The phenomenon of Biafra (8)

By Douglas Anele

From the foregoing, it seems that at a time when the myth of Igbo coup in which some of the most illustrious sons of northern Nigeria were killed was sublimated in the minds of northerners as part of the plan for Igbo domination leading to deep resentment against Ndigbo and hysteria for revenge, it is clear that Ironsi made a grievous error by believing that Lt. Col Gowon, Major Danjuma, his police ADC ,Thomas Pam, and bodyguards who were mostly northerners would protect him if the need arises.

As Max Siollun accurately observed, “By surrounding himself with northern soldiers, Aguiyi-Ironsi sealed his own fate.” Chuks Iloegbunam’s grisly description, in Ironside, of how Danjuma betrayed Ironsi, the man who recently promoted him, by leading the group of northern soldiers that eventually murdered the supreme commander and his host, Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, is a horrifying testament to the inherent undependability of human beings.

Gowon’s role in the event has been debated by historians, especially given his claim that he was not involved. However, Iloegbunam’s account depicts Gowon as a sly opportunist who saw an opening and hoped to benefit from it by betraying his boss, because as COAS he should have ordered Danjuma to stop the impending arrest of Ironsi immediately and ensure that the supreme commander was protected at all times. Unfortunately, he failed Ironsi at the time of his greatest need – at such moments only an officer imbued with uncommon courage and selflessness can withstand the magnetic allure of power and the privileges that come with it.

Meanwhile, a critical step towards Ironsi’s death was taken when decree 34, also known as the Unification Decree 34, was promulgated in May 1966. That decree is often cited by northerners and other non-Igbo supporters of caliphate colonialism as justification for the massacres of Ndigbo in northern Nigeria which gathered momentum in May 29, 1966.

In the same category of scapegoating Ironsi is Gowon’s claim that although the decree was discussed by the Supreme Military Council (SMC), it was suddenly promulgated before the conclusion of deliberation on the matter by members. Gowon’s story had been debunked by Gabriel Onyiuke who, because of his position as Attorney-General of the federation, was present at the various SMC meetings when the decree was discussed.

According to Onyiuke, decree 34 was the unanimous decision of the SMC. Yet, it was misinterpreted in the north as a brazen attempt by the Igbo to colonise northerners and relegate them to subordinate status in their homeland, whereas in the south Ironsi’s political reforms were considered grossly inadequate. Essentially, decree 34 merely formalised the centralised system of government characteristic of military governments worldwide and which came into effect in Nigeria for the very first time after the abortive coup of January 1966. Ironsi made the tactical blunder of not embarking on extensive consultations before promulgating the decree.

Northerners, always afraid that the better educated southerners (particularly the Igbo) would out-compete them in a merit based employment system in northern region’s civil service, violently opposed the unification decree and demanded araba (secession). The northern position is understandable but irrational and their educational backwardness self-inflcted, given that with the active support of British colonialists, they resisted penetration of the north by British missionaries who were largely responsible for introducing western education into southern Nigeria.

Igbophobia prevented northern leaders from recognising that centralisation of power structure is inherent in the military irrespective of the ethnic origin of who is in control. Keep in mind also that, having been in power at the federal level since independence, prominent northern politicians and emirs were not accustomed to important policy changes being implemented without their prior consent.

Now, there is double standard at play here, because the problem for northerners was not really the decree itself but the fact that it was enacted by the highest decision-making body in Nigeria (the SMC) headed by an Igbo, the ethnic group distrusted and dreaded most by a broad section of northerners.

After all, successive military regimes headed by northerners ran a system of government more unitary than anything decree 34 or Aguiyi-Ironsi envisaged without any opposition whatsoever from the north – in fact, the northern theocratic establishment always colluded with northern military heads of state to entrench caliphate colonialism in the country.

Conflict theorists such as Profs. Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe and Patrick Wilmot affirm that the northern establishment lacks a rational non-violent tradition of accommodating socio-political change instigated by non-indigenes, and reacts to such situations through vicious attacks against the latter.

True to type, after decree 34 was made public, mobs poured into the streets throughout the northern region and massacred thousands of Ndigbo, many of whom had their properties looted and burned. Lt. Col. Hassan Usman Katsina, military governor of northern region, was in a dilemma: he felt a duty of loyalty to Maj. Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi’s government as a member of the SMC, but found it extremely challenging to reconcile that with pressure from his fellow northerners to deal with the overambitious Igbo.

After a prolonged meeting of the SMC in which the araba riots of May against the decree were extensively discussed, Ironsi and the military governors went to great lengths to explain belatedly to Nigerians that the decree was not intended to give undue advantage to any section of the country, that it was largely nomenclatural and transitional pending the outcome of the Chief Rotimi Williams-led constitutional review going on at the time.

They also promised that no major constitutional change would be implemented without subjecting it to a referendum. Unfortunately, a combination of political naiveté by Ironsi, absence of precedence for him to follow, and his government’s failure to implement necessary reforms while the euphoria of the January 15 coup lasted in order not to offend northerners led almost inexorably to Ironsi’s downfall.

The poisoned chalice he inherited after the Majors’ coup of January 15 was made even more toxic by the misguided and insensitive negative triumphalism of some Igbo traders living in the north whose behaviour seemed to confirm northern fear of Igbo conspiracy against the north. To appease the incensed northerners, the SMC passed decree 44 which made it a punishable offence to “display or pass on images, songs, instruments or words which are likely to provoke any section of the country.” Pursuant to this decree, an Igbo journalist and a handful of others were arrested.

One of the most vicious lies against Ironsi by northern military officers was that he (Ironsi) did nothing to punish Major Chukwuma (not Chukwuemeka, as I mistakenly stated last week) Kaduna Nzeogwu and others involved in the first coup because they were Igbo. Indeed, when Major Danjuma arrested Maj. Gen. Ironsi, he accused the latter of shielding the coup plotters.

But if Danjuma and his co-conspirators were correct, why did Ironsi, after taking power, set up a board of inquiry chaired by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon and which included Lt. Col. Conrad Nwawo, Capt. Bala Usman and M.D. Yusuf to investigate the coup and make recommendations to the SMC? The more one researches into the rise and fall of ironsi, the more compelling the conclusion that northern soldiers had already made up their minds right from the start that he must be eliminated no matter what he does.

Notwithstanding his weaknesses exploited by Gowon and his cohorts for selfish purposes, Ironsi was a victim of high level conspiracy by northern officers he trusted. For example, Captain Usman who was closely involved in the panel that investigated the January 15 coup, stated that the findings of the investigative panel was ready by the end of March 1966. But Gowon procrastinated in producing the relevant white paper on it, thereby increasing suspicion among northerners that Ironsi was not interested in bringing Nzeogwu and his co-dissidents to justice.

Meanwhile, the coup plotters were in different prisons across the country, and despite the conflicting polarity of attitude towards the young majors by northerners and southerners which put Ironsi between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea, an SMC meeting he chaired decided that they would be court-marshalled not later than October 1966.

But why did Gowon foot-drag in producing the white paper? Was it deliberate to create problems between the supreme commander and northern soldiers? Could it be that Ironsi was somewhat sympathetic to the nationalist ideals that motivated Nzeogwu and his cohorts such that he condoned Gowon’s procrastinations? Whatever the true answers to these questions might be, Ironsi did not deserve the horrible fate that befell him in the hands of those he entrusted with his safety. More tellingly, no amount of negative triumphalism by Ndigbo for whatever reason can ever justify the ferocious murders and arson committed against them by northerners.

To be continued…

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