Posts Tagged ‘Ojukwu’

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

April 15, 2014

I have another long-ish read for you, which I have divided into three parts. Part one is today.

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The writing of a small piece I recently did for ZAMChronicles, called “Simplicities”, coincided with me reading the unauthorised biography of one of the most iconic Frenchmen of the last couple of decades, Bernard Kouchner. The writer is Pierre Péan, a journalist who has courted controversy over his writings about Rwanda. He says that he has compelling evidence that it was Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s current president, who on April 6 1994 shot down an aircraft that carried the then presidents of Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi. The event triggered the Rwandan genocide.

Like his friend Kagame, the ‘French doctor’ (Kouchner’s nickname) is unlikely to have been very happy about Péan’s 2009 book Le monde selon K. I found it on a table outside a bookstore in Abidjan’s Riviera neighbourhood. The book adds depth to the argument about simplistic writing about the African continent and why it is so pernicious and needs to end.

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the fact that Kouchner’s career started during the Biafran war (May 1967 to January 1970), when he worked for the Red Cross. The breakaway republic was said to be holding out valiantly against a cruel and merciless war machine mounted by the Nigerian federal government. That, at least, is the narrative. Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu, governor of Biafra, decided to declare an independent state following prolonged political instability in the federal republic and terrible massacres of his people in the north of Nigeria. From that declaration onwards he held out, against the odds and against better judgement, for two and a half years. One million deaths later, his dream was shattered.

 

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

A war scene, pic from africafederation.net

 

But there is a much more cynical side to the Biafra story and to find it we must go to Paris and Abidjan to meet the duo Jacques Foccart (Mister Africa of the French state) and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the father of the Ivorian nation.

The two men were agreed on one thing: Nigeria was too big. Foccart wrote that it would place the rest of the (mostly Francophone) region under ‘a worrying shadow’. But there was more. Nigeria had broken off diplomatic ties with Paris when it found out that the French were using a part of the Sahara Desert as a nuclear testing site. President Charles de Gaulle, Foccart’s boss, was swayed by the Anglophobe argument that having a big English-speaking nation in West Africa was detrimental to the beautiful French language. Yes, these irrational sentiments play a significant part. And then there was the matter of a French oil company, state-run, called Elf (now part of the Total company), which had major interests in Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville. Here was the thinking: a dismembered Nigeria would be less of a threat for the region, less prominent diplomatically and would offer less resistance to French oil business designs. After all, the oil was in Biafra.

So, when Ojukwu declared his independence, France was there to help. With what? Well what do you think? Arms, of course! And the best places to fly these from were Abidjan, Libreville in Gabon and territories still in Portuguese hands (São Tomé) or Spanish (the island of Fernando Po, now Bioko). The two Iberian nations were, at the time, fascist dictatorships. Small matter. An elaborate air bridge turned the improvised airstrip at the Biafran town of Uli into Africa’s busiest airport for the duration. Gun flights arrived en masse throughout 1967 and 68, providing Ojukwu with a good source of income. President de Gaulle, meanwhile, told Elf to pay royalties due to the Nigerian state directly into Ojukwu’s coffers, further swelling his war chest.  Notorious French mercenaries like Bob Denard were involved in the gun running, as were French secret operatives who had been at the losing end of their wars in Viet Nam, Algeria and Katanga, frequently using Abidjan as a convenient stopover. Into that scene wandered the French doctor.

 

To be continued

 

 

 

 

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.