By Douglas Anele
That said, it is disappointing that a historian of stature like Prof. E.A. Ayandele would declare ex cathedra 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, which almost always leads to the distortion of facts. Perhaps, he did not know, or deliberately disregarded the fact that Ojukwu very reluctantly accepted secession, and that some members of the eastern region’s Consultative Assembly were planning to replace Ojukwu if he refused to announce the creation of Biafra.
Accordingly, considering federal government’s reluctance or plain refusal to help the military governor of eastern region cope with the tremendous trauma easterners were going through as a result of the pogroms, Gowon’s surreptitious jettisoning of the Aburi accord, his failure to bring perpetrators of violence against the Igbo to justice, and the tremendous pressure on Ojukwu to protect his people from the rampaging northerners, Ayandele should have put the main blame for the war where it truly belonged, namely, on the doorsteps of Gowon and obsessive Igbophobic members of the northern ruling elite. For the Biafrans, responding to Gowon’s “short, surgical police action” was a question of survival and self-defence, a spirited effort to prevent premeditated genocide by northerners.
On the other hand, for Lt. Col. Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, other northern conquistadores, it was a war to recapture lost territory where lucrative crude oil deposits were domiciled, cut Ojukwu and the Igbo down to size, and prevent the domino effect of eastern region’s secession on other ethnic nationalities.
After the eastern region’s Consultative Assembly had decided in favour of secession, Ojukwu was faced with the legendry devil’s alternative. He could have declined to activate the mandate for secession, or at least delayed acting on it until tempers mellowed down sufficiently for negotiations with Gowon.
But if he had done any of these, easterners, particularly Ndigbo, would have interpreted it as a betrayal, a cowardly and irresponsible abdication of his responsibilities to the people at a time when they needed strong and courageous leadership, a champion.
Looking back, both Ojukwu and Gowon must have been under tremendous pressure from different quarters: 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. No account of the Biafran phenomenon would be complete without taking the psychological dispositions of these two men into account.
Without a doubt, eastern region was virtually compelled to secede due to the pogroms against Ndigbo and the duplicitous anti-eastern policies of Gowon epitomised in the non-implementation of Aburi agreement.
However, Ojukwu and other eastern leaders grossly underestimated the resolve of the northern-led federal government to maintain the status-quo at all cost, so that northerners would continue to dominate and dictate to the rest of the country. Again, they did not reckon adequately with the extremely dangerous disparity in military resources between the largely northern-dominated Nigerian army and the hastily organised volunteer force that formed the fulcrum or nucleus of Biafra’s army. From all indications, the Biafrans committed the fatal error of thinking that inspite of the overwhelming military odds against them, their resourcefulness and ingenuity would enable them resist the federal forces to the point that both sides would see the folly in the war and genuinely seek a peaceful resolution. An impassioned letter written by Dr. Francis Akanu Ibiam to Queen Elizabeth II indicates the level of naiveté of illustrious Biafrans concerning support from purportedly christian countries for their fledgling nation.
In the letter, Dr. Ibiam lamented that “It is simply staggering for a christian country like Britain to help a muslim country to crush a christian country like Biafra…this act of unfriendliness and treachery by the British government towards the people of Republic of Biafra who, as eastern Nigerians, had so much regard for Britain and British people [is just too much for Biafrans to bear].”
Those Biafrans who were hoping that christian countries like Britain and America would actively support their legitimate aspirations or at least remain neutral in the conflict forget that capitalist nations like Britain and the United States would willingly do business with even Lucifer itself, the mythological superlative of evil as such, so long as their economic interests are protected and enhanced. Even the United Nations (UN) whose main mandate was to promote peaceful resolution of conflicts among nations was lethargic during the Biafran war.
Under U Thant as Secretary General, it applied a dubious non-interventionist strategy that indirectly helped the federal forces to commit horrendous crimes against Biafrans, particularly children. Thus, the UN did not respond to the terrible humanitarian crises in Biafra when Gen. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu despairingly called on it to mediate a ceasefire between Biafra and Nigeria as a first step to peace negotiations.
Instead, U Thant deferred to Gen. Yakubu Gowon who, seething with pure hatred of Ojukwu which was aggravated by his negative triumphalist expectation of imminent Biafran capitulation, insisted that “the rebel leaders had made it clear that this is a fight to the finish and that no concession will ever satisfy them.”
Now, without downplaying the immense personal sacrifices he made for the Biafran cause which he led, Gen. Ojukwu made some grievous errors of judgment that led to unnecessary prolongation of the war and, by implication, the sufferings of Biafrans. The most critical misjudgement was his insistence that the sovereignty of Biafra was non-negotiable.
For reasons we have already indicated, Gen. Gowon bears a greater burden of responsibility for starting the war than Gen. Ojukwu. Still, Ojukwu’s all-or-nothing attitude during the war when it was clear that some of the western countries Biafrans hoped would support their cause were actually supporting Nigeria and when around March 1968 confederation was a definite possibility, is a classic example of poor judgment.
Make no mistake about this: Gen. Ojukwu was right initially when he resisted easterners calling for secession and, due to Gowon’s extremely provocative unilateral repudiation of the Aburi accord, had to mobilise easterners to defend themselves against northern-led aggression.
However, he miscalculated by his inflexibility on the question of Biafran sovereignty, which prevented him from seizing opportunities during the war for reconfiguring Nigeria’s political architecture to generate a better structure in line with his earlier reasonable and realistic recommendation that “it is better that we move slightly apart and survive instead of moving closer and perish in the collision.”
An important lesson from Ojukwu’s misjudgement is that in any conflict situation, it is much more rational, especially for the weaker side, to be alert to situations in which some flexibility and compromise could engender a better outcome than to stick to an extreme position with uncertain, most times unpalatable, consequences.
On the federal side, Gen. Gowon was cocksure of Nigeria’s victory within a short period, while Hassan Usman Katsina jeered at those he called the “Biafran army of pen pushers” and predicted a swift victory for Nigeria. Like Ojukwu, Gowon’s capacity for appreciating the irrationality of armed conflict and acting wisely to avert it was blunted by ego and personal ambition for political power. But given his lowly pedigree and educational background before joining the army at nineteen, he was less qualified to lead than Ojukwu, son of a multimillionaire businessman who joined the army with degrees in history from Oxford University. Gowon’s meteoric rise in the army was a matter of concern for his contemporaries.
For instance, Alexander Madiebo in his book, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War, asserts that “Gowon for unknown reasons has always been very popular with British authorities, both during his training in Britain and throughout his military service in Nigeria. For this reason, his progress in the army was so remarkable and extraordinary that even his fellow northern officers were beginning to grumble.
For instance, when he was chosen to attend the Camberley Staff College, England in January 1962, Major Pam, a Jos [Joint Service] Officer senior to him, called him ‘a sneaky sucker.’ ” The unflattering perception of Gowon by his colleagues may be partially a case of envy; but his controversial role in the July, 29, 1966 coup and treachery regarding the Aburi agreement tend to support such assessment.
Anyway, Gowon was a handsome, eloquent, prim-and-proper product of British military training who deliberately used his personal skills to curry favour from influential people, including Maj-Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi. He probably was not a sadist who enjoyed killing and maiming Ndigbo, and there were instances when northerners treated Biafrans humanely. Unfortunately, caliphate colonialists exploited his character flaws to humiliate and brutalise the secessionists.
It can be justifiably argued that, having through acts of omission and commission compelled easterners to secede, Gowon saw the civil war as a good opportunity to deal decisively with his old nemesis, Ojukwu. Gowon’s vitriolic dislike for the Biafran leader even made him reject offers for assistance from international organisations after the war to beleaguered and starving Biafrans; he boasted that Nigeria was capable of dealing with the extremely daunting humanitarian problems caused by the conflict.
As it turned out, the “No victor, no vanquished” sobriquet by Gen. Gowon and launching of a programme for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation (the three R’s) was an elaborate hoax to hoodwink the international community that he was a humane leader who resisted the temptation and pressure to apply extreme measures against the defeated Biafrans.
It is remarkable that till date, more than forty-seven years after the war ended, hard core caliphate colonialists on whose banner Gowon pretended to fight for One Nigeria still consider the Igbo as a conquered people. Similarly, Gen. Gowon did not really intend to implement the so-called three R’s because the fiscal and economic policies of his government immediately after the war were decidedly meant to devastate the resilient economy of the Igbo, a subtle form of economic genocide. For example, Gowon released a tiny fraction of the about half a billion pounds that was required for completing the reconstruction effort in the defunct Biafra.
More tellingly, the federal government adopted a banking policy that nullified any account operated by Biafrans during the war, and approved a flat paltry sum of twenty pounds for each Igbo depositor of the Nigerian currency irrespective of the amount in the person’s account. To be continued. “