By Douglas Anele
The policy of encouraging Northerners to become professional soldiers bore fruit some years afterwards: some of the students Ibrahim Tako Galadima, Yakubu Gowon, Zakariya Maimalari and others, persuaded to enter the army, played significant roles in the consolidation of loathsome coup culture and military dictatorship in Nigeria.
These include, in alphabetical order, Abdulsalami Abubakar, Bukar Suka Dimka, Gado Nasko, Garba Duba, Ibrahim Babangida, Isa Bukar, Mamman Vatsa, Mohammed Magoro, Muhammadu Buhari, Nuhu Nathan, Pam Mwadkon, Sani Abacha, Sani Bello, and Sani Sami.
At the beginning of 1966, the Nigerian army comprised two brigades and five battalions only. The first, second and fourth battalions were under the operational command of Brig. Maimalari’s second brigade in Lagos whereas the third and fifth battalions headquartered in Kaduna were under the first brigade commanded by Brig. Samuel Ademulegun.
With time, northerners began to dominate the Nigerian military at all level. Aside from the unfair measures taken by Balewa’s government to boost northern enlistment in the army, dearth of economic opportunities in the arid and semi-arid north coupled with the fatalistic worldview propagated by Islam, made the military profession quite attractive to the average northern youth. Besides, Sir Ahmadu Bello and other prominent conservative members of the northern establishment were serious about actualising his conviction that Nigeria should be the estate of Uthman Dan Fodio.
Hence, they realised quite early that any region which controls the military will dominate political power at the federal level. That was why they insisted on a quota system whereby sixty percent of recruitment and commissioning into the army was reserved for the north. Events in the last fifty years have proved them right – and unfortunately so, because military control of civilian authority driven by narrow ethnic agenda has been disastrous.
The pogroms against Ndigbo living in the northern region before the very bloody coup of July 29, 1966 – pardon my error last week of stating the date as January 29 – was predicated on the araba hysteria in that region, as the dominant faction of the ruling northern elite mobilised the masses to orgies of violence against the Igbo.
Essentially, the July coup engineered by Murtala Mohammed, T.Y. Danjuma and others was retaliation by a cross section of northern soldiers and top politicians who wanted to avenge the deaths of Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sir Tafawa Balewa, Brig. Maimalari, Col. Kur Mohammed, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, and Lt. Col. James Yakubu Pam. In Lindsay Barret’s book, Danjuma: The Making of a General, Danjuma justified the arrest of Nigeria’s first military head of state, Maj. Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, by falsely alleging that Ironsi had deliberately shielded Nzeogwu and his co-conspirators from justice because he (Ironsi) was “part and parcel of the whole thing.”
The pogrom against Ndigbo in May 1966 after Ironsi took over power and almost complete decimation of senior Igbo military officers in the army after the “rematch” of July 29, 1966 accelerated the entrenchment of caliphate colonialism. Because of the pogrom, the Igbo abandoned their jobs and businesses in the north as they fled eastwards for safety, while the new regime led by Gowon filled vacant positions previously occupied by the murdered Igbo officers with northern soldiers. It is an unfortunate but sad irony in Nigerian history that the unification decree number 34 of 1966 promulgated by the supreme military council headed by Maj. Gen. Ironsi, which was intended to “remove the last vestiges of the intense regionalism of the [first republic]…and to produce that cohesion in government structure which is so necessary in achieving and maintaining…national unity,” was used as an alibi by secession intoxicated members of the northern ruling elite as an excuse to unleash violence on the Igbo and to demand for session.
As the supreme commander, Ironsi bears ultimate responsibility for the unification decree; however, it was the product of consensus by members of the supreme military council, which had Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon and Lt. Col. Hassan Usman Katsina as members. Therefore, the decree could not have been a valid reason for what turned out to be a well-planned gruesome murder of Maj. Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi, his host, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi and dozens of Igbo military officers.
Conflict theorists such as Professors Patrick Wilmot and Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe have offered a more accurate explanation of the bizarre tradition in the north that throws light on the repeated massacres of Ndigbo by northerners, including the casualties of the revenge coup. They argue that the northern ruling elite or establishment, collectively, lacks a rational and non-violent tradition of acquiring political power and managing social change. Instead, it uses violence to get power and maintains it with such tenacity and ruthlessness that can only be understood psychoanalytically as the outcome of pathological attachment to power.
Now, as already indicated, the ethnic cleansing of Igbo military officers spearheaded by Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed in the revenge coup of July 29, 1966, was a critical moment in the consolidation of caliphate colonialism in Nigeria. This is because by killing Igbo officers the vacancies thus created were filled by northerners who, in most cases, did not have the requisite academic credentials and cognate experience for the positions. Moreover, for posts in the civil service where no qualified northern candidates were available, northern leaders hired foreigners in preference to qualified personnel from the east. For members of the northern ruling elite from the 1940s to 1960s (and to some extent till date) it was better to employ a foreigner than an Igbo.
It must be remarked that Murtala Mohammed and his co-mutineers actually wanted the north to secede immediately after the overthrow of Ironsi. As soon as Lt. Col. Gowon was chosen to replace the late supreme commander, and after he had set up base at Ikeja barracks, the flag heralding the republic of northern Nigeria, consisting of red, yellow, black, green and khaki stripes, was placed at the main gate, and it remained there for almost three weeks.
However, the secessionists relented not because of any patriotic epiphanic change of heart but because during one of the meetings after the coup, some of the civilian participants pointed out that the north would lose the most if it pulled out of Nigeria; they frankly explained further the stark future that northerners would face after secession: they would be trapped, landlocked, cut off from the sea and deprived of the economic benefits from the south which they have been enjoying since amalgamation. Elbert Matthews, the American ambassador to Nigeria who was at the meeting with his British counterpart, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce, made it clear that the United States would not give aid to the northern region if it seceded. With the benefit of hindsight derived from the negative impact of caliphate colonialism since 1966, southern Nigeria would have been far more developed than it is now had the north seceded as originally intended in 1966 by Murtala Mohammed and other northern hardliners. For one thing, secession of Biafra and declaration of war against her by Gowon together with the on-going utilisation of revenue from southern Nigeria to develop the north would not have happened.
Anyway, that the coup of July 1966 favoured caliphate colonialism was acknowledged by no less a person than Gowon himself. In October the same year, having been recognised as “legitimate” military ruler by the British Commonwealth office, Gowon appealed to Northerners to stop murdering easterners in their midst and reminded them that “You all know that since the end of July God in his power has entrusted the responsibility of this great country of ours, Nigeria, into the hands of another northerner… .”
The Biafran war shows the extent to which the ruling northern military-civilian power block can go to safeguard its hegemonic interests while pretending to fight for one Nigeria. Before the murder of Maj. Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi, the north’s obsession for secession was matched by the obsession with a unified Nigeria by the Igbo. Evidently, of the three major ethnic groups, they were the most qualified and best travelled, and were confident of their ability to compete on equal terms with their compatriots, which elicited envy from members of other ethnic nationalities. Sentiments aside, Ndigbo have contributed more than any other ethnic group in the country to the concrete realisation of the concept of One Nigeria.
But despite their remarkable capacity for creative ingenuity and accomplishments, the Igbo as a group, according to Prof. Chinua Achebe, have the flaws of hubris, overweening pride, obsession with material success and crude showiness – which, of course, might invite envy from others but do not justify their being massacred periodically by northerners. The May riots of 1966, Ironsi’s gruesome murder and continuing massacre of Ndigbo afterwards led to a radical rethinking of their attitude to the idea of a unified Nigerian nation.
The people began to realise that their belief in a strong central authority that can 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 which began in Lagos on September 12, 1966. In it, the delegates 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 that allows any member state the right to unilaterally secede completely from the union, and to make arrangements for cooperation with the other members of the union in such a manner as they may severally or individually deem fit. To be continued.