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OJUKWU SPECIALOjukwu and the Civil War
03/21/12, Kaye Whiteman
Ojukwu making a broadcast
Kaye Whiteman recalls his experiences in Nigeria in 1966 and 1967 on the eve of the Civil War, and examines the role of the late Odumegwu Ojukwu. Was the war a result of his personal ambition or was he simply riding the tiger of circumstance?
Back in the late 1960s I wrote a chapter in a book called Nigerian Politics and Military Rule published in 1970. The sub-title of the book was Prelude to the Civil War, and my chapter was called Enugu: the Psychology of Secession, July 1966 to May 1967. I re-read it recently, after a long period buried in my sub-conscious. This may have been because the chapter relates to a particularly painful period in Nigerian history, during which all the nerve-endings of the famous 'Nigerian question' were exposed in the political arena, as the country spiralled towards conflict. Maybe I did not even want to remember.
Now, I happen to have been a minor witness of that period between the coup d'état of July 29, 1966 and the proclamation of secession of Biafra on May 29, 1967. It was in November 1966 that I spent ten days in the north, Kano, Zaria and Kaduna, exploring the aftermath of the massacres in the north that had been a process begun in May 1966 and reached a climax in October 1966. I then spent another ten days in the Eastern Region, mainly in Enugu and Port Harcourt, investigating the impact there of what had happened in the north.
Even as I write now, picking my words is like walking on fragile eggshells. Visiting the Sabon-gari in Kano was a tour in a grim waste land of ransacked houses and looted shops, all bearing evidence of a terrible recent happening. The three articles I wrote in West Africa at the time on the north after the deluge tried to recount as honestly as I could tales of grim brutality, but also of the humanity of those, like the staff of the university in Zaria, who protected southerners who worked for them. The book chapter already referred to picks up a lot of what I had learnt on that visit - the depth of bitterness at what had happened. For that reason, I used at the beginning a quote from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, when Enobarbus observes the recklessness of his boss Mark Antony:
"To be furious is to be frightened out of fear; and in such mood the dove will peck the estridge ostrich."
Starving Biafran mother and child in 1968
In other words, there was no question that the public mood was for breaking away from federal Nigeria, no matter how dangerous the risk. I wrote: "after July, and more especially after the September massacres, there was a reaction from being the most Nigerian of Nigerians to completely writing off Nigeria... Incomprehension and fury that the killings should have been taken to the level of the masses was a contributory factor, and was made much worse from the psychological point of view because something which had been feared for some time - so much so that the fears had been dismissed and paranoia, arising from a talent for self-pity - actually happened and was far worse than had been imagined."
At the centre of this most epic drama of Nigerian history in the 1960s lies the towering, controversial figure of Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. His death last November has brought forth a number of laudatory obituaries, and a final recognition that his was a heroic posture in defence of his people, very far from the wrecker consumed by personal ambition that had been propounded at the time of the civil war. But there are still aspects of his political itinerary that raised doubts at the extent to which he used the opportunity offered by the horrendous tragedy of his people to gratify his well-developed ego. I commented on this in the obituary I wrote in the London Guardian, but noted that his whole career had been one of grooming for leadership. After Oxford and the administrative civil service, he became one of the first graduates to join the Nigerian army. "It was a surprising decision for one who had been known at Oxford for his playboy lifestyle, but it reflected a serious commitment to Nigeria and even a serious farsightedness about the role the military might come to play in politics."
Ojukwu proclaims the Republic of Biafra
The fuss made about Ojukwu's ego seems unfair, as all successful politicians have to have immense self-belief to sustain the knocks that inevitably come their way. But in any examination of the historical Ojukwu, it is a personality trait that cannot be avoided. Looking back at my 'Enugu' chapter, I find that I quoted extensively from Ukpabi Asika, who had been named in May 1967 as the Administrator of the new East-Central State who had charged that the secession was the work of a "structurally irresponsible" elite, and that the masses had been led by the nose in "the exercise of purely elitist power." My own laconic comment was "this is a questionable assumption," a view I still hold. As Ojukwu said at one point, it was universally felt the East was being "forced out the federation."
Much of the chapter was devoted to the thorny question of the minorities in the Eastern Region, which in the end proved the weakest link in the Biafra project. While the killers in the north made no distinction between Igbo and minority ethnic groups such as Ibibio, Ijaw, Efik and Ogoja, the initial solidarity fell apart, even if there were prominent figures, such as NU Akpan, secretary to the government, and Colonel Philip Effiong, who stayed with Biafra right to the end. The creation of states on May 27, 1967 (a pre-emptive move just prior to the secession) made the issue of minorities of prime importance, and when the civil war began, it was the liberation of the South-East and the Rivers State that became priority targets. The latter was where the oil, one of the great bones of contention in the war, was to be found, and if the minorities had initially been ready to identify with the cause of the Eastern Region, they found breaking away from Nigeria much less attractive.
The unwillingness of the three 'Wazobian' majorities (Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo) at the 1958 Constitutional Conference to accept the recommendations of the Willink report on minorities kicked the issue into the long grass. It was felt more important to secure independence, but the 1966-7 crisis brought it back with a vengeance and once states had been created, nothing could be the same again. I wrote:
The Biafran leader inspects a guard of honour
"There is little doubt that there was more opposition to secession among the minorities than among the Igbo, although... Ojukwu claimed that he had more trouble from the Igbo than from minorities people. The unwillingness of Calabar and Rivers people in Lagos to follow the Igbo on the great trek was solid evidence of their lack of enthusiasm, for secession: events since the secession showed that, although the minorities never rose against ...Ojukwu, for the most part they welcomed the federal troops and cooperated with them."
The chapter also contains much interesting material which I had frankly forgotten about - for example, that there had been a proposal to secede even at the beginning of August, which was rejected in the eastern executive council Or again, that government papers captured at the end of the wear by Federal troops stressed that all the Igbo would no longer trust any group or set of groups to rule over them.
It is, however, the issue of Ojukwu that dominates my argument, as he still dominates the history of the war. There is an interesting chapter in Michael Gould's recent book on the civil war The Struggle for Modern Nigeria in which he contrasts the career and personalities of Ojukwu and Gowon. Even the fact that Gowon had been to Sandhurst and Ojukwu not, and Ojukwu was much more of an intellectual than Gowon, fuelled their personal rivalry. Where Gowon was modest, unassuming and inarticulate, Ojukwu had passion and presence, that quality called charisma, and knew it. He also was a hundred percent person, who knew how to hate and despise. He particularly had a feud going with Murtala Mohammed (architect of the July 29 coup) going back to the time they served together in the Congo in 1960-61.
In the Enugu chapter I wrote that Ojukwu's bravura performance at the ill-fated Aburi peace talks in January 1967, and his subsequent arrogance about it (he reportedly said "I ran rings round them at Aburi) encouraged his "too-clever-by-half image." Within the officer corps there was contempt for his Oxford degree and his book learning, and for his known love of acting. "It is not hard to detect a certain theatricality in his make-up. The measured tones, the studied pauses. The statesmanlike air, all indicated the skilled, if slightly hammy acting style that characterises nature's politicians." The former Editor of West Africa, David Williams, no friend of Biafra, used to say that in other circumstances he could see Ojukwu's style and gravitas "entirely in place at a Commonwealth leaders' conference."
Lt Colonel Ojukwu in Nigerian Army uniform before the declaration of secession. AP
The showmanship irritated rather than lubricated ties with Lagos, and relations with Gowon deteriorated badly after Aburi especially after the accord on confederation was withdrawn by the federal government. Even at Aburi, Gowon's attempts to be friendly were rebuffed by Ojukwu. "And some of the scurrilous abuse of ... Gowon from the radio stations in Enugu... must have shocked someone of the latter's patent if unworldly sincerity."
After July 1966 he became the "man of the hour." He grew a beard (the symbol of mourning), and made grave and solemn speeches and, in the prevalent atmosphere of insecurity... a continued guarantee of survival. Between July and November "the support and sympathy he rallied to his cause was tremendous." And then "a collective pyschosis took over which rendered personalities of secondary importance." Although ambition played a part, "being an instinctive politician, however, he knew the political state of mind of those on whom he depended for power, and what he would have to do to survive."
In the end, summing up the period on the eve of secession, I wrote: "There seemed to be a disastrous impulse to tempt fate and bring on themselves the very disaster they feared....Communal pressures, the siege mentality, and an increased sense of insecurity had all made their mark". I concluded with a quote from what I had written in a report from Enugu in West Africa in April 1967:
"I feel a machine is in motion it will be difficult to stop. Many believed the east would carry out an emotional secession last autumn, but were persuaded by the disciplined and cool reaction that this was not uppermost in Eastern minds. But it seems clear that the frightful experience of massacre and pogrom is only now beginning to take its psychological toll. Bottled up fury is in the end more explosive."
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