Excellent video clips of the Nigerian civil war featuring archive footage such as:
*An interview with Belgian mercenary Marc Goosens.
*An interview with Ojukwu.
*Discussion of the weapons disparity between federal troops and Biafran troops.
*An interview with a South African mercenary called Major Williams.
*The end of the war – Ojukwu’s departure, Effiong’s radio broadcast and ceremony at Dodan Barracks to end the war. I thought the sight of Effiong meeting Gowon for the first time in three years and telling Gowon he was “reporting for re-appointment and redeployment” was poignant.
*The end of war broadcast at Dodan Barracks by Gowon, in the presence of Colonel Obasanjo. I notice that Gowon very pointedly refused to call the Biafrans “rebels”, did not use words like “surrender”, and spoke of Biafran “acceptance” of one Nigeria.
Great revealing interview with Ojukwu where he discusses several areas of Nigeria’s history including the January 1966 and July 1966 coups, the Awolowo -v- Akitola conflict, the Yoruba/Igbo “carpet crossing” saga, the political rivalry between Azikiwe, Ahmadu Bello, Balewa, Awolowo, Akintola et al, the 1966 pogroms and the educational disparity between northern and southern Nigeria.
Oil, Politics and Violence: “A Breath Taking Narrative….Mr. Siollun’s book must be considered something of a miracle”
Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976) – “A Breath taking Narrative“
After a long hard slog, my book is finally available.
The book can be purchased from:
Oil, Politics and Violence is also available to read in e-book format, and on mobile devices such as iPad, tablets, Android, iPhone and even your internet browser. You can get the e-book from Google Play at:
“What is the book about?” I hear you say. Well, read on….
Review by Anote Ajeluorou – published in the Nigerian Guardian newspaper
Oil, Politics and Violence: Revisiting military adventurism into politics
Monday, 13 September 2010 00:00 By Anote Ajeluorou Art – Arts
MAX Siollun’s new book Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966 – 1976), (Algora Publishing, New York; 2009) is a historical treatise on military adventurism in Nigerian politics as the infant nation took its first tottering steps shortly after independence. That intervention was to last almost forever, and at a staggering cost to the nation and its quest for democracy.
Himself a historian, Siollun takes his readers through a breath-taking narrative of the socio-political setting of 1960 to 1966, when the tables turned. The ouster of politicians who had behaved badly from power led to the enthronement of a military that was not prepared for the enormity and subtlety of political office. What was worse, the coup, which was led by the majors in the army, was perceived to be sectional because of those killed. Then there was a counter-coup that led to retaliatory killings of one section within the army. The Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu’s first coup had failed because of several factors. His was purely an idealistic coup to give the reign of leadership to Obafemi Awolowo, who was imprisoned at the time following the corruption of the Abubakar Balewa-led government. His colleagues in Lagos had failed to execute their own part of the coup as he had done in Kaduna leading to Major-General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi rallying the army to squash the coup in Lagos.
Aguyi-Ironsi assumes the office of head of state to stem the breakdown of law and order. But a counter-coup stops him dead in his track following some controversial decrees he promulgated, and the sectional slant to the coup. Northern soldiers go on the offensive and target Igbo soldiers. It spirals into the streets and the consequent infamous pogroms of 1966 that led to the civil war. Siollun also looks at the next nine years following the end of the war and how the military badly fared.
In providing the festering climate for the political logjam that led to the fall of the first republic, Siollun writes, “Underestimating the win-at-all-costs mentality of the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), the UPGA unwisely decided to bycott the elections on the ground that the NNA was planning to rig it… Due to the widespread electoral malpractices, President Azikiwe refused to call Balewa to form a new government following the elections. For several days, Nigeria teetered on the edge of an abyss as the President and the Prime Minister tried to scheme each other out of power”.
Events in the Wild Wild West did not help matters with Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola locked in their own political struggles to warrant the declaration of a state of emergency in the region. And then onto the coup that was to unsettle Nigeria for most of its political life.
“THE DEPTH OF RESEARCH….IS STUNNING”
Siollun’s Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is a well-researched book on Nigeria’s military experience. The book is unique in many ways. The depth of research into the events, activities, personalities involved in the planning, execution, who did what, how and its implication is stunning. The author meticulously accessed every record that needed to be accessed to bring to the reader a dense meal of military adventurism into the politics of the most populous black nation on earth.
Also, Siollun brings a measure of balance and accuracy that has eluded many a writer on the touchy subject to bear on his writing. A lot has been written on the subject but most of it with a given mindset to colour and taint the facts. Some writers on the subject have often contradicted themselves on points of facts and sequence of events or personalities involved. Siollun brings all these to bear on his writing as he harmonises them to create an authentic recreation of a critical period of Nigerian political history.
In a sense, Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture resituates the horrendous adventurism of the military and places it starkly for what it was: a political aberration that should never have been! The ills the military set out to cure sooner came to haunt them as the military soon compromised itself, and performed a lot badly than those they deposed from power.
One point in favour of Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture is its pace of narrative. Although, it’s a historical account of what most readers already know, yet it turns out a fascinating read on account of its detailed and accurate reconstruction of events. With the planning, shootouts and executions and murders on such a large scale, it tends to read like a thriller of sorts. This indeed is its strength.
Indeed, but for the horrendous killings of real life persons that accompanied the coups, and the tragic loss of lives during the civil war with the distortion of the polity, the coups as detailed by Siollun would whet the palate of lovers of thrillers with the dexterity of narrative he employs. The book is well worth a rereading for its cinematic affect!
Review by Kaye Whiteman
This first review of the book was very kindly written by Kaye Whiteman, whom many of you will recognise as the former Editor of the esteemed magazine ‘West Africa’. He is one of the leading writers on West Africa and has also written for the UK’s Guardian newspaper. This review was published in Business Day magazine.
Unpacking the Past
As we approach the great stock-taking of the fiftieth anniversary of Nigerian independence (which is going to be continuing all year), there is going to be a growing consideration of the history of these past fifty years. This is bound to include a re-examination of the coups and civil war of the 1960s. If this decade brought to a head the post-independence trauma of national identity, as a shakedown of the British-engineered independence settlement, it made a profound mark on subsequent decades.
There are so many aspects of Nigeria’s recent history that cannot be studied without reference to the 1960s – for example, the onset and collapse of the idea of military rule; or the effect on society, economy and political culture of the ‘curse of oil’, a central factor in the war for Nigerian unity. There was the phenomenon of the creation of states, initiated with the first twelve states of May 1967, mainstay of fiscal federalism, and the campaign for local resource control. Behind lay the scourge of corruption, and the electoral fraud whose worst manifestation in the Western Region led to the January 15 coup of 1966.
These thoughts arise from a book titled Oil Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-76) by Max Siollun (published in New York this year by Algora publishing). For those interested in a detailed and objective study of these particularly sensitive moments, I cannot commend this book too highly.
For an old-timer like myself, who was partly around at the time, this book is a revelation. For this is a period which, for understandable reasons, has all too often been buried. After the books written by journalists at the time, and Professor Tamuno’s official history published in the 1980s, it has not been a subject that has been much written about, other than in a series of memoirs, or lately in novels such as Half of a Yellow Sun. This shows that the interest is there in unpacking the hidden legacy.
Siollun’s is not a full history of the crisis and the war, however. He restricts himself very much to the military, and although you cannot escape the politics, his self-imposed framework is sometimes a limitation. July 29 has to be seen in the context of the massacres in the North which lasted from May to October. Again, the important neutrality of Major General Welby-Everard in the 1964 federal elections (who now recalls that there was still a Brit commanding the Nigerian army at that time?) perhaps benefits from being seen in a more fully described political setting.
The author’s military priority does permit him, however, to go into his subject matter with a great depth of detail. He is also able to mobilise a spectacular range of sources, some of which your columnist was not aware of, and would love to have in his own collection of Nigeriana. There are tables of which officer was where and when, and many potted biographies, although only of members of the armed forces. Space does not permit exploring further subjects such as the “classmate syndrome” or the theory that January 15 was an “UPGA coup”, and there are odd little details from exceptional sources, like Welby-Everard’s eulogistic commendation of Brigadier Ogundipe.
In such an amazing mastery of detail, it is not surprising that there are the occasional minor errors – for example he says there was but one Igbo among the civil servants that took part in the July 29-31 negotiations in Ikeja barracks, but from his own list there are three. It may be that those that participated personally in these events will find more to quibble with – just as he already pinpoints some of the controversies that have been raised in the memoirs of the period that have emerged.
There are also mysteries that not surprisingly he is unable to solve, and myths that he cannot penetrate, although I would have liked him to have examined more thoroughly the legend that it was Captain Dickson (who does get a brief reference) who led the Middle Belt rank-and-file objection to Murtala as leader of the coup, and ended up as the self-styled airport commandant, carrying on for months before his final removal. Was it Dickson who indicated that power must go to Gowon, or else…? This is tantalising, because the author does describe the absolutely historic moment when Murtala abandoned his ambitions and suddenly says to Gowon “you are the senior, go ahead”, and is most instructive on the extent of secessionist sentiment among the far-northerners (although the raising of the flag of the north at Ikeja was Biafran myth-making).
Review Two – By Ohsee of Toronto, Canada.
In the West, considerations of truth and objectivity in history are seen in some quarters as marks of a lack of sophistication. In Nigeria, however, they are matters of life and death. People there die as a result of history forgot, of lessons not learned. Many people die.
Such questions loom large in Nigeria’s violent political history of the first two decades after independence. The most problematic have been, what really happened during the first two coups and the resultant civil war? It is here that Nigerians need to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, because such reliable knowledge has proved useful in the past. But most Nigerian histories of those turbulent times, are often clouded by the malodorous presence of ethnic chauvinism and hatred of the Other, and the need for self-aggrandizement.
Many readers despaired of ever seeing an unbiased history from Nigerians themselves, and sought such objectivity from outsiders who often had little understanding of the subtleties of the Nigerian political milieu.
Thus Mr. Siollun’s book about the first four coups (1966-1976) must be considered something of a miracle. Unlike prior writers on the topic from that country, the Nigerian-born historian successfully checked at the door the ethnic biases he surely must have, in order to combine the dispassionate objectivity of the outsider with the nuanced knowledge of the insider. The result is a truly insightful book that is highly accessible to the general reader. The book also has enough new information to serve as a starting point for future investigators who wish to tackle some of the issues in greater detail.
Mr Siollun, whose essays about the first two coups are familiar to those who visit Nigerian websites, has tackled the four coups sequentially, and shown how they are related in terms of personnel involved and lessons to be learned. For instance, some of the participants in the second coup—such as Babangida, Abacha, Yaradua, and Buhari—dominated Nigerian coup-making culture for thirty years. Mr. Siollun shows how failing to punish murderous putschists can and did come back to bite coup beneficiaries in the arse, since “unpunished coup plotters will re-offend. The coup plotters behind Nigeria’s military regimes were repeat offenders—often with fatal consequences for themselves. They were men who lived life on the edge, snacked on danger and dined on death. For them, coup plotting was in the blood.”
Mr. Siollun’s summary of the pre-coup political situation is concise and lucid, and looks at the events in new ways. For instance, most people probably do not see the Nzeogwu coup as the second attempt at overthrowing the Balewa government by force. While many followers of Nigerian history may know that Awolowo—leader of the Action Group, one of the opposition parties in the First Republic—was jailed for treason in 1964, few are aware that it was not a trumped up charge, and that three decades later, Action Group General Secretary, S.G. Ikoku, confirmed that there was a genuine AG plot to topple the federal government.
Mr. Siollun is at his strongest where he skillfully cuts away the myths that have grown weed-like around the more controversial of those 1966 events. One of the more pernicious of these is the lie that the January 15 1966 coup was an effort at Igbo domination organized by the Igbos. Mr. Siollun demonstrates that there is a very strong case for seeing January 15 as an UPGA (United Progressive Grand Alliance) coup, or in other words, a second attempt by the South or southern political parties to wrest power from the North. By examining the national character of the Igbos, and the stereotypes that grew around their business activities, he carefully shows us the historical process via which the Igbos became the national scapegoat; we see how one section of the country practiced what he calls “transferred malice,” where the Igbos were singled out for punishment during troubles in which they only played a bit part.
In this absorbing and fascinating work, there is a good deal of new and startling information: who knew that in private moments, the genial Ironsi, the first military ruler, liked to refer jokingly to his fellow Igbos by the pejorative Northern term “Nyamiri?” We learn of the enormous family pressures on Northern officers and men after January 15 demanding vengeance for the Northern officers killed. The blood relationships between Northern People’s Congress (NPC) politicians, and some of the July 1966 plotters are revealed—Inua Wada, defence minister in the Balewa government during the First Republic, was Murtala Muhammed’s cousin, for example. We begin to understand the Machiavellian Ibrahim Babangida—military president from 1985 to 1993—better when we find out his closest friends were among the Dimka coup plotters of Feb 1976, a coup in which those very friends marked him for liquidation. We learn that Gen. Obasanjo wept when the poisonous chalice of leadership would not pass him by. Such brief character and biographical sketches of principal players inject life into the narrative, and make the historical protagonists more than just names on a paper.
The book of course has its flaws, some quite minor and perhaps fixable in later editions. The footnoting seems somewhat haphazard and sparse. To some, this may be considered a benefit, but it could be frustrating to the reader or researcher who wants to learn more by exploring sources. And one of the more vexatious things is that the footnoting, like Carlyle’s History, “is silent where you most wish her to speak.”
More egregious are the omissions and failures to explore some controversial areas. We do not know the extent of Lt. Col Adekunle Fajuyi’s involvement in January 15 even though Mr. Siollun was involved a few years back in a debate about it with someone on the Internet who went by the moniker “Arthur Unegbe”. Perhaps there is nothing to know or find out, but Mr. Siollun’s complete silence—no discussion of rumours, or analysis of possibilities—is troubling. Also surely we could learn from a brief exploration of the contradictions in the public statements of Gowon’s apologists and the actions of the man that suggest some foreknowledge of the July horrors? However, in light of the importance and intelligence of this work, it would be churlish to carp about these matters.
I admit to being skeptical before reading this work, expecting the typical tendentious and ethnically jaundiced approach that colours most Nigerian commentaries on the coups of 1966. What Mr. Siollun has given us rather is a deft, measured, and just examination of those tragic events, all done in very accessible prose. All Nigerians owe him a debt of gratitude. I wish I could find a way to get a copy into the hands of every educated Nigerian.
The book can be purchased from:
Review Three:by Australia’s Former High Commissioner to Nigeria During the 1966-1967 Crisis
This book, by an industrious, questing and objective historian, brings together the most comprehensive and authentic documentation on the Nigerian coup and counter coup of 1966 and the Biafran War that I have ever seen.
The author does not “make a case” for anyone. Rather he sets out the evidence, gives a variety of parties their say and, by and large, then leaves you to make a judgement on the very best evidence available.
I do not think that any of us can responsibly write about the Biafran War and the steps leading up to it unless they have first read and thoroughly digested Max Siollun’s book. I say this against the background that I was Australian High Commissioner in Nigeria at the relevant time and I knew the principal players personally.
In early October 1966, I embarked on a Mission to Enugu to talk to Ojukwu – with General Gowon’s blessing – in an effort to find a negotiated resolution of Nigeria’s deep constitutional, political, racial and tribal problems. Above all, I wanted to avoid the brutal and bloody conflict that, in the event, became known as the Biafran War. In the wake of my meeting with Ojukwu, agreement was reached between Ojukwu and the Federal Nigerian Government at a meeting in Aburi in Ghana in January 1967. However, the agreement fell to pieces shortly afterwards and the first shots in the Biafran War followed within a couple of months or so.
With this background, I can responsibly and, I think, reliably assess the authenticity of what Siollun has to say and recommend his outstanding book to those who want to know, understand and be familiar with Nigerian history of that troubled period.
Review Four: by Iwedi Ojinmah for Nigerian Village Square
Once in while there comes a book that makes us either sit up straight or reflect on our lives… past and present. It is even more appreciated and of importance when such a book is a serious one and about a subject matter, that even 4 decades after it engulfed Nigeria in arguably Africa’s most vicious war pitching suspicious cousin against each other , it is still rife with so much controvesy and emotional debate that one can seriously question if true National reconcilation has not remained deferred.
Max Siollun, has produced such a wonder in Oil Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976) Algora Pub Hardcover : $33.95 Softcover $23.95
Right out the gates the English born Nigerian but US based Professor, separates himself from the rest of the pack of historians that have feebly tackled early Nigerian Politics with his pronounced objectivity and absolutely impeccable research. In a detailed chronological sequence of events he locks the door on many a propagated myth and exposes among others how for instance the Igbo’s became political scapegoats not by choice but by default. He also amazingly shows how for the better part of 3 decades it was pretty much “old wine in new bottles” as the same vagabonds in power continued -just like some morbid spoke of a wheel- to keep in place Nigeria’s wobbly and corrupt coup culture.
Each of the 268 pages is saturated with such intricate fact that you often have to pinch yourself back into reality to realize again that all this stuff really did occur, and is not the draft of an up till now unknown Shakespearean tragedy. The man really names names and one has to virtually munch on a mint to supress the subsequent but delicious bite.
Things Fell Apart and Have Never Been the Same Since
However while his book will serve hopefully as salve on the deep festering wound inflicted on Nigeria, it does not address the more dangerous and ever present infection that lingers on still robbing her of her full potential; because it summates just ten years out of almost 45 years. Since there is an undeniable thread linking the past to the present and vice versa ; we salivate at the possibility……NO I take that back …..“ we implore” the absolute need of a part 2 that will continue to explore the murky dysfunctional rot that is Nigerian Politics. The story after 1976 must also be examined with as equal objectivity and openness and till then we will remain hungry at the table like guests denied of a spectacular entrée after being treaded to array of amazing o’dourves….pounding our forks and just like Twist – asking for more.
The book can be purchased from:
We’re dying: Ex-Biafran soldiers cry
By PETRUS OBI, Enugu
Monday, May 11, 2009
More Stories on This Section
The Nigerian Civil war may have ended several years ago on ‘no victor’ ‘no vanquished note,’ but the victims of the war, especially the disabled ex- Biafran soldiers who have been ‘abandoned’ at their settlement camp in Oji-River, Enugu State are still feeling the pains of neglect and abandonment by both the federal government and the defunct Biafran Republic.
From the narrow entrance to the dilapidated camp, one could understand what Mr. Joseph Akani, spokesperson for the ex-soldiers meant when he said that “When we were brought here we were told that we would stay here, decay and die.”
The visit of the de-mining team from the Federal Ministry of Defense to the camp recently provided the disabled soldiers an opportunity to speak out; and they seized it indicting both the federal government, the eleven States of the old Eastern Central States.
They also indicted the former Biafran Leader, Chief Odumegwu Emeka Ojukwu of abandoning them claiming that the former commander of the Biafran army had never visited them since they arrived the camp in 1970.
Said he; “Today our sun has risen; for the first time since 1970 when the war ended we are seeing members of the Nigeria Defence in a great number like this. Happily enough you have seen us you have seen where we are quartered; by our right is the leprosy colony, in our front is the Oji River General Hospital ; it mainly treats the leprosy patients.
As you can see, there is no government catering for us; we only live on charity. As you come here today, we and members of our family are rejoicing that at least, they’ll have something to eat. You represent the federal government and we know through you our message will get to the president.
We need to be rehabilitated. If not that we are war victims, being members of the Nigeria family I think we deserve life. Our children deserve to be educated, our wives deserve to be clothed and have something doing, since they are our helpers; our eyes and our legs. We are pleading that you take our message to the federal government; we are begging that they should come and alleviate our sufferings.
“It’s almost 40 years since the war ended and our existence has been is by the mercy of God. Here there is no water, our accommodation; if you enter there you will pity us. I have seen that those who are asked to die don’t die so quick. When we were brought here we were told that we will stay here, decay and die.
Thirty nine years have come and gone but some of us are still alive. When we came here we were 697 today how many are left; less than 100. I am not happy to say that we are leaving because those who are dead, we are not better than them. Many of us died out of frustration; many died out of simply illness that could have been treated; and those of us living today, we are struggling with one illness or the other; there is one of us bedridden, sores here and there; nobody caters for him, except that the almighty God will never abandon his people.
Leader of the federal government team and the director of Administration Commodore Essien Epkiken (rtd) disclosed that they have been sent to go round the eleven states that were involved in the war and to remove unexploded land mines and the ascertain the number of victims.
As a token of goodwill we are here some gifts for you and your families. We are very happy to be here and we have seen you in person and your families and we seriously appreciate what kind of life you have been going through and it is our responsibility to enlighten all the people around us including the federal government of your plight.
He urged the ex-soldiers to assist the team in identifying the areas where mines were laid during the war to make their work easy and to ensure the safety of the people.
This is another series of documentaries on Biafra. Produced by Nigeria’s own NTA, these videos feature interviews with the key players such as Gowon, Ojukwu, Babangida, Maj-Gens Mohammed Shuwa, Adeyinka Adebayo, Godwin Abbe, George Innih, and David Ejoor, Brigadiers Samuel Ogbemudia and Mobolaji Johnson, plus civilian participants like Philip Asiodu and Ahmed Joda who were key players in the abortive negotiations prior to the war.
Of great vintage is the footage of the Aburi debate in Ghana in 1967. Amazing footage of Ojukwu chatting with Gowon, Hassan Katsina, Commodore Joseph Wey and other members of the federal delegation to Aburi.
Another nugget from Nigerian history. This is the text of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’s famous interview with Dennis Ejindu in May 1967. This interview took place just before the start of the civil war. It is probably the most detailed question and answer session with Major Nzeogwu. Enjoy….
Ejindu: I am glad to meet you, Sir. How would you feel if you knew that you are being regarded as a hero?
Nzeogwu: Very pleased naturally. But the truth is that I am not a hero. If there was any famous Major Nzeogwu, I have never heard of him.
Ejindu: It is rumoured that you have just finished writing a book, what is it like?
Nzeogwu: Good gracious! Ninety-nine per cent of all the stories you hear in this country are false. I have not written any book because there was nothing to write about. You can only write about a finished job. It would have been a useful means of warding off boredom though, but one did not do it for the fear that the authorities might seize the papers. However I had enough time to make detailed notes on what happened, and one might use them if in future there was any need to write something.
Ejindu: Before you went into prison, the cloud was so clear above this country that one could see very far into the future. Now that you are out, what do you see?
Nzeogwu: A job very badly done. If I may borrow your metaphor, the atmosphere is admittedly somewhat cloudy. But I don’t think there will be rain. Indeed if you look steadily up you will find that the sun is not yet set and might still peep through. The trouble is that people generally can’t tell which is a rain cloud and which is not, and as a result they tend to be confused. As you know there is too much bitterness at present in the country, and in the past people had imagined that they could conveniently do without one another. But the bitterness will clear in the end and they will find that they are not as self-reliant as they had thought. And they will long to be together…. The .same applies to the Northerners. It may take ten or fifteen years for them to come together again but there is no doubt, as far as I can see, that they will. You see, in this world of imperfection, it is sometimes very difficult to capture the ideal. But we can, at least start with the second best.
Ejindu: What is the second best?
Nzeogwu: A Confederation.
Ejindu: Before I come back to that, may 1 take you back to January, 1966. What exactly happened at Nassarawa (the premier’s residence at Kaduna) on the night of the 14th?
Nzeogwu: No, no, no; don’t ask me anything about that, I don’t want to remember it.
Ejindu: All right. A lot has been talked and written about the January coup. But how tribalistic was it really in conception and execution?
Nzeogwu: In the North, no. In the South, yes. We were five in number, and initially we knew quite clearly what we wanted to do. We had a short list of people who were either undesirable for the future progress of the country or who by their positions at the time had to be sacrificed for peace and stability. Tribal considerations were completely out of our minds at this stage. But we had a set-back in the execution. Both of us in the North did our best. But the other three who were stationed in the South failed because of incompetence and misguided considerations in the eleventh hour. The most senior among them was in charge of a whole brigade and had all the excuse and opportunity in the world to mobilize his troops anywhere, anyhow and any time. He did it badly. In Lagos, even allowing for one or two genuine mistakes, the job was badly done. The Mid-West was never a big problem. But in the East, our major target, nothing practically was done. He and the others let us down.
Ejindu: You must have anticipated that Gen. Ironsi would let you down in the end. Why did you surrender to him the way you did?
Nzeogwu: I was being sensible. The last thing we desired was unnecessary waste of life. If I had stuck to my guns there would have been a civil war, and as the official head of the Army, he would have split the loyalty of my men. Again, you must remember that the British and other foreigners were standing by to help him. Our purpose was to change our country and make it a place we could be proud to call our home, not to wage war.
Ejindu: It has been said that Gen. Ironsi set out to complete your job for you. Was there anything you did not like in his administration?
Nzeogwu: Yes, everything. First he chose the wrong advisers for the work he halfheartedly set out to do. Most of them were either mediocre or absolutely unintelligent. Secondly, he was tribalistic in the appointment of his governors. Thirdly the Decree 34 was unnecessary, even silly in fact.
Ejindu: But you wanted a unitary government?
Nzeogwu: No. Not a unitary government as such. We wanted to see a strong centre. We wanted to cut the country to small pieces, making the centre inevitably strong. We did not want to toy with power, which was what he did.
Ejindu: Tell me, what do you think of him as a soldier?
Nzeogwu: I am afraid I cannot tell you that. But I will say that as a person he was very well liked and as the Supreme Commander, his orders were promptly carried out.
Ejindu: If he joined the Army as a gunner, he must have progressed as a military strategist?
Nzeogwu: Yes, if he had, he could have done so. But he actually joined the Army as a tally-clerk and was a clerk most of the time.
Ejindu: From the present chaos, what type of Nigeria do you envisage?
Nzeogwu: In the first place, secession will be ill-advised, indeed impossible. Even if the East fights a war of secession and wins, it still cannot secede. Personally, I don’t like secession and if this country disintegrates, I shall pack up my things and go. In the present circumstances, confederation is the best answer as a temporary measure. In time, we shall have complete unity. Give this country a confederation and, believe me, in ten or fifteen years the young men will find it intolerable, and will get together to change it. And it is obvious we shall get a confederation or something near it. Nothing will stop that.
Ejindu: Do you think there will be any war?
Nzeogwu: No. Nobody wants to fight. The East which is best equipped and best prepared for war, does not want to attack anybody. The North cannot fight. And Lagos cannot fight now. If they had attacked the East in August or September, they would have had a walk-over. Today, I think they will be ill-advised to try.
Ejindu: An Englishman said to me the other day that the best thing Ojukwu can do is to take over Lagos. Do you think he can do it even if he wanted to?
Nzeogwu: Yes, I think the East is strong enough to do it if they want to. But it will serve no useful purpose. It can only serve to destroy life and property. You see, the effective power does not lie in Lagos but in Kaduna, and if you remove Gowon somebody else will take his place. If you capture the South against the North, all you can achieve is civil war, disintegration and border clashes.
Ejindu: Finally, let me come to the controversy over your release. Much as it has been a popular action you have been released by the east government against the wish of the federal government. What do you say to that?
Nzeogwu: All I can say is that I am happy and grateful to be out. We feel grateful to the Nsukka students for their persistent demand, and to the boys in the barracks for their pressure on the authorities in the east. And to the Nigerian public in general for their concern over our welfare.
Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu is a man that inspires conflicting emotions in people. To some he is a born leader and hero. To others he is an ambitious man that tried to break up the federation of Nigeria. Where Ojukwu is concerned, no one is a neutral. The conflicting opinions on him are consistent with his inconsistent personality and history. Ojukwu is an educated man that entered a profession that many Nigerians regarded at the time as a profession for the uneducated, a southerner born in the north who fought a three-year-long war against the north, a man who once led an attempt to secede from Nigeria, but later ran for President of Nigeria.
A leader must be judged by what benefits or misfortune he has brought to his people. The question to be asked is: has Ojukwu brought anything positive to the Igbo? His record is grim. The “accomplishments Ojukwu has brought his people are as follows”:
Dragging them into a brutal civil war they had no chance of winning, and which resulted in 1 million of them dying.
Even when it became clear that his people were starving to death in massive numbers, he continued the war which was doomed from the start.
He fled and left his people after the war.
The civil war caused his people to be stereotyped as disloyal and led to an unwritten discrimination against them.
It is remarkable that a man who has brought few tangible benefits to his people is so revered by them. Although Igbo by parentage (his father was the millionaire businessman Sir Louis Odumegwu Ojukwu), Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was born in Zungeru in the north and attended Nigeria’s most prestigious school Kings College, before later graduating with a degree in History from Lincoln College, Oxford University (where he joined the communist party) in the UK prior to joining the Nigerian army. Ojukwu was the first university graduate to enlist in the Nigerian army. Intellectually, Ojukwu was in a different league to many of his peers. Joining the army in an era of political crises and increasing officer politicization of the army, Ojukwu found his niche. During the 1964 federal election crisis, the President and Prime Minister jockeyed for control and loyalty of the army. In the heat of the crisis some of Ojukwu’s colleagues alleged that he approached them with a plan to overthrow the civilian government and replace it with a military government. The matter was reported to the army’s then commander Major-General Welby-Everard.
If Ojukwu harboured political ambitions, he was given a chance to showcase his political acumen when a group of young army majors overthrew the democratic government in January 1966. Contrary to what has been written in some quarters, Ojukwu refused to cooperate with the majors – including Major Nzeogwu. When Nigeria’s first military government emerged, Ojukwu was appointed the Military Governor of Nigeria’s Eastern Region. His appointment to be the East’s Military Governor was also ironic as he had spent very little of his life in the East. Ojukwu was the most politically active of the four military governors. By mid-1966, the army was imploding and another army coup was staged by northern soldiers during which hundreds of Igbo soldiers (including General Aguiyi-Ironsi) were killed.
A central plank of this coup was the elimination of Ojukwu. The ‘pointman’ who was to execute the coup in the Eastern Region was a young Lieutenant named Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (the older brother of Nigeria’s current president). A middle-ranking, northern officer (Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon) was chosen by northern soldiers to replace Aguiyi-Ironsi, despite the objections of Ojukwu who insisted that the most senior officer Brigadier Ogundipe should succeed Aguiyi-Ironsi. In the aftermath of the coup, northern soldiers and civilians carried out gruesome pogroms against the Igbo, and tens of thousands of Igbo were murdered. As decapitated and badly mutilated corpses began arriving back in Ojukwu’s Eastern Region, there was a sense of insecurity and revulsion. Separatist sentiment increased in the Eastern Region and many Igbo and other easterners began to call for the Eastern Region to secede from the Nigerian federation which could no longer guarantee their safety.
Contrary to what is widely believed, Ojukwu was actually a moderating voice in a sea of Igbo hawks who wanted immediate secession. Ojukwu cooperated with Gowon as he (Ojukwu ) was anxious to limit the bloodshed and to protect the lives and property of Igbo still remaining in the north. He also ordered all northerners resident in the east to leave for their own safety, and brokered a ceasefire deal with almost 1000 northern soldiers in Enugu which allowed the northern soldiers to leave unharmed with their weapons. However there were limits to Ojukwu’s cooperation with Gowon, and he was still refusing to recognize Gowon as Nigeria’s Head of State. Ojukwu defiantly continued to address Gowon as the “the Chief of Staff (Army)” (the post which Gowon occupied before the coup that brought him to power).
ABURI – HIS FINEST HOUR
After Nigeria was dragged to the brink of the abyss by two military coups in 1966, and pogroms which followed them, Ojukwu had refused to attend any meetings of the Supreme Military Council and continually repeated his mantra that “I, as the Military Governor of the east cannot meet anywhere in Nigeria where there are northern troops.”
Ojukwu finally agreed to attend an SMC meeting in the neutral territory of Aburi in Ghana in January 1967. It was in the writer’s opinion, Ojukwu ’s finest hour. While the other delegates arrived at Aburi with a simple, but unformulated idea that somehow, Nigeria must stay together, Ojukwu prepared thoroughly and came armed with notes and secretaries. In the words of one writer “Ojukwu was the only participant who knew what he wanted, and he secured the signatures of the SMC to documents which would have had the effect of turning Nigeria into little more than a customs union” (Miners – The Nigerian Army).
Some claimed that Ojukwu took the SMC for a ride by using his superior intelligence to trap the SMC officers into an agreement they did not understand. Ojukwu was engaged in a constitutional debate by himself against five military officers, and two police officers, yet still got his way. He can hardly be faulted for outwitting opponents that outnumbered him by seven to one. Questions might be asked of the other SMC members of greater numerical strength who allowed Ojukwu to extract such substantial concessions from them. The agreement was never implemented as each side accused the other of bad faith. Ojukwu cannot be faulted for the failure to implement the Aburi decisions as it was the federal government that reneged on the agreement.
The federal government attempted to implement the Aburi agreement in diluted form by enacting a modified Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree which turned Nigeria into a de facto confederation. Ojukwu declined to accept the initial draft and insisted on a full and complete implementation of the accords reached at Aburi. Nonetheless as the weaker party he could still have showed greater pragmatism to spare further suffering for his people. At this point Ojukwu’s decision making must be questioned. Ojukwu would have saved many lives had he shown a greater degree of flexibility by accepting the Decree as it gave him 90% of what he wanted. In the “winner takes all” mentality that is so symptomatic of Nigerian politics, Ojukwu unrealistically held out for 100% of his demands and in the end, received 0%. His intransigence placed him and his people in a worse position than they started in. Rather than turning Nigeria into a confederation (which is what Decree 8 did), Ojukwu ’s intransigence gave the federal government an opportunity to overrun the Eastern Region, carve the country into several states and concentrate massive powers in the central government. Forty years later many Nigerians now call for the restructuring of Nigeria, and for devolution of power to its regions.
Ojukwu had a golden opportunity to achieve this over 40 years ago but squandered it. Had he shown some patience he may have achieved his objectives – albeit at a later date. The old adage is that “the best comes to those who wait.” Ojukwu could have taken a leaf from the book of another infant country named Israel. For several decades Jews fought to be given their own state in what was then British Mandate Palestine. In 1947, they were granted their state but only on half the land that they wanted. Realizing that it is best to accept what is achievable today, rather than risk holding out for 100% and getting nothing, Israel’s first leader David Ben-Gurion accepted a state but cleverly did not enunciate the borders of this state – this leaving the door open to agitate for more land at a later date. Today the “green line” borders of Israel encompass more land than it originally had at independence.
The Biafra Story
When armed confrontation with the federal government was imminent, Ojukwu knew as a military man that the eastern region had absolutely no chance of victory in a conflict with the federal government. Yet he declared the secession of the eastern region which he governed, in the knowledge that federal troops would invade immediately after the secession. Although Ojukwu doubtless possessed outstanding leadership and motivational skills which he used admirably to pull his people solidly behind the war effort, it is uncertain exactly how he possibly believed that the eastern region (armed only with a few elderly World War 2 era rifles) could succeed against an enemy armed with limitless mortars, machine guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, trucks and air force jets. One does not have to be a military strategist to see the folly of this decision.
At the time, there was a widely held belief (propagated by Ojukwu and other Biafran leaders) that defeat for Biafra would be met by mass indiscriminate massacres by the federal government. If Ojukwu believed this, then his escape at the end of the war is deplorable. After over a million Igbo were killed in the senseless war, Ojukwu fled in the last days of the war when his people were at their lowest ebb, despite repeatedly promising throughout the war that he would never leave his people to the mercy of the federal troops. If he believed that all his people would be massacred then his flight to a luxurious exile abroad and refusal to stand side by side with them to finish a war he dragged them into, cannot be applauded. Ojukwu is an iconic leader for his people, but has failed to deliver the aspirations of his people. The question remains – is Ojukwu a hero or a disastrous strategist?