Imagine if the Israeli Prime Minister hired a former PLO fighter as his personal pilot. Or if the president of the United States allowed a Russian to be his personal chauffeur at the height of the Cold War. Sounds surreal? Yet that is precisely what happened in Nigeria several decades ago when then head of state General Gowon hired an Igbo air force officer who formerly fought for Biafra as one of his presidential pilots.
Nigerians are an opinionated and self-critical bunch. Dinner and beer parlour conversations among Nigerians almost inevitably turn to the country’s underwhelming accomplishments and disastrous mismanagement. Self-flagellation is a national obsession. Despite our penchant for voicing our opinion when it comes to national failures, we suddenly become reticent when it comes to recognizing our national accomplishments. This is puzzling as one of our most impressive accomplishments is a reconciliation that is unprecedented in modern history.
THE BROTHERS’ WAR
Sunday January 15, 2017 marks the 47th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war. On that day in Dodan Barracks, a brutal 920-day civil war ended as former colleagues and combatants who had engaged each other in bitter warfare for over two and a half years embraced each other with unprecedented speech and warmth. They ended a war wracked by famine, starving children, one million corpses, and violence and suffering of such an intensely grotesque magnitude that the words “pogrom” and “Kwashiorkor” were introduced into the standard Nigerian vocabulary.
NO NUREMBERG TRIALS, NO MEDALS
When the war ended, the Igbos grimly expected that their defeat would be followed by their wholesale massacre. However the leader of the victorious army refused to proclaim victory as there is no “victor” in a conflict between brothers. He declared a general amnesty for all those who fought against him, invited members of the defeated side to join his administration, refused to conduct trials of, or execute the defeated, and refused to award medals to his own soldiers who had fought the war for years. He even allowed some members of the enemy’s army to join his own army. For their part, Igbos quietly accepted their new fate in a united Nigeria, went back to their farms and businesses, and rebuilt their destroyed homes without any thoughts of sabotage or guerilla warfare to continue their struggle. All this happened without a United Nations resolution or peacekeeping force, international peace plans and conferences, or the protracted years long negotiations that it normally takes to resolve modern conflicts. Nigerians decided for themselves that they had seen enough bloodshed and that they wanted a war free future for their children.
The war also ironically dissolved some of the negative stereotypes the combatants held about each other, and enhanced their mutual respect for each other. Igbos won admiration from the federal side for the tenacity, iron will, and incredible improvisation with which they fought the war. The federal side won the Igbos’ respect for their magnanimity in victory. Although pockets of bitterness remain (particularly over the emotional issue of properties abandoned by Igbos who fled for their safety, but which were illegally appropriated by other communities), it is undoubted that Nigeria’s remarkable reconciliation is rivaled in the modern era only by black South Africans’ forgiveness of their former oppressors.
AN ACHIEVEMENT MATCHED BY FEW OTHERS
Almost 50 years after United Nations resolutions called for them to cease hostilities, the Israelis and Arabs are still at each other’s throats. Over 22 years after the Rwandan civil war, the government is still carrying out war crimes trials. However, a remarkably sober pragmatism rose from the blood, fire and ashes of the Nigerian civil war. It taught the combatants an unforgettable lesson in the evils of ethnic rivalry. The bitter memory of the war means that Nigeria stumbles through and survives the sorts of crises that cause war and disintegration in other countries: such as June 12, Sharia, military coups, ethnic violence, and resource control.
When an election was annulled in Algeria in 1991, it plunged Algeria into a decade long civil war in which up to 200,000 people died and terrorism linked to the event was exported to France. When an election was annulled in Nigeria two years later, the winner of the election said he abhorred violence and urged the public to protest peacefully. A multi-ethnic federation in Yugoslavia was destroyed amidst ethnic cleansing and a brutal civil war in which NATO had to intervene with air strikes in order to convince the combatants to stop killing each other. A multi-ethnic federation in Nigeria is managed through a complex system of constitutional checks and balances, and a legally binding concept known as “federal character” which means that every single one of the 36 states in the federation has a minister in the government. The four most powerful people in the country are all from different ethnic groups, and there is an unwritten rule meaning that the President and Vice-President can never be from the same part of the country.
The former combatants now live, work, and intermarry with each other as if the war never happened. Yet the civil war literature rarely discusses this most remarkable and impressive aspect of the war: the humanity with which Nigerians and Biafrans forgave each other, laid down their arms and got on with their lives. Why was this remarkable reconciliation possible?
GENERAL GOWON: THE HEALER OF NIGERIAN WOUNDS
This reconciliation was possible due largely to one pivotal figure: the then Nigerian head of state Yakubu “Jack” Gowon. It was he who insisted that Igbos should be treated as prodigal sons, rather than defeated foes. He did so against the urgings of his own colleagues who wanted brutal punishment to be meted out to Igbos. Even as the war raged, Gowon repeatedly declared that “We do not take the Ibos as our enemies; they are our brothers.”
When he became head of state after the two bloody military coups of 1966, he initially seemed totally unsuitable for the job of ruling one of the most unruly populations on Earth. He did not have the oratorical gifts of Ojukwu, the erudition of Awolowo, the stature of the Sardauna, or the imposing physicality of Aguiyi-Ironsi. Yet he remained the only officer acceptable to the majority of the population and army. Why?
“JACK THE BOY SCOUT”
Gowon was a humble, soft-spoken infantry soldier who trained at the world’s most elite military academy, yet had an oxymoronic distaste for unnecessary bloodshed. It was Gowon who insisted that Igbos should be treated as prodigal sons, rather than defeated foes. It was as if his background and origin were deliberately woven from Nigeria’s intricate ethnic matrix to ensure balance between the north and south. Gowon was that rarest of Nigerians: acceptable to the north and south. Gowon was from the north, yet practised the religion of the south. He was a Nigerian PR man’s dream. His surname was even used as an acronym calling for Nigerian unity: “Go On With One Nigeria”. The bachelor son of a Methodist minister, he did not drink, smoke or curse. He seemed so impossibly innocent and naïve that some foreign correspondents nicknamed him “Jack the Boy Scout”. The name was not fanciful. On one occasion he apologised to reporters for using the word “hell”.
Former Biafran officer Ben Gbulie admitted that Gowon’s forgiveness would probably not have been reciprocated had Biafra won the war. Gbulie said “Probably if we had won the war, we would have shot him.” Scant attention has been paid to why Gowon chose this remarkable path of reconciliation. Many factors were at play. As a minister’s son, he was a genuine Christian, and his humane approach to Igbos may also have been borne of the fact that at the time the crisis erupted, Gowon had an Igbo girlfriend named Edith Ike, whom he expected to marry (he eventually married a nurse named Victoria Zakari).
However, Gowon was also pragmatic enough to realise that clemency was crucial to Igbo acceptance of reintegration. Had he sought to punish Igbos, there would have been an Igbo led armed insurrection in Nigeria till today. Gowon’s mistake was that at the war’s end, he did not realise that his job was done. Had he stepped down at the end of the war, he would have maintained his prestige as Nigeria’s Lincoln.
To understand the magnitude of what Nigeria achieved by fighting such a brutal war, then making such a remarkably rapid peace, I will turn to the words of a neutral foreign observer of the conflict. John de St Jorre’s The Brothers War is one of the most balanced accounts of the war. Commenting on the reconciliation that followed the war, St Jorre observed that:
“when history takes a longer view of Nigeria’s war it will be shown that while the black man has little to teach us about making war he has a real contribution to offer in making peace.”
*The official members of the Biafran and federal delegations who attended the formal war ending ceremony at Dodan Barracks on January 15, 1970 were:
Biafran Delegation –
- Major-General Phillip Effiong – Officer Administering the Republic of Biafra
- Sir Louis Mbanefo – Chief Justice of Biafra
- Matthew Mbu – Biafran Foreign Minister
- Brigadier Patrick Amadi – Biafran Army
- Colonel Patrick Anwunah – Chief of Logistics and Principal Staff Officer to Ojukwu
- Colonel David Ogunewe – Military Adviser to Ojukwu
- Patrick Okeke – Inspector-General of Biafran Police
Federal Military Government Delegation:
- Major-General Yakubu Gowon – Nigerian Head of State
- Obafemi Awolowo – Deputy Chairman, Supreme Military Council
- Brigadier Emmanuel Ekpo – Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters
- Brigadier Hassan Katsina – Chief of Staff, Nigerian Army
- Brigadier Emmanuel Ikwue – Chief of Air Staff
- Rear-Admiral Joseph Wey – Chief of Naval Staff
- Dr Taslim Elias – Attorney-General
- H.E.A. Ejueyitchie – Secretary to the Federal Military Government
- Anthony Enahoro – Commissioner for Information
- The Military Governors of the 12 states: , Ukpabi Asika, Audu Bako, David Bamigboye, Alfred Diete-Spiff, Jacob Esuene, Usman Faruk, Joseph Gomwalk, Mobolaji Johnson, Abba Kyari, Samuel Ogbemudia, Oluwole Rotimi, Musa Usman.