Biafran Secession: Ojukwu Had No Choice – Mobolaji E. Aluko.

Ojukwu was ambitious. He admitted this fact in an interview held in Umuahia on 4 November 1968. This is no news. The lack of ambition is not a virtue. Suffice it to say that in 1967 the question of ambition is secondary to what had happened to easterners and what was happening to them. To date, there has been no conclusive evidence suggesting that Ojukwu was bent on creating Biafra in order to satisfy some inordinate ambition. Available evidence points otherwise. After the initial phase of the pogroms in the north in July-August 1966, Ojukwu urged eastern survivors to return to the north after conferring with his friend, Ado Bayero (the Emir of Kano). (Ojukwu had just appointed this man the Chancellor of the UNN, as a replacement to Zik.) The easterners who heeded Ojukwu’s call met more massacres. There is no need to revisit the pogroms of 1966 here. It is sufficient to say, a vast majority of easterners were disenchanted with a Nigeria that did not guarantee them freedom of life and property.

An estimated thirty thousand had been murdered in other parts of Nigeria. Their relatives were not happy. Millions had returned empty-handed as refugees from other parts of Nigeria. Easterners’ property had been “abandoned” for looting in other parts of Nigeria. Millions were looking up to Ojukwu to provide the kind of leadership that would lead to the fair resolution of this problem. On 19 October 1966, Gowon imposed a food blockade on Eastern Nigeria. On 31 October, Ojukwu wrote the other military governors inviting them to a meeting either in Port Harcourt or Calabar. The idea was to discuss the problems of course. Meanwhile, he also sent delegates for talks with representatives of other regions. These delegates were talking until the eastern participants felt unsafe to continue, or so they said. But tell me why I should not believe them. On 4 October, Gowon turned down the eastern proposal for confederation. UNN students began to protest chanting that “the push is complete.” In effect, they were reminding Ojukwu of his earlier caveat that the east would not secede unless “pushed out”.

These demonstrations continued all around the region. On new Years’ eve 1967, Ojukwu warned that time was “running out while the ship of state is drifting.” These were the circumstances that foreshadowed Aburi. At Aburi, Ojukwu pressed his case. He did so successfully because he had one, not necessarily, as Kirk-Greene put it, that Ojukwu was “the cleverest” or had “skillful histrionics and superior intellectual adroitness.” Indeed, this characterization of Ojukwu vis a vis the other actors is true. (In fact, Brigadier Adekunle said that it was because Gowon was indolent.) But I cannot see what Ojukwu could have done if he had no case. Ojukwu went to Aburi as the sole representative of a people struggling for survival. He successfully negotiated self-determination for them. On the other hand, Gowon had ascended the highest throne in the land. He was beginning to feel comfortable in that post. The majrity of non-eastern elites were also comfortable. The fleeing easterners had abandoned property, civil and military positions which people from other parts of the country were quick to fill. While his colleagues of the SMC were wishing away the past, Ojukwu was serious consolidating his argument on that past. Ojukwu’s success at Aburi owed more to the logic of immediate circumstances than to his political brinksmanship.

Back in the east, this success shored up Ojukwu’s popularity. Rather than offset this popularity, Gowon’s unilateral repudiation of the agreements fueled it. The crisis deepened because the interests of the two sides were diametrically opposed, in part, arising from the meddling of external interests. As easterners clamoured “On Aburi We Stand,” the rest of the country clamoured for its repudiation. Ojukwu warned in a broadcast that, if by 31 March 1967, the federal side had not implemented Aburi, he would take “whatever measures may be necessary to give effect to those agreements.” Ojukwu started to issue the “Survival Edicts” aimed at countering the federal blockade.

The federal government declared a state of emergency in the Eastern Region and announced the creation of 12 states on 26 May 1967. In response, Ojukwu presented three options for the consideration of the Joint Secession of the Council of Chiefs and Elders. These were: (1) accepting the terms of the North and Gowon and, therefore, submitting to the domination of the North; (2) continuing the stalemate and to drift; and (3) to ensure the survival of the people of Eastern Nigeria by asserting their autonomy. It is now history that the assemblymen and chiefs chose the third option. On 30 May 1967, Ojukwu proclaimed the independent state of Biafra. If one accepts the ambition thesis, then the Joint Session had given legitimacy to Ojukwu’s inordinate desires.

But one cannot successfully condemn Ojukwu’s action in presenting these options without suggesting [viable] alternatives that Ojukwu may have left out in his submission to the Joint Session. Could Ojukwu have postponed secession? In view of the federal government measures, such a postponement would have been unwarranted. For instance, the creation of states was unilateral and designed to undermine the geographical basis of Eastern Nigeria. Apart, from secession, the only option left to Ojukwu was to step down. This would have been dishonorable at a time when Easterners’ grievances had not been addressed. In these circumstances, the real option open to Ojukwu was resignation. But this was dishonourable. People who never wished the easterners to live may continue to vent their frustration on Ojukwu for fulfilling a responsibility. This is how Nigerians come across when they scapegoat Ojukwu for leading their war of survival. No one can in good faith single Ojukwu out as a “former rebel,” except if we accept that such a person is a crass ignoramus. One does not have to be Igbo or easterner, or their friends to see this fact.

The unpreparedness of Biafra to withstand the rigours of independence at that time was widely known, even by Ojukwu himself. He took time to warn the Joint Session of the grave consequences of secession. (Don’t mind that he would tell the world a few days later that no power in “Black Africa” could beat Biafra in war.) Most people in Eastern Nigeria realized that it was better to try and die fighting than just wait to be annihilated. The dangers were real. They were not merely “perceived”, as i read often on Naijanet.

Ojukwu realized that the people were not looking for a wimp. A good number of capable officers could have filled the void, had Ojukwu created one. Some of these were the surviving executioners of the January 1966 coup such as Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Tim Onwuatuegwu and Ben Gbulie. There were also their Yoruba counterparts who had taken refuge in the east. These were Major Ademoyega, Col. Banjo, Lt. Olafemihon and Lt. Oyewole. All these January officers had no jobs or commands in the army parlance. (To give them commands to Nzeogwu & co. would be to give them power. Their remaining idle was not good as well.) I am sure that the saying, which my elementary school teacher later thought me, “an idle man is a devil’s workshop,” was already in vogue at the time. The January officers played cards and chequers. Nobody, including Ojukwu, was at ease with these men’s presence. They had done it before and could well do it again. Actually, Major General Alex Madiebo, who later became the Biafran Army Commander, grumbles in his book that Ojukwu gave these men a lot of amenities in order to placate them. Proper attention has not been given to the implications the presence of these men may have had on the declaration of Biafra.

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