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The Biafran Anger Against Obafemi Awolowo

Sadly, many Nigerians of Southeastern origin have a very deep-seated grudge against Nigeria due to the misinformation they have been fed with all their lives.

Photo- Chief Obafemi Awolowo

THE ALTERNATIVE

By  Reno Omokri

Sadly, many Nigerians of Southeastern origin have a very deep-seated grudge against Nigeria due to the misinformation they have been fed with all their lives. These misrepresentations and historical revisions have been passed on to them during their formative years by parents who actually believed the wartime propaganda they were fed by people like Okokon Ndem, a very charismatic propagandist with a most convincing voice.

Okokon Ndem suffered from the Zeal of the Convert syndrome. Because he was not ethnically an Igbo (he was from modern-day Cross River), he felt he had to prove his Igboness to the authorities in Biafra. And so, he went over and beyond what other Biafran wartime propagandists, like the late Senator Uche Chukwumerije, did.

Many myths still believed by young Igbo men and women today originated from the original Radio Biafra, of  which Uche Chukwumerije and  Okokon Ndem were its most powerful voices.

So intense was their propaganda that today, 53 years after the Nigerian Civil War ended, they continue to be propagated.

Recently, a young man came on my Twitter profile to declare that Nigeria fought the civil war to destroy the Igbo and that was why all Igbo were given just twenty Naira after the war.

This story is widely believed but is very untrue.

The whole issue about the twenty pounds (not Naira) arose as a result of the fact that after declaring the independent Republic of Biafra, the authorities of that Republic declared the Nigerian Pound as non-legal tender, and on January 29, 1968, they introduced the Biafran Pound as the legal tender of Biafra.

The Federal Military Government, led by General Gowon, immediately countered before the currency was declared by declaring that, that currency was illegal and would not be recognised or accepted by Nigeria. Nigerian citizens, including those who referred to themselves as Biafrans, were urged to reject the new so-called currency.

Upon this announcement by the Federal Military Government, many prudent ‘Biafrans’ withdrew all their Nigerian Naira and kept it at home. One such Biafran was Evelyn Okororie, who is still alive and told her story to CNN, which published it on January 16, 2020, in a piece titled ‘Biafra war: Survivors relive account 50 years after Nigerian civil war ends.’

It is necessary to note that though Haiti, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Gabon formally recognised the Republic of Biafra, none of them accepted the Biafran Pound as a currency freely convertible with their own local currencies. Meaning that if you somehow found your way out of Biafra to those nations, you could not exchange your Biafran Pound for their local currencies.

After the Republic of Biafra was militarily defeated and the East Central state rejoined the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the then Minister of Finance, faced a conundrum. What was Nigeria to do with the Biafran Pound?

The currency was illegal and had been printed without the backing of the Central Bank of Nigeria. There was no way even to verify who had genuine Biafran Pounds because Biafra had collapsed, and those responsible for printing the currency had either died, fled the country, or were denying involvement.

As a personal initiative of Chief Awolowo, who refused to take his plan to the Federal Executive Council for fear that it would be defeated by hawks in General Gowon’s cabinet, the Ministry of Finance issued a circular to pay £20 to those former Biafrans whose account records of monies domiciled in Nigerian Pounds were lost, and to those who held their bank balances in Biafran Pounds.

Every account holder got a blanket £20. That money was a gift from Nigeria and, more specifically, from the humanness of Chief Awolowo. Those former Biafrans who could prove their account balances in Nigerian Pounds received all their monies.

The late Senator Arthur Nzeribe is an example of an Igbo who could prove his account balances in the Nigerian Pound. All former Biafrans who had accounts in banks outside the Eastern Region got access to all their funds after the war. The late Chief Alex Ekwueme is an example of this.

I urge those who harbour a grudge against Nigeria for that policy to please put themselves in Chief Awolowo’s shoes. Many of the banks in the then Eastern Region had been destroyed. The accounts were in Biafran pounds. Records were lost. And even the banks themselves destroyed records for fear of being punished for holding Biafran currencies, which was an act of economic sabotage against Nigeria, which was then under a military government.

What would they have Chief Awolowo to have done? Accept the Biafran Pound and freely convert it to Naira? Does that even make sense when the Federal Military Government warned Colonel Emeka Ojukwu’s government against the act and told Biafrans not to accept that currency?

After the Union defeated the Confederate states during the American Civil War, the Confederate States’ dollars became worthless from May 26, 1865. The Union did not give any $20 to holders of the Confederate States’ dollars. As it should be. After the war, holders of the Confederate States’ dollars just lost their money. Period! That is the sad reality of war.

But in our case, Chief Awolowo, out of the goodness of his heart and not out of any obligation, gave as a gift £20 to all Biafran Pounds account holders.

If the Biafran Pounds had any value whatsoever, why did Colonel Emeka Ojukwu not take it along with him when he fled Biafra for Ivory Coast?

And to even the field and create a level-playing ground, he took the extraordinary step of abolishing the Nigerian Pound and introducing the Nigerian Naira. He introduced the policy in 1971, although it was not implemented until January 1, 1973.

Furthermore, after the war, Chief Awolowo paid the East Central state all their monies from the Federation Account from 1967-1970. He had invested the funds and returned it to them, for which he was acknowledged by SG Ikoku, the Commissioner for Economic Development in East Central State, in the Daily Times of May 22, 1971.

Some others have accused Chief Awolowo of using starvation as a means of war. Others have written on my Twitter timeline that Chief Awolowo sent poisonous food to Biafra to kill Igbo. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Why would Chief Awolowo poison the food he sent to Biafra to feed civilians? First and foremost, he had no duty to send food. It was a humanitarian gesture because Chief Awolowo had personal principles. The gesture brought him into conflict with General Gowon and Murtala Muhammed.

You have to understand that Chief Awolowo was a very committed ascetic Christian, as well as an esoteric mystic (I choose not to say more about this), and he could not live with himself as Biafran civilians were dying. The food itself was sent in conjunction with the Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, as well as The Catholic Church through Caritas. Are you telling me the Red Cross and these other bodies would allow Chief Awolowo poison food relief?

That particular propaganda was imitated and spread by a man called Okokon Ndem, a presenter on Radio Biafra. The purpose was to make the civilians, for whom Chief Awolowo intended the food, reject it so that it could be given to Biafran soldiers.

Do you see what the Igbo call okporoko (stockfish)? It was a prominent aspect of the relief materials. That is why and how okporoko became popular in Biafra and Igboland till today. They have Chief Awolowo and the nation of Norway to thank for Okporoko. Before the war, they did not know anything like Okporoko.

Even in Europe, when the Germans surrounded the Russian city of Leningrad for 900 days during the Siege of Leningrad, they did not send in any food. When the Allies surrounded Germany, they also did not send in any food.

During the American civil war, the Union forces blockaded the Confederate rebels and starved them.

But Chief Awolowo sent food relief to Biafran civilians (which Colonel Ojukwu diverted to Biafran soldiers), and today, rather than gratitude, the children of those he tried to save harbour so much venom against him while spending money with Murtala Muhammed’s image. If only they knew what Murtala did to them!

Every family in former Biafra owes a debt of gratitude to the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. But sadly, many parents who should have taught their children this documented history have instead filled them with hatred by regaling them with wartime propaganda.

ThisDay Newspaper Nigeria Ltd

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