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Achebe: There was an icon

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Aside advocating hunger as a weapon of war, Chief Awolowo and by extension, the Yoruba people (Awolowo was the Asiwaju or Leader of Yoruba) are still to be 'forgiven' for not supporting the Biafran cause. While in the federal cabinet and after, Chief

Awolowo maintained an earlier vow while on a 'thank you' visit to Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu to the effect that there would be no basis for the Yoruba speaking people of the south west to remain in Nigeria if any part of the country was allowed to secede. The visit, in the words of Ojukwu took place in Enugu after he released Chief Awolowo from Calabar prison few days before the war started. Even to his bitterest critics, Chief Awolowo was unequivocal in his belief in the oneness of Nigeria. Like Sir Ahmadu Bello, the late Premier of the defunct Northern Region, Chief Awolowo was a Nigerian leader who was revered by his people. Sadly, his patriotic wakeup call against allowing a section to secede rather than being taken to be what it was meant to be was given a different interpretation.

Of course, Chief Awolowo paid for his actions nine years after the end of the war. In the heat of the 1979 presidential campaigns and despite picking Chief Phillip Umeadi as his running mate and having the erudite Chief MCK Ajuluchukwu as the main spokesman of his Unity Party of Nigeria, Chief Awolowo was forced to cancel scheduled campaigns in some parts of Igboland and once, during the campaigns, he was hurriedly ferried to safety in his waiting helicopter when he was attacked by angry stone throwing Igbo youths. Till he died, the Biafran leader never shared the anger of many of his fellow Igbos and never wavered in his description of Chief Awolowo as an authentic Nigerian hero. But for his own admission, the world would not have known that Chief Awolowo was a childhood hero of Ojukwu. At the burial of Chief Awolowo in 1987, Ojukwu must have angered some of his fellow Igbo when, aside his prominent presence at the funeral rites for the Asiwaju of the Yoruba in Ikenne he proposed an enduring epitaph for Chief Awolowo as the best president Nigeria never had. Probably taking a cue from General Ojukwu, numerous failed efforts were made by well meaning Nigerians to extend a political handshake across the Niger which, in a manner of speaking, would have promoted a rapport between the Igbo speaking people of the south east and Yoruba speaking people of the south west.

Nigeria has come a long way since the end of the war nearly forty three years ago. At the end of the war, Nigerians were told not to see one section of the country as the victor and the other as the vanquished. Like the Igbo, many Nigerians harbour the feeling that many things are wrong with their country and, the Igbo, despite having one of their own as vice president less than ten years after the civil war, have genuine cause to complain about the slow wheel of their integration. Indeed, it was Ojukwu who, in the heat of the June 12 crisis in 1993, told Igbo traders to resist attempts by street urchins to push them out of Lagos. The message was simple and clear: if a war was fought to unify the country, then every Nigerian should feel safe to live and do business in any part of the country. But again, we have Ojukwu to thank for advocating the emergence of the right type of leadership, not the façade of a national conference, which he once said is another way of attempting to break up the country and which, in effect, is another way of sending young men to their untimely death.

Ordinarily, There Was A country should be a fresh addition to libraries if the intention was for Professor Achebe to publish a war memoirs which he pieced together from a safe distance. But in rehashing well known but better forgotten facts to whip up sentiments, Professor Achebe runs the risk of treading a weather beaten path which for thirty months led to the death of some one million Nigerians. Incitement? Ojukwu made his inciting speeches when he embarked on the Biafran project at the age of thirty three; for the next forty five years, he espoused moderate, integrationist views and would probably have balked at There Was A Country. Understandably, the comets blazed forth when he died at seventy eight, the age at which his lifelong hero, Chief Awolowo, died and, just as his hero, Ojukwu got a deserved hero's burial. So, when did incitement become the pastime of respected elder statesmen?

This is one controversy Professor Achebe can ill afford, especially in the evening of a long and glorious career. Talk is cheap and one of the cheap talks we bandy around to resolve conflicts is to bury the hatchet. Problem with hatchets is that while many would genuinely wish to bury it, there are some who will always go back to exhume it. In Things Fall Apart, Professor Achebe created an enigmatic character, Okonkwo, who started well but ended tragically. That Achebean creature reinforces an Igbo proverb that it is the evening of man, not his morning that decides his greatness

By Abdulrazaq Magaji