How did a nation draped in delirium on October 1, 1960 find itself dripping with blood just under seven years later? Exactly 50 years after the kick-off of the Civil War of 1967, SaharaReporters recalls the events that led to Nigeria’s lowest moment in history.
"But now we have acquired our rightful status, and I feel sure that history will show that the building of our nation proceeded at the wisest pace: it has been thorough, and Nigeria now stands well-built upon firm foundations" — Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Independence Day, 1960.
A HAPPY BEGINNING
You could sense the joy of the people. In Lagos, then seat of power where hordes thronged the streets — and in other parts of the country — it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment of animated merrymaking exemplified by widespread wining and dining. Even in the far-flung villages, wine swigging and food gobbling were de rigueur, at least for the day.
Earlier at midnight, the small but rising clique of elites had clutched at their radios as devout Catholics would the Rosary, listening as the sonorous voice of Emmanuel Omatsola — a doyen of broadcast journalism — announced from Race Course: Nigeria is a free, sovereign nation.
Ask the primary school pupils at the time what the occasion was about and they would probably grope clumsily in search of the right words, but they sure had an idea: first, they holidayed away from school, and then returned to be served unusual rounds of sumptuous meals and handed lovingly petite green-white-green flags. As my father described it, at Independence on 1st October 1960, the mood all over the country was that of “naked excitement”.
Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister who delivered Nigeria’s maiden Independence Day speech, was one of the most brilliant and learned Nigerians of his time, at a time securing a scholarship to study at the University of London’s Institute of Education. And although he succeeded in earning a reasonable degree of notoriety for championing northern interests — a splotch that nearly all leaders of other ethnic groups equally bore — he cut an influential and likable figure outside the country especially because of his front-line roles in the founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the negotiations for the resolution of the Congo Crisis of 1960 to 1964, the condemnation of the South African Sharpeville Massacre of 21st March 1960 and quelling the attempted expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961.
Sadly, for all his education and intelligence, the two-time Prime Minister misjudged the country’s foundations at Independence, which were anything but “well-built”. It was a blunder he never recovered from; well, the chance itself never came. Six years after delivering that fervent speech, Balewa paid with his life — alongside those of some others who championed the quest for Independence. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a death that was always coming. It was foreshadowed.
TUSSLE FOR SUPERIORITY
In the early 1950s when Nigeria’s century-long crave for independence began gathering steel, each region — Northern, Eastern, and Western (as the country had been divided by the Richards Constitution of 1946) — championed its own agenda. To every region, there was a political party to advance self-serving needs: the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) for the northern region, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) for the eastern region, and Action Group for the western region.
It proved a grueling task to write a Constitution that was suitable to various interests. The north, the most populated of the three, considered autonomy from the other regions as well as a large representation in any federal legislature its birthright. In addition, it feared the fading of Islam — the dominant religion in the region — and worried over the economic might of the south. The west itself craved autonomy, dreading the redistribution of its cocoa wealth to other regions. Only the east dithered, not exactly due to nationalist orientations but because of its survival needs, which it felt would best be served by a powerful central government and the redistribution of wealth.
The Lyttleton Constitution of 1954 attempted a compromise, creating a federation out of the three ethnic regions, establishing a Federal House of Representatives and providing for the appointment of a Premier for each region. Yes, it inched Nigeria closer to self-governance. But did it fix the festering regional rather than national drive for self-advancement? Certainly not — and the impending implosion was always a matter of time.
Half-a-decade on, Nigeria was all but an independent nation. In December 1959, ethnicity-coloured federal parliamentary elections starring 10 political parties held — ethnicity-coloured because in addition to the three heavyweight parties (NPC, NCNC and AG), the names of the lightweights themselves easily gave out their ethnocentric orientations: the Northern Elements Progressive Union, which, like the NPC, was formed to advocate northern interests; the Igala Union for Igala people; the Niger Delta Congress; and the ostensibly chauvinistic Igbira Tribal Union.
As it was more of an inter-region contest than an inter-party affair, the most populated region — the north — expectedly stole the show. The NPC won 134 of the available 312 seats in the House, and then formed a coalition with five other parties and two independents to hold a summary 148 seats; at a distant second position with 89 seats was the NCN-led coalition, while the AG-led coalition had 75 seats.
INDEPENDENT BUT BELLIGERENT
Nigeria nicked Independence on October 1, 1960; and one of the defining incidents of the country’s early-independence years was the 1962 split of the Cameroon trust territories into two, the generally Muslim northern Cameroons voting to fuse with Northern Nigeria and the southern Cameroons electing to join the Federal Republic of Cameroons.
From then until the mid-1960s, the country carried on with seething but bottled-up tension. The controversial censuses of 1962 and 1963 spawned fresh north-south acrimony, owing largely to allegations of population falsification. While that of 1962 was cancelled, a second attempt the following year was accepted, notwithstanding its official population figure of 55.6 million, which, compared to the modest effort a decade earlier, implied an improbable annual growth rate of 5.8 per cent. The polity was charged with suspicion, each region thinking the other manipulated the counting for local and regional political gains.
As the rumpus surrounding the census raged on, a separate turmoil was unfolding. In 1962, the Balewa government accused Obafemi Awolowo, idolised leader of the westerners — alongside other prominent leaders such as Olabisi Onabanjo, Anthony Enahoro, Lateef Jakande, Alfred Rewane, Ayo Adebanjo, Michael Omisade, Chike Obi, and Oladipo Maja — of treason. Awolowo’s British lawyer E. F. N. Gratien (QC) was denied entry into the country on the orders of Minister of Internal Affairs in a prelude to his eventual sentencing to 10 years in prison. Although Awolowo was eventually freed after Yakubu Gowon, a general, ascended the country’s reins, his supporters were already harbouring deep-seated animosity against the government.
All these pent-up animosities across the regions considered, Nigeria was teetering on the brink of implosion by the time it became a Republic on October 1, 1963.
PANIC AFTER REPUBLIC
Post-independence, 1965 witnessed the maiden incident of large-scale politically-motivated killings in the country. But the stage had been set since the previous year, in the lead up to the country’s first election after independence. As with the federal parliamentary elections of 1959, the electioneering process was more regional and ethnocentric than political, all political parties at the time congregating into two alliances.
On a side was the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA), comprising the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), Midwest Democratic Front (MDF), Dynamic Party (DP), Niger Delta Congress (NDC), Lagos State United Front (LSUF), and the Republican Party (RP).
On the other was the Unity Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), comprising the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), Action group (AG), Northern Progressive Front (NPF), Kano People’s Party (KPP), Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU), United Middle Belt Congress, (UMBC), and the Zamfara Commoners Party (ZMC). While the NNA was merely an effort of the NPC to help the north to federal might, it nevertheless appealed to voters outside region by presenting the benefits of associating with the party in power. UPGA, meanwhile, was NCNC’s footway to federal power, presenting itself as the alternative to northern dominance over other regions.
The standout feature of the time’s politicking was UPGA’s continued allegation of NNA’s plans to manipulate the election. For weeks, the election was postponed to resolve the shocking mismatch between the population of registered voters and the census figures. When it was finally to hold in December 1964, UPGA ordered a boycott that, in the end, was only partially effective. In regions of effective boycott, elections held in March 1965. The NNA secured 198 of the 312 seats in the House of Representatives (162 of those coming from NPC) while NCNC-dominated UPGA lost out with 108 seats. When Samuel Akintola’s NNDP left NCNC in the dust in the November 1965 legislative elections in the Western Region, violence broke out. Within the next six months, about 2000 people died in violent clashes across the Western region.
THEN A COUP
The chaos that followed the election tilted the country towards anarchy. The relationship between Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and President Nnamdi Azikiwe degenerated to such extent that it was thought that they weren’t on speaking terms. Both refused to meet to form a new government after the election, allowing opportunistic junior soldiers, led by Majors Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Kaduna Nzeogwu, to profit from the uncontrollable killings in the west by engineering a coup d’état in January 1966.
Balewa; Akintola, Premier of Western Region; Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Northern Region; and a number of senior military officers were murdered. The military officers and political leaders spared were mostly easterners, sending the signal that it was an eastern attack on the north. All but one of the arrowheads of the coup were easterners: Major Tim Onwuategwu, Major Don Okafor, Major Chris Anuforo, Major Humphrey Chukwuka, Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi, Captain Ben Gbulie, and a Captain Oji.
While the coup succeeded in the north but failed in the federal capital (Lagos) and in the west, it did not hold at all in the mid-west and the east. In addition, Azikiwe, who embarked on a health trip to the Caribbean in late 1965, had not returned to the country as of the time of the coup, not even after his personal physician, Dr. Humphrey Idemudia abandoned him and returned home, or even at the country’s maiden hosting of the Commonwealth Leaders’ Conference in January 1966. General Officer Commanding (GOC)), Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi stepped in, coercing the most senior political leaders alive to cede the country’s reins to him. And thus began what would eventually become decades of military rule.
For a region that considered itself the natural heir to the country’s headship, the north was never going to accept the status quo. Aguiyi-Ironsi’s reign surely had to be temporary. The northern feeling of injustice was further aggravated by Aguiyi-Ironsi’s refusal to try plotters of the January putsch in line with military practice, despite acknowledging them as “rebels” at the start of his reign. On July 29, 1966, tragedy struck.
Murtala Mohammed, a Lieutenant-Colonel and Inspector of Signals, led Theophilus Danjuma, a Major, and Martin Adamu, a Captain, to stage a reprisal coup, resulting in the murder of Aguiyi-Ironsi; his host in Ibadan, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi; and hundreds of eastern military officers. Yakubu Gowon, Lieutenant Colonel and Chief of Staff, was installed as Head of State. He was only 31 at the time.
AND THEN THE WAR
The burdens that lay ahead of Gowon were far weightier than his age. The killing of thousands of Igbos in post-coup riots in the north in September spawned an exodus of north-based Igbos to their region of origin. Returning to the east, they no longer felt like Nigerians; they wanted a nation of their own. Gowon neither helped himself nor the country months later, in 1967, when he literally stripped Eastern Region of oil-rich Niger Delta in his new 12-state structure. On May 27, 1967, the region’s Igbo-dominated Assembly authorised Odumegwu Ojukwu, a Lieutenant Colonel and Governor of the region, to declare independence as the Republic of Biafra. It took Ojukwu three days to respond. When he did, it was positive.
On 30th May 1967, he declared: Having mandated me to proclaim on your behalf, and in your name, that Eastern Nigeria be a sovereign independent Republic, now, therefore I, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, by virtue of the authority, and pursuant to the principles recited above, do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall, henceforth, be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.
A number of failed peace accords, particularly the Aburi Accord reached in Ghana, followed. On July 6, 1967, the Federal Government launched a forceful effort to reclaim the secessionist state. Within months, what began as a “police action” degenerated into full-scale war.
Till date, one of the most prominent talking points of the war is the Nigerian government’s imposition of a blockade around Biafra, totally eliminating the secessionist state from receiving food supplies. The tragedy was captured by heartrending pictures of the ravages of famine on Biafran children. Looking malnourished, forlorn and hopeless, their arms and legs were ungracefully thin and long, their ribs awkwardly protruding, and their bellies and ankles swollen.
More than one million people were estimated to have died of hunger alone, during the war, which ended in January 1970 after the capture of the Biafran town of Owerri and Ojukwu’s fleeing to Cote d’Ivoire. The Federal Government claimed the war gulped 2 million lives and $840million. And on April 11, 1970, a report from relief workers stated that an additional 50,000 persons had died since the war ended. It was difficult, almost impossible, to think that Nigerians hurt Nigerians, brothers maimed brothers, families killed families; the country allowed and suffered a needless, avoidable implosion.
Sadly, exactly 50 years on, the ethic divisions that formed the foundations of the war are ever so starkly evident in the country. As Obiageli Ezekwesili, former minister and leader of the #BringBackOurGirls group, admitted last year, it doesn’t seem likely that Nigerians have learnt any lessons from the war.