“And I have wondered if it ever occurred to Chief Babatope that he also, by implication, answered his interviewer’s question on Igbo marginalisation in the affirmative.”
“There was a strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo … That epiphany made us realize that Nigeria ‘did not belong we,’ as Liberians would put it.”
– Chinua Achebe,
There Was a Country, a Personal History of Biafra
“… I cannot talk on behalf of the Igbo people; they would talk for themselves. I can talk for my Yoruba people and I can equally talk for the people of Nigeria…” – Ebenezer Babatope, The Guardian, December 2, 2012
Let me begin by stating that no irony is implied in the title of this piece. That the title is factual is, I think, easy to discern from an integral reading of the quotes above. The first quote is from page 87 of the autobiography entitled There Was a country, a Personal History of Biafra (2012), by Chinua Achebe. The second is from an interview granted by the self-confessed disciple of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and politician Chief Ebenezer Babatope, to Obire Onakemu, published on pages 58 and 59 of The Guardian of December 2, 2012. The interview appeared under the main and subsidiary titles of “BABATOPE: There Was A Country Not A Product Of Intellectual Research” and “We’ll Write Our Own Books To Counter Achebe – Babatope” respectively. Needless to say that, as these titles suggest, Chief Babatope’s posture in the interview was critical of There Was A Country.
The quote of Achebe is his rather climactic quip after detailing and analysing a chain of events that he believed convinced the Igbo that other Nigerians did not regard or treat them as their fellow citizens, which compelled them to declare the secessionist state of Biafra. The quote of Chief Babatope was his response to the question by his interviewer: “Are Igbo people still being marginalised in this country?”
However, if the above title implicates an irony, it is the situational irony that Chief Babatope might have thought that he had succeeded in undermining the credibility of Achebe’s book. But then, as if by a miracle that escaped his notice, the book’s credibility asserted itself through his utterance, vindicating Achebe. That utterance is his above quote.
Now for how it vindicates Achebe: that Chief Babatope responded to that question by stating that he “can … talk for the people of Nigeria” but “cannot talk on behalf of the Igbo people” signifies that, for him, “the Igbo people” are not part of “the people of Nigeria.” I regard this apparently inadvertent revelation by one of the most vocal critics of Achebe’s There Was a Country as a Freudian slip, an eruption of a secret locked in the unconscious mind, made more intriguing by the obliviousness of the owner of that mind.
In effect, there is no qualitative difference between Achebe saying, in There Was A Country, that the Igbo realised that “Nigeria ‘did not belong we’” and Chief Babatope saying that he “cannot talk on behalf of the Igbo people” even though he “can …talk for the people of Nigeria.” By that remark, Chief Babatope has confirmed about forty-five years later what Achebe said the Igbo realised before they declared Biafra, that other Nigerians regarded them as outsiders, people whom the likes of Chief Babatope, in high and low places, cannot speak for or stand by as they would their tribesmen and their fellow Nigerians, and against whom they could feel free to unleash the type of cold-blooded carnage Achebe describes in the book, assured that the law of their country and its enforcers would forever ignore their crimes because of the identity of their victims.
If I had the opportunity to meet Chief Babatope, I would ask him: If, as you have said, you can talk for the people of Nigeria but cannot talk for the Igbo, then where does it place the Igbo in your Nigerian equation – not outside? Can’t you see that such an attitude, of yours, validates Achebe’s statement in There Was A Country that what you call “the people of Nigeria” would rather not have the Igbo in their fold though they continue to make pretences to the contrary? Do you expect your charge that There Was A Country is not a product of intellectual research to stand even though your own words, as I have analysed here, have proven its contents to be true on their face value?
And I have wondered if it ever occurred to Chief Babatope that he also, by implication, answered his interviewer’s question on Igbo marginalisation in the affirmative. For his response that he can “talk for the people of Nigeria” but not also for the Igbo implicates marginalisation of the Igbo; for it places the Igbo on the margin, outside in fact, of his voluntary verbal representation, as it were. And did Achebe not say on page 235 of There Was a Country that “the Igbo … continue not to be integrated into Nigeria.” Again, Chief Babatope vindicates him by disintegrating the Igbo from “the people of Nigeria” as his words imply. What a way for a man to prove the baselessness of his animus against a truthful book through his own words – while criticising the book! What a fascinating irony!
But it is partly this tendency of such “controversial” views by Achebe to prove unassailably true to the open-minded, and the courage with which he expresses them to deepen our common humanity, that has won him my eternal respect. Alas, some of the critics of There Was a Country, especially those who see nothing wrong in committing mass infanticide by starvation, in starving millions of innocent children to death in order to win a war, because they believe “all is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war,” have merely shown how deeply humanity has decayed in our country. Yet, I believe that the decay is not irreversible, thanks to the hope signified by the responses of the likes of Wole Soyinka and Duro Onabule to the book, responses that portray them as men whose love of truth and justice transcends all primordial considerations.
The Igbo say that if you pluck a tick from a dog’s body you should show it to the dog, so it does not think that you pinched it. This is what Achebe has done with There Was a Country, Nigeria’s ultimate tick-dislodging book. But rather than show gratitude to Achebe, the dog that he has taken such great pain to rid its body of ticks and other vermin has turned aggressive, barking at him, and not seeming to realise that the armour of truth cannot be breached by the animosity of those who would rather perpetuate falsehood.
Oke, a poet and public affairs commentator, wrote from Abuja. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tel: +234-(0)803-453-1501