Why did the plotters of the counter coup of July 1966 release Obafemi Awolowo from prison? What role did this play in whittling the position of Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu? What did Awolowo offer Ojukwu that was outside of secession but which the latter turned down? You will read this and many more in today’s last but one series.
The question is: if Ojukwu signed the warrant, how did the effectuation of the warrant wait for so long until it coincided with the order given by Lt.Col Yakubu Gowon at the head of the revenge coup, for Awolowo to be released? This is an important question because Awolowo was not released until seven months after the first coup of the year. The historic task fell upon the revenge coup makers who had toppled General Aguiyi Ironsi after a rigorously organized pogrom against the Igbo, with a number of other Southerners added to the kill. It was certainly to gain a wider base than their Northern security ambitions allowed that the release of Awolowo from Calabar Prison was announced.
It leaves a sneaking feeling that Ojukwu’s powers over the Eastern Region, to which all Igbo in the Nigerian diaspora had to return in search of a safe haven, had not yet become so all-pervasive as to be able to countermand a swiftly executed decision by Federal authorities intent on releasing Awolowo from jail. Nor would it have been politic for Ojukwu, even if he had the power, to attempt to prevent Awolowo from being released after a Federal order to that effect. It would have amounted to holding Awolowo hostage. Could it be said then that in order not to fall into the role of hostage taker, Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, as Military Governor of the Eastern Region carried out an order initiated by a Federal Military Government that he had so flagrantly repudiated? Whatever is the case, it was the release that enabled Awolowo to participate in the discussions to resolve the crisis through sundry Leaders of Thought Meetings up till Awolowo’s peace-hunt to Enugu before the first shot in the Civil war was fired.
It may well be added that it was Awolowo’s participation in Gowon’s administration that enabled him to get a copy of the Ifeajuna manuscript.
A copy was sent to him by a well-wisher who thought he should know about the plans that the January 15 1966 coup makers had had in store for him. It was in similar fashion that he got a copy of the transcripts of the Enugu meeting after the tapes were said to have been captured at the fall of Enugu and the take over of the Eastern Nigerian Broadcasting service by Federal Forces. Awolowo had the two documents in safe keeping when I became his Private (Political) Secretary in June 1978. They were among the many papers, not part of the main body of his library, which he had to bring out for my education to help my work as his “involved and committed researcher”, as he requested for in his newspaper advert for the job.
I read the documents as part of many such efforts to induct me into the job. I was authorized to make copies for a number of party officials and stalwarts as a means of education in preparation for the battles that the newly formed Unity Party of Nigeria was expected to face in the Second Republic. So let me put it this way: that I read the full text of the Ifeajuna manuscript within three months of my new job. The other document, the transcript of his meeting with Ojukwu, was a typescript that had to be cyclostyled in order for many more copies to be made in preparation for the controversies that we expected to confront in the course of the 1979 election.
Although there were quite a few brickbats during that election, not much came that required the appeal to the documents. But Awolowo always wanted to have the documents made public. He hadn’t thought of releasing them before the election because he did not want to draw attention to the false charges at the treasonable felony trials. We did not think the period of election was the best period to do so especially one which he thought to be critical for a man of seventy who may never have another chance. The dubious value of letting the world know that coup-makers had latched upon him as the saviour they were looking for could have had a double-edged impact with a capacity for damage that may not have been easy to control.
After the election, however, there was no more need for such caution. That was when Ebenezer Babatope who had always rooted for it as a job for his friend Arthur Nwankwo of Fourth Dimension, publisher of his own Coups and the Barracks Revolt, was authorized to send a copy to the Fourth Dimension for publication. Unfortunately, as Babatope reported it later, Arthur Nwankwo said Ifeajuna’s family was not in favour of the publication. Thereafter, little was done to bring the document to public attention. And, that was how the matter died.
Except that I, who had been instrumental to having Awolowo bring out the document could not forget what I had read. Whenever I was confronted by a Nigerian argument which required using the materials from the manuscript to clear the ground, I used it. Especially in my rather longish articles for TheNews magazine during the June 12 Struggle, from 1993 to 1999, I took special notice of the arguments in the manuscripts in my responses to those who deployed old fictions to seek to undermine the geo-ethnic reality at work in the annulment of the election.
Actually, after I stopped being Chief Awolowo’s private Secretary, Kole Omotoso who frequently shared what he has called my ‘lived-in library’ at Seriki Aro in Ikeja while he was writing his book Just Before Dawn, brought the manuscript of Obasanjo’s Nzeogwu to my attention. It was a rather flimsy affair which he said he had been given by Professor Jide Osuntokun of the University of Lagos for a pre-publication assessment. I read through it at one sitting and told him it was a disgrace for Obasanjo, a former Head of State, to be offering such a flimsy fare about the best celebrated soldier in the history of coup-making in Nigeria. As the closest friend to Nzeogwu, virtually sharing the same bed with him on the night before the January 15 coup, he was expected to know enough about him to fill a full-length book. If he had nothing to write, I said, he should go after the letters that they once exchanged, the articles written in whatever magazine at school or wherever, and whatever snippets they could get from all the history books about the man. I proposed that he should at least avail himself of the reasons given by Emmanuel Ifeajuna in the manuscript that has been going from hand to hand without finding a publisher. At the mention of Ifeajuna’s manuscript, Kole Omotoso insisted that I had to talk to Jide Osuntokun myself.
So I followed him to the Staff quarters in the University of Lagos where I told the Professor without too much preamble what I had told Kole. I also told him that I had a copy of the manuscript in safe-keeping, but that I would not give it to him. If Obasanjo was serious about the manuscript, I said, he knew where to find one; that is, if he didn’t already have a copy. In the end, although I cannot now tell where he found the copy that he quoted from, and fairly generously in the published text, I am only too glad that he caused all those letters to be published which are today some of the source materials for anyone interested in assessing Nzeogwu’s personality and character. Of course, the book, Nzeogwu, landed Obasanjo in a controversy that led to his being openly criticized in public by his former deputy, retired Major General Shehu Musa Yar’adua. The lands he had acquired in some parts of the North were threatened with seizure as a punitive measure for his writing about the soldier whom many Northerners considered a villain.
In a sense, I would say that I have Obasanjo to thank for the confidence I have had in talking about the Ifeajuna manuscript. Obasanjo’s use of the manuscript proved it that the copy that I had kept away was not fake. Whether its content was reliable or not, the point is that the soldier who wrote it had put enough of himself, true or false, into it for Nigerians to know what he wished that we know about the coup that he led. What he wished may have been false but it was unthinkable for a country not to want to know what a man who had done so much to transform its history had to say. It has nothing to do with the sensitivities of his family. In any case, forty years after, all the millions murked up by the January 15 coup that paved the way for all the succeeding military interventions in Nigeriá’s history, deserve to know what he had to say for himself and his colleagues. Of interest is that in spite of the famed unreliability of Ifeajuna, none of the narratives written about the Nigerian crisis by the principal protagonists Alexander Madiebo, Ademoyega, Ben Ghulie, and Hilary Njoku have differed in any substantial sense apart from turns of phrases, from the core of what Ifeajuna wrote in the white hot heat of the moment that followed the coup.
The contentious issue over their choice of Awolowo has been repeated by the participants in the core group that set out to change the government before they were overtaken by Ironsi, and the echelon that surrounded Ojukwu in Kano who would not allow Nzeogwu to make use of troops in that city to march on Lagos as he had planned to do after he discovered that the coup was botched in the South. It is a matter for historical counterfactuals what the history of Nigeria would have been like if Nzeogwu had not capitulated but had mustered enough will and force to organize a Northern Army that would march upon Lagos from Kaduna. His collapse into the maw of the ethnic mush that had overtaken the coup was the Nigerian equivalent of the seppuku which he was obliged to commit if he were a Samurai in the Japanese army. What happened to the coup makers thereafter including the fact that those who benefited from the coup were unwilling to put them on trial is part of the story that must also have made it difficult to publish Ifeajuna’s manuscript.
For that matter, what Nzeogwu called “Emman’s lies” did not have to be true to see the light of day. There was a good enough reason to know that although Ifeajuna was Igbo-speaking and many said he was close enough to Azikiwe to tip him off about the impending coup, he took a scathing swipe at the former President of Nigeria in a manner that was itself some “history” worthy of the record. Nzeogwu’s opinion of Ifeajuna’s incompetence in carrying out the coup is undubitably right on the mark. But it does not invalidate what Ifeajuna had to say. In fact, from hindsight, it can be claimed that what Nzeogwu said on coup day about their intentions was largely corroborated by Ifeajuna’s manuscript.
That it should have taken so long for it to make its debut between covers is to say the least a national tragedy. The tragedy, it must be said, was egged by the fact that those who hijacked the coup from the five majors did not want the story out because they obviously did not want to identify with the views expressed in it. For the more ethnically inclined ones, the very idea that true sons of the Igbo carried out a coup and wanted to hand it over to Awolowo, a man they regarded as an enemy of their ethnic group, was simply the height of the absurd. To the makers of the July 29 Revenge coup, it would have scuttled their much haggled presumption that it was an Igbo coup. Either way, the manuscript had not a chance.
The other forgotten document of the civil had a better chance but its absence from circulation for a long time, was no less a tragedy. It was supposedly captured among other tapes of the Biafran Broadcasting Corporation when Enugu fell to Federal troops. The tapes were transcribed with glee, according to Awolowo, by those who thought it would finally nail him for the agreement he reached with Ojukwu to have the Western Region secede with the East as Radio Biafra never stopped insisting. As it turned out no such thing, is to be found in the tapes. Rather Awolowo was making a passionate plea for the continuance of Nigeria as a single political entity.
He repeated some of his bitterest criticisms of the North and Northern leaders but he believed that it was possible to manage the differences between Nigerians if ethnic groups and regions enjoyed more autonomy. This was simply a parrot cry of his which, as those familiar with his campaigns and his books, especially Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution and The People’s Republi, would know, required a common welfare policy in education, health, and employment, to unite all the ethnic groups. He was too old he said to abandon all the dreams he had had for his country. Nor would he like to come to the East with a passport. His solution, which obviously did not get down well with Ojukwu was for Ojukwu to agree for the Eastern Region to come to a national conference and to support the creation of states as a basis for a Federal system free of the hegemony that the North had over the rest of the country; and all the regions in the country had over the minorities. If Ojukwu agreed, he believed, he had enough influence with the minorities of the Middle Belt and in the South to urge a shared positioning with the East and the West for a common stand in opposition to hegemonists in the North who would not want states created. It turned out that Ojukwu did not want states to be created. That was the sticking point.
It must have seemed to the Easterners who had been so overdosed by myths about Awolowo’s hatred of the East that he was merely trying out the old animosities in the garb of a pacifier trying to win, by other means, the battles he had always pursued in Nigerian politics. The bottomline is that Ojukwu and Awolowo did not reach an agreement. Their positions in spite of the parliamentary language in which they were couched were fundamentally at variance. Not to forget: it used to be taken as apocryphal by all, except core Awoists, that Ojukwu actually came to see him in the guest house on the last night after the day’s plenary. He wanted a one on one with Awolowo. Understandably, Awolowo refused a one on one. Soyinka has now retailed in his autobiography, YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN,(131-132) what Awolowo told him: “The 1967 eve of secession delegation of national public figures authorized by Yakubu Gowon, to dialogue with Eastern leadership had been led by Obafemi Awolowo, and the formal, well-publicised meeting between the two sides lasted nearly all day. The Easterners listed their grievances and demands, spoke with all apparent seriousness, and saw their guests off to their chalets. Late that same night however, Awolowo was disturbed by a knock on the door.
It was the Eastern leader, Ojukwu, himself. He admitted that he had waited till late into the night so as to be able to speak to Awolowo in strictest privacy. Sure, said Awolowo, but he also insisted that at least one or two persons join him. That was agreed, and Awolowo called up the adjoining chalet, woke up the Police commissioner for the Western Region, Olufunwa, and a close political aide.
Accompanying Ojukwu was a small team that included a Professor of History from the University of Ibadan who had fled, like other Easterners, to their beleaguered state. Years afterwards, during the struggle against the Abacha dictatorship, the same don introduced himself to me at a meeting in the United States in 1996, and revealed his participation at the nocturnal meeting of thirty years earlier. His account was a consistent and detailed confirmation of what Awolowo confided in me that afternoon.
Odumegwu Ojukwu’s mission was unambiguous, Awolowo said to me. “The young man had come to inform me that the East had decided on secession, and that there was no going back. All that was left was the announcement of a date. He said, “Sir, I have not come to argue, but to inform you. It has been decided”.
“It was clear that any discussion was futile”, Awolowo continued , “Äfter all, we had done nothing but talk all day. Ojukwu confessed that he had agreed to meet the delegation at all only out of respect for my person. Biafra had already taken a decision”.
“I was not surprised”, the Chief admitted. “I did one thing, though, I made one request of him in fact, I insisted on it. I said to Ojukwu at least, let us in the West – I, specifically – have a minimum of two weeks notice before you announce the decision. And he promised. Yes, he promised me that much”.
I hesitated, but could not resist asking: “Why two weeks? You told him you needed two weeks – to do what?
Awolowo gave one of his enigmatic smiles, “You know Olufunwa, the Police Commissioner?”.
I nodded Yes.
“Well, apart from me, he is the only one who knows the answer to that question. And he’s not likely to tell you either”.
I did not press him.
Hardly had Awolowo’s delegation settled back into Federal territory than Ojukwu declared an Independent State of Biafra. The date was May 30, 1967. A short while after, Chief Awolowo accepted to serve as Commissioner of Finance under Yakubu Gowon.
The Federal Government had however made a pre-emptive move. On May 27, Gowon abolished all four regions and split the nation into twelve new states. This achieved the goal of dangling before the entities that were newly carved out from the East, the attraction of their own autonomous governance, with all the resources of the oil soaked Niger delta. Between the two strokes, loyalties in the former Eastern Region were split. War appeared inevitable”
Soyinka’s narration does not include the parting shot that Ojukwu gave the next morning as he followed Awolowo to the tarmac to say goodbye. Shaking the Chief with both hands, Ojukwu said in Yoruba “Baba, atilo” ‘Old one, we’ve gone’. (as Awolowo reported it to his followers). As he took off from Enugu Airport with his fellow peace hunters, Awolowo knew that Biafra was on the cards. He did not expect Ojukwu to make as immediate an announcement as he did. But it should not have been any surprise. A prospective war leader who reveals a decision of such strategic significance to a prime decision-maker on the enemy side should not be expected to wait a moment longer than necessary to pre-empt a counterforce. It would have been better if Ojukwu had not told Awolowo anything about the plans to announce Biafra. But once he did, he was obliged to break whatever promise he had made. What kind of General would reveal such information to another, a potential antagonist, who had his own calculus of the power equation in the country that he was intent on splitting apart and not be worried about the consequences of a leakage. The short of the matter is that once Ojukwu discussed Biafra with Awolowo, it was, or should have been, clear that any promise he made about giving Awolowo a breathing to organize his own fraction would not be respected.
As such, there is nothing in the forgotten documents to suggest that Ojukwu and Awolowo had reached any decisions about what to do if Ojukwu had waited. What Awolowo could have done can be left to the imagination. Only a very naïve Ojukwu could have accepted an agreement made with Awolowo as viable in the circumstances of the Western Region at that time. Certainly, Ojukwu was not that naïve. He was calculating enough to have known that whatever influence Awolowo had over his Yoruba people was not enough. Ojukwu was Nigerian enough to know that that influence would not have much cut in a situation where a virtual occupation army, as Awolowo actually called it, commanded by a brazenly Northern catchment in the army, was sitting pretty in the Western Region. It was an army only just moving from a secessionist disposition to the format of national unity. What is now well known is that the Yoruba echelon in the Nigerian Army was roundly pro-unity.
Among soldiers, on both sides, it was naïve to have expected that the Yoruba officers in the Army or even its civilian leadership would consider going into a coalition with an Igbo-led secessionist move without their having made a genuine contribution to the framing of the project. Were there to be a handshake across the Niger, it would have had to depend not on any one-sided plans but a community of grievances shared. The intelligence that Awolowo himself gathered impressionistically during the Enugu meeting gave him enough reason to believe, as he told his followers thereafter, that the Eastern Region was not prepared for the war it was about to embark upon. Even if he was the most feckless leader in the world, and Awolowo was not known to embark on a project he had not given much thought to, there was hardly a chance that he would agree to go into a war on Ojukwu’s side on the basis of a two week mobilization of his people.
Incidentally, Awolowo’s hunch was shared on harder evidence by Biafran military leaders led by Hilary Njoku who knew that Biafrans had been stampeded into but not readied for war. In order to appreciate Hilary Njoku’s position, many people would need to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, the love story in a time of war, if only for the atmospherics. It shows how the General gave wooden sticks to his people, as civil defenders, in a shooting war claiming that no force in Black Africa could subdue Biafra. Sheer emotional grandstanding was what the war effort rested upon. But for the shenanigans on the Federal side, the deliberate pussy-footing and sometimes larking in the war front, as a way of setting the stage to settle some scores with the authorities in Lagos, it would have been a much-shorter war.
As readers of Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo’s biography of Obasanjo must know, Murtala Muhammed never gave up his grouse: “We told you not to end the war the way you did so as to sort things out, you went gaddam gaddam (Hausa expression for heedless rush) and finished it. Now you have a lion in your hands, a lion that does not roar, bite or claw, absolutely inefficient and ineffective”, Muhammed charged impulsively.”
As for the People’s General in Biafra, he was carried shoulder high on a wave that he could have resisted and steered in a different direction but preferred to manipulate. At any rate, what Awolowo had offered Ojukwu as a solution to the crisis was absolutely outside the rooting for secession. It was more coherent and more consistent with his already fairly well known position on Federalism and a strategy of welfarism as a solution to the Nigerian crisis. At the meeting, as the published document shows, Awolowo believed that:…….“What we want in Nigeria is a house to be built which will be big enough to accommodate all of us, without friction, without trouble. Let us have a plan made, let us get an expert contractor to build the house. When the house is completed to our satisfaction let them call it what name they like, what is important is that the house should be big enough to accommodate all of us comfortably, without friction and without trouble. I think we should forget about federation or confederation. Let us see what the contents are going to be. Once the contents are stated then we will allow political scientists to give it a name they like. The name does not matter to us so long so we are satisfied that this is the sort of thing we need to make us live together as Nigerians.
“I was a little bit disturbed by the point you made before. I hope you have not taken a final decision on it, that is, that the East will not associate with the North in future. Easterners have fought more than any other group in this country over the years to make Nigeria what it is, or what it was, before the crisis began. I think it will be a pity if they just forget something for which they have laboured for years . Many of the Easterners who fought for “One Nigeria” are no longer with us. It will not be a good tribute to their memory by destroying that“one Nigeria”., Certainly, it is not going to be the same as it used to be. I have taken a stand on that, and I am prepared to drop tribal labels at the moment, but I know in my own mind what sort of thing I have in view for the federation. But I think it will be a great pity and tragedy and disservice to the memories of all those who have gone to disband Nigeria. And here we are not here to criticize anybody, I think it is generally agreed that some units have done more for the unity of Nigeria than others. The East certainly have not yielded first place to anyone in that regard. I would like you to consider that aspect very seriously”.
This position taken on Saturday 6th May 1967 was quite in sync with the position he had taken at a meeting of the Leaders of Thought meeting at the Western Hall, Agodi, Ibadan, on Monday 1st of May, 1967. In that speech, his aim was to undermine the position of those Nigerian Leaders of Thought who, as he later explained, were “seriously suggesting that the so-called four component units of the country should go their own separate ways as so many sovereign states”.
Specifically, he meant to repudiate the proposition that the Federation would be viable even without the East as was being canvassed by some people who had, in his words, “settled it finally in their minds the sort of Constitution they consider suitable for the whole country, or such part of it as may be left after the East shall have opted out of the Federation”.
At the Agodi meeting, he placed four imperatives before the Western Nigerian Leaders of Thought in particular and the Nation in general. Of the Four Imperatives he said:
“Two of them are categorical imperatives and two are conditional.
ONE: Only a peaceful solution must be found to arrest the present worsening stalemate and restore normalcy.
TWO: The Eastern Region must be encouraged to remain part of the Federation.
THREE: If the Eastern Region is allowed by acts of omission or commission to secede from or opt out of Nigeria, then the Western Region and Lagos must also stay out of the Federation.
FOUR: The people of Western Nigeria and Lagos should participate in the AD Hoc Committee or any similar Body only on the basis of absolute equality with the other Regions of the Federation”
It would require a major somersault in logic to make this look like a vote for the secession of any part of Nigeria. Actually as early as August 1966, on his being repreived from his ten year imprisonment, Awolowo had made a speech in which he said: “The breaking up of Nigeria into a number of sovereign states would not only do permanent damage to the reputation of contemporary Nigerian leaders but would also usher in terrible disasters which would bedevil us and many generations to come.” To contort such a speech in favour of secession belongs to a vaulting refusal to see no reason that is not pro-secession. To insist however that Awolowo encouraged the Igbo to secede actually insults the intelligence of the average Igbo. The implication is that after the pogrom of 1966, it required an Obafemi Awolowo, whether as a goad or quarry to hearten the attempt at secession. It is close to saying that they thought of an alternative that was different but had to bow to Awolowo’s, an old enemy’s, prodding. This may be the picture that many Biafrans liked to have of themselves. Those who think the Igbos deserve a better picture of themselves may be called names. But it does not change the score.
CONCLUSION NEXT WEEK
Did Awolowo single-handedly disable the war efforts of Biafra?
Why did army Generals and federal agencies involved in the war not give Awolowo the needed cover by restating that there was collective effort at ensuring that Biafra did not succeed? What role did the Unification Decree of Aguyi Ironsi play in the pogrom against the Igbos in the North before the war? Why did Biafrans suffer more casualties than the federal forces? There is a suggestion that Biafra sent people to war without weapons: Do you agree? Well, all these and many more shocking revelations await you in the concluding part next week
Read the second part of this article entitled: Awolowo and the forgotten documents of the civil war, by Odia Ofeimun (2)
Also read the first part: Awolowo and the forgotten documents of the civil war, by Odia Ofeimun (1)