Read There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra Online

Authors: Chinua Achebe

Tags: #General, #History, #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Africa

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (9 page)

Countercoup and Assassination

Throughout this time there was a sense of great unease and tension across the country,
and multiple rumors of military insurrection in the offing. Prior to Major-General
Aguiyui-Ironsi’s ascension in May 1966, there were reports of riots in Northern Nigeria.
There are many reports of the genesis of these spontaneous riots.
Marauding Northern youths armed with machetes, knives, and other instruments of death
attacked unsuspecting civilians, mostly Igbos. The mainly Igbo and other Easterners
who fled to the Eastern Region from the North during the May riots were persuaded
to return to their livelihoods in the North by Aguiyi-Ironsi, the head of state, and
Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of Eastern Nigeria. These calls were predicated
upon assurances from the Northern Region’s governor, Hassan Katsina, that no harm
would befall them.

By June several meetings had taken place among the Northern Nigerian ruling elite.
They sent representatives to meet with now general Ironsi, handing him a list of their
demands that included the revocation of the unpopular Decree 34; the courts-martial
and punishment of the leaders of the January 15, 1966, coup; and the discontinuation
of any plans to investigate the underpinnings of the May 1966 massacres in the North.

Ironsi was alarmed that Northern leaders had been meeting without his knowledge for
several months, and he sensed a great deal of anger bubbling beneath the surface.
He made the ill-advised determination that, as Nigeria’s head of state, he could appease
and soothe concerns if he met with the leaders of the regions.
Ironsi embarked on a nationwide tour to calm growing fears of a permanently fractured
nation and to promote his notion of a unitary republic. He stopped over in Ibadan
as the guest of the military governor of Western Nigeria, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle
Fajuyi. A close friend and confidant, Fajuyi made Ironsi aware of rumors of a pending
mutiny in the army.

There are several accounts of what transpired next. What I was told by those close
to the army was that on July 29, 1966, Ironsi was arrested by Nigerian army captain
Theophilus Y. Danjuma, a Northerner, who wanted to know if Ironsi was linked to the
death of the Sardauna of Sokoto. There are divergent accounts of what happened next.
What is well known is that in a matter of hours the bullet-ridden bodies of Ironsi
and Fajuyi were discovered in the bush.
These executions would prove to be part of a larger and particularly bloody coup
by Northern officers led by Murtala Muhammed.

The Pogroms

Looking back, the naively idealistic coup of January 15, 1966, proved a terrible disaster.
It was interpreted with plausibility as a plot by the ambitious Igbo of the East to
take control of Nigeria from the Hausa/Fulani North. Six months later, I watched horrified
as Northern officers carried out a revenge coup in which they killed Igbo officers
and men in large numbers. If it had ended there, the matter might have been seen as
a very tragic interlude in nation building, a horrendous tit for tat. But the Northerners
turned on Igbo civilians living in the North and unleashed waves of brutal massacres
that Colin Legum of
The Observer
(UK) was the first to describe as a pogrom. Thirty thousand civilian men, women,
and children were slaughtered, hundreds of thousands were wounded, maimed, and violated,
their homes and property looted and burned—and no one asked any questions. A Sierra
Leonean living in Northern Nigeria at the time wrote home in horror: “The killing
of the Igbos has become a state industry in Nigeria.”

What terrified me about the massacres in Nigeria was this: If it was only a question
of rioting in the streets and so on, that would be bad enough, but it could be explained.
It happens everywhere in the world. But in this particular case a detailed plan for
mass killing was implemented by the government—the army, the police—the very people
who were there to protect life and property. Not a single person has been punished
for these crimes. It was not just human nature, a case of somebody hating his neighbor
and chopping off his head. It was something far more devastating, because it was a
premeditated plan that involved careful coordination, awaiting only the right spark.

Throughout the country at this time, but particularly in Igbo intellectual circles,
there was much discussion of the difficulties of coexisting in a nation with such
disparate peoples and religious and cultural backgrounds. As early as October 1966,
some were calling for outright war.
Most of us, however, were still hoping for a peaceful solution. Many talked of a
confederation, though few knew how it would look.

In the meantime, the Eastern Region was tackling the herculean task of resettling
the refugees who were pouring into the East in the hundreds of thousands. It was said
at the time that the number of displaced Nigerian citizens fleeing from other parts
of the nation back to Eastern Nigeria was close to a million.


The old man’s bed

of straw caught a flame blown

from overnight logs by harmattan’s

incendiary breath. Defying his age and

sickness he rose and steered himself

smoke-blind to safety.

A nimble rat appeared at the

door of his hole looked quickly to left and

right and scurried across the floor

to nearby farmlands.

Even roaches that grim

tenantry that nothing discourages

fled their crevices that day on wings they

only use in deadly haste.

Household gods alone

frozen in ritual black with blood

of endless tribute festooned in feathers

perished in the blazing pyre

of that hut.

The Aburi Accord

The absence of a concerted plan to address the eruption of violence throughout Nigeria
against Easterners, mainly Igbos, and the inaction around the refugee problem amplified
the anger and tensions between the federal government, now led by Lieutenant Colonel
Yakubu Gowon, and the Eastern Region. Calls in the East for independence grew louder,
and threats from the deferral government grew more ominous, in a vicious cycle.

A last-ditch summit was held from January 4 to January 5, 1967, to discuss the areas
of conflict. Great optimism was expressed that this would be the instrument to bring
lasting peace to Nigeria. Aburi, in Ghana, was chosen as the venue, as a concession
to Ojukwu, who had asked for a neutral site outside Nigeria for this meeting, but
also to impart a sense of impartiality and credibility to the summit. A document memorializing
the areas of shared understanding was produced after two days of meetings. It would
be known as the Aburi Accord.

The gathering was attended by senior military and police officials
and government secretaries.
Topics for discussion included: a committee to work out a constitutional future for
Nigeria; the back payment of salaries to Igbo government employees who were forced
to leave their posts as a result of the disturbances; the need for a resolution renouncing
the use of force; and the refusal of the Eastern Region to recognize Lieutenant Colonel
Yakubu Gowon as supreme commander. The predicament of displaced persons following
the pogroms in the North, the fate of soldiers involved in disturbances on January
15, 1966, and the planned distribution of power between the federal military government
and the regional governments also required urgent attention.

The goal of the Gowon-led Nigerian government was to emerge from these deliberations
with Nigeria intact as a confederation of the regions. Many intellectuals and key
members of Ojukwu’s cabinet in the East had been battling with solutions to these
issues for months before the Aburi meetings, thinking through various possible answers
to these key questions: What is a confederation? How would it work in the Nigerian
setting? How much power would be delegated to the central federal government as opposed
to the regions? In my estimation there was not as much rigorous thought given by Gowon’s
federal cabinet and the powerful interests in the North. The two parties therefore
left Aburi with very different levels of understanding of what a confederation meant
and how it would work in Nigeria.

By March 1967, two months after the summit in Aburi, Ghana, the Aburi Accord resolutions
had yet to be implemented, and there was growing weariness in the East that Gowon
had no intention of doing so. The government of the Eastern Region warned Gowon that
his repeated failure to act on issues pertaining to Nigerian sovereignty could lead
to secession.

Gowon responded by issuing a decree, Decree 8, which called for the resurrection of
the proposals for constitutional reform promulgated during the Aburi conference. But
for reasons hard to explain other than as egotistical self-preservation, members of
the federal civil service galvanized themselves in energetic opposition to the agreements
of the Aburi Accord. Seeing this development as a strategic political opening, the
Yoruba leader, Obafemi Awolowo, the West’s political kingpin, heretofore nursing political
trouble himself, including prior imprisonment for sedition, insisted that the federal
government remove all Northern military troops garrisoned in Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta,
and throughout the Western Region—a demand similar to those Ojukwu had made earlier,
during the crisis.

Awolowo warned Gowon’s federal government that if the Eastern Region left the federation
the Western Region would not be far behind. This statement was considered sufficiently
threatening by Gowon and the federal government to merit a complete troop withdrawal.

There were increasing indications that Northern leaders never had any intention of
implementing the settlement negotiated at Aburi. Ojukwu at this point was exasperated
by what he saw as purposeful inaction from Gowon. During March through April 1967
he responded by instituting a systematic process that severed all Biafran ties to
Nigeria: First he froze all official communication with Lagos, and he then followed
this swiftly by disconnecting the “Eastern regional government’s administration and
revenues from those of the federal government.”

I was in Lagos at the time. This event was so big that I cannot even in retrospect
fully explain exactly what was happening. People were confused. I was confused myself.
People who are confused in such a situation generally act with great desperation,
emotion—some would say without logic.

The movement toward a declaration of independence was very clear and sharp, because
it was a result of a particular group of Nigerian citizens from the Eastern Region
attempting to protect themselves from the great violence that had been organized and
executed by arms of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. There was a
strong sense that Nigeria was no longer habitable for the Igbo and many other peoples
from Eastern Nigeria.

That epiphany made us realize that Nigeria “did not belong we,” as Liberians would
put it. “This country belong we” was the popular pidgin English mantra from their
liberation struggle. That was not the case for Igbo people and many others from Eastern
Nigeria. Nigeria did not belong to us. It was now clear to many of us that we, the
Nigerian people, were not what we had thought we were. The Nigeria that meant so much
to all of us was not reciprocating the affection we had for it. The country had not
embraced us, the Igbo people and other Easterners, as full-fledged members of the
Nigerian family. That was the predicament that the Igbo and many peoples from Eastern
Nigeria found themselves in, and one that informed Ojukwu’s decisions, I believe,
on the eve of civil war.

The first part of May 1967 saw the visit of the National Reconciliation Commission
(NRC) to Enugu, the capital of the Eastern Region. It was led by Chief Awolowo and
billed as a last-minute effort at peace and as an attempt to encourage Ojukwu and
Eastern leaders to attend peace talks at a venue suitable to the Easterners. Despite
providing a friendly reception, many Igbo leaders referred to the visit disdainfully
as the “chop, chop, talk, talk, commission.” A majority of Easterners by this time
had grown contemptuous of Gowon’s federal government for its failure to bring the
culprits of the mass murders in the North to justice, and they saw this as the latest
in a series of insincere overtures. Senior Igbo military officers were also openly
voicing their concern that Gowon was an illegitimate leader, because he was not the
most senior officer in the chain of military command, and so had no right to be head
of state.

There were a number of distinguished and well-meaning Nigerians on the National Reconciliation
Commission, but they were meeting with leaders of an emotionally and psychologically
exhausted and disillusioned Igbo people. Many of these same Igbo leaders had been
at the vanguard of independence struggles, and after years of spearheading the “one
Nigeria” mantra, had very little to show for it. Clearly the situation had become

On May 24, 1967, in the midst of this chaos, my wife went into labor. I sent my close
friend, the poet Christopher Okigbo, to the hospital she had been admitted to to find
out when the birth would take place, and then to call me at home, where I had briefly
returned to rest and take a shower. In characteristic Okigbo fashion, he waited for
the delivery, went to the nursery to see the baby, and then drove back to convey the
news to me that my wife had delivered our third child, Chidi—“There is a God”—and
that the way his baby locks were arranged, he looked like he had had a haircut and
was ready to go to school! The baby’s arrival was a great joy, but I couldn’t but
feel a certain amount of apprehension for this infant, indeed for all of us, as the
prospect of civil war cast a dark shadow over our lives.

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