends all primordial considerations.

The Igbo say that if you pluck a tick from a dog’s body you should show it to the dog, so it does not think that you pinched it. This is what Achebe has done with There Was a Country, Nigeria’s ultimate tick-dislodging book. But rather than show gratitude to Achebe, the dog that he has taken such great pain to rid its body of ticks and other vermin has turned aggressive, barking at him, and not seeming to realise that the armour of truth cannot be breached by the animosity of those who would rather perpetuate falsehood.

Oke, a poet and public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja. Email: ikeogu.oke@gmail.com; Tel: +234-(0)803-453-1501

  • leo

    Maybe the chief Babatope in his remark unconsciously confirmed Achebe’s assertion on the marginalisation of the igbo folk throughout history till present or maybe the chief only made the comment on the basis of isolation of opinions perhaps bearing in mind likely predisposition or mindset perculier to the igbo folk. He spoke for the rest of Nigeria probably because the core of the debate is founded on the conflicting ideals and notions held by the contending sides to the topic that could be tagged “igbo vs Nigeria”. Whatever be the case, I personally don’t by the idea/opinion whatever that I’m igbo makes me less Nigerian than my yoruba or hausa contemporaries in the right to equal opportunities and priveledges. Prejudice exists everywhere even in the most liberal of the ‘free-est’ of societies but then the igbo’s must beware of the ‘loser mentality’, the predisposition that misgivings and failures are or would be as a result of the preferences accorded “the majority favoured “group. I for one would not let my igbo brothers or sisters wallow in the abiss of dispair and selfpity born out of an erroneous poisonous mindset. The igbos must believe in their claim to the wealth of Nigeria our land and pursue excellence in the struggle for acceptance and recognition eschewing all thoughts of handicap keeping heart and mind focused on the pursuit of excellence, and before long I believe in the Nigeria we all hope for ourselves.

  • amina

    Constant talks about the igbo whatever is what I’m trying to understand, do you igbos what your own country? It can be peaceful like bakasi or is it to rule you all want? Then contest in an election, ok. Enough about biafra and ojukwu and all that, that was in the 60′s. We can only move forward if we actually know what we want

  • AIYEKOTO

    The answer of Babatope to the question of if Igbo people are maginalised in Nigeria was correct. He, Babatope, is not an Igbo. The question of maginalisation of Igbos in Nigeria should have been directed to people like Alex Ekweme, the Vice President of Nigeria (1979-1983), the current Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Right Honourable Emeka Ihedioha, the Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, Senator Andy Uba, Emeka Ofor the oil Billionaire, Stella Oduah, the Minister of Aviation; Professor Onyebuchi, the Minister of Health; Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the Minister of Finance and Economic co-ordination, Sam Amadi the Director General of Nigerian Electric Regulatory Commission etc. The essence of Babatope’s answer to the question of Igbo’s maginalisation is that the above listed officials were appointed to serve the entire people of Nigeria and not only their Igbo tribe. Therefore, it is unintelligent to expect Babatope to be answering a question about Igbo maginalisation in Nigeria when the Nigerian masses of all tribes are alienated and dispossed by the Federal Character appointed officials.

  • Oluremi Olu

    This Writer has only
    read into Chief Babatope’s statement, what he thinks is there, and not
    necessarily what is there; a mind-set occasioned by, an acquired loser / victim
    mentality. Chief Babatope is being sensible when he insists on speaking only
    for his own people, and those who accept
    themselves as Nigerians and not those who claim to be Nigerians, but whose
    loyalties seem to lie elsewhere. The problem with this Writer, and also Achebe,
    is their tendency to de-contextualise the events they are commenting on, which ultimately
    leads them to the wrong conclusions. Given that the background to the question
    that Chief Babatope was asked, relates to an assertion by a man who has been
    aptly described as a “Biafran in Nigerian clothes”, apologies to Dr M. J. Yushau,
    it is only wise for the Chief to carefully define those on whose behalf he can
    speak. And, of course, those Nigerians include Igbos who regard themselves as
    such.

    The fifth
    edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia (1993), as cited by: http://emeagwali.com/discoveries/99_Thunder-Road-to-Biafra.pdf
    {Accessed on: 28/12/12}; had this to say about the Republic of Biafra:

    …The
    breakaway state had insufficient resources at the start of the war-it was a net
    importer of food and had little industry-and depended heavily on its control of
    petroleum fields for funds to make purchases abroad. It lost the oil fields in
    the war, and more than one million of its civilian population are thought to
    have died as a result of severe malnutrition. At the time of its surrender on
    Jan. 15, 1970, Biafra was greatly reduced in size, its inhabitants were
    starving, and its leader, Ojukwu, had fled the country. During its existence
    Biafra was recognized by only five nations, although other countries gave moral
    or material support. …”

    Furthermore, while one deplores the tragic circumstances
    that led the Igbos to feel unsafe within
    the Federation; it must be pointed out that (peace) efforts were on-going at that time to redress the situation and
    counsels of restraint and reason were
    not lacking on both sides of the divide; all of whom were cautioning against
    war and urging a peaceful resolution
    of the crisis (see : http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui12.htm
    {Accessed on: 28/12/12}).

    Good warriors often do their level best in order to avoid
    war, because they know the human suffering and fatalities that will attend it;
    however, if in spite of all their efforts, they must go to war, they do not shy
    away from it because people will die or suffer. They go ahead and do what they
    must do and that is the cold reality of war and the world of warriors. Lest we
    forget, as of 30 May 1967, Lt. Col. Ojukwu (as he then was) was Military
    Governor of the then Eastern Region of Nigeria, a post he held, under a military
    government and by virtue of his commission in the Nigerian Army. Call or
    justify it however you may, on civvies street,
    Ojukwu’s declaration on 30 May 1967, is tantamount to rebellion, in the
    military, an organisation that he belongs to and whose rules he is bound by.
    Whenever, and wherever, rebellion occurs in an army, every soldier who chooses
    to remain in that army, has a decision to make and defend; it is either they
    fall in, or fall out, with the rebellion.
    General Gowon, as the commander, aided by some of his officers, did what
    a commander should do, by choosing to contest and put down the rebellion. He
    started by declaring a police action to arrest the leader of the rebellion ,
    only to discover that he will require more than policemen to achieve his
    objectives; thus, he sent in the army. Noteworthy is the fact that General
    Ojukwu himself was to behave likewise later on, when he believed that Lt.-Col. Banjo
    and some others were plotting a rebellion.

    From the foregone,
    one can only regret the actions of a leader, who in full awareness of
    the precarious food security situation of
    his country and the professional implication of his action, yet chose to
    commit his people to war. A war which the informed and discerning knew he would
    lose even before the first bullet was fired. Until our Igbo compatriots learn
    to take responsibility for the choices they made in 1967, they will only be
    speaking to the air, when they insist that Nigeria owes them an apology.