By Douglas Anele
Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon responded to Lt. Col. Ojukwu’s timely warning by promulgating Decree 8 which, at first glance, seemed to address mainly the constitutional aspects of the Aburi accord, with very little on the fiscal arrangements.
However, based on the self-serving advice of his top civil servants who, as we noted earlier, vehemently opposed the accord, Gowon included in the decree new clauses that were not part of the original consensus reached in Aburi. For example, one of such interpolations stipulates that regional governors could not exercise their powers “so as to Impede or prejudice the authority of the federation.”
Another paragraph proclaims that a state of emergency could be declared in any region by the federal government with the approval of three out of the four military governors. Although the first one appears harmless, it entails that it was up to the federal government, that is, Gowon as head of state, to determine exactly what would impede or prejudice the authority of government.
Concerning the second clause, because declaration of a state of emergency usually involves sending troops to the affected region, and considering that the other three military governors were either northern or governed regions occupied by northern soldiers, Lt. Col. Ojukwu saw this as specifically targeted against his own region.
Consequently, he rejected the decree. Meanwhile, Chief Awolowo, recently released from Calabar prison, demanded that the federal military government should withdraw all northern troops in the western region; he made it abundantly clear that if the east seceded, the west would not be far behind. Gowon did not want to confront two southern regions at the same time; as a result, northern troops in the west were withdrawn.
But why did Gowon renege on the Aburi Accord? Even if, based on the advice of Solomon Akenzua and others he had discovered some loopholes in the agreement, what stopped him from calling the governors for a renegotiation of the accord? Why did he introduce strange clauses without getting the prior consent of all other signatories to the document?
In my opinion, aside from the overarching northern desire to actualise its caliphate colonialist vision of northern domination articulated by Sir Ahmadu Bello, northerners whose longstanding position was remarkably similar to what was agreed in Aburi suddenly started clamouring for a strong central government because they wanted to control funds realised from the sale of crude oil domiciled mainly in the eastern region.
Northerners realised that if the principles of regional autonomy contained in the Aburi accord were implemented, it would lead to wide disparity in wealth and economic development between the eastern region and the northern region, to the disadvantage of the latter.
Therefore, in their calculus, the best way to prevent that from happening was to have a northern dominated strong federal administration that would be the custodian of all oil proceeds, much of which would then be used by members of the northern military-civilian establishment to empower themselves and dictate to the rest of the country.
As the disagreement between the federal military government and eastern region escalated, a last-minute reconciliation move was made by some concerned Nigerians. On May 7, 1967, a national reconciliation group that included two of the most iconic Yoruba personalities, Chief Justice of the federation, Sir Adetokumbo Ademola, and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, visited eastern region on a peace mission. They listened sympathetically to Ojukwu, accepted most of his demands – which were essentially the request for Gowon to withdraw all troops to their regions and lifting of the partial blockade on the eastern region – and asked the federal government to implement them. About two weeks later, Gowon announced that he had accepted recommendations of the reconciliation committee. But like the way he treated the Aburi agreement, Gowon failed to implement the recommendations to the letter.
That was probably a trap for Ojukwu, for it seems as if Gowon and his civilian advisers together with caliphate colonialists in the army were deliberately pushing eastern region to secede.
The slippery road to the creation of a new country called Biafra on May 30, 1966, can be summarised as follows: Exasperated by waiting for Gowon to act on the Aburi accord and firmly convinced that the federal government was deliberately stalling, with the situation compounded by the herculean challenge of coping with hundreds of thousands of eastern refugees returning from the north, Ojukwu began implementing a series of measures that severed all connections with Nigeria. He occluded all official communication with Lagos, and promptly disconnected the eastern regional government’s administration and revenues from those of the federal government.
On May 26, 1967, the Special Advisory Committee of Chiefs and Elders or Consultative Assembly of the eastern region met with Ojukwu in Enugu and mandated him to declare, at “the earliest practicable date,” eastern Nigeria as a sovereign independent country called Republic of Biafra.
Thus, the decision to pull eastern region out of unwelcoming suffocating Nigeria was not made by Ojukwu alone, as some mischievous historical revisionists would have us believe, although as the leader he bears ultimate responsibility for it.
Rather, the choice accurately reflected not only the desires of an overwhelming percentage of easterners but was mandated by a body comprising some of the most illustrious Nigerians such as Dr. Azikiwe, Chief Margaret Ekpo, Dr. Michael Okpara, Sir Francis Akanu Ibiam, Mr. N.U. Akpan, Ekukinam Bassey, and Sir Louis Mbanefo among others.
Lt. Col. Gowon made a nationwide broadcast on May 27. He declared a state of emergency and divided the country into twelve states ostensibly to protect smaller ethnic groups from domination by the bigger ones, whereas by balkanising the eastern region into Rivers, South-Eastern and East-Central states he seriously compromised eastern unity and solidarity.
Gowon announced further a total blockade of the former eastern region, and gave himself full powers “for the short period necessary to carry out the measures which are now urgently required.” This was the last straw that broke Nigeria’s back. In the small hours of May 30, 1967, in the presence of journalists and diplomats assembled at State House, Enugu, later renamed Biafra House, Lt. Col. Ojukwu read the declaration of eastern region as the independent Republic of Biafra.
Now, there is an impressive literature on Biafra and the reasons why it was created. Like every event of that magnitude and historical significance, both the remote and immediate causes of the phenomenon of Biafra have been rigorously debated over the years. Some of the significant ones have been highlighted in our discussion thus far.
But there is a pernicious falsehood that is still being peddled by Igbo haters which claims that easterners, specifically the Igbo, started the war against the rest of Nigeria.
Of course, leaders of the eastern region decided to secede from Nigeria because of widespread feeling of alienation and non-belongingness among easterners arising mainly from the extremely inhuman treatment they received from northerners mostly, supported by the northern-led government of Lt. Col. Gowon. Moreover, Biafran secession is justified on the basis of the inalienable right of peoples for self-determination. Igbo haters tend to forget that, logically speaking, secession does not necessarily entail violence or war, although those in power oftentimes respond to the situation by declaring war against the secessionists. To be clear, it was the Nigerian government headed by Gowon, goaded on by warmongers led by Murtala Ramat Mohammed, Mohammed Shuwa, Theophilus Danjuma, Hassan Usman Katsina and others that started the war. Biafrans were obliged to defend themselves in line with the universal principle of self-preservation.
The civil war began in earnest on July 6, 1967, when the Nigerian army unleashed an artillery barrage against Ogoja in the north-eastern corner of Biafra. And because Gowon was confident (overconfident, as it eventually turned out) that Biafra would be subdued quickly with “a short, surgical police action,” for him the possibility of making peace overtures to the secessionists was completely out of the question.
It is pathetic but quite understandable that Gowon would blame Ojukwu for the hideous military brutality against Biafrans during the war by claiming that “The war is not against the Igbo. It is against the personal ambitions of Ojukwu and his rebel gang.”
After all, as at the time he ordered his troops to attack Biafra, Gowon was not intellectually sophisticated enough to understand the imperatives of a people’s right to self-determination in the face of looming genocide; also, he did not appreciate the profound alienation and disillusionment felt by the Igbo whose kith and kin had been murdered by northerners for no good reason.
That said, it is utterly disgraceful that a historian of stature like Prof. E.A. Ayandele would declare that “If an individual ever decided the course of events in any country, Odumegwu Ojukwu did – by pushing Nigeria inexorably in the direction of civil war.” Ayandele’s strategy of blaming the victim is as old as recorded history.
Perhaps, he did not know that Ojukwu very reluctantly accepted secession, and that the eastern region’s Consultative Assembly had already decided to replace Ojukwu if he refused to announce the creation of Biafra. Accordingly, considering federal government’s reluctance or plain refusal to help Ndigbo cope with the tremendous trauma they were going through as a result of the pogroms against them, Gowon’s repudiation of the Aburi accord and the tremendous pressure on Ojukwu as the military governor to protect his people from the rampaging northerners, Ayandele ought to have singled out Gowon and his cohorts as the prime movers of the civil war instead of Ojukwu.
For the Biafrans, it was a war of survival, a war to prevent extermination by northerners; for Gowon it was a “police action” to recapture lost territory and prevent the domino effect of other ethnic nationalities following the example of the eastern region.
It must be acknowledged that Ojukwu could still have declined the demand for secession and faced the consequences, which would have meant abdicating his responsibilities to the people as their governor and risking lifelong stigmatisation as a coward – a very unpalatable option, to say the least.
Looking back, both Ojukwu and Gowon must have been under tremendous pressure from different angles: the former because his people had been massacred in large numbers and their property destroyed, with the accompanying problems of resettlement and rehabilitation; the latter because of the burning desire of caliphate colonialists to quickly defeat the secessionists so that oil money would be firmly in the control of northerners. Probably, both men were not the right leaders for those troubled times.
They were relatively too young, befuddled by ego, hindered by lack of relevant experience in the management of political crises, and obsessed with interpersonal competition and petty rivalries. To be continued.