Review: The Nigerian January 1966 Coup and Biafra: Myth and Realities

Review: The Nigerian January 1966 Coup and Biafra: Myth and Realities

Tuesday, August 7, 2018 12:32 pm

The Nigerian January 1966 Coup and Biafra, Myth and Realities,

By E. C Ejiogu

In Igbo lore there is the story about an onyeije who was caught in an approaching rain that compelled him to walk into the obi in the nearest homestead on his way for shelter from the rain. But as he made himself comfortable in the cozy warmth from the well-tended smoldering log fire and fell into that amiable chit-chat that often characterizes two Igbo adults that find themselves together, with his host, his inability to fathom exactly where the rain that he was taking refuge from began to beat him when he was asked, became cause for the latter to ask him take his leave. The rationale being that the one who is unable to discern where the rain began to drench him, will, by extension, be incapable of knowing where he dried it off his body.

As an aside, permit me to quickly say something here about rain: Regardless of its universality as a weather phenomenon, there are still stark differences in the sort of attention and reaction that it evokes in people from different cultures and in different societies worldwide. Amongst us the Igbo, rain evokes quite useful aphorismic narratives that provoke deep philosophical thoughts and wisdom that come handy to symbolize so about the Igbo worldview and who we are as a people.In that regard, one of the observations about rain that struck and made lingering impression on me when I first set foot in faraway US is that an umbrella is your only shelter when you are caught in a rain storm. The innate fear of the other, the stranger that symbolize the mindless individualism, racism, xenophobia, even maniacal, etc. characteristics that are associated with society and people in the West vis-à-vis their age-old interactions with non-European peoples tend to make it impossible for Americans to admit a passerby who is compelled by the rain to duck into the nearest shelter to stay dry.

Contrast that with our society where the contrast obtains:Amongst Nd’Igbo, evena strangeris welcome to take refuge from the rain in the nearest shelter, even though the one might still be asked to take his leave if he offends the sensibility of his host by expressing, or conveying the inability to be candid. Yes, disregard for candidness is exactly why someone would repair to amnesia over where the rain storm began to drench him.

In all of its essence, the foregoing premise is meant to remind us that it is also necessary to point out the seminal source of what the authors and editors of The Nigerian January 1966 Coup and Biafra: Myth and Realities, which is also the book we all are gathered here today to participate in and witness its presentation rightly characterized as “the greatest historical burden that continues to distort the identity and character of Nd’Igbo and render them easily vulnerable to conspiracy and proneness to violent physical attacks and genocide especially by their Fulani neighbors in the Nigerian Federation.”

One must quickly make a point of correction in the aforementioned quote, which was lifted from a piece by two of the editors of the book under review: The Fulani, a nomadic cattle rearing people whose original home is in the Futa Jallon mountain, some of whom settled amongst the Hausa and other indigenous inhabitants of the far north upper Niger basin, are in no way neighbors to the Igbo. The Igbo homeland, i.e. Alaigbo is in contrast, located far away from the arid savannah in a known portion of the lower southeast Niger basin. The respective ecology of Hausaland and the other parts of the upper Niger that the Fulani wandered into and settled amongst its indigenous inhabitants, and the lower southeast Niger basin are stark contrasts. The former is semi-arid savannah grassland that tappers right into the Sahel, while the latter is the thick ever-green rainforest that meets swampy mangrove ecology of the Niger delta.

This reviewer takes pain to make these observations, because as he points out elsewhere, “geography”, and by extension, ecology, “influenced the respective history and culture as well as the racial make-up of each of the distinct peoples that made their respective homeland and inhabit parts of the Niger basin in a non-coterminous manner.

It was indeed, British colonial intervention that carved the distinct inhabitants of these parts of the greater Niger basin into the Nigerian supra-national state. What the Fulani actually turned themselves into is a nemesis and detractors ofthese distinct peoples in the Nigeria project, especially the Igbo in the Nigeria project sequel to the consolidation of the patronage-clientage pact that they entered with the British, their conquerors.

The January 1966 coup d’état is misrepresented and is made to become that “historical burden” for the Igbo by the Fulani and the others. This is to the degree that it is used to instigate a chain of episodic violent events and adversities master-minded by the Fulani and used to inflict injuries, hurt, and all sorts of marginalization on the Igbo. A litany of some of those will suffice to add credence to the assertions being made here: The unprovoked systematic massacre of Igbo residents of urban centers and parts of the north and the west of Nigeria sequel to the July 28-30, 1966 military revolt by officers and rank and file soldiers from nationalities that inhabit the upper Niger in which Igbo officers and rank and file soldiers were systematically targeted and slaughtered in numbers.

Those massacres canalized subsequently into pogroms, and the genocidal war that Nigeria levied in 1967 on the Republic of Biafra, which the Igbo resolved to declare to self-protect after they were driven to their homeland. The various punitive economic and political policies that the Fulani rulers of Nigeria have used to specifically target the Igbo since the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war in January 1970. The various religious uprisings and riots that wantonly targeted and slaughter Igbo residents of cities in the north of Nigeria. The on-going Boko Harem and rampaging Fulani herdsmen menace.

Even though, the authors and editors of the book under review here hit the nail right on its head in their assertion about the January 1966coup d’état being made into a burden on the Igbo by the Fulani, it is not indeed, where the rain started to drench Nd’Igbo in the Nigeria project.

It was way back at the onset of British colonial intervention that the proverbial rain began to drench Nd’Igbo on the aegis of the Nigeria project. The British at first found it difficult to understand the resoundingly democratic Igbo political system and its accompanying structures and their direct democratic features. It was not that the British lacked the capacity to understand. What they met in the Igbo is not exactly what they were looking for and needed to establish and run a colonial project. My eyes have seen an intelligence report on the Aru that can best be characterized as wishful fantasy. The notion expressed in the report being that the success with which the Aru Igbo propagated long distance trade throughout the lower southeast was indicative of their suitability for cooption in the colonial project as clients in the same way as the Fulani, a conquering race that extols and practices militarism as state building mechanism. Their fair skin was even invoked as evidence that they are of Fulani stock. But that fantasy quickly fizzled when the British realized that like the rest of their fellow Igbo, the Aru Igbo are not culturally wired to be coopted into patronage-client relationship that would aid and abet colonial rule.

Our own late Professor Kenneth Onwuka Dike once observed that rather than try to understand that Igbo social authority patterns are incongruent with autocracy and unitarism, the British, in their haughty nature, designated the Igbo and their world as amounting “to a patchwork of confusion and anarchy, totally lacking of authority and control”. It was lost on them that what they wrongly misunderstood as a patchwork, a confusion, lack of authority and control are the outcomes of centuries of interaction of a people with the geography and ecology of their homeland that evolved into a village-based democratic system of government.

Given that the British are colonizers, out to carve out a colonial project from the distinct peoples they found in the parts of the Niger basin in focus, their manifest desire was to impose absolute control where it does not exist normatively, by the use of violence and disruption in order to achieve the imposition of unitary political authority and control over the constituent peoples in their colonial project, Nigeria. In the case of the Igbo, the British refused to appreciate that it would be impossible to achieve that desire over a people who had evolved a fiercely democratic village-based system of practicing authority.

Thus, punitive military expeditions that worked successfully elsewhere, failed woefully amongst the Igbo.

In Yorubaland for instance, sequel to the Anglo-Ijebu war of 1892 against the Ijebu Yoruba, there were only the armed resistance by the Ilorin Yoruba in 1897 (January-February), the extensive demonstrations and riots by the Egba Yoruba in August 1914, the October-November 1916 bloody armed revolt by the Oyo Yoruba and the extensive armed revolt by the Egba Yoruba in 1918 that were primarily provoked by the Amalgamation of January 1914. Thereafter, Yorubaland in its entirety was completed “pacified”.

There is neither space, nor time here to detail why it was so, but the explanation ties deeply into the apex nature of the set of social authority patterns that the Yoruba evolved and relied on to practice authority in their society. Even though resoundingly democratic, the practice of authority amongst the Yoruba relies profoundly on their apex-structured and constitution-based monarchical system of rule, which disposed them to quick adjustment to the precepts of the indirect system of rule that the Lugardian Amalgamation of 1914 ushered into the body politic of the emergent Nigerian supra-national state.

In the entire upper Niger, between 1897 and 1948, there were a total of 27 armed revolts against the British. In fact, the armed revolts—18—that were recorded in the areas in the period 1906-1948 were mounted against the British and their Fulani clients by the distinct peoples who wouldn’t submit to Caliphate conquest. In essence, right after Fredrick Lugard’s army routed the last of the Caliphate army and killed the Sultan Attahiru on the plains of Sokoto in 1904, the Fulani saw their British conquerors as instruments of destiny and submitted to them.

Contrast the two cases above with the more than 51 acts of armed resistance, revolts, guerrilla insurrection, rebellion, that the Igbo mounted against their British invaders in the period 1901 and 1929. In the period 1901-2, sequel to the Aru expedition, there were more than 30 of them in Igboland. From that time up until 1932, there was a standing policy put in place by the British War Office at Whitehull that instituted an annual punitive expedition every dry season by British commanded troops that billeted in market squares all over Igboland. Communities were sacked, subjected to collective punishment,their yam barns and livestock, homesteads were burnt and pillaged. Communities were compelled by force to feed troops billeted in their market squares with yams and livestock that were commandeered from. Yet, Alaigbo and Nd’Igbo would not succumb to total conquest and subjugation by their British invaders.

In the course of research in the US Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and other archives elsewhere, this reviewer saw intelligence reports on fierce Igbo resistance against various efforts by the British to impose absolute control and unitary rule over them in the period. Communities visited by punitive military expeditions would reassert their autonomy as soon as the soldiers moved to the next community.

I marveled at one of the reports on the AlaikeObowo community that described the dogged harassment that NdiAlaikeObowo inflicted on British commanded troops that passed through their area in 1900-01 en routeAruchukwu to sack the Ibiniukpabi. The report lamented bitterly about that harassment by sniper gun fire, from NdiAlaikeObowo, who were described as a “war-like tribe”. In the same report mention was made that after the campaign concluded, the AlaikeObowo community kept sending messages to the newly installed British resident in Owere that they were ready for a face-off with him whenever he decided to show with his soldiers. He never showed.

When the British thought they had Igboland well under control, they were jolted by the 1929 Women’s Uprising by Igbo women and their counterparts fromIbibi, Efik, and their other neighbors in the lower southeast.

The Women’s Uprising escalated the obsessive quest by the British to pacify the Igbo and institutionalize an official state policy, which began to spawn every imaginable control measure aimed at solving a problem, the Igbo Problem in the Nigeria project by them and subsequent managers of the Nigerian supra-national state and their collaborators. That institutionalization became even more imperative in the light of the swiftness with which Yorubaland was pacified.

Reports written by the various colonial anthropologists who were sent to Igboland and the other neighboring nationalities in the lower Niger after the Women’s Uprising strongly revealed to the British that Nd’Igbo amounted to something different.

That was when the British resolved to bequeath their obsessive quest to solve the Igbo Problem to their Fulani clients. The 1945 anti-Igbo riots and subsequent acts of organized political violence that targeted Igbo residents of cities in the upper Niger ever since, affirm the success of that bequeath.

Now to the core theme of this seminal book by the Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADf). Every worthy Igbo individual and well-wisher should rightly cringe at the mischaracterization of the January 15, 1966 coup d’état as “an Igbo coup”, Aguiyi-Ironsi coup”. I say cringe because the two labels are meant to conjure ideological justification for sustenance of the genocidal conviction that there is the Igbo Problem that must be solved.

The world knows about the Nazis and the Final Solution they invented to solve what they conjured as the Jewish Problem. The Igbo Problem as has been conjured by the British and bequeathed to their Fulani clients is the corollary of the Jewish Problem. Since 1945, the orchestrated political violence and other forms of atrocity that the world has witnessed inflicted on Nd’Igboon the auspices of Fulani rule represent age-old and ongoing efforts to accomplish that.

What the ADf adopted is an activist stance to debunk the lies used to create “the greatest historical burden” to distort Igbo character and identity. It is indeed, that stance that culminated in this book.

First, it wrote a letter to General Yakubu Gowon who knows the truth about the January 15, 1966 coup d’état and asked him to come forth and tell that truth to Nigerians and the whole world.

Pointers on Gowon as someone who knows the truth abound: He was Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Chief of Staff. He was appointed by the latter, and he headed the Tribunal that investigated the January 1966 coup d’état and events sequel to it. Gowon also headed the military junta that assumed control over the Nigeria project right after Aguiyi-Ironsi lost his life in the revolt by northern officers and soldiers. It was also, Gowon that levied and prosecuted the war against Biafra. One can go on and on.

Thus, the ADf asked Gowon: Where is the report of those investigations? Why have they not been publicly released? The ADf insists that the report be released now!

Gowon’s consistent silence over the ADf letter to him made this book imperative.

This book is indeed, the outcome of the ADf’s continuing activism in the service of Nd’Igbo

The truth about that coup d’état, i.e. that it is neither an Igbo undertaking,nor Major-General “Aguiyi-Ironsi’s coup” meant to achieve Igbo domination of the Nigeria project and its affairs has been gathered and put in one handy volume.

Ruth First, the wife of Joe Slovo, the South African anti-Apartheid struggle activist “in her study of the January 15, 1966 coup d’état argues that it ‘was no an Ibo (sic) coup with motives of tribal domination. It was a coup inspired by widespread political grievances’”. First believes that “the coup grew out of the angry…political purposes of young officers, who shared the disgust of their generation at the iniquity of the politicians, not least their use of the army to further their purposes”. MsFirst, who was later assassinated in a letter bomb attack sent to their exile home in Mozambique by the Apartheid regime goons couldn’t have invented her observation on that coup d’état in the service ofNd’Igbo. Hers derive from objective findings in a research study.

The book makes it clear that: The January 1966 coup d’état is not an Igbo event. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was not its leader. That coup d’état is a nationalistic and pan-Nigeria project in that its execution included the active participation of soldiers from the north, although the officers who were involved are Igbo and Yoruba in the main.

Regarding the last assertion, research by this reviewer indicates that the composition and cultural origin of men and officer corps of the Nigerian army at the time couldn’t have predisposed otherwise: “Out of the 57 indigenous men in the corps, a mere 8, (14%) were from the north, 49 (88%) were from the lower Niger. More than 67% of that number, 49 were Igbo. 32 of the senior members of the corps were Igbo, while 14 were Yoruba.

The 1958 and 1959 cohorts of the officer corps from which the officers in that coup d’état were drawn total 36. 27 of them are from the lower Niger, while a mere 9 are from the upper Niger.

That event was planned and executed to preempt another coup d’état authored by the Northern Region premier, Ahamadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and his Yoruba allies in the Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) being led by Ladoke Akintola.

Aptly code-named “Jihad”, it was slated for the third week of January 1966 after the Sardauna’s return from hajj. Operation Jihad was planned to utilize troops from the 4th Battalion, Ibadan under Lt-Col Largema, and the 2nd Battalion, Ikeja, which the then Lt-Col Gowon had been penned down to command. Top military officers including Brigadiers Maimalari and Ademulegun, and Col Shodeinde were all in.

The targets included Chief Obafemi Awolowo and his Action Group (AG) and supporters, and of course their allies in the Middle Belt being led by Joseph Tarka. The intention was to use same to push for the Islamization of Nigeria.

Personnel for Operation Jihad had been shifted around in the army and the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). In fact, the ball had been kicked off and set rolling with the high-handed police action against Awolowo’s Middle Belt supporters. The next along the line were the anti-Akintola Yoruba intellectuals who were also slated for walloping during the action.

The January 15, event was hastily put into effect with the aim of releasing Awolowo from prison and installing him Prime Minister.

How then could the same Aguiyi-Ironsi who was a target in the action, and who, alongside other Igbo officers that included then Lt.-Col Chukwuemeka-OdumegwuOjukwuare instrumental to foiling it, still have been its author?

No Igbo politician, or activist had anything to do with it.

Furthermore, the book contains indisputable facts that debunk two extensions of the fallacies on the January 15, 1966 coup d’état debunked above: That the Republic of Biafra and its leaders were the aggressors in the Nigeria-Biafra war, and that the incursion by Biafra troops commanded by Col Victor Banjo into the Mid-West was part of Igbo ambition to seize territories in Nigeria.

Nothing can be farther from the truth.Research and findings by this reviewer have clearly established that historically, Nd’Igbo, are not culturally predispose to over-ran and colonize any other people. The path dependency theory relied on by scholars in historical studies is also a pointer that strongly underscores all that.

The incursion into the Mid-West by Biafra troops under Col Victor Banjo’s command was in response to Chief Awolowo’s request of Ojukwufor help through Banjo to help liberate Yorubaland from occupation by soldiers from the north who had refused to return to their Region of origin as was agreed on at the Constitutional Conference called in Lagos in search of confidence measures that could enable a cool-off in the Nigeria project at the time. It was the offer of the Vice Chair of the Federal Executive Council to Awolowo by Gowon that swayed him to instruct Banjo to halt the liberation train, which had gotten as far as Ore.

Ojukwu’s letter to Banjo, in which he specified the conditions for lending Biafran troops, and Banjo’s response letter accepting those conditions speak for themselves.

Neither Ojukwu, nor the Republic of Biafra was the aggressor in the war. Gowon and his regime were, after he reneged on the Aburi Accord upon returning to Lagos from Ghana. They levied the war on Biafra, which was in fact, ill-prepared for it at the time.

This book should be in the hands of every worthy Igbo at home and in the Diaspora. It should also be in the hands of every Igbo friend and well-wisher.

Sociologists coined the concept of race-making and use it to describe efforts that utilize intellectual rigor and related effortsby a targeted people, or community to equip and prep its members and their leaders to get up and stand up to resist threats to their existence. That concept fits the role that the ADf assigned itself in the service of Nd’Igbo.

If this reviewer were a bean-counter, he will say to the ADf and its leaders: Ozokwa! NdiADf, ozokwa nu!

•EC Ejiogu, professor of political and military sociology, is the author of The Roots of Political Instability in Nigeria: Political Evolution and Development in the Niger Basin, Ashgate Publishing Ltd (2011) Routledge (2016).

• This being the full text of a review of the book entitled, The Nigerian January 1966 Coup and Biafra: Myth and Realities at a book presentation event hosted by the Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADf), July 28, 2018 that took place at the Bon Sunshine Hotel, Enugu.

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