UKNC-O HISTORY LESSON: BIAFRA THE CASE FOR INDEPENDENCE - PART 5

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ABURI — 4th/5th JANUARY, 1967

In an attempt to find a solution to Nigeria’s problem, yet nevertheless preserve Nigerian unity, the Supreme Military Council met at Aburi, Ghana, on 4th and 5th January, 1967.

The principal objects of this meeting were threefold: firstly to review questions concerning the organisation of the Nigerian Army and the implementation of the 9th August agreement in respect to the dispersal of Army personnel; secondly, to discuss the resumption of the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference and the acceptance of the unanimous recommendations in September 1966; thirdly, to discuss the problems of displaced persons.

It was obvious that any discussion on the organisation of the Nigerian Army would necessarily include the question of the structure of government in the immediate future as the Government was, in fact, a Military one. Indeed one of the first matters to be discussed was the question of the recognition of Lt. Col. Gowon as Supreme Commander.

Lt. Col. Ojukwu’s view was clearly and forcefully expressed. “How can you ride above people’s heads and sit in Lagos purely because you are at the head of a group who have their fingers poised on the trigger? If you do it, you remain for ever a living example of that indiscipline which we want to get rid of. Because tomorrow the Corporal would think that because he has his finger on the trigger he would just take over the company from the Major commanding the Company and so on. I knew then that we were heading for something terrible. Despite that, and by force of circumstances we did talk on the telephone, I think twice; you brought up the question of Supreme Command and I made quite plain my objections. But despite those objections you announced yourself as the Supreme Commander.

“Now, Supreme Commander by virtue of the fact that you head or that you are acceptable to people who have mutinied against their Commander, kidnapped him and taken him away; by virtue of the support of officers and men who have in the dead of night murdered their brother officers; by virtue of the fact that you sit at the head of a group who had turned their brother officers from the Eastern Region out of the barracks which they shared. ... I said then, and have continued to say, that in the interest of peace. I would co-operate with you to stop the fighting, to stop the killing, but I would not recognise. I would not recognise because, as I said, we have a Supreme Commander who is missing.”

Lt. Col. David Ejoor (Military Governor, Mid-West) added: “I believe that before you go on to give your solutions, we must examine certain principles which are going to govern us. I agree we should not go too far into history but there is one valid point which must be considered. And that is the coups we have had so far. The 15th January one was a failure and the Army came in to correct it. The one of the 29th (July) I personally believe was a mutiny to start with, but it has now turned out to be a coup so that if it is a coup we have to ask ourselves is it a successful coup or a partial one? I believe it is a partial one; that it is not a fully successful one; in which case and of course this is the main point which has brought us here — trying to negotiate as opposed to receiving orders from the commander.”

On the question of Government there was general agreement that association between the regions should be solely on the highest level, i.e. between their representatives on the Supreme Military Council.

Lt. Col. Ojukwu (East); "For these basic reasons, the separation of the forces, the separation of population, is in all sincerity, in order to avoid further friction and further killing — I do submit that the only realistic form of Government today until tempers can cool — is such that will move peoples slightly apart and a Government that controls the various entities through people of their areas. It is better that we move slightly apart and survive. It is much worse that we move close and perish in the collision. Therefore I say, no single one person today in Nigeria can command the entire loyalty of the people of Nigeria.... And it is that that makes me say that Nigeria-wide contact should be at the highest possible level until such a time as tempers have cooled and passions have calmed down.”

Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina (North): “But all the same I agree that whatever form of association we are to discuss has to be at the top level. But to make me believe that tomorrow a Northern soldier will stay in the same barracks within the next few months with an Eastern soldier, is something that is not there.”

Lt. Col. D. Ejoor (Mid-West): “The salient point which we want to consider is that since there is no one person, as has been mentioned, that has the absolute control of the Armed Forces, it is now difficult for us to accept one authority and I think it is the main point which Emeka (Lt. Col. Ojukwu) was trying to make. . . . With this progression from our Federal set-up it only means that we have to look very closely into the central powers which are supposed to be those of the Supreme Commander and see how best we can limit these in such a way that the actions are acceptable to the various regions.”

Lt. Col. Robert Adebayo (West): “I agree entirely with Emeka, Hassan and David. I think that on the government side it will be simpler if we can restore the confidence of the population which we have not got at the moment. Even in the west people are still afraid, the Yorubas are afraid in the West, of moving around with the Northern troops because they felt, well they have done something to the Easterners, maybe it will be their turn next… But, I think we should revert to what the country was as at 14th January, 1966, that is complete regional autonomy.”

The result of these clearly expressed views was paragraphs 1 (a) and 3 of the Statement issued by the Supreme Military Council.

“1. The Supreme Military Council now meeting in Ghana has agreed on the following re-organisation of the Army:

(a)        The Army is to be governed by the Supreme Military Council the chairman of which will be known as Commander-in-Chief and Head of the Federal Military Government.

“3. Any decision affecting the whole country must be determined by the Supreme Military Council. Where a meeting is not possible such a matter must be referred to Military Governors for comment and concurrence.”

The Constitutional significance of this agreement is that it purports a political association between the regions on Confederal lines. Indeed the significance of the Aburi agreement was not lost to the Permanent Secretaries of the Federal Government who on the 20th January, 1967, submitted their “comments” on the Accra decision of the meeting of the Supreme Military Council stating inter alia:

"2. (a) The Title: 'Commander-in-Chief.'—Objections are raised to the use of 'Commander-in-Chief’ which the Accra meeting agreed should be the new title for the Chairman of the Supreme Military Council and Head of the Federal Military Government on the grounds that:

(1)   It would be a subtle way of either abolishing the post of Supreme Commander or declaring it vacant, to be filled by the unanimous decision of the Supreme Military Council; if the latter, there would be considerable instability caused by political and military manoeuvres to fill the post.

(2)   The Accra decision transfers the Executive Authority of the Federal Military Government from the Head of Federal Military Government and Supreme Commander, (in accordance with Decree No. 1) to the Supreme Military Council. The implication of this is that the Commander-in-Chief would have no powers of control or dismissal over the Military Governors; a situation which is incompatible with Military administration.

(b) Establishment of Military Headquarters. — It is considered:

(1)   that the establishment of Military Headquarters with equal representation from the Regions headed by a Chief-of-Staff amounts to confederation.”

It is evident from the sequence of events, namely:

(a)        the decisions at Aburi;
(b)       the Statements of the Supreme Military Council issued after Aburi;

(c)        the reaction of the Federal Permanent Secretaries;
that the power of Government had in fact devolved upon the Supreme Military Council each member of which had the power to exercise a veto on decisions affecting the whole country. In short, Regional autonomy was established to the extent that the Military Governor of a region could prevent the Central Government encroaching on matters affecting his region.

It is also clearly established that Lt. Col. Gowon was not recognised as Supreme Commander by the Supreme Military Council.

Amongst the other decisions arrived at by the Supreme Military Council were:

(a)        That a committee should be set up to look into the problems of the rehabilitation of Displaced Persons and the recovery of their property.

(b)       That staff and employees of Governments and Statutory Corporations, who had had to leave their posts as a result of the disturbances, should continue to be paid their full salaries up to 31st March, 1967.

(c)        That the Ad Hoc Committee of the Constitutional future of the country should be resumed as soon as possible.

These decisions suffered the same fate as the decision of the Supreme Military Council to adopt what was tantamount to a confederal system of Government. They were repudiated by Gowon at the instigation of the Federal Civil servants whose advice was expressed in the following terms:

“9.       (e) The decision that displaced persons should continue to receive their salaries till the end of March 1967, should be reconsidered for economic reasons.”

(g) The Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference should stand adjourned indefinitely and the immediate political programme announced by the Supreme Commander to the nation on 30th November, 1966, should be implemented.”

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