How does it feel to be 80?
I’ve been incredibly cheered by so many people calling to congratulate me. Therefore, my answer should not be mistaken for grouchiness. Let us say you’ve lived your life on an exotic island. There were glorious periods of laughter and gaiety. Although there were also periods of painful failures; life, for the most part, has been a fulfilment. Then you are 80. You can remember the distant past as though yesterday. You wonder where all the years have gone. You cannot understand the fuss about being 80 – until someone offers you a tot of cognac and you shake your head and confess shyly, “I don’t drink anymore.” Your body, like the calendar, reminds you you’re an old man!
How would you say exile has treated you?
A simple question not easily answered. I fled Nigeria at 31. Although I’d travelled halfway round the globe before then I count that time as the moment a new life began for me. I gained the welcome anonymity I did not have in Lagos. I could go back in time and enjoy the life of a young adult that I’d missed. I was a citizen of the world with freedom to travel in Africa and explore Europe. The downside was a sense of not belonging.
At 80 perhaps it is time to return home or don’t you think so?
Apart from extended visits in the early part of this decade, I spent altogether seven of the forty-nine years since 1966 in Nigeria when I twice tried to resettle in the 1990s. It didn’t work out.
Independence night in 1960 left a bitter taste in the mouth of many like you so much so that you stayed away from the celebration. What political significance did that moment have for the country ever since?
The precise moment that Nigeria became an Independent state was at the stroke of midnight on Saturday, October 1, 1960. I was editor of the Sunday Times waiting in the office for pictures of the handing over of the Constitutional Instruments by Princess Alexandra, Queen Elisabeth’s cousin, to Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa; so I had valid excuse not to be at the Race Course venue to witness the historic moment. However, it is true that I was not overly keen to be there. It just didn’t seem right that those who fought hardest for Independence were outcasts. It so happened that they boycotted the ceremony. Maybe that was a signal for the bitterness that soon engulfed the early post-Independence years.
Some say that journalists have partly been the cause of Nigeria’s problems. A colleague of yours at the Daily Times writing in Drum, according to you, partly caused the mayhem in 1966. How have journalists fared in reporting your country ever since?
A misplaced humour by my friend, Nelson Ottah, with a photo montage that went seriously awry was blamed among other things for the killing of Igbos in the North. I didn’t see the joke in the picture mount-up or in its accompanying write-up, but that did not justify the terrible slaughters that ensued. In the wider picture of the record of the Nigerian Press, I don’t think the Press should be held responsible for the malaise in the country. Some people will say, he’s bound to say that; isn’t he? He’s one of them! But in fairness, what the Press does is hold up a mirror to the society at large. The Press should not be blamed when some people don’t like what they see.
However, I’ve since learned that there is such a thing as self-censorship. I left Nigeria all those years ago believing in the absolute truth of the slogan “publish and be damned”. I came to learn that even in the Western world whose media boast that they have absolute freedom, there is an addendum. When it comes to reporting Africa the gloves are usually off, however. Africa is still the Dark Continent in the minds of many readers. Foreign reporters feed into that, albeit with a revised stereotyping. We don’t eat missionaries any more; instead, we are universally, individually, collectively corrupt and incompetent, and dependent on foreign aid. The visiting foreign reporter is an intrepid do-gooder who wants to save Africans from themselves. Unfortunately, our indigenous Press hold them as role models.
Nigeria descended into war in 1967. Was it unavoidable?
In theory all wars are avoidable.
You played a part in that war on the side of Biafra. Do you regret it? What part did that play in your going into exile?
I was already abroad before the crisis became a war. My sympathy was for the struggle of the Igbo people. I made that known wherever my travels took me. That was as much part as I played. I would have been happiest if the war became a stalemate so that a just and proper end to the dispute could be negotiated. It happened that Biafra lost the war. Gowon said there was no victor, no vanquished. The Igbos have been reintegrated into the Federation. It suggests that the story is ended. If you want to take an absolutely cynical view you would remind yourself that most of today’s established nations were put together by force of arms. The great democrat Abraham Lincoln fought and won a civil war that kept the U.S. as one and indivisible nation.
Nonetheless, someone like me might reply that in the modern age it ought to be possible to build a nation on a foundation of consent and trust. We see ethnic conflicts and separatist movements all over the world, even among enlightened and sophisticated societies. There is the current crisis in Ukraine where thousands have died. There is the lingering undercurrent of French-Canadian “nationalism”; the Basques in Spain; the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. Closer to our experience is the demand for Scottish Independence. The nationalists lost a recent referendum but I don’t believe it is over for good. Even so, what struck me was that after 300 years of the termination of Scottish Independence; 300 years of “Great Britain”; three hundred centuries, during which Scotsmen and Englishmen bestrode the world jointly as subjects of a common sovereign, and together built an empire on which the sun never set; and despite the negative propaganda hurled at the nationalist campaign – including EU and US subtle and not so subtle interventions – as many as 45 percent of the voters asked for Independence!
Your former colleague, the late Chinua Achebe wrote his last book, There was a Country that sparked so much controversy back home. What was your assessment of the book in the light of events of the civil war?
Chinua Achebe was not my colleague. In fact, I can’t remember that we ever met and had a conversation. I’ve read the book. I’m glad he wrote it. It was how he saw things. It spoke for him. The fact that it caused so much controversy was proof that he touched certain nerves. That didn’t include my nerves.
In spite of the war Biafra was able to deploy its resources such that it developed its own technology to fight the war. But in spite of the fact that Nigeria won the war and despite the benefit of the oil boom, it can’t make a bicycle as yet. What do you think accounts for this?
You are spot on. An admirable achievement of Biafra was the creativity it inspired among a population on the brink of decimation. The old saying that necessity is the mother of invention was ever so true about the Biafrans. But when they re-joined an economy which seeks to create wealth not by building or planting things but in importations, a curse of the oil boom, an economy in which business acumen means angling for contracts to make a quick buck, the creativity inspired by the Biafra spirit ended very quickly. At any rate it had never caught on in the rest of the country. “Waiting for Federal allocation” should be the motto of every state finance ministry in the land!
You wrote Then Spoke the Thunder some 10 years ago. At 80 do you still feel there are gaps that need to be filled? Is another memoir coming?
I can’t see another memoir or the need for one. But there is a bitter story I want to tell, if I can work out a humorous way of telling it. It’s very much in my head.
Nigeria is holding another election next month. What are your fears and expectations?
My hope is that we avoid violence. My fear is that the losers will automatically claim that the elections were rigged.
Between the two Presidential candidates – Jonathan and Buhari – who do you think is the better suited for the job?
I’ve never voted in a political election in my life. I thought I could not honestly say I was transparently objective and neutral if I cast a vote for one side or the other. I’ve always stopped short of concerning myself with who the better candidate is. I concentrate on watching out for transparency in the electoral process, on fairness and I patiently await the decision of the electorate.