The Biafra Story - Page 8

Among those who know what happened after that, only Lieutenant Nwankwo has ever given testimony. From the Federal Government side a discreet veil is drawn over everything. What follows then is Nwankwo’s evidence.

All three men were stripped and flogged w

ith horsewhips. After being put into separate vans the convoy set off with Major Danjuma leading. At the Mokola road junction where the roads divide, one going to Oyo town and the other to Letmauk Barracks, garrison of the Fourth Battalion, the convoy split. Danjuma headed back to Letmauk after giving whispered orders to Lieutenant Walbe, the commander of General Ironsi’s escort. The rest of the convoy proceeded. After ten miles the three detainees were ordered down and made to march along a narrow footpath in the bush. They were stopped, and were beaten and tortured again so badly that they could hardly walk. After being pushed on they came to a stream which in their weakened state they could not jump across. They were carried over the stream and a few yards down the path, where they were laid face down and given another beating. At this point Nwankwo had managed to untie the wire round his wrists and made a dash for it. He got away. The other two men, nearly dead from their sufferings, were finished off with bursts of Sten gun. Later the police found the bodies and buried them in Ibadan cemetery, from where they were taken six months later and laid to rest in their respective home towns.

After dawn on 29 July the massacre of officers and men of Eastern origin took place all over Nigeria with a speed, precision and uniformity of pattern that took away any subsequent excuse of spontaneity. At Letmauk Barracks, Ibadan, the commanding officer Colonel Akahan claimed at sunrise that he had known nothing of the midnight movements against General Ironsi. But it is unlikely that the troops, transport, arms and ammunition used for the siege of Government House were removed without the CO’s knowledge. At 10 a.m. Colonel Akahan called an officers’ conference, from which he himself stayed away. When the officers were assembled the Easterners were taken away to the guardroom, then later to the tailor’s workshop. At midnight that night thirty-six hand grenades were lobbed through the windows. The survivors inside were shot down. Eastern soldiers were then made to wash the blood away, before being taken out and shot. The Easterners in Ironsi’s retinue were also finished off. On the afternoon of the 30th Colonel Akahan called together the Northern soldiers and congratulated them, saying at the same time that there would be no more killing ‘since events had now balanced out’.

On the basis of this statement Eastern soldiers in hiding came out; but that night they too were hunted down and those caught were killed. The killing went on for several days, accompanied by the raping of the wives of Eastern men and the spreading of terror to the city of Ibadan itself. Colonel Akahan later became Gowon’s Army Chief-of-Staff.

At Ikeja things went much the same. About breakfast time on the morning of the 29th Colonel Gowon arrived from Lagos fifteen miles away. From five in the morning onwards Northern troops of the garrison had been rounding up the Easterners, including scores of civilians, policemen and customs officials of Eastern origin working at the nearby airport. By midday of 29 July there were 200 held in the guardroom. In the evening Lieutenant Walbe arrived and reported to Colonel Gowon the capture and death of General Ironsi. The next day the civilians in the guardroom were released while the names of the soldiers were taken. From this list the execution squad called out the officers and men in order of seniority. Eight officers ranging from Major to Second Lieutenant and fifty-two other ranks from Warrant Officer downwards were killed. The killing was accompanied by the usual beatings, but after one Ibo corporal escaped (and lived to tell the tale), the rest were handcuffed and led away to the killing ground behind the guardroom. When weary, the Northern soldiers exchanged knives and carried on cutting throats. Before death many of the prisoners were whipped, made to lie in puddles of urine and excrement and consume the mixture. Captain P. C. Okoye was on the way to attend a course in the United States when he was caught at Ikeja Airport and brought to the barracks. Tied to an iron cross he was flogged almost to death, then thrown into a cell, still tied to the cross, where he died.*

All this happened less than 200 yards from the office where Colonel Gowon had set up his headquarters and from where he had been vested with the title of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. It was from this office that he told the world he was trying to hold the country together in a time of crisis.

Despite subsequent assurances that it was a quick and shortlived affair, there is eyewitness testimony that it went on sporadically for four weeks. On 22 August a young Northern officer brought from Benin prison the detainees who had been concerned in the January plot (ostensibly the reason for the July coup). The five of them were killed. The same day news came through that in the East Colonel Ojukwu had asked for the repatriation of all Eastern officers and men. Lieutenant Nuhu then gave orders that the remaining twenty-two Eastern prisoners, all NCOs, be executed, which they were.

Long before that date Colonel Gowon had told the world that the killing had ceased and that ‘conditions have returned to normal’.

Colonel Akahan and Major Danjuma were not the only ones to achieve promotion after acts which customarily lead to the gallows. At Makurdi in the heart of Tiv-land a detachment from the Fourth Battalion at Ibadan had arrived between 11 and 14 August. Fifteen soldiers of Eastern origin were arrested and detained. On the 16th the detachment commander Major Daramola told them they would be driven to Kaduna, then sent back to the East by air. The convoy set off along the road with Major Daramola bringing up the rear in a Mini-moke. After fifty miles the convoy stopped and reversed into the bush where a firing squad was waiting. One by one the men were called out for execution. Three escaped by darting out of the lorry and running off into the long grass, later to come home on foot and tell the tale. Lieutenant-Colonel Daramola today commands the Eighth Brigade of the Second Division, Nigerian Army, which garrisons the Enugu to Onitsha road from Abagana village to Udi.

Enough of the July massacres. They have been adequately detailed elsewhere. Suffice it to report that in all barracks and garrisons, in Lagos and throughout the Western and Northern Regions the pattern was the same. Northern soldiers took over the armouries and armed themselves, arrested and locked up their colleagues of Eastern origin and subsequently led many of them out to execution. Some escaped and wended their way back to the East, to form the basis of the Biafran Army of a year later. Among the senior officers most of those in the infantry were killed; most of the survivors were in the technical cadres, which is why, of the present Biafran Army commanders who held the rank of Major or senior in the old Nigerian Army, the majority were in the technical rather than the combat units. By the time it was all over nearly 300 officers and men were dead or unaccounted for. As a coherent unit, as a truly Nigerian institution in which men of all tribes and nations, cultures and creeds could live side by side and call each other comrade, the army was shattered beyond repair. And the army had been the last such institution. Despite what happened before and after, despite all the efforts (which might have succeeded) to hold Nigeria together in some form, if any moment can be identified as the moment when Nigerian unity died it was when the General called Johnny Ironside crashed down in the dust outside Ibadan.

The aim of the coup was partly revenge on the Ibo for what had been an all-party coup in January, and partly the secession of the North. As soon as Lieutenant-Colonel Gowon set up base at Ikeja barracks a strange flag was seen flying from the main gate, and it remained there for eighteen days. It had lateral red, yellow, black, green and khaki stripes. It was the flag of the Republic of Northern Nigeria. For three days buses, lorries, cars, trains and planes were commandeered in Lagos and the Western Region to transport the enormous reflux of Northern families home.

The garrisons in Lagos, the West and the North were under the control of Northern-officered and -manned units. While the killing of the Eastern soldiers went on Lieutenant-Colonel Hassan Katsina, Military Governor of the North, rallied to the rebel cause, giving grounds for suspicion that if he had not been one of the instigators he had at least known roughly what was afoot. The West had no one to speak for it, Colonel Fajuyi being dead, and there was no one either to speak for Lagos.

In the Midwest, however, ther

e had been no coup; but neither were there any soldiers stationed there. As usual it was too small to bother about. In the East there was a strong Governor, a loyal garrison and no attempt at a coup. As a result the rule of the old régime continued unbroken in that Region.

When it became clear that the Northern officers intended to secede, a cold wind swept through several quarters, not least through the British High Commission. From the East Colonel Ojukwu saw the writing on the wall, and by telephone urged the Yoruba Brigadier Ogundipe, senior ranking officer in the army and legally the successor of General Ironsi, to take over and declare himself Supreme Commander. Ojukwu promised that if he did, he (Ojukwu) would recognize Ogundipe as such. The Yoruba did not rate his chances very highly and, after a crass radio speech of three minutes asking everyone to be calm, he disappeared to Dahomey and thence to London, where some months later he agreed to become the Nigerian High Commissioner. In the meanwhile frenzied efforts by the British High Commission and others had been going on to try to dissuade the North from seceding. But the Northern officers were not alone in their demand; separate independence, the message of the rioters’ banners the previous May and of the Emirs’ memoranda of June, was still the wish of the great majority of the North. There was only one way to keep them inside Nigeria; by putting into effect the old alternative, ‘We rule the lot or we pull out’. According to later accounts from highly placed civil servants then working in Lagos, the British High Commissioner Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce had a six-hour private session with Gowon on the morning of 1 August. Gowon then reported back to his fellow-Northerners. By the afternoon Colonel Ojukwu, telephoning from Enugu to ask Gowon what he intended to do, was told the group intended to stay in Lagos and take over the running of the country. When Ojukwu protested, Gowon replied: ‘Well that’s what my boys want and they’re going to get it.’ And stay they did. Gowon’s first broadcast to the nation, already prepared and tape-recorded, had to be hastily but not very skilfully edited. What he said was:

I now come to the most difficult but most important part of this statement. I am doing it conscious of the great disappointment and heartbreak it will cause all true and sincere lovers of Nigeria and of Nigerian unity, both at home and abroad, especially our brothers in the Commonwealth. As a result of the recent events and of the previous similar ones, I have come to strongly believe that we cannot honestly and sincerely continue in this wise, as the basis for trust and confidence in our unitary system of Government has been unable to stand the test of time. I have already remarked on the issue in question. Suffice it to say that putting all considerations to the test, political, economic as well as social, the basis for unity is not there, or is so badly rocked, not only once but many times. I therefore feel that we should review the issue of our national standing and see if we can help stop the country from drifting away into utter destruction.*

The last sentence but one does not finish. After a phrase like ‘so badly rocked, not only once but many times’ one would expect the word ‘that’ followed by an announcement of the consequences of the rocking. Moreover, it is nonsensical to suggest that the peroration of stopping the country from drifting to destruction would be likely to cause disappointment and heartbreak to all true lovers of Nigeria. In fact, before editing, the speech was to have announced the North’s secession.

Had it done so, there seems little doubt that the West, Midwest and East would soon have reached a suitable modus vivendi, and shortly afterwards North and South could have entered into a Confederacy of autonomous states or at the least a Common Services Organization that would have put all the erstwhile economic benefits within the reach of all parties while avoiding the powder keg of the racial incompatibility of North and South.

By this time Gowon had either named himself or had been named Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Head of the National Military Government of Nigeria. In the East Colonel Ojukwu had no hesitation in refuting Gowon’s right to either title. It is of vital importance in understanding why Biafra exists today to realize that after 1 August 1966, Nigeria did not have one legitimate government and one rebel regime, but two separate de facto governments ruling different parts of the country.

The July coup was radically different from the January coup in one other respect, as had become clear by 1 August. In the first coup the mutineers did not achieve power, but ended up in prison. In the second they took over the control at the Federal Government and in two Regions. The third Region recognized the new régime later. The fourth Region never did, nor was it obliged to in law.

That was why the coup failed. Its objects were to extract revenge (which it did) and then to secede (which it did not). Having opted to change the second objective into a take-over of all power, the coup leaders were then obliged to presume acquiescence by the two unaffected Regions. When they did not get it from the larger of these two, Nigeria was effectively divided into two parts.

But the British Commonwealth Office had got what it wanted, and recognition followed. In October, appealing to the Northerners to stop killing the Easterners in their midst, Gowon was able to use the argument that ‘You all know that since the end of July God in His power has entrusted the responsibility of this great country of ours, Nigeria, into the hands of another Northerner… .’


One of the main bases of the Nigerian and British Government case against Biafra is that its Government is illegitimate while that of Colonel Gowon remains the sole legitimate government inside the country. But legal experts exist, by no means all Biafrans, who maintain that in law both regimes have a case.

That of the present Nigerian Military Government is based on its effective control of the capital and three of the former Regions, a rule extending over seventy per cent of the population. The diplomatic world has an obsession with capitals, and control of the capital city counts for much. Had Lagos been in the Eastern Region and had Gowon taken over the three outlying Regions while Colonel Ojukwu kept the Eastern Region and the capital, possibly the diplomatic advantage would have swung the other way.

Colonel Ojukwu’s claim that it is the Gowon Government rather than he that is in a state of rebellion and therefore illegitimate is based on the continuance of lawful authority in the Eastern Region after July 1966. Earlier General Ironsi had been appointed to his post as Supreme Commander and head of the Supreme Military Council by almost the entire existing Cabinet of Ministers. Had this cabinet sat after the death of Premier Balewa (at that time it was presumed he had only been kidnapped) under the chairmanship of an Ibo minister, it might have been later said that the appointment had been ‘fixed’. But the chairmanship was taken by Alhaji Dipcharima, a Hausa, and senior ranking minister of the Northern People’s Congress party.

Nor did General Ironsi bring undue pressure to bear on the politicians. He told them, quite realistically as it turned out, that he was unable to guarantee the loyalty of the army to the rule of law unless the army took over. With Nzeogwu marching south and many garrisons seething with unrest, this was no exaggeration. General Ironsi’s appointment may therefore be judged to have been legitimate in law. It was he who appointed Colonel Ojukwu to govern the Eastern Region, which was a legitimate appointment.

For Colonel Ojukwu the only man who was entitled to the post of successor to General Ironsi was the next-ranking senior officer, Brigadier Ogundipe. If Ogundipe were not nominated, a plenary meeting of the Supreme Military Council would have had to name a successor. This did not happen. Colonel Gowon either named himself to the post, or he was named by the mutineers in the first three days after 29 July. Among these there was only one member of the Council, Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina, Governor of the North. Even the later meeting of the Council that confirmed Gowon in the post was not plenary, since it was held under conditions that made it impossible for Colonel Ojukwu to attend with more than a tiny chance of getting out alive.

Only in the East did government continue uninterrupted and undisturbed by the events of July 1966. The train of legitimate appointment remained unbroken. For the Biafrans their break from Nigeria in May 1967 was, in view of the treatment accorded to the Region and its citizens, legitimate in international law, and this claim is not without its international supporters.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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