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The Forgotten Documents Of The Nigerian Civil War

According to Dudley, the NCNC wished that the Action Group be destroyed so that they, the only member of the coalition that had a foothold in the West, would inherit the West and then confront the North with a Southern solidarity. After Awolowo was jailed in 1962, NCNC strategists actually tried to swallow up the West by forming a coalition with the Akintola faction of the AG which had become the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). They did not reckon with the ingenuity of that doughty fighter, the Are Ona Kankanfo himself. He saw the score quickly. He preferred an alliance with the senior partner in the coalition, the NPC. It was only after failing with the NNDP that the NCNC came back to the AG, this time, in search of a foothold rather than a routing. The Action Group leader, in prison, advised his followers to coast along until it became obvious that the NCNC was more interested in power at the centre and would not like to lose the perks from the coalition in the Federal House. By the time the Western Regional election of 1965 was rigged, the Action Group had formalized an organizational prong that enabled the members, at large, to fulfill the old promise by their leader: rather than for the West to be taken over by undemocratic means, the region would be made ungovernable. This was proficiently achieved with the Wetie riots dousing opponents with petrol to aid match flare – that gave the sobriquet of the WildWild West to the region.
Of course, at the point of the region-wide riots, it was clear that the two coalition partners, working together for the destruction of the AG would have to re-strategize. Although sharing power at the Federal level, they nevertheless worked against each other everywhere else. The NPC had planned to use its men in the national army for a coup that would clear the nation of the insurgents in the West and in the Middle Belt, especially in Tivland, where there was an active guerilla war against the government. Meanwhile, by 1964, the UMBC had joined with NEPU to carry out a Northern liberation of sorts before facing the Federal behemoth. They all however joined the United Progressive Grand Alliance, UPGA, whose game, with the NCNC as the core-party, was to go for broke. There seemed to be a consensus across the country, and in every political party, that the crisis could only be resolved through violence. All the political parties were primed for it.
In a country, so wired for armed struggle, there was bound to be very little room for the truth to have dominion. What had to be done through the law courts, as the Action Group would discover, was very much a charade. Awolowo was convicted on the ground that he was so over-weaningly ambitious that although he was not specifically found guilty, his fingerprints could be read on all the events that were to culminate in a coup. The judges, to prove the vaulting nature of the ambitions, took judicial notice of the dreams that Awolowo had recorded in a notebook which he called Flashes of Inspiration. It must be one of the unique court cases in history in which a man was jailed for what he said he saw in a dream rather than what he actually did. Nigeria had simply become a country seeded by and overcome by paranoia, an atmosphere of psychological block, making it difficult to look at opponents with any objectivity. The tendency was to accept every charge as true, the more heinous the better, if directed at someone about whom something good is not supposed to be said. So the charge of treasonable felony was swallowed hook and line without the minimum application of gumption. As it turned out, and as Obasanjo has told the story, Chukwuma Nzeogwu was the intelligence officer who was attached to the efforts to unravel the veracity of the charges in the Coker Commission and Treasonable Felony trial. He was obviously privy to the discovery made by the Coker Commission that Awolowo kept a good account: that he had more money before he became a Premier of western Region than he had in his account after eight years of living in his own house, not in the state house, and spending his own money on entertainment. Even when Kwame Nkrumah visited Nigeria on a state visit, the Ghanaian President stayed in Awolowo’s house at Oke Ado in Ibadan. Not in any state house. Thus, there is every reason to assume that Nzeogwu had enough information about the man’s distance from the common run of politicians in the country for Awolowo to be raised above the slough of general discussions and brickbats.
What cannot be established is whether the coup makers ever made an attempt to contact Awolowo in jail. From Ifeajuna’s account, the coup makers were quite dubious about Awolowo’s support. They had therefore decided that if they released him and he failed to be their leader, they would lock him up in the state house and issue decrees in his name. Quite glaring in the so-called master plan is that the coup makers were horridly naïve and permutative. So much so that about the senior officers Ifeajuna writes: “some of our senior officers who were likely to fight on the side of the regime were to be arrested while action took place. We also had to watch the concentration of senior officials . Only those who resisted arrest or fired at troops were to be fired at. When action was completed and a new regime was set up, they were to be released and given appointments, but not necessarily related to what posts they held before the event. We were to present our General with a ‘fait accompli’. We were to apologize to him for our actions and request him to join us and take over the plans. If he was not prepared to join us, we would request that he should leave us alone to complete it. And in that case we were to appeal to the officer next in line to come to our help”(70). This sounds like the view of an officer and gentleman who expected the behaviour of others to be determined by his view of human nature rather than by the exigencies on the ground. Ifeajuna as much as lends credence to the charge that Nnamdi Azikiwe was tipped off to go on a health cruise so that he would not be around during the action. He writes: “We were to act before the ex-President returned from his trip to Europe and his carousing cruise to the Caribbean. This, for two reasons. Firstly, we were certain that he would put up a fight against us. Not that this mattered: but as the head of state he could easily call in foreign troops. In his absence only the Prime Minister could do so. And so the number of persons to invite foreign troops was reduced from two to one. Second reason was that , if he returned, we had to deal with him. But the task of clearing his residence at the state house would require more troops than we could conveniently muster.”
So did he nudge the President to exit while they plotted? He wrote:
“We considered that two VIPs would be of importance to us in controlling the nation. If our General agreed to come with us, then he could rest in charge of the army or he could be head of state. He was acceptable to most officers and men. We would have to appeal to him. We knew that without him it would be difficult to hold the country.
“We also believed that Chief Obafemi Awolowo had become recognized as the rallying point of our nation. If we attempted any set-up without him, we could quite easily end up opposed by the relatively progressive political parties. For him therefore we had the post of executive president or Prime Minister depending on the reaction of our General. But we were also afraid that he could refuse to accept power handed over to him by us. There was the possibility of this highly principled man refusing to come out of jail to assume the highest post in the land. I took care of this. We were to go to him and explain the facts and appeal to him. We planned to bring him into Lagos by air before noon on 15 January. If he refused to leave jail, he was to be ordered to do so. As a prisoner he had no choice. We were to transfer him to the State House and if he still refused, we were to hold him here and inform him that this was his new gaol house! Meanwhile we planned to get the elders of the state to help us get him to agree. If in the end he refused, he was to be held and decrees were to be issued in his name”.
Surely, part of the naivity of the coup makers, or the mis-interpretation of their wishes by their failed coup-leader, is that they hoped to set up a cabinet of civil servants and abolish the Federal system of government. “We had made a selection of fifteen civil servants from all over the country, all of them available on call in the federal civil service. We planned to abolish the federal system of government and get back to the military system. The country was to be broken up into fifteen provinces. In each province there was to be a military governor and a head of administatration. The regions were to start winding up themselves by handing over at once minor functions to the new provinces. On the other hand, major functions of the regions were at once to be taken over by the government in Lagos”. That is, in effect, they would get out of prison a man who went to jail for seeking to entrench Federalism and ask him to run a military system, more or less a unitary system. Although the immediate creation of provinces would have mollified Awolowo and many of those who later joined in the revenge coup, there was evident naivety, if not suicidal predisposition in coup makers’ waffling on the question of Federalism or unitarism.
At any rate, according to information vouchsafed after the coup, they had to act to upstage the plans of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) which was to have sent soldiers to the Western Region on January 17, 1966 to deal with the insurgents in the Western Region. When Western Premier Akintola left the NPC leader, Sir Ahmadu Bello on the 14th of January and jetted homewards to Ibadan, he was certain that the deal was fool-proof until the Five Majors of January 15, 1966 struck. Lets grant the benefit of the doubt: that Awolowo would have been released immediately on January 15, 1966 but for those who hijacked the coup from the five majors. Or was it simply taken over from, or handed over by, the five majors? As the narrative goes, the officer detailed to fly Awolowo to Lagos from Calabar already had his brief. But it never happened. Ojukwu, in effective control of Kano had already scuttled any plan that could take off from what could have become a Kano front. After he was made military Governor of the East, he had urgent matters to attend to which could not have put Awolowo on the agenda. So there is no point disputing his claim that be signed a warrant for the release of the prisoner. It was clearly not agreed that the warrant should be executed. Imaginably, a government that moved quickly to enact a Unitary Decree could not have been in a hurry to release a sworn Federalist from jail. The question is: if Ojukwu signed the warrant, how did the effectuation of the warrant wait for so long until it coincided with the order given by Lt.Col Yakubu Gowon at the head of the revenge coup, for Awolowo to be released? This is an important question because Awolowo was not released until seven months after the first coup of the year. The historic task fell upon the revenge coup makers who had toppled General Aguiyi Ironsi after a rigorously organized pogrom against the Igbo, with a number of other Southerners added to the kill. It was certainly to gain a wider base than their Northern security ambitions allowed that the release of Awolowo from Calabar Prison was announced. It leaves a sneaking feeling that Ojukwu’s powers over the Eastern Region, to which all Igbo in the Nigerian diaspora had to return in search of a safe haven, had not yet become so all-pervasive as to be able to countermand a swiftly executed decision by Federal authorities intent on releasing Awolowo from jail. Nor would it have been politic for Ojukwu, even if he had the power, to attempt to prevent Awolowo from being released after a Federal order to that effect. It would have amounted to holding Awolowo hostage. Could it be said then that in order not to fall into the role of hostage taker, Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, as Military Governor of the Eastern Region carried out an order initiated by a Federal Military Government that he had so flagrantly repudiated? Whatever is the case, it was the release that enabled Awolowo to participate in the discussions to resolve the crisis through sundry Leaders of Thought Meetings up till Awolowo’s peace-hunt to Enugu before the first shot in the Civil war was fired.
It may well be added that it was Awolowo’s participation in Gowon’s administration that enabled him to get a copy of the Ifeajuna manuscript. A copy was sent to him by a well-wisher who thought he should know about the plans that the January 15 1966 coup makers had had in store for him. It was in similar fashion that he got a copy of the transcripts of the Enugu meeting after the tapes were said to have been captured at the fall of Enugu and the take over of the Eastern Nigerian Broadcasting service by Federal Forces. Awolowo had the two documents in safe keeping when I became his Private (Political) Secretary in June 1978. They were among the many papers, not part of the main body of his library, which he had to bring out for my education to help my work as his “involved and committed researcher”, as he requested for in his newspaper advert for the job. I read the documents as part of many such efforts to induct me into the job. I was authorized to make copies for a number of party officials and stalwarts as a means of education in preparation for the battles that the newly formed Unity Party of Nigeria was expected to face in the Second Republic. So let me put it this way: that I read the full text of the Ifeajuna manuscript within three months of my new job. The other document, the transcript of his meeting with Ojukwu, was a typescript that had to be cyclostyled in order for many more copies to be made in preparation for the controversies that we expected to confront in the course of the 1979 election. Although there were quite a few brickbats during that election, not much came that required the appeal to the documents. But Awolowo always wanted to have the documents made public. He hadn’t thought of releasing them before the election because he did not want to draw attention to the false charges at the treasonable felony trials. We did not think the period of election was the best period to do so especially one which he thought to be critical for a man of seventy who may never have another chance. The dubious value of letting the world know that coup-makers had latched upon him as the saviour they were looking for could have had a double-edged impact with a capacity for damage that may not have been easy to control. After the election, however, there was no more need for such caution. That was when Ebenezer Babatope who had always rooted for it as a job for his friend Arthur Nwankwo of Fourth Dimension, publisher of his own Coups and the Barracks Revolt, was authorized to send a copy to the Fourth Dimension for publication. Unfortunately, as Babatope reported it later, Arthur Nwankwo said Ifeajuna’s family was not in favour of the publication. Thereafter, little was done to bring the document to public attention. And, that was how the matter died. Except that I, who had been instrumental to having Awolowo bring out the document could not forget what I had read. Whenever I was confronted by a Nigerian argument which required using the materials from the manuscript to clear the ground, I used it. Especially in my rather longish articles for TheNews magazine during the June 12 Struggle, from 1993 to 1999, I took special notice of the arguments in the manuscripts in my responses to those who deployed old fictions to seek to undermine the geo-ethnic reality at work in the annulment of the election.

By Odia Ofeimun

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