By Afam Nkemdiche
The present much-ado about the so-called renewed movement to actualise the state of Biafra would be utterly unnecessary, if it is recalled that Biafra was not an original concept, but rather it was the Ndigbo’s collective reaction to an effective threat to their survival within the Nigerian state, following the January 1966 coup d’état.
Objective historians would readily agree that the January 1966 coup d’état was provoked by the extreme undemocratic excesses of the then ruling Northern People’s Congress (NPC), and therefore justified in large part; pity the lives of Nigerians were needlessly lost thereof. Tragically too, an avalanche of truths and fabrications have beclouded the essentials of that first military intervention in Nigeria’s democratic journey.
Apparently, the build-up to the January 1966 event started on the heels of the 1962 NPC supervised controversial national census. All the opposition parties rejected the results in unison, necessitating a recount in 1963, which was just as controversial; the three other regions, (Western, Eastern, and Mid-Western) implacably joined issue with the Northern region on the matter.
The stability of the nation stood in the balance while the controversy lingered. The NPC Federal Government, rightly or wrongly, decided that some leading opposition politicians, prodded by the highly cerebral leader of the Action Group party (AG) Chief Obafemi Awolowo of the Western Region, were exploiting the 1962 census disagreement to destabilise Nigeria, and threatened to clamp down on the opposition. Not long after, the Federal Government curiously set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the stewardship of Chief Awolowo as premier of the western region from 1954 to 1959: The Justice Coker Commission of Inquiry of 1962.
Before the Commission wound up its sittings, the AG leader and some of his close political associates were charged with planning a coup d’état against the Federal Republic of Nigeria. They were soon convicted and sentenced to varying jail-terms. Chief Awolowo was sentenced to 10 years in prison, thus effectively barred from contesting the forthcoming general elections scheduled for the following year, 1964.
The jailed ex-premier’s unequalled successes in the Western Region had stood him in good stead for the 1964 elections. Gross irregularities of that election rendered it “wholly unsatisfactory,” to borrow the phrase of the inimitable President Nnamdi Azikiwe. Notwithstanding, the NPC proceeded to form a Federal Government in 1964 and blatantly aided and abetted its alliance partner, the Chief Ladoke Akintola-led Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) in massively rigging the Western Region elections of 1965, amidst virtual breakdown of law and order. The situation in the region was aptly described as “wild, wild west.”
It was under the aforesaid highly fragile national scenario that in August 1965, according to Kirk Greene’s “Crisis and Conflict in Nigeria,” a small group of young army officers, dissatisfied with political developments within the Federation began to plot, in collaboration with some civilians, the overthrow of what was then the Federal Government. The leadership of this group of young officers is generally believed to comprise five Majors, but in fact four Majors, and a Captain, namely: Major Ifeajuna; Major Nzeogwu; Major Okafor; Major Ademoyega; and Captain Nwobosi; (three easterners, one westerner, and one mid-westerner).
From written accounts by some key participants in that coup d’état, the principal objectives of the January 1966 military intervention in Nigeria’s nascent democracy could be summed up thus: to remove from office the leading politicians and high-ranking military men who were threatening national stability; release Chief Obafemi Awolowo from prison; and install him as the legitimate winner of the 1964 prime ministerial election. The NPC leader and premier of the northern region, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello; the Western Region Premier, Chief Ladoke Akintola; the Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh; and few top army officers were consumed by the first hail of bullets in the January 1966 coup d’état. Soft-spoken Prime Minister Alhaji Tafawa Balewa was initially arrested, but belatedly killed when his abductors realised that their adventure had terribly miscarried.
Juxtaposed against the stated principal objectives of the coup plotters, the list of victims could well be said to be purpose-specific rather than tribally biased. Reported immediate responses to the coup d’état attested to this. In the northern region where the coup plotters met with little or no challenge, the masses were reported to have cheered the army and jeered the politicians and their business associates. In the Western Region, particularly in Lagos where the coup had miscarried, the general atmosphere was thick with anxiety. Nothing out of the ordinary was reported in both the eastern and mid-western regions as the premiers thereof were apparently not among the primary targets of the coup plotters.
Major-General Ironsi eventually assumed headship of Nigeria. But the general was so lacking in political sagacity that he tragically failed to discharge the first and most important duty of his office as Head of State: promptly release the jailed Action Group leader and his associates. Rather the new Head of State toured the country, preaching “unification of the country” through such untraditional ideas as rotary traditional leadership, etc; his preachings were capped with controversial decrees. And, most ill-advisedly, the general set up panels to probe the finances of the two “milk cows” of the northern region: Northern Nigeria Development Board and Northern Nigeria Marketing Board. As in the other regions, these Boards had been significant in creating and sustaining northern Nigeria’s first crop of rich and powerful class.
The Ndigbo were sniffed out and butchered across the northern region, thus entered the pogrom. It reached the military barracks where few simple-minded officers ordered their men to join in the butchering; it was thus soon carried to the western region and Lagos in quick succession. Soon after, self-same army officers started to thirst for the blood of their Commander-in-Chief; they eventually caught up with him in the capital city of Ibadan. The towering C-in-C and his host, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, a quintessential officer and a gentleman, were butchered in cold blood in July 1966.
It was precisely under those harrowing circumstances that the then Governor of the Eastern Region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, declared the region a Republic of Biafra. Biafra was purely a child of necessity, devoid of profound underlying philosophy beyond the animal instinct to survive; it, therefore, had to necessarily wither with the elimination of the compelling circumstances, which it did at the end of the Civil War in January 1970.
Results of the 2015 presidential election in the five Ndigbo states once again demonstrated that the Ndigbo electoral capacity is grossly underutilised, (voters turnout in relation to register was barely 40% in each state!) This is tantamount to self-marginalisation. Pause to ponder it for a moment; this whole talk of marginalisation of the Ndigbo may after all be largely self-inflicted.
Therefore, rather than expend energy, time, space and money agitating for a long expired idea, the Ndigbo should reflect deeply, and strategise on how to fully resume its pre-January 1966 glorious position in the Nigerian State.
- This Best Outside Opinion was written by Afam Nkemdiche/Guardian is an engineering consultant based in Abuja.