The Biafra Story - Page 4

Within twelve months of independence a split developed in the Action Group, as may only be expected in a party already six years in opposition and destined to another four years. Part of the group supported Awolowo and the others Akintola. In February 1962 the party’s convention supported Awolowo and the parliamentary party declared Akintola guilty of maladministration, asking that he be removed from the premiership.

In response to this request the Governor of the West dismissed Akintola and appointed an Awolowo supporter called Adegbenro to form a new government for the Western Region. Akintola replied by appealing to the Federal Premier in a rather roundabout way. In the Western House of Assembly he and his supporters started a riot which police finally had to clear with tear gas. Premier Balewa in Lagos was able with his majority to push through a motion declaring a state of emergency in the West, despite the protests of Awolowo. Balewa then appointed an Administrator for the West, with powers to detain persons, and suspended the Governor. As luck would have it the Administrator was a friend of Balewa. Restriction orders were placed on Awolowo, Adegbenro and Akintola, who promptly formed a new party, the United Peoples’ Party (UPP).

The next step of Awolowo’s opponents was to institute an inquiry into corruption in the West. It was a useful weapon, and not difficult to prove, either in the West or anywhere else.

Corruption in public life was no new thing; it had been present under the British and had flowered alarmingly after independence. The ‘ten per cent’ that Ministers habitually required of foreign firms before granting them lucrative contracts, the holding of stock in businesses subsequently singled out for preferential fiscal treatment, down to the open bribing of Native Court officials and policemen, was the order of the day. Few ministers held power who did not make a profitable thing out of it, partly no doubt from simple cupidity, partly also because any man of power was expected to maintain a large retinue, fix his forthcoming re-election and shower benefits on his home town. Along with simple financial corruption went nepotism, thuggery and ballot-rigging.

The Coker Commission had little trouble showing vast channelling of public money, largely through the government controlled Marketin

g Board and the National Investment and Properties Company, into party funds and subsequently to private use. Chief Awolowo and one of his lieutenants, Chief Anthony Enahoro, came in for publicity during this inquiry that gave an indication of their attitude towards the responsibilities of public life. Both men now occupy high positions in the Nigerian Government once again.

Between the date of regional self-government in 1956 and the inquiry in 1962 the Coker Commission disclosed that .£10 million had found their way into the Action Group’s coffers, the sum representing thirty per cent of revenue over that period. Oddly, Chief Akintola, who had been premier since 1959 when Awolowo went to the Federal Chamber in Lagos, was found to have had no part in these defalcations.

Whether any court procedure against the leading members of the Awolowo faction would have taken place in the wake of the Commission is open to conjecture. At any rate the affair was overtaken by events. Towards the end of 1962 Awolowo and Enahoro were charged, among others, with treason.

The trial was a tortuous affair lasting eight months. The prosecution claimed Awolowo and Enahoro had imported arms and trained volunteers for a coup scheduled for 23 September 1962, when the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and other leading figures were to have been arrested while Awolowo took over and announced himself Prime Minister of Nigeria. The defence was that the atmosphere of violence and fear which had prevailed in the West since independence made such precautions advisable. Awolowo was sentenced to ten years in prison, reduced on appeal to seven, and Enahoro, after repatriation from Britain and a subsequent separate trial, to fifteen years, reduced on appeal to ten. The Judge of Appeal who reduced Enahoro’s sentence was Sir Louis Mbanefo, later Chief Justice of Biafra. Judge and jailbird met again when they faced each other at the Kampala peace talks in May 1968, each heading his country’s delegation.

The affair enabled Akintola to consolidate his hold on the West, despite a Privy Council ruling from London in May 1963 that his dismissal from the premiership by the Governor had been valid. Akintola’s protector, the Federal premier Balewa, described the findings of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as ‘unsound and out of touch with reality’. The same year appeals to the Privy Council were abolished and another safeguard passed into history.

The Awolowo trial in its latter stages had to vie as a scandal with the rigging of the national census. The previous census in 1953–4 had somehow been stigmatized by a presumption that it had to do with taxation purposes, and so many people managed to avoid being counted, particularly in the East, that the overall figure at that time of 30.4 million for the Federation was probably on average ten per cent low. The 1962 census was widely presumed to have something to do with representation at a political level, and the figures were consequently enlarged in all regions, notably in the East. The 1962 census cost £1.5 million and the figures were never published. Actually they purported to show that the population of the North had gone up thirty-three per cent in eight years to 22.5 million, while the South had gone up over seventy per cent to 23 million. This gave the whole of Nigeria a population of 45.5 million. Mr J. J. Warren, the British leader of the 45,000 enumerators who had done the head-count, rejected the Southern figures as ‘false and inflated’. This decision did not displease the Sardauna of Sokoto who was not amused to find the population of the South apparently dominating by half a million that of the North. He is reputed to have torn up the figures in disgust when they were shown to him, and to have ordered Balewa to try again. Another census was held in 1963, this time without the help of the sceptical Mr Warren.

Perhaps this was just as well, for he might well have had a fit if he had seen the preparation of the next set of figures under the personal supervision of Balewa. One morning in February 1964 the Nigerians awoke to find that there were now 55.6 million of them, of which a fraction under 30 million were in the Northern Region.

Mr Warren had refused to accept the figures for the South the previous year for several reasons: among others because they showed at that time between three and four times more adult males than appeared on the tax register, and more children under five than all the women of childbearing age would have been able to produce if they had all been pregnant continuously for five years. He had accepted the figures for the North in that year because they seemed reasonable, showing a two per cent per annum growth rate over the previous census.

If the North was caught napping in 1962 it was wide awake in 1963. Boosting its population from the 22.5 million to just under 30 million in one year, it managed a birthrate of twenty-four per cent per annum. The South, whose figures in 1962 had been for Mr Warren unbelievable, had gone up again, from 23 million to 25.8 million. Expatriate wits asked themselves if these figures included the sheep and goats, while Nigerian politicians hurled recriminations at each other, each refusing to accept the figures of the other half of the country. The population came to the view that the whole thing was another ‘fix’ and was probably right. More sober and realistic assessments put the total Nigerian population at about 47 million by the end of May 1967, of which Biafra (including the enormous reflux of refugees) detached about 13.5 million at the end of that month by declaring its own independence.

The census scandal gradually yielded to the general strike of 1964. All this time, and right up to the first military coup in January 1966, the Tiv Riots had been seething in that area of the Middle Belt where the Tivs had their traditional homeland. These tough, independent but largely backward tribesmen had long clamoured for a Middle Belt State, and were represented by the United Middle Belt Congress. But while NPC leaders made little objection to the carving of the Midwest Region out of the West in 1963 as a home for the non-Yoruba minorities they felt there was no need at all to perform the same service for the Tivs, seeing that the latter could politically be counted as Northerners. In consequence the army was sent in to crush the Tiv revolts that occurred soon after independence, and stayed there until the military coup of 1966. Most of these army units were from the predominantly Northern-recruited First Brigade. Some army officers objected to the use of the army for putting down civil disturbances, but others sought to curry favour with their Northern politicians by being more royalist than the king in crushing the dissidents. However, the harder the Tivs were treated the harder they fought back, and by 1966 independent observers estimated that close to 3,000 people had died in these disturbances, over which a modest veil was drawn before the world.

Soon after the general strike came the 1964 general election. The ten-year alliance between the NPC and the NCNC was broken by Sir Ahmadu Bello, who announced baldly that ‘the Ibos have never been true friends of the North and never will be’. With that he announced an alliance with Akintola, now firmly in the saddle in the West. It appears more likely that, knowing yet another alliance with one of the southern parties would be necessary to keep his lieutenant in power in Lagos, Bello found the heavily indebted Akintola a more pliable ally than Okpara. Thus Akintola merged his party with the Sardauna’s NPC to form the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), leaving the NCNC with no option but to make common cause with the rump of the Action Group, those of the party who had remained loyal to the imprisoned Awolowo. Between them they became the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA).

The campaign was as dirty as it could possibly be (or so it was thought at the time, that is, until Akintola surpassed himself the following year during the Western Region elections). In the West the NNA electoral appeal was strongly racist in tone, pitched hard against alleged ‘Ibo domination’, and some of the campaign literature was reminiscent of the anti-Semitic exhortations of pre-war Germany. Dr Azikiwe, President of the Federation since Nigeria became a republic in 1963, appealed in vain for a fair election and warned of the dangers of tribal discrimination. In the North UPGA candidates were molested and beaten by the NPC party thugs when they tried to campaign. In both North and West UPGA candidates complained they were either prevented from registering or that even after registratio

n their NNA opponents were returned ‘unopposed’. Up till the last minute it was in doubt whether there would be any election at all. In the end it went ahead, but the UPGA boycotted it. Not unnaturally the result was a win for the NNA.

President Azikiwe, unhappy about the constitutional position, nevertheless asked Balewa to form a broad-based national government, and a crisis was averted that might have broken the Federation in 1964. Eventually in February 1965 the Federal elections were belatedly held in the East and Midwest, where there was heavy voting for UPGA. The final figures were 197 for the National Alliance and 108 for the UPGA.

This scandal had hardly abated when the preparations went ahead for the November 1965 elections in the Western Region. Here Akintola was defending his premiership and an appalling record of government. There seems little doubt that the general unpopularity of Akintola could well have led to a victory by the opposition UPGA if the elections had been fair. This would have given the UPGA control of the East, the Midwest (which they had already), the West and Lagos, a feat which would have entailed UPGA superiority in the Senate, even though the Northern/Western alliance would have continued to control the Lower House.

In all probability Akintola was aware of this, as he was also of the unalloyed support of the powerful and ruthless Ahmadu Bello in the North and of Balewa in the Federal premiership. Confident of impunity, he went ahead with an election procedure that showed considerable ingenuity in failing to omit a single opportunity for scurrilous behaviour.

The UPGA, warned by the Federal election, got all their candidates’ nominations accepted well in advance, and backed by sworn affidavits that all ninety-four intended to stand for election. Nevertheless sixteen Akintola men, including the premier himself, were declared as returned unopposed. Electoral officers disappeared, ballot papers vanished from police custody, candidates were detained, polling agents were murdered, new regulations were introduced at the last minute, but only mentioned to Akintola candidates. While counting was going on UPGA agents and candidates were kept out of the counting houses by a number of means, the mildest of which was a curfew selectively applied by the Government-employed police. Almost miraculously a number of UPGA candidates were declared elected by the returning officers still at their posts. Instructions were given that all returns were to be routed through Akintola’s office and bemused listeners to the radio heard the Western radio under Akintola’s orders giving out one set of figures, while the Eastern Region radio gave out another set, the latter figures coming from UPGA headquarters which had obtained them from the returning officers.

According to the Western government the result was seventyone seats for Akintola and seventeen for the UPGA, and Akintola was asked to form a government. The UPGA claimed it had actually won sixty-eight seats and that the election had been rigged, a contention observers had little difficulty in believing. Adegbenro, leader of the UPGA in the West, said he would go ahead and form his own Government. He and his supporters were arrested.

It was the signal for a complete breakdown of law and order, even if it could truly be said to have existed before. Rioting broke out across the length and breadth of the Western Region. Murder, looting, arson, mayhem were rife. On the roads gangs of rival thugs cut down trees, stopping motorists to ask for their political affiliations. The wrong answers brought robbery or death. Within a few weeks estimated deaths were between 1,000 and 2,000.

In the face of this, Balewa, who had been so fast to declare a state of emergency in 1962 because of an uproar in the Western House of Assembly, remained quiescent. Despite repeated appeals to him to declare an emergency, dissolve the Akintola government and order fresh elections, he declared he had ‘no power’.

The mighty Federation of Nigeria was crumbling into ruin before the eyes of foreign observers who had only a few years before hailed Nigeria as the great hope of Africa. Yet to the outside world hardly a word of this penetrated. Indeed, anxious to keep up appearances, Balewa’s Government invited a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference to meet in Lagos in the first week of January 1966 to discuss the question of restoring law and order in rebellious Rhodesia. Mr Harold Wilson was pleased to attend. While Commonwealth premiers shook hands and beamed at each other on the apron of Ikeja International Airport, a few miles away Nigerians were dying in scores as the army moved in on the UPGA supporters.

The army could not restore order either, and at the insistence of the General Officer Commanding, Major-General Johnson Ironsi, the troops were withdrawn. The majority of the ordinary infantrymen at that time serving in the Federal Army were drawn from the Middle Belt, that is, the minority tribes of the North. These troops, particularly the Tivs who formed the highest percentage among them, could not be used to quell the Tiv riots still raging, for they would probably not have turned their guns on their own fellows. Thus most of the army units available outside Tiv-land were heavily salted with Tivs.

For the same reason that they could not be used in Tiv-land, they were not much use in the West either. Their sympathies lay not with the Akintola regime, for was not Akintola the ally and vassal of the Sardauna of Sokoto, persecutor of their own homeland? They tended to sympathize more with the rioters, being themselves in much the same position vis-a-vis the Sokoto/Akintola power group.

By the second week of January 1966 it had become clear that something had got to give. Subsequent painting by the present Nigerian military régime of what followed as an all-Ibo affair fails to take into account the inevitability of either a demarche from the army or complete anarchy.

On the night of 14 January, in the North, the West and the Federal capital of Lagos, a group of young officers struck. Within a few hours Sokoto, Akintola and Balewa were dead, and with them the First Republic.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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