Shortly before the 1983 presidential election, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo fielded questions from a panel of journalists at a town hall meeting in Abeokuta. During the session, which was aired live on Ogun Radio, Awolowo defended his actions during the civil war, countering allegations similar to the one Chinua Achebe levelled against him recently.
Question: Chief Awolowo, your stand on the civil war, however unpopular it may have been to the
Biafran, helped to shorten the war. Today, you’re being cast as the sole enemy of the Ibo people because of that stand, by among others, some of the people who as members of the federal military government at that time, were party to that decision and are today, in some cases, inheritors of power in one Nigeria which that decision of yours helped to save. How do you feel being cast in this role, and what steps are you taking to endear yourself once again to that large chunk of Nigerians who feels embittered.
Awolowo: As far as I know, the Ibo masses are friendly to me, towards me. In fact, whenever I visit Iboland, either Anambra or Imo, and there’s no campaigning for elections on, the Ibo people receive me warmly and affectionately. But there are some elements in Iboland who believe that they can maintain their popularity only by denigrating me, and so they keep on telling lies against me. Ojukwu is one of them. I don’t want to mention the names of the others because they are still redeemable, but ….Ojukwu is irredeemable so I mention his name, and my attitude to these lies is one of indifference, I must confess to you.
I’ve learnt to rely completely on the providence and vindication of Almighty God in some of these things. I’ve tried to explain myself in the past, but these liars persist. Ojukwu had only recently told the same lie against me. What’s the point in correcting lies when people are determined to persist in telling lies against you, what’s the point? I know that someday the Ibos, the masses of the Ibo people will realise who their friends are, and who their real enemies are. And the day that happens woe betide those enemies. The Ibos will deal with them very roughly.
That has happened in my life. I have a nickname now, if you see my letterhead you’ll find something on top, you’ll find a fish done on the letterhead. Some people put Lion on theirs, some people put Tiger, but mine is Fish. And Fish represents my zodiac sign, those of you who read the stars and so on in the newspapers; you’ll find out that there’s a zodiac sign known as pieces, in Latin pieces mean fish.
So I put pieces on top, that’s my zodiac sign being born on the 6th of March,….er well, the year doesn’t matter, it’s the day that matter. And then on top of it I write Eebudola. All of you know the meaning of that. You know I don’t want to tell a long story but………………Awolowo school, omo Awolowo, … started in Urobo land, in mid-west in those days. They were ridiculing my schools, I was building schools –brick and cement, to dpc level, block to dpc level and mud thereafter. And so the big shots in the place..”ah what kind of school is this? is this Awolowo school? Useless school” and when they saw the children..”ah this Awolowo children, they can’t read and write, Awolowo children” that’s how it started, with ridicule, and it became blessing, and now they say “Awolowo children, they are good people” no more ridicule about it, that’s how it started, so the Eebu becomes honor, the abuse became honor.
And so when I look back to all my life, treasonable felony, jail, all the abuses that were heaped on me, to Coker Inquiry, all sorts, and I see what has happened to the people who led, who led all these denigration campaign, where are they today? Those that are alive are what I call Homo Mortuus- dead living, oku eniyan, that’s what they are, those that their lives have gone.
So when I look back, I come to the conclusion that all these abuses which have been heaped on me all my life for doing nothing, for doing good, they have become honor, and so Eebudola is one of my nicknames. So I’ve cultivated an attitude of indifference, I’ve done no evil to the Ibos.
During the war I saw to it that the revenue which was due to the Iboland – South Eastern State they call it, at that time..East Central State, I kept it, I saved the money for them. And when they …. were librated I handed over the money to them- millions. If I’d decided to do so, I could have kept the money away from them and then when they took over I saw to it that subvention was given to them at the rate of 990,000 pounds every month.
I didn’t go to the Executive Council to ask for support, or for approval because I knew if I went to the Executive Council at that time the subvention would not be approved because there were more enemies in the Executive Council for the Ibos than friends. And since I wasn’t going to take a percentage from what I was going to give them, and I knew I was doing what was right, I wanted the states to survive, I kept on giving the subvention – 990,000 almost a million, every month, and I did that for other states of course – South Eastern State, North Central State, Kwara and so on.
But I did that for the Ibos, and when the war was over, I saw to it that the ACB got three and a half million pounds to start with. This was distributed immediately and I gave another sum of money. The attitude of the experts, officials at the time of the ACB was that ACB should be closed down, and I held the view you couldn’t close the ACB down because that is the bank that gives finance to the Ibo traders, and if you close it down they’ll find it difficult to revive or to survive. So it was given. I did the same thing for the Cooperative Bank of Eastern Nigeria, to rehabilitate all these places, and I saw to it as commissioner for finance that no obstacle was placed in the way of the ministry of economic planning in planning for rehabilitation of the war affected areas.
Twenty pounds policy
That’s what I did, and the case of the money they said was not given back to them, you know during the war all the pounds were looted, they printed Biafran currency notes, which they circulated, at the close of the war some people wanted their Biafran notes to be exchanged for them. Of course I couldn’t do that, if I did that the whole country would be bankrupt. We didn’t know about Biafran notes and we didn’t know on what basis they have printed them, so we refused the Biafran note, but I laid down the principle that all those who had savings in the banks on the eve of the declaration of the Biafran war or Biafra, will get their money back if they could satisfy us that they had the savings there, or the money there. Unfortunately, all the banks’s books had been burnt, and many of the people who had savings there didn’t have their saving books or their last statement of account, so a panel had to be set up.
I didn’t take part in setting up the panel, it was done by the Central Bank and the pertinent officials of the ministry of finance, to look into the matter, and they went carefully into the matter, they took some months to do so, and then make some recommendation which I approved. Go to the archives, all I did was approve, I didn’t write anything more than that, I don’t even remember the name of any of them who took part. So I did everything in this world to assist our Ibo brothers and sisters during and after the war.
And anyone who goes back to look at my broadcast in August 1967, which dealt with post-war reconstruction would see what I said there.
Then, but above all, the ending of the war itself that I’m accused of, accused of starving the Ibos, I did nothing of the sort. You know, shortly after the liberation of these places, Calabar, Enugu and Port Harcort, I decided to pay a visit. There are certain things which I knew which you don’t know, which I don’t want to say here now, when I write my reminisces in the future I will do so. Some of the soldiers were not truthful with us, they didn’t tell us correct stories and so on.
I wanted to be there and see things for myself, bear in mind that Gowon himself did not go there at that time, it was after the war was over that he dorn himself up in various military dresses- Air force dress, Army dress and so on, and went to the war torn areas. But I went and some people tried to frighten me out of my goal by saying that Adekunle was my enemy and he was going to see to it that I never return from the place, so I went.
But when I went what did I see? I saw the kwashiorkor victims. If you see a kwashiorkor victim you’ll never like war to be waged. Terrible sight, in Enugu, in Port Harcourt, not many in Calabar, but mainly in Enugu and Port Harcourt. Then I enquired what happened to the food we are sending to the civilians. We were sending food through the Red cross, and CARITAS to them, but what happen was that the vehicles carrying the food were always ambushed by the soldiers. That’s what I discovered, and the food would then be taken to the soldiers to feed them, and so they were able to continue to fight. And I said that was a very dangerous policy, we didn’t intend the food for soldiers. But who will go behind the line to stop the soldiers from ambushing the vehicles that were carrying the food? And as long as soldiers were fed, the war will continue, and who’ll continue to suffer? and those who didn’t go to the place to see things as I did, you remember that all the big guns, all the soldiers in the Biafran army looked all well fed after the war, its only the mass of the people that suffered kwashiorkor.
You wont hear of a single lawyer, a single doctor, a single architect, who suffered from kwashiorkor? None of their children either, so they waylaid the foods, they ambush the vehicles and took the foods to their friends and to their collaborators and to their children and the masses were suffering. So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.
Change of currency
And it is on record that Ojukwu admitted that two things defeated him in this war, that’s as at the day he left Biafra. He said one, the change of currency, he said that was the first thing that defeated him, and we did that to prevent Ojukwu taking the money which his soldiers has stolen from our Central bank for sale abroad to buy arms. We discovered he looted our Central bank in Benin, he looted the one in Port Harcourt, looted the one in Calabar and he was taking the currency notes abroad to sell to earn foreign exchange to buy arms.
So I decided to change the currency, and for your benefit, it can now be told the whole world, only Gowon knew the day before, the day before the change took place. I decided, only three of us knew before then- Isong now governor of Cross River, Attah and myself. It was a closely guarded secret, if any commissioner at the time say that he knew about it, he’s only boosting his own ego. Because once you tell someone, he’ll tell another person. So we refused to tell them and we changed the currency notes. So Ojukwu said the change in currency defeated him, and starvation of his soldiers also defeated him.
These were the two things that defeated Ojukwu. And, he reminds me, when you saw Ojukwu’s picture after the war, did he look like someone who’s not well fed? But he has been taking the food which we send to civilians, and so we stopped the food.
And then finally, I saw to it that the houses owned by the Ibos in Lagos and on this side, were kept for them. I had an estate agent friend who told me that one of them collected half a million pounds rent which has been kept for him. All his rent were collected, but since we didn’t seize their houses, he came back and collected half a million pounds.
So that is the position. I’m a friend of the Ibos and the mass of the Ibos are my friends, but there are certain elements who want to continue to deceive the Ibos by telling lies against me, and one day, they’ll discover and then that day will be terrible for those who have been telling the lies.