January 15 will mark the 50th year anniversary of the Nigerian civil war which was fought between the federal government and the secessionist Biafran side led by Lt-Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. The war was a very bloody one as about one million people lost their lives. The images of starving children which was beamed all over the world left a heart-wrenching image in the mind of Steve Jobs that he vowed never to be a Christian again as he questioned the logic of a good God who allowed his creatures to suffer in the most horrifying manner.
The remote cause of the war was the first military coup in the country which occurred on January 15, 1966 spearheaded by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu of the famous five majors. The then Premier of the Northern Region, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello was murdered in cold blood in his residence. The likes of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the then Prime Minister, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the Western region, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the finance minister were killed in the most gruesome manner.
Some top military officers were also killed on that fateful day. Brigadier-General Samuel Adesujo Ademulegun, the Commander of the first Brigade in Kaduna was killed alongside his pregnant wife, his deputy Colonel Shodeinde was also murdered. Brigadier-General Zakari Maimalari, the most senior northerner in the armed forces was killed in Lagos. The only Igbo military officer who lost his life was the then Quarter-Master General, Lt-Col Arthur Chinyelu Unegbe because he refused to hand over the keys of the armoury to the coup plotters.
With the exception of Major Wale Ademoyega, the rest of the coup plotters were Igbos which made it to be tagged an Igbo coup. This made anti-Igbo sentiments very high especially in the north.
When Major-General Thomas Johnson Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi came to power, many Nigerians especially the northerners expected him to decisively punish the coup plotters for their heinous crimes. He didn’t do much and he further provoked Nigerians by making the nation a unitary state. There was the fear of Igbo domination. These fears led to the counter-coup on July 29, 1966 when Ironsi and the then military governor of the western region, Lt-Col Francis Adekunle Fajuyi were killed.
The pogroms in the north began and the then Military Governor of Eastern Nigeria, Lt-Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu asked all Igbos living in the north to return home as he could not guarantee their safety there.
There was the personality and ego clash between Ojukwu and Gowon. The former said that the military hierarchy should be respected as Babafemi Ogundipe was the most senior military officer and as such should have been the Head of State and not Gowon. He therefore wouldn’t recognize him as his boss. Things came to a head and the then Ghanaian Military Head of State, General Joseph Ankrah invited both men to Aburi, Ghana for a peace meeting.
In that historic meeting, Ojukwu canvassed that the best form of government for the country was a Confederation which Gowon agreed to while there. When they returned home, Gowon changed his mind and broke up the four regions into 12 states to weaken the powers of Ojukwu. Ojukwu declared a Sovereign state of Biafra which led to the brutal 30 months war.
Ojukwu disappointed many of those who believed in his cause as he left them in the lurch when he and his family ran into exile in Cote d’Ivoire leaving the rank and file who viewed him as a demi-god to their fate.
The war was prosecuted without a single borrowing due to the sagacity of the then Federal Commissioner and Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, Chief Obafemi Awolowo. He was quoted to have said that ‘starvation is a legitimate weapon of warfare.’ There were blockades which prevented food and essential supplies from entering the east.
The war ended with a ‘No victors, no vanquished’ slogan by Gowon but it was all on paper as only 20 pounds was given to them irrespective of the amount that they had in the bank.
They are the loudest voice in the cry for secession through the formation of the Movement for the Actualization for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) led by Ralph Uwazurike and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by Nnamdi Kanu. The tribe lost out in the military and civil service and they only had commerce to take refuge in. There is hardly any government presence in their area. Their cry is legitimate as they are agitating for a better deal from the government.
Tony Ademiluyi, Lagos