There was a country: Deconstructing Chinua Achebe’s ‘lies’ (1), By Nnaemeka Meribe

Nnaemeka Meribe
Nnaemeka Meribe

Regular visitors to Nigerian internet discussion forums and social networking sites know that there has always been a cyber war between Yoruba and Igbo cyber warriors. Almost every issue-positive or negative-is tribalised. The two groups are filled with scoffers. An eminent Yoruba leader dies, Igbo cyber warriors pour invectives on him and vice-versa. A Nigerian of Igbo extraction achieves a rare feat abroad; Yoruba cyber warriors go lengths to belittle the achievement and vice-versa.

The only time the two groups would reach a consensus is when the issue is the non-performance of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party or the barbarism of the extremist group, Boko Haram.  Indeed, a first time visitor (with little or no knowledge of Nigeria) to any of these forums will think that Nigeria is all about the Yorubas and the Igbos.

Not surprisingly, the recent release by iconic novelist, Chinua Achebe, of his civil war memoir, There was a country, intensified the cyberwar. The master story teller blames the late sage and Yoruba legend, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, for the starvation to death of a huge number of Biafran children during the war.
Achebe writes: “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.”
Achebe’s narrative, not surprisingly, infuriated the Yoruba group and a good number of them turned into emergency researchers and historians, using the Internet and the print media to disseminate counter narratives aimed at absolving the most venerable Awolowo from Achebe’s accusations. Old Awo’s interviews were excavated to exculpate him. His associates, even those who betrayed him at some points, went mad, describing Achebe as one of Nigeria’s greatest liars. Some even called for Achebe’s head.

Many fly-by-night literary critics dismissed the memoir and its style as the worst of Achebe’s literary works. It did not matter to them if book and its style had been lauded by some of the world’s top names in literary criticism. Their Igbo counterparts used the same combination of media to stoutly defend Achebe’s position, reinforcing his narrative with many of their own ‘well -researched stories based on historical facts’.

In the midst of this cyber war, the Yoruba group exhumed a big one that was sure to bolster their position that Awolowo was not guilty as charged.  It was a letter of resignation by Biafra’s publicist, Robert Goldstein, published in the Morning Post of Lagos edition of August 17, 1968. In that letter, Goldstein claimed that his conscience had led him to resign from his job as Biafra’s publicist considering that Biafra’s leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu, was deliberately prolonging starvation to win world’s sympathy and support.

Goldstein wrote:  “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”.

To the Yoruba group, it was eureka! Comments like ‘the truth can never be hidden’ were not in short supply. Many of them thanked God that Awolowo had finally been absolved while Achebe and his colony of liars and losers had been given a technical knockout. Indeed, that resignation letter got the social media buzzing. It trended like hot akara balls.

Without any shadow of doubt, Goldstein’s resignation letter spoke volumes. It must have derailed what was left of the Biafra’s ‘propaganda’ train. It is based on that letter and people’s readiness to stand truth on its head in order to defend a member of their tribe that I am writing this piece. I feel that we will be doing our country a lot of good as we trudge toward nationhood if we began to remove our tribal goggles when looking at issues. We should stop defining truth and justice on the basis of who is involved. I am worried that injustice will become justice to the Igbo when a Yoruba has been cheated and vice-versa.

Those who hoped to score a cheap point with Goldstein’s letter failed to do a good research on the fellow. The guy was more or less a mercenary who was ever willing to work with the highest bidder. His whole interest was pecuniary.

What actually led to Goldstein’s resignation? It was the quest for more dollars. His associates said so. There was no doubt that Goldstein did a good public relations job for Biafra. This, however, did not go down with the Nigerian government and they looked for ways to buy him over, especially when Biafra was not meeting its financial side of the deal with him.

This was well stated in a story published by the Milwaukee Journal on August 14, 1968 with the title, ‘US publicist quits in fight with Biafra’. According to the story, during a press conference in Los Angeles in which Goldstein , who ‘was now convinced that one Nigeria is the only solution to peace’, announced his resignation, two of his associates, Howard Cogan and Martin Wesson, contended that his ‘actions were nothing more than a sell out for dollars’. The two guys exposed Goldstein when they revealed to journalists that he ‘had accepted $35,000 from the Federal Republic of Nigeria as part payment for his resignation and discredit of the Sovereign Republic of Biafra’.

The newspaper saw through Goldstein’s dodgy nature when it wrote: ‘Somewhat vague on figures, Goldstein insisted that he had gotten only $22, 000 from Biafra for expenses so far and that he had spent much more than that. He said he was renouncing all claim to his share of $400,000 due to him from the Biafran regime this Dec. 1. But he declared that he did not have ‘the foggiest idea’ of how much money he stood to lose.’

Nigeria’s complicity in Goldstein’s resignation was, however, tacitly revealed in the The Blade of Toledo’s report of the story on the same day (August 14, 1968). The newspaper reported that Goldstein told journalists that he was considering going to work for Nigeria but that he hadn’t been approached. The newspaper added, “later that day, the Nigerian Embassy announced that they have already fired another firm, Burson-Mar stellar Associates, to burnish their image here’. It goes without saying that the firing opened way for the engagement of Goldstein by the Nigerian government.

From these two stories, it is clear that Goldstein resignation was dollar-driven rather than conscience-driven. It will, therefore, be unfair for any person of goodwill to use the letter to absolve Awolowo from an unfortunate action which he never denied. In the interview he granted to journalists on the run up to the 1983 general elections, which was unearthed and reproduced in various newspapers and online news portals in the wake of Achebe’s book, he gave his reasons for sanctioning the starvation policy. The sage defended the action, saying that it was a well thought-out policy to stop Biafran soldiers from ‘stealing’ food meant for civilians.

What a sagely defence! So, the best and fastest way to stop less than 20,000 soldiers from feeding fat and continue fighting was to come up with a policy that would lead to the death of two million children.  How many tonnes of food could soldiers possibly finish given the amount of food that became rancid in Sao Tome and Principes following the starvation policy and the blockade? When you contrast Awo’s defence with his now infamous and eternally self-damning statement: “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”, you will see that the starve-them-to-death approach was more of a well-planned war strategy.

Obviously, the Nigerian government was not interested in whatever happened to Biafran children and civilians. In fact, its aim was to kill and destroy any movable thing in the Biafran territory. Benjamin Adekunle , who was the commander of Nigeria’s 3rd Marine Commando Division, confirmed it when he said: ‘I  want to see no Red Cross, no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary and no UN delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo from having even one piece to eat before their capitulation’ (See the 2010 publication: Executive Session of The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee -Historical Series-, Vol XX, Nineteenth Congress, Second Session, 1968, p. 1023)

David L. Koren, a former American Peace Corps member in Nigeria, also affirmed same in his book, Far Away in the Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift, which was released this year. He told of how Biafra’s Uli airstrip was consistently bombed by Nigerian aircraft whenever relief cargo was being unloaded, According to Koren, ‘The Nigerian Intruder, code named “Yellow Bar” or “Genocide,” persistently bombed the airstrip, sometimes as relief cargo was being unloaded, sending workers into crude bomb shelters…’

In fact, Keren described as inhuman the notion that starvation ends wars quicker. He observed: “Four decades after the Biafran war the causes and events of that time are forgotten.  What remains is an historical lesson, the idea that the Biafran Airlift was a mistake, that it caused many more deaths by prolonging the war, that a ‘quick death’ would have been the more merciful solution. In academic books about international aid, that doctrine is sated as fact without proof or discussion.

“In international politics, the doctrine impedes the impulse to intervene in humanitarian disasters like Rwanda or Darfur. This Biafra lesson explicitly condones massacres, acts of war, and mass starvation of people by its government, as long as it’s done quickly. Instead of condemning humanitarian aid for keeping people alive too long, condemn that government which uses mass starvation to subdue its own people”.

In a review of the memoir in Peace Corps Worldwide ( July 24, John Coyne, who was also an American Peace Corps member in Nigeria before the civil war noted, “What advocates of the let-them-starve doctrine need to do, says Koren, is talk to the children who without the nourishment supplied by the airlift would have died to force their government to surrender.”

The starvation policy was unfortunate and wicked and trying to absolve a person who even confessed to being an author of the policy is even more wicked.What led to the death of over two million people is not what anybody should revel in. Vice should not become virtue when it is Uche and then become what it actually is when it’s Segun.What is condemnable is condemnable whether or not our demigods are involved. That’s one of the ways to heal the painful wounds of the past and move forward in one accord as a nation.

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