Pre-1966 Politicians Were Blamed for Downfall of the Republic of Biafra – I Plead Not Guilty (Zik in a 1979 Newspaper Interview)
It is my desire to contribute my own little “two pence” to the discourse generated by Prof Nwala’s treatise on the Lenin/Bolshevik revolution vis-a-vis the Biafran experience (https://goo.gl/QZ8GPj). In doing so, however, I intend to pull some facts from a 1979 interview by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe on his role in the Biafran war, before making my own commentary. The interview is somewhat lengthy, and I crave the understanding and forgiveness of the reader for that:
Question by the New Nigerian Newspaper: But if I can take you on again, perhaps one can say here too that there was a 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 the 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 wartime 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 preconditions. 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 Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, and both of them would see that the Civil War was placed as the 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 objection 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 affair 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 for 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 the 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 Ndiigbo. 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 Selassie, Hamani Diori, Tubman and General Ankrah 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 the 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 asked, “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 battlefield.
So, we crossed our fingers awaiting the verdict of Algiers. You know it was decided by 33 to 4 in favor 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 favor 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 battlefield 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 the 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 around 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”. [End of interview.]
Commentary – by Dr. Aneke:
The above interview can be summarized in the following efforts and accomplishments:
The pursuit of a peaceful effort by Zik and African Heads of state to end the civil war and Gowon’s use of preconditions to obstruct the peace efforts.
A concerted diplomatic effort by African Heads of state to break Gowon’s obstruction using recognitions for Biafra.
A diplomatic success by African Heads of State resulting in Gowon’s acceptance of peace conference without preconditions.
A sudden turn around by Ojukwu at the conference embodied in a 90-minute speech.
Continuation of war and Zik’s resignation and voluntary exile in Britain
Obviously, Mr. Mojekwu was a big factor in Ojukwu trashing a 12-month effort he made with Zik to bring Gowon to the conference table without preconditions and then make a U-turn that defied common sense. Ojukwu, a student of history who probably knew more of the Lenin-Bolshevik story than any of us, should have known that this was not the time to accept advice based on consanguinity, friendship or on who is from Nnewi or who is from Onitsha, but a critical and decisive time when the most constructive and persuasive course of action was necessary, regardless of the personality of the adviser.
The outcome was a classic manifestation of Prof Chidi Osuagwu’s concern of superseding Ucheoha with Ucheotuonye. The Ucheoha superseded, in this case, was not just that of Biafrans but numerous African heads of State who were committed to peace efforts up to that point.
In war, it is common knowledge that, for the most part, and barring any unexpected volcanic events, your achievements at a conference table is a function of your relative strength in the battlefield. Hence, Zik’s feeling that Ojukwu stood the best chance of extracting the most concessions from Gowon at the time, especially with the support of OAU/Haile Selassie for an Aburi-type settlement, was more than justified.
If Ojukwu was 10% as inclusive and consultatory as Lenin, then obviously, the efforts of African heads of states would have crystallized early in an Aburi-like resolution, instead of a predictable and avoidable defeat that he saw (or should have seen) coming. We will never know everything that went through his head, but I believe that Aniedobe’s reference to his “personal ambition to be Head of a bright, new, shining African country that could rival any European Country in practically every domain” might have had something to do with it.
If there is any lesson in this, it’s that there is a time to play to the gallery of consanguinity, friendship and “nwannam” relationship, but also a time to bite the bullet, ignore unnecessary niceties and take the most audacious and perpendicular course for the sake of the survival of your people. Up until now, people are still using circumstances bordering on relationships, sectionality and self to truncate what is in the overall interest of the Igbos.
Admittedly, Ojukwu was young at the time, as our brother Okenwa noted in his essay, but I don’t think that age had much to do with it, as much as personality and chemistry. After all, Gowon was younger than Ojukwu but knew how to play ball with Awolowo, Enahoro, Tarka and others to get what he wanted done.
We’re not apportioning blames but the reader can see that what Lenin did with the totality of his comrades, in terms of consultation and participation, Ojukwu did privately with Mojekwu, thereby substituting Ucheotuonye for Ucheoha.
Again, these analyses have nothing to do with blame game or finger pointing but for futuristic lessons and warnings because it could repeat among us in present-day Igboland if not consciously and actively guarded against, for, as our people say, if you don’t know where the rain started to beat you, you won’t know where it stopped.
Dr. Luke Aneke
(Archival interview by Zik with New Nigeria Newspaper was courtesy of Dr. Aneke)