Although Chief Obafemi Awolowo is not alive to respond to allegations levelled against him by renowned novelist, Chinua Achebe, an interview he granted during a town hall meeting in Abeokuta, Ogun State in 1983 could as well pass for a defence.
Fielding questions from members of a panel and the audience, Awolowo explained his policies as the Federal Commissioner of Finance during the Nigerian civil war.
The town hall meeting which was part of his electioneering as the Unity Party of Nigeria presidential candidate in 1983, lasted for 90 minutes. It was aired live by some radio stations.
Awolowo, who was then 74 years old, spoke on his roles in the civil war, especially the 20-pound policy, the alleged use of starvation against the Igbo and the change of the national currency.
He said those castigating him on the basis of his roles in the civil war which began in 1967 and ended in 1970 were those who felt the only way to remain popular was by peddling lies against him.
Achebe, in his wartime memoirs entitled, There Was A Country, accused members of the Gen. Yakubu Gowon cabinet, particularly Awolowo, of making “regrettable policies” aimed at deliberately reducing the number of Igbos.
The novelist, whose most popular work, Things Fall Apart, has been published in more than 50 languages, said Awolowo came up with the starvation, 20-pound and currency policies with a view to exterminating the Igbo.
According to Achebe, the late sage and former premier of the defunct Western Region, perceived the Igbo as his enemies.
However, Awolowo, in the interview said contrary to the claim that he used starvation as a weapon against the Igbo; the then Federal Government was actually sending food to civilians in the war region.
He added that government stopped sending food to the region when it was discovered that it ( food) was being hijacked by Biafran soldiers, who in turn gave the food to their “friends and collaborators”.
Awolowo said, “We were sending food through the Red Cross, and CARITAS to them, but what happened was that the vehicles carrying the food were always ambushed by soldiers.
“That’s what I discovered and the food would then be taken to the soldiers to feed them, and so they were able to continue to fight. And I said that was a very dangerous policy, we didn’t intend the food for soldiers. But who will go behind the line to stop the soldiers from ambushing the vehicles that were carrying the food? And as long as soldiers were fed, the war will continue, and who’ll continue to suffer?
“So I decided to stop sending the food there. In the process, the civilians would suffer, but the soldiers will suffer most.
“When you saw Ojukwu’s picture after the war, did he look like someone who’s not well fed? But he was taking the food which we sent to civilians, and so we stopped the food.”
On his reasons for changing currency, Awolowo said it was to prevent Ojukwu, who is now late, from taking the money allegedly stolen from the Central Bank of Nigeria by his soldiers to buy arms abroad.
“We did that to prevent Ojukwu from taking the money which his soldiers had stolen from our central bank to take abroad to buy arms. We discovered he looted our Central bank in Benin, he looted the one in Port Harcourt, looted the one in Calabar and he was taking the currency notes abroad to sell to earn foreign exchange to buy arms.
“So, I decided to change the currency, and for your benefit, it can now be told the whole world,that only Gowon knew the day before the change took place. I decided, only three of us knew before then- Clement Isong, who was the CBN governor, Attah and myself.”
Achebe had written in one of the chapters of the memoirs published in the UK Guardian on Tuesday that the policy was orchestrated “to stunt or even obliterate the economy of a people.”
But Awolowo said the policy was what government resorted to when depositors could not show proof of what they had as deposits.
“All the banks’ books had been burnt, and many of the people who had savings didn’t have their saving books or their last statements of account,” he said.
Awolowo, who reiterated during the town hall meeting that he was “a friend of the Igbo,” said he saved the accrued revenue for the Eastern state during the period the war lasted and gave it back to them at the rate of 990,000 pounds as monthly subventions.
He said, “I didn’t go to the Executive Council to ask for support, or for approval because I knew if I went to the council at that time, the subvention would not be approved because there were more enemies in the executive council for the Igbo than friends.
“And since I wasn’t going to take a percentage from what I was going to give them, and I knew I was doing what was right, I wanted the Eastern state to survive. I kept on giving the subvention of 990,000, almost a million, every month.”
He said he also ensured that the houses owned by the Igbo in Lagos and on the other parts of the country not affected by the war were kept for them.
He said, “I had an estate agent friend who told me that one of them collected half a million pounds rent which has been kept for him. All his rent were collected, but since we didn’t seize their houses, he came back and collected half a million pounds.”
via Punch Newspaper