Anyway, Gen. Yakubu Gowon in the 1960s as a young military officer was a handsome, charismatic, prim-and-proper product of British military training who, according to Prof. Achebe, deliberately used his personal skills to curry favour from influential people, including Maj-Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi.
He probably was not a quintessential sadist who enjoyed killing and maiming people, and there were instances when he condemned the violent attacks on the Igbo by northern mobs.
Yet, after he was anointed head of state by fellow northern military officers, Gowon did not match words with actions. He was not decisive in dealing with perpetrators of the unspeakable violence against the Igbo, neither did his government make concerted efforts to help eastern region cope with the serious humanitarian crisis that reared up as a result of the pogroms in northern Nigeria.
As result, easterners, mostly the Igbo, began to question their status in Nigeria, whether, moving forward after the massacres, their belongingness to the geopolitical expression called Nigeria could be ensured by the federal government.
To Ndigbo and many other people from the eastern region, the failure of government to stop the massacres and deal with those involved was a deliberate plan to push the region out of Nigeria so that the northern dominated army can subdue it after a civil war might have broken out, the blame for which would then be put, in Gowon’s mangled description, on “Ojukwu and his gang of rebels.”
Unknown to Gowon, he was a willing tool used by caliphate colonialists to actualise the neo-feudalist jihadist agenda formulated by Sir Ahmadu Bello and endorsed lock, stock and barrel by Alhaji Tafawa Balewa. On a more personal note, it can be justifiably argued that, having through acts of omission and commission compelled easterners to secede, Gowon saw the civil war as the final solution to “the Igbo Problem,” a good opportunity to deal decisively with his old nemesis, Ojukwu. But Ojukwu’s departure before Biafra surrendered prevented him from having total closure and fulfilment in victory.
Going into fine details of the war, the intrigues, missed opportunities for peace, the duplicitous role of western powers led by Britain against Biafra, Ojukwu’s devastating strategic errors and, more importantly, the horrendous sacrifices by Biafrans epitomised in the horrifying sufferings they experienced because of genocidal attacks by federal forces etc., would elongate our already lengthy discussion considerably. Suffice it to say that after Biafra had surrendered, the former country was, in the words of Achebe, “was a vast smouldering rubble.”
In the midst of all this Gowon, because of his vitriolic dislike for the Biafran leader, rejected offers for much needed assistance from international organisations after the war to save millions of beleaguered, traumatised and starving Biafrans. He boasted that Nigeria was capable of dealing with the extremely daunting humanitarian problems caused by the conflict.
History records that Gowon’s boast was mostly empty: funding by his government for the famous (or infamous) Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation programme (the three R’s) was grossly inadequate. In my view, that was partly because although Nigeria had crushed Biafra, Gowon’s fragile ego was not totally satisfied; his main adversary, Ojukwu, escaped before ultimate humiliation. Obsessive quest for revenge is a terrible mental condition.
Immediately after the war, hardliners in the Nigerian government were hungry for pure revenge against the defeated Biafrans: even Gowon, inspite of the conciliatory tone of his national broadcast, failed to realise that since the conflict was over the most important and urgent task was rebuilding shattered lives in the defunct eastern region. His sadistic rejection of foreign assistance and proscription of relief agencies that helped Biafra during the war actually exacerbated the sufferings of fellow human beings, particularly children. It is difficult to discern what exactly Gen. Gowon and his lieutenants hoped to gain by such sadism. As it turned out, the “No victor, no vanquished” sobriquet that underpinned his programme of three R’s was insincere, a strategy to hoodwink the international community and project an image of a humane leader who resisted the temptation and pressure to apply extreme measures against the losers.
Gowon did the right thing by resisting hardliners who wanted absolute revenge against senior members of Biafran government and armed forces, or something akin to the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War. But then, it is remarkable that till date, more than forty-seven years after the war ended, hard core caliphate colonialists on whose banner Gowon claimed to fight for One Nigeria still consider the Igbo as a conquered people.
Despite the impressive literature claiming that Ndigbo have been fully integrated into Nigeria after the war, the fact is that they were not and still have not been reintegrated into the so-called Nigerian nation, as evidenced by the current IPOB-led agitation for the resurrection of Biafra. Gen. Gowon and his band of caliphate colonialists were not really interested in the full assimilation of Ndigbo into the Nigerian system, judging by the fiscal and economic policies of his government after the war, which further crippled the devastated economy of the Igbo – a subtle form of economic genocide.
For example, Gowon released only a tiny fraction of the five hundred million pounds that were required for carrying out the reconstruction effort in the defunct Biafra. More tellingly, his government implemented a banking policy nullifying any account operated by Biafrans during the war.
Accordingly, every Biafran depositor was entitled to only a flat paltry sum of twenty pounds irrespective of the amount in the person’s account.
The federal government also banned importation of second-hand clothing and stockfish, the main commodities traded in the bourgeoning commercial centres of Aba, Nnewi and Onitsha. Although Gowon tried to deny it in an interview with the ace journalist, late Pini Jason, it is obvious that the Enterprises Promotion decree or Indigenisation decree of 1974 was intended to shift the economic balance from eastern Nigeria to other parts of the country.
It was intended to ensure that only few Ndigbo participated in the scheme, having been stripped of the investment capital they needed through the atrocious twenty pounds per depositor policy. Gowon also failed to address satisfactorily the knotty issue of property abandoned by Ndigbo outside the core Igbo-speaking areas.
Especially in the old Rivers State, most of the Igbo with documentary evidence could not get their property back. It is a testament to their never-say-die-attitude, resourcefulness and ingenuity that about a decade after the civil war Ndigbo had recovered enough to gradually claw their way back to the zenith of informal economy throughout Nigeria.
Now, let us talk about the role of some prominent Nigerians during the Biafran war. Chief Awolowo comes to mind first, because he was one of the greatest twentieth century African political philosophers and whose tenure as Premier of the western region sets a benchmark on what effective leadership ought to be. Awolowo was one of the eminent Nigerians that attempted a last minute reconciliation effort between Gowon and Ojukwu.
After the attempt failed and drumbeat of secession was sounding loudly in the east, he remarked that if the east pulled out from Nigeria the west would not be far behind. Now, the question is – why did Awolowo, who was reputed to be a principled politician, fail not to carry out his threat when the east seceded?
Several answers have been given to that tantalising question, with some ardent Awoists alleging that he changed his mind under duress. I do not know if anyone asked the late politician that question when he was alive, and what his response was. Regardless, Chief Awolowo provided room for a plausible accusation of crooked Machiavellianism against him not only by failing to carry out his threat but, worse still, by accepting to serve in Gowon’s government as his deputy and federal commissioner of finance. For those Yoruba who revere Chief Awolowo as if he were an infallible deity and try to explain away his egregious error of unwittingly advancing caliphate colonialists’ agenda of “uninterrupted conquest to the sea,” they must be reminded that, like all mortals the late “sage” is a fallible human being with personal ambitions, idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses.
Therefore, it is very likely that Awolowo hoped that by giving unflinching support to the federal government headed by Gen. Gowon against Biafra, the latter would reciprocate by helping him to become the President or Prime Minister whenever the military handed power to a democratically elected government. Chief Awolowo committed other serious blunders during the Biafran war which sullied his reputation as a political philosopher and humanist.
In his highly informative work, The Brutality of Nations, Dan Jacobs quoted a horrible statement by Awolowo to the effect that “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.”
Aside from the fact that that proposition contravenes the Geneva Convention which stipulates that fundamental human rights must be respected and protected during conflict, Adolf Hitler’s holocaust against the Jews can also be justified morally with Chief Awolowo’s argument.
Of course, Awolowo was involved in those atrocious economic and fiscal policies introduced by the federal military government to asphyxiate Igboland. But why would a political philosopher with the mental magnitude of Awolowo support policies and programmes with genocidal consequences?
The answer lies in the dark inner recesses of human nature, the latter being characteristically an admixture of the angelic and the bestial. Prof. Achebe argues plausibly that Chief Awolowo was driven by an overriding ambition for power for himself in particular and for the advancement of his Yoruba people in general.
Regrettably, that ambition pushed him beyond the bounds of reasonableness, to the extent of participating in crafting and implementing an evil policy to drastically reduce the number of his enemies, especially children, through excruciating death by starvation and kwashiorkor. Chiefs Alison Ayida and Anthony Enahoro were also complicit in the genocidal war against the Igbo whose temperamental weaknesses did not justify the atrocities committed against them by Gowon’s military government on behalf of caliphate colonialists. Gowon, Awolowo, Ayida and Enahoro are christians. During the war they conveniently forgot the doctrine of love and Sermon on the Mount. Some scholars, including Professors, defend the actions of Gowon and his cabinet with the argument that during wars each side must take necessary measures to secure victory. Superficially the argument seems valid. Yet, even in war there are moral rules of engagement.
Besides, extreme brutalisation in war and severe punishment of the loser tend to plant the seeds of domineering attitude in the victorious side and deep resentment in the losers.
When the seed germinates, like it did in Europe when Hitler emerged in Germany, a bloodier conflict than the previous one becomes almost inevitable. The lesson here is clear and straightforward: obsessive craving for political power and revenge invariably leads to the abandonment of morality, which is a necessary prelude to the dehumanisation of man by man. To be continued.