Awolowo To Chinua Achebe: We Are Disappointed

Chinua Achebe | credits:

Chinua Achebe
| credits:

The storm generated by renown novelist, Prof Chinua Achebe, over his claim that war-time Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, and the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo formulated the policy of genocide against Igbo during the civil war continued, yesterday.

Awolowo’s daughter, Dr (Mrs) Tokunbo Awolowo-Dosunmu, said she was disappointed about Achebe’s claim.

She also hinted that the Awolowo family may issue a formal response on the controversial claim by the novelist in his latest memoir on Biafra, ‘There was a country’.

But a former governor of Anambra State, Dr Chinwoke Mbadinuju, said whatever Achebe said about the civil war should be taken seriously.

Mbadinuju cited the novelist’s antecedents.

Awolowo was the vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council (FEC), equivalent of deputy to Gowon, during the civil war.

Dr Awolowo-Dosunmu told Sunday Vanguard, yesterday, while responding to the Achebe claim: “One is still trying to come to terms with the sense of disappointment about the person who wrote what is now a brewing controversy in the country.

“While a formal statement responding to the offensive comments of the writer is being prepared by the family all I can say for now is that I feel so disappointed”.

But, Mbadinuju, defending Achebe, said: “I have not read the book. I don’t want to speculate. During the civil war, I was studying in the United States of America. However, I have absolute confidence in Prof Chinua Achebe. He is an acclaimed international scholar and figure; whatever he says about the civil war should be taken seriously.”

Via Vanguard

  1. Chima Korieh Reply

    Biafra: Who is afraid of the truth?

    The reaction to Chinua Achebe’s war memoirs ‘There was a Country’ shows that Nigerians in other parts of the country are not ready to face the truth about what happened to the Igbo. Let me start with the following quotes from a new book on the same subject: “The Nigeria-Biafra War: Genocide and the Politics of Memory” edited by Chima J. Korieh. New York: Cambria Press,

    In the border town of Ikot Ekpene, the emaciated bodies of a brother and sister lay side by side in a rough cradle. Their eyes had been pecked out by vultures still circling overhead, waiting to attack a line of wasted bodies in a ditch outside of town.—Time magazine, August 23, 1968

    I do not want to see any Red Cross, any Caritas, any World Council of Churches, any Pope, any Mission, or any United Nations Delegation. I want to stop every single Ibo being fed as long as these people refuse to capitulate.—Major Benjamin Adekunle, August 1968

    The military and civilian killings of Nigerians by Nigerians in 1966 constituted (apart from the civil war) the worst tragedy for this country. There was no human being with a soul, blood and life who saw but was not revolted at what happened.—N. U. Akpan

    Biafra should stand in the world’s conscience as a monument to the possibility of successfully resisting “final solutions.”—Michael J. C. Echeruo

    Did the massacre of the Igbo people before and during the Biafra-Nigeria war constitute genocide? Did the Nigerian state and its officials support it? Perhaps the most appropriate way to engage this issue is to consider genocide according to the United Nations definition. The United Nations adopted an agreement to prevent and punish the crime of genocide in 1948. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term in 1944, defined genocide an attempt to destroy a nation or ethnic group through a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” 1 According to the United Nations Organization’s Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the word refers to any act committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. Such acts include killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.2

    Whether the systematic massacre of Igbo in the North constituted genocide was already an issue of debate before the war. The eastern region’s document Nigerian Pogrom: The Organized Massacre of Eastern Nigerians provided a chilling account of the organized massacre of the Igbo people in northern Nigeria as early as the 1950s but increasing in intensity after 1966. Following a complaint by the Biafran government accusing federal Nigeria of genocide, the International Committee on the Investigation of Crimes of Genocide submitted a report that found evidence of genocide and of intent by northern Nigerians to commit genocide against the Igbo. The committee, led by the Ghanaian Dr. Mensah, travelled to Biafra in December 1968; its members met a wide range of people there, including refugees from northern Nigeria who had fled during the 1966 pogrom, refugees from Midwestern Nigeria, Biafran government officials, and private individuals. Dr. Mensah also met with Nigerian officials in Lagos in March 1969 and conducted interviews with the Nigerian Ministry of Defense, the International Red Cross, and the International Observer Team. The committee wrote a detailed report on the complaint submitted by Biafra and concluded that previous and present actions of northerners against the Igbo clearly constituted both “intent to destroy” and “deliberate destruction” of the Igbo.3 In the committee’s view, “The issue as to whether genocide is being committed in Biafra or not raises no problems at all. The Nigerian authorities have admitted that there is genocide going on in Biafra. They however disclaim responsibility for same and accuse Biafrans with the perpetration of these crimes against humanity.”4 The committee concluded that the hatred and suspicion of northern and western Nigeria against eastern Nigeria (by that time, Biafra) “had so deepened and matured that (incredible in an era which had witnessed the atrocities of Nazi Germany) the Nigerians have conceived and commenced to execute a policy and war of genocide as a final solution to the Biafra problem.”5 The committee relied on reports of previous violence against Igbo that had resulted from various incitements by government officials who complained bitterly about Igbo dominance of commerce and the public service in the North. After the massacre of Igbo in Kano in 1953, a British administrative inquiry established to gather evidence on the episode confirmed the “gruesome fate of Biafrans in a Nigerian context.”6 Another massacre in 1966 drove the government of the eastern region to appoint a judicial tribunal to inquire into “the atrocities and other inhuman acts committed against persons of Eastern Nigeria origin during the month of May 1966 and thereafter.”7 The committee, headed by G. C. N. Onyiuke, compiled 235 eyewitness accounts of the massacres and indignities perpetuated against easterners.18 The Onyiuke tribunal, also known as the “Atrocities Tribunal,” found that northern Nigerian authorities and their collaborators, including British residents of the region, had “devised a seven point programme aimed at a complete extermination of the then Eastern Nigerians (now Biafra) in Northern Nigeria and other parts of the Federation.”9 The agenda was outlined as follows:

    1. To kill
    (a) the major general and supreme commander of the armed forces, J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi.
    (b) all the Yamiri army officers.10
    (c) all Yamiri among the army rank and file, purging the institution.
    2. With the aid of the westerners in the army, to take complete control of the armed forces, the police, and the navy and to purge these forces, too, of Yamiri.
    3. To kill and dispossess all Yamiri domiciled in the northern region.
    4. To use the control of the armed forces to take control of the country’s government.
    5. To revenge Sarduana’s and Abubakar’s deaths by killing Dr. Zik (Nnamdi Azikiwe), Dr. Michael Okpara, Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, and Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.
    6. To destroy Port Harcourt, Enugu, and the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
    7. To kill
    (a) all Yamiri in top civil service posts
    (b) all wealthy Yamiri, male and female
    (c) all Yamiri educational giants
    (d) all adult Yamiri males and females
    (e) all except suckling infants in Yamiri land.11

    The report of the international committee concluded: The underlying intention of Nigeria Authorities in its relation with the people of the former Eastern Nigeria (now Biafra) has always been to solve their political or other differences by calculated massacre of Biafran citizens. Documentary evidence abounds in the speeches of Northern Nigeria leaders in the regional Parliament, by publications in Northern Nigeria official newspapers, brochures and magazines of intention to liquidate Biafrans physically as a method of solving a disagreement. Besides physical acts of extermination, the Biafrans have been subjected to psychological pressure by malicious, vicious and destructive falsehood that not only was a Biafran an unwanted “stranger” in his own country, but the general object of hate and discrimination throughout the length and breadth of Nigeria.22 After the first coup of 1966, the complaint against the Igbo was “extended to [include] the existence of an Igbo conspiracy to become the new rulers of independent Nigeria.”12

    The outbreak of the war provided an opportunity to eliminate the Igbo. Federal radio broadcasts explicitly and implicitly relayed this goal. From July 6, 1967, Nigeria radio based in Lagos continuously broadcast a war song in Hausa, the words of which translate to “Let us go and crush them. We will pillage their property, ravish their womenfolk, murder their menfolk and complete the pogrom of 1966.”13 Historical evidence on the Nigeria–Biafra War reveals that such acts were carried out by the Nigerian army when they reached Igbo villages and towns. A scrapbook recovered from Nigerian soldier Ganiyu Sodeinde at Bori instructively details what his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Onifade, often repeated to the soldiers in his unit and the prevailing official attitude toward Biafrans. He [Lt. Col. Onifade] expresses doubts at the possibility of Nigeria subjugating Biafra in the present war. Even if this were possible, he said, there was the danger that another generation of Biafrans could spring up. He said that Germany had once faced the same period of trial in her history which Biafra is facing at the moment; but today, the Germans are leading the world in technological skill. Similarly, he predicted a glorious future for Biafra if allowed to exist … what all sons and daughters of Nigeria should do to prevent such a situation from developing was not only to subjugate Biafra but at the same time to ensure that a new generation of Biafrans does not rise up to perpetuate their race. He commanded us to kill every Biafran we meet.14

    The testimonies of Biafran returnees from northern Nigeria towns and cities paint a picture of systematic and calculated genocide planned by northern emirs, district heads, former politicians, top civil servants, university students, British nationals, and law enforcement officers. Enoch Ejikeme, an Igbo businessman who had lived in Katsina since 1951, recalled what happened during the pogrom of May–June 1966. He told the Atrocities Tribunal: It was about 2 a.m.–4 a.m. in the early morning of 29/5/66 when a large number of Hausas started collecting in the Emir’s palace. Round about 6 a.m. that all burst out from the palace carrying sticks, matchets, daggers, axes, etc. and all other dangerous weapons, spread themselves all over the town, looting and burning houses and shops. Some of the N. A. Police took active parts, while others made no attempts to bring the situation under control. This attack was directed against people of Southern Nigeria origin with the exclusion of Yorubas.… While the attack continued the Emir of Katsina, Usman Nagogo; the former Northern Minister (of Education) Isa Kaita; Musa Tafida Yar ‘Adua, former federal Minister of Lagos Affairs; and Magajin Gari, Emir’s son, were parading the town up and down cheering them up.15 Julius Abisi, a prison warden who lived in Kaduna from 1958 to 1966, testified about the massive attack on easterners in the city of Kaduna following a meeting of top Hausa civil servants at the Ahmadu Bello Stadium on Saturday, May 29, 1966. He recalled that “from the meeting they spread to the town attacking every Easterner they met; looting, arson and killing law-abiding Easterners featured prominently.” Echoing reports of events in Nazi Germany, Abisi’s report to the tribunal continued: “After the general attack they started going from house to house hunting Easterners to kill … They boasted that after their operation nothing like east will remain on the map of Nigeria.”16 Testimonies collected by the Atrocities Tribunal reveal that the pogroms in Gombe, Gusau in the Sokoto Emirate, and many other northern cities were carried out with a significant level of official sanction from traditional political institutions in the North. The mutually beneficial relationship between the British and the northern elite continued during the postcolonial period, and the deep distrust of the Igbo people harbored by both groups did not abate. British nationals in northern Nigeria in the 1960s made their own contributions to the crisis and did not hesitate to reveal which side they supported.

    During the pogroms of 1966, they played an active part at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) in articulating the proposed elimination of the Igbo from the North. The report of the international committee that investigated the acts of genocide against the Igbo noted that the activities of the
    “Northern Nigeria students and their foreign (particularly British) instigators and collaborators at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria … [involved] deeply laid plans for the execution of genocide.”17 Some of the prominent British citizens involved were S. S. Richardson, deputy vice chancellor and director of the Institute of Administration at ABU; J. M. Lawrence, hall master at the Institute of Administration; Professor F. W. Sansome, head of the Department of Botany; and Dr. Eva Sansome, wife of Professor Sansome and reader in the Department of Botany. Others included Major
    A. D. F. Boyle, eastern manager in charge of university transport, security guards, and labor force; and R. B. Walker, superintendent of the zoology laboratory. Reports indicate that Richardson and Lawrence began to hold clandestine and exclusive meetings at night with northern Nigerian students, including Paul Anyebe, Murtala Aminu, Mohammed Arziki, Yameni Othman, A. B. Homkwap, and Mallam Maishanu, after January 15, 1966. These British nationals conducted a campaign of hate against Biafrans. It is reported that Major Boyle arranged for a university van (no. Z 5144) to be used by the estate foreman, Mallam Dosso, to transport thugs on multiple occasions from distant places to Samaru and elsewhere, “where they murdered Biafrans and looted their property.”18 Coincidentally, these incidents characterized by British complicity occurred after the visit of the British high commissioner Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce to ABU in May 1966.

    Conditions in Biafra during the war leave no doubt that there was a well-organized and systematic attempt to starve the Igbo population to extinction. In September 1968 the International Committee of the Red Cross reported that eight to ten thousand people were starving to death each day as a result of the Biafran war of independence.19 The following month, the New York Times quoted a relief worker for the World Council of Churches as stating that twenty-five people would die each day if the war continued for another month.20 These reports were not exaggerations; this is what befell the Igbo and others in Biafra as the situation continued to deteriorate. Other reports painted a picture of unimaginable human suffering on a scale never before experienced in Africa. In this volume Paul Bartrop addresses the appropriateness of employing the terms genocide to describe what happened in Biafra. Though he accepts the calamitous conditions faced by the Igbo during the pogroms and the war, Bartrop suggests a measured application of the language of genocide to describe what the Biafran experience. Surely a determination of whether genocide occurred in Biafra depends on the question of the Nigerian authorities’ intent to destroy the Igbo people as an ethnic group. As Bartrop explains, those who have argued that there was no such intent rely on the premise that no wholesale slaughter of Igbo occurred in the aftermath of the war. However, he questions how one should characterize the massive death toll among the civilian population if no genocidal intent existed on the part of federal Nigeria. Whereas it is plausible to argue that no complete annihilation of the Igbo took place when they lost the war, the actions and behavior of the federal Nigerians during the war did not exclude such genocidal intent. Speeches by northern leaders called for ethnic cleansing of the Igbo people, eliminating them from the North. Pogroms and mass killings of the Igbo population dating a decade earlier leave no doubt that the war offered an opportunity to finally eliminate what was perceived as an Igbo problem. According to the Investigators Report, the hostilities between federal Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra that began in July 1967 represented a continued intention to exterminate the Igbo people. The war was indeed a Nigerian variant of what the Nazis called the final solution to the Jewish problem.21

    Scholars and other commentators have extensively documented the Nigeria–Biafra War and the large-scale killing of Igbo through starvation and directly by federal soldiers during the war. Yet some of the literature on the Biafran war has been very cautious in applying the term genocide to these events. The genocidal intention against the Igbo is supported by the accounts of both western journalists and the eastern Nigerian government; these witnesses were convinced that the Igbo faced genocide in the North between May and October 1966, as the word is defined in legalistic terms. Mass exterminations of Igbo in the Midwestern region’s towns remain the most visible evidence of what Emma Okocha called the “first black on black genocide” in Africa.22 These executions took place in the towns of Asaba and Benin. In Asaba, federal troops ordered the killing of every male, including young boys.23 Witnesses reported that all the males of Biafran origin were told to gather in the marketplace to welcome the advancing federal troops but were summarily gunned down by the troops wielding machine guns.24 It is estimated that seven hundred people were killed on that day of “ceremonial welcome.”25 One native of Asaba who survived the massacre recalled:

    Our way home was littered with corpses of people who had been shot and we saw women and children carrying the corpses of their husbands and relations from the dancing ground to their homes for burial. Some corpses that had nobody to identify them were buried in mass graves at Ogbe Osowe where the ghastly incident took place. I lost 11 people in my family during that incident. Rev. Fr. P. Ugnoko lost not less than sixty of his closest relations. There was hardly any family in Asaba that was not touched.26 In Benin, the federal capital of the Midwestern region, evidence indicates that Biafran residents of the town were called out into the open, where they were exterminated. Conor Cruise O’Brian reported the barbarity of this incident.27 It appears that this type of mass extermination of Biafrans started in the Midwestern region, and the process became widespread in the other regions, as well. At Sapele, for instance, Biafran residents of the town were assembled in a school three miles from the town, where they were executed with machine guns fired by federal soldiers. Witnesses reported two thousand as the number of Biafrans exterminated in this incident. Similar methods were used in Warri and Koko, where over 2,500 Biafrans were executed.28 It was reported that in Ogwasi-Ukwu about two hundred Biafrans, mostly teachers and civil servants, were shot in the month of May 1968. The explanation that the federal military authority gave was that the victims were guilty of having consorted with the enemy.29 According to Ifeanyi Ezeonu, the massive killing of civilian populations as the federal troops moved through southern Nigeria “reflects the historical conflagration of human bestiality and resonates the Nazi trivialization of Jewish personhood—in shape, though not in magnitude.”30


    1. See Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), 79–95.
    2. United Nations Organization (UN), Convention on Prevention and
    Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (New York: December 9, 1948), Mensah also met a number of relief workers and other expatriates in Biafra and collected affidavits from various people. In Kaduna, in northern
    Nigeria, Mensah met several army officers and had discussions with them. On his return he wrote his Investigators Report. The international committee met in Paris on March 22–23, 1969, under the distinguished British international jurist Professor Lopez-Rey. The International Committee on the Investigation of Crime of Genocide, a quasi-official organ, received a complaint from the Government of Biafra in which complaint the Government of Nigeria were accused of acts of genocide,
    Rhodes House (RH) Oxford Mss Afr.s 2399 (hereafter Investigators Report)
    3 . Investigators Report.
    4. Ibid.
    5. Ibid., 5.
    6. Ibid.
    7. Ibid., 6.
    8. Cited in Investigators Report, 6.
    9. Yamiri is a derogatory name for Igbo. Yamiri literally means “give me water,” depicting Igbo immigrants begging for a drink of water on their arrival in the North.
    10. See Government of Eastern Nigeria, Tribunal of Inquiry 1966, also known as Atrocities Against Persons of Eastern Nigeria Origin, under the headship of Justice Gabriel Chike Michael Onyiuke, 133–134; cited in Investigators Report, 6.
    11. Investigators Report, 4–5.
    12. Sam Amadi, “Colonial Legacy, Elite Dissension and the Making of Genocide: The Story of Biafra,” (accessed March 1, 2010).
    13. Investigators Report, 7.
    14. Quoted in ibid., 7.
    15. Investigators Report, 14.
    16. Ibid., 15.
    17. Ibid., 16.
    18. Ibid., 17.
    19. New York Post, September 28, 1968; cited in American Jewish Congress, “Tragedy in Biafra,”
    20. New York Times, October 31, 1968; cited in American Jewish Congress, “Tragedy in Biafra.”
    21. Investigators Report.
    22. Emma Okocha, Blood on the Niger.
    23. Recently, the Asaba Memorial Project, a collaborative project between University of South Florida researchers and the people of Asaba, was launched to document and memorialize the mass killing of civilians that took place in October 1967.
    24. Investigators Report.
    25. Ibid.
    26. Ibid., 54.
    27. Ibid.
    28. Ibid.
    29. Ibid.
    30. Ifeanyi Ezeonu, personal communication.

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