By Douglas Anele
Analysis of promotions in the army between January 15 and July 28, 1966, as documented in official records and well-researched historical sources, demonstrates that Ironsi was fair to all parts of the country. Allegation that he refused to punish Nzeogwu and others implicated and detained for the January coup because most of them were Igbo cannot be sustained; it is a mischievous falsehood peddled by half-baked historians to justify the senseless and bloodthirsty revenge coup of July 29, 1966.
Ruth First, in her book The Barrel of a Gun: The Politics of Coup d’états in Africa, reports that Col. Usman Katsina, a member of Ironsi’s SMC, stated that the Council had decided in one of its meetings chaired by the head of state‘ that Nzeogwu and others involved in the first coup would be court-martialled not later than October. Of course, the trial never held: Ironsi and his government were brutally cut down in a bloody coup masterminded by Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed, Maj. Theophilus Y. Danjuma, Maj. Martin Adamu and, with a high degree of probability, Lt. Col. Gowon, inspite of shibboleths and denials by Gowon himself and his biographer, Isawa Elaigwu.
In general, Ironsi was a detribalised Nigerian and an honest man. Probably, he underrated the animosity of the Northern establishment against him. He was not a politician, and was totally devoid of cunning and showed very little aptitude for diplomatic shrewdness required for governing a complex fractious country like Nigeria.
Like all leaders, Ironsi sometimes acted on wrong judgment and poor advice. Yet, he did nothing to deserve gruesome death from revenge-intoxicated soldiers from the North. If Nigeria were a country that takes justice seriously, as is the case in developed and even some developing countries, Gowon and Danjuma, who undeservedly are sometimes referred to as “elder statesmen” by favour-seeking journalists, should have been investigated and tried for the role they played in the murder of Ironsi, Lt. Co. Adekunle Fajuyi (Ironsi’s host and military governor of Western region), and scores of other military officers most of whom were Igbo. That will never happen.
In Nigeria, “sacred cows” are above the law, because “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” The break-neck speed at which “things fell apart” in the country after the second coup and culminated in a tragic civil war is one of the fascinating aspects of Nigerian history that require thoughtful analysis. In the mid-1960s, majority of prominent Northern political leaders and military officers favoured secession.
Apart from discontentment with Ironsi’s unification policy, anti-Igbo sentiments in the North had gathered momentum, spearheaded by its military governor, Lt. Col. Hassan Usman Katsina, Umaru Dikko, Aminu Kano, and Inua Wada, following the bad example of Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa.
The utterly reprehensible xenophobic gospel of hatred against the Igbo by Northern leaders and subsequent pogroms against the latter can be understood within the context of Patrick Wilmot’s theory that the Northern establishment has a tradition of defending and upholding its power in the society with ruthless tenacity. It responds to dissent and social change by deploying mass killings and violence because it lacks the capacity to manage social change through deliberation and consensus building.
Thus, the 1966 massacre of Southerners resident in Northern Nigeria, particularly Ndigbo, was the North’s response to the fact the latter dominated the politics of Nigeria’s decolonisation from British rule to which the Northern leadership was largely opposed. Another scholar and a conflict theorist, Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, maintains that the leadership role Ndigbo played in the independence movement in addition to their more nationally-oriented political praxis were considered a threat by leading members of the feudal Northern oligarchy to its entrenched stranglehold in the North and the ascriptive political hegemony it exerted nationwide on behalf of British neo-colonialism.
Moreover, in the 1960s, there were approximately 1.5 million Igbo immigrants in Northern Nigeria comprising a sizeable number of successful businesspersons and educated professionals who were often seen by conservative Northern leaders as an indicator of Igbo ambition and versatility aimed at national domination.
Consequently, measures against these immigrants were usually top in the agenda of policy options available to the Northern establishment whilst responding to national politics, particularly during emergencies. Hence, according to Ekwe-Ekwe, Igbo immigrants in the North were the most vulnerable community in Nigeria during the period, and the ugly trend has continued until date.
Of course, as late Prof. Chinua A. Achebe observed in his thought-provoking book, There was a country: A Personal History of Biafra, the Igbo as a group is not without its weaknesses. The very accomplishments of Igbo sons and daughters, especially outside Igboland, were counterbalanced by the dangers associated with “hubris, overweening pride and thoughtlessness, which invite envy and hatred or, even worse, that can obsess the mind with material success and dispose it to all kinds of crude showiness.”
It is very likely that majority of Northerners, the flotsam and jetsam, reeling from the crushing heavy burdens imposed on them by an uncaring and despotic feudal system, hated the noisy exhibitionism and disregard for humility and quietness by some Ndigbo living in their midst. Such behaviour, certainly, does not in any way justify the vicious ethnic cleansing against them, which gathered momentum in May, 1966 and continued almost for the rest of the year.
We have seen how Gowon might have been complicit in the cruel end of Ironsi, including the curious omission, in his first broadcast to the country, of any effort by the federal government to search for and rescue the kidnapped supreme commander. Most people do not know that in that speech Gowon intended to announce secession of the North from the rest of Nigeria.
As we indicated already, leaders of Northern region led by the arch feudalist, Ahmadu Bello, had used threat of secession to get concessions in the past. The clamour to break away reached feverish pitch in May, 1966 and pogrom against Ndigbo was part of the process. Thus, Gowon was ready to announce secession to please his puppeteers, the core Northern establishment.
At the last minute, he changed his mind and announced, instead, that “I have now come to the most difficult part of this statement. I am doing it conscious of the great disappointment and heartbreak it will cause all true and sincere lovers of Nigeria and of Nigerian unity, both at home and abroad. …As a result of the recent events and of the previous similar ones, I have come to strongly believe that we cannot continue in this wise, as the basis for trust and confidence in our unitary system of government has been unable to stand the test of time… Suffice it to say that putting all considerations to the test, political, economic as well as social, the basis for unity is not there, or is so badly rocked, not once but many times. I therefore feel that we should review the issue of our national standing and see if we can help stop the country from drifting away into utter destruction.”
Logically speaking, the last statement by Gowon is inconsistent with what he stated earlier and sounds like an afterthought. If, as he claimed, from different angles the basis for Nigerian unity was nonexistent or has been rocked several times, the next logical step was to declare the consequence of that situation, which should be a statement of a radical step to arrest the situation. TO BE CONTINUED.