By Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
The coup of January 15, 1966 caught me by surprise. The first thing that hit me was-here am I in the northernmost part of Nigeria surrounded completely by troops and I have not even tried to find out their allegiance. The telegram they informed me about the coup came to me at the parade ground.
The first thing was to try to get some sense from Lagos for about 14 hours I called numbers, but people were telling me nothing. I did not realize the suspicion everybody had in everybody. I suppose it was my persistence that got Ironsi [the late Supreme Commander of former Nigeria] to speak to me. He told me what actually happened. He said that the Cabinet [the disturbed civilian federal government] was meeting.
The federal government later handed over power to the army to stabilize the situation. I found this extremely confusing. Nobody knew where any other person in the Army was.
After Ironsi’s first broadcast, I immediately spoke, I was the most senior officer in Northern Nigeria, to the North. Somebody else spoke to the West. Ejoor spoke to the East. The announcements had a snowball effect. They helped in restoring confidence and a sense of direction in the army. The country also became clear about the change.
After that announcement I got on to Nzeogwu [one of the leaders of the coup], then in Kaduna, and said, “ You are now famous. You should now demonstrate to the world that you have no personal motive in the coup. Now that the G.O.C has called, all you have to do is to get back into line.” Before then there had been friction between Nzeogwu and myself because I maintained my independence…. The announcement affected him [Nzeogwu].
This is how I got involved in the government. Nzeogwu found it difficult to accept my advice, though he realized it was already a fait accompli. I continued to talk….. I wanted him to fall in line, and quite suddenly he said to me, “If you say so I agree”. I told Ironsi that Nzeogwu had agreed. Later, I was ordered to Lagos and appointed [military governor] for the East, Fajuyi for the West, Ejoor for the Midwest, and Hasan Katsina for the North.
Ironsi tried very hard to unify the country. Personally, I think he went too fast. Or rather, he delayed too long, and when he started he went to fast without explaining.
If the unification of the country had been done within the first week of the coup, perhaps the popular impact and the enthusiasm [generated by the January 15 coup] would have carried it through. Subsequent events, however, clearly indicated that the violent reaction of Northern Nigeria could have been only a delayed action in that the North could never have allowed any form of unity which sought to broaden the Northerners national outlook and turn them into Nigerians. When Ironsi moved, he was quite willing to give a blank degree unifying everything. I resisted that quite a bit.
Assets of the then Eastern region were seized. I maintained that we should get the constitutional proposals first agreed before the assets will put into the common pool. The North did not agree with me.
I got myself more and more involved in the politics of the change – more involved because I think really I was perhaps better equipped than most of the military leaders to handle political issues owing to my background, education, and training in administration before joining the Army.
So I really got quite involved. The Supreme Military Council tried a number of things to inspire confidence and strengthen the unity of the country, but actually there was much to do, and before the whole place could be stabilized the North struck on May 29, 1966.
I still harbored hopes for unity, but I told Ironsi then that this was the last sacrifice the people of former Eastern Nigeria could be expected to make.
In spite of this pogram, I still thought that the army had a chance to keep Nigeria together, and that chance was to try to get everybody looking upon the government as the government. All I asked of the Supreme Military Council was a Commission of Inquiry on the May massacre.
I did not quite realize how far Northern Nigeria was prepared to go. If I knew, perhaps my suggestion would have been different. The council decided on the method of inquiry. But as soon as it was announced, the Northern emirs met and told us that the instructions from Lagos would only be carried out over their dead bodies.
My whole attitude then was to establish once and for all that there was a government. For this reason, we insisted and set August 2, 1966, for the beginning of the inquiry. In doing this, the council [the Supreme Military Council] wanted also to demonstrate that it was going to be fair- a British judge would be the chairman and there would be commissioners from Northern Nigeria. On July 29, 1966, they [the Northerners] struck again. This time they killed Ironsi.
After that, I knew that the end had come. The murder of 3,000 people, by any stretch of imagination, was terrible. 30,000 was the third massacre [September 29, 1966, pogrom], but there was nothing in the past to match the cruelty and sadism of the last massacre.
After the July 29, 1966, mutiny, I tried to get Lagos on the phone. All efforts failed. When eventually I got Lagos, nobody was willing to tell me what was happening. At last I got and spoke to the next most senior officer in Lagos [Brigadier Ogundipe]. I said to Brigadier Ogundipe: “What are you doing? Get the Army together; don’t let it disintegrate”. He said it was very difficult because he could not get the soldiers to obey him. But I told him to chance a risk and shout at them; to get on the air and say something to the country. “
Tell them that you are the next most senior officer, you do not know where the Supreme Commander is, but you are trying to control the situation”. After a long time, he said “OK, I will do it”. When the statement was made over the air, it was a most supine statement. He said something like this: “Perhaps you do not know me, my name is Femi Ogundipe.
I am trying to do my best”, and that was the end! This only added to the confusion. Again I got on the phone to Brigadier Ogundipe, who said, “These people [Northern Nigerian soldiers] want to go [secede]; they say they cannot stop killing people unless we allow them to separate”. I advised that if that would stop the bloodshed, he should let them go. On another occasion after this I tried once again to contact him on the telephone-I waited for nearly half an hour without success-the man had fled.
Now what could I do? Luckily, both coups had not affected the then East. I thought of it, talked to Ejoor and even Katsina, but could not get any sense out of them. So I decided to phone Gowon. I rang him, but Mohammed [Colonel Mohammed] answered. He fetched Gowon, and as we were talking, it was quite clear a number of people [Northern Nigerian officers] were standing with them. Gowon could not answer any point unless he discussed it with the people standing around.
I got this conversation taped. He insisted he was going to announce that his boys would only be satisfied if he took over, and I told him that he could do so, but not the East. “ If you want, as Chief of Staff, and only as Chief of Staff in Lagos, I will cooperate with you to enable you to stabilize the situation so that Ogundipe or whoever is next in seniority to him can assume power. He replied that the other governors had agreed with him to take over. He told me that he was going to make a statement at 7 o’clock. I phoned Ejoor; he was not very coherent, and he said that all this slaughter must stop and that he left me to do what I could to help the situation.
Gowon announced himself the Supreme Commander, and immediately I decided with the few people available that if we once got under him we would not be able to get anything and all our people would be massacred under the legal cover of the assumed legitimacy of his rebellion. But if we stayed out and negotiated we could save our people. So I spoke out immediately that I did not recognize him as the head of the government.
Later, I sent a team to Lagos to the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference. While the team was discussing our Constitution, we endured another massacre on September 29, 1966.
Ever since, I have made suggestions to bring about a solution. But each time a suggestion was made it was rejected and more bitterness was generated.
When we found ourselves at Aburi, Ghana, it was our last chance. Those decisions at Aburi could have saved the situation, but again Gowon was very badly advised. He was very badly advised, though he was carried along by the way we all talked. My last statement to the group was: “ I know what is worrying you. We cannot solve this problem by hitting each other across the face. If we keep the agreements made here, Jack, I would probably ask this body to appoint you the Supreme Commander”.
This you can ask General Ankrah. Gowon left his seat, came over to me, and embraced me. It was then Ankrah that said “All right, let us shake hands”. When we ended the meeting, and came out of the hall, Gowon and Ankrah and I sat in Ankrah’s car and there he took my hand and placed it on Gowon’s hand and said, “Both of you have got 56 million people to look after.
If you keep to these agreements you will achieve peace; if you don’t, then whatever comes is your fault. You have seen the way, it is up to you.
As a gesture of peace, I made a short visit to the Midwest before coming back to the East. I must say this for Gowon: The first three days after our return to Nigeria he did all right. But on the fourth day, he mentioned there was one publication he wanted to publish: Crisis 66. I said, “Why publish it now? If you do so, my people would now want me to answer and the whole problem would begin all over again”.
I suggested, “collect them, keep them, if I misbehave then publish it”.
He agreed. The next day the publication was announced all over the world. I rang him and he explained it as a leak. I spent the whole day discussing with him how to punish the director of the Ministry of Information. That night, tuning the various radio stations, I discovered that the book was formally launched by ambassadors in London, Washington, and Ghana; it was not a leak!
Then the various attempts to implement Aburi failed, the refusal to pay our money came, the economic blockade followed, and finally came the fragmentation of the country.
It was under these circumstances that Biafra was born. When it was born I made a statement and said it was going to be hard time.
I thought possibly that Gowon would try after that to bring us together very quickly. Intelligence reports spoke about the massing of troops by Gowon on Biafra‘s borders. He declared war. There had been an opportunity to strike first, but I knew that no matter what our temporary advantage, eventually with the Nigerian resources they would be able to push us back. So it became very important to me that the world should know that I was not the aggressor. We fought well for six weeks; then we were at par. British help came to Nigeria, and then Russian. Attempts at subversion, and then the journey to the slaughterhouse resumed. This was a journey that started from the Northernmost part of the country and then slowly came to this place. It is not power I wanted. I initially came to this post as a routine military duty.
Looking back at it, I do not think I had a choice. Each time I felt perhaps that I had a choice.
Could I, after the July 29 massacre, say to the people of the East “ I resign, I am going ?”
C. Odumegwu Ojukwu
Interview with Jim Wilde of Time magazine, Umuahia, August 16, 1968.