The resentment of the Biafran people towards Obafemi Awolowo


By Reno Omkiri 

Regrettably, a significant number of individuals from the southeastern region of Nigeria harbor deep resentment towards the country. This animosity stems from the dissemination of misinformation they have been exposed to throughout their lives. During their formative years, parents, including charismatic propagandists like Okokon Ndem, fervently propagated distorted narratives and revised historical accounts, having themselves believed the wartime propaganda.

Okokon Ndem, hailing from present-day Cross River rather than being ethnically Igbo, suffered from the Zeal of the Convert syndrome. In an attempt to prove his affiliation with the Igbo people to the Biafran authorities, he went to great lengths beyond what other wartime propagandists like the late Senator Uche Chukwumerije did. The voices of Uche Chukwumerije and Okokon Ndem on the original Radio Biafra contributed significantly to the perpetuation of numerous myths that are still held as truth by many young Igbo individuals today.

The intensity of their propaganda has endured even 53 years after the Nigerian Civil War concluded. Recently, a young man claimed on my Twitter profile that Nigeria fought the civil war with the intent to destroy the Igbo, and as a result, all Igbo people were only given twenty Naira after the war. However, this widely believed story is entirely false. The misconception about receiving twenty pounds (not Naira) arose from the fact that after declaring the independent Republic of Biafra, the Biafran authorities rendered the Nigerian Pound invalid and introduced the Biafran Pound as their legal currency on January 29, 1968.

In response, the Federal Military Government, led by General Gowon, promptly declared the Biafran currency illegal and non-recognizable in Nigeria. Nigerian citizens, including those identifying as Biafrans, were advised to reject the new currency. Consequently, many prudent individuals who identified as Biafrans withdrew their Nigerian Naira and kept it at home. Evelyn Okororie, a surviving Biafran, exemplifies this, and she shared her account with CNN in January 2020.

It's important to note that while Haiti, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Gabon recognized the Republic of Biafra, they did not accept the Biafran Pound as a freely convertible currency with their own local currencies. Therefore, if anyone managed to leave Biafra for these countries, they could not exchange their Biafran Pound for the local currencies. 

When the Republic of Biafra was defeated and the East Central state reintegrated into the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Minister of Finance at the time, faced a dilemma regarding the Biafran Pound. Since the currency was illegal and had been printed without the backing of the Central Bank of Nigeria, it was impossible to verify genuine Biafran Pound holders as Biafra had collapsed, and those responsible for printing the currency had either perished, fled the country, or denied involvement.

As a personal initiative of Chief Awolowo, who chose not to present it to the Federal Executive Council due to concerns about opposition within General Gowon's cabinet, the Ministry of Finance issued a circular to pay £20 to former Biafran account holders who had lost their records of money in Nigerian Pounds and those who held their bank balances in Biafran Pounds. Every account holder received a flat £20, which was a gesture of goodwill from Nigeria and, more specifically, from Chief Awolowo's compassionate nature. Those former Biafrans who could prove their account balances in Nigerian Pounds received their entire sums.

Late Senator Arthur Nzeribe is an example of an Igbo individual who could prove their account balances in Nigerian Pounds. All former Biafrans who had accounts in banks outside the Eastern Region regained access to their funds after the war. Chief Alex Ekwueme, who also held an account in Nigerian Pounds, is an example of this.

It is essential to understand the predicament Chief Awolowo faced. Many banks in the Eastern Region had been destroyed, and the accounts were denominated in Biafran Pounds. The loss of records was a result of the war, and some banks even destroyed the records to avoid being penalized for possessing Biafran currencies, which was considered an act of economic sabotage against the military government ruling Nigeria at the time.

What alternatives did people expect Chief Awolowo to pursue? Should he have accepted the Biafran Pound and freely converted it to Naira? Such a proposition was nonsensical, especially when the Federal Military Government had explicitly warned Colonel Emeka Ojukwu's government against such actions and advised Biafrans not to accept that currency.

Let's consider the American Civil War as an example. When the Union defeated the Confederate states, the Confederate States' dollars became worthless from May 26, 1865. The Union did not compensate the holders of Confederate States' dollars with $20 or any other amount. After the war, the Confederate States' currency simply lost its value, resulting in financial losses for its holders. That is the unfortunate reality of war.

In our case, however, Chief Awolowo, motivated by his compassion and not by any obligation, gave £20 as a gift to all Biafran Pound account holders. This gesture was a magnanimous act that aimed to level the playing field and create fairness. To achieve this, he took the extraordinary step of abolishing the Nigerian Pound and introducing the Nigerian Naira, a policy announced in 1971 but implemented on January 1, 1973.

Furthermore, Chief Awolowo ensured that the East Central state received all the funds owed to them from the Federation Account between 1967 and 1970. He had invested these funds, and upon their return, the Commissioner for Economic Development in the East Central State, SG Ikoku, acknowledged Chief Awolowo's actions in the Daily Times on May 22, 1971.

It is unfortunate that some individuals have accused Chief Awolowo of using starvation as a war tactic or even poisoning the food relief sent to Biafra. These claims are entirely baseless. Why would Chief Awolowo poison the food he intended to provide to Biafran civilians? It is crucial to note that sending food relief was a humanitarian gesture based on Chief Awolowo's personal principles. The food was sent in collaboration with organizations like the Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, and The Catholic Church through Caritas. Would these bodies have allowed Chief Awolowo to poison the food?

The false propaganda about Chief Awolowo poisoning the food relief was spread by an individual named Okokon Ndem, a presenter on Radio Biafra. The purpose was to encourage the civilians, whom Chief Awolowo intended to help, to reject the food so that it could be redirected to Biafran soldiers.

One notable item included in the relief materials was okporoko (stockfish), which became popular in Biafra and Igboland. Chief Awolowo and the nation of Norway played a significant role in introducing okporoko. Prior to the war, it was unfamiliar to the region.

It is worth noting that during the Siege of Leningrad, when the Germans surrounded the Russian city for 900 days, they did not send during the American Civil War, the Union forces blockaded the Confederate rebels, leading to severe food shortages and starvation. However, Chief Awolowo took a different approach. Despite being under no obligation to do so, he made the compassionate decision to send food relief to the civilians in Biafra. This humanitarian gesture was carried out in collaboration with organizations such as the Red Cross, the World Council of Churches, and The Catholic Church through Caritas.

It is important to emphasize that Chief Awolowo had no intention of poisoning the food relief. The baseless claim that he sent poisoned food originated from Okokon Ndem, a presenter on Radio Biafra, who propagated this false information to divert the relief meant for civilians to Biafran soldiers.

Among the relief items was okporoko (stockfish), which became widely known and appreciated in Biafra and Igboland. It is a testament to Chief Awolowo's efforts and the assistance provided by Norway. Prior to the war, okporoko was not commonly consumed in the region.

Comparatively, historical instances like the Siege of Leningrad during World War II demonstrated that besieging forces did not send food relief to the affected city. Similarly, during the American Civil War, there were no provisions made to aid the Confederate rebels. Chief Awolowo's decision to send food relief to Biafran civilians was an extraordinary act of compassion and humanity.

Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging Chief Awolowo's benevolence, some individuals harbor unwarranted animosity towards him while ironically spending money adorned with the image of Murtala Muhammed. If only they were aware of the actions taken by Murtala Muhammed that negatively affected them.

Every family in the former Biafra owes a debt of gratitude to the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo. However, it is disheartening to witness how some parents, instead of imparting this documented history, have filled their children with hatred by perpetuating wartime propaganda.

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