By Eric Teniola
AT the time General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi(1924-1966)promulgated Decree 34 in 1966, there were only nine members of the Supreme Military Council. They include Vice Admiral Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey (1918-1991), born in Calabar to a Yoruba father and Ibibio/Efik mother, Brigadier George Tamunoiyowunam Kurubo (1934-2000), from Bonny in the present Rivers state, Major General David Akpode Ejoor(83) an Urhobo who is from Ovu in the present Delta State,who was then the Military Governor of Mid-Western Region, Brigadier General Babafemi Olatunde Ogundipe(1924-1971), from Ago-Iwoye in the present Ogun state and General Yakubu ‘Jack’ Dan-Yuuma Gowon(83), an Angas from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State.
Others are Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina(1933-1995), Military Governor of Northern Nigeria and the son of Alhaji Sir, Usman Nagogo(1905-1981),the late Emir of Katsina, Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi(1926-1966) from Ado-Ekiti and Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu(1933-2011), from Nnewi in Anambra state and son of Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu(1909-1966), a billionaire who entered politics in 1951 as a member of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s National Council of Nigeria Citizens,NCNC, which included him in the delegation to the London Constitutional Conference in 1961.
Brigadier Kurubo represented Bonny in the Constituent Assembly between 1977 and 1978 along with other Rivers state delegates including Chief Stephen Alete(Ikwere/Etche), Chief Nicholas Frank-Opigo(Yenogoa/Sagbama), Mr. Douglas Graham-Douglas(Degema), Mr. Nwobidike Nwanodi (Port-Harcourt), Dr. Friday O. Nwafor (Bori), Mr. Clifford Nwuche(Ahoada), and Chief Melford Okilo(Brass).
I used to call him ‘show boy’ because of his urban outlook and he used to call me ‘Eric the red’.
In series of interviews I did in 1978,with Brigadier Kurubo, who in 1966, was head of the Air Force, told me then that in retrospect, Decree 34 was unnecessary.
He said ’those behind the Decree already had the nation under their grip. The Decree was an over kill’.
Towards the end of July 1966, only a few days before the national conference of traditional rulers was due to hold in Ibadan, General Ironsi announced plans to rotate the Military Governors and to appoint military ’prefects’ responsible for carrying out government policy at provincial level. There was also to be some transfers of army units, e.g. the 4th Batallion stationed since 1957 at Ibadan and the 1st Batalion stationed at Enugu were to interchange.
General Ironsi is criticised by some Nigerians for not having acted decisively enough and early enough. It is argued that he should have instituted a unitary form of government immediately on taking power, when the military enjoyed great popularity and all the politicians ran for cover.
Mr. S.K. PANTER-BRICK of the London School of Economics and Political Science summarised the situation in a book titled “Nigerian Politics and Military Rule: Prelude to the Civil War, which he co-authored with Professor W. H. Morris-Jones of the University of London, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Mr. M.J. Dent, Mr. K. Whiteman, Professor B.J. Dudley, Mr. A.R. Lockham and Mr. P.F. Dawson.
He wrote ”General Ironsi was perhaps unaware of the strength of this opposition. It is, of course, difficult, especially in moment of crisis, to keep a balance between responsible leadership and popular participation, but it is impossible if there is a total lack of confidence. Had the Military Government quickly brought to trial those involved in the 15 January coup the necessary degree of confidence might have been established”.
But to many Nigerians these men were national heroes, not murderers, and General Ironsi had himself promised Major Nzeogwu safe conduct. Yet the fact that General Ironsi was caught in this kind of dilemma merely underlines the folly of centralising the administration in advance of some agreement on the prior constitutional issues. This was compounded when he sought to overcome opposition by announcing his intention to stay in power for three years and at the same time prohibit all political activities.
There was no lack of warning of the probable consequences. Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina, returning from the meeting of the Supreme Military Council immediately preceding the promulgation of Decree Nos. 33 and 34, remarked that the egg was about to break. It cracked and then finally broke, under the impact of two opposing forces: a Military Government set on imposing its own form of centralised command, at least as an interim measure, and an opposition movement, less clearly led and less openly asserted, but sustained by growing fears of a fait accompli.
On July 29 1966, General Yakubu Gowon became the Head of State and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. On August 3 1966, he released Chief Obafemi Awolowo from Calabar prison. On August 12 by the acclamation of the Yoruba Obas and leaders of thought, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was selected as the leader of the Yorubas at Western hall Ibadan-the first and only leader to hold such a title.
On 8 and 9 August 1966, representatives of all the Military Governors met in Lagos and recommended, among other measures, that-(a) Troops should be sent back to barracks in their region of origin (b) All decrees which centralised affairs in Lagos should be abrogated (c) Lagos should be garrisoned in a manner to be determined by the Military Governors (d) A Constitutional Conference should be constituted to work out a constitution for Nigeria.
The Ad-hoc Constitution Committee met between September 12 and 28 and again on October 24 to November 1. Chief Awolowo told the delegates as the leader of Western Region,’our mandate is very clear; we are not allowed to come here and accept federation at all cost, and we, in our own good judgment and cannot accept federation at all cost.
As a matter of fact, it is our mandate that if these conditions cannot be met we are prepared to negotiate them, but our mandate is clear that if some sort of reasonable compromise cannot be reached on these conditions then the Western delegation of Nigeria plus Lagos should opt out of whatever Federation may be created thereafter.
Chief Anthony Enahoro, the leader of Mid-Western Region to the conference said’ I do not think that any one will pretend that we can come together if some of us can go back and set up dictatorships, some can go back and become democracies, and some of us can go back nd become monarchies, and yet pretend that we are going to come together later’.
On November 30 1966, General Gowon addressed the nation. He said” Fellow Countrymen, I wish to speak to you this evening about the measures which the Federal Military Government will implement to save the country from disintegrating. You are all aware that the Ad Hoc Committee has been adjourned indefinitely. They had run into difficulties which made it impossible for them to meet. In those circumstances there was little hope of the Committee evolving reasonable solutions to our present crisis. I shall deal later with the conditions under which the Committee could continue the work it started so well. Or problems demand urgent solutions’.