One of the greatest enduring myths in Nigeria is the lie that Yakubu Gowon fought the Nigeria Biafra war to keep Nigeria united, whereas in reality not only did Yakubu Gowon whose Northern region had originally intended to secede (Araba) after the July 1966 counter-coup cause the unnecessary war through his failure of leadership, his aim for fighting the war was never in the least a genuine desire to keep Nigeria united but purely because of Northern economic interests. The economic interests of the hitherto secessionist North became the principal reason for the volte face from secession to “one Nigeria” after the British government advised the Northern leadership of the economic disadvantages of secession. Thus unlike most civil wars where there is a genuine desire to keep the nation united for patriotic reasons, the Nigeria-Biafra war was an opportunistic war instigated by Yakubu Gowon and the North; not out of a genuine desire for a united Nigeria but for the selfish aims of British imperialism and Northern economic interests which remains the reason and reality of their presence in Nigeria to date.
In the case of Nigeria-Biafra; there was nothing that made the war in the least necessary. Nigeria as a nation never existed until the British colonialists patched up the contraption of disparate ethnic and religious groups into an unworkable nation to service her imperial interests. From the onset it was obvious Nigeria would be inhibited by her contradictions and consequently doomed to failure. Thus when the pogrom/genocide of 1966-67 demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubts the impossibility of Nigeria, the legal route under international law as enshrined in the United Nations charter was to hold a plebiscite or referendum to determine by democratic means the choice of the majority as it concerns self determination for Biafra.
That route would have solved the problem in a legal and civilised manner as “no war no matter how desirable for the purpose of keeping a nation together is justifiable.” It defies all logic and natural justice to kill people in other to keep them in a nation. It is like killing a woman’s children in order to forcefully keep her in a marriage from which she seeks to exit. Freedom and self determination are inalienable God given rights and nations must be constructed and preserved through democratic consent and not through the barrel of a gun. Any act otherwise, to forcefully create or preserve a nation without the democratic consent of the indigenous peoples is an act of colonialism. Every ethnic group within the Nigerian geographical expression ordinarily retains the same right for which we struggled for independence from the British colonial government. It is thus a usurpation of the right to self determination and independence for any group or groups within Nigeria to wage war or forcefully coerce another into the nation against their will. To that extent the war against Biafra must be understood for what it really was; a war of aggression and colonialism.
Thus for the purposes of history and for generations yet unborn, I have decided to put on record for all time; the truth and injustice of the needless war of colonialism Yakubu Gowon and his allies instigated against Biafra on the lie of a war of unity.
Eastern Leadership And The Historical Championing of One Nigeria
One of the ironies of the Nigeria-Biafra war is how the East and her leadership under Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe who relentlessly championed the very idea of a united Nigeria as against the Northern leadership that harboured deep anti-Nigeria sentiments were forced by circumstances resulting from the pogrom/genocide to exercise the fundamental right of self preservation and opt for secession.
When in 1957 the British colonial authorities offered independence individually to the regions provided two out of the three regions accepted the offer, the Northern region declared they were not ready for that level of political and economic independence, the Western region declared their readiness for independence, the East became the tie to make or break Nigeria; Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe in a historic move, rejected the offer by declaring that “although the Eastern region was ready to assume the responsibilities of regional independence, its attainment without the North would lead to the balkanization of the Nigerian nation and conceivably a break-up of the country. The Eastern region would rather suppress its appetite for independence and the obvious gains it would entail until the Northern region was ready.” By this momentous and in my own opinion mistaken decision, Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe prevented the break-up of Nigeria as offered by the then colonial authorities in 1957. He also stridently opposed the Northern proposal for a right of self determination in the constitution in subsequent constitutional conferences.
These feats alongside the emergence of a Northerner “Mallam Umaru Altine” as the first mayor of Enugu in 1956, amongst so many other sacrifices made by Dr Azikiwe and other Eastern leaders in the course of the evolution of the nation to accommodate the historically “secessionist” North underscores the role the East played in being the biggest champions of a united Nigeria. Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe was not only an advocate of Nigerian unity; he was also highly invested in Pan-Africanism and the campaign for a United States of Africa. It is also noteworthy that in spite of the fact that crude oil was discovered in the then Eastern region in 1956 which gave overwhelming advantages to the East, not a single Eastern leader ever mentioned crude oil in any of their political narratives or sought to take undue advantage of it. Indeed Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe and even the short-lived military administration of General Aguiyi Ironsi demonstrated a diehard commitment to a united Nigeria for which the later ironically paid with his life; killed by the same Northern hypocrites who after accusing him of introducing the unitary system (which he did in his genuine desire to unify the country) ended up consolidating, sustaining and defending to date, the same unitary system for which they killed General Aguiyi Ironsi.
Historical Northern Rejection Of Nigeria
Historically, the North and her leadership were the greatest opponents of the very idea of Nigeria and Nigerian unity. Northern leaders such as Ahmadu Bello, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa amongst others never hid their disdain for Nigeria. The rejection of Nigerian unity at a point became the political ideology of Northern leaders which they variously expressed in public declarations and in the exclusionist policies formulated in the Northern region. In 1948 while addressing the legislative council, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa declared that “Since 1914 the British Government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite. Nigerian unity is only a British intention for the country.” Undisguised disdain and rejection of the very idea of Nigerian unity is aptly demonstrated by this speech as presented by Tafawa Balewa.
The foremost Northern leader, Sir Ahmadu Bello was even more resentful of Nigeria. In his book and autobiography “My Life” published a year after independence in 1961, he famously castigated the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria as “the mistake of 1914.” Being the premier of the Northern region Ahmadu Bello further demonstrated his opposition to Nigeria by using his administrative powers to create an “Apartheid Northernization policy” which decreed that all available jobs in the North must go to a Northerner and in the event that there is no qualified Northerner should go to Europeans/ Arabs rather than Nigerians from the South. Nothing better demonstrates Ahmadu Bello’s hatred and rejection of Nigeria than his Apartheid Northenization policy that gave preference to Europeans, Arabs and other foreigners than to fellow Nigerians from the South. Segregation of southerners into areas known as “Sabon gari” was also a segregationist policy of Ahmadu Bello designed to keep Northerners separate from Southerners that endures to this day. The whole strata of the North and her leadership was thus never historically interested or invested in the idea of a United Nigeria from the dawn of colonial Nigeria.
The hostility and rejection of Nigeria by the North is also noted in the first riots directed at southerners in Jos in 1945 and subsequently in 1953 in Kano when an anti-independence riot was sponsored by the Northern leadership against Southerners living in Kano. Both of these riots resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Southerners and set the precedent for future riots that later became routine. Most importantly, the riots underscore the historical context of the hostility of the North to the very idea of Nigeria.
Post Independence Crisis:
Perhaps; because the duo of Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello harboured so much disdain for Nigeria, they had no incentive to invest in nation building or to make the necessary sacrifices to consolidate the fledgling republic in her most critical foundational years. They demonstrably advanced only narrow regional and sectional interests at the expense of the rule of law and good governance, thus by 1962 there was already a crisis of rigged census results and infighting in the West that led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the Western region. By 1963, Chief Obafemi Awolowo was arrested and convicted for alleged coup plotting. By 1964, a coalition between Ladoke Akintola the premier of the Western region and Tafawa Balewa resulted in massively rigged elections in the Western region which sparked off violent riots and disturbances (wetie).
In the Tiv Division riots had also been violently put down by Tafawa Balewa’s government using the military, however in the Western region the violence continued unabated until 1966 when the military reacting to the corruption, election rigging, thuggery, tribalism and the sustained violence in the Western region unfortunately struck at dawn in January 1966.
The Pogroms/Genocide And Yakubu Gowon’s Inaction/ Complicity:
A leader must be judged and held accountable for what happens under his watch. Following the injection of tribalism into the January 1966 coup, the North staged a secessionist counter (revenge) coup in July 1966 in which the then Head of state General Aguiyi Ironsi, Colonel Fajuyi the military governor of the Western region and some three hundred Eastern officers were assassinated. Yakubu Gowon who had been the chief of army staff consequently emerged head of state. “The most important constitutional duty of a head of state all over the world is the protection of life and property of the citizenry under all circumstances.” Yakubu Gowon abdicated his most fundamental constitutional responsibility to protect lives and property when he did absolutely nothing while officers and men of the Nigerian army and police who were supposed to protect life and property crossed over from their coup to attack and massacre thousands of Eastern civilians including women and children in the premeditated genocide in the North.
As the mass killings of innocent civilians went on by cowardly Soldiers who crossed over from a political coup to target and kill defenceless civilians, Yakubu Gowon did nothing. He didn’t send in troops or the police to try to calm the situation, he neither imposed a state of emergency nor a dusk to dawn curfew, he also never set-up any investigative panel to probe the killings. To make matters worse, even though the officers and men who were carrying out such heinous crimes against humanity were well known, Yakubu Gowon never reprimanded, arrested, court marshalled or punished any of them, rather the officers were all promoted. It became obvious by his inaction and promotion of the implicated officers that Yakubu Gowon was complicit in both the coup and genocide.
There is no circumstance that can justify the mass murder of innocent civilians while Yakubu Gowon who has a duty to protect life and property under all circumstances refused to act. It is unthinkable to imagine that at the height of the provocation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 3000 Americans by Islamic terrorists; President George Bush would allow the massacre of innocent Muslims in the US. An estimated 50,000 innocent civilians were brutally murdered while Yakubu Gowon as head of state did nothing and indeed tacitly supported the mass killings. It is exactly for those types of crimes that the international criminal court in the Hague and Geneva Convention were established to bring to justice those who commit acts of genocide and other human rights violations. The killings only stopped when there was no one left to kill. Yakubu Gowon failed in his most fundamental duty to protect life and property and this failing created the self preservation scenario that necessitated self determination and consequently Biafra by the East. Since Yakubu Gowon as head of state could do nothing while thousands of innocent civilians were being hacked to death by Soldiers and Police officers who were supposed to protect life and property, the very idea of Nigeria died from that point and the East like any group had no choice but to undertake the natural right of self preservation and thus self determination.
(Araba): Intent Of Northern Secession And the British Government Advice That Changed the equation
The propaganda of Nigerian unity for which Yakubu Gowon and his goons premised their war was patently false for the simple reason that the Northern counter-coup christened “Araba” which means separation in Hausa language was a secessionist coup originally intended to finally break the North from Nigeria. Indeed the flag of the new republic had already been hoisted preparatory to the announcement of secession by the North. Yakubu Gowon informed the then British high commissioner Sir Cumming Bruce of the intention of the North to secede and it was the British in line with their imperialist interests that advised against Northern secession and made strident efforts to dissuade the North from seceding.
In his book “The Biafran War” Micheal Gould p.43 stated: “Cumming –Bruce was able to persuade the Emirs that secession would be an economic disaster”. As the British high commissioner Sir Cumming Bruce himself testified p.43 “it wasn’t on the face of it easy to get them (the North) to change, but I managed to do it overnight. I drafted letters to the British Prime Minister, to send to Gowon as Nigerian Head of State, and for my Secretary of State (Micheal Stewart) to send letters to each of the Emirs. I wrote an accompanying letter to each of them because I knew them personally. I drafted all these and they all came back to me duly authorised to push at once. The whole thing was done overnight and it did the trick of stopping them (the North) dividing Nigeria up.” From the testimony of the then British high commissioner Sir Cumming Bruce in regards to the effort he made to persuade the North not to secede, the deceit, propaganda and opportunism of Yakubu Gowon and his crowd as they lied through their teeth in their false claim of fighting for Nigerian unity when in reality they had originally intended to secede and only changed their mind on the prompting of the British government becomes self evident.
For all the false propaganda spewed to prosecute the needless war and the consequent tragic bloodletting, the British high commissioner’s testimony proves that Yakubu Gowon and the North were never genuine or interested in Nigerian unity. They were only opportunists who turned around to claim one Nigeria because of economic interests linked to crude oil which remains the reality of their presence in Nigeria to date. Had Yakubu Gowon and the North spared us the lie and kept their original plan to secede, the nation would have been better for it as more manageable homogenous units would have emerged and the nation would have been spared the needless conflict that was fought on the great lie of Nigerian unity.
Yakubu Gowon Reneges On Aburi Accord:
“My word is my bond” is a famous phrase that underlines the importance of honesty. For a leader the most important test of character is standing by his word. Yakubu Gowon failed this important test of character when he reneged on an agreement he personally participated in reaching in Aburi. On the 4th and 5th of January 1967 a genuine and final opportunity presented itself to resolve the simmering crisis through a conference in Aburi Ghana at the instance of General Ankrah. Notably Aburi was chosen because following the events of 1966 and the practical disintegration of the army, the security of Odimegwu Ojukwu and other Eastern dignitaries could not be guaranteed anywhere in Nigeria.
Yakubu Gowon, together with his advisers, secretaries and the military governors of the North, Midwest and Western regions were in attendance while Colonel Odimegwu Ojukwu being military governor of the East together with his aides also attended. Given the dire situation at that time, the meeting deliberated exhaustively on the structure of Nigeria. The next day the meeting continued and affirmed a final agreement known as the “Aburi Accord.” Thus for two days, Yakubu Gowon and his aides together with all the regional governors constituted the supreme military council which incidentally is the highest ruling body and reached agreement on all the critical issues, but as soon as Yakubu Gowon arrived in Nigeria he began the process of dilly dallying and reneging on an agreement freely negotiated and entered into in Aburi Ghana.
The question of building good faith and confidence was just as important as the conference itself as a bridge building measure given recent events. Unfortunately Yakubu Gowon almost immediately truncated the opportunity of building good faith by not respecting one of the agreements reached in Aburi concerning the temporary payment of salaries and recovery of properties of Eastern civil servants who had been forced to leave their jobs through no fault of theirs. Decree No. 8; later issued in May, a considerably long time for a conference held on the 4th and 5th January, which to a large extent is evidence of Yakubu Gowon’s dilly dallying and subterfuge, went further by ignoring the security sensitivities of the times, particularly for the Easterners by reneging on the most basic fundamental of Aburi accord which requires concurrence of all 4 military governors in all matters affecting the country when he sneaked in the powers to declare a state of emergency in the country with concurrence from only 3 out of the 4 military governors. The implication of this breach means that Yakubu Gowon and his cabinet could suddenly with concurrence from the other 3 military governors declare a state of emergency in the East and subject the region to military invasion.
Given the context of the time with a mutinous and dysfunctional Nigerian army whose officers and men instigated and actively participated in the genocide that killed officers and civilians including women and children of Eastern origin and while none of the officers or men in the Nigerian army or Police who committed such atrocities were either arrested, prosecuted or removed from the army or Police, it was natural that the Governor of the East needed enough safeguards and guarantees even if temporarily through collective concurrence of all four military governors on issues of national importance as agreed in Aburi to avoid suddenly becoming a victim of a state of emergency and other such insidious plots by the mass killers that still abounded in the Nigerian army/ Police until at least such a time that security and confidence is adequately restored.
It is ironical that the powers to declare a state of emergency which Yakubu Gowon never exercised when it was most necessary during the genocide to stop the mass killings which would have prevented the crisis in the first place was suddenly sneaked into Decree No. 8 with consent of only 3 out of the 4 military governors required in breach of the Aburi accord that recommended consent of all 4 military governors in such matters. Except Yakubu Gowon and his advisers had some ulterior motive as was suspected in the East, there is no reason why concurrence of all 4 military governors as agreed in Aburi for the declaration of a state of emergency in situations of riots or strife should be a problem for a temporary period until trust, confidence and a measure of reconciliation is achieved.
Indeed, reneging on the Aburi accord over the state of emergency issue by Yakubu Gowon was unnecessary as being a military regime, he still ultimately retained the powers under the “doctrine of necessity” in exceptional circumstances to issue an emergency decree that enables the declaration of a state of emergency in the extreme and very unlikely situation where he is unable to get consent of all 4 military Governors for the declaration of a state of emergency. There was thus no practical or logical reason for Yakubu Gowon to renege on the most sensitive and fundamental aspect of Aburi accord that was designed to be a temporary safeguard given the genocide, disintegration of the army and lack of trust until security and confidence is restored.
By disregarding the morbid fear and trauma which the pogroms/genocide had incited in the East thus reneging on the most fundamental aspect of the Aburi accord which would have given the necessary safeguards and created the environment for reconciliation and a permanent resolution of the crisis Yakubu Gowon proved incapable or unwilling to make any temporary sacrifices for peace. As a leader he failed to keep an agreement which he himself had personally participated in negotiating in Aburi Ghana. This failure of leadership and bad faith finally set the nation on the part of an unnecessary war and bloodletting. As a further demonstration of bad faith and insincerity, it is also important to note Yakubu Gowon’s unusual delay from January to May before he issued the diluted version of Aburi accord. This five month delay more than anything else serves as an undeniable indication of Yakubu Gowon’s insincerity in resolving the crisis and his preference for war.
Colonialism And The Right To Self Determination
Colonialism is generally regarded as the total or partial loss of autonomy of indigenous peoples to the coercive or forceful establishment of exploitative/oppressive governing authorities on unequal terms by a people, group or colonial power not ordinarily or historically linked culturally, geographically or linguistically to the colonised. Any group that therefore forcefully subjects another to their authority without democratic consent of the indigenous peoples through a plebiscite or referendum is an act of colonialism. There was nothing like Nigeria until the British in trying to consolidate the commercial interests of Taubman Goldie a British trader whose forays brought him to the region put together a people who mostly never had any cultural, geographic, linguistic or ethnic links with each other. It was from the onset an impossible nation created not for the harmonious existence or interests of the unfortunate subjects who made up the strange and unworkable contraption but for the servicing of British trading interests.
Following strident agitations and the increasing enforcement of the right to self determination as enshrined in the United Nations charter, Nigeria gained independence in 1960 but the subjects within the Nigerian space who had no hitherto cultural, geographic or linguistic links faced their own colonialism within the “geographical expression known as Nigeria” for the many tribes and cultures within Nigeria where just as alien to each other as the British were to them. The manifest injustice of colonialism led to the adoption of the right to self determination in the United Nations Atlantic Charter in 1941 and further consolidated in 1945. It established the right under international law for all indigenous peoples to seek independence through democratic means.
The Nigerian crisis and pogrom/genocide of 1966/67 established beyond all reasonable doubts the incompatibility of Nigeria and opened the opportunity for the application of international law to peacefully determine the status of Biafra through a plebiscite or referendum administered by the United Nations. Nigeria being a nation of alien tribes, Biafra reserved the same right of independence with which Nigeria won independence from Britain on the basis of colonialism. But Yakubu Gowon refused to allow a referendum in line with the dictates of international law as established in the United Nations charter which would have resolved the impasse through a legitimate democratic method that respects the inalienable rights of indigenous peoples to self determination and freedom from internal or external colonialism.
To the extent that the people of Biafra were never allowed to freely and democratically express their choice and right to self determination through a plebiscite, Yakubu Gowon’s war against Biafra and consequent coercive subjugation of the people to the governing authorities of Nigeria was and remains for all practical purposes an act of colonialism.
The Conduct And Aftermath Of War Reveals The Lie Of War Of Unity
7th of July 1967, the Nigerian army attacked Biafra and began the onslaught on an aggrieved and beleaguered people who had in exercising their legitimate and natural right to self defence/preservation opted for self determination in the aftermath of the genocide against innocent Eastern civilians while the head of state refused to act. In prosecuting the war Yakubu Gowon proved his complicity in the genocide by fielding the likes of Murtala Muhammed, Shehu Yar’Adua, Theophilus Danjuma, Mohammed Shuwa and others who ironically are the same cowardly officers who perpetrated the genocide against civilians that created the crisis in the first place. These officers were not just mass murderers they were also rapists who serially committed crimes against humanity in the course of the conflict.
To decipher the true motive for the conflict, certain fundamental questions must be asked; If Yakubu Gowon was genuine about Nigerian unity as the true reason for his war why the North was originally intent on secession until the British authorities advised them not to because of economic interests / crude oil? Why did Gowon as head of state abdicate his constitutional responsibility and stood by when thousands of innocent Eastern civilians were being massacred? Why was Gowon so unwilling to make any sacrifices for the interest of peace and why did he renege on an accord he agreed in Aburi? Why did it take him so long from January to May to issue a decree on the diluted version of Aburi accord? Why was the Nigerian army so invested in massacres, rape and arson as they did in Benin, Asaba, the apostolic church Onitsha and practically all theatres of the war? Why were officers and men of the Nigerian army like Benjamin Adekunle and others making inflammatory statements of their intent on genocide in a supposed war of unity? Why was the notorious radio Kaduna making atrocious statements that urged rape and genocide in a supposed war of unity? Why did balkanisation of Igboland, abandoned property, divide and rule and the seeds of division instead of reconciliation become the policy of Yakubu Gowon’s government before and after the war? Why did Apartheid policies of marginalisation/exclusion become federal government policy after the war if it was genuinely a war of unity as Yakubu Gowon repeatedly lied?
In nations that went through a civil war, driven by a genuine patriotic desire for unity, the end of such conflicts is not followed by policies of balkanisation, abandoned properties, exclusion and marginalisation as has been the case in Nigeria but swift and total reconciliation, reconstruction and re-integration. Vietnam, Angola and post-genocide Rwanda are just some examples of nations that achieved total reconciliation and re-integration in the aftermath of conflict because of a genuine
desire for unity.
In the case of Nigeria, the events before, during and after the war in itself provides sufficient evidence for the true intentions of the conflict as a war not borne out of patriotism and a genuine desire for Nigerian unity/ nation building but of economic interests, subjugation and colonialism. On his own part, Yakubu Gowon by not following through with the original intent of the North to secede, by his repeated bad faith, by abdicating his most fundamental constitutional responsibility to protect the lives and property of citizens thus allowing and even enabling mass killings of genocidal proportions under his watch, by reneging on an agreement he personally participated in negotiating in Aburi and by usurping a people’s inalienable right to self determination through democratic means (plebiscite or referendum) as enshrined in the United Nations charter amongst other excesses personally and deliberately caused the avoidable and unnecessary Nigeria-Biafra war and the attendant tragedies associated with the conflict just seven years after independence.
Not only did Nigeria by the events before and during the war pioneer genocide in Africa, the first images of starving children which has now become a permanent fixture of Africa also began from Nigeria. The pogrom and the war more than anything else have come to define Nigeria as a land of monumental injustice and impunity. The war itself was an illegal war and a violation of international law which established since 1945 the right of self determination in Chapter 1, Article 1, part 2 which states that the purpose of the UN Charter is: "To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace." As each successive generation discovers the truth and injustice of that needless conflict, the bitterness is sure to remain Nigeria’s deepest enduring divide.
Nigeria continues to suffer severe social, economic and psychological dislocations as a result of the needless conflict. The nation has since become a disharmonious, dysfunctional and strife torn chaotic failed state Nigeria. Courtesy of Yakubu Gowon, crude oil that was hitherto not an issue during the time of Dr Nnamidi Azikiwe is now an obsessive object of national importance and the only mainstay of the economy. Gowon took away all aspects of federalism and consolidated the unproductive parasitic unitary system together with the creation of unviable states/local governments (without plebiscites) that are dependent only on crude oil allocations at the expense of industrialisation and other productive initiatives, which has in turn encouraged corruption and led to the collapse of the economy.
As the truth of the conflict continues to emerge and as the nationwide campaign for a sovereign national conference gathers steam in a nation that has been awakened to the lie of Nigerian unity, Emeka Ojukwu has been vindicated by Nigeria’s increasing strife, failure and impossibility as a nation. Yakubu Gowon was ultimately an unprincipled, incompetent, bigoted and opportunistic leader whose failure of leadership unleashed the pogroms and unnecessary war that spilled enough blood to fill the bowels of the Niger River. He and his cabinet members who so callously plunged the nation into an atrocious bloodletting will have to live and die with their conscience haunted by the millions of lives they took on the premise of a great lie. Their successive generations will also not be spared.
By Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu