By Anote Ajeluorou
The past never quite goes away. It is the stuff also of which history is made, and those who forget the past often repeat history, most times with disastrous, tragic consequences. In a nation like Nigerian that regularly falls into the spell of amnesia, of not remembering the past, there are the Udenwas of this world to help the process of collective memory in all its imperfections and ingloriousness that serve as compasses to guide the path to the future.
That is why after over 40 years after having fought and lost a war, two-time former governor of Imo State, Chief Achike Udenwa, took time to write and expose his personal experiences of that tragic war and the lessons it has for Nigeria’s collective destiny. In his book, Nigeria/Biafra Civil war: My Experiences (Spectrum Books Limited, Ibadan; 2011), Udenwa decides to chronicle his wartime experiences both to offer himself a cathartic release and to educate Nigerians on the need to thread the path of peace.
The author affirms that a book like this coming from him, and taking into account the part he has played in Nigeria’s political life, would certainly “evoke passions, emotions and comments”. Indeed, it would. His book adds to the already large corpus of materials, both fictional, personal and historical materials, on the 30-month old war that ravaged the country from 1967-1970. This year alone, two fictional accounts have been added. They are Jungle Drumbeats, Tony Monye’s Between a Valley and a Plain and Akachi Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets.
But already, a comprehensive historical narrative of Nigeria’s political turbulence starting from the first military coupe has been given by Max Siollun in his Nigeria’s Military Coupe Culture (1966-1976). Udenwa’s account is yet another narrative that will cause disquiet among those who were not there but have already read much about the war. For those who were witnesses, it might cause nostalgia and even unease and a quiet affirmation that never again should war happen in the fatherland.
Udenwa’s account of his involvement in the war started as a student of the prestigious Government College, Umuahia. He was in the cadet, a paramilitary unit of the school, and had trainings with regular soldiers before the war. He and his colleagues were in a cadet camp at Abeokuta during the 1965 political upheavals in the Western Region. In 1967, he missed enlisting into the Nigerian Defence Academy as a result of the outbreak of the war. So inexorably, Udenwa’s path was bound for a career in the military; he was to get it sooner than later, and in full measure, as the civil war was to offer it to him in a platter.
In this war memoir, Udenwa traces Nigeria’s political development from the amalgamation and the constitutional processes that led to 1960 independence and the fragile political setting that was to explode in the Western Region with Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa lending a hand to the conflagration. This ushered in the first military coupe that was organised by five majors in the army having been disillusioned by the activities of the political elites who had shown themselves to be inept at managing the country’s affairs.
But things went awry for the five majors, and the killings elicited ethnic colouration to provoke yet another coupe… The rest, as they say, is history.
In Nigeria/Biafra Civil War: My Experiences, Udenwa traces his long and treacherous battle path in the war while fighting for Biafra. And like all battle narratives, it is the stuff of thrillers as he takes his readers through the battlefronts that easily become quicksand oscillating between both sides of the war until the superior military firepower of the federal side overwhelmed Biafra to occasion surrender in 1970 after both sides had suffered heavy casualties.
But beyond the battle narratives, Udenwa, with the benefit of hindsight and his active involvement in Nigeria’s political life from 1999, gives recipes for the peaceful co-existence of Nigeria. He charts paths to the nation’s greatness as well in identifying certain factors that have retarded the nation’s growth. They include ‘lack of visionary leaders’, ‘lack of patriotism’, ‘indiscipline’, ‘corruption’, ‘low productivity’ and ‘problems of the Nigeria Delta’. These issues he also extensively treated by recommending what should be done to overcome them.
It would also seem part self-indictment, Udenwa’s proposition, having himself played a major part in the nation’s leadership cadre as executive governor of a state for eight solid years and federal minister.
One sore point in Udenwa’s narration, however, is the continuing marginalization that the Igbo race continues to suffer in Nigeria 40 years after the war. It re-echoes daily in the political equation of the country; he simply seeks a redress to it. Yakubu Gowon’s war end speech is comprehensively reproduced but Udenwa argues that true reconciliation is yet to happen to the Igbo race who are short-changed in many areas of national life.
Although Udenwa’s Nigeria/Biafra Civil War: My Experiences is another addition to the war narrative, it does not really bring any fresh angle to understanding the war beyond shedding light on the battlefronts where the author fought. But this is illuminating all the same, as it will help keep the tragic war fresh in the memory of most Nigerians who will read it, and perhaps give the warmongers something to chew about for sometime. In this, the book will be in service of a memory loss that so easily plagues Nigerians.
Also adopting a journalistic style, the author interviews individuals in some communities outside the core Igbo areas that suffered the war. He publishes such candid views that damned both sides of the war in the inhuman treatments they suffered in the hands of soldiers from both sides. By this, the author takes responsibility also for the unintended consequences of the war in which he took part in prosecuting from start to finish. His own narrow escape and near-death experiences are told with candour and humanity.
However, Spectrum Books Limited did a poor editorial job of the book. The narrative is lax; a better editorial handling could have tightened the loose constructions to make the book a better read. A second edition will offer the publisher a moment to redeem itself from the noticeably poor editing work. Nigeria/Biafra Civil War: My Experiences, coming from such an eminent Nigerian like Udenwa, should be such that can sit side by side other war narratives from other lands. As currently published, this may not happen.