Read There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra Online

Authors: Chinua Achebe

Tags: #General, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Africa

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (24 page)

Gowon Responds

To get General Gowon’s point of view on a number of the same questions that I have
raised in this section of this book, I asked the eminent journalist and writer Pini
Jason to interview the former Nigerian head of state. A portion of the interview is
reproduced here:

The Igbo still believe that they are being punished because of the civil war. The
Indigenization Decree is an [action], they point out, that was taken when the group
was economically weakened and thus, as it were, kept them out of playing a role in
the economy. They still feel they are being punished because of the civil war.

It is a pity that they think this way. The Indigenization Decree—I think it was 1972
or ’73—that decree was really to ensure the participation of every part of the country,
unlike the privatization policy now in place. Businesses are indigenized within one’s
own area—in the North, in the East, in the West, etc. And who are the beneficiaries
in those areas? It is mostly the people native to the particular area. And I am sure
that by 1972, many Igbo had recovered sufficiently enough to participate, not only
in their own area, but also in Lagos. You tell me, who owns most of Lagos?

Two years with twenty pounds; the Igbo were still trying to find their feet! They
were in no position to buy into any company!

No. Remember, what was being indigenized before it was speeded up were some of the
small Lebanese businesses, like textile stores, in which, in any case, the Igbo were
very well established, yesterday, today, and even tomorrow. Probably in Lagos, they
were not able to buy into as many such businesses as they would have desired. Otherwise,
certainly I know that by 1972 there was sufficient recovery enabling the Igbo to participate.
Now the incident of twenty pounds that you refer to was enforced immediately at the
end of the war. Because your economic gurus will tell you that because of your economic
value, you cannot exchange the Biafran note; what is it called?

The Biafran pound.

Is it the Biafran pound? But now, I am told that it is selling like hotcake! I am
told that it is being used especially in the West Coast! So I said, Well, you see
the ingenuity of the Igbo man? [
General laughter
] People say it is even more valuable than the naira!

Maybe as a collector’s item!

But there it is! No. I think the policy of twenty pounds was never an attempt to
impoverish the Igbo people. The government was very generous in giving funds to Ukpabi
Asika so that the government of the East could circulate money and get businesses
off the ground, as well as [to] embark on various rehabilitations and reconstructions
that were taking place. Probably the exchange rate in Nigerian currency for the Biafran
pound seemed not to be on equitable terms. If we said they could exchange at par . . .

I would have been a millionaire!

You’re telling me! [
General laughter
] And probably bought off the rest of the country! That was not the policy of indigenization.
It was meant to help. For example, the government was able to provide Asika with funds
so that people could get Nigerian currency even as a loan. It was probably some of
the bigger businesses indigenized later that you are talking about, but that occurred
only after my overthrow. The government of Obasanjo, I think between 1975 and ’79,
speeded up taking over some of the big businesses, especially in Lagos, which was
to the advantage of his people, because they were the ones on the spot, and a lot
of their people were in the banks and knew how to use the banks to give loans to their
own people to buy some of these things. But this was not the case in other parts of
the country. So when it comes to that, you can rest assured that it was not only the
Igbo that felt left out; other parts of the country that were not as well positioned
as the people from the West felt the same way.

Another issue was that of abandoned property, especially in Rivers state, and the
context in which your government allowed some property belonging to the Igbo to be
taken over. The case was made by the new Rivers state government that its people were
like tenants in their own state. After you left office it became clear that several
individuals actively exploited the issue, buying up former Igbo-owned property and
using these properties as collaterals for business ventures, often obtaining loans
from banks controlled by certain people with anti-Igbo sentiments. Many blamed [this]
series of developments around abandoned property on you. What is your reaction?

There was no doubt that it was a very knotty issue. I think there should have been
justice and fair play. And as far as I was concerned, although pressure was being
brought by the governor and the government of Rivers state at the time, my position
was, if any property was to be taken for the use of the government, it had to pay
proper compensation. And true enough, I think at the time, there were many Igbo who
wanted to sell their property. Therefore, there was hardly any problem from that point
of view. But I know that later the Rivers state indigenes themselves became fully
involved, and virtually pressurized the subsequent government.

I think, honestly, that a lot of the damage was not done during our time. At least,
we were keeping it under control, and working hard to ensure that there was justice.
Since it was one Nigeria, we must allow people who wanted to come back to at least
come back to their business and properties. But I know that quite a lot of this did
not happen subsequently, and it left a very bad feeling that, as you said, the Igbo
were being penalized because of the war. I am not sure of what really happened at
that time, since I was away from the country. But I know that my effort was not to
deprive people of their property. Those who wanted to sell did so at the market price
at the time. But those properties the government wanted for their use, it was to pay
the economic rate at the time. Of course, policies changed thereafter.

Nigeria’s Painful Transitions: A Reappraisal

The post Nigeria-Biafra civil war era saw a “unified” Nigeria saddled with a greater
and more insidious reality. We were plagued by a homegrown enemy: the political ineptitude,
mediocrity, indiscipline, ethnic bigotry, and corruption of the ruling class. Compounding
the situation was the fact that Nigeria was now awash in oil-boom petrodollars, and
to make matters even worse, the country’s young, affable, military head of state,
General Yakubu Gowon, ever so cocksure following his victory, proclaimed to the entire
planet that Nigeria had more money than it knew what to do with. A new era of great
decadence and decline was born. It continues to this day.

At this point, the intellectuals, particularly the writers, were faced with a conundrum.
We could no longer pass off this present problem simply to our complicated past and
the cold war raging in the background, however significant these factors were. We
could not absolve ourselves from the need to take hold of the events of the day and
say, Okay, we have had a difficult past. . . . From today, this is the program we
have; let’s look at what we have not done. Of course, putting it this dramatically
makes the matter appear simple.

However, it became crystal clear that we needed to fight this new enemy with everything
at our disposal. Most important, Nigeria needed to identify the right leader with
the right kind of character, education, and background. Someone who would understand
what was at stake—where Africa had been, and where it needed to go. For the second
time in our short history we had to face the disturbing fact that Nigeria needed to
liberate itself anew, this time not from a foreign power but from our own corrupt,
inept brothers and sisters!

After waiting around a while and determining that no messiah was about to come down
and save the day, some of us joined the political process. I joined the left-of-center
Peoples Redemption Party and was appointed its deputy national president. The goal
of being an active participant in Nigerian politics would be to elevate the national
discourse to a level that stirred up the pot, if you like, and got Nigerians to begin
to ask critical questions about their future, such as: How can the country conduct
free and fair elections? How can we elect the right kind of leaders and ensure that
they will keep to the tenure that was agreed upon? How do we ensure that our leaders
don’t double their tenure, or even change it into a dynasty to hand over to their

My sojourn in politics was marked by disappointment, frustration, and the realization
that despite the fact that there were a few upright political figures like Mallam
Aminu Kano, the vast majority of the characters I encountered in the political circles
were there for their own selfish advancement. Having grand ideas was fine, but their
execution required a strong leader. And clearly, Nigeria’s principal problem was identifying
and putting in place that elusive leader.

That road to a remedy of Nigeria’s political problems will not come easily. The key,
as I see it, lies in the manner in which the leadership of the country is selected.
When I refer to leadership I am really talking about leaders at every level of government
and sphere of society, from the local government council and governors right up to
the presidency. What I am calling for is for Nigeria to develop a version of campaign
election and campaign finance reform, so that the country can transform its political
system from the grassroots level right through to the national party structures at
the federal level.

Nigerians will have to find a way to do away with the present system of godfatherism—an
archaic, corrupt practice in which individuals with lots of money and time to spare
(many of them half-baked, poorly educated thugs) sponsor their chosen candidates and
push them right through to the desired political position, bribing, threatening, and,
on occasion, murdering any opposition in the process. We will have to make sure that
the electoral body overseeing elections is run by widely respected and competent officials
chosen by a nonpartisan group free of governmental influence or interference. Finally,
we have to find a way to open up the political process to every Nigerian citizen.
Today we have a system where only those individuals with the means of capital and
who can both pay the exorbitant application fee and fund a political campaign can
vie for the presidency. It would not surprise any close observer to discover that
in this inane system, the same unsavory characters who have destroyed the country
and looted the treasury and the nation blind are the ones able to run for the presidency!

The question of choice in selecting a leader in Nigeria is often an academic exercise,
due to the election rigging, violence, and intimidation of the general public, particularly
by those in power, but also by those with the means—the rich and influential. There
is also the unpleasant factor of the violence associated with partisan politics that
is often designed to keep balanced, well-educated, fair-minded Nigerians away. So
it can be said that the masses—the followership we are concerned about—don’t really
have a choice of leadership, because there’s not a true democratic process.

It may appear impossible now to rectify, because we’ve allowed this situation of confusion
to go on since our independence. It has been growing steadily worse . . . and it accelerated
particularly under the military, when there was a near total denial of the democratic
rights of the people. The general knowledge that a people have, for example, inalienable
rights is simply something advanced societies take for granted, because they have
fostered stable democracies now for some time. I am asked, “Why don’t the people fight
back?” Well, once a people have been dispossessed and subjugated by dictatorships
for such a long time as in Nigeria’s case, the oppressive process also effectively
strips away from the minds of the people the knowledge that they have rights. Restoring
flawed democratic systems will not make the country a success overnight.

The Igbo are a very democratic people. The Igbo people expressed a strong antimonarchy
—which literally means, a king is an enemy. Their culture illustrates a clear-cut
opposition to kings, because, I think, the Igbo people had seen what the uncontrolled
power of kings could do. There is no doubt that in their history they experienced
the high-handedness of kings, so they decided that a king cannot be a trusted friend
of the people without checks and balances. And they tried to construct all kinds of
arrangements to whittle down the menace of those with the will to power, because such
people are there in large numbers in every society. So the Igbo created all kinds
of titles that cost much to acquire. Aspirants to titles, in the end, become impoverished
in the process and end up with very little. So that individual begins again, and by
the time his life is over, he has a lot of prestige but very little power.

Democracy is the very antithesis of military or absolutist rule. And democracy is
not a fancy word; it is something that is full of meaning, even in our ancient African
cultures. Dictatorships by their very nature concentrate power and the resources of
the state in the hands of a very few people (or, as we have seen in Africa, in one
person’s hands). Dictators hang on to power by resorting to tactics designed to keep
the mass of the people silent and docile. Dictatorships that have used violence, murder,
and bribery, and psychological, financial, and social intimidation to force the opposition
into perpetual retreat are many and widespread.

This is not a time to bemoan all the challenges ahead. It is a time to work at developing,
nurturing, sustaining, and protecting democracy and democratic institutions. Winston
Churchill perceptively said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for
all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
We have to go by that wisdom. Therein lies an opportunity for Great Britain, America,
and the West to be involved positively in African affairs, this time not by imposing
themselves or their self-selected rulers on a desperate continent but by aiding African
nations in their struggles to become viable democracies.

We also realize that we must learn patience and not expect instant miracles. Building
a nation is not something a people does in one regime, or even in a few years; it’s
a very long process. The Chinese had their chance to emerge as the leading nation
in the world in the Middle Ages but were consumed by inter-ethnic political posturing
and wars and had to wait another five hundred years for another chance!

Another crucial ingredient in sustaining a democracy is the ability to stage free
and fair elections. The last general election in Nigeria was not perfect, but overall
it was an improvement over past travesties that were passed off as elections in Nigeria.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Chairman (and professor) Attahiru
Muhammadu Jega, and his team should be allowed to build upon the gains of that exercise
for the good of the nation.

I think it is important to discuss some real events that occurred during Nigeria’s
Fourth Republic (circa 2004), during which the very opposite of the democratic ideal
was at work. Anambra state, the past home of several venerated Nigerians, such as
Nnamdi Azikiwe, the Okigbo brothers—Pius and Christopher—Kenneth Dike, and others—was
literally and figuratively on fire. There was a succession of events during a tussle
for political power that resulted in renegades arresting a sitting governor and buildings
being looted and government property ransacked and burned to the ground by hoodlums—those
infamous rent-a-crowd hooligans at the beck and call of corrupt politicians with plenty
of money and very low IQs.

What seemed almost incredible to me was that it was clear from all accounts that the
presidency was behind the chaos in the state—was encouraging the destabilization of
the government of Anambra state as well as encouraging a small group of people whose
sole interest seemed to be in getting their hands on the financial allocation made
to the state. In other words, to use the money that was intended for work on the state
for their own private ends—and that these were friends of the president.

For any clear-headed observer such a scenario would be unimaginable—that the head
of state, or his government or his office, should be encouraging crime in one of the
federation’s constituent states, encouraging anarchy in a part of the country, Nigeria.
That state, of course, as you might know, is also my home state. It’s also part of
Igbo land, which has had a peculiar history in Nigeria, some of which involves this
particular former president of Nigeria—his attitude to this part of Nigeria, which
he and some like him consider responsible for the troubles of the Nigerian civil war.
And so it just seemed to me totally irresponsible for leadership to be involved, to
be promoting chaos instead of preventing it. It was in a sense the very end of government
itself, where government leaps beyond the precipice, dismisses itself, and joins ranks
with crime.

I decided that I wasn’t going to be part of any of this. Elie Wiesel reminds us, “There
may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a
time when we fail to protest.”
I had very little at my disposal to protest with, so the strongest statement I could
make was to turn down the honor of commander of the federal republic, which I was

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