And knowing that genocides are such bad things, propagandists reach for international support by playing it up even where the claims are tenuous. This is why talking about the starving children of Biafra as an incidence of genocide turns out not to be such a straightforward matter. Biafra lost much potential international support when it was discovered, and discussed across the board, that the General of the People’s Army was engaged in unethical profiling of starving children in order to attract international sympathy. In his letter of resignation from his $400,000 contract and his post as Public Relations Representative of Biafra in the United States, Robert S. Goldstein, who had helped to build up much international concern for Biafra wrote to the Biafran Commander in chief as follows: “It is inconceivable to me that you 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………..I cannot serve you any longer. Nor can I be party to suppressing the fact that your starving thousands have the food, medicine and milk available to them….it can and is ready to be delivered through international organizations to you. Only your constant refusal has stopped its delivery.” This piece of archival material may well have been a propaganda coup for the Federal side but it is part of the story. Around the much-trumpeted genocide, was a Biafran proto-state that was prepared to send some well-placed children out of harm’s way to havens in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in the world but was using other people’s children in Biafra as guinea pigs for propaganda purposes. The truth, bitter, as it must sound, is that once war was declared, both sides were on a genocidal binge.
The reverse side of the Biafran charge of genocide against the Federal side is that the charge can be firmly and rigorously laid that Biafra sent people into combat who had no weapons to fight in a real war. And there was a vast civilian population whose food needs were not considered either in the initial promotion of war frenzy or in the course of the war, to be an issue. Those who like to trip on the propaganda of war, and are probably hoping that they would be given food reliefs if they manage to plunge Nigeria into another war with their unthinking fictions, need to be told that it will not be called a war if one side must feed the other side. That such considerations were always there, and were seriously entertained, is why many writers call the Nigerian Civil war a phoney war. Or a brother’s war. The gleeful latching upon Awolowo’s statement that starvation is a weapon of war as a means of raking up old inter-ethnic animosities or winning a prosecutor’s slot in a Nuremberg-type trial, wont change this reality. Even the Federal side which allowed and then stopped food shipment to Biafra knew that it was merely trying to fulfill all righteousness. Who has yet found a way to stop soldiers in any theatre of war from hijacking the food meant for the civilian population? Who does not know that soldiers move on their stomachs and are more likely to hijack food meant for civilians than not? The question is always there: whether or how to to allow a welfare package to the other side without committing suicide. Even if war is thereby prolonged. This is talking about a war between brothers. Sad it is that the truly brotherly elements that characterized the waging of the war on both sides of the Nigerian civil war have not been allowed to surface by the spoilsports of the propaganda Ministries.
Talking war as war, when Biafrans made the famous incursion into the Midwest State, they were not thinking of the convenience of Midwesterners. Their strategic exigencies had little thought for the sensibilities of a region that had shown much sympathy for the Biafran cause up to the point of not allowing the region to be a staging post for launching an attack on Biafra. The region was treated as mere faggot for the fire. It turned out that the military Governor of the state, David Ejoor had been out-numbered and out-gunned by Igbo-speaking elements in his cabinet who actually out-voted him on a six by three basis when the pressure came for Biafrans to be allowed to come in. Strictu sensu, therefore, Biafra did not invade. Biafra was invited into the Midwest State. Hence, as many writers on the war have reported, no shot was fired. The food and other resources, including hard currency, for whose sake the incursion was made, may have been a good enough bargain for the incoming army. But it exposed a lot of untoward factors including ethnic arrogance, which told the minority ethnic nationalities in the war-torn South what could continue to happen to them if they remained part of Biafra. To think of it, it is the easy indifference to the rights of the minority ethnic nationalities who itched to take their own lives in their own hands that horridly vitiated the whole idea of the Biafran enterprise. And it was this that gave the Federal side such moral authority, egged on, since the Revenge coup, by the release of Adaka Boro and his partisans who had been sentenced to death, awaiting execution, for pushing secession for a Niger Delta Republic. It was this that kept the creation of new states on the hot burner even without the threat of a Biafran secession to grant its inexorability. The bottom line is that the evidence of people seeking freedom for themselves without considering that others also needed it was what routed Biafra, even as much as Federal guns and the idea of starvation as a weapon of war.
Lets face it: it rankles. I mean, the long-standing and brazen refusal to recognize that there were others in the Eastern Region who deserved to be treated like the proper nationalities that they were rather than as pariahs in their own country. What cannot be denied is that it was Awolowo’s fate to have earned the dislike of so many outside the Western Region whose region he slated for splitting from early in his career. He made the creation of states, along ethnic lines, his lifelong pursuit, while fighting for Nigeria to be turned from a mere geographical expression to a cultural expression, a nation, through the establishment of a common access for all and sundry to free education, free health, full employment and pensions and the freedom of the press and judiciary. No question about it: Awolowo was a very ambitious man who believed in becoming the leader of a great country that could lift Africans up. He felt it would be a belittling of his project if he stood by to allow an energetic nationality like the Igbo to excise themselves through the fecklessness of leaders who would send their people to the death in their millions rather than prepare them for the future with the calculating gumption of true generals. The sad thing for him was to hear people talk about how much the masses in Biafra wanted war, as if Generals are not supposed to be citizens, specially trained to see beyond anger and bitterness and therefore able to obviate feckless projecteering in the name of war. Do you send your children to commit suicide because you are angry with your enemy? Where went that proverb which says that you do not ask who killed your father until you are firmly holding a matchete from the right side? So what was Biafra’s handle on the basis of which the world was told that no power in black Africa could subdue her. And then, at the end of the war, to suggest that it was those who hated Igbo people who were working so hard to bring them back to Nigeria by force? Or who were threatening to leave Nigeria if the Igbo were ever to be allowed to go; and going the whole hog to plead with Igbo leaders not to go to war! It may be good for war propaganda to tone the hatreds that shored up conflict . It simply does not make good post-war logic. Irrespective of the polemics and rhetorical afflatus that bedevil public arguments with notions of how Nigeria has no future, it is clear that a Nigeria together, as it is, even with all the poor quality of the quarrels that we all have with one another, is a better country than the fractionized mayhem, each acting like a mini anarchic Nigeria, which we would otherwise have to deal with. Awolowo believed it, showed it during the civil war, and too many Nigerians have shown that they agree, that this is still the closest that Africa has to a country able to stand up to the rest of the world and thrive for the good of all Africans. The many differences that some people deplore, and which Awolowo spent his life seeking to re-engineer in creative directions, are actually part of what will save this country. The point is to prepare all concerned to work for that future rather than merely grumble, seek scapegoats for our own failings, douse it with cynical rhetoric, while waiting for it like manna from heaven.
The sad part and the shame of the moment is that, unable to look the history of our differences in the face, we allow ourselves to be flattered or incensed by odd serenades of ethnic and regional fictions. Even those who know that it is bad for their ethnic groups to seek to live like islands unto themsleves are gleefully developing discrepant moralities for their supposed people: a benign one for self and a pernicious or predatory morality for others. It is usually based on bad logic and poor thinking as much of this narrative has shown. When people think badly they want to hide it by putting the rest of us in situation where, if we disagree, we can be accused of being haters of their ethnic group or nationality. So I am told that a proverb belongs to an ethnic group so that if I disagree with the bad thinking that goes with it I may be charged with pushing for ethnocide or genocide. It is a form of blackmail that yields backwardness for a people. I think we should feel free to show our dislike when people are mauled by their own as when they are mauled by other people. By the same token if bad logic is claimed for or by an ethnic group, it amounts to self-immolation on anyone’s part to sit quiet and say it is their business. It is not just their business because their bad logic will not let neighbours live well or rest in peace. We are all therefore bound to be our brothers’ keeper. We would need always to contest the veracity of what is claimed against other perceptions of reality. Until cultural empathy is achieved or approximated. I mean: not even the disabilities and pains of one life authorizes that life to deny other lives their due.
These are precepts that I think we should all bear in mind, as we confront situations such as when those returning home to Nigeria after Biafra found a country not too different from the one they left. Unhappily, the Biafra they knew maltreated Biafrans as much if not more than Nigeria kept maltreating Nigerians. Much of it came more from improper organizational setups, plain incompetence, rather than sheer wickedness or hatred as we are all being made to believe when we come to it. Rather than describe the problems with a clarity that allows for seeking genuine solutions, we get all manner of exorbitance, which push away answers and solutions. Thus, as a way of laying a basis for more harmony between the ex-Biafrans and their Nigerian siblings, we hardly were told about the many who returned to find that their properties were intact and that people actually protected their rights in those properties. We hear so much about the absolute deprivation of Biafrans through the granting of N20 ex-gratia payment (slightly more than the equivalent of a third class clerks monthly pay) to every survivor after the war. It is forgotten that it was meant as a short-term welfare policy to enable many get back to their homes from wherever they were at when the war ended. It was not meant to be payment for being rebels or as an exchange for Biafran money. That was why it was called ex-gratia. It was supposed to be a provisional payment while sorting those who could still find the papers to prove how much they had in their accounts. Accountably, the system collapsed. Only a few could have managed to keep their papers who had not already emptied their accounts while they were leaving a country they did not intend to come back to. It called for an exercise of leadership on all sides; for a genuine lobbying or muzzling of whoever was in authority to act beyond the rule of law and to find a way of resolving the clearly confused circumstance of so many people having Biafran money in a country where it was impossible to regard it as legal tender. But just as in the planning for the war, there was so much left undone even in the manner and mode of surrender. After the war, I used to wonder why the leaders dissolved into atoms. I am saying this partly because I am yet to meet someone who has vouchsafed a formula that could have resolved the matter of the ex-gratia payments without rancor. The same goes for the issue of abandoned property which no longer had a public advocacy once Sam Mbakwe who had briefed Awolowo to take the matter to court was importuned to withdraw it on the awkward reasoning that if Awolowo won the case in court he would make political capital out of it. It became a case of better not fight the abandoned property issue for the masses, if some old enemy would share in the glory. Hence the matter festered till it became a case of everyone for himself. The General of the People’s Army had to wait till as late as the last week of General Ibrahim Babangida in office in 1993 to wrest his own abandoned property. We don’t know about those who never had that luck. We don’t know about the soldiers who could not get their pensions after the General got his. But that is the way the post-civil war atomization of demands got covered up by a rev of self-interest that many like to present as the interest of the whole nationality. The truth is that those to whom things happened, and who hardly had a chance of happening to anything, but suffered all the same, never had champions. It left mere grumblers in the public space who are still wondering why others wont fight battles they themselves have abandoned.
But there was clearly one silver lining in the whole business which ought to be acknowledged even in the face of the harsh circumstances that existed. It is in the fact declared by SG Ikoku, the Commissioner for Economic Development in East Central State in the Daily Times of May 22, 1971 that “the Federal Government had made available 21.505 million pounds grant and 10.620 million as advances and loans. It was part of the accumulated amounts saved for the East Central State during the war by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Commissioner for Finance and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, on the basis of population distribution of revenue. No one, these days, is ever allowed to know this little matter even if the point is to show how well those who wanted the Biafrans dead followed the financial regulations that guided the Federation and so kept what was due to the East in reserve for them till they returned to the fold. This is not even to ask about how the money was actually spent, which I am sure must be blamed on those who had saved the money. Besides, there really ought now to be a cross-check of Awolowo’s claim that he saved African Continental Bank from collapse in order to help shore up the economy of the East. Right? Such things ought not to be left in the way that those who took monies from Biafra to buy food and ammunition but failed to deliver have been forgotten with their loot of war.
This is why, across the social media, it is painful to encounter the many angry discussants of the civil war years who see it only in terms of what needed to have been done for the East. My grouse is that it is not being discussed in terms of what the leaders of the East owed the people but failed to deliver. Most of the intellectuals and leaders of opinion go about seeking to entrench fictions that merely disable the capacity of the ex-Biafrans to build with other Nigerians.
The good thing is that the average Igbo man is way ahead of the griping ones who do not know that the war ended long ago. They are everywhere long gone beyond sweating talk about how to be Nigerian. Others, instead of helping the people to think through the necessity to get empowerment through education, industry and genuine employment, they are busy reproducing fictions that landed the country in a mess of incivility. And they are adding no value to existing answers beyond the fluff of ethnic nationalism masquerading as highmindedness. Surely, blaming a neighbor for the mess you helped to create by not caring or standing up for an identifiable principle in pursuit of goals, is no way to go. Similarly, the habit of shouting my people my people has actually become a way of not caring for or about the people. This can be proved by simply asking why all the governments in the zone contrived helplessness for forty years while the roads in the East deteriorated to war-time conditions. In a region where trade is an eze with feathers on a red cap, you would have expected that all the governments in the zone would come together to tackle the monster as a matter of emergency. A people so energetic and gutsy, pumping so much enterprise across the country should not be so self- neglecting as to be waiting for others to raise or de-maginalize them. Unless as a strategy for getting more and more in the national spoils system. I mean, it is plain bad manners to blame other Nigerians, who have not found answers to their problems, and with whom cooperation is a fitter strategy than the politics of the old gripe. At rate, which part of Nigeria is in a good state where industries have not collapsed and public schools in a sorry state! As I see it, a distracted individualism which some people prefer to describe as republicanism, is being priced above a genuine sitting down to plan with and for the people. Instead of inventing enemies, and seeing competition in zero-sum terms, there is a need to mobilize affect and resources to rise above the disabilities that we all share as Nigerians.
Ofeimun, poet, journalist was private secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo
By Odia Ofeimun