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Ethics and Biafran conflict: Mazrui, Nyerere and `Trial of Christopher Okigbo`

31st March 2013
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One event where founder president Julius Nyerere failed to carry most of Africa with his often extolled moral examples was the Biafran conflict, or rather the Nigerian civil war, 1967 to 1970.

The conflict brought to the fore the foundations of African boundaries and indivisibility of sovereignty, whether African countries as founded and raised to national independence by colonial powers were complete and incontrovertible as nations, or the old illegitimacy of colonialism meant that even the boundaries were not inviolable, could be modified. Mwalimu in his often rebellious outlook before customary international law moved the latter proposition.

Seeming to step into the issue on the basis of his comprehension of the voluntary character of civic association into a country or nation-state, Mwalimu supported the cessation bid by Biafra. The reason was that northern Nigeria had violated in an irremediable way the ethical fabric that makes Nigeria a country.

By systematic slaughter of thousands of Igbo tribesmen or people of eastern Nigerian origins in the north, owing to a counter reaction to an eastern officers-led coup by the army that killed the Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, Nigeria ceased to exist.

Mwalimu appeared to raise an argument that a country could remain together after independence if other parts of a country behave in a humane way towards other parts of that country, failure to which puts the unity of the country at issue.

This way of looking at things was not supported by perhaps more than a handful of moral critics on the continent or abroad; others knew by heart that nations are what they are, and aren't permitted to continue existing via 'peer review' of their ethical conduct. In that case misbehaviour by any part of the country is merely an aspect of their experience as a country, in like manner as violence or crime in any family.

Mwalimu was raising the issue of moral authority of national authorities after conducting what at that time seemed like genocide. This despite that Mwalimu said little in public concerning massacres of Arabs in Zanzibar, who couldn't of course secede. The issue of whether Nigeria should remain together as thousands of Igbo people were massacred becomes a moral issue no itself but via civil war.

It is this attempt at defining the legitimacy of a nation state from a moral point of view rather than from recognized boundaries and effective authority that failed to take hold on the African and world scene, as its application could lead to chaos. By Mwalimu's own position taking, Pemba island would have had the right to secede in 2001 following the virtual massacre of its people, a few dozen of them by police units loyal to the Isles and Union governments, as they are the principal component of the CUF support base. Needless to add no one in Zanzibar ever put up such an issue as they know its foregone answer; it reappears now as 'Uamsho.'

While the case for supporting Biafra as a nation state from a moral point of view as Mwalimu laid out the case upon his recognition of Biafra thus failed to cut the icing on the cake of international law, it was different at the individual level. What attitude should one take in relation to secession on the one hand and the war to crush that secession on the other hand, and when writers belonging to different ethnic groups supported their respective sides were they equally right or equally wrong? This was a dispute that redefined moral issues in vibrant ways at that time.

Prof. Ali Mazrui, who was teaching at Makerere University in Kampala at the time, made a salutary contribution to the debate with his novel, 'The Trial of Christopher Okigbo,' where the eastern Nigerian writer faces a trial in heaven for joining the war.

The thrust of the novel is that Okigbo misused his talents in his decision to pick up the gun, whereas as a writer he was supposed to raise support from outside, a role that is difficult for others to fill, for instance by penning some inspiring poems to that cause, uplifting spirits. Did Biafra need his physical role?

The point about the novel is the background fact that the writer perished at the front quit early after picking up a gun, according some internet write ups it was five days precisely from the time he started fighting at the frontline. Seen from a human point of view, and indeed in terms of some elitist outlook on who should really fight in a war, where it is the unemployed in the streets who are collected, trained and given arms to go to the warfront, Prof, Mazrui makes his case quite clearly. His self-constituted jury in heaven seemed to agree, with dissenting voices.

What is helpful is not to figure out in a literary or moralistic sense as to whether or not Okigbo should have taken to arms. It is the overall moral standing of each side in the conflict, and each individual. Chinua Achebe provides a clue to this issue, saying no evil is totally evil, or good, as selfishness is indelibly part of the 'good.'

Finding out where heavenly favour lay in the manner in which writers in Nigeria spread out to different loyalties during the civil war provides a mechanism of the specificity of ethical evaluation, on the basis of their subsequent fortunes.

Trying to measure their individual moral sentiments leads to nothing, as Chinua Achebe supported Biafra and was part of its civil service from start to finish, and suffered considerably during the war; John Pepper Clark, from the western region, was on the side of federal authorities but did not take arms. Only Okigbo grabbed a gun to go to the warfront; Wole Soyinka was jailed for years due to reconciliation efforts.

It would of course be easy to say that Achebe, Okigbo and Clark supported their specific regions but Soyinka was higher at the moral level for seeking to reconcile the warring sides. Yet in a strict literary dispute it might not win the day as highest level of commitment, and it would be easy, for instance in a revolutionary setting and it used to be the case at the University of Dar es Salaam for many years, to see in Okigbo as the highest level of selfless commitment, even dying for the cause of freedom of Biafra. Human moral standards lack clear sense of absolute, as it were.

What sorts these potential disputes and solves the issue in indubitable manner is their fortunes during the war and afterwards, up to the end of their lives or at least for the majority of them - the latest being legendary Chinua Achebe who died of late. If ones goes by a scale of bad to good, the worst featuring in terms of how the 'seat of judgment' saw his case was Okigbo, not for the errors or 'sins' that Mazrui puts up virtually in an imaginary way, as to how he could have used his talents - which as Achebe would say, has moral failings. It was for his hatred of the others, as it isn't possible to say one fights for love of a country, not for hatred of enemies.

In that case Okigbo died quite early in the war because he failed to raise his view and perception above the plebeians who constituted the physical force of the war, the killings in the north first by soldiers on the rulers (emir of Sokoto).

There was then mass action against all the easterners in the north, leading to their secession, in which case when Okigbo joins the war front, he is also lifting a machete, or a stone, as the rest of the mob, despite that in a legal sense his activity was different, as it was now a 'war' situation. He was judged early in his action and thus executed at the warfront, meeting the same 'cup' he had laid unto others by picking up a gun.

The next one in the line of fire was Clark, though without the fatality that met his equally ethnicist counterpart from the east who took up arms, that Clark was more or less severely punished by lack of recognition for his work in comparison with his peers, whether it is Okigbo on the basis of his controversy, or the other two.

Hardly does anyone know a title of his without making some reference somewhere, in contrast to the tremendous success realised by Achebe, who however did most of his writing work before the civil war. From 1970 onwards he wrote little of mark except seminars and criticisms, until 1987 when he published his key post war title.

Achebe was largely spared judgment from his wartime identification with Biafra and failure to work for cause of unity and reconciliation, except perhaps after the war, as he had written most of his work earlier. But he made his mark as a literary critic after the war, especially in 1975 in his public lecture on Joseph Conrad's ancient work or classic, 'Heart of Darkness,' where he created a new generation of enthusiasts of Africa's image and how it is portrayed, not just by his own portrayal of Africa in his novels. His post war career was balanced: critic, writer, professor.

Yet his successes, often phenomenal as they appear, pale in comparison with the towering figure of Wole Soyinka, who best meets the Gospel instruction on what to do in times of conflict, while the other two or three literary giants reflect the wisdom of society, or the priesthood.

Okigbo failed the heavenly exam by taking up arms for a 'just cause' while Achebe worked for that cause as an eastern or a citizen of Biafra, more or less by force of circumstances, while Clark did the same for the federal cause - not as a federal desk but as a writer and private individual. Where he morally fails is to take lightly the big injustice done to Igbos, their right to seek a way out, where they might live freely on their own, as a plausible cause.

It was evidently Soyinka, risking everything for peace and reconciliation, who best reflected the standards of the Gospel, blessing those who seek harmony, peace and reconciliation, implying that this is a higher ethic than supporting a just cause. In that context, while Achebe won plaudits at a global level (or trans-Atlantic) for his criticism of Conrad and straightening presentations of Africa in novels in the post-1975 period, Soyinka was special.

Everything he said was the word of an oracle, such that he continued to be a pain in the neck for the subsequent military regimes or corrupt civilian regimes, though, as with Ngugi wa Thiong'o, earning lengthy periods of exile. He went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the global hall of fame, demonstrating that his sentiments were the noblest, accepted in high heaven.

SOURCE: GUARDIAN ON SUNDAY