How Ojukwu, Gowon’s Personality Clash Caused Biafra War

Dr. Sherman Nagel, 53, a former Los Angeles, Calif., physician, checks the lungs of a malnourished girl brought by her mother to Dr. Nagel's Northern Anwa County hospital in Biafra, Aug. 2, 1968. The girl died a few hours later from starvation. Dr. Nagel is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church and has been living in West Africa for 24 years. He gets medicine and food by paying high prices to smugglers who bring it to Biafra through the front lines. Image: Dennis Lee Royle/Associated Press


Chief Mbazulike Amaechi, first republic Minister of Aviation is about the last of the titans. The only surviving nationalist in this exclusive interview with Saturday Sun’s team of MAGNUS EZE, GEOFFREY ANYANWU and DAVID ONWUCHEKWA, expressed sadness over the parlous state of Nigeria. He talked about the collapse of national cohesion, the 1966 coup, agitation for Biafra, restructuring, 2023 Presidency and other issues.

How do you feel about the current state of Nigeria?

I feel sad about Nigeria because this was not the Nigeria we founded; this was not the Nigeria in which we spilled our blood, in which we lost our lives, in which we lost our freedom; went to prison, went to detention on many occasions, which we founded on patriotism and nationalism and wanted to serve, nurturing to become a big country in Africa and the world because God has given Nigeria the potential to be the biggest and richest country in Africa and to compete in the world. This is no longer that Nigeria we dreamt of. So, I am sad with the Nigeria I see now.

Where did we miss it as a country?

First of all, Britain started ruling against the will of the people they found in those places; they said they were protecting some part of the country, and colonising some part. In 1914, they said for administrative convenience, they merged Northern and Southern Protectorates. The south had richer resources and more money than the north, so, they understood that administering the north alone was no longer a solvent proposition. So, Lord Lugard dreamt of merging the north and the south and gave effect to it so that he can use the resources of the south to run the whole country since the north was not solvent on its own. They kept running this until the ‘40s when nationalists sprang up in the country and started demanding that Nigeria should be allowed to rule herself; that Nigerians should be allowed to rule their country. This agitation was led by first of all Sir Herbert Macaulay and people like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Akiola Maja, S.O. Gbadamosi, all these people came together and formed the Nigerian Youth Movement and later Nigerian National Democratic Party. From there, some people thought that confining the democratic struggle to Lagos alone would not solve the problem in the country. From there, it was decided to form a national political party, so, in 1944, the National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons (NCNC) was formed. This was because southern Cameroons was part of Nigeria at that time, and also some part of northern Cameroons. Herbert Macaulay was the National President while Dr. Azikiwe was the National Secretary. Then in 1947, they decided to tour the country to collect mandate from the people of the country; north, south, east and west, to go and tell the British Government that Nigerians wanted independence. While on this tour, Herbert Macaulay became sick; he had a little accident at Kano, he was aged between 80 and 90 then. He was returned to Lagos where he died, but before his death, he said many significant things. First, he said in his dying bed, tell the NCNC to stop for four days for Herbert Macaulay before they carry on. He also said again; tell Oged, to keep the flag flying. Oged was his very beloved son, Ogedengbe, who was part of the radical Zikist Movement at the time. Finally, before he breathed his last, if the younger ones had seen his picture, he was always in bow tie with his thick moustache; he gave an illustration with himself. He said ‘as my bow tie and moustache are parallel and inseparable, so shall the unity between the north and the south be indestructible.’ Having said that, he gave up the ghost after a few minutes; the NCNC gave him a week and continued. At a meeting, the NCNC decided that Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe who was at the time the National Secretary should assume the position of National President and another person from the north became the National Secretary. Later on, the National Secretary died and Kola Balogun became the National Secretary, Zik continued as National President so the essence intensified the agitation of liberation of Nigeria from the clutches of imperial British Government. He sent a delegation to London to demand the Nigerian independence, to demand abrogation of the constitution which Governor Richard imposed on the country they called it then obnoxious Richard Constitution 1946. So, eventually that constitution was abrogated because Governor Richard was recalled and another governor, John Macpherson sent to Nigeria; in 1951-52 the new constitution created northern, eastern and western region and proposed a federation. It was at this stage that following the agitation which had been joined by the trade union movement; by other political parties, so two political parties sprang up Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) led by Ahmadu Bello, and Action Group led by Obafemi Awolowo of the Western region. Zik continued to lead the NCNC and in 1946, the youths in NCNC thought that the speed or progress in agitation for independence was slow, so they formed radical youth movement which was called Zikist Movement, the movement believed in revolutionalising for independence but the NCNC, the parent body believed that we should take it easy, go by negotiation etc. So, this brought at times conflict, indoor and occasionally open door conflicts between the Zikist movement and NCNC but the struggle went on. The Zikist movement at foundation was chaired by MCK Ajuluchukwu and secretary was Kola Balogun. In 1949 the NCNC decided to make a call for revolution and so it was to take the form of doing things not criminal but not in conformity with the laws like telling people not to pay taxes to a foreign government, by telling the policemen not to arrest or molest brother Nigerians when the white police officers urged them, because up to that time no Nigerian was allowed to reach the rank of superintendent or assistant superintendent of police; the highest rank a Nigerian would obtain in police was inspector and sergeant major; no Nigerian reached the rank of commissioned officer. It was decided that a lecture would be delivered and Zikist Osita Agwuna undertook to deliver the lecture at Tom Jones memorial hall in Idumota Lagos. And he delivered the lecture in October 1949 and promptly Brutish police and British Government in Nigeria went into action they quickly rounded up the Zikists who attended the lecture; Ostia Agwuna was arrested, Fred Anyia, Anthony Enahoro was arrested etc and charged to court; in the court they adhered to the policy of the Zikist Movement not to make plea in any court presided over by the white man or any court of the imperial Government in Nigeria. They maintained it, some of them like Mallam Raji Abdallah told the court if you’re satisfied that my struggle to win freedom for my country is a crime, I ask you to give me the maximum sentence prescribed by law, so they were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment- Mokwugo Okoye in Lagos three years imprisonment with hard labour; Ostia Agwuna, three years imprisonment with hard labour, Mallam Raji Abdallah 2-3 years imprisonment with hard labour; Fred Anyiam and others were all sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. I was then the secretary of Zikist Movement at Benin; I was picked up and thrown into Benin prison; at Onitsha, Ikenna Nzimiro was Chairman of Zikist Movement and one young man from Asaba were sent to prison; at enugu, J.C.J. Anakwe, at Jos, Bob Ogbuagu and so on all over the country. But, then we didn’t lose hope when we came out of prison; the struggle continued. The older members of the NCNC received theirs as a matter of fact in those days if you came out of political imprisonment; you’re given a public reception usually a big rally reception and so forth and then you are awarded the PG cap to wear. PG cap means prison graduate, if you wore a PG cap and come to the motor park they don’t charge you, enter a bus wearing the PG cap, the bus conductor will not charge you. Everywhere, nationalism was the in thing, so this continued until series of conferences in 1956 -57 until Nigeria became independent sovereign nation on October 1, 1960, and the people of the country said in many areas these people who fought for our independence, we’ll elect you; you go and run our country for us now with the nationalism in you, we trust you. So, it wasn’t money; people won elections without spending money, without bribing any electoral officer, electoral officers in those days were civil servants. We formed the first government and in 1961, we said no, this constitution which British Government gave us and which the Queen of England signed our independence, we were going to give ourselves our own constitution, not one signed by the Queen of England and so parliament set up a committee; brought people from within and without the parliament and met 1961 into 1962 and came up with the republican constitution and so in 1963, Nigeria was declared a republic and now made it Federal Republic of Nigeria. We elected a President; in fact, it was written in the constitution that the first president of the country will be Nnamdi Azikiwe and remained president in 1964, there was no single party that ushered in independence- the NCNC scored a total of 2. 6 million votes throughout the country to secure 94 seats in the House of Representatives, the Action Group scored 1. 59 million votes to score 74 seats, NPC scored 1.56 million votes to score 144 seats in Parliament. Note that NCNC scored 2.6 million votes for 94 seats but the party that had 1.56 million votes got 144 seats in parliament, so that’s British gerrymander. So, know that all the troubles in Nigeria all along are caused by Britain; they would not want to see someone from southern Nigeria to lead this country. It’s their plan. That’s the gerrymander in carving out the constituencies. So, NCNC scored almost all the eastern seats, more than half of seats in the west and some parts of the north and with the total 2.6 votes. This continued in 1964, there was an internal friction in the Action Group because at independence, the NCNC-NPC formed a coalition government at the centre. The Action Group led by Awolowo became the official opposition, so, in 1964, Akintola, the deputy leader of the AG who became premier of the western region when Awolowo moved to House of Representatives as leader of opposition went behind Awolowo to form alliance with the north. This brought a very sharp division in the Action Group; it also affected the position of NCNC and NPC, so eventually it led to some troubles in the west. In the western region, the crises continued and led to what is called Operation Wetie and the Western House of Assembly was dissolved; the election wasn’t true election, there were constituencies where Action Group and NCNC candidates were not allowed to register so these continued until January 1966, when the military took over the country.

As a key player in Government then, was it really an Igbo coup or were there actually some form of support or sympathy from Igbo politicians for the masterminds of the coup?

The Igbo politicians didn’t even know the coup was plotted if Mbazulike Amaechi didn’t know then, nobody knew. I’m aware that the Igbo, NCNC politicians didn’t know that there was a plot about that. What happened, those who’re involved were mainly Captains and a few Majors and there were many Igbo Captains in the army that time, everything was on merit; for example, in 1961 when we wanted to establish Nigerian Air Force, about 12 people were recruited to go to Germany to learn how to operate military aircraft; when they went there they’re first of all taken on altitude test to know whether you have attitude, and they’ll take you up and tumble the aircraft many times; when they did that and came down, even though the Minister of Defence was a northerner and he selected more of northern boys to do that, of the 12-13 people that were sent eight were northerners. After the altitude test, six of the northerners packed their things and returned to Nigeria. None of the Igbo came back, other people from other tribes continued. Don’t forget at the time of independence, the whole northern Nigeria had produced only one Doctor Diko from Kaduna state; they produced only one lawyer in the whole northern Nigeria; Barrister Abdurasak from Kwara state. This was the level of education there then.

But where did we miss the track?
Where we missed it then was when the military took over the government of the country and then there was crisis within the military itself. Emeka Ojukwu was appointed the military governor of old eastern region, David Ejoor military governor of Midwest as it was known then, Adekunle Fajuyi in the west, and Usman Kastina for the north. Kastina was the only major; others were Lt. Colonels because there was no Lt. Colonel from the north. When they killed Aguiyi Ironsi in the reprisal coup of July 1966, the headship of the federal government became void; Yakubu Gowon was promoted to headship, Ojukwu said Gowon cannot command him, Gowon said if you’re senior to me come and occupy this seat. So, it was ego and pride that led to the civil war; personality clash between Ojukwu and Gowon. I describe that war as avoidable civil war because it could have been negotiated out; there was a mistake on our own part. So, the military incursion in politics as a result of ego and personality clash between Gowon and Ojukwu, the whole situation was mishandled into a civil war in which lives were lost on both sides; in which lives were lost on the Nigerian side, small number of people but on the Biafran side, millions but that’s not the painful thing. The most painful thing there is that government has stopped being government in Nigeria because the military came into government and they started changing; from Gowon to Murtala Mohammed; from Murtala Mohammed to Obasanjo; from Obasanjo to Buhari to Babangida; from Babangida to Abacha and from Abacha to Abdusallami Abubakar and these people stayed for 38 years in government. The military stayed for 38 years of our independence in government and in the process, they were doing what the military were trained to do. The military is trained to act rough, to fight, to conquer, to destroy, to loot, to steal, to vandalise; that is what the military is trained to do. All targeted at the appropriate enemy and so for 38 good years, Nigeria was ruled by the military and but for two years of the 38 years, the other 36 years were the military from one side of the country only. Because apart from Obasanjo’s two years, the other 36 years were military from northern Nigeria and so, they don’t see the country again as a country. They see the country as a colony of the north; a colony of a part of the country and in order to kill the proper understanding of the country and how the country came about and how things came about, they abolished the teaching of history in schools. The military abolished the teaching of history in schools, because if you teach history in schools, people must learn that Azikiwe was at a time the President, that this person was Premier of the West at a time, that this ruler came up at a time or that this happened. So, they knew that if they allowed history to be taught, the growing generation will be made to know the true story about their past and who was who and who is who. So, they abolished the teaching of history in the country and then, introduced what they knew best; looting and stealing. This started with small, small stealing and then the thing developed into massive looting. So, that’s where the country derailed.

Would you say the Igbo are really marginalised?

Not that they are just marginalized, they are being treated as not equal partners in the country. The Igbo are not treated as a part of the federation. No. They are being treated as a conquered race, as a colony. That is the truth.

There’s a central body that should fight for the Igbo, Ohanaeze Ndigbo; what will be your assessment of Ohanaeze Ndigbo?
I know Ohanaeze as an organization until they introduced rotation into the constitution; that is, this state will now produce the leader and at the end of this, this state will produce. The leadership shifted from what would be given to where you come from and the thing started deteriorating. It started going down. When it will go up, I don’t know but it will not be easy for the man who will raise it up to do so because it’s easier to destroy than to build. The destruction has been so much. So, the Igbo now don’t have leadership. Nobody leads them. Like in the olden days, Dr. Azikiwe was in charge of the political leadership; Chief Z. C. Obi was the leader of the Igbo culturally and non-politically. So, wherever there was a problem of common interest to Ndigbo, whether you belong to the Action Group of those days or the NCNC of those days or the Mbadiwe’s Democratic Party of those days; what will happen is that Z.C. Obi will summon a meeting, special meeting and all these leaders will come together and solve the Igbo problem and everybody goes back to his political party. There is no leadership in Igbo land. There’s no leadership for Igbo now.

What can you say about the renewed agitation for Biafra?

Well, I would have advised the government of the day to give the agitators for Biafra what they want. They said they want plebiscite, if you go to plebiscite, they will lose. In Abuja for example, apart from government buildings, 70 percent of the private buildings in Abuja is owned by Ndigbo. Go to Lagos, Ndigbo own 40 percent of the buildings. In every town in Nigeria, if you take away the population of the indigenous people of such place, the next people in population are the Igbo and so, if Buhari and his people were good politicians, they will just say, okay; we give you plebiscite. Go and conduct your plebiscite. INEC will conduct the plebiscite because the Igbo in Abuja will not say that they are going back to Biafra. The Igbo in Kano will not vote for plebiscite, neither will Igbo in Lagos, neither will Igbo anywhere. There are more Igbo abroad than at home and if by any crises, they are forced to come back home, you will see real crises at home. There will be no peace. The place geographically cannot even accommodate them. Administratively, it will be difficult to govern them. Who will govern them if we get plebiscite; that Kanu, or Okorocha or all these people? They are the people that will govern you when you get Biafra? I don’t like what is being done to Ndigbo now in Nigeria but I don’t believe that the solution is in Biafra.

There are two major schools of thought today, particularly in the south east; those who want a restructured Nigeria and those who want the Igbo to produce president in 2023. What are your views about these two issues?

I’ve always spoken for and in support of those agitating for restructuring; restructuring in writing a constitution for Nigeria because there is no constitution. Nigeria is being ruled without the people’s constitution, without a constitution written and owned by the people of Nigeria. The only constitution that was people’s constitution was the one of 1963; the Republican Constitution of 1963 which the military overthrew in 1966 and said we abrogated it, we cancel it. Then in 1977, 1978, 1979, Obasanjo organised a Constituent Assembly headed by Rotimi Williams. Rotimi Williams and his men wrote a constitution for Nigeria, passed it onto the military; the military instead of sending the draft then to plebiscite for Nigerian people to see, the military removed some of the things they didn’t like and put what they wanted into the constitution and then one man signed it; one man who’s occupying the seat of the government illegally by treasonable act of overthrowing a democratically elected government. The same man signed this constitution as an order-in- council. So, it’s not a constitution of the people of Nigeria. Then the military continued to rule with this; one military after the other until 1998; when Abacha died; so they set up another Constituent Assembly. They drafted a constitution again instead of putting the constitution as it is or even as amended by the military for the public to vote and say this is our constitution, they did not do that. The military removed what they did not like, what the North did not like and signed approval; ‘I hereby approve that this is the constitution’. Constitution signed by one man. So, all along till today, Nigeria is being run as an illegality. Nigeria is an illegality. There is no legal constitution, there is no constitution. Nigeria is not being run under a constitution now. It’s being run by the illegal imposition of the military from one side of the country and so, my advocacy is that the people of Nigeria should meet, write down their own constitution, not like some people saying, we will go to the House of Representatives, we will go to Senate, secure amendment, if you amend a building that is built on a wrong foundation, you are still building on a wrong foundation and the building is bound to collapse at the time it should collapse. There can only be one final solution. Let the people of Nigeria meet, work out a basis for being together. The wealth of the country is being produced from one side of the country; the South South, the South East and part of the South West. The wealth of the country now is on oil and gas and that is the only source of revenue of the country and yet the imperial Fulani Government that is ruling the rest of the country as a colony will not permit the people who produce the wealth to gain from the wealth; to have a say in the control and the management of the wealth that accrues from their place. Even in the management of the production that creates the wealth, they have eliminated people from the area completely.

What about the second leg; issue of Presidency for the Igbo?

I’ve always heard Ndigbo talk of Igbo presidency, I don’t talk about Igbo presidency but I’ll understand when you talk of a Nigerian president of the Igbo extraction or of Igbo origin. There is nothing like Igbo presidency but if you are talking of a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction, one; nobody will ever come and offer it to you on a platter of gold. It has never been done anywhere in the world. If you want to be president of the country, you have to work for it, you have to plan for it, you have to strategise for it and you have to mobilise for it and capture it, not being given, no. You have to capture it. So, if anybody is talking about Ndigbo must be president in 2023, yes, okay. If you want to be, work for it, organise for it and if I may say this, I was NCNC’s final authority in party organisation and political party strategy. Being the principal organising secretary of the NCNC and being in everything in the NCNC as a party; this is my field, this is my specialisation. If Ndigbo wants to be president, let them come to me for advice. I have the key. Let them come to me to tell them what to do because you don’t get president by merely wishing to be president.