The Autumn Atrocities
The situation following the July coup was complex and deeply unhappy. As news of the killing of the Eastern Region soldiers in barracks all over Northern and Western Nigeria got back to the East feeling ran high. Without their weapons, disguised in civilian clothes, walking by night and hiding by day, the first groups of officers and men who had escaped from the killings began to cross the Niger and tell the tale.
For Colonel Gowon the week was crucial. Several reasons have already been cited as the basis for his choice as leader of the plotters. That he was the next senior officer in line was obviously not true. His own explanation on the radio on 1 August that he had been named by a majority of the existing Supreme Military Council was also quickly discounted in the East. For one thing the Council did not make majority decisions, and for another thing it had not met. A third reason given for his selection, notably by expatriate writers at the time, was that he was ‘the only man who could control the rebels’.
The new régime was faced with three urgent unsolved problems: the killing inside the army had to be stopped, a Supreme Commander acceptable to everyone had to be found, and the future basis of association of the four regions had to be sought.
Colonel Ojukwu, although not prepared to recognize the supremacy of Colonel Gowon, nevertheless realized that if anything of Nigeria was to be saved from the mess he would have to try to cooperate with the new regime. Towards this end he proposed by telephone from Enugu that there should be a meeting of representatives of the Military Governors to try to get agreement on at least a temporary association of the regional military power blocks that the coup had created.
The controlling force in the North, West and Lagos was now the Northern Army. The Easterners in ‘the army’ (i.e. the Federal Army) had been killed or chased out, most Midwesterners (and there were not many) had been of the Midwestern Ibo group and had thus been classed as Easterners, suffering the same fate, and the Westerners in the army were little more than a handful. Traditionally the Yorubas seldom presented themselves as candidates for the army.
The meeting of representatives was duly held on 9 August, and the vital agreement it reached, with the Northerners concurring, was that all troops should return to their regions of origin. Although often overlooked by later writers, this agreement might have saved Nigeria had it been carried through. The coup in the West had had the support only of the ex-politicians of the Akintola days, who were still heartily disliked by the majority of the population. The return of the Northern soldiers to the North would have enabled the Westerners to speak their mind, something quite impossible so long as there were garrisons of Northerners in every barracks and squads of them manning the roadblocks.
Chief Awolowo, freed from prison, still had enough popularity to speak for the West. But the pledge was never fulfilled by the new regime. The excuse given was that there were virtually no Yoruba troops to replace the Northerners. In fact security could have been assured by the police, for the Westerners had no cause to run amok. As it turned out the Northern soldiers stayed put, to the Westerners, as to the Easterners, seeming like an army of occupation, and often behaving like one.
In the East Colonel Ojukwu stuck to the letter of the agreement. The Northern-born component of the garrison at Enugu was repatriated to the North by rail, and in accordance with the terms of the 9 August concordat, they were allowed to take with them their arms and ammunition as a protection against being waylaid en route. These arms were then supposed to be sent back after the troops had got home. But once in Kaduna the troops from Enugu kept their weapons and no more was heard about them.
Elsewhere Eastern-born troops were clamouring to return home. Apart from the fugitives of 29 July and the succeeding days, there were other groups who were still intact. From the North some of them were sent home, but without arms or escort, and were forced to submit to repeated molesting on the way from the by now hostile populations through whom they passed. The tension grew.
By late in the month it became clear that there were still hundreds unaccounted for. That was when Colonel Ojukwu asked that the outstanding personnel be allowed to return home, and the twenty-two at Ikeja were executed in consequence.
These events were not without their effect in the East. After the May massacres in the North a Commission of Inquiry under the chairmanship of a British High Court judge had been instituted by General Ironsi. In doing this he was following the practice laid down by the British after the Jos riots of 1945 and the Kano killings of 1953. But before this Commission sat, he had asked his Chief of Staff to conduct a brief preliminary inquiry. Pressed several times before the Supreme Military Council to produce his findings, Colonel Gowon had procrastinated, claiming the report was not yet ready. In fact it never was ready, and after taking power he dismissed the Commission, which consequently never sat. As a result there was no apportionment of responsibility for the May killings, no prosecution in law of those responsible and no compensation for the victims.
Thus a deep suspicion of Colonel Gowon grew in the East: it looked as if he had never intended the background to the May killings to come to light. This impression was heightened when he subsequently caused to be published a document that claimed the riots had been caused solely by the
publication of the Unification Decree of 24 May. In fact this decree was the unanimous decision of the Supreme Military Council, which had as its members two Northerners, Colonel Hassan Katsina and Alhaji Kam Selem.
Far more important, and often overlooked, was a complete volte-face in Eastern thinking on the question of the future form of Nigeria. Previously the Easterners had been the foremost advocates of One Nigeria, had put more effort into the realization of this concept than any other ethnic group, and had constantly promoted its cause at the political level. But between 29 July and 12 September the East swung through 180 degrees. It was not, for them, a happy experience, but one which they felt was dictated by recent events. A plaintive paragraph in one of the official publications of the Eastern Region Government in the autumn explains the conclusion the Easterners had come to:
Recent events have shown even more clearly that the belief of the Easterners that only a strong central authority could keep the people of the country together was presumptuous, and perhaps an over-simplification of the situation. Now, the whole basis on which the Easterner’s conception of one nation, one common citizenship and one destiny was built, appears never to have existed.*
It was not an agreeable confession to have to make, and the sense of disillusionment was profound, almost traumatic. Even today it is still reflected in the tone of those in Biafra who were at the centre of affairs at that time.
Meanwhile in each region discussions at every level were taking place to decide the posture each region would adopt at the forthcoming Ad Hoc Constitutional Review conference to be held in Lagos starting on 12 September. At this conference the East proposed a loose association of states with a wide degree of internal autonomy, not because that was the Eastern dream, but because it seemed to be the only format which took cognizance of the realities of the situation. Three months later Colonel Ojukwu expressed this view in two sentences: ‘It is better that we move slightly apart and survive. It is much worse that we move close and perish in the collision.’*
The North also opted for a loose federation, but even looser than the East had proposed. The Northern proposal was so loose that it amounted to a Confederation of States; and to leave no doubt about their wishes, the Northern delegation appended a detailed memorandum about the East African Common Services Organization, which it suggested as a model. In their proposals the Northern delegation had this to say about Nigerian unity:
Recent events have shown that for Nigerian leaders to try and build a future for the country on rigid political ideology will be unrealistic and disastrous. We have pretended for too long that there are no differences between the peoples of this country. The hard fact which we must honestly accept as of paramount importance in the Nigerian experiment especially for the future is that we are different peoples brought together by recent accidents of history. To pretend otherwise would be folly.†
The similarity of conclusion in that passage and the one quoted earlier from the Eastern publication are obvious. For the first time ever it appeared that East and North were agreed on the selfevidence of their own incompatibility.
The North went even further, asking that in any new Nigerian Constitution a secession clause should be written, adding: ‘Any member state of the Union should reserve the right to secede completely and unilaterally from the Union, and to make arrangements for cooperation with the other members of the Union in such a manner as they may severally or individually deem fit.’*
Unlike the Eastern attitude, the North’s viewpoint was completely in accord with decades of tradition. That was when the second volte-face occurred. There seemed after a few days in Lagos to be a crisis inside the Northern delegation. Colonel Katsina arrived from Kaduna; the delegates hurriedly left for the North; the conference was adjourned. When the Northerners arrived back after consultations, they presented an entirely different set of proposals. This time they wanted a strong and effective central government, thus diminishing the autonomy of the Regions; they agreed to the creation of more states in Nigeria (the idea had always been abhorrent to them before); and they agreed to cut out any mention of secession.
There have been various explanations offered for this extraordinary break with all traditional Northern attitudes. One is that the Middle Belt elements, whose infantrymen composed the bulk of the army, made plain that they did not want a return to regional autonomy, since that would reimpose on them the hegemony of the Emirs which they found so irksome; and that they pressured both the North and the central government with their preponderance in the army, on which both sets of rulers now depended, to get their way. If this is true, then it brought a new force into Nigerian politics, the minority tribes, and caused what Mr Walter Schwarz refers to as ‘the third coup’.
Another explanation is that it occurred to the Emirs, or was explained to them, that virtually autonomous regions would depend largely on their own revenue, and that the North would then be left to repay the massive loans owing for the Kainji Dam project and the Bornu Railway Extension, while the East would collar most of the oil revenue.
A third explanation is that once again the British diplomats got to work and used their undoubted influence in the North to urge that it was certainly not Whitehall’s wish that Nigeria should become a Confederation of States.
Fourthly, it is possible that the Northern rulers realized that they could afford to let minority tribe figures take the front of the stage in a unified Nigeria, and could even afford the creation of new states, provided they remained the true power base in the background by making sure that the central government remained dependent of its power on the army, and the army remained the tool of the North. Some evidence to support this view came later when, after the North had ostensibly been divided into six states, Colonel Katsina was asked by a BBC correspondent whether this change in any way affected the traditional power structure in the North. He replied, ‘Not in the slightest’. When, halfway through the present war, Gowon looked as if he might assert himself, Katsina moved a brigade of Hausas to the northern approaches of Lagos and calmly appointed himself Army Chief of Staff in succession to another northerner, Colonel Bissalla.
Whatever the reason for the change, it was so sudden and so out of character that it smacked of a ‘deal’ somewhere behind the scenes, and the satisfaction of Whitehall at the change was so evident in Lagos that one is at pains to believe the British High Commission was content to remain an idle bystander throughout.
As it turned out the Constitutional Conference came to nought, for it was interrupted and stultified by another outbreak of killings of Easterners in the North, the worst ever, and of such an intensity that it destroyed once and for all any illusion that the hatred of the North towards the East could be dismissed as a passing phase in a new nation, and laid the grounds for the Eastern feeling that their only hope of ultimate survival as a people was to get out of Nigeria.
In later explanatory literature published by the Nigerian Military Government (not surprisingly Federal literature is strongly pro-Northern), several reasons are given for these massacres, and the size and character of them is strongly played down. An examination of these excuses reveals them to have been adduced or invented after the massacres, and a comparison of the pertinent dates and an examination of contemporary evidence from European eyewitnesses proves their falsehood. The main excuse was that there were killings of some Northerners in the East, and that this triggered the massacre of the Easterners in the North. In fact, although there was some violence shown against Northerners living in the East, it was first manifested a full seven days after the killings of Easterners in the North.