By Owei Lakemfa
THE elites who took over from the British colonialists behaved quite badly; within five years, parts of the country including the Middle Belt and the West were on the boil. Despite the Federal Constitution in place, the centre intervened in the West leading to bloodbath. Given these, manifest mismanagement and evident incompetence, the populace reacted quite positively to the coup of January 15, 1966 but it suffered two tragedies. First, the attempt failed, and opportunist officers rather than restore the elected government, imposed military rule. Secondly, the attempted coup was so badly executed that it could not shake off the tag of being a sectional one.
The July 29, 1967 counter coup was primarily to secede and establish a new Northern Republic. Midstream, the objectives changed and the coup leader, then Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon was to become the chief campaigner of: “To keep Nigeria one, is a task that must be done”. He even reveled in the propaganda that his surname is an acronym: “Go On With One Nigeria”.
The counter coup led to so much bloodshed and instability, that the following month, an Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference was convened and the then four regions were asked to consult their constituents and submit comprehensive memoranda on the future of the country.
The Eastern Region which was worse hit in the counter coup, rejected state creation, demanded an Association of the Regions (Confederacy) and the right of each Region to secede. The Northern Region demanded the right of all groups to self-determination and each Region’s “ right to secede completely and unilateral ly ”.
The Western Region proposed two alternatives. Either the immediate creation of states to found a federation, or the formation of a commonwealth with each Region or State having the right to unilaterally secede from the country at any time of its own choice.
Only the smallest and youngest Region, the Mid-West, rejected the breakup of the country. It advocated a federation with minorities having the right to self-determination, and the majority, the right whether to associate with a particular minority or not. With the Mid-West being unable to hold back the large Regions, Gowon on November 30, 1966 adjourned the Constitutional Conference sine die.
With that, the country drifted, with each Region bidding its time and consolidating. The East and the North prepared for war while the West tilted towards secession. Its anger was partly, the execution of its Military Governor, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi and then Head of State, General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguyi-Ironsi right in Ibadan, the capital of the region. One worry of the West was the presence of soldiers of Northern origin in Lagos. Western elites reasoned that it would be difficult to secede with these soldiers in Lagos, so, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, they demanded stridently that all military personnel from outside the West should leave.
With the ruling Supreme Military Council unable to meet as members would not go to the East, and Lieutenant Colonel Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu , the Military Governor of the Eastern Region would not go to the other regions, or even meet on a suggested British ship, the only way a meeting could hold, was outside the country. The opportunity for this was provided by the military regime in Ghana led by Lieutenant General Joseph Arthur Ankrah. They would have been comfortable with him because they were familiar; Ironsi, Fajuyi, Gowon and Ojukwu had served alongside Ankrah in the Congo Mission. As it appeared that the Nigerian leaders would not even agree on a chairman for their meeting, Ankrah who provided the meeting venue in Aburi on the outskirts of Accra, chaired the meeting.
Present were Lieutenant Colonels Yakubu Gowon, Odumegwu Ojukwu, Hassan Katsina, Governor, Northern Region, David Ejoor, Governor Mid-Western Region, Major Mobolaji Johnson, Governor Lagos State, Colonel Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, Governor Western Region and Commodore Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey , Deputy Head of State. The Police were represented by Alhaji Kam Salem and Mr. Timothy Omo-Bare.
Also attending were Secretaries of the Governors; N.U. Akpan, East, Alhaji Ali Akilu, North, D. Lawani, Mid-West and P. Odumosu, West. Also present was Prince Solomon Akenzua (later, Oba of Benin, Erediauwa I) Permanent Under-Secretary, Federal Cabinet Office.
The elite soldiers blamed the civilian politicians for the crisis in the country and adopted Ojukwu’s motion that all renounce the use of force in settling the crises. They then reached what became known as The Aburi Accord. Under this Agreement, they agreed the Army had become a problem, as a solution, it was to be organised under Area Commands corresponding to existing Regions with the Military Governors having control over them for internal security.
Also, a military headquarters comprising equal representation from the regions was to be established alongside a Lagos Garrison. Additionally, soldiers of Northern origin are to return to the North from the West while the latter would carry out a crash programme to recruit fresh soldiers from the Region. It was also agreed that Ojukwu’s order that non-Easterners should leave the Eastern Region should subsist but kept in view with the objective of lifting it as soon as is practicable.
The Accord also provided for the vesting of legislative and executive authority in the Federal Military Government provided that, where a meeting was not possible, such a matter must be referred to the Military Governors for their comments and concurrence. It was also agreed that all decrees that derogate from regional autonomy, be abrogated, displaced public servants should be paid their full salaries until March 31, 1967 and property of the displaced should be protected.
The Accord also ordered that the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference suspended by Gowon should resume sitting, while for at least the next six months, there should be a purely Military Government having nothing to do with politicians. This was in line with the false claim that politicians were responsible for the problems the country was witnessing. After the Aburi Accord was signed, the military leaders toasted themselves to choice wine congratulating themselves for being so brilliant.
The reality was that the military officers who met in Aburi had become the real politicians replacing their civilian counterparts. They could easily have saved the country uncertainty and horrors by reverting to civil rule. This would have saved the country the tussle over who will head government, and the military, the politics of Gowon becoming the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces when he had ten military officers who were his senior. This was to define the military until 1999 when it finally disengaged from governance. Tragically, the officers wanted to retain power, so they led the country into an horrendous civil war and to the situation today where all parts of the country are disillusioned.