The Nigeria - Biafra War Letters - Interview with Author: Abiodun Adekunle


Interview by Richard Lorenzo, Bowker Magazine (May 04)
What inspired you to write The Nigeria Biafra War Letters "A Soldier's Story"?I was inspired to write this book for a number of reasons really.  The majority of the letters had been in my possession for a number of years, and I felt they told a story in themselves, one whose perspective was not often represented in other publications about the Nigeria Biafra war.  These letters expose the politics and behind the scenes intrigue of the Nigeria Biafra war in a very direct and unfiltered way, which I hope lends to the objectivity of the story.  I also feel that these letters lend to the civil war litany in a different way and add a missing dimension to our documentation of that tragedy which took place during 1967-1970 because the letters capture the atmosphere and interaction as it was, not as my father remembers it.  You know, letters and correspondence also tell their own story, especially as they were written during the heat of the conflict.  We all know many prominent actors of that war have had their say albeit several decades later, and in hindsight when embellishment and bad memory coupled with ego can cloud anyone's judgment looking back over several decades, and letters restrain those urges.So I sought to compile, edit and publish these letters as I felt they belong not to me, but to the Nigerian masses as they do represent Nigerian history.  There have been perhaps hundreds of books written on this tragic topic, but I don't know of one out there that tells this story quite in this way. I also feel some of the letters refute some long standing historical misconceptions about my father, which over the years have grown to assume the status of historical fact.  And I am speaking about his disposition towards the Easterners, some of whom insist his brutality in war was motivated by his genocidal agenda for ethnic cleansing.  My father is an extremely controversial figure in this regard, and as I say in the book, I didn't write this book as an apology for his actions or to defend him as you can't really defend the indefensible, besides he is still alive and speaks and writes extensively about his participation in the Nigeria Biafra war.  However, it is my hope that this book succeeds in providing some insight into the zeal with which my father and others championed the ideal of 'One Nigeria' during the war; into the way in which he perceived his mission and duty to his fatherland and also, into some of the severe constraints he labored under while striving to discharge his duty.And furthermore, I am of the school of though that believes that to chart a course towards a stable and productive future, it is imperative that we, as a nation and a people, fully come to terms with our past.  With the very recent rumblings, the political and social frustrations in Nigeria, the beating of war drums within Nigerian society is an increasingly familiar sound.  I wanted to make a contribution, albeit a very modest one to the promotion of dialogue, further understanding, reconciliation and peace amongst my deeply divided compatriots.  Since the advent of the return to democracy in 1999, we have seen more deaths, more political assassinations, and more social economic instability.You include a very powerful poem entitled "War" in your book.  What were you experiencing in 1992 when you wrote it that resulted in your riveting indictment of people and war and the inevitable consequences?Well thank you for that.  That poem has always meant a great deal to me being so very much anti-war and conflict.  The whole world was fixed on Desert Shield, and then Desert Storm, which ended I think in 1991.  In Nigeria we were going through a series of political upheavals which looked as though we were heading for a cataclysmic and violent end.  I tend to look at the world and our proclivity to solve our issue through violence and bloodshed, and one day I sat down and wrote that in a few minutes in reflection, I guess out of frustration really.  I think there are enough war mongers in this world.  There are too many people who believe violence will solve or aid their cause or make a stronger case for that cause.  You know, I can fully appreciate going to war as an act of self-defense when you are attacked on you homeland, or defending yourself in kind when violently attacked.  I am not a pacifist by any stretch.  When I look around the world, what I see is a world that needs more peacemakers and bridge builders, more wound healers and less flame throwers.  Given a choice even if that choice is the one less traveled, I would rather walk the path of a man of peace, than a man of war.  This is somewhat ironic considering the fact that my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father before me where all military men, and at one point in my life, I was seriously considering a career in the army.  So you talk about experiences, but that represents a heritage of military men and of warfare.What led to you drawing conclusions in your book that the controversial accusations about genocide against Biafran citizens were in fact "very real"?It would be disingenuous for anyone to research and study about the Biafran war and not come away with that conclusion.  And I am not going to deflect the question which ultimately leads to my fathers doorstep.  There is no question that my father fought the war with a brutal and savage zeal.  I say this much in my book.  However, there is no doubt that in his mind as a war commander his mission which was paramount to him was to win the war, and not to ethnically cleanse and kill all Ibo's.  However way it was fought, I believe it was terribly wrong, and my father has said that himself on several occasions as I say in the book.  This represents a very painful and controversial experience for Ibo's who lived through that war, the massive civilian casualties they experienced.  If it wasn't by bombs and soldiers bent on killing civilians, the war planners were instituting policies of economic strangulation, which is not new to warfare, but to try to justify and defend a policy of starving a civilian population as a legitimate tool of war to would be reprehensible.  What I find equally disturbing is when I often hear people speak about the 'rules' of war, when in my opinion most wars and conflicts represent the madness in humanity and a manifestation of the evil lurking in the hearts of mankind.  I come to this conclusion because in the vast majority of wars and conflicts the greatest victims are always the weakest in the society, the civilians, the women and children.  In the case of the Ibo's even months before the war they were victims of pogroms in the North, and thousands of Easterners were killed in these attacks.Did Colonel Benjamin Adekunle, your father share these letters with you during your formative years?  What prompted you to commit to publishing the remarkable oral accounts of his service leading the 3rd Marine Commando division?My father never shared any of his experiences during the war with me.  Everything I know about the war and his participation in it I have derived from research by sorting through his personal records.  Now, I don't mean we have never talked about this, usually after I have read an account by someone else and require more insight or his perspective, he will give that.  But sharing war stories at dinner is not a tradition I grew up with.  I think he did that intentionally with us to create some distance with the controversy of the war policies and the controversial figure he became.  In fact, I often find myself reading accounts either from historians or personal civilian memoirs and find myself feeling righteously indignant about the injustice of that conflict.  I have to remind myself that I have a direct connection with the most controversial figure of the conflict, which is not something that I can easily convey, its a pretty surreal experience actually.  I have often spoken to my father after reading something particularly disturbing in a very confrontational and indignant manner forcefully inquiring about the circumstances of the particular story.What does he tell you?He will often listen to me go on and on, and then give me his perspective and his recollections.  It's a little like someone who is a bomb maker, and someone who has the bomb dropped on their home, they both experience the same product, but their experience of it are extremely dissimilar.  How have the letters affected your relationship with your father? Have they helped to share your thoughts about the turmoil of those times?  How will The Nigeria Biafra War Letters "A Soldier's Story" be compared to other books on the same subject?Do you feel that the Biafran revolution has helped to lead the way for the Black man to determine the cause of his existence on earth and his role in fighting against oppression?I don't know if this particular project has affected our relationship.  I do know that going through the mountains of material I had at my disposal has given me a broader understanding of the conflict in general and my fathers part in.  Particularly through the prism of the letters, which convey the unmistakable impression that my father strongly believed in the ideals of  'One Nigeria', even as the methods he and his military overlords employed were extremely controversial.  Ultimately, The Nigeria Biafra War Letters will add to the quantity of information available about the war and should help to enhance our understanding of events leading up to it.  It should also help fill some gaps in the historical records of the period; for example, little has been written about the internal decision making process of the military High command in the course of the war, or about the motivations of some of the federal officers who played pivotal roles in the bloody conflagration.  There are some Ibo's who see the Biafran revolution only in its purely historical and territorial expression.  We know that expression was brutally crushed.  But you raise a very intriguing and pertinent question.  General Ojukwu gave expression of this premise as the Biafra of the mind.  This premise states that as long as the underlying factors of injustice, oppression and repression, environmental degradation, economic and fiscal exploitation, the yearning for the non-territorial Biafra will never die.  Even if this yearning becomes a battle cry for other ethnic groups and  minorities within the Nigerian space, such as the Ijaw and the Ogoni of the Niger Delta.  The example of Ken Saro-Wiwa is rather apt in illustrating that point.  An environment filled with injustice and exploitation is fertile ground for violence and instability.  So yes, in a way the Biafran conflict has transcended that space and time, and other Ibo's have a much more liberating view of what Biafra means and its significance as the innate ability of Africans to struggle for self-determination and to become a symbol for self-defense not just for Ibo's but to represent a yearning for African originality, and African autonomy, which I have no doubt a surviving Biafran territory would have become.  Indeed as she was during the 30 months of strangulation.How would you access your father's time as a career military leader?In a word, wasted.  I think my father was guided from very early on in his military career by his high ideals and principles which centered on blinded nationalism to his fatherland.  I think this in part explained his brutality in crushing the 'rebellion'.  As he has said himself on many occasions, many of his military peers in government of the day, did not share this ideal.  My father was a very strict and polished soldier in the British mold.  He was trained at Sandhurst military academy in England.  He cherished the army.  He was a soldier's soldier who never participated in a single coup in his whole career.  He had a lot more to give his army and his nation beyond the revelrous destruction he championed so well, and he proved this in 1970 right after the war ended when he was asked by the Head of State, General Gowon to form a Military task force to clear the ports.  At the time the Nigerian port system had developed sever congestion and our economy was suffering enormously.  My father cleared the ports in record time and saved the economy.  Even through that period when he would deposit about fifty million pounds or dollars a month, I can't remember the currency, his detractors would seek to 'discover' how much he had kept for himself, they badly needed a pretext to remove him from the army, so unnerved and threatened as they were by his can do attitude.  Four years later they fabricated one and he was forcibly retired.  So yes, wasted.  I have told him personally, I think he was fighting for the wrong people.What does he say to that last remark?Nothing.What were the greatest obstacles preventing the implementation of self-rule, educational freedom, economic independence and social justice?  Are there fewer obstacles nowadays in places with similar circumstances?By far the greatest obstacle then and now has been the discovery of oil.  This is unmistakable and rather unfortunate.  For most nations the discovery of oil has spurred development and industry, unfortunately in our case it has been the opposite in fact.  Oil has been a burden, and a source of great pain.  No doubt a few thoroughly morally bereft elites have used this national resource as a source of personal self-enrichment, and as a consequence currently have the nation by the yoke.  The pain of the Ogoni and the reality of environmental degradation is caused by the discovery of oil.  The social instability and insecurity of the Niger Delta is caused by the discovery of oil, and if there was no oil in the Biafra, I very much doubt the military orders would have been given to destroy Biafra.Do you have any advise for someone like yourself desiring to write a book like The Nigeria Biafra War Letters "A Soldier's story?The main consideration for someone wishing to publish a book is motivation.  You have to determine what motivates you to write.  Are you writing for self-satisfaction, to acquire money or for educational reasons.  Once you figure that out then you can proceed with an appropriate avenue for you.  Publishing is extremely time consuming and the most fundamental advice I would give is make sure you get the best product you can either to an agent, or if you decide to self publish, to market.  If you feel you have a great product and your desire is to make a lot of money, then you certainly want to have publishing houses bid on your work through a literary agent.  On the other hand if you only want a few copies printed for vanity purposes, you can go with what's called a vanity or subsidy printer.  In this case you are paying for printing even though you don't own the rights to you book.  The best method in my view, is to become a self publisher, or to associate with a  publisher.  For me what was most important was to retain total control of the work, and I wouldn't give that up for a million dollars to any publishing house.  When I decided to publish this work, I approached a group of associates who had just embarked on a publishing concern and that afforded me editorial control of my publication which to some extent you give up when you sell your publishing rights.Thank you

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