By Douglas Anele
To start with, when Gowon came back to Lagos, some top federal civil servants were surprised at the scope and depth of concessions he made to Ojukwu. Consequently, they advised him, wrongly, not to implement it because, in their opinion, the agreement was “unworkable.” Given that the Aburi summit essentially affirmed the structure of governance in the first republic which worked so well before the coup of January 15 truncated it, the only reasonable explanation of their negative stance was myopic selfishness motivated by desire to preserve their exalted positions in Gowon’s government.
Meanwhile, discovery of vast quantities of crude oil in the eastern region reinforced the north’s preference for a unitarist political structure. Although by 1967 crude oil export had not displaced agriculture as the fulcrum of Nigeria’s economy, its potential to do so in an unprecedented manner must have encouraged Gowon and his chief advisers to have second thoughts about the agreement because implementing it would have eventually led to spectacular disparity in wealth between the east and the north. Of course, there was no way members of the northern ruling elite, both military and civilian, would allow that to happen. Another point to note is that the all-or-nothing approach of the two sides to the Aburi accord was unwise and disingenuous.
As we noted already, the eastern delegation led by Ojukwu was better prepared for the summit than the federal delegation led by Gowon for whom the Aburi conference was not much more than a social gathering to bring together former friends in a congenial environment to sort out their difference. Thus, whereas “On Aburi We Stand” became the rallying cry of the eastern region, in Lagos Lieutenant-Colonel Gowon and his cohorts were actually reversing the terms of the agreement without consulting Ojukwu. For instance, at a press conference held in Lagos on January 26, 1967,
Gowon repudiated the provision that the army should be under the submission of the Supreme Military Council. He also rejected the decision to continue paying the salaries of displaced easterners up to the end of the financial year, March 31, because, according to him, “it did not take into consideration economic factors which are linked to it…secondly, it does not make sense to include daily paid workers among those whose salaries should continue to be paid.” In Aburi, it was agreed that the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference set up to fashion a new constitution for Nigeria should resume its sitting as soon as practicable to begin from where it left off earlier.
At the press conference, Gowon announced, as recommended to him by his permanent secretaries, that the conference stands adjourned sine die and that Nigeria should be divided into between ten to fourteen states. To be candid, Gowon’s unilateral distortion of the Aburi agreement was an act of bad faith. He might well have realised later that he had conceded too much to Ojukwu; but to cunningly reject what was agreed without at least making an effort to carry Ojukwu along is, to put it mildly, a betrayal and insult not only to the eastern region but also to Lieutenant-General Joseph Ankrah, the Ghanaian head of state who facilitated the meeting in Aburi.
Ojukwu himself, carrying the heavy load of emotionally exhausted and disillusioned people of the east on his shoulders, was blinded by ambition not to realise that he was being deliberately pushed to the wall so that he would make costly and rash decisions. In fact, Ojukwu naively underestimated the determination of northerners to maintain and consolidate their grip on Nigeria under a strong central government.
There is an aspect of this whole matter that have received scant attention from historians but which gives some insight into the psychological underpinnings of the disagreement between Ojukwu and his northern colleagues. Retired Lieutenant-General Domkat Bali about two or three years ago in a newspaper interview disclosed that northern soldiers, majority of whom dropped out of secondary schools, were envious and angry that Ojukwu, who could have had any lucrative job he wanted because of his first class education in Oxford university decided instead to join the army, which meant that in a merit-based system his career prospects are brighter than theirs. Perhaps, some of these northern elements, such as Yakubu Gowon and Murtala Mohammed, were biding their time, waiting for the right moment to “cut Ojukwu down to size”, so to speak. As a result, Ojukwu’s uncompromising stance on full implementation of the Aburi accord might have played into the hands of these northern soldiers.
That said, despite the animosity and bad blood generated by the coups of 1966 and the abominable massacres of easterners, Ojukwu and Gowon in conjunction with their advisers could have done much more to build peace by refusing to take decisions that actually widened their differences. On both sides, avoidable mistakes were made because the toxic blend of personal ambition and ethnicity did not allow the major dramatis personae to make necessary concessions in the overarching interest of Nigeria as a whole. Certainly, Gowon savoured the idea of becoming head of state: for personal survival he needed to placate ringleaders of the July 29 revenge coup by ensuring the north’s stranglehold on power.
On the other hand, Ojukwu was eager to show to his people that he was prepared to do whatever was required, including secession, to protect their interests. Therefore, the contradictory postures of the two sides towards the agreement after returning to the country were dictated mainly by personal ambition and ethnicity, which precluded any practical steps for implementing its positive aspects. Sadly, the result was that Nigeria missed a wonderful opportunity to reinvent itself and avoid one of the most devastating civil wars in modern history.
Still, a plausible case can be made that although Ojukwu, Gowon, Katsina and others who took part in the Aburi meeting were to some extent motivated by personal ambition and survivalist instincts, Ojukwu was the most altruistic of all of them. First, as the only postgraduate degree holder among them, he could have opted for a more befitting and better paying job than becoming a soldier at a time when the Nigerian army was, in the words of Bali, “for school drop-outs.” Second, he was by far the wealthiest of them: Ojukwu’s inheritance by the time his father died in 1966 was estimated at over eight million pounds.
Thus, Ojukwu could have chosen to live a very opulent life by going into any one of the businesses owned by his father or one of his father’s friends, where he would get rapid promotion without doing much work. Instead, he preferred the less financially rewarding job in the civil service and, later, joined the army. Of course, when the civil war broke out, Ojukwu sacrificed everything for the Biafran cause, thereby manifesting a degree of selflessness unmatched by any Nigerian leader to date.
Failure of the federal government to implement the decisions hammered out at Aburi and insistence of the eastern region on full implementation triggered a chain of events that culminated in the civil war. It can be plausibly argued now, forty-nine years after the Aburi accord was reached, that Ojukwu and Gowon should have done this, or refrained from doing that, to avert the civil war. Even so, it is clear that as young military officers they lacked the requisite experience and administrative sagacity to handle the challenges of peace building and national reconciliation. Both men made serious mistakes especially in the months leading to the declaration of war against the secessionist eastern region by implementing provocative decisions which triggered retaliation from the opposing side. For instance, as already indicated,
Gowon’s unilateral rescinding of several key components of the Aburi accord he voluntarily signed with governors of the regions, especially the ones that mattered most to the east, dealt a devastating blow to the efforts to resolve the crisis peacefully. On the other hand, Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu’s appropriation in March 1967 of all federal revenues collected in the eastern region to enable him pay for the rehabilitation programme there, though well intentioned, was a strategic error. He did not envisage that the federal government headed by Gowon would respond by promulgating decree eight, which whittled down the powers of the regions and empowered Gowon to declare a state of emergency in any region with the agreement of only three military governors.
To be continued.