•How Ojukwu outwitted me after our return from Aburi
How old were you when the civil war broke out in 1967? How much of the issues and events that led to the war do you know? Well, you may have read several versions of the issues and circumstances leading to the bloody civil war that lasted about three years, but you probably may not have read the version from the man who was at the centre of the war, General Yakubu Gowon (Retd), who incidentally was the military ruler at the time, at a young age of 32.
Last year, August to be precise, Gowon, who is now 83, had in response to a request by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), who had led a delegation to his place on a visit promised to reveal his own side of the civil war experience, in a book form, this year.
Hear him: “Thank you for coming to make a request for me to tell my story – a story you have not heard from me personally. When I read what people were saying after my overthrow, I said I would not trust any journalist. I am working on my autobiography. It should have come out in 1980, but within the next year, something will come’’.
But 2018 is just 65 days from today. Nigerians are still waiting for Gowon’s book. However, even before the book is out, the former Head of State, last Tuesday gave an insight into some of the events that led to the war. For instance, he revealed what happened at the Aburi Conference, in Ghana, convened to resolve Nigeria’s civil war crisis, admitting perhaps for the first time that the Federal Government, under his leadership, went to Aburi unprepared, just as he condemned the killings of Igbo in the north at the time, describing the action as unholy. He made the revelations on an Africa Independent Television (AIT) programme “People, Politics and Power,” monitored by ISMAIL OMIPIDAN in Lagos. Excerpts:
At a young age, you and your colleagues were saddled with a huge political responsibility and as much as you tried to restore order, the civil war broke out. How did you manage not just yourself but also the army and the country?
I can assure you that God knows that I love this country. I have no other loyalty; although we were Queen’s commissioned before we became a republic and our loyalty was to the Head of State, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe at that time and later on Gen. J. T. U. Aguiyi Ironsi, my loyalty first and foremost was to the country and I thank God that that was something inculcated in me right from the start and once you have that as the basis what you need to do is try to deal with the problem the best way you can, and you must know that you can’t do it alone. That was why one day while I was trying to keep the country together, one young man wrote to me to say: ‘do you know the meaning of Gowon?’ I know that in my language it means owner of God’s masquerade. But I decided to read what this young man wrote. When I read it he said that ‘Gowon meant Go on With One Nigeria.’
I said to myself goodness gracious, this is what I have been trying to tell Nigerians and here is a Nigerian telling me that this is what my name means and I can assure you it made an impact on me. But I knew I could not do it alone, I needed the prayers, the cooperation and understanding of every Nigerian.
So how I was able to make it was ensuring that we had discussion among ourselves. So we had to put our heads together to see how to salvage the country and one of the ways was to ensure we regained the trust and confidence of every Nigerian. It was why we had to go to Aburi to try to get all of us to agree to deal with the situation of our country by ourselves. That was why on the federal side, myself and the other governors, didn’t go with any prepared speech, whereas Ojukwu came with papers he had prepared on a pink paper; at the staff college, a pink paper was a directive solution; and that was the paper he came with.
The report (that later came out in the media) said he outwitted all of us, no, it was not a matter of being outwitted, we went there to find a solution to our problems and how to restore trust and confidence. But I think with what happened to the people of the eastern part of the country (in the north) maybe he thought secession was the only way to give them the security they needed.
Was it done by the military?
It was not. We did everything to make sure that we managed the situation. I know how much I did in telling them that what was happening was ungodly.
I had intended to make a statement as soon as we got back, because while in Aburi, we agreed that I would be the first to make any statement concerning the resolutions before any governor makes any statement. But when we arrived I was not feeling too well, so I did not make any statement. But Ojukwu as soon as he came back went to the radio to make a statement especially on areas we did not agree; separation, confederation, control of the army in the eastern region etc.
It was Governor David Ejoor that rang me in the early hours of the morning to tell me of Ojukwu’s broadcast. So I asked him (Ejoor) to tell me in all honesty whether that was what we agreed. And he said no. That was the beginning of the problem that led to the civil war and every other thing.
And during the war, Ojukwu always took the political initiative, whatever we discussed in Supreme Military Council, Ojukwu always got the information and taken a step further. From hijacking of the Nigerian airways to not remitting the national revenue, all his actions were pointing towards that he wanted a separate country, that was when I said we have to take the political initiative to ask what is the cause of all these problems we have in Nigeria, and the major cause was the fear of domination and we decided that we have to solve that problem. To remove that domination especially the domination of the north was to create states that are not too big to be a threat to the unity of the country and not too small to be a problem. So that was what I did and then declared a state of emergency. That was one of the things we did that he did not get to hear before we did it.
It was at this stage that I declared full military action not a war; it was the foreign press that started calling it a civil war. My instruction was that they remember that these people are Nigerians, they are your brothers, there was a code of conduct for everybody so that in the end we would be able to come back and live together.
There were allegations of pogrom that if it were today, we will be talking of war crimes. But despite all that, the military action lasted for 30 months.
Can you summarise the events, how you managed the country without external borrowing?
To start with, I knew I could not do it alone, so I had to look for help, I knew politicians, some academics and so I consulted them. Many of us shared the same aspiration for Nigeria. Lecturers wrote most of the speeches I made. We later brought in politicians from each of the states of the country bearing in mind their capabilities.
If you remember, Awolowo was released and brought into the cabinet to assuage the Yoruba. He was also made vice chairman of the Federal Executive Council with the hope that it would generate the trust and confidence of people from that part of the country. So everybody that came in made his contribution as to how we can all live together.
For example, when Ojukwu seceded and we created states, there was need for somebody that will take care of the interest of the Igbo that were over there and when the war was over they can play their role. There were quite a number of people that came but I was not convinced about them. I remember asking Obasanjo to find out if there is any Igbo man crazy enough to take up the position. That was how they found one particular young man and they brought him to me. I told him that if he were my brother that I will ask him not to do it. But he was determined and believed in the unity of the country and that the Igbo had a better chance in a bigger Nigeria than just being alone. I asked him to take a week to consult with his wife and family because if he accepted the job he will be hated. He left and came back after a few days but I told him that the week must be completed before I accept his answer and sent him back. When it was done Obasanjo brought him to me, we had a discussion and I was convinced he was mad enough. That was how I made Ukpabi Asika an administrator because he was not in uniform, all the others were governors, but he had the same power as the military administrators. So he was a civilian military administrator.
Was Dr. Asika appointed as a sole administrator because there was no military officer of eastern extraction on the federal side?
From the mid- west we had but not from the east. If you remember Ojukwu had called back all the officers to save their lives after what happened in July. I also had to call back all my troops from the east to Lagos under the command of Col. Adekunle, the black scorpion, so that at least we could have room for all the officers evacuated due to the threat to their lives. There were no military officers but we had people in the customs and the railways. Like I said, we interviewed many people but Asika had the political profile and he believed in one Nigeria.
Col. Adekunle was prominent during the war and many attested to his professionalism. Why was he retired so early?
His retirement is something that you in the press know about. It has nothing to do with the military. I love his bravery and courage during the war. He was on his way to Ihiala after capturing many areas but I had to stop him. He was a brave and fearless soldier and his loyalty was second to none. He asked me whether I wanted him to get Ojukwu, but I said no, so that the Igbo will not feel that we are forcing our desire to live together on them. So in answer to your question whether there was no Igbo officer, I appointed Ojukwu to continue as military governor, I didn’t remove him, I could have. He continued as official governor till he broke away. Some of the officers that we attended Sandhurst together wished I had appointed them. I wished I had done that; perhaps there wouldn’t have been a civil war.
Sadly Adekunle was only retired after I had changed him from the command. There was no two ways about it. He was losing command and control and he was fatigued because he had been in the war throughout.
So his retirement had nothing to do with speculations that you were having a lavish wedding while they were at war?
No, I can assure you it had nothing to do with it, in fact Adekunle attended that wedding. His retirement was because he had battle fatigue and the 3rd Marine Commando was beginning to lose grounds, they lost Owerri and there were complaints from his officers. The only thing Adekunle will not forgive me about was that I gave his command to Obasanjo.
There seemed to have been a very high standard in the military at that time in terms of discipline. Compared to today, will you say the same level of professionalism and discipline still exist?
You are the people that assess us. Even during the war was I not criticised that I should dialogue with Ojukwu? But I will say that the discipline is as good. They are criticising the military because of what is happening with Boko Haram. But recently there have been relief. I’ve always said that I trust those in charge presently. I always tell them that it is their reputation that is at stake.
You declared the civil war a no victor, no vanquished. Do you think the Igbo need some form of reparation?
The issue of reparation is just like asking the Americans to pay reparation for the slavery. Try it and see whether you will get any. What we got at the end of it was that people can go back to their homes or jobs if they wished with only the loss of two and half years of seniority which was the period of the war.