DOWN MEMORY LANE: “My Role In Nigeria’s Civil War”, By Zik
By Mohammed Haruna
IN recent months there has been a neo-Biafran resurgence reinforced by the detention of one, Nnamdi Kanu, the apparent proprietor of the pirate Radio Biafra. Kanu was home on a trip from his UK base. His illegal Radio Biafra had been peddling hate speeches against some sections of the country and championing a new secession of the old East from Nigeria. The predominantly Igbo East, Kanu’s home region, was not the first to threaten secession from the country after its independence from colonial rule in1960. At various times before and after independence, both Northern and Western Nigeria had made similar threats. Only the East, however, carried out its own in 1967, leading to a three-year civil war which ended in the defeat of Biafra. This newspaper has decided to publish excerpts of an interview Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, foremost nationalist, first Premier of Eastern Nigeria and the country’s first, albeit ceremonial, President, gave the Federal Government owned New Nigerian (NN) in 1979 in which he spoke exhaustively on the issue of secession and Biafra. Zik spoke to the newspaper as the presidential candidate of the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP), one of five registered by the military regime of Murtala/Obasanjo to contest the elections that ushered in the Second Republic in October 1979. The original interview conducted by Mohammed Haruna, New Nigerian’s Political Correspondent, was published in three editions of the newspaper between March 8 and 10, 1979. Per chance the moral of Zik’s story of our civil war episode may help avert a repeat of history.
NN: Before I begin to ask you questions on your manifesto, I want to touch on one more thing. In both his network and West German television interview, the Head of State [General Olusegun Obasanjo] condemned all old politicians. He said the old politicians are responsible for our ills. Do you agree?
ZIK: With respect, I don’t. I feel that his speech writers or whoever is responsible for the final draft of his speech, misconceived the whole idea by generalizing. If he has said that many politicians, or some politicians he would be correct but he made a sweeping generalization. I don’t feel I am a saint or perfect, but if you study my history in the last 30 years of this country’s political development, you will find that most of the things I stood for, which my opponents opposed are the basis of what the present Federal Military Government has endorsed, and which is the basis of the new constitution.
Now, how can you turn round now to say that all of us are responsible? Let me give you examples. In 1945, the Richard’s Constitution was promulgated. I opposed the division of Nigeria into three parts. I felt that regionalism was not in the interest of Nigeria and that it would lead to provincialism and parochialism.
It means that we began to think in terms of our region and not of one Nigeria.
Then, I coined the concept of one Nigeria and the slogan ‘One Nigeria’. But is that not what we fought for in the civil war and is it not the basis of our new constitution?
Well, if in 1945 my contemporaries felt that I was wrong and in 1949 conference at Ibadan, this Richard’s Constitution was endorsed and my party submitted a minority report which was brushed aside and 30 years later, the concept is found to be correct, don’t you think it is unfair to judge those of us who fought 30 years ago for one Nigeria with those who oppose One Nigeria?
NN: If I may take you on. The principle of what you supported is being vindicated alright. But what actually happened in practice? People say that NCNC was vehemently opposed to the creation of what are now the Cross River and Rivers States. In other words there seems to be a contradiction between principles and practice.
ZIK: That was propaganda. It is wrong. The NCNC supported the creation of Calabar States, Ogoja State and Rivers State but not to lump the three together, because if you do that you will have permanent minorities. Again on the question of secession. In 1953 the NPC under the leadership of my good friend, the late Sardauna, threatened to secede from the federation unless their 6-point proposals were adhered to. I had to use personal diplomacy. We had been personal friends since 1940. So, I saw Sir Ahmadu Bello and prevailed upon him that the unity of this country was greater than himself and myself and the other people too helped so that the North shifted grounds and agreed and so the country was saved. That was in 1953.
Again, however, when the 1954 constitution conference started, my good friend, Chief Obafemi Awolowo tabled a motion to the effect that in the new constitution, provision should be made that any state which feels like seceding should do so. I was opposed to it and said ‘no’ and said that once we have a federation, we are indivisible and perpetual. That was when we began to use that expression – ‘The Indivisibility and perpetuity of the federation’ – and that to secede would amount to treason. And so, a debate ensued.
The Secretary of State then was Oliver Littleton, later Lord Chandos and he was very much interested and that was his first time in saying that the people of African descent were people actually debating at a high level. So a full day was given to Chief Awolowo to make his points. He spoke brilliantly as a lawyer. He made his points why secession should be incorporated in the constitution. He cited the case of the Soviet Union which is a federation, and that secession is written there so that any state in the Soviet Union can secede at will.
He also cited the case of Western Australia and eventually he finished his case and was applauded. We adjourned. The next day, I had to reply. I availed myself of the opportunity to, well, demolish the arguments of my friend and I cited the case of United States which based its constitution on that of the Swiss Confederation. That is Switzerland. I pointed out a case, I think, that of Texas versus White, where Mr. Salmon Chase, the Chief Justice laid down the principle – he was really an arbiter – that the union was intended to be perpetual and indivisible and that any attempt to divide the union by secession was treasonable.
The North (NPC) supported Action Group. The question was then: Should we have secession? The Colonial Office came to our rescue. You know, the usual principle of Britain – ‘divide and rule’ (laughs) but this time, it was in our favour. So, the colonial office backed us. Lord Chandos said that on the face of the arguments before him it would be suicidal to incorporate secession in our constitution and that is why we have section 86 in our constitution that if any region or state should secede, then it will be an act of treason and that was what led to this war, because Col. Ojukwu seceded and so violated the constitution.
Now, if in 1954 I, as a politician fought against secession and won against Chief Awolowo and others who were in favour of secession, don’t you see that the Head of State won’t be fair to me in saying that the politicians of pre-1966 were responsible for the downfall of the republic?
NN: But if I can take you on again, perhaps one can say here too that there was disparity between principles and practice because quite a lot of people say you played a prominent role in Biafra.
ZIK: Yes. I played a prominent role in Biafra for the unity of the country in order to restore peace and bring about unity of the country. That’s the role I played. I advised Ojukwu. I said well look, you have declared secession. What we should do is to get the elder statesmen and women of the nation to reconcile you and Gowon. I said by declaring secession, you get so many people who do not believe you to remain there. You see all of us were interned. As we were interned then, we couldn’t express our own views as we see it because, he made Decree Number 5 which vested absolute powers in himself and if you were against his views, it then constituted an act of subversion and the penalty was death by shooting. Well, it was a war-time measure and that is understandable. So, I advised him. I said go to the conference table and iron out your differences. Allow elder statesmen and elder stateswomen to bring the two of you to the conference table and settle this matter so that there will no more be civil war and the country may be united. He agreed. But Gowon was advised by the Ministry of External Affairs to insist on pre-conditions. That is that before he could negotiate with the secessionists, that they must accept certain terms; accept the 12-state structure and all. So, it was quite obvious that the Federal Government wanted Biafra to come to the conference table with their hands tied and their feet tied. But they won’t be free agents. That was the diplomatic mistake on the part of the Federal Government. So, when they did that, then Lt- Col. Ojukwu told me, “How can I go to the conference table based on these ultimatums?”
Still I advised Ojukwu to go to the OAU and ask them to use their good offices to settle the dispute and that we should avoid loss of lives. He accepted my advice in good faith. Then he said, ‘Now, you have some heads of state in Africa who are your friends, would you mind going to appeal to them to use their good offices so that the Nigerian civil war could be an item on the agenda for OAU summit in Kinshasa?’ I said I would gladly go. So he sent me to Monrovia as a peace envoy. I went there and met my friend, President Tubman. Tubman expressed his willingness to use his good offices. He told me he would see another mutual friend, the late Haile Sellassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, and both of them would see that the civil war was placed as first item on the agenda of the OAU Summit in Kinshasa.
I returned and broke the news to Ojukwu. He was very pleased. Then, when the OAU summit opened, Chief Awolowo, as Vice-Chairman of the Federal Executive Council and Commissioner for Finance, led a strong Nigerian delegation to Kinshasa and raised a very strong objective on the Nigerian civil war being placed as an item on the agenda on the grounds that according to the OAU Charter, this was a domestic affairs and member states were precluded from interfering in the domestic affairs of each other, which was really sound according to international law. But we wanted to solve it in the African way, to use mediation and conciliation to bring two warring brothers together.
The OAU accepted the submission of Chief Awolowo and so it was not put into the agenda. Well, history will show now between Chief Awolowo and myself, who actually accentuated the war. I was trying to get the OAU to settle the dispute so they could go to the conference table and he was thinking of legalism, that it would amount to interference in the domestic affairs of a member-state. But meanwhile here you have two brothers killing each other.
Well, Ojukwu told me, I have done my best. You see, Nigeria was relying on law and we are relying on humanity. What’s next? I said why not try other heads of states and see what could be done to bring about peace? He then said he left the initiative with me. I suggested going to some heads of state and see what can be done. But his advisers led by Dr. Nwakama Okoro suggested recognition. That if we can get other states to recognize Biafra, maybe the hands of Nigeria may be forced to go to the conference table.
Well, I thought that was a sound idea and I placed my services at their disposal so as to meet my friends. We had in mind President Senghor of Senegal, President Houphouet Boigny of Ivory Coast, President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, President Milton Obote of Uganda, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and of course Francois Bongo, he is now Omar. He now has become a Muslim. He was then a Christian. The long and short of it all was that I and these great African statesmen agreed that if Gowon persisted with pre-conditions, then they would accord recognition to force the hands of Gowon to go to the conference table and bring about peace. That was one.
Two, Gowon had already predicted that the war would end on March 31 and as far as these African statesmen were concerned, these killings and atrocities did not do any credit to the image of Africa and as such what should be done was to stop it as soon as possible. Therefore if the war didn’t end by March 31, then the propaganda of ‘Biafra’ that it was an act of genocide would be justified. And they didn’t want to accept that.
I went on this mission and succeeded in persuading these heads of state to agree to give recognition just to force the hands of Nigeria, diplomatically speaking, to the conference table.
President Senghor said he couldn’t because the majority of his supporters were Muslims and rightly or wrongly they felt it was a religious war. And he said well, if he granted recognition, then his government would fall. But he supported the idea of forcing the hands of Nigeria to the conference table. Houphouet Boigny was prepared, provided his people backed him. Ditto for the others except Milton Obote who told us that Prince Mutesa and the Bagandans wanted to secede and he couldn’t support secession when his own state was confronted with similar problems. It left four of them. That is, President Nyerere, Houphouet Boigny, Kaunda and Bongo. They agreed on the understanding that the war did not end by March 31, 1968 and pre-conditions would be removed to make it easy for both Ojukwu and Gowon to go to conference table.
So they granted recognition and it worked like magic because immediately after this, Dr. Okoi Arikpo, who must be presumed to be responsible for this diplomatic blunder (he was the Commissioner for External Affairs]—a good man no doubt, but he is a very poor diplomat in my own humble opinion – announced to the outside world that Nigeria would no longer insist on pre-conditions and that he was prepared for conference table but the war did not end on March 31 and so, they left the impression, you see, that Nigeria wanted to annihilate the Ibos. You noticed the Soviets gave Nigeria more arms and Nigeria used those arms to destroy the secessionists. Here, I came in again and I advised Ojukwu. I said look since Gowon has withdrawn the pre-conditions, go to the conference table and argue the points so as to pave way for a peace conference. It was agreed that they should meet in Niamey. I advised Ojukwu to go. Again Gowon was ill-advised so he couldn’t come.
At Niamey here was Ojukwu. I was on his side. Gowon wasn’t there but Haile Sellassie, Hamani Diori, Tubman and General Akran were there representing OAU. So, I told Ojukwu, I said now you have an upper hand. These respected leaders of the OAU were there. I had briefed Ojukwu. I said ‘look your line of approach is to express appreciation for what the OAU was doing in order to maintain peace in Africa but you were prepared to co-operate and you are leaving the whole matter in the hands of the OAU to see what could be done to bring an earlier cessation of hostilities. I said just say that and thank them and sit down.
Now Gowon didn’t attend. He sent a junior man, I think Alhaji Femi Okunnu or so, to represent him. And they didn’t even attend this conference at which the four heads of state presided. It was only the Biafran side. So Ojukwu won a diplomatic victory and you know Ojukwu is a very good speaker if you give him all the facts. He was a good public relations expert and he won. He said, ‘well if Gowon was sincere why did he spite such great men and didn’t attend?’ That worked.
They agreed that Nigeria could be contacted so that we have a peace conference in Addis Ababa. It was a diplomatic victory for Biafra and so we returned to Biafra highly elated. And Ojukwu insisted that I should accompany him to Addis Ababa. Then something happened. Some of his advisers felt that I was becoming a victim of compromise and that I was a bad influence. That all I was trying to do was to make Biafra impotent. They told Ojukwu that Biafra was holding its own militarily. And why should we want a peace conference? That he should be very, very careful with me, especially as an Onitsha man because they thought that I was using him as a means to give publicity for myself internationally and that time will come when people will look more to me than to himself.
Well, as a young man, human, he fell for such flattery. I don’t want to mention all the names, but particularly influential in swinging his opinion at that material time was Mr. C. C. Mojekwu, who was based in Lisbon. Then Mr. Matthew Mbu was our Commissioner for External Affairs and he himself did as much as possible, but then he realized that he was having someone who has power of life and death over everybody. So, we went to Addis Ababa and on the night before the conference, Matthew came to my bedroom at about 10 in the night. He said, “Do you know that all we have done, this man is going to undo them tomorrow?’ I said ‘No’. Then he brought out a printed version of a long speech. The world press said it lasted for 90 minutes.
He [Ojukwu] went back on everything we discussed. He attacked the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union – all the nations of the world and the OAU, and said that they were misleading us and that the sovereignty of ‘Biafra’ was not negotiable. We went to the conference. I sat next to him. I thought that he was going to speak in accordance with the spirit of Niamey. But he spoke for 90 minutes and he just got the whole place upside down.
Naturally Tony Enahoro – he led the Nigerian delegation – replied in kind and so we were back to square one. So, when we returned, I advised him. I told him that I was surprised at what he did but it was not late. He said, ‘The sovereignty of Biafra is not negotiable and if anybody should try to compromise that sovereignty, then it will be an act of subversion.’ Well, that was quite clear to me so I said, ‘Your Excellency, you still have Port Harcourt and you can still bargain from position of strength – after all, the main issue in the civil war is oil and they say that in international politics, oil is combustible and as you have a combustible situation you can begin from the position of strength’. He said, ‘No, Port Harcourt is impregnable.’ ‘Very well, Your Excellency,’ I said. I went back to Nekede where I had been in protective custody since February, 1968. Two weeks later, Port Harcourt fell.
He sent for me. I said, ‘Well, Your Excellency, I did warn you. You cannot now negotiate from a position of strength but having received recognition from four states, we can still use them to see what we can do to appeal to the outside world.’ He said, ‘Very well, I think you should go to the United Nations to seek for recognition.’ I said, ‘Your Excellency, let us wait until after OAU summit in Algiers and find out what Africa thinks.’ In the meantime, I went to Tunisia to see my friend Habeeb Bourguiba of Tunisia. He wasn’t quite well, so we moved from Carthage to Hermit where he stayed. Ojukwu had always said the civil war would be won on the battlefield and not on the conference table, and Bourguiba didn’t take kindly to that. He said don’t you people advise this young man? I explained to him that I have done everything I could to advise him, but he insists on going to the battle field.
So we crossed our fingers awaiting the verdict of Algiers. You know it was decided by 33 to 4 in favour of Nigeria. I advised Ojukwu that to go to the United Nations to seek recognition would be unrealistic since Africa had decided by 33 to 4 in favour of Nigeria. I said Nigerian envoys, the Nigerian delegations, would just percolate the membership of the United Nations and they would frown at the whole thing. He insisted. I was then in Paris. I wrote him a letter. I said, ‘Since you refuse to go to the conference table to negotiate for peace, since you prefer that the civil war should end on the battle field and not on the conference table; since you said that the sovereignty of Biafra is not negotiable, I am afraid I cannot continue as a peace envoy because you have destroyed all the vestiges of any optimism for peace. Therefore I am relieving myself of my services as a peace envoy. I cannot continue as a peace envoy. I cannot continue as a peace envoy because you have let me down. You left me under the impression that if I succeeded in getting recognition you will go to the conference table. You got four recognitions; you did not go to the conference table. I am therefore going to London on exile.’
I went to London in voluntary exile and the British government granted me asylum. I do not see how anybody could say that I ran away from my country. I crossed the Atlantic 46 times, trying to negotiate with various heads of state so that they could grant recognition or make OAU to settle the dispute. How could the head of state turn round now and accuse all those who were politicians in pre-1966 and post-1966 as being responsible for the downfall of the republic? I did my best to preserve the unity of Nigeria and also to preserve the lives of old men, able-bodied men and women and children but I failed. What could I do? I went on free exile and they keep saying that I was among those responsible for the downfall of the republic. I plead not guilty.
CREDIT: Daily Trust