The Costly Mistakes of Biafra
THE QUESTION OF FREEDOM FOR OBAFEMI AWOLOWO AND TIV RIOT PRELUDE TO THE JULY 29, 1966 COUNTER-COUP
By Nwankwo T. Nwaezeigwe, PhD, DD
One fact which has therefore been undisputedly established is that the original plan of the coup plotters was to have Chief Obafemi Awolowo released from Prison and consequently installed as the Prime Minister. That was the original plan of the plotters before Major Ifeajuna’s clandestine introduction of the Aguiyi-Ironsi factor. Even Ruth First in agreement with this original position made reference to Major Ifeajuna’s position in the following words:
According to Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who was in charge of the Lagos operation, the plan was to kidnap the Federal Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and compel him to broadcast his resignation, with a transfer of power to the young officers, so giving the new regime a spurious legitimacy. Chief Awolowo would then have been released from prison to head an interim government. A flat in Lagos had been selected to record the Prime Minister’s announcement. The broadcast, the signal for which Nzeogwu was waiting that week-end and for which he delayed his own radio announcement that Kaduna had been seized, was never made.
In his account of an encounter with Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu over the planned coup while in India, the Owa of Ido-Ani, Oba Olufemi Olutoye, a retired Major General of the Nigerian Army noted:
In fact what attracted me to Nzeogwu at the early stage when the coup was being planned was that I asked him if he was going to make himself the Head of State and he said no. he said he was going to bring a civilian who was more knowledgeable and who had what it took to make Nigeria great. I then asked who that person was and he said the man was in Calabar Prison.
I said is it Chief Obafemi Awolowo? He said yes. That was why I gave him my support but when he told me it was going to involve killings, I said no, I was not interested again.
There is therefore no gainsaying the fact that the clandestine inclusion of the Aguiyi-Ironsi sub-plan in the major plan without the knowledge of both Chukwuma Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Nwobosi was actually what led to the failure of coup in general and its ascription as Igbo-centred objective. It seems therefore that both Nnamdi Azikiwe and Michael Okpara based on the subsisting rivalry between the Action Group and the NCNC might have possibly advised Ifeajuna to shelve the Awolowo idea, which to them might have been the case of transferring political power to their inveterate political opponent, the UPGA alliance notwithstanding. In other words, the fact that Aguiyi-Ironsi was claimed to have suppressed the coup does not invalidate the fact of his inclusion in the ultimate second plan of Ifeajuna.
But if one may ask, did Aguiyi-Ironsi actually suppress the coup or that the coup collapsed on its own? There was no doubt that the coup as executed in Lagos had no semblance of an operation geared towards the seizure of the instruments of political power. There was no large-scale troop mobilization or attempt to take control of the vital radio stations and other communication instruments, as in the case of Nzeogwu’s operations.
It was indeed organized as a band of armed men whose major aim was to eliminate certain marked out elements who might be direct impediments to their covert plan in other to give way for their chosen established rival authority to emerge. So unlike the case of Kaduna where Nzeogwu was in absolute control of the situation at the Regional Capital, Ifeajuna’s rag-tag soldiers disappeared immediately after the execution of their targets. In other words, Aguiyi-Ironsi only appeared on the scene to calm down the situation rather than quelling the coup plot. This might also explain why he was bold enough to emerge from his car to command the soldiers mounting the road-block on the Carter Bridge to get out of his way.
The fact that as General Olusegun Obasanjo reported, that the said road-block was manned by his kinsman Captain Ogbo Oji clearly proved that there was no way he could have been a target of the soldiers at the time. It was therefore obvious that he knew he was not a target of the coup plotters, and so there was nothing he could fear about.
Thus the idea of transferring power to Chief Awolowo was never part of the plan of the Lagos axis of the plotters, but seemed to have been aimed at creating the enabling environment for “Our General”, as Major Ifeajuna stated, to emerge— a plan that was kept off the knowledge of Major Nzeogwu and other members of the inner-circle outside Lagos. Thus to say that Major Nzeogwu was betrayed by Ifeajuna is to state the obvious. This also goes to explain why Aguiyi-Ironsi did not think it politically expedient to grant Chief Awolowo amnesty as was widely expected.
It should be recalled that Chief Awolowo while serving his Prison term in Calabar Prisons had by a letter dated 28 March, 1966 and titled: PREROGATIVE OF MERCY: Section 101 (1) (A) of The Constitution of The Federation Act 1963, pleaded with General Aguiyi-Ironsi to grant him and the other members of his party convicted for treasonable felony alongside him, some of whom had already served their terms, and others not yet to be tried for amnesty. According to the letter, those still serving their terms of imprisonment at the time of the petition included himself—Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Mr. Lateef K. Jakande, Mr. Dapo Omisade, Mr. S. A. Onitiri, Mr. Gabby Sasore, Mr. Sunday Ebietoma, and Mr. U. I. Nwaobiala; while those who had already served their terms included: Mr. S. A. Otubanjo, Mr. S. J. Umoren, and Mr. S. Oyesile. On the other hand, those who were yet to face trial included: Mr. S. G. Ikoku, Mr. Ayo Adebanjo and Mr. James Aluko. The petition reads in part:
Nigeria is now SIXTY-SIX MONTHS old as an independent State. The final phase in the struggle for Nigeria’s independence was initiated by my Party in the historic Self-Government motion moved by Chief Anthony Enahoro and supported by me on 31st March, 1953. IT SHOULD BE REGARDED AS MORE THAN IRONICAL, AND AS PALPABLY TRAGIC, THAT TWO OF THE ARCHITECTS OF THAT INDEPENDENCE AND, INDEED, THE PACE-SETTERS AND ACCELERATORS OF ITS FINAL PHASE SHOULD BE UNFREE IN A FREE NIGERIA. In precise terms, I have spent FORTY-SIX out of the SIXTY-SIX MONTHS of independence in one form of confinement or another. I happened to know that the leaders of the old civilian regime, in spite of themselves, did not feel quite easy in their conscience about the plight into which they had maneuvered me in the scheme of things; and I dare to express the hope and belief that you personally view my present confinement with concern and disapproval.
Concluding the petition, Awolowo further pleaded:
I most sincerely appeal to you to be good enough to exercise, in favour of myself and my colleagues, the prerogative of mercy vested in you by Section 10 (I) (i) (a) of the Constitution of the Federation Act 1963, by granting me as well as each of my colleagues A FREE PARDON. If you do, your action will be most warmly, heartily, and popularly applauded at home and abroad, and you will go down to history as soldier, statesmen, and humanitarian.
The question here is, why did Aguiyi-Ironsi not see it a most pressing political necessity to grand Chief Awolowo immediate pardon so that he would in Awolowo’s words “go down to history as soldier, statesman, and humanitarian”? It should however be noted that Awolowo in a postscript to the petition had noted, to state in his words:
The Supreme Military Council considered my petition, but could not immediately grant my request. According to information which was later confirmed, it was feared that my release might create problems with which they might find it difficult to cope before they had properly settled down in office. However, on 27 July 1966 Mr. Olu Olofin, then Editor of Irohin Yoruba arrived in Calabar to deliver a special message from Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the then Military Governor of the Western Region and a member of the Supreme Military Council. Olofin brought the good tiding that the Supreme Military Council had granted my petition, and that I would be released any time from then.
In other words, it was just two days to the fall of Aguiyi-Ironsi that his Government saw it expedient to grant Awolowo’s petition. But Chief Obafemi Awolowo was not fully informed of the devious politicking that confronted his request for pardon within the Supreme Military Council.
Not only was the case of Chief Awolowo seriously debated before the Supreme Military Council but also the request for the release of thirty-five Tiv members of the Joseph Tarka-led United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) who were under incarceration by the Ahmadu Bello-led Northern People’s Congress (NPC) for their roles in the Tiv riots.
Peter Enahoro was said to have met General Aguiyi-Ironsi several times for the release of Obafemi Awolowo and his men of which his brother Chief Anthony Enahoro was among. Quite disgustingly, Aguiyi-Ironsi’s response to Peter Enahoro was that based on the rumour that he was part of the January 15, 1966 coup, it would not be the interest of his regime to have Chief Obafemi Awolowo and other political prisoners released. Indeed so long as it concerned the release of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and other political prisoners, the only voice Aguiyi-Ironsi could hear in the Supreme Military Council was that of the Fulani-born Lt. Col. Hassan Usman Katsina, the Military Governor of the Northern Group of Provinces. Even the wise counsel of his close friend and Military Governor of the Western Group of Provinces, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi was nowhere close to his listening ears.
It was simply the case of, as the Igbo say: “When death beckons on the poor dog, it removes from it the sense of smelling defecation.”
Similarly, Joseph Tarka—President of the United People’s Congress (UMBC) was reported to have met General Aguiyi-Ironsi six times without result, and it was rumoured that Joseph Tarka was to be arrested by Aguiyi-Ironsi for similar roles too; all in his bid to please the Northern Fulani oligarchy.
Yet his cowardly dilation did not save him from being consumed by the same raging fire of hatred by the Fulani oligarchy of the North. As Ruth First put it:
For fear of antagonizing the North, the regime did nothing to mobilize support for itself. The most obvious step was the release of Chief Awolowo, Chief Anthony Enahoro and their associates of the treason trial in the West. General Ironsi three times set a date for their release. The first date was in March; but Ironsi told Peter Enahoro of certain rumours that he himself had taken part in plotting the January revolt: ‘To allay fears that the South had conspired against the North, he decided to defer…. Another date was fixed in May.
At the discussions in State House, the Governor of the North said vehemently that Chief Awolowo’s release at that time would cause furors in the North … though Fajuyi pressed, as he had done for many months, that contrary to exciting rebellion in the North, Chief Awolowo’s discharge would rally civilians to the banner of the military regime.’ The final release date was set for I August 1966. By that date Ironsi was dead. Ironsi temporized in the same way over Tiv demands. He claimed to be impressed by their arguments for Middle Belt autonomy; but nothing happened. He received deputations from J. S. Tarka, the Tiv leader, on six different occasions; but then reports circulated that he was about to have Tarka arrested. Government was already being run largely by rumour and intrigue.
But the question here, is should Awolowo have to write a petition before the issue of his pardon could be addressed by the Aguiyi-Ironsi’s regime bearing in mind that at the root of what brought the same Aguiyi-Ironsi to power was the incarceration of Awolowo? What problem should the early release of Chief Awolowo have caused the regime except to build a stronger power base which could have no doubt saved the regime as well as the entire nation from the catastrophic events that followed thereafter? Indeed the reaction to the January 15, 1966 coup in Remo Division—Chief Awolowo’s home-base was evident of what Aguiyi-Ironsi’s release of Obafemi Awolowo should have meant for the Regime. As Ruth First reported:
The coup was greeted with more enthusiasm than independence itself had been six years before. ‘Here in Ikenne and Shagamu you can feel the streets sighing with relief today, ‘ wrote a school teacher. Nzeogwu and the young majors were heroes. In the West, the thuggery stopped almost overnight; the region veered from chaotic banditry to jubilant expectancy with astonishing speed. Within a fortnight, the Police mobile contingent from the Northern Provinces was withdrawn.
Again, it is obvious that were the thirty-five Tiv political prisoners of Ahmadu Bello released by Aguiyi-Ironsi, the prospect of building a united Northern Nigeria front against Aguiyi-Ironsi in particular and the Igbo in general by the Middle Belt and Hausa-Fulani should not have been easy. But General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his band of self-centred Igbo advisers around him only thought of their immediate gain with looking at the overall consequences of their actions to their wider Igbo ethnic kinsmen.
However, it took his successor, General Yakubu Gowon to play that role of a soldier, statesman and humanitarian when he immediately granted unconditional pardon to Awolowo on assumption of power.
Not only that, he went further to appoint him his Vice Chairman of the Supreme Military Council and Minister of Finance, thus in another way fulfilling in part the original vision of the 15 January, 1966 coup plotters. And when it came to the choice of whom to follow at the critical moment, Chief Obafemi Awolowo did not need anybody to tell him where to pitch his camp.
There was no doubt that General Aguiyi-Ironsi was lacking in principle, direction and courage which were the primary qualities of a good leader. All the while he was gazing at the besieging ghost of the late Sardauna of Sokoto Sir Ahmadu Bello and was most concerned on how to placate him without minding the consequences of dereliction of the responsibilities of his office as a soldier entrusted with precarious political responsibilities. Indeed to Ironsi, the Sultan of Sokoto was already regarded as a second Head of State with equal status to him.
As Ruth First further put it:
Ironsi’s instinct was all along to placate the Northerners. Thus, as his regime opened, he appointed Major Hassan Katsina, son of the Emir of Katsina, as Military Governor of the North. This soothed the traditionalists temporarily. Similarly, Ironsi’s open reliance on Northern officers in the army (he appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Gowon Chief-of-Staff over Ogundipe, giving him virtual command of the army; placed young Northerners in charge of ordnance and signals; was guarded only by Northern soldiers) and the state visit to Lagos arranged for the Sultan of Sokoto were gestures of conciliation. But they did not resolve his government’s mounting dilemma in the face of conflicting pressures.
This was one of the many riddles that confronted Aguiyi-Ironsi in his short-lived Government, as revealed in situ by the events leading to his ascension and subsequent policies that tended to portray the January 15, 1966 as an Igbo-inspired plot to dominate other groups.