Sunday Perspectives

October 27, 2013

Nigerian history and the morbid obsession with national unity (6)

Nigerian history and the morbid obsession with national unity (6)

Gowon and Ojukwu

By Douglas Anele

Furthermore, why would stoppage of the country’s drift towards “utter destruction” be something that would cause great disappointment and heartbreak to sincere lovers of the country? The truth is clear in this sordid episode, notwithstanding the afterthought Gowon inserted at the end of his speech. Lt. Col. Gowon and his co-conspirators from the North backed away from their original secession plan because it would be economically disastrous for the North without revenues derived from Southern Nigeria.

According to a competent historian, even before 1914 when the Northern and Southern Protectorates of were amalgamated, “the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria was so impoverished that it had to be run with a subsidy by the Government and Protectorate of Southern Nigeria, which amounted to £300,000 per year. It is on record that Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce, British High Commissioner in Lagos and the United States Ambassador to Nigeria played a crucial role in persuading Gowon to drop secession.

From all angles, by far the greatest threat to Nigerian unity was the civil war which lasted from July 7, 1967, when the Nigerian armed forces invaded Biafra for the first time, and January 12, 1970, when Maj. Gen. Philip Effiong who took over from Gen. Ojukwu, announced that secession of South-eastern Nigeria has failed. Numerous works, both fiction and non-fiction, have been written about the war. We are concerned here with non-fictional accounts. Clearly, it is impossible to capture with one hundred percent accuracy some of the defining episodes of the Nigerian civil war. But one thing is beyond dispute: like every war which necessarily must have both proximate and remote causes the Nigerian civil war was not inevitable.

In addition, it occasioned heart-rending destruction and avoidable suffering. Of course, one of the remote causes of the war in which South-easterners lost almost everything is the amalgamation policy of Lord Lugard. For, has the amalgamation not taken place, there would not have been a Nigeria for Northerners to use as a pretext to fight the East.

Second, the belligerent speeches of some prominent members of the Northern ruling elite, particularly Ahmadu Bello, the Sadauna of Sokoto, provided the major fertilizer that nourished inter-ethnic rivalry and suspicion between Ndigbo and large sections of the North. According to the Sadauna, Southern Nigeria must be regarded as a conquered territory which Northerners should ruthlessly subjugate perpetually. We have already alluded to the obsessive-compulsive fear of Igbo domination by the North that generated tension between the two groups, and to the real possibility that Nidigbo living in the North might have angered suffering Northerners and their leaders with noisy and arrogant exhibitionism. Even so, there is a recorded speech in which Ahmadu Bello, blinded by pure jihadist fervour, described Ndigbo as always preoccupied with plans to dominate others and take over.

The proximate causes of the war include the following: premeditated massacre of Ndigbo living in Northern Nigerian particularly in May and September 1966; the revenge coup of July 1966 that exacerbated the animosity between Ndigbo and Northerners; the ridiculous egotistical rivalry between Gowon and Ojukwu which prevented both men from making genuine compromises to avert military confrontation; Gowon’s cynical repudiation of the Aburi Accord of January 4-5, 1967; secession of former Eastern Nigeria and Gowon’s determination to use military force to compel the region to remain part of Nigeria for the benefit of Northern Nigeria and the economic interests of World Powers, especially Britain, the defunct Soviet Union, and the United States. There is another angle to the war, subtle but nonetheless very important for complete understanding. Most writers on the war are pusillanimous about it and tend to avoid it altogether. Yet it is foolish to suppress truth, because by boldly facing reality no matter how unpalatable we learn from our mistakes and move forward. Domkat Bali, a retired general of the Nigerian army, adumbrated the aspect we are referring to in a newspaper interview last year. According to him, when Ojukwu joined the army with an M.A. in Modern History from Oxford University, his Northern peers, none of whom had university education, let alone from a world class university like Oxford, were intimidated.

As Bali boldly acknowledged, school dropouts dominated the army at that time, and he and his colleagues were jealous of Ojukwu’s pedigree and academic accomplishments. It is extremely hard not to suspect, considering the human proneness to hatred nurtured by envy, that Gowon and some of his Northern colleagues in the army disliked Ojukwu for his wealthy family background and academic qualifications and secretly longed for an opportunity to “cut him down to size,” so to speak. That may be one of the reasons why Gowon and his cohorts blatantly breached military protocol by preventing Brig. Babafemi Ogundipe, who was the most senior officer in the army after Ironsi, from becoming head of state, knowing full well that Ojukwu would insist that seniority must be followed. According to Forsyth, when indeed Ojukwu protested Gowon’s takeover of government after it became clear that the supreme commander had been assassinated, the latter replied, “Well that’s what my boys want and they’re going to get it.” Forsyth reports that those who knew Gowon well and served with him describe him as “a man with a strong streak of vanity and a strain of spite behind the instant charm which endeared him to so many foreigners since he came to power.”

*Gowon and Ojukwu

*Gowon and Ojukwu

I believe that Gowon’s desire to humiliate Ojukwu and Ojukwu’s blunt rejection of Gowon as leader given his superior educational qualifications played a significant role in triggering the conflict in the first instance, and prolonging it unnecessarily. The civil war brought out the worst in some respected Nigerian leaders, and proved conclusively that “Nigerian unity” and “One Nigeria” were slogans used by members of the ruling Northern elite, backed by collaborators from the South, to maintain its stranglehold on political power together with the economic benefits that accrue therefrom. Consider the case of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the most respected politicians in Nigerian history. His impressive contributions to the development of former Western region are legion.

However, he displayed a poor sense of judgment bothering on spite against Ndigbo during the civil war. In his detailed and compelling documentation of international press reports of the war entitled The Untold Story of the Nigeria-Biafra War: A chronological reconstruction of the events and circumstances of the Nigerian civil war, Dr. Luke Nnaemeka Aneke highlighted some activities of Chief Awolowo which cast a slur on his reputation as a sage and statesman, despite the hot air and putrid insipidities from Awoists and ethnic irredentists like Femi Fani-Kayode, Ayo Adebanjo and Ordia Ofeimun in defence of Awolowo when Achebe accused him of genocide during the war.

To begin with, at a peace conference in Lagos for regional delegates convened by Lt. Col. Gowon in September 1966, Awolowo fully endorsed the Eastern delegates’ position that Nigeria should be a confederation of semi-autonomous regions.

Again, when the tension between the federal government and Eastern region was getting to its omega point, Awolowo boasted, on May 1, 1967, that if the Eastern region secedes the West, with the federal capital Lagos, would secede as well.