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The Forgotten Documents Of The Nigerian Civil War

The most comprehensive and almost cover-all organization of the documents of the Nigerian Civil War remains AHM Kirk-Greene’s CRISIS AND CONFLICT IN NIGERIA, A Documentary Sourcebook 1966-1970 Volume 1, and Volume 2, published by Oxford University Press London, New York and Ibadan in 1971. Volume One, according to the blurb, “describes the prelude to the war and the succession of coups from that of 15 January1966 which initially brought a military regime to power in Nigeria”.
The volume takes the story up to July 1967 when the war began. Volume Two covers July 1967 to January 1970, that is, between the beginning of hostilities, and when, as testified by the last entry in the volume, General Yakubu Gowon made a Victory broadcast, The Dawn of National Reconciliation, on January 15, 1970. No other collection of civil war documents, to my knowledge, exists that compares with these two volumes. And none, as far as I know, has attempted to update or complement the publications so as to include or make public, other documents that are absent from Kirk-Greene’s yeoman’s job. Yet, as my title pointedly insists, there have been some truly ‘forgotten’ documents of the Nigerian Civil War which ought to be added and without which much of the history being narrated will continue to suffer gaps that empower enormous misinterpretations, if not falsehoods.
In my view, the most forgotten documents of the Nigerian civil war, which deserved to be, but were not included in the original compilation by Kirk-Greene – are two. The first is the much talked-about, but never seen, Ifeajuna Manuscript. It was written by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the leader of the January 15 1966 Coup that opened the floodgates to other untoward events leading to the civil war. The author poured it all down in the “white hot heat” of the first few weeks after the failed adventure that ushered in the era of military regimes in Nigeria’s history. Not, as many would have wished, the story of how the five majors carried out the coup. It is more of an apologia, a statement of why they carried out the coup, and what they meant to achieve by it. It is still unpublished so many decades after it was written. The Manuscript had begun to circulate, very early, in what may now be seen as samizdat editions. They passed from hand to hand in photocopies, in an underground career that seemed fated to last forever until 1985 when retired General Olusegun Obasanjo, after his first coming as Head of State, quoted generously from it in his biography of his friend, Major Chukuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the man who, although not the leader of the coup, became its historical avatar and spokesperson. Indeed, Nzeogwu’s media interviews in the first 48 hours after the coup have remained the benchmark for praising or damning it. Ifeajuna’s testimony fell into the hands of the military authorities quite early and has been in limbo. Few Nigerians know about its existence. So many who know about it have been wondering why the manuscript has not seen the light of day.
The other document, the second most forgotten of the Nigerian Civil War, has had more luck than the Ifeajuna Manuscript. It happens to be the transcript of the famous meeting of May 6th and 7th 1967, held at Enugu, between Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the Military Governor of Eastern Region, and Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Leader of the Yoruba and an old political opponent of the leaders of the Eastern Region. Awolowo attended the meeting at the head of a delegation of peace hunters in a bid to avert a shooting war after the pogrom against Easterners which presaged the counter-coup of July 29, 1966. The transcripts of the meeting, never publicly known to have existed, entered public discourse formally when a speech by Chief Obafemi Awolowo delivered on the first day of the meeting was published in a book, Path to Nigerian Greatness, edited by MCK Ajuluchuku, the Director for Research and Publicity of the Unity Party of Nigeria, in 1980. The speech seemed too much of a teaser. So it remained, until it was followed by Awo on the Nigerian Civil War, edited by Bari Adedeji Salau in 1981, with a Foreword by the same MCK Ajuluchuku. The book went beyond the bit and snippet allowed in the earlier publication by accommodating the full transcripts of the two-day meeting. Not much was made of it by the media until it went out of print. Partly for this reason and because of the limited number in circulation, the transcripts never entered recurrent discussions of the Nigerian civil war. The good thing is that, if only for the benefit of those who missed it before, the book has been reprinted. It was among twelve other books by Obafemi Awolowo re-launched by the African Press Ltd of Ibadan at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, in March 2007. Important to note is that among other speeches made by Awolowo, before during and after, on the Nigerian Civil War, the transcripts are intact.
They reveal who said what between Chief Obafemi Awolowo, his Excellency Lt. Col. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, Sir Francis Ibiam, Chiefs Jereton Mariere, C.C. Mojekwu, JIG Onyia, Professors Eni Njoku, Samuel Aluko and Dr. Anezi Okoro, who attended the meeting. Unlike the Ifeajuna Manuscript, still in limbo, the transcripts are in respectable print and may be treated as public property or at least addressed as a feature of the public space.
I regard both documents as the most forgotten documents of the civil war because they have hardly been mentioned in public discourses in ways that recognize the gravity of their actual contents. Or better to say, they have been mentioned, only in passing, in articles written for major Nigerian newspapers and magazines since the 70s, or parried on television, but only in figurative understatements by people who, for being able to do so, have appeared highly privileged. The privilege, grounded in the fact that they remained unpublished, may have been partially debunked by the publications I have mentioned, but their impact on the discussions have not gone beyond the hyped references to them, and the innuendos and insinuations arising from secessionist propaganda during the civil war. The core of the propaganda, which reverberated at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference at Harvard University in September, 2007, is that Awolowo promised that if the Igbos were allowed, by acts of commission or omission, to secede, he would take the Western Region out of Nigeria. In a sort of Goebellian stunt, many ex-Biafrans including high flying academics, intellectuals and publicists who should know better, write about it as if they do not know that the shooting war ended in 1970. What Awolowo is supposed to have discussed with Ojukwu before the shooting war has been turned into an issue for post-war propaganda even more unrestrained than in the days of the shooting war. The propaganda of the war has been dutifully regurgitated by a Minister of the Federal Republic, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, twice on loan to the Federal Government of Nigerian from the World Bank, in the book, Achebe: Teacher of Light(Africa World Press, Inc,2003) co-authored with Tijan M. Sallah. They write: “The Igbos had made the secessionist move with the promise from Chief Obafemi Awolowo in the Southwest that the Yoruba would follow suit. The plan was if the southeast and southwest broke away from the Nigerian federal union, the federal government would not be able to fight a war on two fronts. Awolowo, however, failed to honour his pledge, and the secession proved a nightmare for the Igbos. Awolowo in fact became the Minister of finance of the federal government during the civil war.” (p.90).
Forty years after the civil war, you would expect that some formal, academic decorum would be brought into play to sift mere folklore and propaganda from genuine history. But not so for those who do not care about the consequences of the falsehoods that they trade. They continue to pump myths that treat their own people as cannon fodder in their elite search for visibility, meal tickets and upward mobility in the Nigerian spoils system. Rather than lower the frenzy of war-time ‘huge lies’ that were crafted for the purpose of shoring up combat morale, they increase the tempo. I mean: postwar reconstruction should normally forge the necessity for returnees from the war to accede to normal life rather than lose their everyday good sense in contemplation of events that never happened or pursuing enemies who were never there. Better, it ought to be expected, for those who must apportion blame and exact responsibility, to work at a dogged sifting of fact from fiction, relieving the innocent of life-threatening charges, in the manner of the Jews who, after the Second World War sought to establish who were responsible for the pogroms before they pressed implacable charges. Unfortunately, 40 years does not seem to have been enough in the Nigerian case. Those who organized the pogrom are lionized as patriots by champions of the Biafran cause. Those who sought lasting answers away from blind rampage are demonized as villains. The rest of us are all left mired in the ghastly incomprehension that led to the war. Those for whom the civil war was not a lived, but a narrated experience, are made to re-experience it as nightmare, showing how much of an effort of mind needs to be made to strip the past of sheer mush. As it happens, every such effort continues to be waylaid by the sheerness of war propaganda that has been turned into post-war authoritative history. It is often offered by participants in the war who, like Dim Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu himself, will not give up civil war reflexes that ruined millions.
In an interview in Boston on July 9th 2001, Ojukwu told a questioner: “We’ve said this over and over again, so many times, and people don’t understand: they don’t want to actually. If you remember, I released Awolowo from jail. Even that, some people are beginning to contest as well. Awo was in jail in Calabar. Gowon knows and the whole of the federal establishment knows that at no point was Gowon in charge of the East. The East took orders from me. Now, how could Gowon have released Awolowo who was in Calabar?
Because the fact that I released him, it created quite a lot of rapport between Awo and myself, and I know that before he went back to Ikenne, I set up a hotline between Ikenne and my bedroom in Enugu. He tried, like an elder statesman to find a solution. Awolowo is a funny one. Don’t forget that the political purpose of the coup, the Ifeajuna coup that began all this, was to hand power over to Awo. We young men respect him a great deal. He was a hero. I thought he was a hero and certainly I received him when I was governor. We talked and he was very vehement when he saw our complaints and he said that if the Igbos were forced out by Nigeria that he would take the Yorubas out also. I don’t know what anybody makes of that statement but it is simple. Whether he did or didn’t , it is too late. There is nothing you can do about it. So, he said this and I must have made some appropriate responses too. But it didn’t quite work out the way that we both thought. Awolowo, evidently, had a constant review of the Yoruba situation and took different path.
That’s it. I don’t blame him for it. I have never done”. This was quoted in Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo’s article, reporting the Okigbo International Conference, on page 102 of The GUARDIAN, Monday, October 1, 2007. Quite an interesting one for anyone who wishes to appreciate the folkloric dimensions that mis-led many who listened to Radio Biafra or have followed the post-war attempts to win the war in retrospect instead of preparing the survivors, on both sides of the war, to confront the reality that mauled them and could maul them again unless they shape up.
Against Ojukwu’s self-expiatory remarks, it is of interest to read Hilary Njoku, the head of the Biafran army at the start of the war. In his war memoirs, A tragedy without heroes, he declares that the meeting between Obafemi Awolowo and Ojukwu had nothing to do with the decision to announce secession. Njoku writes that: “…most progressive Nigerians, even before him, saw ‘Biafra’ as a movement, an egalitarian philosophy to put Nigeria in order, a Nigeria where no tribe is considered superior to the others forever…….It was the same Biafran spirit which led Chief Awolowo to declare publicly that if the Eastern Region was pushed out of Nigeria, then the Western Region would follow suit. When Ojukwu moved too fast recklessly in his ostrich strategy, the same Chief Awolowo led a delegation of Western and some Midwestern leaders to Enugu on 6th May, 1967 and pleaded with Ojukwu not to secede, reminding him that the Western Region was not militarily ready to follow suit in view of the weaknesses of the Western Command of the Nigerian Army and the dominant position of the Northern troops in the West. Ojukwu turned a deaf ear to this advice maybe because of his wrong concept”.(p.141)
Anyone wishing to, or refusing to, take Ojukwu’s word for it may do worse than read what I am calling the forgotten documents. I am of the view that there are immovable grounds for refusing to take Ojukwu’s word on faith. Or, may be, faith would be excusable if one has not read the transcripts of the Enugu meeting in addition to the mileage of information provided by many post-civil war narrations since Alexander A. Madiebo’s opener, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. What seems to be unknown to hagiographers of the civil war is that the meeting about which they have told so much was actually documented.
The transcripts of the meeting are no longer secrets. They have been in the open for more three decades, providing a basis for recasting the seduction of the propaganda which pictured the meeting as a secret one with participants being the only ones who could vouch for what was or was not said. Arguably, dependence on sheer memory, living in a folklorist’s paradise, may well have enabled all and sundry to feel free to mis-describe what transpired, to build an industry of deliberate falsification, leaving common everyday information to be whispered about as to their earth-shaking impact, as if a loud comment on them would bring the sky down. Indeed, it can be imagined how the old propaganda lines about what happened at the Enugu meeting helped to shore up morale on the secessionist side during the civil war while, on the Federal side, absolute silence or ‘rogue’ mis-use and abuse of their supposed truth-value, powered official indifference, somersaults and snide reviews, in speech and action. Since there are many on both sides of the civil war who have had rationales for not letting the whole truth survive, it may be seen as quite convenient to have found a man like Awolowo, too much of a thorn in the flesh of many, as a necessary scapegoat. It explains why no proper history of the Nigerian Civil War is to be found which looks with dispassion at the issues and without contrived gaps. Few, without the benefit of the light that the two forgotten documents bring to bear on the issues, have been able to interrogate the purveyors of the falsehoods – the big men who did not know the truth but have had to say something authoritative about it; or those who know it but have had reasons, personal and public, for not vouchsafing it. Besides, there exists a gaggle of revisionists and post-war hackers who do not want the truth to be known because it hurts their pride as inheritors of the falsehoods. They prefer, through a brazen parroting of unfounded folklore, to swindle generations that, as a result, have become unavailable for the building of genuine nation-sense that can accommodate all Nigerians. So over-powering has been their impact that logically impossible and groundless historical scenarios, deserving of contempt by all rational people, are trussed up and served as staple. I believe that given such poor historical accounting, the benign, intelligent, form of amnesia that, after a civil war, helps people to deal with the reality, has been repressed by voluble folklore.

By Odia Ofeimun

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