Avoiding another civil war
Many young Nigerians are ill-informed about the darkest days of our history; those very dark days when otherwise members of the same union had to take up arms against one another. For someone who closely observed the days when members of the Yoruba ethnic group danced in the streets to welcome the great Nnamdi Azikiwe, an Igbo, in almost equal numbers as they did another great Nigerian of Yoruba origin, Obafemi Awolowo, the civil war of 1967-70 and what now appears to be an attempt to retrieve better-forgotten war drums cannot but be disheartening.
The Civil War itself can hardly be discussed in isolation. Understanding it entails an excursion into the history of our great nation. Its remote causes can be summarised as emanating from the very nature of our colonial-imposed federalism, as well as the colonial masters’ legacy of divide and rule. Suffice it to say that the creation of Nigeria was designed, first and foremost, to serve the interests of the colonial masters. The federation bequeathed to Nigerians at independence was lopsided, with political power skewing heavily in favour of the North to the detriment of the then southern regions, Eastern and Western. The colonial approach to education and religion could hardly be described as an effort directed at promoting unity in a nation of different languages and culture.
The immediate causes of the war derived from the aforementioned factors, as post-independence history was a history of the south attempting to challenge a structure that impeded progress as well as the political ambitions of its key leaders. The North, based on its population, agitated for, and successfully got, 50% of representation at the Federal House of Representatives during the Ibadan Constitutional Conference of 1950. This was not without opposition from politicians of the Western Region.
However, the south continued to challenge what had constituted northern primacy in politics resulting in a succession of crises. The census crisis of 1962-3 and the contentious federal election of 1964 saw an otherwise divided south singing in unison. It would be naïve to assume that the feelings of ethnic politicians did not influence the thinking of soldiers, no matter what were their pretensions to patriotism and non-partisanship, and this was what came into fore on January 15, 1966, when a bloody coup attempt terminated our teething experiment at democratic politics. The soldiers struck on the background of a comical election that had produced a hitherto unprecedented violence in the Western Region in 1965.
The coup leaders, comprised mainly of soldiers from the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region, claimed to have acted in the national interest. What, however, did not seem to have been in the national interest was the pattern which the execution of their coup took. The key politicians and soldiers killed were northerners and notable southern “collaborators.”
The “cleansing” exercise did not claim Igbo casualties. Behind in Western education and commerce, the north saw a unitary state as an orchestrated attempt to undo its peoples in the Civil Service and economic sectors of society. Coupled with failure to bring the coup makers to trial, Ironsi’s unitary decree became more or less the catalyst to the counter-coup of July 1966 – “the northern reply” – which claimed the lives of many Igbo officers and men, including General Aguiyi-Ironsi himself. This was soon followed by a massive killing of Igbo residents in the North.
With dead bodies and mutilated limbs arriving in the East from the North, there were bound to be anger and a civil war invitingly inevitable. There were quite a number of elements in the decision to go to war and this included the refusal of Lt. Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of the East, to accept the authority of Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon, said to be his junior by enrolment in the military, as Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Many attempts at reconciliation failed to yield fruitful results. For instance, the agreements reached at Aburi, Ghana, favoured the demands of the secessionists but would later be reneged upon by the federal authorities once its implications became glaring. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu- Ojukwu would appear to have “outsmarted” his colleagues at the Aburi meeting.
Of course, the decision to go to war cannot be explained without reference to the then newly-discovered oil in the Eastern Region. It assured “Biafra” was a project that could be economically sustained. It was also because of oil that the major powers were neither spectators nor pacifists in the “fratricidal” conflict. They were more interested in having access to the oil than in bothering with the number of Nigerians killed!
General Yakubu Gowon rightly declared that there was “no victor and no vanquished” in the conclusion of a war for which we were all to be blamed. What we must never do again is put our nation in a situation that makes another civil war an attractive option. To our young compatriots agitating for Biafra, I make bold to remind them that the Igbo have contributed to the demographic integration of Nigeria more than any other ethnic group in the federation. It is doubtful if the new agitators have factored in this reality.
• Dr. Akinola wrote from Oxford, United Kingdom.