In search of Biafra, By Dare Babarinsa

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The Biafran War would not go away from the national memory. It is important that we continue to remember that we fought a war for 30 months and one million deaths later, our problem remained unsolved. Those who fought in the war and triumphed over Biafran actually believed that their sacrifices had created a new Nigeria. I don’t know which is worse now; the crisis and insecurity of 1967 when the war started and the crisis and insecurity of 2023 when officially Nigeria is not at war.

When the Civil War started, at least most people had an idea where the war front was. Now, no one is sure where there is no war front. On Sunday, January 15, 2023, the 53rd anniversary of the end of the Nigerian Civil War, a catholic priest in Niger State, Reverend Father Isaac Achi, was capture and killed by terrorists and his body set ablaze. No one burnt a priest during the Nigerian Civil War.

One place where our leaders attempted to prevent the Civil War was at the January 1967 Summit in Aburi, Ghana. Of all the principal actors who attended that important parley, I think only General Yakubu Gowon is still on this side of the great divide. Of all those actors, only General David Ejoor wrote a published autobiography. After Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Biafran leader, returned from exile, Demola Oyinlola, my colleague in TELL and I had met him in his house in Lagos for a detailed interview. He promised that he would soon finish the manuscript of his much expected memoir. After his death, I was in Enugu where I met some of Ojukwu closest friends and associates. None could be categorical about the state of Ojukwu’s memoir.

General Yakubu Gowon, who led the Federal side, has given indication that he is writing his memoir. We await that historic account. It would be interesting to know truly what really happened at Aburi.
By the time the soldiers went to Aburi, it was clear that Ojukwu, then the military Governor of Eastern Region, (he was appointed governor by General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi) had many reasons to be angry. Therefore Ojukwu colleagues were ready to compromise with him to douse the tension and help their country heal. Some of them believed that with time, our country would continue on its bumpy ride into the future. Gowon told his colleagues that the military has the self-given mandate to stabilise the country. They did not have the mandate to dissolve the union. The popular consensus among the top brass was that the military should leave the stage by 1969.

But by the end of 1966, the seed of conflict had already been planted with the gory counter-coup of July 1966 that brought General Yakubu Gowon to power. After the riots and killings in the North, Gowon gave the directive that soldiers, except those in Lagos, should be posted to the region of their origin. All the Igbo officers and men headed for the East. By the time Ojukwu was leading his delegation to Aburi therefore he could count the soldiers of the East made up mostly of Igbo, Ibibio, Anang, Ijaw and other ethnic nationalities. They were men who had similar stories of atrocities inflicted on them by fellow soldiers. Their only offence was that they were suspected to be Igbos who may have sympathised with those who carried out the first coup, which brought General J.T.U Aguiyi Ironsi to power.

The irony was that Ironsi could not have become the first Nigerian Chief of the Army without the support of the Northern political establishment symbolised by the slain Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Northern Premier, Ahmadu Bello. The Northern mobs, edged on and spurred by the politicians, decided that the entire people of the old Eastern Region, especially the Igbo, must pay for the sins of the few officers who carried out the first coup. Yet the victims’ list of the first coup almost obeyed what later came to be known as the federal character principle.
Those Northerners killed were: Ahmadu Bello and his wife, Hafsatu Bello, Zarumi Sardauna, Ahmed Pategi, Tafawa-Balewa, Ahmed Ben Musa, Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, Colonel Abogo Lagema, Colonel James Pam and Colonel Kur Mohammed. Those killed from the West were: Premier Ladoke Akintola, Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun and his pregnant wife, Latifat Ademulegun, Sergeant Daramola Oyegoke (who was shot at the Sardauna’s residence) and Colonel Ralph Shodeinde. Only Chief Festus Okoti-Eboh, the Minister of Finance, was killed from the then Mid-West Region. From the East, Colonel Arthur Unegbe and one Akpan Anduka who was shot at the Sardauna’s residence, were the two Easterners killed.

The coup that brought Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon to power was said to avenge these killings. In the end, Gowon realised that it was better to be in power than to be seeking revenge. Ojukwu, however wanted something bigger for the losses of the Eastern Region. He wanted regional autonomy and the right of any region that secede. His colleagues disagreed. Ojukwu decided to boycott the meetings of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), saying rightly that he could not trust his life in the hands of the soldiers in Lagos. At the end, the authorities in Lagos decided to shift. They moved the meeting of the SMC to Benin so that Ojukwu can attend. He only needed to take a chopper from Enugu and return the same way. The military situation in the Mid-West would also be safe for him. Many of the officers and soldiers were Igbo of Mid-West origin and they were sympathetic to their kith and kin across the Niger. Major Nzeogwu, the man who opened the Pandora box, was a Mid-West Igbo from the present Delta State.
Ojukwu boycotted the Benin Summit of the SMC. The meeting, attended by the other three military governors; Hassan Usman Katsina of the North, Adeyinka Adebayo of the West and Ejoor of the Mid-West, as well as other top military officers, decided to take far-reaching decisions. They spilt Nigeria four regions into 12 states; six in the North and six in the South, though the North occupies 75 per cent of Nigeria’s land mass. The Northern Region now had six states. The old Eastern Region now had three states: East Central State, South-Eastern State and Rivers State. The old Western Region was split into three: the Western, Lagos and the Mid-West (which was earlier created in 1963 by the civilian regime).

Ojukwu, expectedly, rejected the Benin decisions of the SMC. Few days later, he proclaimed the independent Republic of Biafra, which took over the entire territory of the old Eastern Region. He believed he was acting according to popular will of his people though no referendum was conducted. Gowon dismissed Ojukwu from the army and he appointed a naval officer, Alfred Diette-Spiff as the first military governor of Rivers State and an air force officer, Jacob Esuene, as the military governor of Cross River State. In the end, an Igbo lecturer at the University of Ibadan, Dr. Ukpabi Asika, was made the administrator of the East Central State. These governors and administrators could not fully occupy their offices until the war ended in 1970 after Ojukwu fled into exile.

The soldiers who fought on both sides of the war made enormous sacrifices. The Biafran troops fought against all odds but in the end, they were overwhelmed by superior firepower and numbers. Last Sunday, January 15, 2023, Nigerians marked the 53rd anniversary of the end of the war when Major-General Phillip Effiong led the remnant of the Biafran High Command, to surrender to General Gowon in the old State House at Doddan Barracks. They were brought by then Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, the General Officer Commanding (GOC), of the Third Marine Commandoes Division. Obasanjo was the man who took the instrument of Biafran surrender on the battlefield. Gowon, in the spirit of No Victor No Vanquished policy, refused to grant any honour or medal for the Biafran War.

One gain of the war that would serve Nigeria well was the 12 states structure. If that structure had endured till today, Nigeria would have been a different and better country. Many of those who became governors in subsequent years of the 36 states would not have made the commissioners list of the old 12 states. Imagine that during the Second Republic we would have had to pick only one governor from the list containing the likes of Chief Bola Ife, Chief Bisi Onabanjo and Chief Adekunle Ajasin for the governorship of the Western State. There would have been a more rigorous process for leadership recruitment.

We cannot go back to the 12 states structure, but we can create new regional groupings as centres of development. This would shift the focus from the big man in Aso Rock and bring real development to our people. These new theatres of development are the new Biafra we should strive to create. Each new regional grouping is the Biafra that has a future to rescue our people from poverty and perpetual crisis. No one wants a Biafra that dwells on reckless nostalgia and the present pursuit of mindless violence.

Source: First published in Guardian Newspaper

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