Aburi – Nigeria’s Last Chance
There is no doubt that the aim of the pogrom of 1966 was to drive the Easterners out of the North and perhaps even out of Nigeria. In both it was remarkably successful. In the wake of the killing the Easterners came home in droves, convinced once and for all that Nigeria neither could nor would offer them the simple guarantees of security of life and property that are habitually the inalienable rights of citizens in their own country.
They have since been accused of playing up the scope and effect of the massacres. Ironically no playing up was necessary. The facts spoke for themselves and were witnessed by too many independent minds to be discountable. Mr Schwarz, who can hardly be accused of sensationalism, refers to them as ‘a pogrom of genocidal proportions’.
Nor were they directed solely against the Ibos. The word Ibo’ is a single generic term in the North – actually the Hausa word is ‘Nyamiri’, which is derogatory as well as descriptive – for all Easterners regardless of racial group. Thus not only the Ibos suffered, though they were undoubtedly in the majority. Efiks, Ibibios, Ogojas and Ijaws were also singled out for butchery.
As they came home and told their tales, a wave of rage swept across the East, mingled also with despair and disillusion. There was hardly a village or town, family or compound in the Region that did not take into its fold one of the refugees and listen to what he had to say. Thousands of the refugees were maimed for life by what they had gone through either mentally or physically. Almost everyone was penniless, for the Easterner traditionally invests his money in his business or in property, and few could bring away more than a small suitcase when they fled.
Houses, businesses, prospective earnings and salaries, savings and furniture, cars and concessions – for many people the sum total of a lifetime of effort, all had to be left behind. Not only were the refugees refugees, they were without any visible means of support when they arrived in the East, for many of them a place they had never seen.
Naturally there was a reaction. While the killings were going on in the North there were sporadic retaliatory acts of violence against Northerners living in the East. Expatriates have told of Hausas being set on in Port Harcourt, Aba and Onitsha. But the same eye-witness stressed that these were occasional acts born of the fury of the moment. There were never more than a few thousand Northerners in the East, and Colonel Ojukwu’s reaction to the news of violence against them was fast. As the toll mounted in the North and the news started to come through of just what was goin
g on, it became clear that the future of Northerners in the East was problematic to put it mildly.
The Military Governor ordered that those that there were should be escorted northwards over the border and should have police protection all the way. His ability to command his own people contrasted with the impotence of Gowon and Katsina. Though as human beings they may have hated their charges, the Eastern Region police did their duty. On only one occasion, when a train was stopped by rioters at Imo River Bridge, was violence done to a handful of Northerners while they were under police protection. The overwhelming majority left the East intact.
As regards the totals, very much a question in dispute ever since, Mr Legum hit the nail on the head when he observed that ‘Only the Ibos know the whole terrible story’. Faced with the obvious disinclination of the Federal Government to conduct an inquiry, the East ordered its own. It was conducted by Mr Gabriel Onyiuke, the former Nigerian Attorney-General, who had also fled from Nigeria. It took a long time to complete. Many of the refugees had scattered throughout the Region and were difficult to reach. Others failed to respond to an appeal to come forward and testify. Moreover the influx continued for months as the aura of violence and fear spread from the North to the West and to Lagos.
Taking their cue from their counterparts in the North, Northern soldiers in the West also started marauding through the streets seeking Easterners to harass. They haunted the streets of Lagos at night picking up stray Easterners and taking them out on to the Agege Motor Road for execution. Some of the top men in Nigeria fled with a car full of belongings from their houses and flats in the capital in an effort to cross the Niger and reach safety.
By January the inquiry had established a figure of 10,000 dead in the North, but it was provisional, and had been reached by adding together the large units of those killed in the major cities. There had been hundreds of small settlements of Easterners out in the open country of the North, sometimes no more than ten or a dozen of them in a village otherwise inhabited solely by Hausas or Tivs. When evidence of what had happened to these small units had been collated, the total of dead, including those who died in the West and Lagos, topped 30,000. Added to that there were several thousand more maimed and mutilated, and others demented for life.
Even the Eastern population of the North exceeded known estimates. Altogether, when they were all back, the figure was put at 1,300,000, while those coming in from the other regions came to close to 500,000.
By necessity there was an element of estimation in the figures, for many people had given evidence that they had known of a family living at a certain place, but had heard nothing of them since. The cross-tabulation of evidence to pin down the fate of those who were known not to have returned would ideally have needed a computer.
A visitor to the East three months after such an enormous influx of refugees would have expected to find great camps of displaced persons living off charity; it would have been perfectly normal for appeals to have been made to the United Nations Refugee Fund to import aid and relief to prevent the refugees from dying of starvation. Ironically, if that had been the reaction of the East, their refugee problem might then have become a world conscience-issue, like the Gaza Strip, and the sympathy they might have received could have carried them through into separate independence with the blessing of the world. Alternatively, if they had opted to break with Nigeria there and then, they might have received instant support from a wide circle of sympathizers.
But the Eastern Nigerians were not the Arabs. They would tolerate no festering sore like the Gaza Strip on their landscape. The extended family system – the traditional structure under which everyone is obliged to take in any relative in distress, no matter how distant he may be – came into full play. Almost miraculously the refugees disappeared, finding shelter with long unseen grandparents, uncles, cousins, in-laws. In each case the breadwinner simply took on the added burden of more mouths to feed. This was the reason why, on the surface, the problem appeared to have been coped with so quickly.
But under the surface the problem was there, and it was enormous. The influx had caused an unemployment problem of hardly manageable proportions; health and social welfare services were unable to cope; medical services were overwhelmed with the casualties; educational services suddenly found several hundred thousand children of school age to teach. In most other countries in the world the central government would have felt itself obliged to launch a massive aid programme, either through an assisted rapid expansion of all services, or through wide-operating fiscal relief. Bearing in mind that the damage had been done by fellow-Nigerians, pretty extensive compensation would also have been the order of the day. Being Nigeria under Colonel Gowon, nothing of the sort happened.
There was no expression of regret; there was no demand by the central government that the North voice an expression of regret or remorse; there was no compensation, no recompense, no offer to make good the damage in so far as it could be made good. So far as is known, not one soldier was ever given a day’s ‘confined to barracks’ punishment, not one officer was court-martialled, not one policeman was ever retired, and not one civilian ever faced a court of law, although many had been identified.
The attitude of the Gowon Government in Lagos answered Easterners’ questions about the impartiality of the centre with discouraging finality. The tension was by this time electric and the demand for a complete break with Nigeria, starting as a small murmur, grew to a hurricane.
Of the three original regions, the East was the last even to mention the word. The threat to secede had come from the North periodically for twenty years. In 1953 at the talks in London that gave rise to the 1954 Constitutional, Chief Awolowo heading the Action Group had threatened the West would secede if Lagos was made Federal Territory rather than a part of the Western Region. He was only dissuaded from this course by a sharp warning from the Colonial Secretary Mr Oliver Lyttelton, later Lord Chandos.
But by now most Easterners were convinced that the old Nigeria in which they had participated was dead. That is to say, the spirit of it was dead. Only the format remained, and without the spirit, the format was an empty shell, and a badly shattered one at that.
By contrast Colonel Ojukwu thought there remained a chance that Nigeria could be saved. He fought the separatist demands with all his authority, even though aware that in the process he might lose his authority. He could go so far but no further. He was convinced that on the basis of reality alone the best that Nigeria could get for herself would be a structure where a temporary loosening of the existing regional ties would allow time to elapse for a cooling-off process, later to be followed by further discussions in a less feverish atmosphere.
But in Lagos Gowon was apparently being advised by a group of men who had not been to the East since the massacres in the North, and presumed that the aggrievement of the Easterners was a passing tantrum which could reasonably be discounted, or at least overcome if they later proved troublesome. This ability to underestimate the degree of the damage that had been done, and the reaction in feeling it had caused east of the Niger, also seems to have infected the British High Commission, whose subsequent advice to Whitehall was to pooh-pooh the crisis as a temporary brush-fire.
One precaution Colonel Ojukwu did feel obliged to take nevertheless was to import some arms. The departure of the Enugu garrison with all its weaponry and the arrival back home of the Eastern troops without any had left the East defenceless. Moreover Colonel Ojukwu had come into possession of a document from an Ibo diplomat in Rome showing that a Northern Army Major, Sule Apollo, was in Italy buying large quantities of arms.
In the meantime invitations had been issued to resume the constitutional talks. In view of the violence with which Northern troops were still threatening Easterners in the streets of Lagos, Ojukwu regarded these invitations as somewhat unrealistic unless adequate safeguards could be guaranteed. None was forthcoming, and as all the other three regions and the capital were under the heavy control of
Northern troops, Ojukwu could not see how he could reasonably ask the Eastern delegates to risk their lives by returning. Gowon responded by dismissing the constitutional talks as being able to serve no further purpose, and announced that a committee would draft a new constitution based on a Nigeria composed of between eight and fourteen states.
Ojukwu was aghast, but knew his former colleague well enough to know that the weakling Supreme Commander had got into fresh hands and was being emboldened by a new group of advisers. Sure enough he had and was.
Before the autumn killings some of the top positions in the civil service in Lagos had been held by Easterners who had reached the top through their talents. The Permanent Secretary – that is, the top civil servant in a Ministry – is a powerful man even in a democratic society. He knows his Ministry and the business of that Ministry often better than the Minister. By advising the Minister one way or the other he can often influence policy or even create it indirectly. In a military government of young and not-too-bright soldiers, happy enough behind a gun but bewildered when the bullets have finally brought them to power and faced them with the complexities of government, the Permanent Secretary becomes even more influential. When the leader of the military clique in power turns out to be a man of straw, he (the civil servant) runs the show.
After the killings the Ibos and other Easterners had fled, leaving their posts vacant. There were not enough Northerners to fill them, and in any case a talented Northern civil servant is so valuable back home that he is likely to rate a better job in the Northern Region than he could get in Lagos. The Yoruba from the West tend to stick to their own Regional affairs. The men who had moved in when the Easterners left in the autumn and early winter of 1966 were mostly minority-tribe men. As has been explained earlier, they had their own reasons for not wishing to see a return to the powerful Regions of yesteryear. So long as Nigeria remained a multi-state complex with weak regions and a powerful centre, and so long as they ran the centre, the power was theirs for the first time in history. It was a chance not to be missed.
By the early winter of 1966 Colonel Gowon had taken on the aspect in Eastern eyes of a highly suspect individual who either could not or would not honour his agreements. This impression was later to be so heightened that today it forms one of the major obstacles to peace in Nigeria. The bases for this mistrust may be summarized as follows: