By Douglas Anele
But despite their remarkable capacity for creative ingenuity and accomplishments, the Igbo as a group, according to Prof. Chinua Achebe, have the deadly flaws of hubris, overweening pride, obsession with material success and irritatingly noisy exhibitionism or showiness which tend toinvite envy from members of other ethnic groups. Yet, those flaws do not justify their being massacred periodically by northerners or treated as second class citizens in their own country. The May riots of 1966, Ironsi’s gruesome murder and massacre of Ndigbo afterwards led to a radical rethinking of their attitude to the idea of a unified Nigerian nation. The Igbo began to realise that their belief in a strong central authority that provides a level playing field which enables Nigerians from every ethnic group to actualise the ideal of one nation, one citizenship, and one destiny was a delusion.
The belated Igbo questioning of One Nigeria was consistent with the memorandum submitted by the northern delegation to the Nigerian ad hoc constitutional conference of September 1966. In it, northern representatives claimed that “We have pretended for too long that there are no differences between the peoples of this country. The hard fact which we must honestly accept as of paramount importance in the Nigerian experiment especially for the future is that we are different peoples brought together by recent accidents of history. To pretend otherwise would be folly.” The north even went further to demand that in any new constitution a secession clause should be inserted granting any member state the right to unilaterally secede completely from the union, and to make arrangements for cooperation with other members of the union in such a manner as they may severally or individually deem fit. Now, from what transpired later, it became clear that northerners were only interested in regional autonomy as long as it favours the north.
We have noted that the civil war that lasted from July 1967 to January 1970 proves the deadly extent caliphate colonialists can go to maintain its dominance in Nigeria. But before the war proper, a last ditch attempt was made in Ghana to save the country from disintegration occasioned by the fallouts of the two military coups in 1966. The Aburi meeting hosted by Ghana’s military ruler, Lt. Gen. Joseph Ankrah and attended by senior military and police officers as well as government secretaries, resolved that each region should be responsible for its own affairs, and that the federal government would be responsible for issues dealing with the whole country, such as defence, currency and external affairs. In my opinion, if the Aburi accord had been implemented, the Biafran war would have been averted because eastern region would not have seceded. The agreement collapsed because ab initio there was a mismatch between the delegation led by Gowon and the one from eastern region headed by its military governor, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu: whereas Gowon and delegates from other regions apart from the east arrived Aburi with the vague idea that somehow Nigeria must remain as one country, Ojukwu and his group came with a well-articulated detailed vision of what the future political architecture of Nigeria should be. Thus, although the eastern position was eventually adopted, the two parties left Aburi with different ideas of what the agreement meant in practice. As a corollary, some aspects of the accord, especially those dealing with the issue of power relations between the central government and the regions, were unrealistic and impractical to implement given the growing domination of the army and political power by the north, coupled with the strained relations between the Igbo and northerners as a result of pogroms against Ndigbo resident in the north. Moreover, top federal civil servants in Lagos vehemently opposed the accord, and convinced Gowon that it was unworkable. The problem was aggravated by the all-or-nothing attitude to the contents of the accord by Gowon and Ojukwu, which was unnecessarily rigid and myopic. Gowon’s unilateral repudiation of the agreement was matched by Ojukwu’s insistence on its full implementation as quickly as possible: both men failed to realise that a give-and-take approach and compromises are required forsuccessful implementation of agreement on troublesome political conflicts.
The non-implementation of the Aburi accord by the federal military government heralded the end of the concept of regional autonomy and self-sufficiency in Nigeria, leading to the consolidation of caliphate colonialism. After Gowon had emerged as military head of state, he started implementing measures that effectively turned Nigeria into a unitarist federation, which increased the powers of the federal government over the federating units beyond what was allowed by the unification decree promulgated when Ironsi was in power and which was used by northern soldiers and their civilian collaborators to justify the bloodthirsty coup of July 29, 1966. Interestingly, northern emirs who had for long opposed the creation of states mainly in order not to compromise the north’s geographical and political domination of Nigeria suddenly urged Gowon to create states. Gowon complied with the demand. The creation of states was more detrimental to solidarity among the three regions in the south than to the northern region because southern Nigeria did not have the equivalents of the theocratic emirate system, Islam and a dominant language (Hausa) which tended to unify different ethnic nationalities in the north. Besides, by concentrating more power at the centre ostensibly to “keep Nigeria as one united country,” Gowon also ensured that the federal government dominated by northerners controlled all revenues from recently discovered large deposits of petroleum mostly in the eastern region. As a result, Gowon not only expanded the pre-independent policy of using resources from the south to develop the north, he instigated the bizarre practice of northern preponderance in the ownership of oil wells in oil-bearing communities. One can claim justifiably that some of the most significant pre-war decisions taken by the federal government headed by Gowon are responsible for the extremely damaging effects of caliphate colonialism in Nigeria since 1967.
Any student of Nigerian history who blames the eastern region, particularly Ndigbo, for seeking self-determination after the horrendous atrocities they suffered in northern Nigeria is either a pathological misanthrope or moron. It is difficult to imagine a self-respecting ethnic nationality with the quantum of human and natural resources of the defunct eastern region that would not desire to take its destiny in its own hands. As Prof. Achebe observed, “The Nigeria that meant so much for [Ndigbo] was not reciprocating the affection we had for it. The country had not embraced us, the Igbo people and other easterners, as full-fledged members of the Nigerian family.” Hence, on May 30, 1967, when Ojukwu, on behalf of the 335-member Consultative Assembly of Chiefs and Elders who unanimously mandated him to pull out the east from the rest of Nigeria “at an early practicable date,” announced the secession of Biafra, he was actually demanding that Igbo people and their immediate neighbours be allowed to develop at their own pace untrammelled by the yoke of caliphate colonisation. Many uninformed Nigerians believe the pernicious falsehood that the Igbo declared war on the rest of Nigeria. Far from it because, as I have stated earlier, if there is any group that have contributed most to the building of modern Nigeria and lived the concept of One Nigeria (and still does, admittedly,to its own detriment) it is the Igbo. Therefore, it is in Ndigbo’s interest that Nigeria continues to exist and prosper. When the eastern region seceded, caliphate colonialists led by Gowon decided to respond with a “short, surgical strike” through what he called a “police action.”
In every war, it is always plausible to argue, after the fact, that it could have been averted or avoided if the combatants had shown more restraint. The Biafran case is not anexception. The war was led by two young military officers in their early thirties, Ojukwu and Gowon. Perhaps, older and more experienced statesmen could have handled the complex issues that led to the bloody conflict much better in a manner that would have led to a peaceful resolution, although it would have been extremely difficult, judging by the horrors they suffered in the hands of their northern compatriots, to persuade the eastern populace shortly before the civil war broke out that they are equal stakeholders in the Nigerian project.
Now, northern hardliners such as MurtalaMohammed wanted full-blown war as the “final solution” to teach the Igbo a brutal lesson and consolidate the north’s domination of federal power, whereas Gowon saw it as an opportunity to cut the “arrogant and rebellious” Ojukwu to size. Eastern leaders who mandated Ojukwu to secede at the earliest practicable opportunity were desperate and confused, and the people themselves were emotionally exhausted and disillusioned. In such a psychologically charged atmosphere, critical thinking and logic would be replaced by the exciting logic of war hysteria such that anyone who questions the extreme measures taken by Ojukwu in response to Gowon’s prevarications and provocations or expresses doubt concerning the propriety of secession without adequate preparation for war would bebranded a spineless coward or saboteur. To be continued.