Between a non-Igbophobic Awolowo and an Awophobic Achebe, By Ayo Adebanjo

Adebanjo says Awolowo never hated the Igbo, but that Achebe has always hated Awolowo with passion

I am sad and distressed that a literary giant and an elder statesman such as Professor Chinua Achebe should be credited with the statement attributed to him in his latest book on the Nigerian Civil War at this time in Nigeria’s political history, over 40 years after the end of the war.

His statements, however, are not unfamiliar to those of us who were around during the civil war, and who knew what falsehood and half-truths were bandied around then especially from “Biafra Radio” and supporters of the Biafra cause, notable amongst whom was Professor Chinua Achebe. Some thought they were effusions from supporters of Biafra in order to enlist international support for Ojukwu, but many, on the other hand, attributed Achebe’s position to his pathological hatred for Chief Awolowo and the Yoruba race.

Achebe has accused Chief Awolowo of being part of General Gowon’s cabinet that initiated pogrom and genocide as a policy against the Igbos. Yet, Achebe cannot claim ignorance of the fact that specific recorded instances of pogrom and genocide were a consequence of the second military coup of July 1966 in which northern soldiers and northerners committed series of atrocities against the Igbos in the North.

At this time, Awolowo was still in prison in Calabar serving his jail term for treasonable felony. It was after his release from prison that Gen. Gowon invited him to join his cabinet as vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council and Minister of Finance. The war was already brewing at such time. At the risk of his life, and against the advice of his cabinet colleagues, Awolowo made contact with Ojukwu and met him in Enugu to dissuade him from going to war. In his one-on-one meeting with Ojukwu, Chief Awolowo tried to persuade Ojukwu to come to a roundtable conference with the Federal Government to iron out his differences with the government. But despite the assurances the then Colonel Ojukwu gave to Awolowo that he had accepted dialogue, Ojukwu reneged and a few weeks later attacked the Midwest and thus declared war against the Federal Government. Which is how the civil war became inevitable. The above facts are verifiable. Fair-minded persons cannot accuse Awolowo of being part of the intellectual arm of a cabinet that intentionally initiated the pogrom of the Igbos, when in fact the record shows he took positive steps to persuade Ojukwu to avoid the conflict.

Whilst the war was raging after the liberation of part of the then South East, which then included Port Harcourt and Calabar, Awolowo visited Enugu and Port Harcourt where he saw Kwashiorkor (malnourished) victims for the first time. He wondered how this could happen in view of the quantity of food items sent through international agencies to the civilians in these areas. He was then informed that the food never got to the civilians as the soldiers, who were feeding themselves with the food, to the detriment of the civilians. One can imagine such a report being provided to a cabinet filled with military officers conducting a war. It should not be surprising that to avoid feeding enemy soldiers, the Federal Government at the time put a stop to the delivery of food meant for the civilian population that was being hijacked by Biafran soldiers. This is what Achebe mischievously called the deliberate starvation of the Igbos. I would like Professor Achebe, if he can, to make reference to any publication, where Awolowo made the statement that starvation was a legitimate tool of war. Furthermore, if such starvation ended with the end of the war, Professor Achebe should explain why, if the specific objective of the policy was to reduce Chief Awolowo’s enemies, did he not influence the continuation or doubling up on such policy when Nigerian troops had control of Biafran territory at the end of the war. One would have thought the charge of genocide should have been better directed at the leaders of Biafra, who had first hand knowledge of the starvation in the area they controlled, and yet did not as they could, bring an end to the war sooner before two million people, mainly members of future generations, had died of starvation as Achebe claimed.

Also, during the war it became known that the Nigerian currency, which Biafran soldiers had looted from Central Bank locations in Biafra-occupied areas were being exchanged to buy arms for the Biafran army. To put a stop to this, Chief Awolowo, as the Federal Commissioner for Finance, suddenly changed the Nigerian currency without the prior knowledge of members of the cabinet. Even General Gowon, who was the head of state, was informed only a day before the announcement. These two major policies of stopping food meant for civilians, which was being ambushed by the Biafran soldiers and the sudden change of Nigerian currency were the two factors that quickly brought the misery of the civil war to an end.

It should be noted that Chief Awolowo’s prudent management of the Nigerian economy made it possible for the Federal Government to prosecute the civil war without borrowing a kobo from the outside world. This achievement was acclaimed globally. It is this policy that quickly put an end to the insurgence that Professor Achebe has interpreted as a punitive measure against the Igbo.

At the end of the civil war, a problem did arise with respect to how to verify the amounts creditable to Biafrans, who made claims to money held in Nigerian banks before the declaration of war. Unfortunately there were no records to confirm the amount in savings or current accounts held by a good number of such Biafran claimants. As a result, a committee was set up by the Central Bank, the members of which were unknown to Chief Awolowo. The committee recommended an across-the-board payment of £20 to every claimant. It is therefore most uncharitable for professor Achebe to put the blame of the payment of this amount on Chief Awolowo.

Furthermore, to extrapolate from this policy a deliberate policy to stunt or obliterate the economy of the Igbo does not stand up to critical review and is rather far fetched.   Firstly, what is an administrator to do in the face of such unverifiable claims? Pay every sundry claim? As Awolowo had stated, doing so would have bankrupted Nigeria at the time. Secondly, common sense would suggest that claims that such sums as were left behind were very substantial needed to be substantiated. It should be noted that the percentage of Nigerians with substantial amounts in banks during that period was limited. In addition, with the advent of an impending war, the natural reaction is a run on banks to withdraw all such sums or as much as possible, particularly for Igbo then fleeing to a new country, Biafra.

Under such context, the payment of £20 pounds (a substantial sum at the time) to all claimants without proof of specific amounts due to them was not altogether an unreasonable policy. More to the point, this was not a policy recommendation that can be specifically attributable to Awolowo, but rather the recommendation of a committee of the Central Bank set up at the time.

It is noteworthy that after the division of the country to 12 states by General Gowon in 1968, the East Central State composed mainly of Igbo people emerged. Awolowo then diligently saved the monthly allocation due to Igbo during the war and released same to them at the end of the war. The African Continental Bank (ACB) and the Cooperative Bank for Eastern Nigeria, the two main financial institutions of the Igbo at the time, which had become moribund during the civil war were rejuvenated by Awolowo by releasing substantial funds to them for active operation. Achebe would have to explain how these actions beneficial to the Igbo emanated from somebody who he claims had hatred for the Igbo or harboured any intent to deliberately and systematically exterminate the Igbo or deny them their right of existence as a group.

Furthermore, after the civil war, Achebe cannot claim ignorance of the fact that Awolowo personally wrote to prominent Igbo people (including Achebe himself), who had fled the country during the war to come back home. One of those, who responded to the call and whose home coming was facilitated personally by Awolowo was the late Chief M.C.K Ajuluchukwu, the former editor of Dr. Azikiwe’s Newspaper, The West African Pilot and his wife, a medical doctor, who were then based in Germany. Chief Awolowo facilitated the employment of the wife at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital and also later employed Chief Ajuluchukwu as the director of research and publicity of his party, the Unity Party Of Nigeria.

If it is true that Chief Awolowo was such an architect of pogrom and genocide against the Igbo, how would Professor Achebe explain the fact that there were no incidents of pogrom or genocide against the Igbos in any part of the then Western Region composed mainly of the Yorubas, and Chief Awolowo’s primary sphere of influence. Rather, the Igbo, who fled the West on the clarion call of Ojukwu for them to return to the East had their property kept safe for them, with the rents collected on the property duly accounted for at the end of the civil war and paid to such Igbo owners. It should be noted that no incidents of “abandoned property” occurred in the Western Region-Chief Awolowo’s zone, rather the controversy around such property were restricted to areas such as Port Harcourt and the Northern Region.

Whilst it is true to say that Awolowo had the ambition to rule the country, it is unkind to say he wanted to achieve this by wiping out the Igbo, whom he considered an impediment. On the contrary, Chief Awolowo’s position had always been to rule the country with other progressive elements from all parts of the country including the Igbo. This he demonstrated in 1959 after the pre-independence general election, when he offered to serve under the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe as Prime Minister, with him as Minister of Finance. The NCNC (the party led by Dr. Azikiwe) turned the offer down and preferred an alliance with the NPC under the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. This incident was referred to, by the late Dr. M.I Okpara (former Premier of the former Eastern Region in an interview in the New Nation Magazine published in 1977 by the veteran journalist Chief Gbolabo Ogunsanwo. In the interview Dr. Okpara said he will regret to the last day of his life that he did not support the alliance between the Action Group and the NCNC, which could have made Dr. Azikiwe the Prime Minister and Chief Awolowo the Minister of Finance. Even before the general election of 1983, there were attempts to form an alliance between the UPN led by Chief Awolowo and NPP led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe all in an attempt to have progressive forces form an alliance against the conservative NPC. Again this attempt did not materialise due to the opposition by the Yoruba leaders in the NPP at the time.

It is also interesting to recall that at the demise of Chief Awolowo, Chief Ojukwu, himself, remarked that “Awolowo was the best president Nigeria never had”. None of the foregoing suggests a man with hatred for the Igbo. Yoruba leaders led by the late Senator Abraham Adesanya have been working in close political collaboration with prominent Igbo leaders like Admiral Ndubisi Kanu, a former Governor of Lagos State and Admiral Ebitu Ukiwe, a former Chief of General Staff and Professor Ben Nwabueze, in an honest attempt to find equitable solutions to the problems of the country. The leaders of both ethnic groups have been putting their heads together for the emergence of a progressive Nigeria in peace and unity. It is sad that instead of Professor Achebe joining this progressive movement, he has chosen to bring into the front burner the dark period of Nigeria’s history. What he stands to gain by repeating such falsehood, I cannot honestly comprehend. I believe however it is clear from the historical record that Awo had no Igbophobia, it is Professor Achebe that has to be cured of his Awophobia.

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