Last week, I failed to heed my own counsel by dabbling into “Biafra”, a hot-potato topic on which reason has taken flight on virtually all sides. But by rendering the account of my meeting with Rev. Moses Iloh,
I also brought out some of the suppressed issues that our country may have to deal with if we are to achieve lasting reconciliation via truth, and really move forward. I have heard phrases like “let’s move on”, “let sleeping dogs lie” and other fanciful clichés in our pretence that we do not have truly critical issues. But we do have issues and until we successfully deal with them, sleeping dogs may only be pretending to sleep, and it will be difficult to build a virile and united nation. That much was evident in my conversation with the former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN following the publication of my piece last week.
To the extent that we are all products of our backgrounds and cultures, the idea that somebody is a “detribalized Nigerian” is a big fraud as no such human species exists in our country today. But virtually everyone uses this delusionary phrase to describe himself or herself and people who he or she likes. In truth, however, it is a futile attempt to gloss over our diversity which could actually be a source of strength. That national hypocrisy indeed accounts for most of our problems since it is very convenient for a great majority to defend narrow/parochial interests within their various closets, notwithstanding public posturing to the contrary.
With so much bigotry from some Nigerians who cannot get out of the mode of using stereotypes in describing the “other side,” and with nobody or anything considered sacred, it is very obvious that pursuing the Biafran story is not worth the trouble for me. But when Agbakoba called that he felt pained by Rev. Iloh’s account of how his car was seized by the late Justice Agbakoba, I could not but listen to him. My conversation with the younger Agbakoba will therefore serve as my own closure on Biafra.
Agbakoba, who described Rev Iloh as someone for whom he has tremendous respect, felt the old man, who knew him and his family very well, should not have rendered his account in such a manner as to create erroneous impression about the Agbakobas and the Biafran war. “I was also involved in the civil war-- I was a Biafran soldier. I fought in the war so I am very familiar with some of the issues which Rev. Iloh discussed. One day I will write my own memoir as a Biafran soldier,” he said. Agbakoba, however, sees in Iloh’s account (which he said flows from Achebe’s book), within the context of a failure on the part of Nigeria’s leadership to heal the wounds caused by the civil war. He argued that the whole Biafran tragedy, for which his family also suffered, started “from a distorted account of a failed coup d’etat which was definitely not caused by the Igbo man. Because as far as I am concerned, the only connection that we had in relation to Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu being an Igbo man, was his name. His accent, his domicile and idiosyncrasies were totally northern. So, for reasons best known to him and his colleagues, they staged a coup d’ etat and it did not succeed. But what Igbos got for that was massive killings. We were in the North then and were actually part of the last people to cross the River Benue in Makurdi. I was on the last train.”
I am sure not many people, especially in the North, will agree with Agbakoba’s interpretation, which is also Achebe's thesis, that the 1966 coup d’etat was not an ethnic conspiracy. The fact that a section of the country saw it differently led to a pogrom against the Igbos in the North and ultimately a civil war. For Agbakoba, however, what is important in all these disputations is to find a leader who would have the courage to bring all the issues to the table, so that the nation could have a closure. “If we do not have a closure, the Achebe story, whether it is true or not, will continue be told and retold by people like Rev. Iloh. He is now in his 80s and he feels embittered. I, as a younger Igbo man, do not have that kind of bitterness but I understand the issues that he has raised. Anyone who has read Chimamanda’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ will see all the account of the civil war and the atrocities that were committed therein. They are not things that can easily be forgiven by the older generation of Igbos.”
Most of the national upheavals in our polity, according to Agbakoba, stem from the failure to successfully close the Biafran chapter in our history. And the only way to do that “is to recognise that Nigeria suffers a major structural defect; which was one of the main issues that came out of the Aburi Accord--that we are too diverse to build a very centrifugal type of federation. We need to recognize our differences, manage them and give ourselves the necessary space to stay in our corner. Since that has not happened, you will continue to have these occasional challenges and schisms that we saw in the story of your encounter with Rev. Moses Iloh.” I suspect that advocates of Sovereign National Conference will agree with the SAN on this score.
Agbakoba also shared with me interesting perspectives about some of the things that were happening in the course of the civil war when Biafra received relief materials from several countries. These materials, he said, were received and distributed by the Red Cross. “I used to travel with my uncle, the late Ben Agbakoba, who was a very senior police officer to Ihiala and Uli. I used to see when the lights would go out and all planes would land and discharge relief materials. I saw what was happening there so Biafra was not one Angelic place.”
On the report about his father, Agbakoba said it was unfair of Rev. Iloh not to remember several other encounters he had with the former Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria. “Even when he admitted knowing my father from Jos, I thought the old man would have recalled that as the leader of the Mine Workers' union, he enjoyed the support of my father who was their legal adviser and always offered them free legal service. Rev Iloh also conveniently forgot that my father was also the first environmental lawyer who organised a team of lawyers that fought the white colonialists in respect of the gully that developed in Jos as a result of the tin mining activities. Rev. Iloh should have recalled all these things and not only the issue of his car. He should have also recalled that my father was the first person who led the boycott of Plateau Club because of its apartheid policy against Nigerians, before he built his own club which was called Plateau International Club. These are all major contributions which my father made to the socio-economic and political development of our country. It was as a result of my fathers’ work, back then that led the late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir, Ahmadu Bello, to rename The Florence Nightingale Place after my father, changing it to The Agbakoba Place. These are what Rev Iloh should have remembered and not bring out an issue about the seizure of his car which was done by my father in his capacity as the Red Cross Chairman for Eastern Nigeria at the time.”
Agbakoba further insisted there was a gap in the Iloh’s account. “That Rev. Moses Iloh was a very respected national officer of the Nigerian Red Cross Movement before the war was not in doubt and when he came to Biafra he organized the Biafran Red Cross and took charge of the structure. But then the old man did not disclose who he displaced on the way, because there would have been people there before he came,” he said.
On the issue of Iloh’s seized car, Agbakoba said the moment Biafra collapsed, many people simply disappeared with government properties and it was the responsibility of his father to account for everything belonging to Red Cross. “While Sir Adetokunbo Ademola was then the president of the Nigerian Red Cross Society, in keeping with the tradition, the Chief Justices of the States or Regions became patrons of the Red Cross. It was for that reason that my father was appointed first the administrator to take charge of the Red Cross in Eastern Nigeria, and later the Chairman. My father did not remove Rev. Iloh and there are many witnesses that can attest to that. At the end of the war, I was a first hand witness to the fact that there was massive looting of government properties even when there was a directive for people to hand over official properties. In fact my uncle, Major Mike Agbakoba who had been charged with the responsibility of producing petrol for Biafra, had about two or three government cars which he returned. Another uncle of mine, Colonel Dan Agbakoba, also had government cars which he returned to the field site where the government of East Central State directed that they be returned to. It was however an open secret back then that many people did not return their vehicles. It was in that context that my father intervened to retrieve all the properties of judicial officials in the region. Since he also had responsibility for the Red Cross and Rev Iloh had not returned his vehicle, that was why he retrieved it in the manner he did, assuming the tale of the Enugu street drama told you by the old man is accurate.”
The true story, according to Agbakoba, is that the Nigerian Red Cross society in Lagos (and not Ukpabi Asika) was in control of the Red Cross Movement in Nigeria “and that was how my father became the chairman of the Red Cross and Rev. Iloh, who was then the Biafran head, simply had to return his vehicle.”
I knew when I agreed to recount Rev Iloh’s story last week that by delving into the roles of individuals, controversies were inevitable. On the Nigerian civil war, everybody who is aged 50 and above and lived in Biafra is literally a walking history. That perhaps explained why Professor Chinua Achebe subtitled his book, “A Personal History of Biafra”. But the real essence of my intervention was to draw the attention of critical stakeholders in the Nigerian Project to some of the unresolved issues of national integration. Ironically, what the Iloh/Agbakoba brush underlines is the fact that even in the short-lived Biafra, there were intra-elite frictions.
Well, will the controversy ever end? I don't think so, as new perspectives will keep emerging. Although Iloh's account went beyond the Red Cross issue, we now have at least another side to the story. And I am done with Biafra!
• This piece was first published in THISDAY in January 2013