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The phenomenon of Biafra (9)

By Douglas Anele

One thing is certain: the killing of Ndigbo in 1966 left very deep physical and psychological wounds on the Igbo, making them to begin considering seriously the desirability of creating an independent nation for themselves since their belongingness to Nigeria had been put into serious question by recent events particularly in northern Nigeria.

After Maj-Gen. Ironsi and his host Lt. Col. Fajuyi were killed, northern soldiers continued to slaughter their Igbo counterparts, in addition to the thousands killed during the May pogroms, such that at one point killing of Ndigbo living outside the eastern region seemed to be an industry of its own.

From different accounts of the revenge coup and its horrifying aftermath, there is no doubt that the northern military-civilian establishment wanted to decimate Igbo military officers who at independence constituted over seventy percent of the officer corps in the Nigerian army.

Moreover, it appears that northerners wanted to violently disrupt and ultimately truncate the economic, bureaucratic and educational expansiveness of Igbo people.

Thus, both the revenge coup and pogroms were the outcome of a premediated detailed plan of Igbo containment by a section of the northern military-civilian elite that cannot be fully explained as the regrettable outcome of northern envy or jealousy towards the Igbo. Prof. Achebe rightly sees the sordid events as not just the manifestation of the darker side of human nature; it was a case of something far more devastating.

In my opinion, the psychological mechanisms that propelled those who committed the horrible crimes against the Igbo, which can be sufficiently explained psychoanalytically as seep-seated irrational mob hysteria or psychoneurosis, were remarkably similar to those that motivated Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to commit horrendous atrocities against the Jews during the Second World War.

It is interesting to note that majority of northerners who massacred Ndigbo and destroyed their property were muslims, meaning that even if it were true that the “Nzeogwu coup” was an all-Igbo affair, the ideals of mercy, compassion and forgiveness preached in mosques meant nothing to them.

As Nigeria moved perilously towards violent disintegration due largely to the absence of a sincere strategy to curb violence against easterners and inertia of the federal government headed by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon in responding to the refugee problem in the eastern region, a last ditch attempt was made in Aburi, Ghana, to discuss these problems and other areas of conflict and, hopefully, resolve them amicably.

Facilitated by Ghana’s military head of state, Lt. Gen. Joseph Ankrah, the Aburi meeting of January 4 to 5, 1967, was attended by senior military officers (including Gowon and all the military governors), and senior civil servants.

Issues on the agenda included the valid refusal of the eastern region to recognise Gowon as supreme commander; retroactive payment of salaries to Igbo civil servants who were forced to leave their positions as a result of the disturbances; proposal for renouncing the use of force; and the setting up of a committee to work out an appropriate constitutional model for the country. Looking back at the meeting held over fifty-one years ago, certain important points can be distilled from it.

First, the Aburi summit was the first sovereign national conference to be held in post-independent Nigeria, and it tackled the seemingly intractable political problems for which several other national conferences had been held ever since. As one perceptive commentator on Nigerian history observed “Virtually everything discussed at that Aburi conference is relevant till today.” Second, there were fundamental differences between the federal delegation and the eastern delegation led by Lt. Col. Ojukwu. Unlike the federal side that did not prepare seriously for the meeting, several intellectuals and key members of Ojukwu’s cabinet had been brainstormed severally on the critical issues surrounding the problem of the best and most suitable constitutional framework for Nigeria.

So, while Gowon and his cohorts behaved as if the gathering was a social event to unite former friends who had fallen out because of some misunderstanding, Ojukwu and his lieutenants correctly saw the meeting for what it truly was – a historic constitutional conference whose outcome, if implemented, would determine Nigeria’s future social and political structure.

As a corollary, because of shoddy preparation by the federal delegation and, to be honest, Ojukwu’s persuasive skills and towering intellectual superiority to Gowon and the other military governors, Ojukwu managed to get virtually everything he wanted, and was so pleased with his success to the extent of accepting that he would serve under Gowon if the federal military government implemented the agreement.

Third, what transpired after the Aburi conference proves that cordiality and successful conclusion of a meeting do not guarantee implementation of what was agreed, especially if any of the parties involved is insincere or had a hidden agenda.

In this connection, Gowon is guilty of bad faith for allowing high-ranking federal civil servants (led by Solomon Akenzua who attended the Aburi meeting because of his position as the permanent secretary, federal cabinet office) motivated by myopic selfish reasons and lacking a sense of history, to advise him, wrongly, not to implement the agreement. Now, what exactly was the most important point in the Aburi accord that made Akenzua and his colleagues oppose it so vehemently?

According to some scholars, the core of the agreement was that Nigeria should be a confederacy, that is, that the country should operate a political arrangement or system in which each region should be in control of its own affairs, while the federal government should be responsible for matters that affected the whole country.

But the recommendation was not new: in fact, from 1947 Nigeria was governed on the basis of regionalism spearheaded by the north, an arrangement supported by Chief Awolowo who, unlike Dr. Azikiwe, understood clearly the serious dangers of overcentralisation of power.

Therefore, As Prof. Achebe remarked, egotistical quest for self-preservation prevented Akenzua and his colleagues from recognising that implementing the Aburi accord would have solved some of the most pressing political problems of the time and dampen the bitter conflict between the eastern region and the northern-led federal government.

During the Aburi meeting, Lt. Col. Ojukwu proposed that Nigeria should be a loose federation.  According to him, “It is better that we move slightly apart and survive, it is much worse that we move closer and perish in the collision.”

On the other hand, although Gowon wanted Nigeria to remain one, he had no clear ideas as to the type of federation would be suitable for the country.

Consequently, northern members of his delegation began to lean towards a strong central government, while the eastern delegates moved in the opposite direction by advocating a weaker central government with devolution of powers to the regions, which is a reversal of the point of view held by the north and east even before independence.

Led by Dr. Azikiwe who was always willing to shift position for the sake of stronger Nigerian unity, the eastern region’s political elite had generally supported a relatively strong central government, a position that resonated with an increasing number of Ndigbo when Maj. Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi was in power. Conversely, northern region under Alhaji Ahmadu Bello had always preferred the more appropriate model of a weak federal administration and strong regional autonomy, such that, as we have seen, when Ironsi promulgated unification decree 34 that conflicted with the northern position, northerners responded swiftly and violently against Ndigbo living in their midst. Now, sensing that the Igbo officer corps in the army had been almost totally eradicated and that power was in the hands of northerners with which they could control, among other things, earnings from lucrative crude oil deposits recently discovered in eastern region, Gowon favoured a strong central government. Fortunately, as we have seen, Ojukwu’s more reasonable position prevailed. However, the rapprochement did not last: Gowon’s behaviour after the delegation returned from Aburi is a classic example of how not to be an officer and a gentleman.

Reading through accounts of how the Gowon-led federal government handled the Aburi accord, one is struck by the probability impression that Gowon, supported by northerners and a certain cabal of civil servants mainly from western and mid-western regions, really intended to provoke easterners to secede by repudiating it.

To begin with, on January 26, 1967, Lt. Col. Gowon held a press conference in Lagos, ostensibly to reveal what was agreed at Aburi. What he presented seems to be based more on criticisms of the final document that emanated from the summit than on the actual minutes and final decisions signed by Gowon, Ojukwu and others. The most critical and telling of Gowon’s misrepresentations was on the issue of constitution.

As already indicated, during Ironsi’s brief tenure, a constitutional review study group headed by Chief Rotimi Williams was inaugurated to formulate and submit proposals on an appropriate constitutional framework for Nigeria: the proposals would then be submitted to a constituent assembly, and whatever the assembly came up with would be ratified through a referendum.

Because the revanchist coup of July 29, 1966 halted the work of Chief William’s panel, after the Aburi summit Gowon could have reinstated the group and forwarded parts of the Aburi accord dealing with constitutional matters to it for further scrutiny.

But Gowon chose to do something else: based on bad advice from federal permanent secretaries, he adjourned the proposed constitutional conference indefinitely and announced that Nigeria would be divided into between ten and fourteen states.

According to Frederick Forsyth, in The Making of an African Legend: The Biafra Story, by the time Gowon finished with his press conference, “there appeared to be little of Aburi left.” By March 1967, two months after the Aburi accord was reached, there was no indication that Gowon intended to implement it. Exasperated, Ojukwu warned Gowon that his unwillingness or plain refusal to act on Aburi agreement could lead to secession. To be continued.

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