The Biafra Story - Page 14

‘On Aburi We Stand’ became the slogan in the East. Colonel Ojukwu refused to attend further meetings of the Supreme Military Council until the Aburi agreements had been implemented, partly because the meeting scheduled was in a Benin City liberally sprinkled with Northern soldiers, partly because he knew he could go no further. In a broadcast at the end of February he said, ‘If the Aburi agreements are not fully implemented by 31 March, I shall have no alternative but to feel free to take whatever measures may be necessary to give effect in this Region to those agreements’.

On that day the departure of Eastern Nigeria was fully expected. Journalists arriving in Enugu for a press conference already had their headline mapped out. Instead, still playing for the last chance of staying inside One Nigeria, Colonel Ojukwu told them that he was issuing a Revenue Edict appropriating all Federal Revenue collected in the East as a means of paying for the rehabilitation programme. The decree did not affect oil revenues, as these were collected in Lagos. The reporters were stunned; they had expected fire and brimstone and were being confronted with a fiscal programme. Mildly Ojukwu told them the East would only pull out of Nigeria if she were attacked or blockaded.

The Federal Government replied with Decree Eight, a document that appeared at first glance to implement the major points of the constitutional agreements of Aburi, if not the fiscal arrangements. Decree Eight, like Aburi, vested the legislative and executive powers in the Supreme Military Council, and decisions on vital matters could only be taken with the agreement of all the Military Governors. Within their own regions the Governors were to have virtual autonomy.

It looked good, and was hailed as such, although it went no further than what had been agreed at Aburi four months earlier. Except for the small print. This was so skilfully worded that it looked fairly harmless until read a second time, when it was seen that the extra provisions reduced the main paragraphs to nothing.

One of the extra clauses was to the effect that the Regional Governors could not exercise their powers ‘so as to impede or prejudice the authority of the Federation, or endanger the continuance of Federal Government’. Although it looks harmless, it was presumably up to the Federal Government, i.e. Gowon, to decide precisely what would ‘impede or prejudice the authority …’. Another section enabled the Federal Government to take over the authority of a regional government which was ‘endangering the continuance of the Federal Government’, and again the criterion was apparently left to Lagos.

Most menacing of all to Eastern eyes was a paragraph under which a state of emergency could be declared in any region with the agreement of only three Military Governors. As the declaration of a State of Emergency usually implies sending in troops, and as the other three Military Governors were either Northern or governed regions occupied by Northern troops, Colonel Ojukwu saw this as being specifically anti-Eastern. He rejected the decree.

The growing unpopularity of the Gowon régime now sprouted elsewhere in the South. In the West there had been growing resentment over the failure to repatriate the Northern troops, a measure that Aburi had re-stated. Chief Awolowo led the revolt. His following had traditionally been among the proletarian and radical elements in the West, and these were the people who resented most the occupation of the Northern soldiers. At a meeting of the Western Leaders of Thought in Ibadan in late April he resigned as the West’s delegate to the supposedly soon-to-beresumed Ad Hoc Conference, stating in his letter: ‘It is my considered view that whilst some of the dema

nds of the East are excessive, within the context of a Nigerian union most of such demands are not only well founded but are designed for smooth and healthy association among the various national units of Nigeria.’*

Chief Awolowo had just returned from a visit to Colonel Ojukwu in Enugu and he had been able to witness for himself (which others scrupulously refrained from doing) the depth of feeling in the East. According to Colonel Ojukwu, Awolowo had asked if the East would pull out, and the reply had been that it would not until and unless it was absolutely offered no other alternative.

After seeing the situation for himself, Awolowo sympathized with the sufferings of the Eastern people, and asked that if the East was going to pull out he be allowed twenty-four hours forewarning and he would do the same for the West. This he was promised. Later he got his forewarning, but by that time he had been swayed round by other attractions and failed to fulfil his intent. From the point of view of the Yorubas it was a pity, for if Awolowo had stuck to his guns the Federal Government, unable to face two simultaneous disaffections, would have been forced to fulfil the Aburi agreements to the letter.

Had it done so, Nigeria would probably be at peace today, not as a unitary state of twelve provinces, but as a Confederation of quasi-autonomous states living in harmony. The civil servants at the centre might have lost much of their power, but a lot more people would have stayed alive, including many Yoruba, for today the West is as ever occupied by Northern troops while the hastily recruited Yoruba are used as cannon fodder against the Biafran machine guns. Exactly what their casualties have been in this war the Biafrans do not know and the Federal Army declines to say, but Biafran Military Intelligence is convinced that of all ethnic groups in the Federal Army the Yoruba have taken higher casualties than any other.

Thus at Ibadan in late April 1967 Awolowo added to his resignation that, if the East pulled out, the West would feel free to follow suit. He was followed by Colonel Ejoor of the Midwest, a region with over a million Ibo normally resident in it. He wished to avoid being caught in any future clash and called for a demilitarized zone in his Region.

At this point yet another thunderbolt came from the North. The Northern Emirs, for decades virulent exponents of their own domination of Nigeria, suddenly issued a call to the effect that ‘the North should be irrevocably committed to the creation of states – whether or not they are created elsewhere – as the basis of stability in the North and also in the entire Federation; and urges the Federal Government to take immediate steps to set in motion the machinery for the creation of these states’.*

Like the volte-face of the Ad Hoc Conference, the decision was so out of character that one is led to the conclusion either that the minority tribes in the infantry had again given voice, or that the Emirs had decided they could use the creation of new states to break up the growing solidarity of the South while themselves remaining united behind the façade and across the state boundaries.

The decision effectively underpinned the Gowon régime and broke up the solidarity of the three Southern Regions. Awolowo, a long-time advocate of the creation of more states as a means to break up the North, jumped at the chance. His change of heart coincided with being made Commissioner for Finance and Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Council in a new mixed government of soldiers and civilians. Chief Enahoro, a minoritytribe Midwesterner, and Joseph Tarka, champion of the Tivs, also got ministerial appointments. Ejoor subsided.

With his ranks once more closed Gowon felt strong enough to go for a showdown with the East. It appears by this time that he was being assured that if there was to be any fighting, it would be over very quickly, in his favour, and there is a strong possibility that if he had foreseen the long and horrible war that was to follow he might have stayed his hand. But there were voices in the background persuading that in the event of a military showdown a simple military solution could be imposed, and this may have appealed to his simple, military mind.

Early in May he imposed a partial blockade on the East – it extended to postal and postal order services, but also affected telephones, cables, telex machines and other forms of communication, all of which were routed through Lagos. The effect was to leave the East cut off from the outside, the more so as Nigeria Airways flights were also banned.

In Enugu Colonel Ojukwu confided to Reuters: T think we are now rolling downhill. It will take a great deal to halt the momentum. We are very close, very, very close.’

There was one last peace move. A group calling itself the National Conciliation Committee, headed by the new Federal Chief Justice Sir Adetokunboh Ademola, a Yoruba, and including Chief Awolowo, visited Colonel Ojukwu on 7 May. They listened to his views, accepted all his demands and called on the Federal Government to implement them. These demands included little more than the implementation of the agreement of 9 August to post the troops back to their regions of origin and to call off the economic sanctions.

On 20 May Gowon accepted all the recommendations. But it was another illusory hope. He announced that the ban on Nigeria Airways flights to the East was lifted, along with other sanctions. But the Director of the Airways privately admitted that he had had no order to resume flights. As for the troops, Colonel Katsina flew from Kaduna to Ibadan to inform the troops they were to be moved – but only to the town of florin, about a stone’s throw over the border between West and North, and lying on the main road to Lagos. To have brought them back would have been the work of a moment.

The clamour in the East to get out of Nigeria became too strong even for Colonel Ojukwu to bear. On 26 May the 335-member Consultative Assembly of Chiefs and Elders gave him a unanimous mandate at the end of a noisy session to pull the East out of what was now regarded as the defunct Federation of Nigeria ‘at an early practicable date’ by declaring the Eastern Region ‘a free, sovereign and independent state by the name and title of the Republic of Biafra’.

One of the cardinal errors of the Federal Government was to threaten to use force. The most charitable interpretation is that those in Lagos were blissfully unaware of the depth of feeling in the East. To the Easterners, knowing the Federal Army to be largely composed of those same Northerners who had massacred their fellows barely eight months previously, it looked like (and still does today) a threat to send the hated Northerners to finish off the job of extermination they had left half-done the previous year.

The mandate did not mean secession, but Gowon activated his plans the next day. He declared a state of emergency and simultaneously published a decree dividing Nigeria into twelve new states and abolishing the existing Regions. He could hardly have behaved more provocatively. For one thing there had been no consultation, which was in itself contrary to the Constitution. It went back on all the promises that each Region would have its full say in any future format of association. More important was the division of the East into three tiny states, each of them impotent, and the wrenching of Port Harcourt away from the Ibo State to become the capital of the Rivers State. It has been described as ‘an open challenge to secede’. In the same broadcast Gowon announced the reimposition of the blockade, the abrogation of Decree Eight, and accorded himself full powers ‘for the short period necessary to carry out the measures which are now urgently required’.

In the small hours of 30 May diplomats and journalists were called to State House, soon to be renamed Biafra Lodge, to hear Colonel Ojukwu read the Declaration of Independence. Here is the text:

Fellow countrymen and women, you, the people of Eastern Nigeria:

Conscious of the supreme authority of Almighty God over all Mankind; of your duty to yourselves and posterity;

Aware that you can no longer be protected in your lives and in your property by any government based outside Eastern Nigeria;

Believing that you are born free and have certain inalienable rights which can best be preserved by yourselves;

Unwilling to be unfree partners in any association of a political or economic nature;

Rejecting the authority of any person or persons other than the Military Government of Eastern Nigeria to make any imposition of whatever kind or nature upon you;

Tags: Frederick Forsyth Historical
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