The Biafra Story - Page 7

Particular exception was taken at once to Mr Nwokedi, whose inquiry into the possibility of unifying the civil service took him on tour of the North. Though he listened to the Northerners’ views, his final report to General Ironsi contained conclusions that did not coincide with those views.

In Lagos General Ironsi was being pulled both ways. He knew of the discontent of the North towards the idea of unification, but there were powerful advocates of it in his immediate entourage. On 24 May he came off the fence. In a radio broadcast he announced the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree. The provisions involved the abolition of the Regions and their conversion into groups of provinces, although with the same boundaries, Governors and administrations. Nigeria would cease to be a federation and become simply the Republic of Nigeria. The public services were to be united under a single Public Services Commission, but regional (or now provincial) commissions would continue to appoint all but the most senior staff. He then added that these measures were entirely transitional and should be seen as such, and that they were made ‘without prejudice’ to the findings of the Rotimi Williams Commission. Unhappily that commission was working precisely on the problem of the relative merits of the federal and unitary systems.

It may well be that General Ironsi was seeking to placate the radical firebrands of the South who wanted reform quickly, while at the same time trying not to provoke the North by going too far. An examination of the Unification Decree (as it became known) shows that in fact it changed virtually nothing but names. More cogently, this decree did no more than formalize the manner of government that had existed since the army took over and ruled through the Supreme Military Council, very much a unitary body.

The Unification Decree was then used as the excuse for a series of most violent massacres of Easterners across the Northern Region. It started with a student demonstration at Kano. Within hours it had turned into a bloodbath. Again, although as advocates of unification the Yorubas of the Western Region had been almost the equals of the Ibos of the East, it was exclusively the Ibos and their fellow-Easterners that the Northern mobs sought out. Shortly after the start of the demonstration in Kano hundreds of armed thugs swept across the space between the city walls and the Sab

on Garis where the Easterners lived, broke into the ghetto and started burning, raping, looting and killing as many men, women and children from the East as they could lay hands on.

Any idea of spontaneity was dispelled by the spread of the riots. In lorries and buses thoughtfully provided by unnamed donors, waves of former party thugs spread out through the North, to Zaria, Kaduna and elsewhere. By the time it was all over Nigeria was again on the verge of disintegration. Although no figures were ever published from either Federal or Northern Government sources, the Easterners later calculated they lost three thousand dead in those massacres.

It may well be that some thought they were just demonstrating their feelings – which they had every right to do. But the butchery that went with it, the degree of the organization, and the ease with which it could be accomplished should have given warning of a deep underlying danger which constituted a dark portent for the future. Again the warning was overlooked.

Many Northerners were probably quite convinced after several months of quiet indoctrination that the Ibos really were trying to take over Nigeria, to colonize the backward North, and use their undoubted talents to run the country from end to end. Again the secessionist demand of the North became an open issue. Demonstrating civil servants in Kaduna carried banners proclaiming: ‘Let there be secession.’ In the same city Colonel Hassan called a meeting of all the Northern Emirs, and many arrived with clear mandates from their people at home asking for secession of the North. In Zaria the Emir was mobbed by crowds begging for secession.

After the meeting the Emirs sent Ironsi a secret memorandum telling him, in effect, to abrogate the Unification Decree or they would secede. General Ironsi replied by going to great lengths to explain that the decree involved no changes of boundary, and that indeed it hardly changed the status quo at all; he pointed out that it was a temporary measure to enable the army, accustomed to a unified command, to rule; and that there would be no permanent changes made without the promised referendum. The Emirs declared themselves satisfied.

In June Colonel Ojukwu, welcoming the Emir of Kano, his contemporary and friend, with whose aid he had been able to keep Kano without bloodshed in January, as the new Chancellor of the University of Nsukka, publicly called on his people to return to their homes and jobs in the North. Many of these Easterners had fled after the May massacres to seek safety in the East. Colonel Ojukwu asked them to believe that these killings had been ‘part of the price we have had to pay’ for the ideal of One Nigeria.

Throughout June the Ironsi Government groped for a remedy to the problem of the rising tension in Nigeria. To none did it occur, and least of all to Colonel Ojukwu, that the Northerners might be permitted to fulfil their age-old wish and set up their own state. Eventually General Ironsi left for a tour of the country to sound out local opinion, on the broadest possible basis, as to the future form of Nigeria that its people wished to see. He never returned to Lagos.

* ‘The Nigerian Revolution’, African World, March 1966.

* 12 February 1966.

* Conversation with the author at Enugu, July 1967.


The Second Coup that Failed

Some of those seeking to explain away the coup of the junior army officers of Northern origin on 29 July 1966 have suggested it was motivated by ideas of righteous revenge for the deaths in January of three senior army officers of Northern birth. Certainly, prior to the second coup there were growing cries in the North for the execution of the mutineers of January, not as retribution for the deaths of the politicians, whose passing remained largely unregretted, but for the shooting of Brigadier Maimalari and Colonels Pam and Largema.

This argument is not convincing. Apart from these three, two Yoruba colonels and two Ibo majors were also killed in January. It seems far more likely that the key to the motives of the officers who mutinied in July is to be found in the codeword that triggered the operation – ARABA. It is the Hausa word for ‘Secession’; and although there was undoubtedly a strong element of revenge inside the movement and the subsequent activities of its perpetrators, their political aim was to fulfil the long-standing wish of the mass of the Northern people and quit Nigeria once and for all.

In this and in other points the two coups were utterly different. In the first coup there had been a fiery zeal to purge Nigeria of a host of undoubted ills; it was reformatory in motivation; bloodshed was minimal – four politicians and six officers. It was extrovert in nature and non-regional in orientation.

The July coup was wholly regional, introverted, revanchist and separatist in origins and unnecessarily bloody in execution.

A few years earlier it had been noted that, although the great majority of the infantry were of Northern origin, and about eighty per cent of this majority were Tivs, almost seventy per cent of the commissioned ranks were from the East. This was no accident; but neither was it the design of the Easterners that this should be so, as has since been alleged. In its early days the Nigerian Army had emphasized the importance of education when granting commissions. As can be seen from the dispersion of primary schools (mentioned earlier) the North was chronically short of educated personnel.

In 1960, independence year, there had been only six commissioned officers from the North in the army. The new Defence Minister, Alhaji Ribadu, a Hausa, had decreed there should be fifty per cent Northerners in the commissioned ranks; but this could not be done overnight. By 1966 there were, however, far more junior officers of Northern origin in the army; and although the planning of the July coup was undoubtedly done by a small group of senior officers, the execution fell to these lieutenants.

Inside the army the dispersion of the officers reflected regional characteristics, again not deliberately, but on the basis of education and tendency. The great majority of the Northern officers were in infantry battalions, while the technical sections – stores, radio, engineering, maintenance, armoury, transport, medical, intelligence, training and ordnance – were the preserve of the Easterners. When the July coup came the mutineers had only to take possession of the various garrison armouries and to arm their men to have the rest of the army and therefore the country at their mercy. This in fact was what they did.

General Ironsi was dining on the evening of 28 July with Lieutenant-Colonel Fajuyi, Military Governor of the West, but at the latter’s residence in Ibadan. Ironsi had just completed his nation-wide tour. With them was Colonel Hilary Njoku, the Ibo commander of the Second Battalion base at Ikeja outside Lagos.

The coup started with a mutiny at Abeokuta Barracks in the Western Region where a Hausa captain led a group of troops into the officers’ mess at 11 p.m. and shot three Eastern officers, a lieutenant-colonel, a major and a lieutenant. They then besieged the barracks, disarmed the Southern soldiers among the guard, seized the armoury and armed the Northerners. They also sounded the call to action, which brought the garrison from its sleep to line up on the parade ground. The Southern soldiers were singled out and locked up in the guardroom, while the Northerners made a house-to-house search for those not present. By daybreak most of the Southern officers and senior NCOs had been rounded up. They were led out of the guardroom at dawn and shot.

Meanwhile the mutineers had apparently telephoned the adjutants (both Northerners) of the Second Battalion at Ikeja and the Fourth Battalion at Ibadan to inform them of the news. But at 3.30 a.m. an Ibo captain among the prisoners at Abeokuta escaped: he too telephoned, but to Army Headquarters in Lagos. He reported what he thought was a simple mutiny. At AHQ the man in charge in the absence of Ironsi was his Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-Colonel Gowon.

It was he who now took charge. Whether he did so to better the direction of the coup and the massacres that it entailed, or whether he tried to prevent it, is still hotly debated. He claims he had nothing to do with the coup, but his subsequent behaviour would appear to cast doubt on this and he may have been a not-too-hesitant accomplice during and after the fact.

The news also reached General Ironsi. The three officers conferred shortly after midnight and agreed that Njoku should return to Lagos in a civilian vehicle and in mufti to take over control and counter the ‘mutiny’. He left in order to return to his chalet and change. Once outside, he noticed troops dismounting from two parked Land Rovers. They gave him a burst from Sten guns and he ran off, wounded in the thigh. Later, after treatment at Ibadan Hospital he wended his way back to the East disguised as a priest, while patrols scouted the West for him and roadblocks had orders to shoot on sight. It was the tenacity of the hunt for Eastern officers, and the duration of it long after Colonel Gowon had taken over supreme control in the name of the mutineers, that cast doubts on both the political aspect of the coup and Gowon’s innocence of events.

In fact the Southern troops in Ironsi’s bodyguard had been disarmed before midnight by their Northern counterparts who had been stiffened by twenty-four extra Northern troops sent from the Fourth Battalion headquarters in Ibadan. This battalion, after the death of Colonel Largema in January, had been under the command of Colonel J. Akahan, a Tiv from the North. The newly-arrived party was commanded by Major Theophilus Danjuma, a Hausa, who is now Second-in-Command of the First Division of the Nigerian Army and Garrison Commander of Enugu.

Inside the house Ironsi and Fajuyi heard the shooting and sent down Ironsi’s Air Force ADC, Lieutenant Nwankwo, to find out what was going on. (Ironsi’s Army ADC, Lieutenant Bello, a Hausa, had quietly disappeared, although there is no evidence to connect him with the coup.) Downstairs Nwankwo was arrested and his hands tied. After waiting almost till dawn Colonel Fajuyi descended to find out what had happened to Nwankwo. He too was arrested. Finally at 9 a.m. Major Danjuma went upstairs to find General Ironsi, and arrested him. He too was brought downstairs.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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