January is a key month in Nigeria’s history. This January marks the 41st anniversary of the end of the Nigerian civil war, and the 44th anniversary of the Aburi accords – the debate in Aburi in Ghana which nearly pre-empted the war. The pivotal figure in both events is Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Ojukwu is a man that evokes conflicting emotions. To some he is a born leader and a hero. To others he is an ambitious man that tried to break up his country. Where Ojukwu is concerned, no one is a neutral. The conflicting opinions on him are emblematic of his inconsistent personality and history. Ojukwu is an educated man that entered a profession that many Nigerians regarded at the time as a profession for the uneducated. He is a southerner born in the north who fought a three year long war against the north. He is a man who once led an attempt to secede from Nigeria, but later ran for President of Nigeria.
A leader must be judged by what benefits or misfortune he has brought to his people. Has Ojukwu brought anything positive to his people? His record is grim. The “accomplishments” Ojukwu has brought his people include:
• Leading them in a brutal civil war they had no chance of winning, and which resulted in a million of them dying.
• Even when it became clear that his people were starving to death in massive numbers, he continued the war which was doomed from the start.
• He fled and left his people after the war.
• The civil war caused his people to be stereotyped as disloyal and led to an unwritten discrimination against them.
Yet he is still revered. Ojukwu’s first official involvement in politics came after a group of young army Majors overthrew the democratic government in January 1966. Contrary to what has been written in some quarters, Ojukwu refused to cooperate with the Majors – including Major Nzeogwu. Ojukwu was appointed the Military Governor of the Eastern Region after the coup. This appointment was ironic as he had spent very little of his life in the east. Ojukwu was the most politically active of the four military governors. By mid-1966 the army was imploding and another army coup was staged by northern soldiers during which hundreds of Igbo soldiers (including Ironsi) were killed. A central plank of this coup was the elimination of Ojukwu. The ‘pointman’ who was to execute the coup in the eastern region was a young Lieutenant named Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (the older brother of Nigeria’s former President).
After being dragged to the brink of an abyss by two military coups in 1966, and pogroms which followed them, Ojukwu had refused to attend any meetings of the Supreme Military Council until the Ghanaian leader Lt-General Joseph Ankrah brokered a meeting in the neutral territory of Aburi in Ghana in January 1967. This was Ojukwu’s finest hour. Ojukwu prepared thoroughly and came armed with notes and secretaries. He managed to secure an agreement to devolve power from the federal government to the regions. This turned Nigeria into a confederation. In the words of one writer Ojukwu “secured the signatures of the SMC to documents which would have had the effect of turning Nigeria into little more than a customs union”.
The federal government attempted to implement the Aburi agreement in diluted form by enacting a modified Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree (Decree which turned Nigeria into a de facto confederation, but which did not incorporate ALL of the agreements reached at Aburi. Federal civil servants argued that to implement all of the Aburi agreements would lead to the dissolution of the federation. Ojukwu declined to accept the initial draft of the Decree and insisted on a full and complete implementation of the Aburi accords.
As the weaker party, could Ojukwu still have showed greater pragmatism to spare further suffering for his people? Even with its flaws, Decree 8 gave him 90% of what he wanted. The U.S. State Department was “impressed by extent to which Decree 8 appears to meet many of East’s fundamental demands for much greater regional autonomy. While recognizing that it stops short of granting everything Ojukwu wants, Dept. considers Decree represents genuine effort by FMG and other Mil Govs to implement Aburi agreements and to retain Nigerian unity in form which least objectionable to East…..Consulate Enugu has reported that some prominent and moderate Easterners may incline toward above view”.
WINNER TAKES ALL – NIGERIA’S MALAISE
In the “winner takes all” mentality that is so symptomatic of Nigerian politics, Ojukwu unrealistically held out for 100% of his demands and in the end, received 0%. His refusal to be tactically flexible by considering options other than secession, placed him and his people in a worse position than they started in. Rather than turning Nigeria into a confederation (which is what Decree 8 did), Ojukwu’s give no inch stance gave the federal government an opportunity to overrun the Eastern Region, carve the country into several states and concentrate massive powers in the central government. Forty years later many Nigerians now call for the restructuring of Nigeria, and for devolution of power to its regions. The opportunity to achieve this was squandered 45 years ago at Aburi.
Could Ojukwu have achieved his objectives – albeit at a later date, had he been more patient? The old adage is that “the best comes to those who wait”. Could he have accepted confederation in the short-term, then waited patiently until such time that the Eastern Region had enough weapons and infrastructure to sustain a fully independent state in the future?
WAS SECESSION A MISTAKE?
When armed confrontation with the federal government was imminent, Ojukwu knew that the Eastern Region had absolutely no chance of victory in an armed conflict with the federal government. Where did he obtain the confidence to secede nonetheless? It certainly was not from international opinion. Western diplomats warned him that they would not recognize a new state of Biafra. In a telegram from the US Department of State to the US Embassy in Nigeria dated March 24, 1967, the U.S. warned:
“East making serious mistake if it under assumption that international recognition of independent East would be easily obtained; our info clearly to contrary”. This was the consistent US position as far back as July/August 1966. The US had previously noted that “Both US Ambassador Mathews and UKHICOM Cumming-Bruce have made strong representations in opposition to secession of any area of Nigeria. We consider such development would be major political and economic disaster for Nigerian people and severe setback to independent Africa.”
Yet he declared secession, knowing full well that powerful countries would not recognize his new state, and that federal troops would invade immediately after secession. Ojukwu doubtless possessed outstanding leadership and motivational skills which he used admirably to pull his people solidly behind the war effort. However, exactly how did he possibly believe that the Eastern Region (armed only with a few elderly World War 2 era rifles) could succeed against an enemy armed with limitless mortars, machine guns, tanks, armoured personnel carriers, trucks and air force jets. One does not have to be a military strategist to see the folly of this decision.
THE MID-WEST INVASION – A MISTAKE?
Under considerable military pressure from the federal army, in 1967 Ojukwu ordered Biafran soldiers to invade the Mid-West Region as a way to relieve military pressure on Biafra’s land, and to force the federal army onto the defensive. The invasion caught the federal government totally off guard and threatened a stunning military humiliation for it.
However, did the invasion of the Mid-West turn into a public relations disaster? The Military Governor of the Mid-West Lt-Colonel Ejoor had repeatedly stated that due to the multi-ethnic composition of his region, the “Mid-West will not be a battleground”. Ejoor had even refused to let federal troops cross through his territory. Hence it was regarded as neutral demilitarised territory. However the invasion forced Ejoor off the fence he had been sitting on. He fled to Lagos, now firmly opposed to Biafra. Ojukwu had alienated a potential figure of friendly neutrality. The Mid-West was neutral until that invasion and may not have joined the war but for it.
Additionally, the invasion gave the rest of Nigeria the mistaken impression that Biafra’s cause was not only about survival, but also about territorial conquest. It escalated the conflict and gave the federal army a free hand to start using heavy weapons, artillery and punishing air raids. Lt-Col Murtala Muhammed’s 2nd division of the Nigerian army carried out massive reprisals against Igbos and murdered several hundred as punishment.
FLIGHT TO IVORY COAST
During the war, there was a widely held belief (propagated by Ojukwu and other Biafran leaders) that defeat for Biafra would be met by mass genocidal massacres by the federal government. If Ojukwu believed this, then his escape at the end of the war is deplorable. After over a million Igbos were killed (90% of whom were civilians), Ojukwu fled in the last days of the war when his people were at their lowest ebb, despite repeatedly promising throughout the war that he would never leave them to the mercy of the federal troops. If he believed that all his people would be massacred, then his flight to a exile abroad and refusal to stand side by side with them to finish a war he led them into, cannot be applauded.
Ojukwu was and remains an iconic leader for his people. However, did his decisions cause them more harm than good? Was Ojukwu a hero or a disastrous strategist?