Posts Tagged 'violence'

There was a country

(I share my review of Chinua Achebe’s book – There was a country TWAC – a review I wrote so many years back.)

Chinua Achebe’s new book “There was a country, a personal history of Biafra” (TWAC, for short in the rest of this essay) has stirred up and continues to stir up considerable furore in Nigeria. Reactions to the book cover a broad spectrum of emotions – from over-enthusiastic reception at one end to outright rejection and even condemnation of the author and his book at the other. We are a nation with unique proneness for extreme positions on some matters. My purpose in this essay is to attempt a review of this book as objectively as I can and in the process identify whatever utility the book possesses for Nigeria in its efforts to manage its challenged present and chart its future in the current haze of colossal national dysfunctions. Any effective charting of such a future must, in my view, depend on a proper understanding and acceptance of her troubled past.

Let me start by presenting the structure of the book.  TWAC is in four unequal parts with a postscript (on the example of Nelson Mandela as an icon of leadership in Africa) and an appendix – Brigadier Banjo’s Broadcast to Mid-West. Achebe claims he is writing the book for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and our grandchildren. Let me then attempt a synopsis of this book.

Part 1 recounts Achebe’s early days, his education from primary school days, his secondary school experience at Umuahia, his days at Ibadan, the beginning of his literary career and his meeting with Christie Achebe, his wife. Part 1 also examines the January 1966 coup, the army, the counter-coup, the reprisals, the pogrom, the worsening tensions, attempts at peace, the failed Aburi accord, ethnic tensions, and resentment. It ends with a sub-section titled “the nightmare begins” where we learn of the creation of states by the Gowon led Federal Administration on the 27th May and the proclamation of Biafran Independence by Ojukwu on the 30th May, 1967. There is a lot of nostalgia for the good old days in some portions of part 1 and some of the sections here are teasingly brief and telegraphic, especially his meeting, courtship and marriage to Christie!

Part 2 deals with the Nigeria-Biafra war. It presents a fairly detailed account of the war, Achebe’s wartime activities and his role in the Biafran struggle. We also get to learn of his association with Chris Okigbo and the death of this great poet. Achebe’s narration of this death is so subdued. Part 2 also provides glimpses into life in Biafra, starvation, death, air raids, war casualties, Biafran ingenuity, the Ogbunigwe, the war efforts and theatres,  the role of external parties in the conflict,  the Uli airstrip, the airlift operations and a host of other details.

Part 3 narrates the economic starvation and blockade, the vicissitudes of the fighting and takes the reader through to the eventual collapse of Biafra.  It also addresses the very sensitive issues concerning the use of hunger and starvation during the war and some economic decisions taken by the federal authorities both during the war and at its end. This is the part that has caused most offense in some quarters in Nigeria and also provoked a torrent of ethnic driven and emotive responses.

Part 4 looks at Nigeria in the present and the writer’s hopes and aspirations for a renewed Nigeria shine through. The prose in each of these parts is interspersed with his poems, two of the most haunting being Refugee mother and child and the vultures!

I am Igbo, lived through the war and may therefore not be in a good position to be neutral about TWAC. But I think that Achebe has written a fine book, a book in which he makes every effort to be factual to the point of adopting what I call a flat clinically detached narrative voice in much of parts 1 and 2! One of the strengths of TWAC is the detailed historical referencing and openness to a diversity of sources! The creative writer in Achebe cedes place in major portions of parts 1 and 2 to the cold and detached historian. This is not Achebe that we know, the animated storyteller who knows how to make words come alive, dance and sing with the same virtuosity one would ascribe to Obika in his Ogbazulu obodo role. Not only does he subdue personal voice in large portions of TWAC, Achebe also succeeds fairly well in managing any biases. For instance, he does not spare either Ojukwu or Gowon in his judgments, laying the blame for the conflict on the pride and personal jousts between these two colonels. For someone who served Biafra in such elevated and personal levels to achieve this level of objectivity in a personal war memoir is commendable

In much of TWAC, what we therefore see is the subdued artist surrendering his impulses to the discipline of facts and available evidence. So great is this surrender to the demands of objective historiography that the personal comments one expects are not delivered. Rather the writer presents the views of others even when these challenge the Biafran position! This historical disciplining appears to have been lost on the writers of some reviews who have tried to fault TWAC on grounds of faulty historical methods. One reviewer even went as far as accusing Achebe of Awophobia whilst another accused him of senility! These are good glimpses of how serious minded some of our reviewers in Nigeria are! Incidentally, one also wonders whether some of these reviewers really read the book! I suspect some did not,  given the timing and content of their reviews.  But this suspicion does not in any way reduce my admiration for such gifted folks who can review a book without ever reading it! They are proof of the abundance of paranormal capacities in Nigeria!

Achebe’s voice returns from p.222 through to part 4 of TWAC. With the return of voice, the book then comes more alive. TWAC is inconvenient though useful as we grapple with nation building. It forces us to think of our past.  To move into the future on firmer footing, the present must go back and catch up with our troubled past and learn from it. We cannot deny the reality of the pogrom.  We cannot say that children did not die of hunger and starvation during the war. It is also unproductive to seek through convoluted sophistry to exonerate certain persons from the consequences of their actions or inactions. We need to confront our past, accept our mistakes and learn from them and move on.  This is the inconvenient message of TWAC, its beauty and its social utility. Truth is bitter but it heals!

Incidentally, some of the issues in TWAC had already been touched upon in part in Achebe’s earlier works notably – “The Education of a British Protected child”, “Home and Exile” and “The Trouble with Nigeria” books which overflow with wit, sarcasm, erudition, intellectual energy and boldness! Yet the reception to these books was not as hostile as the one accorded TWAC. A discerning reader noting the focus and thrusts of the hostile reactions will easily know why!

But beyond providing a history of a piece of our troubled past, TWAC, especially pp39-61, represents an important contribution to African aesthetics. It therefore extends Achebe’s thinking presented in his books “Home and Exile” and “The Education of a British protected child” on the role of literature and the artist in reclaiming the past, understanding the present and building the future. I find the notion of beneficent fiction in TWAC (p57) to represent a useful African position on the role of literature and writers in social engagement! For Achebe, the writer must be engaged as a moral obligation and must not “ally oneself with power against the powerless” or run the risk of producing “elegantly tired fiction” TWAC p.59

But TWAC is not only about criticisms, social or literary. Achebe addresses current issues including corruption and Boko Haram. He laments our cult of mediocrity which he believes is at the base of our present malaise. He argues for checks and balances to reduce the decadence, corruption and debauchery of the past several decades (p252) He argues for a strengthening of democratic institutions and for free and fair elections and looks forward to the emergence of a leader humbled by the trust people place on him/her and who is willing to use “the power given him for the good of the people?” p253. Achebe has been prophetic in the past. I hope GEJ and JEGA are listening to him. The successes of Edo and Ondo already encourage and challenge.

Noel Ihebuzor

@naitwt

 

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Review of Dressed Like A Prince – DLAP

By Noel A. Ihebuzor

 

The word count is 295, that is when you include the title;  less than a page of typed text but “Dressed like a Prince” (DLAP) is a great story. Brevity does not deny it depth and breadth.  Rather, brevity is used cleverly to accentuate depth and to increase the poignancy of the tragedy it narrates. DLAP is a story that stirs, that sears your body and soul and one which overwhelms you in the end by its delicately handled pathos, a pathos that has none of the antics of pity porn that tear streamer tales usually resort to. The start of the story is abrupt but innocuous enough, children desiring new clothes on the occasion of  Nigeria’s Independence day celebration. Narration is through a third person. We meet the vocally talented and light-hearted Godspower and his aspirations to a career in music, ambition in sharp contrast to the reality of the extreme poverty he lives in with his sister. Their poverty is aptly and economically conveyed through their tattered clothes. Close by to them in a neighbourhood called “America”, are signs of opulence. Living in such close proximity to affluence only accentuates their and the reader’s senses of social inequities in our society. Two sub-themes flow like quiet streams shaping the story and increasing our empathy for these two children trapped in an exceptionally difficult situation. These themes are the possible deaths of their parents in Yobe (victims of religious violence?) and the failure of our child protection systems to pick up these children and provide them some protective care. (Grandma headed households in urban settings are usually very deprived, so we can imagine the daily existence of Godspwer and his sister).

We learn that urban demolition is on-going in “America”. The two children are drawn to the scene where they rummage in the rubble and find a bag half-filled with clothes. They grab this and run. And the noose of tragedy suddenly tightens around the necks of these already traumatised lives. Urban jungle justice is swift and savage.  And it is only in death that Godspower eventually gets the decent dressing he had so longed for in life but never got. Where were these kind neighbours who contributed to buy the suit in these children’s moments of need, we ask silently as we read? The story prompts other questions too – questions on indifference, the collapse of our social safety nets and human savagery!

DLAP is a slap on our faces and our consciences. It is many things – an indictment of the failure of our child protection systems and a sad commentary on the inadequacy of social provisions in our societies. It is also a reminder of the savage that lurks in each one of us, the savage that accounted for the tragedy in #Aluu 4. StNaija has written a very moving story, a story of poverty and death, the death of a child and by implication of the underlying progressive death of social institutions that should ensure that the deprived and underprivileged have life. By locating the death on the day that our country was born, St Naija also sends a very strong message to us all. Should a child die in the midst of plenty on the day of birth of our country? We can only wonder why. We can also wonder on the anonymity of the location and with that the anonymity, the implied message that sad events similar to those in DLAP could be repeating right next door to us, in our very town, in our own very neighbourhood. What are we doing? St Naija has written a troubling story about our troubled land. Her skills in micro fiction come out very beautifully as she effectively exploits a number of literary techniques to tell her story and jolt us. The mastery of the skills in writing flash fiction displayed by the author, the theme as well as the handling of theme commend this piece of art that says so much with so few words.

Good things are happening in our land and one of them is this flowering of fresh talents in literary creativity as evidenced in the works of ladies like Kemi Ogunniyi, Ego Okoro and N. Bassey

Noel Ihebuzor

+ John Cardinal Onaiyekan’s 2013 Easter message

His Eminence + John Cardinal Onaiyekan was kind enough to share a copy of his Easter message with me and I am sharing it through my blog to extend its reach. The message speaks to key social issues and challenges of our time. Please read and share. Remain blessed, Noel.

2013 EASTER MESSAGE

By +John Cardinal ONAIYEKAN, Archbishop of Abuja

GOD’S MERCY AND HUMAN PARDON

Introduction:

  1. There is a well known saying which goes like this:

“God always forgives, human beings sometimes forgive, nature never forgives”.  This statement is an expression the fact that the issue of forgiveness is quite complex and not so straight-forward as it may appear to be.  In this message I intend to talk about the mercy of God and human pardon.  I leave for a different forum the discussion on nature and its implacable laws.  All that we need to say in this regard is that we can never consistently go against the law of nature and expect to go scot free.  This is a lesson which modern science must learn as it delves into ever new areas of life. Similarly, contemporary democratic developments must take the natural law into serious account: man must not presume to approve and “legalize” what God has condemned in the natural law. Current cases in point are the debate over the legalization of abortion and same sex unions.

  1. In this Easter season, in this message, I wish to reflect on the issue of God’s mercy and human pardon, especially in the light of two recent news items which have raised considerable debate in our land. The first is the call for amnesty for Boko Haram terrorists allegedly made by His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar. The second is the announcement by President Goodluck Jonathan of a presidential pardon to certain high level convicted persons, in particular, the case of the former Governor of Bayelsa State. That the discussion has been rather chaotic is largely due to the fact that there is little or no clarity in the terms of the debate.  I believe therefore that we need to carefully analyze the issues at stake.

I: GOD’S MERCY.

  1. Pardon, forgiveness, amnesty: these are beautiful concepts.  It is often said that “to err is human, to forgive is divine”.  Pardon, forgiveness and amnesty belong to the divine.  Of course God is just but he is also merciful.  It is precisely through the Omnipotence of God that He can reconcile His justice with His mercy.  The Old Testament says clearly that God shows His almighty power above all by his mercy, offering a forgiveness that wipes out our offences as if they never took place. Only God can do this.  It is also a basic tenet of the New Testament and of our Christian faith that we worship a God that is a God of mercy.  I understand too that in Islam, the mercy of God is a most important aspect of His qualities and appelatives.
  2. God’s mercy however, is not without condition.  Normally God forgives whoever is repentant. Repentance includes the commitment not to repeat the offence, as well as a readiness to amend the havoc caused by our bad behavior.  This is very clear in the New Testament.  The prodigal son whose story is well known, (Lk 15:11-32) was forgiven by his father the moment he realized that he had made a big full of himself and decided to go back to beg his father for forgiveness, “I have sinned against heaven and against you, I do not deserve to be called your son”. (Lk 15:21)  That was what he said when he met his father, who however, immediately embraced him and welcomed him fully into the family household.
  3. The forgiveness from God also entails that we make up our minds not to sin any more. The story of the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel is instructive in this regard. (Jn 8:3-11) After all her accusers had gone because none of them had the moral credential to accuse her, Jesus who could have condemned her said, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more”. (Jn 8:11)  Yes, go and sin no more! While Jesus was very lavish with his mercy for this woman, he also demanded of her that she should not continue in her sinful ways.
  4. As regards restitution and amendment, we have the story of the call of the tax collector, Zaccheus. (Lk 19:1-10) As soon as he repented, he promised: “If I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount.” (Lk 19:8)
  5. To continue to wallow in our sins, claiming forgiveness of God because of his mercy is tempting God and running grave spiritual danger.  Under the right conditions, God’s gate of mercy is always open.  The Psalmist tells us that our God is “slow to anger and rich in mercy”. (Ps 145:8) There are no limits to the number of times that God can forgive us.  Our new Pope Francis referred to this in his first Sunday Angelus to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s square.  He reminds us that God is always ready to forgive our sins, never tired of forgiving us.  Therefore, we, he says must not be tired of asking for forgiveness.

II: HUMAN PARDON

  1. What about human pardon?  This is highly recommended, in imitation of God’s own virtues of forgiveness but also in consideration of our own indebtedness not only to God himself but to one another. This is clearly spelt out in the famous Lord’s Prayer, the “Our Father”, where we ask God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. (Lk 11:2-4) It is as if we are giving God himself a condition to forgive us namely that he should forgive us only if and to the extent that we forgive those who sin against us.  The seriousness of this commitment is perhaps not well appreciated by many who recite the Lord’s Prayer so often.  Christ further teaches this in the parable of the unforgiving servant, who after receiving a most generous pardon from his master, refuses to forgive a minor debt owed to him by a fellow servant. (Mt 18:23-35) Jesus teaches this in very clear terms when he says: “If you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.” (Mt 6:15)
  2. As human beings, we have to pardon whoever comes to us repentant.  Pardon wins us friends.  The alternative of pardon is to seek revenge. But unfortunately, revenge does not cancel our hurt; it rather increases enmity. That is why even the non-repentant should be forgiven. Someone once said: “If you think forgiveness does not work, try revenge”! Even from point of view of the dynamics of human relations, revenge can only try to create a balance of injuries and anger, while pardon neutralizes the venom of hatred and builds friendship and harmony. It is also in line with the supreme example of Jesus, who on the cross prayed for his murderers; “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing”. (Lk 23:34)  In other words, we must try to find excuse for those who hurt us. Perhaps they are acting out of ignorance or error of judgment.
  3. Of course we have a right to seek justice and to claim our rights when we are injured. But to pursue vengeance is quite another thing, because vengeance deepens and doubles the hurt.  God himself says: “Vengeance is mine. I will repay”. (Dt. 32:35-36)  We know that this is easier said than done, especially in cases of grave injury which calls for redress in one form or the other; whether by just punishment or by seeking vengeance.  But there is a limit to the redress that we can obtain for grave injury done to us. Have can one adequate redress for the life of a dear one taken in cold blood? Killing the murderer will not bring back the dead. At the end of the day, the full balance can only be restored through an element of gratuitous forgiveness.

III. STATE PARDON.

  1. Human pardon is not only personal. It can also operate on the basis of group relationship.  This brings us to the issue of state pardon.  The duty of the State is to ensure justice, rewarding good behavior and punishing evil actions. It starts with making just laws to regulate good relationship within the society and to apply those laws justly. In a democratic setting, this is the noble role of the legislature: a duty that must be taken seriously. The greatest source of injustice is when bad laws are imposed on the people. It is a sacred duty for the legislators to ensure that our laws are just and fair to all, especially to the weak and the voiceless. This is important not only in the content of the provisions but in the form and procedure of administration of justice.
  2. It is the duty of the judiciary to exercise the office of judging, to acquit the innocent and convict the guilty. The autonomy of the judiciary is precisely to enable it to freely carry out this duty, without undue interference from any quarters. If judges at any level fail in this duty, acquitting the guilty and convicting the innocent, passing judgments out of fear or favour, good order cannot be sustained in the society. At times, judges have the prerogative of tempering justice with mercy, reducing a sentence or commuting it to a lesser punishment. But even then, they should act in the spirit of the law. Tempering justice cannot be allowed to become tampering with the law.
  3. Normally, it is not up to the State as such to be issuing forgiveness and pardon to those who have broken the laws of the land. Justice definitely is necessary if good order is to be maintained in the society.  State pardon has to be under very clear conditions.  In the first place, where the innocent has been condemned, State pardon is not only permitted but necessary to restore justice. The innocent who has been unjustly condemned must be restored to their full liberty.  Our legal system is so faulty that many innocent people are languishing in jail.  They ought to be released without further delay.  It is highly to be commended that members of the judiciary occasionally visit our prisons to find out how many are there for no just cause, especially those in the crowded awaiting trial cells.
  4. State pardon also becomes relevant when we have cases that are either totally or partly political.  We know that very often people are considered criminals because of the political positions that they have taken.  The State often has to seek reconciliation by offering pardon to those who may have been condemned under particular political circumstances.
  5. In our country Nigeria, a special case is that of those who have been involved in plotting coups, especially during the military era.  Theoretically, to stage a coup is to commit treason against the State since it involves overthrowing a legitimately constituted authority.  In fact, when coup plotters fail, they are generally lined up and shot.  The dilemma of Nigeria however is that when plotters succeed, we never ask the question of whether indeed they have respected the right of the State not to be overthrown.  Instead, the successful coup plotter becomes “President and Commander-in-Chief” and is accorded or takes upon himself the highest titles and honour of the land, Grand Commander of the Federal Republic, (GCFR).  Under such circumstances, it is obvious that we are not operating on the basis of any moral norms but rather on the accident of who succeeds in the dangerous game of military take-over. Until we are able to condemn all unconstitutional take-over of government, including the successful ones of the past, it is only fair that the nation be ready to pardon those who tried and failed.

 

IV: PRESIDENTIAL PARDON.

  1. Finally, let us now look at the two cases with which we started these reflections. These, in my opinion, are cases where moral issues are at stake, where people are condemned, or liable to be condemned, for breaking the law and going against moral norms.  The Boko Haram may claim to have all kinds of grievances. But the fact is that they have killed innocent people.  How does the state forgive murderers?  How can the government grant amnesty to people who have killed innocent citizens, some in their places of worship?  The pardon to politicians who have been convicted of criminal misuse of power and massive corruption raises the issue whether the State should pardon someone who has stolen public funds, our money.  Obviously, the State must handle very carefully whatever powers it has to forgive criminals otherwise, the whole structure of law and order in the society will be seriously compromised. There may be political considerations but these cannot be allowed to overthrow moral imperatives.  This does not mean that the State cannot forgive moral wrong doing. It has been done in other countries that claim high level of democratic culture. But it seems to me that in order to do this, there must be at least two conditions, namely genuine repentance and a sincere effort to make amendments as far as possible.  Let us see how this applies to the two cases under discussion.
    1. As regards the case of an offer of amnesty to the Boko Haram I believe that we should not throw away outright the consideration of such amnesty. Faced with an intractable problem, we have to explore all possible avenues of solution. The security response in terms of arms, gadgets and trained personnel is useful and necessary, but obviously not enough on its own. Government does well to reach out to all political forces and currents, so that the nation can be on the same political page and jointly address this common menace, which terrorism is. The issue of poverty and unemployment, which is cited as an excuse, needs to be addressed – and this boils down to the critical issue of good governance, at all levels, Federal, state and local government. The growing danger of community polarization gradually tearing the nation apart must be urgently and effectively tackled, on both the ethnic and religious bases. Here comes the important role of traditional and religious leaders. And finally, and most important of all, all these have to go together and government must take on the duty and responsibility to encourage and coordinate such initiatives, to ensure maximum overall effectiveness. Under such an atmosphere of common efforts, the call for amnesty would seem to me quite appropriate and even necessary. I therefore see the call of the Sultan as an invitation to further discussion and dialogue among Nigerians to sharpen the focus of government action in this matter. That discussion has started, for which we should thank the Sultan and his courageous proposal. In every conflict, a time comes when dialogue and talking must be brought into the equation, in view of final solution. It would seem that for Boko Haram, that time has come.
    2. But before the Boko Haram can be seriously considered for amnesty, they must meet the two conditions mentioned earlier for forgiveness, namely repentance and amendment. Before they are eligible for any amnesty, they must at least admit that they were wrong to be killing innocent people, whatever may have been their grievances.  If this is not done, they could well continue to feel that they did the right thing and perhaps, it is the rest of us who ought to beg them for pardon.  As for amendment, it is impossible to bring back those who have been killed. But at least a gesture of repentance and apology goes a long way to assuage the sorrow, the hurt and wounds of those who have been gravely hurt and bereaved. The modalities of how, in practical terms, the conditions of repentance and amendment are to be met can itself be a matter for discussion and dialogue. In such a dialogue, government would be well advised to involve the right kind of people, across the board. It should certainly include religious leaders. Furthermore, we need not wait for every terrorist to surrender before engaging those who are ready to repent and reconcile.
    3. As for pardoning people with cases of corruption on their heads, again, there ought to be some form of repentance which should be clear to everyone. Furthermore, a sincere effort must be made to pay back as much as possible of what has been stolen.  It is alleged that a lot of the stolen money is not lost. It is said to be somewhere invested in one way or the other.  That money belongs to the Nigerian people and it must be given back to them.  How this will be done should be part of the conditions that would have to be worked out in the process for pardon.
    4. Whatever government decides to do in this matter, it must not forget that the issue of massive corruption in high places is of major concern to Nigerians. Much has been said about fighting corruption. But people are fast losing confidence in the sincerity of government to turn the tide. Pardon for high profile corruption cases will certainly reduce further whatever is left of the confidence of the people. This has serious political and social fall-out that government cannot afford to ignore.  We must tell the truth that anger is mounting in the land, especially among the youth whose patience is running out. The clock of social tension is dangerously ticking towards explosion. The nation is in danger. What is needed are clear and visible gestures of reassurance that a real change and genuine transformation for the better has started.

 

CONCLUSION

A lot of evil has been committed in our nation.  The two most serious ones have to do with insecurity and massive corruption, both of which are destroying the nation.  We have to find ways of getting ourselves out of the tight grip of these two evils.  It will require not only legal approach but also wise political moves and quiet diplomatic efforts as well as the impute from the spiritual leadership of the country. This means that the problem of Nigeria is the problem of all of us and we must find a way of putting our heads together to change our ways of doing things so that a great nation can emerge.  The period of Easter is a good time to reflect on this because Easter means the victory of goodness over evil, of truth over lies, of justice over injustice and of life over death.

May the blessing of Easter be with us all. Amen.


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