UKNC-O HISTORY LESSON: BIAFRA THE CASE FOR INDEPENDENCE - PART 1

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BIAFRA

The case for

INDEPENDENCE

GEOFFREY BIRCH
DOMINIC ST. GEORGE


BRITAIN-BIAFRA ASSOCIATION
46 Tytherton Road, London, N.19
Tel: 01 272 2931


© February 1968
Reprinted March 1968
Second reprint June 1968


FOREWORD

My experience in several ex-British colonies has convinced me that in far too many instances the British Government has abdicated its responsibilities for minority races far too quickly, and has all too often, in addition, tried, to create large unworkable Federations out of disparate and incompatible units.

In Nigeria, as in Central Africa, East Africa, and the West Indies, a Federation was imposed upon indigenous peoples who later rejected it. There is a fundamental difference in Nigeria between the Hausas who are Moslem and conservative, and the Ibos who are Christian and progressive. The possibility of conflict was foreseen by many Colonial Service officials in Nigeria. I myself, with some others, refused to be in any way associated with the system of government bequeathed to Nigeria with independence, and preferred to leave Nigeria under a severe financial handicap rather than bear any responsibility for the terrible warfare that was bound to erupt between Hausa and Ibo.

During the years I was in Nigeria I frequently came across a “whispering campaign” against the Ibos. But there was more than whispering. In 1954 the Sardauna of Sokoto was reported in the Daily Times as saying, “When the British leave we shall sweep the Ibos into the sea".

The Hausas are now trying to do exactly that under Colonel Mohammed and Colonel Shuwa, and with the utmost ferocity. Many of my Ibo friends are now dead, and the peaceful land of Nigeria is ablaze with a war as bloody as the American Civil War, to which it has some resemblance.

It is my considered opinion that the British Government should be utterly neutral in this conflict between two Commonwealth races, but should end its diplomatic inactivity and take the initiative to send a Commonwealth peace mission to try to bring peace to this vast country.

I must conclude by saying that I think Mr. Birch and Mr. St. George have rendered tremendous service to the cause of peace and fair play in writing this booklet, and I believe the contents to be entirely true. I am full of admiration for the Biafran nation in their brave stand against annihilation, and hope that this booklet will stir the British public to understand the tragedy, and the British Government its responsibilities.

Lieutenant-Commander J. L. Hornby,
R.D., R.N.R., B.Sc.(Econ.), A.C.C.S., A.M.B.I.M., A.I.B.
Formerly:        The Treasury Department,
                          Federation of Nigeria (1950-8).



THE IRONSI REGIME — JANUARY TO JULY 1966

On the 15th January, 1966, a group of young Nigerian army officers attempted the overthrow of the Nigerian Federal Government. Many of the details surrounding these events have still to be revealed, but certain facts are clear.

The coup was unsuccessful. Having achieved their aims in the North, the junior officers concerned were foiled in Lagos by the Commander-in-Chief of the Nigerian Armed Forces, Maj. General Aguiyi-Ironsi to whom they eventually agreed to surrender their arms and by whom they were detained awaiting trial. Maj. General Ironsi was invited by the surviving members of the civilian regime to assume full responsibility for the government of the Federation.

The young officers were at the same time successful in having achieved the overthrow of politicians who were generally accepted to have been corrupt and who had, for some time, been incapable of maintaining law and order. Their achievement was popular throughout the country. To quote Dr. Okoi Arikpo, at present Federal Commissioner for Foreign Affairs:

“Well might the men who planned and executed the coup be satisfied, for the Army take-over was hailed by every section of the country, including the political parties in power at the time of the coup.” (The Development of Modern Nigeria, Penguin African Library.)

None of the evidence available supports the contention, often advanced in recent months in order to excuse the slaughter which was to follow, that the coup was a tribal, Ibo movement aimed at the domination by Ibos of the central government. All the indications are to the contrary. Dr. Arikpo (op. cit.) describes the revolt as “widespread, well co-ordinated and effective”, and he quotes Major Nzeogwu, one of the leaders of the revolt, as saying that the mutineers constituted “a national company” and that “Most of those concerned with the revolt in the North were Northerners ”.

The Federal Government publication Nigeria 1966 does not directly allege that the coup was an “Eastern plot”. It does, however, imply this by describing the plotters as “a small group of Army Officers mainly from the Ibo ethnic group of the Eastern Region”. It furthermore suggests, even more indirectly, some sort of involvement in the coup by Maj. Gen. Ironsi. Nevertheless, the coup is finally described as having been “foiled by intervention of the bulk of the Nigerian Army”.

Another, more detailed official account of the events of this time, January 15th: Before and After. Government Printer, Enugu, provides evidence that leading Northerners (including Major Hassan Usuman Katsina, now Chairman of the Council of Northern States), were closely involved with the mutineers:

"During the press conference of 19th January, at which Major Nzeogwu introduced Major Katsina as the new Military Governor of the North, Major Nzeogwu said that he would always remember that at the crucial moment Major Katsina was on his side. To this Major Katsina replied: ‘I have been able to help Major Nzeogwu with some of his problems during the past few days. I am his good friend and I am sure that he will now help me. We will work together for the betterment of our country.’ In the same manner Alhaji Ali Akilu, Head of the Northern Civil Service, collaborated with Major Nzeogwu and ensured that the latter had the necessary funds to pay local workers. At a press conference on 15th January, Major Nzeogwu appointed a government of civil servants under Alhaji Ali Akilu, who was designated ‘Officer Administering the Government of Northern Nigeria'; a government which was ‘to stamp out nepotism, tribalism and regionalism'."

A further accusation made against the Ironsi regime which has often been accepted as adding weight to the charge that there had been some collaboration between the plotters and Maj. Gen. Ironsi himself is that the individual mutineers who had been placed in detention after the coup were never brought to trial. The Eastern Government (January 15th: Before and After) quotes West Africa, edition of 29th January, 1966, as saying that the subject was “certainly on the agenda” of the very first meeting of the Supreme Military Council. The Eastern Government goes on to say:

“A decision was taken by the Supreme Military Council that Lt. Col. Gowon, Chief of Staff, Army, should investigate the circumstances of the Revolution, ascertain the extent of guilt of each participant and submit his findings to the Council as a matter of extreme urgency. This fact Lt. Col. Gowon has never told the world. In meeting after meeting of the Council Lt. Col. Gowon was asked about his report and each time his reply was that he had no time and that he was still collecting a lot of evidence. When at last in May he announced that he had finished, members of the Council asked if they could have copies of the report. His reply was that they would have them as soon as they were ready. Up till now (March 1967) the Supreme Military Council has not received the report of Lt. Col. Gowon on the events of 15th January.

A final comment on the question of the intentions of the 15th January revolutionaries was made by the Economist on 12th February, 1966, who pointed out that even if the revolution was an Eastern one "(which is by no means proved) this is largely academic because the men who carried it out are not now in power".

Who, indeed, were the men in power in Nigeria at the time the Economist’s Lagos correspondent made this observation? The suggestion has frequently been made that the avowed intent of Gen. Ironsi’s regime to achieve a unitary form of government simply masked an attempt by the Ibos to dominate Nigeria. It is said that the massacre of Eastern officers and other ranks of Eastern origin in the army which followed at the end of July was the inevitable and spontaneous reaction of the North to this undercover attempt at Ibo domination of the whole country.

At the time Gen. Ironsi’s regime promulgated Decree No. 34 (May 1966), a decree which would have resulted in greater centralisation, the composition of the Ironsi Government Armed Forces was as follows:

Supreme Military Council                              North                            2 members
                                                                           West & Lagos              3 members
                                                                           Mid-West                     1 member
                                                                           East                               2 members

Federal Executive Council                             North                           3 members
                                                                           West & Lagos              3 members
                                                                           Mid-West                     1 member
                                                                           East                               3 members

Heads of Federal Civil Service                        North                           8
                                                                           West & Lagos              5
                                                                           Mid-West                     7
                                                                           East                               3

Heads of Federal Corporations
and Institutions                                  North                            6
                                                                           West & Lagos              12
                                                                           Mid-West                     1
                                                                           Expatriate                    3                               
                                                                           East                               3

Disposition of Army Command
Mid-West                                          

Supreme Commander Brigadiers                    East
                                                                                                   West                2
                                                                                                   North               1
Battalions                                                          East                  3
                                                                                                   North               2
                                                                                                   West                1
                                                                                                   Mid-West        1
Headquarters                                                    East                  2
                                                                                                   North               2
                                                                                                   Mid-West        1
Special Branches                                              West                3
                                                                                                   North               2
                                                                                                   East                  1

(Source: January 15th, Before and After, Government Printer, Enugu.)


Plainly, the suggestion that the violence which broke out in Northern Nigeria in May was a spontaneous reaction to an attempt at Ibo domination through the Ironsi regime rings false. David Loshak, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 17th June, gave this explanation of the origins of the riots which resulted in some 3,000 Easterners being killed:

“The riots and disorder developed inevitably from demonstrations which were well planned and occurred simultaneously over a huge area. Only the dispossessed and now outlawed politicians have the necessary organisational machinery for this, so when Hausa slaughters Ibo, it is also a sign that the politicians are fighting back. There are powerful interests, too, manipulating the politicians. It is easy to see that some large international commercial concerns which had key personalities in their pockets would like to see them back in power."       
The official account of the Gowon regime goes a long way to support this view. Nigeria 1966 states:

“Meanwhile, in the North the local petty contractors and party functionaries whose livelihood depended solely on political party patronage became active. Most of them, like their counterparts in other Regions, were indebted to either the Northern Marketing Board or the Northern Nigeria Development Corporation. They were the hardest hit by the change of government especially as all those indebted to Marketing Board and the N.N.D.C were made to pay up their arrears. They resorted to whispering ‘campaign’, rumour mongering and incitement, aided and abetted by other factors. They are the elements most close to the ordinary people and they have utilized that to create a public opinion which is very strong and potentially dangerous against the authorities.”

The May riots and the reception given to Decree No. 34 were a blow to all supporters of the “One Nigeria” concept. Support for this concept was widespread amongst the Nigerian elite, not least amongst the Ibo-speaking portion of this elite.

At this moment, with 3,000 of his people lynched by Northern mobs and the rest of the two million strong Eastern community in Northern Nigeria poised to return home to the safety of the Eastern Provinces, Col. Ojukwu, Military Governor of the East, broadcast an appeal for calm on the morning of 30th May. “I wish to assure all of you that the National Military Government is taking all necessary steps to bring the situation back to normal. The steps taken so far have had a salutary effect. Those Nigerians who are fomenting these disturbances will face the consequences of their actions, and their foreign backers will be dealt with in an appropriate manner.” The exodus of Easterners from the North was prevented.

It is clear that Col. Ojukwu realised, in common with his fellow members of the Supreme Military Council, that if the Eastern community resident in the North had returned to the East all hope of forging unity in Nigeria would be lost. Some weeks later Col Ojukwu expressed more plainly his attitude at that time towards the May massacres in relation to the future of Nigeria. In his address to Alhaji Ado Bayero, Emir of Kano, whom he had named Chancellor of the University of Nigeria in Eastern Nigeria, he said, referring to the May riots:

Lives and property have been lost; many have been made homeless; others have been bereft of their loved ones; confidence has been shaken; fear has replaced faith in one towards the other. These are sad reflections which must remain a source of guilt and shame for all who, by deliberate acts and insinuations were responsible, directly or indirectly, for them. We cannot restore the lives which have been lost nor the blood which has been shed. But we should not ignore the fact that they have been valuable lives and blood. It must, therefore, be our prayer that the innocent blood thus shed will be accepted as the supreme purchase price for the solid and everlasting unity of this country, and that the events which had led to the situation will for ever be the worst that this country should experience.”

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