It shows how the General gave wooden sticks to his people, as civil defenders, in a shooting war claiming that no force in Black Africa could subdue Biafra. Sheer emotional grandstanding was what the war effort rested upon. But for the shenanigans on the Federal side, the deliberate pussy-footing and sometimes larking in the war front, as a way of setting the stage to settle some scores with the authorities in Lagos, it would have been a much-shorter war.
As readers of Onukaba Adinoyi Ojo’s biography of Obasanjo must know, Murtala Muhammed never gave up his grouse: “We told you not to end the war the way you did so as to sort things out, you wentgaddam gaddam (Hausa expression for heedless rush) and finished it. Now you have a lion in your hands, a lion that does not roar, bite or claw, absolutely inefficient and ineffective”, Muhammed charged impulsively.”
As for the People’s General in Biafra, he was carried shoulder high on a wave that he could have resisted and steered in a different direction but preferred to manipulate. At any rate, what Awolowo had offered Ojukwu as a solution to the crisis was absolutely outside the rooting for secession. It was more coherent and more consistent with his already fairly well known position on Federalism and a strategy of welfarism as a solution to the Nigerian crisis. At the meeting, as the published document shows, Awolowo believed that:…….“What we want in Nigeria is a house to be built which will be big enough to accommodate all of us, without friction, without trouble. Let us have a plan made, let us get an expert contractor to build the house. When the house is completed to our satisfaction let them call it what name they like, what is important is that the house should be big enough to accommodate all of us comfortably, without friction and without trouble. I think we should forget about federation or confederation. Let us see what the contents are going to be. Once the contents are stated then we will allow political scientists to give it a name they like. The name does not matter to us so long so we are satisfied that this is the sort of thing we need to make us live together as Nigerians.
“I was a little bit disturbed by the point you made before. I hope you have not taken a final decision on it, that is, that the East will not associate with the North in future. Easterners have fought more than any other group in this country over the years to make Nigeria what it is , or what it was, before the crisis began. I think it will be a pity if they just forget something for which they have laboured for years . Many of the Easterners who fought for “One Nigeria” are no longer with us. It will not be a good tribute to their memory by destroying that “ one Nigeria”., Certainly, it is not going to be the same as it used to be. I have taken a stand on that, and I am prepared to drop tribal labels at the moment, but I know in my own mind what sort of thing I have in view for the federation. But I think it will be a great pity and tragedy and disservice to the memories of all those who have gone to disband Nigeria. An here we are not here to criticize anybody, I think it is generally agreed that some units have done more for the unity of Nigeria than others. The East certainly have not yielded first place to anyone in that regard. I would like you to consider that aspect very seriously”.
This position taken on Saturday 6th May 1967 was quite in sync with the position he had taken at a meeting of the Leaders of Thought meeting at the Western Hall, Agodi, Ibadan, on Monday 1st of May, 1967. In that speech, his aim was to undermine the position of those Nigerian Leaders of Thought who, as he later explained, were “seriously suggesting that the so-called four component units of the country should go their own separate ways as so many sovereign states”. Specifically, he meant to repudiate the proposition that the Federation would be viable even without the East as was being canvassed by some people who had, in his words, “settled it finally in their minds the sort of Constitution they consider suitable for the whole country, or such part of it as may be left after the East shall have opted out of the Federation”.
At the Agodi meeting, he placed four imperatives before the Western Nigerian Leaders of Thought in particular and the Nation in general. Of the Four Imperatives he said:
“Two of them are categorical imperatives and two are conditional.
ONE: Only a peaceful solution must be found to arrest the present worsening stalemate and restore normalcy.
TWO: The Eastern Region must be encouraged to remain part of the Federation.
THREE: If the Eastern Region is allowed by acts of omission or commission to secede from or opt out of Nigeria, then the Western Region and Lagos must also stay out of the Federation.
FOUR: The people of Western Nigeria and Lagos should participate in the AD Hoc Committee or any similar Body only on the basis of absolute equality with the other Regions of the Federation”
It would require a major somersault in logic to make this look like a vote for the secession of any part of Nigeria. Actually as early as August 1966, on his being repreived from his ten year imprisonment, Awolowo had made a speech in which he said: “The breaking up of Nigeria into a number of sovereign states would not only do permanent damage to the reputation of contemporary Nigerian leaders but would also usher in terrible disasters which would bedevil us and many generations to come.” To contort such a speech in favour of secession belongs to a vaulting refusal to see no reason that is not pro-secession. To insist however that Awolowo encouraged the Igbo to secede actually insults the intelligence of the average Igbo. The implication is that after the pogrom of 1966, it required an Obafemi Awolowo, whether as a goad or quarry to hearten the attempt at secession. It is close to saying that they thought of an alternative that was different but had to bow to Awolowo’s, an old enemy’s, prodding. This may be the picture that many Biafrans liked to have of themselves. Those who think the Igbos deserve a better picture of themselves may be called names. But it does not change the score.
What is interesting in this regard is that well known acts perpetrated by other leaders during the war are actually now being credited to Awolowo by postwar propagandists and are being made to stick beyond lines of collective responsibility while actual performances that he made are smudged out of acknowledgement. For a man who could be said to have done more than any other single individual to have garnered the out-of-the-war-front intelligence to keep Nigeria as one country, it is actually a surprise to see how little Federal cover has been given to Awolowo by Federal agencies and establishments. Generals who were worried that Awolowo might convert his proficiency in the management of the country’s finances and general affairs into political power certainly preffered that the war story be told against him. For ex-Biafrans who believe that Awolowo disabled their war efforts through his many ploys, including the change of the currency, the refusal to devalue the Naira, and the ordering of a stop to food corridors, Awolowo deserves to be sent to the International court even post-humously. The concentration on Awolowo as it turns out is such a fixation that many are prepared to believe that even if Awolowo was still in prison when the pogrom took place, he should be arraigned for it. It is very much unlike the position taken by the Jews who not only went after exposing the perpetrators of the holocaust after the Second World War but took extremely inter-subjective care to ensure that no innocents were punished for crimes that others committed. The reverse, clearly, is the case with the Nigerian crisis and civil war. It is quite interesting in this regard, and perhaps, a mark of Achebe’s forgiving nature that in his The Trouble with Nigeria, he grants the status of arch-nationalist to Mallam Aminu Kano, of whose faction of the People’s Redemption Party, PRP, he became a member, even after knowing of the Mallam’s mobilization of the resistance to feared Igbo domination after the January 15 Coup. Or he did not know it? Allan Feinstein, Mallam’s biographer, had given enough leads to explain the radical leader’s mobilization of the North before the pogrom. On page 225 of The African Revolutionary ,the autobiography of Mallam Aminu Kano, he writes that his subject “had to decide what was right for his country and his North ……..Aminu Kano’s smouldering fear of Southern domination had finally culminated in what he considered a genuine and serious threat to the development of his first love, Northern Nigeria”. As it happened, Aminu Kano was arrested in connection with the pogrom in the North but was promptly released for want of evidence. Decades later, as the issues are being memorialized by key actors of that era, the post-coup mobilization has been coming under new lights. As happened, it was Alhaji Ahmed Joda, a top aide to Major Hassan Usman Katsina, Governor of Northern Region, who was sent by “top civil servants” in Kaduna to meet with Alhaji Maitama Sule in Kano to “initiate leadership in getting the people of the North to understand the aims of government” after the January 1966 coup. On pages 211 -212 of the biography, Maitama Sule..Danmasanin Kanoby Ayuba T. Abubakar, it is told of how it was Maitama Sule, an NPC stalwart before the coup, who“suggested that Mallam Aminu Kano was the most suitable, because he was widely respected, never held a government leadership appointment and had the people behind him. Again, he was a leading figure in UPGA……So Maitama arranged for Mallam Aminu to meet Alhaji Joda the following day. Thereafter, Mallam Aminu Kano became the leading consultant for the government and top civil servants and their link with the rest of the North”. In The Story of a Humble Life: An Autobiography,Tanko Yakasai, an Aminu Kano deputy in the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) authenticates the story: “At the beginning, most NEPU members were happy with the military take over. It was only after some few days that they started to think twice about the situation……the way some Igbo traders at Sabongari market in Kano started to treat Northerners”. A meeting was then held in Aminu Kano’s house in Sudawa by old NEPU stalwarts. Aminu Kano “drew the attention of the meeting to the apathy pervading the political scene in the North and urged those present to rise up to the occasion; otherwise it would be difficult to rejuvenate political interest in the people. The meeting then decided that a tour of the Northern Region should be undertaken to make contact with opinion leaders with a view to alerting them of the danger posed by that situation. The tour was to be undertaken under the guise of paying condolence visits to the families and traditional rulers of those killed during the military take-over. ……….We started from Sokoto, followed by Bauchi and Maiduguri. Within a few weeks, we covered the whole region”. (page 221). Although accused of having joined the NPC, “we continued with our mobilization campaign”, writes Tanko Yakasai. Of course, there were different contact groups mobilizing, sometimes with cross-cutting memberships. They were all to make what seemed a consensual response to Major General Aguiyi Ironsi’s Unification Decree which according to Tanko Yakasai “created a lot of fear in the minds of the civil servants and traditional rulers….”. A protest rally organized in Kano against the Unification Decree to turned the seething anger into a region-wide prairie fire that grew into the pogrom against the Igbo and those associated with them. As it happened, the pogrom preceded and accompanied the Revenge Coup of July 29 1966.
The matter of interest is that Awolowo was still in prison at Calabar when it all began to happen. But it was after the exodus of the Igbo back to the East and of many southerners from the North; and then, the failure of the various leaders of Thought meetings, including the Aburi meeting in Ghana, to resolve the consequent loss of faith in the idea of a united country, that secession was declared. And war began. In the narration of the crisis and the tragedies of the war, different partisans have chosen what to emphasize between the grisly images of the pogrom and the guitar-ribbed and kwashiorkor ridden children in Biafra and the direct casualties in the war front. Who to blame from the perspective of those who suffered the dire consequences? To ask is to put history in a quandary because in the situation of organized anarchies that preceded the war, it is the botched January 15 Coup that takes the rap. All murders are bad but it was the unrounded nature of the violence, the lopsided regional accounting, that Nigerians, North and South, will always remember. It turned jubilation into self-questioning angst. The truth is that the years of distrust already on the ground, allowed for an interpretation which was incorrect. It did not start as an Igbo coup but it was turned into one by successive acts of commission and omission. It called for cultural empathy which was unwisely knocked aside not just by the arrogance of power which all military rule insinuates, but the inability of the new rulers at the centre to see Nigeria as a family of different nationalities needing an effort of mind and a lot of civility to turn into a nation of shared conversations. Leaders may have their prejudices but the necessity for shared living calls for learning how to let people govern themselves irrespective of how unprepared they may be. Education for leadership needs to begin from having laws that are not tilted against any part of the polity. Unfortunately, once violence became the definition of the terms of association, it was not going to be easy to retract. As violence begets violence, those who may be temporarily on top seek a draconian hold in order not to be sucked into its quicksand and boil. Those who began by detesting a unitary system ended up creating a unitary hegemony. Creating trust and a basis for stability becomes a goal that ends by having a lopsided cut. The point is that nothing can replace the effort which needs to be made in every society, even one that is uni-cultural rather than multi-ethnic and multi-religious, to let decision making come from within a community rather than as an imposition. The failure of all the coups in Nigeria’s history and all of them have been failures is that they created the opposite of what they claimed they wanted. By being generally of a lopsided cut, all of them have been preparations for a genocide of sorts. Thus even before the pogrom created the basis for a war, to use the word genocide in a society where power is regionally or ethnically positioned, required an accounting with semblances if not actualities of genocide. Specific to the period of civil war, those who use the term genocide tend however to use the term in the sense of a propaganda pitch to rev a cause or score points in the competition for power. Not distinguishing the pogrom in the North from the actual deaths and derangement of life found in the war situations yields too much ground to propaganda. One reason for this is that once war was declared, both sides were on a mutual genocidal binge. Put the word to some test and it turns out to have been so much a propaganda ploy to attract support for Biafra. In actual fact, as Biafra shrank from all of Eastern Region to the closed-in Igbo heartland, the weight of Federal might could not erase the sheerness of a pounding of one identifiable set of Nigerians. A war in a multi-ethnic society poses this execrable frame. Only those who love war may try to deodorize it by pretending that it does not yield forms of genocide. On both sides of the Nigerian civil war, the genocidal instincts were quite alert.
By Odia Ofeimun