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.
Today is the 51st anniversary of Nigeria’s first military coup. Rather than rehash it I have included video clips and audio interviews below with the key participants that will tell you all you need to know about it.
Various Articles, Interviews, and Resources on the First Coup: https://maxsiollun.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/nigerias-january-15-1966-coup-50-years-later/
Video Series on the Nigerian civil war: https://www.facebook.com/Oil-Politics-and-Violence-Nigerias-Military-Coup-Culture-1966-1976-157457414278806/videos/
Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun (one of the victims of the first coup):
Brigadier Ademulegun and his wife:
My BBC article on the first coup: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35312370?ocid=socialflow_facebook#sa-ns_mchannel=rss&ns_source=PublicRSS20-sa
Article on/photo of Major Wale Ademoyega by someone who knew him well: https://maxsiollun.wordpress.com/2016/02/08/the-nzeogwu-and-ademoyega-i-knew/
The Life of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (Nigerian Prime Minister who was killed during the coup):
Interview with Major Nzeogwu: https://maxsiollun.wordpress.com/2008/02/20/interview-with-major-nzeogwu/
The latest how to fix Nigeria event by the Royal African Society was hosted by Funmi Iyanda (acting as MC). The topic was corruption, and the panel included Maggie Murphy (Transparency International’s Senior Global Advocacy Manager), Professor Abiodun Alao of King’s College, Kayode Ogunmasi (UK-based Nigerian activist and anti corruption campaigner), Ayo Sogunro (Writer, Teacher, Columnist, Lawyer).
Whether you are a seasoned Nigeria expert or trying to familiarise yourself with the country for the first time, here are the best books on or about Nigeria.
I and others compiled a list on Twitter under the hashtag:
The Guardian also listed their best books on Nigeria at the links below.
Today is the 26th anniversary of the April 1990 coup attempt against General Babangida in Nigeria. Rather than rehash the events (which I have written about before) in this post, I have instead included links where you can read all about the coup in an account by one of its plotters, and another view of the coup by General Babangida’s former Chief Security Officer.
That coup was a watershed in Nigeria, and accelerated the turn of events that led to the insurgency in the Niger Delta, and indirectly to the controversy that followed the June 12, 1993 election annulment, and the “power shift” to the south in 1999.
If you want to read more about the Orkar coup and these tumultuous years, you can of course do so in my book “Soldiers of Fortune: A History of Nigeria (1983-1993)“.
Have a great weekend everyone.
In memory of Nigeria’s first Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, who was killed (during Nigeria’s first military coup) on this day exactly 50 years ago:
Today is the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s first military coup. What do we remember of January 15, 1966 and the victims of that day? Do we remember the man who received the instruments of independence on behalf of Nigeria on October 1, 1960?
Other countries keep libraries full of books and archives about their first leaders. All Americans know chapter and verse about George Washington. Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah is an icon. What of Nigeria’s case? Are we accurately recording our history for our children and descendants?
The only book on Nigeria’s first Prime Minister Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was written by a foreigner. Little is known about Balewa. In the first of a new series of articles on “Nigeria’s forgotten heroes”, I chronicle and attempt to release a little more information about Nigeria’s first Prime Minister.
Birth and Origins
In contrast with the largely aristocratic ruling elite in the north, many of whose ancestry derives from royal lineage, Balewa had very humble origins. His father was a slave who rose in service of the Madaki of Bauchi and became a district head.
According to family oral history, Balewa’s paternal grandfather Isa was murdered in front of his family by his rival’s agents. Isa’s widow then took her infant son to Bauchi, where the Madaki of Bauchi took her in. Abubakar was born in December 1912 in the village of Tafawa Balewa, in modern day Bauchi state. He was his father’s only child. The name of his birthplace was appended to Abubakar’s name (Abubakar Tafawa Balewa). Tafawa Balewa village takes its name from two corrupted Fulani words: “Tafari” (rock) and Baleri (black). This may have contributed to the “Black Rock” nickname he acquired in later life. Although it is widely (incorrectly) presumed that he was Hausa, Balewa’s father Yakubu Dan Zala was in fact of Bageri ethnicity, and his mother Fatima Inna was Fulani.
He attended Quaranic school and learnt the first chapter of the Qur’an by heart. For his Western education he attended Bauchi Provincial School. According to his teacher and classmates he was a shy, quiet and not outstanding student. Although reserved by nature, he did commit a disciplinary infraction when he was caught outside school without permission, and smoking with his friends to boot. He was whipped as punishment. One of his juniors at school was Nuhu Bamalli (later Foreign Minister). He later attended Katsina Teacher Training College (1928-1933) and graduated with a third class certificate. His best subject was unsurprisingly, English. He became a teacher and irritated by a friend’s remark that no Northerner had ever passed the exam for a Senior Teacher’s Certificate, Balewa duly sat the exam, and obtained the Certificate. He became headmaster of the Bauchi Middle School. He reported that the first white woman he ever set eyes on was Dame Margery Perham (a renowned academic on African affairs) when she visited Nigeria on an investigation of native administration.
In 1945 he and other northerners (including Aminu Kano) obtained a scholarship to study at the University of London’s Institute of Education (1945-1946), where he received a teacher’s certificate in history. When he returned to Nigeria he said he now saw the world with “new eyes”. Balewa said he:
“returned to Nigeria with new eyes, because I had seen people who lived without fear, who obeyed the law as part of their nature, who knew individual liberty”
He returned to Nigeria as a Native Authority Education Officer.
Balewa was no firebrand political radical. He may have remained a teacher for the rest of his life had southern politicians such as the flamboyant intellectual Nnamdi Azikiwe not pushed for Nigerian independence. Although not overtly political he founded an organisation named the “Bauchi Discussion Circle” in 1943, and was elected vice president of the Northern Teacher’s Association (the first trade union in Northern Nigeria) in 1948. Anxious not to be politically upstaged by the southerners, Northern leaders sought educated Northerners to serve in political posts. Balewa helped found the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), which was originally intended as a cultural organisation but by 1951 morphed into a political party due to the need to present a Northern response to the rapid and sophisticated political groupings emerging in the south. Balewa was called into political service as the Bauchi Native Authority’s representative to the Northern House of Assembly. The House of Assembly also selected him to become a member of the Nigerian Legislative Council.
Despite political involvement, Balewa remained suspicious of Nigerian unification and feared that the Northern Region would be dominated by the better educated and dynamic south. He said that “the southern tribes who are now pouring into the north in ever increasing numbers…do not mix with the northern people in social matters and we…look upon them as invaders. Since 1914 the British government has been trying to make Nigeria into one country, but the Nigerian people themselves are historically different in their backgrounds, in their religious beliefs and customs, and do not show themselves any sign of willingness to unite. So what it comes to is that Nigerian unity is only a British intention in the country.”
He later became the federal Minister of Works and in 1954 Minister of Transport and the senior minister and leader of the NPC in the House of Representatives. His conversion from regional to federal outlook came after he visited America in 1955 on a fact finding mission. He reminisced that “In less than 200 years, this great country [America] was welded together by people of so many different backgrounds. They built a mighty nation and had forgotten where they came from and who their ancestors were. They had pride in only one thing —their American citizenship… I am a changed man from today. Until now I never really believed Nigeria could be one united country. But if the Americans could do it, so can we.”
Position Without Power?
Even though Balewa was only the deputy leader of the NPC, the NPC leader the Sardauna of Sokoto sent Balewa to Lagos to become the federal Prime Minister in 1957. The Sardauna had no interest in living in the south. When Nigeria became independent in 1960, he became the newly independent country’s first Prime Minister and received the instruments of independence from Princess Alexandria (cousin of Queen Elizabeth II). Although the country’s Prime Minister, he was not the leader of his own party (the NPC) and thus remained in the paradoxical position of being a head of government that had to defer to, and take instructions from his boss (the Sardauna).
A “Perfect Victorian Gentleman”
In 1963 he gave a spellbinding eloquent speech at the Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) inaugural conference of the Organisation of African Unity. As Prime Minister he maintained a thoroughly dignified comportment. A British acquaintance called him “perhaps the perfect Victorian gentleman”. He gained several awards from the British: OBE in 1952, CBE in 1955, Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in January 1960 and was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Sheffield in May 1960.
Balewa proposed an amendment to Nigeria’s constitution to give due recognition to the nation building role played by then Governor-General Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. Balewa proposed that “Nnamdi Azikiwe shall be deemed to have been elected President and Commander in-Chief of the Armed Forces” because “Nigeria can never adequately reward Dr. Azikiwe” for the nationalist role he played in building Nigeria and achieving independence. Azikiwe is referred to by name in Nigeria’s 1963 constitution, and to my knowledge Azikiwe was the only living individual constitutionally enshrined by name in his democratic country’s constitution.
Death and Beyond
On January 15, 1966 he was kidnapped from his official residence by armed soldiers who were executing Nigeria’s first military coup. He was missing for several days and a search for him was ordered by the new military regime headed by Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi. His family and friends continued to believe he was alive. Rumours claimed the rebel soldiers were holding him alive and that he would be released as part of a prisoner swap involving the imprisoned Chief Awolowo. However these hopes were dashed when his decomposing corpse was found a few days later, dumped in a roadside bush. His corpse was taken to Ikeja airport in the company of Police Commissioner Hamman Maiduguri, Inspector-General of Police Kam Selem, Maitama Sule and his wives Laraba and Jummai who accompanied it as it was flown to Bauchi where he was buried. His body now lies inside a tomb declared a national monument. The tomb includes a library and a mosque. The famous race course square in Lagos was renamed “Tafawa Balewa Square” in his memory. His image appears on the 5 Naira note.
His mother Hajiya Inna died less than a year after him. He was survived by his four wives Jummai, Umma, Zainab and Laraba, and 19 children. He married Jummai (from Sokoto) when she was 13 years old. He also had a posthumous daughter (Zainab) who was born by Jummai two weeks after his death. Although all of Balewa’s widows remarried after his death, their subsequent marriages collapsed and they returned to the Prime Minister’s house in Bauchi to live together. Balewa’s third wife Hajiya Zainab (aka “Hajiya Umma”) died earlier this year at the age of 73.
His two sons in England were comforted and looked after by their headmaster Trafford Allen with the support of their guardian J.E.B. Hall, with their school fees at Epsom College being paid by the military government of General Gowon. His son at Keffi Government College did not know of his father’s death until the school caterer broke the news to him. His children include Mukhtar, Sadiq, Hajia Uwani, Umar, Ahmed, Haruna, Aminu (a journalist who has since died), Hafsat, Amina, Zainab, Yalwa, Saude, Hajia Binta, Yalwa (widowed early and became an organiser of women’s education), Rabi (resisted early marriage in favour of study), Ali (died aged 9), and Hajia Talle Aishatu (now deceased).
Today is the 50th anniversary of Nigeria’s first military coup. Rather than rehash it I have included video clips and audio interviews below with the key participants that will tell you all you need to know about it.
BBC interview with coup participant Captain Ben Gbulie:
Interview with coup participant Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu:
Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s first press conference:
President Azikiwe speaks about the coup:
Prime Minister Balewa’s corpse found: https://www.facebook.com/157457414278806/videos/1853738186911/
20 years in Nigeria: 1960-1979:
Ironsi’s funeral: https://www.facebook.com/157457414278806/videos/1100564156634789/
Many of you have been posting images of yourselves with your copy of my book Soldiers of Fortune. To say thanks to you, I have been posting “shout outs” to say thanks to you for buying and reading the book.
The 32nd shout out goes to Ayobami Olunloyo.
Copies of Soldiers of Fortune can now be downloaded to Amazon Kindle from the Amazon website:
other buying locations: –
- Glendora, Awolowo Road, South-West Ikoyi, Lagos
- Patabah Bookstore, Shop B18, Adeniran Ogunsanya mall, Surulere, Lagos
- Jazzhole in Lagos, at 168 Awolowo Road, Lagos, Nigeria
- Terrakulture, Plot 1379, Tiamiyu Savage, Victoria Island, Lagos
Full list of locations here: http://www.fortunesoldiers.com/where-to-buy/