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Fredrick Forsyth, BBC, unsubstantiated and Nigerian history

October 16, 2012
Fredrick Forsyth, BBC, unsubstantiated and Nigerian history E-mail
Written by Tunde Akingbade   
Saturday, 07 June 2008
FREDRICK Forsyth, the renowned British author and former journalist with the BBC and Reuters, will be 70 years old this year. A very good friend of “our own” Chief Chukwuemeka Odumegun-Ojukwu, the Ikemba Nnewi, since the days of the civil war in 1967, Forsyth shot to limelight with his book The Biafra Story published by Penguin (1969). 

The title later changed to The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story. There is no doubt that the friendship between Ojukwu and Forsyth later waxed stronger during and after the civil war, as the Ikemba Nnewi admitted to me during our chance meeting in 1987, which must be the reason Ojukwu’s first biographer was Forsyth.

Forsyth wrote The Biafra Story when he was 31 years old. Today, 39 years after his first published work, ahead of other fascinating works such as The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, The Dogs of War, The Negotiator, The Deceiver, The Fourth Protocol, The Icon, there are ample reasons to believe that Forsyth wrote some unsubstan-tiated tales in his first novel, The Biafra Story. You now begin to wonder who is The Deceiver! Let us quickly give credit that Forsyth is one of the world’s most famous fiction writers. Some of his engaging and compelling works have been made into movies. The fiction work such as the Dogs of War has even come to pass as you will read later.

But, in The Biafra Story, Forsyth could not be said to have demonstrated an appreciable level of objectivity, which is the hallmark of credible and responsible journalism. Ironically, strangely and tragically too, Forsyth, in the prologue to The Biafra Story written in Ireland in 1976, noted that when he was a “cub reporter on an English provincial newspaper, he came under he tutelage of a wonderful teacher who impressed on him two maxims, ‘Get the facts right’ and ‘tell it the way it was’ adding that, in his work, he had tried to tell it the way it was, noting that those who condemned the book when it first came out “had one thing in common; they were all in positions of power and authority, to wit, the establishment or firmly on the side of the establishment.”

Holding brief for government

Forsyth broke the rule of his teacher and he did not tell it the way it was. Before I write on this 39 years old book and its author, I will like to make it abundantly clear to Forsyth that I was about nine years old when he wrote the book and was only in government at the age of 16 as a clerical officer before studying for a degree three years later. I have not worked for any government since I graduated in the early 1980s. So, I do not hold brief for any government in Nigeria, past or present.
Forsyth submitted in his Preface that “The Biafra Story is not history in full detail of the present war; there is still too much that is not known, too many things that cannot yet be revealed.”

Within the past three decades, more facts have emerged from some of the combatants, including the victors, the defeated and those who grieved. For example, many of the soldiers who fought in Biafra or Nigeria, such as Adewale Ademoyega in Why We Struck, and Nelson Ottah had debunked claims made by this author. Recent publication of  A Gift of Sequin,Letters to My Wife by Victor Banjo and Olayinka Omigbogun has made a mess of some of the Forsyth tales.

A critical analysis of some of these works have shown that Forsyth did not get some things right in his first book. What he succeeded in doing was utterly not journalistic. In Story of Biafra, he was more than a writer of facts. He tried to be an historian, but he was lost in the middle of an extreme and unpardonable sophistry.

In the book, he was simply a writer who was overwhelmed by what he got from several sources at a crucial moment to record history reasonably but became a fighter with his pen and made a mess of a pro-Biafran book that could have been an authoritative reference material of all times. He too committed gaffes in this book similar to that of the warriors. Why?

Those who have not read the  works of some of other  writers on Biafra may not know this. As someone who had attended journalism schools in Lagos and Europe and practised around the world too, I am inclined to feel that Forsyth did not think that his reliance on credible sources and meetings with some of the warriors, including his regular escape from bombers in Umuahia, could provide essentially good quality story that could highlight the plight of the Biafrans rather than contemptuous disregard for the other tribes that make up Nigeria and character assassination of  those who he had not met.

To him, the Hausa were wicked and the Yoruba treacherous, forgetting the key roles some Yoruba people played on the Igbo cause. He forgot that not all Hausa cannot be haters of the southern-ers during the pogrom and during the war. Fajuyi was an example of a Yoruba man who stood by an Igbo man, Ironsi, and died with him instead of making Yoruba land a theatre of war. Lt. Col. Victor  Banjo, it appeared from new accounts and other sources, possibly changed his mind when the Yoruba leaders seemed not ready to welcome him.

Sophisticated weapons

The Edos did not want his forces on their land too and there were no sophisticated weapons to forge ahead. Forsyth had given the impression that Yoruba are timid and did not like joining the army. We should remind this British author of the fact that the whole of Yoruba land was plagued by internal strife and ethnic wars in the 19th and 18th century and these wars produced quite a number of truculent and much dreaded soldiers from virtually every known Yoruba town. Somehow, these warriors appeared to have passed the genes to their offspring, some of who found their ways into the British colonial army.

For example, I am Yoruba and my father and his elder brother, who were the grandsons of the generalissimo, Sao of Akure, were very close examples of those who were in Burma, and the Middle East alongside the British army during the second world war as captured in my book Deep Inside Germany: Reflections of an African. There are several families like that. Another example close to Ojukwu (Forsyth’s friend) was Banjo, another friend of Ojukwu, who was executed on the orders of the ex-Biafran warlord in what has become the shortest trial and execution of suspected plotters in Nigeria, without right of appeal.

Everything was done within three days. Banjo’s grand father  was a member of the “army that defended Ijebuland against white invaders in the Makun wars,” as captured in the book: A break in the silence: Lt. Col. Victor Adebukunola Banjo by Professor Adetowun Ogunsheye and J.F. Ade Ajayi and R. Smith in Yoruba Warfare in the 19th Century. Forsyth, who was said to be a thorough researcher, was very much blinded by certain facts and reality emanating from Yoruba and other ethnic regions.

I will later rely on new emerging facts in some new publications which have revealed the wrongs in Forsyth’s one-sided book on Biafra. Mr. N.J. Miners, former teacher of King College, Lagos, and lecturer in political science at University of Hong Kong, who wrote the most authoritative book on  the Nigerian army: 1956-1966, which also covered the civil war years, noted that in 1956, only 15 of the 250 officers in the Nigerian army were Nigerians. The army was generally despised then and it took years before some of our best brains and refined personalities joined the force.

“There were very few northern graduates, and most of these found much better opportunities in the Northern Region public service than in the army. Most of the northern officers were from the “Middle Belt” apart from the imams and instructor in equitation for the military academy, “writes Miners.
He hints that 17 percent of executive commissions (direct commissions, excluding nurses) came from the north, the east and Ika-Ibo had 44 percent while the West and Mid-west (which Forsyth said don’t like to enlist in the army) had 39 percent. These were the same people who Forsyth resented and the army only got new and more recruits from the cadet after units were opened there.

From available records, by the eve of the first coup in 1966, the NPC government, led by the late Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, had succeeded in altering the balance of the officer corps to 32 and half percent from the North, 26 and half percent from West and Mid west, East and Ika-Ibo had 40 and half percent while southern Cameroon had half percent.

Senior officer’s list by rank and tribal region in January 1966 shows that the North had Brigadier Maimalari, Colonel Kur Muhammed, Lt. Colonels Largema, Yakubu Pam and Yakubu Gowon. The West had Brigadiers Ademulegun, Ogundipe, Colonels R.A. Adebayo and Ralph Shodehinde. Others were Lt. Colonels Adekunle Fajuyi, David Ejoor and Banjo.

There were seven majors: Olutoye, Adekunle,  Obasanjo, Sotomi, Adegoke, Rotimi and Ayo Ariyo. The total for the West was 14 officers, as opposed to 32 from the East. Those from the East were  Major General Ironsi, Lt. Colonels Bassey, Njoku, Imo, Ojukwu (who was acting Lt. Col), Nwawo, Unegbe and Kurobo. Others were  Trimnell, Ekpo, Okwechime, Anwunah, Madiebo, Nezfli, Ogunewe, Akagha, Nwajei, Eze, Okonweze, Okoro, Nzeogwu, Ude, Irenso, Kalu, Keshi, Ifeajuna, Okafor, D.O. Anuforo,Chude-Sokei, Ariebo and Obienu.

Forsyth had made the Yoruba look like a group of people who do not keep to their words. On page 95 of The Biafra Story, he notes the role played by Chief Obafemi Awolowo after he had visited Ojukwu in the East before the war and that the chief sympathized with the sufferings of the eastern people. Who wouldn’t? Even up till today, it will be inhuman and cruel not to sympathise with the easterners and those earlier killed for merely bearing eastern names.

One of the reasons why some Igbos resented the Yoruba and disliked Awolowo was because it was alleged that Awolowo had remarked that if the East should secede, the West will follow. Forsyth noted that Awolowo asked that if the East was going to pull out, he be allowed twenty four hours governing and he would do the same for the West, adding that, later, Awo got his forewarning but by that time he had been swayed round by other attractions, he failed to fulfill his intent.

“From the point of view of the Yorubas, it was a pity for, if Awolowo had stuck to his guns, the Federal Government, unable to face two simultaneous disaffections, would have been forced to fulfill the Aburi agreement to the letter,” said Forsyth.

Awolowo had noted in his book  My March Through Prison  how he got involved in the government of Gowon. What Forsyth failed to tell us is how contradictory it would have been for Ojukwu to eat his cake and have it with Awolowo or the Yoruba by first asking Banjo to help him train the Liberation Army for the Yoruba and his volte face letter to put the Yoruba under the hegemony of the Igbos through his rule in Enugu.

Ojukwu was just a junior to Victor Banjo in hierarchy. If Banjo had not been unjustly incarcerated in the East, released by Ojukwu, he, probably, could not have stooped to take orders from Ojukwu? That was the same superiority clamour of Ojukwu after the killing of Ironsi and escape of Babafemi Ogundipe.

Before we go into Forsyth’s appalling bias and unethical report on the killing of Banjo, there is need to go through the accounts of Professor Emeritus Isaac Adeagbo Akinjogbin on what transpired between the Yorubas and the Igbos before the war.

The revelation in the new book Milestones and Social Systems in Yoruba History and Culture by Akinjogbin notes that there has been a great deal of wrong accusations on Yoruba in the Biafra war. Akinjogbin hints on page 96 that the Yoruba regarded the accusation of betraying the Igbo as unjustified and unfair to both the Igbos and  Yoruba.

He adds: “Unfair for the Igbo leadership to exonerate themselves from the fiasco that was Biafra, it prevented them from reflecting on the causes of the failure and, to that extent, they may make the same mistakes over and over again.”

Here, I add my own thoughts that the Igbo should not be lost in this hysteria of the MASSOB in recent years. These agi-tations may have been the offshoot of those who may never have had deeper understanding of the events that led to the declaration of Biafra, the forces that milita-ted against its existence and pursued her leader to Cote’d’Ivoire and the terrible effects of war. Akinjogbin asserts in his book the feelings of Yoruba leaders who believe that of all the language groups in Nigeria, the Yoruba had been most generous and accommodating. Let us remind ourselves and Forsyth that virtually all known ethnic groups in Nigeria buy land in western Nigeria and this is not reciprocated to the Yoruba in other parts of the country.

However, Akinjobgin gives four major reasons why the Igbo leader’s accusation against Yoruba (including that of Forsyth) cannot stand. These are issues that the British author may not be aware of or he deliberately kept out of his first book to serve his selfish  motive. First, when the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), made up of Yoruba and Igbo, decided to boycott the 1965 elections before the Nzeogwu coup,  the Igbo went ahead and held elections in their territory.

They later joined the Northern Peoples Congress and the Yoruba were left in the cold. The Yoruba later held their elections, the professor writes, adding that  “this did not portray the Igbo as reliable ally.”

The second reason was that during what was alleged to be the Igbo led coup of January 1966 (which Ojukwu later said was led by Ifeajuna, instead of Nzeogwu, as often claimed), many Yoruba officers and political figures were killed. When the North staged its own coup for the so-called “Araba”, they killed Fajuyi, a loved and dynamic Yoruba  governor.

The Yoruba also felt that when the North and East were at Aburi to negotiate, the Yoruba’s were not reckoned with and considered to be an integral part and they were “completely left on the sideline.” Despite these, Yoruba leaders and intellectuals kept bridging the gap between the North and the East until the war broke out. But, fourthly, before then, Akinjogbin, who was head of department of history, University of Ife and once taught this writer, recall what happened at the convocation ceremony in June 1967 where Sir Francis Ibiam, the revered Igbo elder statesman, was asked by Awolowo if the Igbo’s were going to fight or secede. Ibiam was being conferred with a honorary degree that year by a Yoruba land based university.

“Sir Ibiam said that the Igbo were neither going to secede nor fight. Everyone present believed Ibiam’s statement. Awolowo then said that nothing further must be done to push the Igbo out of Nigeria as that might signify the dissolution of the Nigerian federation. The Yoruba did not join the war until the Mid west invasion and subsequent march to Ore, near Ondo in Yoruba land. They said openly and disdainfully that the Yoruba’s were lazy and could not fight,” recalls Akinjogbin. The incident is similar to the crusade for the actualization of June 12, which  saw other tribes sitting on the fence and accusing the Yoruba of being unable to fight for their mandate and, thus, taking a co-gent national question to petty and myopic ethnic level.

What happened was that another group of soldiers hijacked the soul of the nation. In case Forsyth did not know or he chose to ignore reality, let us remind him, as he clocks 70 in August, that his position that the Liberation Army (which later metamorphosed to the Biafran Army) could have taken over Lagos very easily was just one of the theories on paper.

Nzeogwu  remarked, according to Olusegun Obasanjo’s Nzeogwu, while answering a reporter’s question, “The East is strong enough (to invade Lagos) if they want to. But it will serve no useful pur-pose. It can only serve to destroy life and property. You see, the effective power does not lie in Lagos but in Kaduna, and, if you remove Gowon, somebody else will take his place. If you capture the South against the North, all you can achieve is civil war, disintegration and border clashes.” Can we really conclude that Ojukwu was a great tactician or war strategist, judging by the remote and immediate actions in the execution of the war?

Forsyth left the BBC in 1968 amid  controversy over his alleged  one-sided posture on the coverage of the Biafra cause. He was accused of falsifying certain parts of his reports. Today, emerging facts on Forsyth, who will be 70 August 25 (a day special to me too because my elder sister was born on that day), show that Forsyth lacked the sense of accurate, credible and unbiased reporting that could stand the test of time.

These facts can prompt anyone to feel that this renown British author would have been better off as a creative fiction writer. He also seems to have erected his struc-tures of writing on quicksand, which make them prone to collapse, and thus the crashing of what could have been an enviable writing career.

We should commend Forsyth for his deep thoughts and traces of reality in creative writing such as the similarity between the characters in The Dogs of War (written over 30 years ago) and the British mercenaries’ plot to topple the government of Equatorial Guinea. But this is not the forum to comment on the linkage of  Forsyth with a company whose director, Lt. Col. Tim Spicer, was said to be associated with Simon Manri, one of the Britons convicted for their role in the plot. We should also not forget to point out the falsehood and bias in his reports which seem to have damaged individuals and groups in Nigeria.

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