We, the Biafrans!
It is 50 years now that the Civil War ended and the soldiers returned home. Thousands never returned. They earned their eternal rest on the battlefields and their comrades in hasty retreat or full flight never had the opportunity to retrieve the bodies. They are represented on the Heroes Acres in Abuja with the statue of the Unknown Soldier.
My elder brother, Adeyinka, my father’s first son, returned home with a big gash on his handsome face. He had been shot in the head on a battle field after the bloody crossing from Asaba. For Adeyinka, the army was the ultimate. He was recruited into the military shortly after Nigeria’s independence from Britain and was posted to the Congo following the tumult in that country after the assassination of its first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba.
Adeyinka was seen fire for the second time in Biafra. When he returned late 1967, he was now a lieutenant; handsome and arresting in his officer’s green uniform. All of us wanted to be like him. One of our cousins, just finishing from Okemesi Grammar School, Okemesi-Ekiti, joined him at his residence in Ibadan. Adeyinka was then a company commander at the 131 Battalion, Iwo Road, Ibadan, then commanded by Major Fagbure.
It was early in 1969 and the Civil War was reaching a bloody crescendo. I had just been admitted to Ife Anglican Grammar School, Ile-Ife. The war, being fought in far-away battle fields, was a daily presence for us barrack children. One day my brother called his cousin staying with him. He did not want him to join the army.
“One person from our family is enough for this job,” he said seriously. “Please don’t!”
He was talking to the deaf. One day, our cousin disappeared from home. Many weeks later, he came to show-off in his new uniform. Few weeks later, his company was taken to join the famous Third Marine Commando Division, now being commanded by its new General Officer Commanding, GOC, Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo. We never saw him again.
All the six GOCs on the Nigerian side returned home. Only two of them are still alive, General IBM Haruna and General Obasanjo, the only GOC who was wounded on the battlefield. General Mohammed Shuwa, who commanded the First Division was killed a few years ago in Maiduguri by Boko Haram terrorists. His successor, General Illiya Bisalla, was executed in Lagos on March 11, 1976, for his alleged involvement in the coup of February 13, 1976, during which General Murtala Muhammed was killed. Muhammed, who was the first GOC of the Second Division, was succeeded in 1968 by General Ibrahim Bata Malgwi Haruna. The old soldier is alive and well. Obasanjo’s predecessor as the GOC Third Marine Commandoes Division was the fiery Colonel Benjamin Maja Adekunle. He too is dead.
Every warrior knows the futility of war. The late Major-General Adeyinka Adebayo was the first Nigerian Chief of Army Staff. At the time of the first coup on January 15, 1966, he was abroad on a military course. His successor, Colonel Kor Mohammed, was one of those officers killed by the mutineers. With the coup and the assassination of top politicians, including Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa and two regional premiers, the military suddenly found itself in charge of Nigeria. Their commander, the bully 42-year old General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi found himself in charge of a ship that was leaking and being tossed around on the high sea. By the time Adebayo returned from his overseas course, Ironsi was killed along with Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the Military Governor of the West. Ironsi’s Chief of Army, Yakubu Jack Gowon, a lanky lieutenant-colonel, was railroaded into the office of the new Head of State. Adebayo was dispatched to Ibadan to take-over as the successor to Colonel Fajuyi. Officially, Ironsi and Fajuyi were declared missing, but the military High Command knew they were dead.
Nigeria was in crisis. Even Gowon, the new military ruler could not live in the State House on the Marina. He had to move to Doddan Barracks, a fortress where he can be protected by loyal troops. The most senior army officer who survived the July 29, 1966 coup, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, and Ironsi’s direct deputy, was harried to London where he resumed as the High Commissioner. The country was left in the clutches of ambitious young colonels were in their early 30s. The new Head of State was 32. It was this corps of young colonels who eventually led Nigeria into its greatest challenge and bloodiest tragedy.
Gowon had been brought to power in the bloodiest coup in Nigerian history during which scores of fellow military officers, most of them Igbo, were killed. Earlier during the riot of May 1966, thousands of Easterners, mostly Igbos, were killed in many Northern cities, especially Kaduna, Kano, and Jos. The coming of Gowon to power did not stop the systematic killings that went on in almost all parts of the North. Even trains were waylaid and their passengers brought down and killed. Such was the horror that attended Gowon’s early days in power.
Colonel Emeka Ojukwu, son of millionaire Lagos-transporter, Sir Louis, decided to grow a beard in defiance of military regulation in order to mourn the dead. He had been appointed military governor of the East by Ironsi in January 1966. By the end of that year, his main assignment was to receive the thousands of refugees who were pouring into the East daily, most of them with tales of horror.
Gowon believed that the East had a right to be aggrieved and he wanted to be conciliatory. A decision was taken that soldiers should return to three regions of origin, a decision that galvanized all surviving officers of Eastern Nigerian origin. Top Federal Civil Servant met Gowon and told him that it was a wrong decision. In retrospect, General Adebayo also thought so. But the barracks were no longer safe for Igbo officers in any part of Nigeria; not even in Ibadan or Lagos were many of them were killed. Therefore, at the 1967 Aburi Summit in Ghana, everyone was thinking of how to avert a Civil War. Ojukwu, at that time, had already set his gaze on the Independent Republic of Biafra.
The most senior military officer then, Admiral Akinwale Wey, wanted Gowon to listen more to the senior civil servants. The permanent secretaries had presented a paper to Gowon, advising that all the four military governors should be replaced and new regions be created. In the end, at the Benin meeting of the Supreme Military, it was agreed to split Nigeria into 12 states. Ojukwu boycotted the Summit but he was still retained as the Governor of the new East Central State. Another Governor appointed by Ironsi, Colonel David Ejoor, was to retain his position as the Governor of the Mid-West. Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina, the Governor of the North, was to leave immediately and move to Defence Headquarters in Lagos. Adebayo retained his position as the Governor of the West.
Ojukwu rejected the outcome of the Benin meeting of the Supreme Military Council. Few days later, he declared the Republic of Biafra. General Adebayo believed that the country was not in a position to fight a Civil War in 1967. There were just about 15,000 soldiers and about 30,000 Federal policemen and women. But the war came and more than one million lives lost and our country changed forever.
Many years later, I had met Ojukwu several times in Lagos and he insisted that he had no regret about the war.
“The Biafran War was a just struggle for justice,” he said again and again. “Anyone who loves justice and is ready to fight for it is a Biafran.”
Ojukwu, who died in 2011, did not publish his memoir of the war contrary to his repeated promise. It is believedd that Bianca, his widow and some of his bosom friends, may be privy to that manuscript if it exists at all. Gowon too is yet to publish his own version. Among the six GOCs on the Federal Side, only Obasanjo has written his memoir of the war. There have been other books on the war from participants, but we still need to hear from Gowon and the memoir of Ojukwu needs to be published if it exist.
In 1994, I and my friend, Dele Omotunde, had met with the Great Zik, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe at his Onuiyi Haven in Nzukka. His Zik’s Library, which contained one of the rarest collections of books and manuscripts in Africa had been destroyed during the war. Victorious Federal troops have used those big books in the library to make a fire to prepare their dinner or make suya. Fifty years after the war, are we still not burning our most precious libraries now?
General Yakubu Danjuma, one of the principal players in the coup that brought Gowon to power, once warned that “no country can survive two civil wars.” We have to learn from the sacrifice of those who perish in the last Civil War so that there would not be another one. No part of this country must feel deprived enough that it would have no other option than a resort to arms.
One way to start is to examine the current Nigerian Constitution which proclaims on its opening page: “We the People!”
We all know this is not true. The last Peoples Constitution in Nigeria was the Independent Constitution of 1960. Nigeria certainly needs a proper people’s Constitution that would be adopted in the end by a General Referendum. No country can survive until eternity living on a lie.