The Biafra Story - Page 13

The unanimous agreement of the representatives of the Military Governors of 9 August had been for the repatriation of troops to their regions of origin, which had not been implemented; for the repatriation of the arms and ammunition they carried with them, which had not been implemented. Gowon had pledged that the killing of Eastern soldiers would stop, but it had not. He had promised that the inquiry into the May massacre set up by General Ironsi would ‘certainly go on as scheduled’. It was never heard of again.

In early September a number of Northern troops from Ibadan, capital of the West, had raided Benin City in the Midwest and snatched from prison a number of officers in detention for their part in the January coup. The Northerners among the detainees were released in the North, while the Easterners were murdered. Gowon had promised immediately that those responsible would be punished, but this too went by the board.

Finally his dismissal of the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference on 30 November on the grounds that the Eastern delegates had not attended it since the original adjournment on 3 October was seen in the East as dictatorial, since the reason for the nonattendance was the quite genuine fear of violence at the hands of Northern soldiers in Lagos. The bald announcement that a committee would draft a new constitution based on between ten and fourteen states was seen in the same light. In the same broadcast on 30 November Gowon felt bold enough for the first time to threaten to use force ‘if circumstances compel’.

The weeks rolled by without any spontaneous offer from central government of aid to alleviate the social problems caused by the tide of refugees in the East, and by early December Colonel Ojukwu told a journalist: ‘I cannot wait indefinitely for Lagos, so I have to make other arrangements’.*

There was increasing popular pressure that the Regional Military Governors should meet to sort the problems out, a view strongly shared by Colonel Ojukwu. But since there was nowhere within Nigeria he felt he could go in personal safety, it was agreed to hold the meeting at Aburi, Ghana, under the auspices of General Ankrah.

It was there in ex-President Nkrumah’s luxurious country seat in the hills above Accra that the Supreme Military Council of Nigeria met on 4 and 5 January 1967. Present were: Lieutenant-Colonel Gowon, the four Regional Military Governors – Colonel Robert Adebayo (successor to the dead Colonel Fajuyi), and Lieutenant-Colonels Katsina, Ojukwu and Ejoor. Four others were also on the Council, representing the Navy, Lagos Territory, and two from the Federal Police; but the real talks hinged on the five colonels.

Intellectually Ojukwu towered above the rest, and they seemed to know it. To make sure there were no later misinterpretations as to what had been decided, a complete stenographic record and a tape recording was made of the entire discussion. Later when Gowon reneged on the agreements, Ojukwu released the entire text of the two-day discussions as a set of six gramophone records.

A study of these records leaves no doubt that only one man had a clear idea of the single way in which Nigeria could be preserved as a political entity, and that was the Military Governor of the East. Gowon’s performance reveals that he wished the Federation to stay together, but beyond that had little or no ideas. The other three soon found themselves forced to agree with the compulsive logic of the Easterner’s arguments.

On the question of the repatriation of troops Gowon, confronted with his failure to implement, lamely explained that he had only meant that Easterners should be repatriated to the East, and Northerners in the East should go back to the North. Although the Western Leaders of Thought Conference* had unanimously agreed with the East’s firm stand on the repatriation from the West as well, Gowon said he had to keep Northerners there as there were no Yoruba troops. At this Adebayo protested.

But the main question was the form of Nigeria and of its army in the immediate future. Here Ojukwu argued that

As long as this situation exists, men from Eastern Nigeria would find it utterly impossible to stay in the same barracks, feed in the same mess, fight from the same trenches as men in the Army from Northern Nigeria… . For these basic reasons the separation of forces, the separation of population is, in all sincerity, in order to avoid further friction and further killing.

Katsina agreed, as did Adebayo and Ejoor.

On the question of Ojukwu’s non-recognition of Gowon as Supreme Commander, the Eastern leader argued that as the fate of General Ironsi was not known, there was no one who could succeed him. But in his absence there were at least six officers senior to Gowon, and that the next senior should manage the affairs of the country. And thirdly the East had never been a party to the nomination of Gowon to the post. At this point Gowon revealed what had happened to General Ironsi, admitting that he had thought it ‘expedient’ not to announce it sooner, although he must have known the details since Lieutenant Walbe reported back on the evening of 29 July the previous year.

The question was finally resolved by the decision to submit the army to the Supreme Military Council, which would have a chairman who would also be ‘Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Head of the Federal Military Government’.

On the constitutional side the meeting agreed that the Ad Hoc Conference should resume its sitting as soon as practicable to begin from where they left off.

On the subject of the East’s big headache, the refugees, the meeting agreed that Permanent Secretaries of Finance should meet within two weeks to submit their recommendations on how to help rehabilitation of the dispossessed go forward; that civil servants and Public Corporation staff (including daily paid employees) should receive full salary up to the end of the financial year, 31 March, unless they had been re-employed; and that Regional Police Commissioners should meet to discuss the problem of recovery of property left behind by the refugees. These were the decisions Ojukwu had to take home to the people, for they were vital elements in calming tempers down. For instance, there were 12,000 railway workers alone among the East’s refugees.

The meeting also agreed that future meetings should be held in Nigeria at a mutually agreed place, and that government information media should be restrained from publishing inflammatory or embarrassing statements or documents.

With that the meeting broke up in goodwill and champagne toasts. Back in the East Ojukwu gave a press conference to reassure the Easterners (many of whom had been far more in favour of immediate secession than in parleying) that the Aburi meeting had been worthwhile; he told them that, provided the arrangements made were implemented, much progress would have been made towards relieving tension and banishing fear in the country.

Aburi was Nigeria’s last chance. It has been said since that there was something rather ‘unfair’ in Ojukwu being cleverer than the other four colonels, as though he had in some way taken unfair advantage. It was also put forward, notably by English writers, that Ojukwu failed to play the gentleman because he went to Aburi with a clear idea of the agreements he wanted, a cogent brief in his head, while the others went under the assumption the meeting was just a friendly get-together of brother officers.

It is somewhat disingenuous to claim that the other four colonels could not be expected to be aware the first meeting of the Supreme Military Council after the holocaust of the summer would be other than a fireside chat. It must have been perfectly clear to one and all that Aburi was a historical occasion. The other colonels could have gone prepared if they had wished, and Colonel Ojukwu firmly expected that they would be prepared. They had their civil servants and advisers too.

Within a few days of Gowon’s return to Lagos the Aburi agreements began to die on the vine. The minority-tribe civil servants previously mentioned took one look at what had been agreed and realized that their witless

chief had gone far further than they would have wished him to go. The drawing apart of army and populace for the cooling-down period gave the regions in their view far too much autonomy, thus weakening their own authority. The Permanent Secretaries set to work on Gowon to get him to back-track on the agreements.

In ten days the Federal Government had published a booklet called Nigeria 1966 which gave the Federal, that is to say Northern, version of everything that had happened since the January coup. It is to this day a remarkable exercise in distortion. At the time it caused a furore in the East. When Colonel Ojukwu protested over the phone that it had been agreed not to publish any more official versions, Gowon told him after some flustering that there had been a leak. Later Ojukwu learned that, far from being a leak, the booklet had appeared simultaneously in London, New York and several other capitals with all the usual publishers’ ballyhoo, including cocktail parties at the High Commissions and Embassies. When he again remonstrated by phone, Gowon again flustered until he was cornered, then lost his temper and put the phone down. (These conversations have been tape-recorded at the Enugu end.) Colonel Ojukwu also put the phone down, but with an icy foreboding. For he knew that his own position inside the East would make it impossible for him to back down on Aburi.

On 26 January Gowon held a press conference in Lagos in which he purported to reveal the agreements of the Aburi meeting. The text of the press conference appears to be based not on the minutes and final agreement of Aburi, but on the criticisms of those documents by the Permanent Secretaries. Reading the two (press conference and Aburi minutes) side by side, one wonders whether Gowon was really present at Aburi.

First he disagreed with the submission of the army to the Supreme Military Council, objecting that it took the control of the army out of his hands and placed it in the corporate body of the Council. He went on to add that the Military Area Commands (covering the areas of the existing regions) would be under the Military Headquarters ‘which will be directly under me as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces’.* Actually the conference at Aburi had agreed on no such thing as the phrase in quotes.

On displaced persons, he said that when the Finance Secretaries met ‘the principle of revenue allocation should not be discussed’, although revenue allocation, notably in the form of some fiscal relief, was vital to enabling the East to cope with its 1,800,000 refugees.

On payment of salaries, he intoned, ‘The decision to continue to pay salaries to the end of March does not take into consideration economic factors which are linked to it … secondly it does not make sense to include daily paid workers among those whose salaries should continue to be paid. The decision should therefore be reconsidered.’ For good measure he warned that Federal Corporations would find it ‘very difficult’ to continue to pay their displaced employees.

On the constitution he dropped another bombshell. The Permanent Secretaries had advised him ‘to stick to their previous recommendations and advice, namely: that the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference should stand adjourned indefinitely; and that the immediate political programme announced to the nation on 30 November (i.e. the project for a Nigeria of ten to fourteen states) by the Supreme Commander should be implemented, and the country must be so informed’.

By the time he had finished with the small print there appeared to be little of Aburi left. He may well have disagreed with what he had signed; there might well have been a good case for reconsidering Aburi; but the fact remains that he and his fellow colonels had all voluntarily signed the document, after two days of talks, without any coercion, and the unilateral rescinding of so many of the important paragraphs, particularly the ones most vitally sought after in the East, effectively dealt a blow to Nigeria from which it never recovered.

In Enugu Colonel Ojukwu metaphorically rubbed his eyes on reading the transcript of the press conference. It has been said by many writers then and since that ‘Colonel Ojukwu did this …’ or ‘Colonel Ojukwu refused to do that …’ but little attempt seems to have been made to understand the pressures he was under. As far back as the massacres of the previous autumn the cry to pull out of Nigeria had been growing louder and more clamorous. More and more sections of the population joined in. The refugee problem, smoothly forgotten or by-passed in Lagos, was still a festering reality. The question of payment of salaries, for thousands of Corporation employees and civil servants a question of whether their families ate or not, was still a burning topic. He had fought the separatist clamour as far and as hard as he could.

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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