Alhaji Femi Okunnu doesn’t want you to read ‘fiction writer’ Achebe’s There Was a Country

Posted on December 5, 2012 by

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Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe (Photo credit: Angela Radulescu)

Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country has generated a storm of intense debate and reactions from Nigerians all over the world. Achebe sought to document uncomfortable details about Nigeria’s history, the Biafran war and the Igbo tribe; and he did. Some statements made by the writer were sadly tribalistic and pedestrian; the most ridiculous of which was his assertion that the rationale behind Nigeria’s lack of development lies with the oppression of the Igbo people. Surely the root of Nigeria’s problems far exceed such a simplistic argument. Criticisms aside, Achebe should be applauded for doing what so many have failed to do – document history, however distorted his record of it is.

Not everyone is impressed by Chinua Achebe’s book though. Alhaji Femi Okunnu (SAN) in a recent interview with the Guardian described Mr Achebe as a “fiction writer.” Which indeed he is; but this is where the plot thickens. In his words – “Achebe is better known as a fiction writer and not a historian. The allegation about genocide against the Federal Government and Gen. Yakubu Gowon is pure fiction and it is not backed up by facts. It should not go down in history as fact but the writer’s imagination.

Okunnu then proceeds to directly question Achebe’s claims:

“Ojukwu used the relief materials and starvation as a delayed strategy to prolong the war, because the longer the civil war lasted, the more recognition he was hoping to get. There was a time during the war when about 10 countries had lined up to recognise Biafra at a certain date. But at that time, the battle for Port Harcourt was intense. And unfortunately for him, with the capture of Port Harcourt, the hope of getting the said countries’ recognition, except Zambia’s, was dashed. Instead of Achebe and others now accusing Nigeria of genocide, the boot is on the other foot: Ojukwu used starvation to prolong the Civil War…. The fiction writer (Achebe) does not have any single document to support his claims. All our actions were to persuade Biafra to come back to the fold. Awolowo didn’t play any nasty role, as alleged by Achebe. The writer also alleged that some Muslim military jihadists were responsible for the war. The fact is that most of the army officers and the bulk of the army hierarchy then were Christians. There was no cabal of Muslim Jihadists, who engineered genocide during the Civil War to exterminate the Igbo-speaking people. A great part of the book is fiction, especially the story of genocide.”

Femi Okunnu  was a minor actor in the Nigerian civil war. Together with the late Anthony Enahoro on the Federal side and the late Prof. Njoku and Justice Louis Mbanefo on the Biafran side, he was involved in trying to broker a truce between the Biafran and Federal Governments. Okunnu was also a member of Yakubu Gowon’s cabinet, serving as Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing during the war.

He’s no impartial observer but Okunnu’s comments are an important counterpoint to Achebe’s controversial narrative. Nigerians are at last now debating and talking about the civil war, over 30 years after it ended. The conflict ended in 1970, cost nearly 2 million lives and very nearly led to the disintegration of Nigeria. It’s not taught in schools and debate on the war invariably exposes the many unresolved ethnic tensions which simmer quietly and dangerously beneath the surface. This debate is long overdue.

You should probably go read There Was a Country, even though Femi Okunnu doesn’t think you should bother.

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Posted in: Culture