OJUKWU AND THE BIAFRAN FLAG, GOWON AND THE NIGERIAN FLAG
Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and his co-travellers may have wanted to draw Nigeria from the abyss it was been plunged in by the politicians of the day by embarking on that coup, however their well intentioned action produced results that was far from what they envisaged.
Infact, their action drew Nigeria to the precipice due to a combination of factors, many of which was beyond their control. Musso, in his contribution to my last installment on this topic stated what is public knowledge in that though power was vested in Alhaji Tafawa Balewa as the Prime Minister, he was getting his order from Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region.
It’s therefore no surprise that it was to his abode that the leader of the coupists headed to to personally oversee activities there. Though that coup turned out to be one of Nigeria’s bloodiest, the partakers all say that the opposite was actually the plan, and that they agreed that force of arms should only be used in self defence or to neutralize an unwilling person of interest. The scale of bloodletting does not support this though.
Nzeogwu was said to have launched a grenade in which he injured his hand when the security agents attached to the Sardauna fired in their direction, but in standing him against the wall to execute him, and one of his wives soon after, remain acts that did not appear to suggest that there were plans to take him (or any of the unfortunate politicians and senior military officers who were killed that night) alive.
Brigadier Ademulegun was also said to have drawn a gun, prompting the coupists to return fire killing him, but the killing of his unarmed wife also is another sore point that further beggars their claim of attempting a bloodless coup.
It was reported that there was great joy as news of the coup gained ground nationwide, and even in the stronghold of the Sardauna, the de facto ruler of Nigeria. Celebrations in the North especially amongst the indigenous northerners was however short-lived as the implications of the coup eventually dawned upon them, this as well as the circumstances surrounding the coup was to lay the foundation for the series of events that was to throw Nigeria into a state of war.
Not a few Nigerians were irked to find that most of the coupists were from the SouthEastern part of Nigeria especially the Igbo speaking part. Some Igbos have gone the extra length to disown Nzeogwu in a way claiming he was of the Anioma stock of what is today Delta State, and was more Hausa than Igbo in mannerisms.
Those who say that the coup was one-sided and geared towards Igbo domination point to the possibility of the President in person of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (an Igbo) been forewarned of the coup seeing that he had conveniently gone on leave in the West Indies prior to the execution of the coup.
To add insult upon injury, the most senior military man, also an Igbo Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi who was also meant to be neutralized was spared, while the lives of officers junior to him like C.O Lt. Col. Largema, Brigadier Maimalari and Col Kur Mohammed, were snuffed out. Of the politicians, the Prime Minister Alhaji Tafawa Balewa and Chief Okotie Eboh, the finance minister paid the supreme price with their bodies dumped somewhere at the outskirts of Lagos by their killers.
Besides this, many point to the taunting of Hausas by Igbos in the North after the killing of the northern leaders as playing some role in events that played out afterwards. There’s talk of the release of an album by a popular highlife crooner titled “Ewu Na Ebe Akwa” (the crying goat), which many say was used in taunting the Hausas. Unfortunately, no one I’ve met seem to remember the song’s lyrics, though they also seem to think that there was never a song like that or that a particular popular song had it’s lyrics changed by the taunters to what it eventually became.
By a series of unplanned events, the coup which was mainly in Kaduna and Lagos was soon quashed, again mainly by efforts of Igbo officers namely Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in Kano and Major General Ironsi in Lagos (though many would say the coupists practically handed power over to him in keeping him alive).
Indignation for the coup grew in the North as it appeared that the government under Ironsi seemed uninterested in prosecuting the coupists. The fact that they were imprisoned in what may be considered “friendly zones” didn’t help matters either. I saw one of his early interviews on YouTube and Ironsi sure didn’t appear to be ready for the task of governance that was superbly placed ‘pon his broad shoulders. He appeared in the few minutes of the film to be aloof and unaware of the huge responsibility awaiting him.
Ironsi’s “Unification Decree” was the last straw that broke the camels back. The North long weary of domination by southerners, especially the Igbos in the civil service felt that the law was meant to finally provide legal backing for what they feared the most. The impact of this decree coupled with the fact that subsequent military regimes continued to tow the line is responsible for the kind of “Federalism” practiced in democratic Nigeria today. It’s a federalism that’s turned upon its own head, one that has continually pitched the Igbo as the most disadvantaged both in civilian and military circles, until very recently.
He would be killed on the 29th of July, 1966 in a reprisal coup masterminded and executed by northern political elements and their military associates. Ironsi who at the time embarked on a nationwide sensitization campaign on the policies of his government was killed after the coupists seized him and his host, Lt. Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi in Ibadan were he had planned to spend the night before proceeding to Lagos.
Several Igbo officers also lost their lives in the melee that ensued mostly in the North and Southwest. For a while there was leadership vacuum at the helm, while some journalists recalled that a strange flag was been flown at Dodan Barracks, the seat of military power at the time, indicative of the North’s desire to secede. Reports indicate that they were prevailed upon to shelve the idea and soon a Northern Christian of middle belt extraction was installed as military Head Of State. Colonel Yakubu Gowon failed to curb the killings by issuing direct orders to demand an end to the killings of Igbos, with casualties now rising geometrically not only of military personnel but also of civilians, who were now forced to make their way back to the East.
Right from onset, the ascendancy of Gowon never pleased Ojukwu. It was bad enough that his kinsman had just been killed in a counter-coup and his body wasn’t recovered for days, what irked him still was the fact that a senior military officer was overlooked in appointing Gowon as successor. His pleas to the Head Of State to halt the killings also appeared to be falling on deaf ears.
He must have felt personally responsible for the lives of the Igbos he asked to go back or remain in the North after a second wave of killings of Igbos in the North took place. He even began to grow and keep a beard against military norms in “mourning” of the thousands of Igbo lives lost, and that continued to be lost at the point in time. Attempts at ending the carnage were made via several meetings but to no avail.
Colonel Ojukwu as governor of the Eastern region at that point felt he was left with no option than to offer his people protection within the region he oversaw. Many Igbos say he was prevailed upon by public opinion to declare the Eastern Region, “The Republic of Biafra” seceding from Nigeria. Some say Ojukwu had ego issues with Gowon and that that was at the heart of all that played out in the days before Eastern Nigeria seceded, which made it impossible for both sides to see face to face on many issues raised and demands made by negotiators on both sides of the divide.
The stage will be set for one of the bloodiest wars in modern human history as well as in Africa. Interestingly, this war will be overshadowed by other events happening elsewhere around the world, and would eventually go down in history as one of the very rare times when the world powers propagating capitalism and communism fought on same side, the Nigerian side against an ill-prepared young African nation, BIAFRA.