One thing we must not deny ourselves is the right to know the history of our nation. History is such an important subject that only idiots or clowns will not appreciate its significance.
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. Our compatriots, especially those residing in foreign nations, do us a great disservice by wanting to manifest the so-called prediction of those who have never wished our race well for their own very selfish reasons.
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 per cent 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 but the North got its way with support from those of the Eastern Region. That co-operation between the North and the East more or less heralded an opportunistic alliance of their main political parties beyond independence in 1960.
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. The coup itself could not be described as successful, hijacked as it was by senior officers who were hardly party to it. The subsequent leadership of Maj. Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, did not help matters with his Decree No 34 of May 25, 1966 which transformed federal Nigeria into a unitary state.
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 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. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of the Eastern Region, 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. 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!
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.