|“I need not tell you what horror, what devastation and what extreme human suffering will attend the use of force. When it is all over and the smoke and dust have lifted, and the dead are buried, we shall find, as other people have found, that it has all been futile, entirely futile, in solving the problems we set out to solve.”- Colonel Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, Military Governor of Western region, May 4, 1967|
The month of May 1967 in the affairs of Nigeria was as dynamic and turbulent as any other in our history. It moved with breath taking speed, crystallizing in its wake, the final common pathway of momentous developments that were to culminate in the declaration of Biafra on May 30.
The ill will that gave birth to tensions was always there – depending on one’s opinion about events of 1914, or the run down to independence from the British with all the revenue allocation, constitutional and states creation controversies. But it burst out into the open after the first military rebellion of January 15, 1966 during which predominantly northern military and political leaders were killed in a brutal coup staged by mostly eastern officers. This was compounded by the promulgation by the Ironsi regime of the unification decree as well as other alleged provocations viewed by northerners as part of an attempt to subjugate and humiliate them.
In May, July and September, orgies of ethnic killing took place during which civilians, mostly of eastern region were murdered in large numbers – particularly in the north. On July 29, 1966 NCOs and junior officers, predominantly of northern origin carried out a military counter-rebellion killing large numbers of soldiers and officers of predominantly eastern origin including the C-in-C, General Ironsi who was himself an easterner. After a few days without a government Lt. Col Gowon – the most senior northern officer then, came to power. His seniority and government were not recognized by Lt. Col Ojukwu of the eastern region.
In the atmosphere of recrimination an effort was made to hold political talks in August via an ad-hoc advisory assembly comprised of representatives from all the regions. Recommendations were made at the September 1966 Constitutional conference for the political future of the country. Subsequently, in January 1967, military leaders met at Aburi in Ghana and reached a number of agreements designed to guide Nigeria’s future and come to terms with the immediate past.
However, the home stretch of the final dash to the tape of eastern secession began on March 17, when Decree No. 8 – also known as the Constitution Suspension and Modification Decree 1967 – was promulgated, ostensibly to implement the Aburi agreements. The decree, for all practical intents and purposes, restored much of the autonomy of Military Governors in their respective regions which had been taken away on January 17, 1966 by Decree No. 1 of 1966.
Consistent with agreements reached between military leaders at Aburi, in Gnana on January 4th and 5th, the title of the ‘Supreme Commander’ of the Nigerian Armed Forces was changed to “Commander-in-Chief”; the executive authority of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which had been vested in the Head of the Federal Military Government, was now vested in the Supreme Military Council. Indeed the SMC could not make laws on some issues without the approval of not only the C-in-C but also ALL regional governors.
However, section 86 of the Constitution was upheld, to ensure that no region could exercise authority in a manner that placed the corporate integrity of the federal government in jeopardy. Furthermore, sections 70 and 71 of the Constitution were invoked to specify that a state of emergency could be declared all over Nigeria by the SMC; and such laws as would be considered “necessary” or “expedient” for maintenance of law and order could be passed with concurrence of three (3) out of the four (4) governors. During such an emergency the federal government reserved to itself the right to overrule any laws that had hitherto been passed by the military government of the region to which the state of emergency applied.
Citing what he considered a serious violation of the Aburi accord, and the need to have absolute control over the question of safety and security for his people, the Military Governor of the Eastern region (Lt. Col. CO Ojukwu) rejected it. In taking this stance, he overruled the reservations of the Secretary to the Eastern Regional Government (NU Akpan) and a few senior eastern army officers (like Col Hilary Njoku). Ojukwu felt that the decree had the potential to deprive him of having a say in what steps might or might not be acceptable within his own region in the event of a state of emergency being declared. Conceivably such steps might even include replacing him with another Eastern officer.
However, those who lobbied that the Eastern region accept Decree No. 8 based their arguments on the fact that the decree gave Ojukwu “over 90%” of what he wanted at Aburi as well as providing a way to avoid the horrors of war. (Col Hilary Njoku’s disagreement with Ojukwu on this point cost him the command of the Biafran Army and bagged him a sentence to jail without trial for almost the entire duration of the war. However, Mr. NU Akpan who was also pro-Decree No. 8 held on to his job as Secretary to the Government of the eastern region (and Biafra) to the very end.) Back on Feb 25, Ojukwu threatened to take unilateral action by March 31 if there were persistent delays in announcing the new decree as he understood it to have been agreed at Aburi. On March 1st Gowon met with the diplomatic corps to discuss the ABuri agreement and reservations the government had about certain implications of the Ojukwu interpretation. On March 10 the SMC met in Lagos without Ojukwu – for reasons of personal safety – in order to discuss the draft text. This was followed on Mar 12 by a meeting in Benin of all Law officers from the different regions – and the subsequent release of the decree.
On March 23 a Ghanaian delegation flew to Enugu for talks. Three days later Ojukwu went to Ghana to meet with General Ankrah over the question of federal debts to the eastern region among other issues. At the same time senior civil servants from all the regions (including the East) were meeting in Benin City to further refine points of disagreement after Aburi.
When Ojukwu returned from Ghana he met with Colonel Adebayo, Commodore Wey and Mr. Tim Omo-Bare at Onitsha. At a follow-up meeting in Benin of the SMC on March 30, Ojukwu was absent – again citing safety – although he showed up in a helicopter at Benin after the meeting to meet with Col. Ejoor. The next day, on March 31, to coincide with the end of the financial year, he issued the Revenue Collection Edict 11 of 1967, which basically took complete control of all revenues from all sources in the eastern region, including Oil [“Resource Control”]. The eastern government rationalized the revenue edict on the arguments that:
|the federal government was in arrears of salaries due to those refugees that had been public servants;|
|that it had to look after displaced persons – whose return to the safety of the east was presumably final;|
|and that the federal government was also in arrears of monies due to the eastern region by statutory allocation.|
Ojukwu followed up by promulgating legal education, statutory bodies council, court of appeal and registration of companies edicts. He seized federal assets and parastatals in the east such as a third of the rolling stock of the Nigerian railways, 115 oil-tankers etc.. All non-Easterners (except Midwest Ibos resident in eastern Nigeria) were expelled from the East. Civil servants and policemen of eastern origin who had not as of then returned were encouraged to return to the East. The authority of the Federal Supreme court was revoked as the final court of appeal for eastern Nigeria. It has recently come to light that at secret meetings with US diplomatic officials Ojukwu sought to establish what the reaction of the US would be if eastern soldiers were to capture Lagos. Records also indicate that Gowon, through intermediaries, flew a kite with British and American officials about possible military intervention by either or both countries to resolve the impasse.
On April 22, after an SMC meeting, Lt. Col. Gowon responded to Lt. Col. Ojukwu by imposing economic sanctions on eastern Nigeria. The SMC also released a programme for return to civilian rule in early 1969. Two days later a Nigeria Airways F-27 plane enroute from Benin to Lagos was hijacked to Enugu ostensibly a reaction to the alleged decision of the federal government to stop Airways flights to the east. At a meeting that day with foreign diplomats in Lagos, Gowon said: “I want to make it abundantly clear that in the event of Lt. Col Ojukwu carrying out his threat to secede, this will be a clear signal in the first place to create a COR-State for the protection of the minorities in Eastern Nigeria whom we know do not want to part from the rest of the country. This action of creating the COR-state will be backed by the use of force if need be.” But Gowon did not have the express backing – at that point – of the West, Midwest and Lagos, to use force.
On May 1st, for example, Chief Awolowo, in an address to western leaders of thought dissociated the west from any imposed military solution to the crisis and insisted that the east be kept within the federation (even if it meant looser constitutional arrangements as recommended on August 9, 1966 and reaffirmed at Aburi). He also declared that “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.” He went further to say that in any adhoc committees that might be formed for the purpose of finding a peaceful solution, the West and Lagos would participate only on condition of equality with other regions.
The position of the North was also clarified at a meeting of northern leaders of thought on May 1st in Kaduna. At this meeting the commitment of the North to the creation of more states (irrespective of location) and support for the return to civil rule in 1969 were declared. The turn around of the north to accept states creation was a significant departure from past attitudes. But the North also criticized what it felt was the weak response of the federal government to what it felt was “defiance” on the part of Ojukwu.
Some members of the SMC, – notably Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo in a subsequent speech on May 4 – also felt (like Awolowo) that force should not be used to resolve the impasse, as had indeed been pledged at Aburi. But moves were already afoot for what seemed to be the inevitable. Ojukwu publicly declared that force would be met with force. Since the early months of the year, certain diplomats of eastern origin had already been procuring weapons abroad using Nigerian diplomatic passports. Certain businessmen of far northern origin were also making private arrangements to ship weapons into the country too.
Nonetheless on May 4th the National reconciliation committee sent a delegation led by Chief Awolowo to Enugu to find ways to defuse the situation. Among terms given to the committee (by Ojukwu) for the participation of the East in peace talks were that there should be ‘an agreed agenda’, ‘an acceptable venue’, a defined ‘time limit’, as well as the termination of economic sanctions against the east and withdrawal of northern troops from Lagos. When Chief Awolowo asked Ojukwu about the attitude of Eastern Leaders to the North and the question of secession, Ojukwu’s response was “on the specific question of whether there is a possibility of contact with the North, the answer is at the battlefield.”
In any case, on May 17, in an effort to create conditions for a venue that would be safe enough to meet, the federal government sent a secret message to all governors stating that it had sent tentative feelers for a small British force to provide security for a meeting either at the National Institute for Oil Palm research (NIFOR) in Benin or on a British Aircraft Carrier or Frigate off the shores of Lagos. Unfortunately, some information media immediately went public to say that arrangements were being made for the British to send troops to crush the East. Thus, this initiative died.
A few days later on May 20, Gowon accepted the recommendations of the National Reconciliation Committee. Although Ojukwu said he did not recognize the group as constituted, members passed along his demands to the federal government. After consultations, therefore, Gowon announced on May 25, that the SMC had agreed to withdraw non-Yoruba troops from Abeokuta and Ibadan and establish a crash training program to increase the Yoruba representation in the Army. This had always been a key demand of Ojukwu but was also later echoed by Yoruba leaders. To ease the process and avoid apprehension among the mostly northern soldiery, Lt. Col Hassan Katsina (Northern governor), Lt. Col Joe Akahan (Chief of Staff, Army) along with the Battalion Commander, Major Sotomi addressed the troops at Ibadan. The plan was that they would mostly have departed Ibadan and Abeokuta by May 31, some to Apapa and Ikeja in the Lagos area, while others were to be transferred to the Jebba and Ilorin garrisons by train. The SMC, citing the status of the city as the federal capital, had rejected the suggestion that northern soldiers be removed from Lagos as well. However, events quickly spiraled out of control and none of this came to pass.
On May 26, one day after Gowon announced the withdrawal of northern troops from the west, the Eastern Consultative Assembly met in Enugu. On May 27 it issued a seven point resolution mandating Ojukwu (among other things) to declare “at the earliest practicable date, Eastern Nigeria as a free sovereign and independent State by the name of the Republic of Biafra.” Later that night (shortly after 9pm) Gowon declared a state of emergency in the country, assumed full powers as C-in-C and announced what later came to be known as Decree No. 14 of 1967 – States (Creation and Transitional Provisions). The four regions became 12 states. The eastern region was broken up into Central Eastern, South Eastern, and Rivers states – but Gowon made no move to change Ojukwu as the Military Governor of Central eastern state.
The 12 states and their governors follows:
Benue-Plateau Mr. JD Gomwalk (Police)
North-Western Mr. M. Faruk (Police)
North-Central Major Abba Kyari
Kano Mr. Audu Bako (Police)
North-Eastern Major Musa Usman (NAF)
West Central Major David Bamigboye
Rivers Lt. Alfred Diette Spiff (Navy) South-Eastern Major UJ Esuene (NAF)
East-Central Lt. Col CO Ojukwu
Western Col. RA Adebayo
Mid-Western Lt. Col D Ejoor
Lagos Major M Johnson
While Ejoor and Adebayo retained their governorships, Ojukwu got his pruned, and Hassan Katsina was appointed Chairman of the Northern Council of States to oversee the transition to new states in the north.The reaction of the East was swift in rejecting the new arrangement.
At about 5am on May 30, Lt. Col CO Ojukwu declared secession and proclaimed the Republic of Biafra. Tracing a diary of events in 1966, Ojukwu stated (among other things) that: “The widespread nature of the massacre and its periodicity May 29, July 29, and September 29 show first, that they were premeditated and planned, and second that Eastern Nigerians are no longer wanted as equal partners in the Federation of Nigeria.”
Gowon did not accept the proclamation. On June 1st, 1967, he was promoted Major-General, finally resolving an undercurrent of regimental issues emanating from his rank and seniority. By June 3, a total naval blockade of the bights of Benin and Biafra (later renamed ‘Bonny’) had been ordered. Oil tankers and other ships heading for Bonny and Calabar were intercepted and diverted. Ojukwu declared a state of emergency in Biafra while Gowon brought prominent politicians into his cabinet.
Ojukwu was formally dismissed from the Nigerian Army on July 1st. He, however, became a General in the Biafran army. The ‘police action’ land phase of what is now referred to by most as the Nigerian Civil War subsequently began in earnest at 0530 hrs on July 6, 1967. Troops concentrated at Vanderkya [in Benue State] under the command of Major Martin Adamu opened a barrage of fire in support of an assault on Garkem and Obudu in the Ogoja sector. A few hours’ later troops under Major Sule Apollo opened up a second front from Ankpa and Idah toward Enugu Ezike and Okutu in the Nsukka sector.
The war was to last 30 months (until January 15, 1970) and claim perhaps 1 million lives. In the dying days of Biafran resistance Ojukwu departed for exile in Cote d’Ivoire.