Posts Tagged ‘Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’

A crime – and a French doctor’s career (part three and conclusion)

April 17, 2014

There has been a lot of teeth gnashing in the “humanitarian community” about the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and especially how humanitarian operations got mixed up in military action. They made it appear as if this was a new phenomenon. It is not. Not al all, in fact. This was done extensively in Biafra.

That French Red Cross operation of which Kouchner was a part, was headed by a French colonel, Merle. And it was a well-known fact that humanitarian flights acted as a cover for the delivery of huge quantities of arms. Indeed: guns and ammo were flown into Uli in crates that ostensibly contained Red Cross babyfood and concentrated milk. Now: who knew what when? Did any of the Red Cross people know this and if so, why did no-one raise the alarm about these acts of blatant piracy?

For the public at large, the Markpress campaign about Biafra served to obfuscate this illegal and criminal involvement of France, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal and Spain in their deadly enterprise. Most of the people directly involved are gone and will never have their day in court, where they should have accounted for their part in this monstrosity.

But the real cynicism is this: you can get public opinion on your side by using faraway human suffering for your own objectives, whatever they are. Tony Blair, Nicholas Sarkozy and others have proved to be masters of this self-serving manipulation in the name of human tenderness. As was the case with Biafra, pretty much all of these open or hidden interventions (Sudan, Somalia, former Yugoslavia, Libya in 2011) were carried out in order to reduce human suffering. In point of fact, these self-proclaimed humanitarians have prolonged wars (or in the case of Libya exported chaos all the way to Mali), turned emergency aid into a commodity and have failed to contain violence and instead increased human suffering. ‘Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence,’ Napoleon is rumoured to have remarked. But at times, one wonders…

cover Péan

Biafra marked Bernard Kouchner’s career in three ways. First, it impressed upon him the need to get the media involved. ‘You have to make noise,’ he would later say. During his careers in NGOs, politics and in government (he was a minister of Health and Humanitarian Action in 1992 and 1993 and of Foreign Affairs in 2007 to 2010), he would never go to an event that could not be sufficiently “mediatised”. The media have been crucial to the success of the organisation he co-founded after the Biafra war: Médicins sans frontières.

Second, it impressed upon him the need to make the story simple: good guys against bad guys. Anything else and you would not be able to mobilise the support of the public – and its money. The Biafra story became the bad Nigerians bombing and starving good Biafran women and children to death. And three, it disabused him of the notion that there was anything wrong with conflating humanitarian and military missions, in fact: human suffering was the crowbar that he and others were to use to great effect to get the Americans, the French, the Dutch and a fistful of others to bomb the sh!t out of Serbia in 1999. Nobody cared. Serbs were bad people, the public had been told; they deserved to be bombed. And Mamadani wondered aloud and astonished: what did those Save Darfur activists clamour for? A military intervention!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote an epic novel about Biafra, warned about what she termed ‘the single story’ in a TED talk she did in October 2009. It is deeply ironic that the man who has spent a good part of his life creating single stories about Darfur, about ex-Yugoslavia and about Rwanda, started his career in that same Biafra war. I am afraid that we will have to live with the odious legacy of this man and others like him for a long time. Consider this my attempt to remove from public discourse and policy making their kind of simplistic and dangerous thinking and their – at times – malicious intent and – far more frequently – unforgivable incompetence.

War, relief and a novel

November 28, 2012

This week marks the first anniversary of the death of Lt-Col Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. Between 1967 and 1970, he led a state that started to shrink almost at the same time it declared its independence. It was a national tragedy, prolonged and compounded by a deadly mix: an intransigent local leader (the man we remember today) and foreign supporters with an insidious agenda of their own. The name of the country was Biafra, predominantly but not exclusively inhabited by Igbos. Biafra’s story is at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s breathtaking novel Half of a Yellow Sun.

There’s a large crowd in this book. None of them will remain untouched by the events that are about to unfold. At the beginning, it’s all fairly calm. We’re in the house of Odenigbo, an intellectual, a university lecturer and a revolutionary. His girlfriend is Olanna, who is described as “illogically pretty”. Try to work your head around that delicious phrase. Olanna has a twin sister Kainene and these two characters are poles apart. Like Ojukwu himself, they have been born into a wealthy business family. Kainene has an English boyfriend called Richard. He is one of those rare escapees from a thoroughly incestuous and racist expatriate scene, who will belatedly find out that he belongs nowhere.

The drama of these and other lives unfolds while Nigeria, barely seven years old, begins to tear at itself. “A collection of fragments held in a fragile clasp,” is a memorable description of the country the British left behind. A number of quick blows in 1966 lead to war. A coup. A counter coup. Accusations as to who are behind these moves. A pogrom against Igbo people in the mainly Hausa North. In the city of Kano, Olanna gets caught up in the violence as she visits family. As she rides back on a train to safety, she sits opposite a woman who is clasping a calabash. It contains the severed head of her murdered child.

Then: The proclamation of Biafra’s independence, by Ojukwu, on May 30, 1967, followed by the Nigerian response and a war that will leave one million dead in its wake.

As a kid, I used to walk to school in a village near Amsterdam. Before leaving home, there was breakfast. And the radio brought news from a world that was definitely less protected as the working-class bubble I grew up in. Two names kept coming back time and time again: Vietnam and Biafra. Terrible things were happening there. But why? And how?

Reading up on the Biafra war, one is struck by how (already!) some of these deadly and sinister patterns of local dynamics plus foreign interference established themselves. In his book La Françafrique, le plus longue scandale de la République, the late François-Xavier Verschave details French involvement in the Biafra conflict, which served to prolong the war in the same way that the “international community” made things worse in Vietnam, Sudan, Iraq, Congo and Afghanistan, to name but a few.

Large quantities of French arms were sent to Ojukwu’s war effort, often mixed with relief supplies. Relief supplies were financed by an international audience, whose heart and purse strings continue to be pulled by pictures of starving children. The relief effort was also taxed by the receiving government, which proceeded to use these funds to buy more arms, according to Verschave. Here’s a quote from Jacques Foccart, the architect of France’s Africa policy in the 1960s”: ‘Journalists have discovered the Biafran suffering. It’s a good story. The public is moved and asks no further questions.’

 

Some of that relief ends up in places where Kainene is trying to prevent people from dying. Her sister sees a poster in the relief centre. It reads: WCC. World Council of Churches. But someone else has scribbled: War Can Continue. Adichie could not have been more poignant.

Odenigbo, ever the intellectual, is fond of using the word “ignoramus” when people don’t share his sharp but ultimately rather pointless analyses. I wonder what he would make of all these help-the-people-telethons. Biafra set the pattern that has led us straight to Band Aid, We Are The World, Bono, Save Darfur. Plus ça change…

Like Biafra itself, the houses where Odenigbo and Olanna flee to as the war progresses, get smaller and smaller until they live in a crammed room, amidst other refugees, while those who have managed to get themselves into positions of influence do rather well. Kainene, who is the most observant (and acerbic) character, is not so sure whether an independent Biafra would have resembled the promised land. Socialism? Here? As per Odenigbo’s wishes? Pull the other one. There are hints of illicit enrichment and Ojukwu is not particularly tolerant of people who disagree with him.

In January 1970, it’s all over. Nigeria’s leader at the time, General Gowon, is careful and uses the phrase ‘neither victors nor vanquished’. Ojukwu flees to Côte d’Ivoire, France’s staunch ally in this war. He launches two unsuccessful presidential bids in 2003 and 2007. Tellingly, this is Gowon’s comment on the death of Ojukwu, according to New African: ‘I’m happy he died as a Nigerian and not a Biafran.’

There are many more characters and strands in Half of a Yellow Sun. There’s love, infidelity, family intrigue and there’s my personal favourite: Ugwu. He is a young village boy whose family brings him into Odenigbo’s household at maybe thirteen. In a few short years he learns to grapple with all the unbelievable thunderstorms life throws at him and somehow manages to retain that original wonderment that you need to become a true philosopher. No, I’m not going to tell you more. Read this book, all of you.