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The Forgotten Documents Of The Nigerian Civil War

Actually, after I stopped being Chief Awolowo’s private Secretary, Kole Omotoso who frequently shared what he has called my ‘lived-in library’ at Seriki Aro in Ikeja while he was writing his book Just Before Dawn, brought the manuscript of Obasanjo’s Nzeogwu to my attention. It was a rather flimsy affair which he said he had been given by Professor Jide Osuntokun of the University of Lagos for a pre-publication assessment. I read through it at one sitting and told him it was a disgrace for Obasanjo, a former Head of State, to be offering such a flimsy fare about the best celebrated soldier in the history of coup-making in Nigeria. As the closest friend to Nzeogwu, virtually sharing the same bed with him on the night before the January 15 coup, he was expected to know enough about him to fill a full-length book. If he had nothing to write, I said, he should go after the letters that they once exchanged, the articles written in whatever magazine at school or wherever, and whatever snippets they could get from all the history books about the man. I proposed that he should at least avail himself of the reasons given by Emmanuel Ifeajuna in the manuscript that has been going from hand to hand without finding a publisher. At the mention of Ifeajuna’s manuscript, Kole Omotoso insisted that I had to talk to Jide Osuntokun myself. So I followed him to the Staff quarters in the University of Lagos where I told the Professor without too much preamble what I had told Kole. I also told him that I had a copy of the manuscript in safe-keeping, but that I would not give it to him. If Obasanjo was serious about the manuscript, I said, he knew where to find one; that is, if he didn’t already have a copy. In the end, although I cannot now tell where he found the copy that he quoted from, and fairly generously in the published text, I am only too glad that he caused all those letters to be published which are today some of the source materials for anyone interested in assessing Nzeogwu’s personality and character. Of course, the book, Nzeogwu, landed Obasanjo in a controversy that led to his being openly criticized in public by his former deputy, retired Major General Shehu Musa Yar’adua. The lands he had acquired in some parts of the North were threatened with seizure as a punitive measure for his writing about the soldier whom many Northerners considered a villain.
In a sense, I would say that I have Obasanjo to thank for the confidence I have had in talking about the Ifeajuna manuscript. Obasanjo’s use of the manuscript proved it that the copy that I had kept away was not fake. Whether its content was reliable or not, the point is that the soldier who wrote it had put enough of himself, true or false, into it for Nigerians to know what he wished that we know about the coup that he led. What he wished may have been false but it was unthinkable for a country not to want to know what a man who had done so much to transform its history had to say. It has nothing to do with the sensitivities of his family. In any case, forty years after, all the millions murked up by the January 15 coup that paved the way for all the succeeding military interventions in Nigeriá’s history, deserve to know what he had to say for himself and his colleagues. Of interest is that in spite of the famed unreliability of Ifeajuna, none of the narratives written about the Nigerian crisis by the principal protagonists Alexander Madiebo, Ademoyega, Ben Ghulie, and Hilary Njoku have differed in any substantial sense apart from turns of phrases, from the core of what Ifeajuna wrote in the white hot heat of the moment that followed the coup. The contentious issue over their choice of Awolowo has been repeated by the participants in the core group that set out to change the government before they were overtaken by Ironsi, and the echelon that surrounded Ojukwu in Kano who would not allow Nzeogwu to make use of troops in that city to march on Lagos as he had planned to do after he discovered that the coup was botched in the South. It is a matter for historical counterfactuals what the history of Nigeria would have been like if Nzeogwu had not capitulated but had mustered enough will and force to organize a Northern Army that would march upon Lagos from Kaduna. His collapse into the maw of the ethnic mush that had overtaken the coup was the Nigerian equivalent of the seppuku which he was obliged to commit if he were a Samurai in the Japanese army. What happened to the coup makers thereafter including the fact that those who benefited from the coup were unwilling to put them on trial is part of the story that must also have made it difficult to publish Ifeajuna’s manuscript.
For that matter, what Nzeogwu called “Emman’s lies” did not have to be true to see the light of day. There was a good enough reason to know that although Ifeajuna was Igbo-speaking and many said he was close enough to Azikiwe to tip him off about the impending coup, he took a scathing swipe at the former President of Nigeria in a manner that was itself some “history” worthy of the record. Nzeogwu’s opinion of Ifeajuna’s incompetence in carrying out the coup is undubitably right on the mark. But it does not invalidate what Ifeajuna had to say. In fact, from hindsight, it can be claimed that what Nzeogwu said on coup day about their intentions was largely corroborated by Ifeajuna’s manuscript. That it should have taken so long for it to make its debut between covers is to say the least a national tragedy. The tragedy, it must be said, was egged by the fact that those who hijacked the coup from the five majors did not want the story out because they obviously did not want to identify with the views expressed in it. For the more ethnically inclined ones, the very idea that true sons of the Igbo carried out a coup and wanted to hand it over to Awolowo, a man they regarded as an enemy of their ethnic group, was simply the height of the absurd. To the makers of the July 29 Revenge coup, it would have scuttled their much haggled presumption that it was an Igbo coup. Either way, the manuscript had not a chance.
The other forgotten document of the civil had a better chance but its absence from circulation for a long time, was no less a tragedy. It was supposedly captured among other tapes of the Biafran Broadcasting Corporation when Enugu fell to Federal troops. The tapes were transcribed with glee, according to Awolowo, by those who thought it would finally nail him for the agreement he reached with Ojukwu to have the Western Region secede with the East as Radio Biafra never stopped insisting. As it turned out no such thing, is to be found in the tapes. Rather Awolowo was making a passionate plea for the continuance of Nigeria as a single political entity. He repeated some of his bitterest criticisms of the North and Northern leaders but he believed that it was possible to manage the differences between Nigerians if ethnic groups and regions enjoyed more autonomy. This was simply a parrot cry of his which, as those familiar with his campaigns and his books, especially Thoughts on Nigerian Constitution and The People’s Republi, would know, required a common welfare policy in education, health, and employment, to unite all the ethnic groups. He was too old he said to abandon all the dreams he had had for his country. Nor would he like to come to the East with a passport. His solution, which obviously did not get down well with Ojukwu was for Ojukwu to agree for the Eastern Region to come to a national conference and to support the creation of states as a basis for a Federal system free of the hegemony that the North had over the rest of the country; and all the regions in the country had over the minorities. If Ojukwu agreed, he believed, he had enough influence with the minorities of the Middle Belt and in the South to urge a shared positioning with the East and the West for a common stand in opposition to hegemonists in the North who would not want states created. It turned out that Ojukwu did not want states to be created. That was the sticking point.
It must have seemed to the Easterners who had been so overdosed by myths about Awolowo’s hatred of the East that he was merely trying out the old animosities in the garb of a pacifier trying to win, by other means, the battles he had always pursued in Nigerian politics. The bottomline is that Ojukwu and Awolowo did not reach an agreement. Their positions in spite of the parliamentary language in which they were couched were fundamentally at variance. Not to forget: it used to be taken as apocryphal by all, except core Awoists, that Ojukwu actually came to see him in the guest house on the last night after the day’s plenary. He wanted a one on one with Awolowo. Understandably, Awolowo refused a one on one. Soyinka has now retailed in his autobiography, YOU MUST SET FORTH AT DAWN,(131-132) what Awolowo told him:
“The 1967 eve of secession delegation of national public figures authorized by Yakubu Gowon, to dialogue with Eastern leadership had been led by Obafemi Awolowo, and the formal, well-publicised meeting between the two sides lasted nearly all day. The Easterners listed their grievances and demands, spoke with all apparent seriousness, and saw their guests off to their chalets. Late that same night however, Awolowo was disturbed by a knock on the door.
It was the Eastern leader, Ojukwu, himself. He admitted that he had waited till late into the night so as to be able to speak to Awolowo in strictest privacy. Sure, said Awolowo, but he also insisted that at least one or two persons join him. That was agreed, and Awolowo called up the adjoining chalet, woke up the Police commissioner for the Western Region, Olufunwa, and a close political aide.
Accompanying Ojukwu was a small team that included a Professor of History from the University of Ibadan who had fled, like other Easterners, to their beleaguered state. Years afterwards, during the struggle against the Abacha dictatorship, the same don introduced himself to me at a meeting in the United States in 1996, and revealed his participation at the nocturnal meeting of thirty years earlier. His account was a consistent and detailed confirmation of what Awolowo confided in me that afternoon.
Odumegwu Ojukwu’s mission was unambiguous, Awolowo said to me. “The young man had come to inform me that the East had decided on secession, and that there was no going back. All that was left was the announcement of a date. He said, “Sir, I have not come to argue, but to inform you. It has been decided”.
“It was clear that any discussion was futile”, Awolowo continued , “Äfter all, we had done nothing but talk all day. Ojukwu confessed that he had agreed to meet the delegation at all only out of respect for my person. Biafra had already taken a decision”.
“I was not surprised”, the Chief admitted. “I did one thing, though, I made one request of him in fact, I insisted on it. I said to Ojukwu at least, let us in the West – I, specifically – have a minimum of two weeks notice before you announce the decision. And he promised. Yes, he promised me that much”.
I hesitated, but could not resist asking: “Why two weeks? You told him you needed two weeks – to do what?
Awolowo gave one of his enigmatic smiles, “You know Olufunwa, the Police Commissioner?”.
I nodded Yes.
“Well, apart from me, he is the only one who knows the answer to that question. And he’s not likely to tell you either”.
I did not press him.
Hardly had Awolowo’s delegation settled back into Federal territory than Ojukwu declared an Independent State of Biafra. The date was May 30, 1967. A short while after, Chief Awolowo accepted to serve as Commissioner of Finance under Yakubu Gowon.
The Federal Government had however made a pre-emptive move. On May 27, Gowon abolished all four regions and split the nation into twelve new states. This achieved the goal of dangling before the entities that were newly carved out from the East, the attraction of their own autonomous governance, with all the resources of the oil soaked Niger delta. Between the two strokes, loyalties in the former Eastern Region were split. War appeared inevitable”
Soyinka’s narration does not include the parting shot that Ojukwu gave the next morning as he followed Awolowo to the tarmac to say goodbye. Shaking the Chief with both hands, Ojukwu said in Yoruba “Baba, atilo” ‘Old one, we’ve gone’. (as Awolowo reported it to his followers). As he took off from Enugu Airport with his fellow peace hunters, Awolowo knew that Biafra was on the cards. He did not expect Ojukwu to make as immediate an announcement as he did. But it should not have been any surprise. A prospective war leader who reveals a decision of such strategic significance to a prime decision-maker on the enemy side should not be expected to wait a moment longer than necessary to pre-empt a counterforce. It would have been better if Ojukwu had not told Awolowo anything about the plans to announce Biafra. But once he did, he was obliged to break whatever promise he had made. What kind of General would reveal such information to another, a potential antagonist, who had his own calculus of the power equation in the country that he was intent on splitting apart and not be worried about the consequences of a leakage. The short of the matter is that once Ojukwu discussed Biafra with Awolowo, it was, or should have been, clear that any promise he made about giving Awolowo a breathing to organize
his own fraction would not be respected.
As such, there is nothing in the forgotten documents to suggest that Ojukwu and Awolowo had reached any decisions about what to do if Ojukwu had waited. What Awolowo could have done can be left to the imagination. Only a very naïve Ojukwu could have accepted an agreement made with Awolowo as viable in the circumstances of the Western Region at that time. Certainly, Ojukwu was not that naïve. He was calculating enough to have known that whatever influence Awolowo had over his Yoruba people was not enough. Ojukwu was Nigerian enough to know that that influence would not have much cut in a situation where a virtual occupation army, as Awolowo actually called it, commanded by a brazenly Northern catchment in the army, was sitting pretty in the Western Region. It was an army only just moving from a secessionist disposition to the format of national unity. What is now well known is that the Yoruba echelon in the Nigerian Army was roundly pro-unity. Among soldiers, on both sides, it was naïve to have expected that the Yoruba officers in the Army or even its civilian leadership would consider going into a coalition with an Igbo-led secessionist move without their having made a genuine contribution to the framing of the project. Were there to be a handshake across the Niger, it would have had to depend not on any one-sided plans but a community of grievances shared. The intelligence that Awolowo himself gathered impressionistically during the Enugu meeting gave him enough reason to believe, as he told his followers thereafter, that the Eastern Region was not prepared for the war it was about to embark upon. Even if he was the most feckless leader in the world, and Awolowo was not known to embark on a project he had not given much thought to, there was hardly a chance that he would agree to go into a war on Ojukwu’s side on the basis of a two week mobilization of his people. Incidentally, Awolowo’s hunch was shared on harder evidence by Biafran military leaders led by Hilary Njoku who knew that Biafrans had been stampeded into but not readied for war. In order to appreciate Hilary Njoku’s position, many people would need to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, the love story in a time of war, if only for the atmospherics

By Odia Ofeimun

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