While answering questions from newsmen on Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country, General Yakubu Gowon said he was proud of what his administration did during the war and was ready to be tried for war crimes. "I am prepared to face the International Criminal Court of Justice at the Hague for prosecution over roles played by me while the 13-month civil war lasted,” the former Head of State said.

Act One Scene One:

The World Court is in session at The Hague. Room 209: Presiding Judge is Mr. Frank Willard. Prosecuting attorney is Mr. Akpamgbo. Defense attorney is Mr. Harcourt. And the defendant is General Yakubu Gowon.
Akpamgbo: Good afternoon. Could you please state your name for this court?

Gowon: General Yakubu “Jack” Dan-Yumma Gowon.

Akpamgbo: Were you the leader of Nigeria during the Nigeria-Biafra war?

Gowon: Yes, Sir.

Akpamgbo: State briefly your function as Head of State.

Gowon: My solemn duty was to keep Nigeria one. It was a task that had to be done. And I did it.

Akpamgbo: Beside that, what other responsibilities did you have?

Gowon: To get that knucklehead of a man called Emeka Ojukwu and show him pepper.

Akpamgbo: You were the chief security officer of the country, right?

Gowon: I was?

Akpamgbo: Like the man in charge of providing security to all of your people, correct?

Gowon: I guess so.

Akpamgbo: A “guess” is not good enough for this court. The security of the citizens of that country was entrusted onto you, right?

Gowon: Yes, except for the people in Biafra. They were not under my tent.

Akpamgbo: But you still considered them Nigerians?

Gowon: Yes and no.

Akpamgbo: What do you mean?

Gowon: The civilians, yes. The rebel soldiers, no.

Akpamgbo: Before we get to the events of the war itself, General, please remind this court why you could not provide security for the people of Eastern

Nigeria that led to the second wave of the pogrom in September of 1966?

Gowon: It was a fluid situation.

Akpamgbo: Meaning?

Gowon: People were mad at them all over the country.

Akpamgbo: Do you know why?

Gowon: Because they killed the political leaders of the North and West and left their own leaders.

Akpamgbo: Who killed the leaders?

Gowon: Igbo people.

Akpamgbo: Igbo people had a meeting and decided to kill political leaders of the North and the West?

Gowon: No. It was more complicated than that.

Akpamgbo: So make it simple so that an elementary school kid can understand it.

Gowon: There was a coup plotted mainly by Igbo soldiers and the coup plotters killed…

Akpamgbo: (Interrupting) So Igbo people did not plan a coup?

Gowon: Not exactly. No, they did not. Igbo soldiers did.

Akpamgbo: So, again, why were people mad at them all over the country?

Gowon: Because they left their part of the country and went to other parts of the country to live.

Akpamgbo: What was wrong with that?

Gowon: They did not live quietly. They did not behave like strangers in their host communities. They were dominating everything and making noise about it.

Akpamgbo: Oh.

Gowon: And they thought and still think they are better than others, arrogantly assigning themselves the title of the chosen ones.

Akpamgbo: Why do they feel that way?

Gowon: You should ask them.

Akpamgbo: You’re the one saying so, therefore I’m asking you.

Gowon: They think they are Jews but they are not Jews.

Akpamgbo: They belong to the proto-Bantu language group, a branch of the Niger-Congo language family…

Attorney Harcourt: Objection!

Gowon: Let me answer him. I know they are not Jews because they did not kill Jesus.

Akpamgbo: But it is okay for them to suffer pogrom like those who killed Jesus?

Judge: Counsel, where is this line of questioning leading us?

Akpamgbo: I will get there, Your Honor.

Judge: The sooner the better.

Akpamgbo: So General, please tell this court, before the British came and amalgamated Nigeria, were these people of Eastern Nigeria migrating to other parts of the country to dominate and make noise about it?

Gowon: No.

Akpamgbo: So this behavior from them had something to do with the coming of the British?

Gowon: Yes.

Akpamgbo: Did they stop other people from moving to their part of the country?

Gowon: They won’t sell land to other people.

Akpamgbo: Was it because people in Kano, Lagos and Port Harcourt were selling their lands that made these Eastern people to leave their homeland to move to the North, West and South?

Gowon: Not really.

Akpamgbo: What attracted them?

Gowon: I think it was government jobs, employment and business opportunities.

Akpamgbo: Were there not such opportunities in their homeland?

Gowon: I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe not.

Akpamgbo: If the British had made Enugu the first capital of Nigeria, do you think people from all over Nigeria would have descended into Enugu the way they descended on Abuja as soon as the Federal Government moved there?

Gowon: I guess so.

Akpamgbo: You guess?

Gowon: I never looked at it that way.

Akpamgbo: Have you ever tried to buy a piece of land in the East but could not?

Gowon: Why would I want to?

Akpamgbo: Why not?

Gowon: There is no federal government presence there. What will I do with the land?

Akpamgbo: Grow maize, cassava or raise chickens.

Gowon: I am not a farmer. I am a prayer warrior.

Akpamgbo: Then you build a church.

Gowon: We only build churches along Lagos-Ibadan expressway.

Akpamgbo: But you are so sure the people of Eastern Nigeria won’t sell land to you?

Gowon: That’s what everyone says.

Akpamgbo: Everyone also says that they like money. How come they won’t sell land for money?

Gowon: I don’t know. I guess they are so attached to their lands.

Akpamgbo: So attached that they will leave the land to move to other parts of the country?

Gowon: You should ask them.

Akpamgbo: I’m asking you based on what you are saying. Before the war, they were assimilating, speaking the languages of their host communities, building new homes there and abandoning their homeland. They were the quintessential Nigerians. The worry amongst their folks at the homeland was that they were forgetting where they came from. Wasn’t that the purpose of a united country where out of many you become one irrespective of tribe and tongue?

Gowon: I don’t know anymore. Stop asking me these disjointed questions. What have they got to do with why I am here?

Akpamgbo: Do you need time to think about them?

Gowon: No.

Attorney Harcourt: Objection Your Honor.

Judge: Objection sustained. Counsel, I suggest you go straight to the case.

Akpamgbo: Thank you, Your Honor. General, do you understand the charges you face?

Gowon: Yes, Sir.

Akpamgbo: Crime against peace. Violations of the laws and customs of war. And crime against humanity. Two million Igbo children and women died under your watch.

Attorney Harcourt: Objection Your Honor. Counsel is leading my client.

Judge: Objection sustained. Counsel, focus on facts.

Akpamgbo: General, is it a fact that millions of children died due to malnutrition in Biafra?

Gowon: Yes. But I had nothing to do with it.

Akpamgbo: I did not ask you if you had anything to do with it.

Gowon: I just want to put it out there.

Akpamgbo: Since it is already out there, why did they die?

Gowon: I guess because they could not find food to eat.

Akpamgbo: Why was that?

Gowon: I don’t know. I wasn’t supposed to feed them and fight them at the same time.

Akpamgbo: Did Biafrans ask you to feed them?

Gowon: No.

Akpamgbo: So why did you just say that you weren’t supposed to feed them and fight them at the same time?

Gowon: I guess it was part of our war propaganda.

Akpamgbo: Were you at the meeting where a decision to blockade Biafra was made?

Gowon: Yes.

Akpamgbo: As the head of state you had the final say on any decision your government made?

Gowon: Yes.

Akpamgbo: Was it possible that your government could take a decision you did not agree with?

Gowon: No. I was a general. I’m still one.

Akpamgbo: Of course, you are. So there were no people behind the scene controlling you?

Gowon: I was no man’s puppet. Stop going round and round like a fearful antelope. Ask your question.

Akpamgbo: Did your government impose a total blockade of Biafra?

Gowon: Yes.

Akpamgbo: What was air, land and sea blockade of Biafra intended to achieve?

Gowon: To force them to give up their secessionist agenda and return to Nigeria.

Akpamgbo: Did that happen?

Gowon: No.

Akpamgbo: If I remember correctly, when it started, you called the international media and assured the world that what you called ‘police action’ would end in four weeks. Was that right?

Gowon: War is war. Nothing is guaranteed. Once you go that route, the war route, you’ve signed on for – basically, as long as it takes.

Akpamgbo: Did you think about what the blockade might do to women and children in Biafra who had nothing to do with the massacre and political crises that led to the war?

Gowon: It was not my job to think for them. Their leaders who declared war should have thought about that.

Akpamgbo: You said their leaders declared war. Did they?

Gowon: They declared Biafra which meant a declaration of war.

Akpamgbo: So why did you negotiate to allow foreign charities to send food by land corridor?

Gowon: Out of sympathy for their women and children who were suffering.

Akpamgbo: It was not because you were arm-twisted by your foreign backers?

Gowon: Everything I did was for the interest of Nigeria. Not for any other country.

Akpamgbo: What was Nigeria’s interest in seeing that Biafran women and children did not die?

Gowon: Because they had nothing to do with the conflict. They were simply misled by their leaders.

Akpamgbo: So when you saw that children were dying of kwashiorkor, you did what again?

Gowon: We made a generous offer to open a food corridor but their leaders rejected it.

Akpamgbo: Do you know why the Biafran leaders rejected such a generous offer to help their dying populace?

Gowon: I think you should ask them. My guess is that they never really wanted food. They were satisfied with their goal of using images of starving women and children to gain the sympathy of the world.

Akpamgbo: Did they offer an alternative plan?

Gowon: Well, they asked me to allow them to bring relief by air.

Akpamgbo: And you jumped at it to help their women and children?

Gowon: No.

Akpamgbo: Why not?

Gowon: I rejected it because I knew they would have used such opportunity to smuggle arms and weapons into Biafra.

Akpamgbo: Oh, I see.

Gowon: Yes.

Akpamgbo: So let the children die. After all, they were just collateral damages.

Gowon: I was just focused on ending the war quickly.

Akpamgbo: Even if it meant letting millions of children die?

Gowon: They had an option – an option that allowed us to make sure that the food didn’t come with arms.

Akpamgbo: Look at this with me. There was a massacre of the Ngas people in Lur and all around Kanke local government area of your Plateau state by the Hausa-Fulani. A war ensued thereafter between the Ngas and the Hausa-Fulani. And the Hausa-Fulani are strafing your towns and villages, killing women and children in market places. Then in the midst of it all, they offer to open a corridor from their land to Lur to bring in food to save the same women and children they are killing by air. Will your people take it?

Attorney Harcourt: Objection Your Honor. Counsel’s statement is too hypothetical.

Akpamgbo: Will you accept and eat food that has been touched by an enemy that is busy wiping out everything that is movable in your land?

Attorney Harcourt: Objection Your Honor. This is an irrelevant and unfair comparison.

Judge: Objection over-ruled. Please answer the question.

Gowon: I guess I will not.

Akpamgbo: You guess? Remember your people are dying of hunger and cannot get food from any other path since the Hausa-Fulani villagers won’t allow air-lifting of food.

Gowon: I will not

Akpamgbo: Thank you.

Gowon: But-

Akpamgbo: Before we get to the but, there was an offer for Nigeria to inspect the planes carrying the food for arms at a neutral country in Africa before they fly directly into Biafra. Why did you reject that?

Gowon: That would have been too laborious to implement effectively in a war situation.

Akpamgbo: So it was better for the women and children to die?

Gowon: The Biafran leaders had an option to end the suffering.

Akpamgbo: The same option you just rejected for your people?

Attorney Harcourt: My Lord, counsel is leading my client.

Judge: Counsel, go straight to the point.

Akpamgbo: Were your commanding officers during the war taking orders from you?

Gowon: Of course.

Akpamgbo: They were doing what you asked them to do?

Gowon: What else did you expect? I was the commander-in-chief.  

Akpamgbo: Including Gen. Benjamin Adekunle and Gen. Ibrahim Haruna?

Gowon: Obasanjo. All of them.

Akpamgbo: Did you order Gen. Haruna to massacre civilians in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke-Item?

Gowon: I apologized for that, didn’t I?

Akpamgbo: Did you order him to carry out those operations?

Gowon: I demanded that my generals win the war by any means necessary.

Akpamgbo: When he committed those atrocities, did you take any disciplinary action?

Gowon: I had a war to win.

Akpamgbo: Gen. Ibrahim Haruna told the Oputa panel that he had no regret for the massacres.

Gowon: What matters is that I apologized.

Akpamgbo: Were you aware of the Geneva Convention while you were prosecuting the war?

Gowon: I was only 33 years old.

Akpamgbo: You were not aware of what the Geneva Convention says?

Gowon: No.

Akpamgbo: And none of your advisers informed you?

Gowon: None.

Akpamgbo: Including the smart ones like Obafemi Awolowo, Anthony Enahoro and Allison Akene Ayida?

Gowon: None.

Akpamgbo: And the British advisers did not mention it to you?

Gowon: None that I could recall.

Akpamgbo: Were you never taught about it at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst?

Gowon: Not at all.

Akpamgbo: Is it possible that you were taught but you forgot?

Gowon: No, I would have remembered such an important thing.

Akpamgbo: What is important about it?

Gowon: It specifically says how wars should be prosecuted to minimize harm to civilians.

Akpamgbo: If you were to find yourself in a similar position today will you take the same decision you took then?

Attorney Harcourt: Objection My Lord: irrelevant and hypothetical inference.

Gowon: Let me answer him.

Akpamgbo: Please do.

Gowon: God forbid! God won’t place me in such a situation again.

Akpamgbo: What if God does not forbid?

Gowon: I’m a prayer warrior. The God that I worship and pray to everyday won’t let that be my portion again.

Akpamgbo: By the way, why must you keep Nigeria one?

Gowon: Because God created Nigeria. If God didn’t want us as one, he would not have created Nigeria.

Akpamgbo: No, General. God did not create Nigeria. The British did. Unless you are implying that the British are God.

Gowon: I haven’t said such a thing.

Akpamgbo: Why didn’t you fight when Southern Cameroon left Nigeria?

Gowon: Because they decided to leave Nigeria via a vote.

Akpamgbo: And you did not consider the declaration of Biafra a vote to leave?

Gowon: Nobody asked the Easterners to vote.

Akpamgbo: If the UN had asked them to vote and they voted to leave, would you have respected their wishes?

Gowon: Nigeria as it is now constituted is one nation made by an infinite God, indivisible from now till eternity.

Judge: Counsel, where are you going with this line of questioning?

Akpamgbo: Sorry Your Honor. I will round it up. General, so you killed all those women and children to keep Nigeria one. And then what? What did you gain? Boko Haram? The turning of your beautiful Plateau state into a kill-and-go valley? And what is a general like you doing about it? Going around praying while your people are being slaughtered? What kind of general does a pitiful thing like that? You take delight in bringing shame to real generals like Napoleon Bonaparte. I presume it must be a case of why cry when you can pray. Not even the ragtag Biafra soldiers with wooden guns stoop that low. How do you sleep at night? What kind of evil is worse than saying to distressed passengers in your doomed bus, I won’t let you out. I won’t even let you jump off through the window. You all must plunge into the lagoon with me?

Harcourt: Objection, Your Honor.

Judge: Counsel!

Akpamgbo: No further questions.

Gowon: Your Honor, it’s important for the court to know that I implemented a “no victor, no vanquished” policy after the war. I gave Igbo people who had money in Nigerian banks 20 pounds each. It may not be up to the money they had in their bank accounts before the war but it was enough. I did not want them to suffer. I waited until1972 before I implemented the indigenization decree. By then, the Igbo had recovered enough to participate. And they did. That’s why they are back in control of things. If you doubt me, go to places like Abuja and Lagos. You tell me, who owns most of Lagos and Abuja? I like Igbo people. Some of my best friends are Igbos.

Judge: Counsel, any more questions?

Akpamgbo: No further questions.

Gowon: It is not a crime to serve one’s country or to save it. I did not instigate an aggressive war. Ex post facto punishment is not justice. There was no evidence of systematic brutality in the moral choices I made. I tried to execute a humane war. I admit I was misled in some instances. Some people exploited my naivety. God is my witness. I like Igbo people. I have prayed for them every day since the end of that war. They are like the engine that runs that country. Some of my best friends are Igbos.

Judge: Counsel, any more questions?

Akpamgbo: No further questions.

Judge: The defendant can step aside. We will adjourn for 10 minutes.

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