By Douglas Anele
Because the general mood in northern Nigeria in the mid-60s was decidedly in favour of secession (araba) it is very likely that Yakubu Gowon, Murtala Mohammed, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha who participated in the revanchist coup of July 1966 supported it. A powerful corroborating evidence in that regard is the secession passage contained in the initial draft of the first speech Gowon read after coming to power.
Having consolidated his position, he began proclaiming the myth that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable and sacrosanct, an unwise claim which the succession of northern military dictators and civilian presidents have reaffirmed sheepishly ever since. The digression about Fulani caliphate colonialist agenda of secession sets the stage for what can be described as the second consequential ideological turning-point in the country’s political evolution after independence, this time around by the dominant political class from the north.
I have already noted the profound change in the type of political structure proposed for Nigeria by leaders of the eastern region which was in tandem with what the northern military-civilian establishment had always wanted, namely, a political arrangement very close to confederacy.
To be clear, although the idea of a weak centre and strong federating units or regions was more realistic than the ill-advised One Nigeria project Dr. Azikiwe and his ardent followers pursued relentlessly, its advocacy by northern leaders was not the result of an altruistic understanding or appreciation of what was best or most suitable nationally considering the deep historical, socio-cultural and religious differences between the ethnic nationalities in the country.
Instead Ahmadu Bello and his cohorts believed that a loose federal system will not hamper in the slightest Fulani’s long-standing strategic plan of conquering the south sometime in the future after British colonial rule might have ended, as explained by Tafawa Balewa in 1947 and reiterated by the Sardauna less than two weeks after independence.
Therefore it was quite surprising to close observers of Nigeria’s experiment with self-rule after the second military coup that during the 1966 Ad Hoc constitutional conference convened by Gowon the northern delegates(most likely acting on advice from the British High Commission) presented a set of proposals completely different from their traditional standpoint on the suitable political system for the country.
They now wanted a strong and effective federal government (which means drastically reduced regional autonomy), creation of states (an idea Ahmadu Bello, several emirs and some prominent northern politicians had vehemently opposed in the past), and dropped the idea of secession completely. That the north and the east have swapped positions is indicative of the absence of coherent ideological consensus between the leading Fulani political class and their southern counterparts.
The northern volte face was partly because power had reverted back to the north, a point Gowon alluded to in October 1966 while appealing to fellow northerners to stop killing easterners in their midst: “You all know that since the end of July God in his power has entrusted the responsibility of this great country of ours to another northerner.” In addition the north had consolidated its dominance of infantry units of the army and usurped senior military positions vacated by Igbo officers after the revanchist coup.
Keep in mind that at independence Ndigbo occupied top positions in the federal civil service and the military mostly on merit, and could also be found everywhere contributing to national development. Although the people have a tendency towards what late Prof. Chinua Achebe called noisy exhibitionism and hubris derived from material success, no other ethnic group has practically manifested belief in One Nigeria more than the Igbo.
That is probably the major reason why Dr. Azikiwe favoured a strong central government which would protect all citizens and enhance national unity. But Azikiwe’s vision, pregnant with exciting possibilities for the “uppity Igbo,” was too sanguine and idealistic. It did not reckon with the deep contradictions between the hegemonic Islamic theocratic political outlook of the ruling northern power-block and the egalitarian-republican weltanschauung of the south, especially the eastern region. After all, water and oil do not mix, which means that Nigeria’s foundational edifice is intrinsically prone to catastrophic political and ethno-religious seismic movement right from the beginning.
The ideological turnaround of eastern leaders in favour of a relatively weak centre and stronger federating units after the July coup was primarily a response to the decimation of high-ranking military officers of Igbo extraction, Ahmadu Bello’s and Tafawa Balewa’s nativist anti-One Nigeria northernisation policy, and pogroms that led to the killing and maiming of over one hundred and fifty thousand Igbo people resident in the north.
On the other hand, a very significant but often overlooked dimension that sheds more light on why the north abandoned araba and opted for unitarism is this: immediately after independence northern domination of the army gained momentum as a result of federal government’s discriminatory nepotic policies which allowed northerners without appropriate educational qualifications and experience to be enlisted in the army and, as I pointed out earlier, fill vacancies created by the forced exit of Igbo officers.
Meanwhile before southern leaders realised what was happening their northern counterparts, having recognised that the military could be used as a potent instrument for the capture and monopolisation of political power, ensured that the federal government relied heavily on the army, which was already evolving into a tool in the hands of Fulani caliphate colonialists for that very purpose.
Thus it is false to claim that the Nigerian military has always been professionally organised and apolitical since politicisation of the army started in earnest after independence. And as the devastating civil war and the alacrity with which the current Buhari regime deploys disproportionate military force to deal with agitations for self-determination in the south while treating murderous Fulani terrorists with kid’s gloves indicate, the Nigerian army is considered by many southerners as a core component of the Fulani colonisation project started more than two centuries ago by Dan Fodio.
The Aburi summit of 1967 provided a neutral platform for renegotiating the principles of Nigerian statehood after the terrible events of 1966. But it was scuttled by Gowon and his advisers, with British officials working behind the scenes to maintain the status quo which was very economically favourable to their home country. Emefiena Ezeani has explored this theme thoroughly in his thought-provoking book, In Biafra Africa Died: The Diplomatic Plot. The unfortunate aspect of the Aburi saga is that high-ranking federal civil servants from the south led by Solomon Akenzua convinced Gowon to unilaterally repudiate the Aburi accord.
Reflecting on the historical significance of the failure to implement the agreements reached in Ghana Gowon, Ojukwu and their advisers made wrong choices that led inevitably to armed conflict. Max Siollun makes the same point explicitly by suggesting that “…the all or nothing approach to them taken by the protagonists was myopic.” It is evident that Lt. Cols. Gowon and Ojukwu were too young and inexperienced to navigate successfully the turbulent murky waters of Nigerian politics.
Again Ojukwu and his advisers underestimated the length northern leaders were willing to go to maintain their military-backed political advantage which was supported by Britain. Soboth sides failed to make the unpalatable but necessary concessions required to avoid further confrontation between eastern region and the federal military government.
To be continued…