Civil War: 50 Years After

Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon shake hands in Aburi, Ghana, Januar 5, 1967, during the Aburi Accord, presided by Joseph Ankrah.

The Nigerian civil war, otherwise known as the Biafran war, ended on January 12, 1970, following the surrender of secessionist forces, led by Col. Philip Effiong, who held forte for his Commander, Lt. Col. Emeka Odimegwu-Ojukwu. Could the war have been averted? Deputy Editor EMMANUEL OLADESU examines the lessons of the war and its implications for nation-building.

Fifty years after, the pain lingers. The scars have not faded. The agony is still bold on the faces of victims, relations and loved ones. Although the war has ended, reconciliation has not been fully accomplished.

To many commentators, full integration of the Southeast appeared theoretical, owing to hypocritical commitment on the part of the Federal Government. The war-time military Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, proclaimed “no victor, no vanquished.” But, there was an obvious gap between expectation and reality. The implication is that there is still nostalgia for the pre-war regional agitations for separation or secession, reinforced by the permanently lopsided federalism, fear of domination and lack of sense of belonging.

What are the lessons of the 30-month needless civil war? The lamentable fact of history was that unelected and restless soldiers, who posed as modernisers bubbling with disputed revolutionary zeal, embarked on the misadventure of displacing legitimate civilian authorities and foisted themselves on the polity.

The military became a power bloc, which later lost its cohesion to intra-service competitions and rivalry. When challenging moments suddenly came, the soldiers of fortune failed the elementary test of political leadership. They could not maturely resolve the crisis of succession that engulfed the Armed Forces, following the murder of the Commander-In-Chief, Major Gen. Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi. The top military brass were enveloped in ethnic hate and suspicion. Ego and thirst for power triggered unimaginable bickering. Seniority was sacrificed on the altar of ethnic gang-up, tribal numerical strength in the army and manipulation. The military broke into two camps and the division exploded in a brutal civil war.

Were the conflicts and killings avoidable? The avoidable war or threat of war was uncritically perceived as an inevitable option or justifiable basis for liberation, in the face of mounting injustices that were not addressed.

Yet, it was a costly option. Development was arrested and progress stalled in a country at war with itself as everybody’s attention was on the war and propaganda. Human and material resources were wasted on war expenditure. Also, the beginning of war could be determined; its end could not be predicted. The loser has been agonising in its regression to self-pity.

The civil war was burdensome. So was the frantic search for peace. After winning or losing the war, total peace has remained unattainable for so long. War ravaged territories have not fully recovered for five decades. During the war, nobody was absolutely insulated from its horrors and other colossal effects of protracted conflicts.

Although soldiers are trained in warfare, or the act of killings, or defense of sovereign, intra-military politics in the army and antagonistic strategies, and the scramble for relevance served as intervening variables in war elongation, which crippled trust and motivated commanders to plot the downfall of senior or junior officers on the battlefield.

Since starvation was also effectively utilised as a tool or strategy for subjugating opponents, frustrated soldiers and war-trapped citisens resorted to cannibalism to survive or conquer hunger.

While concrete attention was focused on war by the government, in its bid to bring it to an end, lesser attention was later devoted to post-war rehabilitation, reconstructing and reconciliation. Therefore, the culture of hate, bitterness and psychological clamour for inexplicable revenge through other means may have been harboured by victims and their offsprings from generation to generation.

Although the brunt of the civil war was borne by the Igbo-speaking people of the Southeast, as the battle was majorly fought in the heart of Igboland, there was no region that did not lose its kith and kin in the strange war to keep Nigeria together.

Fifty years after, reality has dawned on discerning Nigerians that the civil war paled into a war of forced and false unification; a war to keep together a ‘unitary nation-state’ masquerading as a Federal Republic.

Trial of democracy:

A chain of political events, which led to the collapse of the First Republic, particularly the seizure of power by the military on January 25, 1966 and the counter-coup of July 29, 1966, culminated in the civil war of 1967-1970.

Perhaps, the greatest gain of Nigeria at independence in 1960 was federalism. But, early political leaders-Ceremonial President Nnamidi Azikiwe, Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa, Leader of Opposition Obafemi Awolowo and Premiers Ahmadu Bello, Ladoke Akintola, Denis Osadebey and Michael Okpara-could not manage their collective nationalistic achievements.

Each of the three, later four, regions enjoyed relative autonomy. There was healthy competition among the regions as they developed, each according to its pace.

However, the stiff competition for federal power ignited serious political conflicts. Within two years, Awolowo lost his freedom as he was jailed for treason by the Balewa government. The wild-wild West was in turmoil. There was a split in the Action Group (AG). As pro-Awolowo and pro-Akintola forces clashed in the Western Regional House of Assembly over a motion for the removal of Premier Akintola, hell was let loose. Balewa declared a state of emergency and made Dr. Koye Majekodunmi as administrator. A federal parliamentarian, Anthony Enahoro, warned that Nigeria had embarked on a journey, the end of which cannot be ascertained.

After six months, Akintola regained political control as Awolowo, who also lost his first son, Segun, a lawyer, languished in jail.

The Federal Government conducted a census in 1963. The results were disputed by three Southern premiers. In 1964, there was a federal parliamentary election, which was flawed. The opposition United Progressives Grand Alliance (UPGA) boycotted the polls in many constituencies.

Tension rose as President Azikiwe was reluctant to ask Balewa to form a new government. Even, when he eventually formed the government, the move did not restore national peace. The last straw that broke the back of carmel was the heavily rigged Western Regional parliamentary elections of 1965. AG supporters were on rampage throughout the region. Houses of Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) stalwarts were torched by protesters.

Balewa, Akintola and Bello got wind of the coup. But, the prime minister was aloof.

Reflecting on the mutiny, former Super Permanent Secretary Chief Phillip Asiodu said if the former Defence Minister, Alhaji Nuhu Ribadu, had not died, maybe, he would have taken a pre-emptive action because he had the force of character.

Apart from electoral malpractices, there were allegations of nepotism and corruption against the government. It was possible that Nigerian soldiers were also motivated by the coup in Togo.

Nigeria had not resolved the post-election conflicts when Balewa hosted the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government in Lagos on January 14, 1966. The next day, the five majors, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogeu, toppled the government. Thus, as a political scientist, Prof. Isawa Elaigwu reflected in his book, ‘Gowon: The biography of a soldier-statesman,’ January 15, 1966, marked the effective explosion of the military on the Nigerian political arena.

Selective killings:

The five majors were not in one accord, as the outcome of their selective assassination of political leaders suggested. The majority of political leaders and military officers who lost their lives were from the North and West. Nzeogwu, who handled the Kaduna operations, killed Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Region, and his wife. Also, Brig. Samuel Ademulegun, Ralph Sodeinde and Kur Mohammed were killed.

In Ibadan, Akintola, who had popularity deficit in his region, was murdered by Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi. His deputy, Remi Fani-Kayode, was spared.

In Lagos, Balewa and his Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okoti-Eboh, were killed by the mutineers.

But, Igbo officers who handled the operations in the Midwest and Eastern Region subverted the plan. Premiers Osadebey and Okpara, who were Igbos were spared. President Azikiwe was on medical holiday abroad. On that note, the coup was given an ethnic coloration. Trust and solidarity broke down in the military, replaced by suspicion and craving for vengeance. Since four of the five majors were perceived as Ibos, Northerners protested, targeting Igbo residents in their region for attacks and victimisation. Hausa/Fulani military officers vowed to revenge the killing of Bello.

Revenge coup:

Although the five majors planned the first coup, the General Officer Commanding, Nigerian Armed Forces, Major Gen. Aguiyi-Ironsi, became the beneficiary. The coup did not succeed entirely. As military Head of State, he inherited a great burden, which he was not prepared for. “General Ironsi was a victim of circumstances-circumstances which required the quick use of his mental capacity and political subtlety-two traits Ironsi did not possess in adequate amounts,” remarked Elaigwu.

Punishment for the mutineers, who had been rounded up, would have served two objectives; restoration of discipline in the Army and appeasement of the North over the death of Sardauna.

Colourless and lacking in initiative, Ironsi presided over a government without a direction in the first four months. Although he set up a Constitutional Review Study Group, led by Chief Rotimi Williams, he could not follow through. Then, after five months, following the advice of the Nwokedi Commission, he opted for greater centralisation of power through unitarism. His Decree 34 of 1966 signalled the death of the federal principle, which also destroyed the basis for unity in diversity.

By June 1966, discontent grew among Northern officers who said the mutineers, who had not been tried and punished, were still receiving pay in detention. A committee headed by Col. Nwanwo was not forthcoming with the trial. The murdered politicians and soldiers were not given a ceremonial burial. In fact, it was alleged that the Commander-In- Chief did not give the Military Governor of Northern Region, Col. Hassan Katsina, permission to attend the funeral of the prime minister in Bauchi. There was the complaint that Sardauna’s body was exposed and officials were not allowed to use government vehicles to take his family to Sokoto.

Ironsi was said to have largely relied on his kinsmen for advice, which underscored his political insensibility. His key appointments reflected ethnic leaning. When 21 military officers were promoted from Majors to Lieutenant-Colonels, 18 were Ibos.

The civil service was restive. The political class was grumbling. Soldiers of Northern origin were murmuring. The country was engulfed in tension. To douse it, Ironsi embarked on a nation-wide tour. After his visit to the North, the Head of State headed for Ibadan, capital of Western Region, to address traditional rulers from all over Nigeria. His host, Governor Adekunle Fajuyi, organised a state dinner for him on July 28. The next day, northern soldiers inspired by Major Yakubu Danjuma, Murtala Mohammed and Lt. Walbe killed Ironsi and Fajuyi in a vengeance coup.

Lessons of civil war

Succession crisis:

The death of the Head of State could not be confirmed immediately by his deputy, Brig. Babafemi Ogundipe. The Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters was working on a diversionary theory of kidnapping. He had found himself in a precarious situation. Those who killed Ironsi, not only wanted to avenge the death of Bello, they also wanted power shift to the North.

Ogundipe was not indifferent to these hard realities. He was conscious of the breakdown of discipline in the Army. The soldiers of Northern origin were not ready to take orders from him and the Lagos administrator, Mobolaji Johnson. When a sergeant defiled his order, he knew that a greater crisis was looming. It was evident that he could not take charge.

Opinions were divided on Ogundipe’s reluctance to assume political control. Was he a coward? Was he making a great sacrifice for normalcy to be restored? Did he simply embrace the reality of his limitations? However, the Army Chief, Lt-Col Yakubu ‘Jack’ Gowon, despite his popularity among soldiers from the North who were bent on dictating the tune, could only assume the reins after Ogundipe had left Nigeria for England, where he surfaced as Nigerian High Commissioner to Britain.

Gowon was accepted as the new leader by military Governors Katsina, David Ejoor (Midwest) and Adeyinka Adebayo, who succeeded Fajuyi. But, the governor of Eastern Region, Oxford-trained historian Ojukwu, objected. He urged Ogundipe to take over as the next in rank to maintain military hierarchy. But, powerful Northern leaders and soldiers insisted on Gowon as the only condition for non-secession.

The politics of ego remained unresolved. As Ojukwu refused to accept Gowon’s leadership, the stage was set for a showdown. The Eastern governor alluded to a pogrom in the North where Igbos were being continuously harassed, victimised and killed. He urged soldiers of Eastern Region origin to return home.

At first, Gowon refrained from taking a police action as Ojukwu intensified hostility. He said the matter could still be settled in an atmosphere of brotherhood.

Later, he moved swiftly to consolidate his position. He did thread the populist path, releasing political detainees, including Awolowo, setting up an ad-hoc constitutional conference, appointing civilian federal commissions, conceding much to the Eastern governor at Aburi, Ghana, where he signed for confederation and pre-empting an onslaught by Ojukwu through the creation of 12-state structure that neutralised potential support for seccession.

Ojukwu said he will not hold meetings with Gowon on Nigeria’s soil as he felt insecure outside his region.

As anxiety mounted, a ray of hope appeared. Both Gowon and Ojukwu accepted Ghanaian Military Head of State Gen. Ankrah’s invitation to a peace meeting in Aburi between January 4 and 5, 1967. The Eastern governor prepared well and better for Aburi than Gowon, where it was agreed that military governors for the duration of the military government were to have control over Area Command in their regions for purposes of internal security. Ojukwu stole the show. The Aburi Accord was a signal for disintegration, which he wanted.

A confident, more educated Ojukwu, in bravado, later retorted: On Aburi I stand. Gowon replied:”For Aburi you fall.”

Ojukwu also said he was speaking from a position of power. “There is no power in this country or in black Africa that can subdue us by force,” he said, adding that “we possess the biggest army in black Africa.”

The drum of war was being beaten as Ojukwu pressed for self-determination for Ibos. In fact, Awo was quoted as saying that, if the East was allowed to secede, the West would follow.

A defiant Ojukwu took some unilateral decisions that were inimical to national unity and peaceful coexistence. He confiscated the produce belonging to the Northern Nigerian Marketing Board and stopped the sale of oil from the Port-Harcourt refinery to the North. On March 30, he flayed Gowon for reneging on some aspects of the Aburi agreement and took over all federal organisations in the Eastern Region, thereby pushing for national sovereignty for his region. Henceforth, Nigeria’s Supreme Court’s jurisdiction did not extend to the East.

To checkmate Ojukwu, the Head of State ordered a blockade of the East, placing an embargo on relations with the region. Following the intervention of the National Reconciliation Committe, the measures were lifted. But, Ojukwu had completed a secession plan.

Gowon proclaimed a state of emergency on May 27, 1966 to forstall break up. Following the creation of states, minorities in the Eastern Region withdrew support from Ojukwu and allied with Gowon.

On July 6, 1967, Ojukwu declared secession and the Biafran Republic was born.

However, enthusiasm even in the East was not total. Some minority tribes had reservations. The bulk of resources for future developmental resources were domiciled in the minority enclaves. There have been subtle cries of marginalisation when Azikiwe, who lost the premiership of the West to Awolowo, migrated to the East to displace Prof. Eyo Ita Eyo, the non-Ibo Leader of Government Business, leaning on the numerical strength of Igbos in the region. The conflict, more or less, divided the East and the polarisation manifested in the inclination of the minorities towards a united Nigeria, where their quest for a separate state would be realised.

30-month war:

Yakubu Gowon and his war commanders Mohammed Shuwa and Aliyu. Image via The Nation

According to the Professor of Law, Ephiphany Azinge, who lamented the deliberate murder of Asaba people, there is no recorded or written account of the war by the two principal leaders at the centre of the hostility; Gowon and Ojukwu, although they were intellectually endowed to write books.

The entreaties to Ojukwu by delegations, led by Awolowo, other reconciliation committee members and even by Western Regional Governor Adebayo, who made a solo visit to Enugu to plead with the rebel leader, fell on deaf ears.

Igbo returned home from Lagos, Port-Harcourt and other parts of the country, leaving their property behind. On their return, indigenes had taken over their property, particularly in Port-Harcourt. In Lagos, as recalled by Asiodu, the rents on their property were kept intact and given to them when they returned; so also were their houses.

Nigeria was ill-prepared for the war. The strength of the military was inadequate. Thus, the Army embarked on emergency recruitment. Initially, the war was perceived as a North/East tango. The Biafran Head of State had recruited propagandists who were effective. The East hinged its decision to leave Nigeria on self-determinstion and the quest for liberation. But, for the authorities in Lagos, to keep Nigeria one was a task that must be done.

But, Ojukwu soon committed a tactical blunder by invading the Midwest. The governor, Col. David Ejoor, claimed that he escaped being captured on a bicycle, which he rode on an 80-kilometre road. The Yoruba-West panicked as the Biafran forces advanced to Ore. The war at Ore is still a subject of folk tales in Yorubaland; O le ku, ija Ore. Yoruba started having a feeling that Ojukwu harboured territorial expansion ambition. Governor Adebayo ordered the destruction of vital bridges linking the Midwest with the West to checkmate the Biafran invasion.

Awolowo, who had become Federal Finance Commissioner and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council, Permanent Secretary Abdulaziz Attah and Central Bank Governor Clement Isong changed the Nigerian Currency in January 1968. The measure affected Biafan arms purchase in the market.

Awo managed the war economy and ensured that no money was borrowed to prosecute the war. But, his prescription of food blockage to the East compounded the challenge of hunger in rebel territories, a factor that hastened the cessation of hostilities. Awo said starvation was a legitimate weapon of war. Many Biafrans died of hunger and in particular, children died of kwashiokor. Millions lost their lives, although the actual number could not be ascertained. Instructively, in 1979 and 1983, when Awolowo was campaigning for president, Igbo recalled his role and turned their back against him.

Biafra tended to wax stronger as some countries, including Tanzania, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Zambia gave it recognition. Later, Biafra enjoyed the support of Portugal, Israel, South Africa, and China.

Heavy casualties were recorded on both sides. Against the advice of Major Alani Akinrinade, Col. Murtala’s decision to cross the River Niger from Asaba to Onitsha became a misadventure. The secessionists attacked the troops and their boat sunk. The federal soldiers perished.

Third Marine Commando, under the leadership of Col. Benjamin Adekunle, and later, Col. Olusegun Obasanjo, was under serious pressures to end the war. As soldiers who were once comrades in the Nigerian Army before the split battled one another on the war front, they recognised one another. Some captured their friends and extended to them the duty of care. It was a moment of emotional wrenching.

Nigeria and Biafra wasted many resources on the war. Within the shortest time, Biafra developed bunker, propagandist radio station, gunboat, marine ship, bombs, and rockets. Biafrans also refined petroleum. Some of the equipment were captured by federal soldiers and kept in the museum. The technology was not improved upon after the war.

Biafrans engaged in guerrilla warfare. But, the hands of federal forces were heavy on them. The Asaba massacre was the height of brutality. It could only compare to the Owerri bloodletting. Many towns and villages were sacked. Captured towns were liberated and later recaptured. Two notable soldiers, Col. Banjo and Nzeogwu, fought on the Biafran side. Nzrogwu and Nwobosi, who were in detention for thr coup of January 15, 1966, were released by Ojukwu to beef up the strength of his forces. Even, Prof. Whole Soyinka and some radicals from the West were said to be sympathetic with Ojukwu’s cause on principle. The circumstances that later led to the murder of Banjo and the death of Nzeogwu have remained in the realm of conjecture.

Ojukwu’s propagandists alleged genocide in Biafra by federal forces. Due to hunger, the faces of malnourished children drew international condemnation and sympathy, particularly from the Vatican Relief Agency, Oxfam, Caritas International, Save the Children Fund, the French Red Cross, and the International Committee of Red Cross.

As the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) peace mission, led by Ethiopean leader Emperor Haile Sellasie, failed, the war intensified and the stress and strains on both sides continued.

Adekunle was recalled, following his weariness and the prolongment of the war. Akinrinade, therefore, laid before the new commander, Obasanjo, some strategy papers which he and his colleague, Alabi Isama, had worked on. The days of Biafra were numbered.

Ojukwu, who had seen the handwriting on the wall, left Biafra for Ivory Coast in search of peace. His deputy, Col. Phillip Effiong, surrendered to Akinrinade, who later contacted Obasanjo to receive the official surrender. It was evident that Biafrans fought in vain. “The war ended without a negotiation. It was a surrender,” said Elaigwu.

‘Why Nigeria can’t afford another war’
In his speech at the Doddan Barracks, the seat of government, Effiong handed over the ‘documents of surrender’ to Gowon. He said: “I Major-General Philip Effiong, Officer Administering the Government of the Republic of Biafra, now wish tomake the following declaration:
a) that we affirm we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the Federal Military Government in Nigeria;
b) that we accept the existing administrative and the political structure of the Federation of Nigeria;
c) that any future constitution arrangement will be worked out by representatives of Nigeria;
d) that the Republic of Biafra hereby ceases to exist.

The secessionist bid was in vain. But, winning the peace was also challenging. Today, the Movement for the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASOB) and Independent People of Biafra (IPOB), which set up Radio Biafra, are still protesting and calling for another Biafra.

Post-war integration:

Although the war ended, the bitterness persisted. It was because the entire Eastern Region was ravaged by war; no food, shelter, water, electricity, transport, and communication.

But, Igbo were not deserted by energy and resilience. They were back to towns and villages outside their region as traders, businessmen, students, and civil servants. To Asiodu, that was a sort of reintegration. But, the abandoned property issue was not genuinely resolved in Port-Harcourt. Igbo lost their investment. Reflecting on the injustice, Onyeka Onwenu, a musician, whose mother was affected by the Port-Harcourt injustice, said the memory of property seizure by fellow Nigerians who met returning Igbos with hostility meant that the war had not ended.

To coordinate relief operations in the East Central State was the Ibo teacher at the University of Ibadan, Ukpabi Asika, who was targetted for liquidation by Ojukwu. He later became the administrator of the state. His efforts heralded the programmes of reconciliation, rehabilitation, and reconstruction, whose groundwork was prepared by a conference at Ibadan chaired by former Nigerian Representative to United Nations, the late Chief Simeon Adebo. Gowon wanted harmony. The son of a priest, who loathed the shedding of blood, shunned vendetta. He embarked on unification.

The Head of State set up the Abandoned Properties Committee that administered and collected rents on all properties belonging to fleeing Ibos. He enacted Decree 41, which established the National Rehabilitation Commission headed by Timothy Omo-Bare, for the collection and distribution of humanitarian items from government, foreign agencies and other non-governmental organisations.

In the spirit of reconciliation, all Easterners in state and federal public service before the war were reabsorbed. Some ex-rebels who were formerly in the Nigerian Army were even reabsorbed into the Army. Soldiers that were recruited by Ojukwu and his men had to go home, affirming the death of the imaginary Biafran Republic. To foster reintegration J.O.J Okezie was appointed into the Federal Executive Council to represent the Eastcentral State and Asika, though a civilian, became a member of the Supreme Military Council (SMC).

God was kind to Nigeria during and after the war. The country earned much from oil. Gowon announced a post-war National Reconstruction and Development Plan for 1970-74. “About N120 million worth cash and materials had been expended on rehabilitation work in Nigeria within the period 1970-71,” said Elaigwu, who added: “The University of Nigeria, Nsukka, received N12 million for its construction while N6 million was spent on rehabilitation of industries. The African Continental Bank (ACB) was granted N5 million for its reopening.”

Gowon set up the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme to promote oneness, cohesion and national unity.

However, he was toppled in a bloodless coup of 1975, which brought Murtala to power.

Ojukwu was in self-exile for 12 years before he was given a pardon by former President Shehu Shagari in 1982. On his return, he was integrated into the mainstream politics of the Second Republic, emerging as National Vice Chairman of the defunct National Party of Nigeria(NPN). There was the Ikemba Front, which was a factor in the politics of Anambra State. Ojukwu waged political war against Azikiwe, who abandoned the civil war agenda, having remembered that he was once a father of the Nigerian nation; a President of Senate of the Nigerian Nation and ceremonial President of the Federal Republic.

Ojukwu was a member of the 1994 National Conference. He also ran some critical errands for the Abacha administration. Before his demise, he floated a party, the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), which has consistently won elections in Anambra State. He died a hero of his people.

From 1970 to date, Igbo have been part and parcel of successive administrations, although certain elements have continuously used the Igbo civil war experience to blackmail Nigeria.

The old Eastern State is now made up of five Southeast states, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, and Bayelsa. Igbo have produced many post-war ministers, permanent secretaries, ambassadors, and businessmen. Like other regions, Igbo have been accommodated by measures designed to ensure a sense of belonging, including a quota system and federal character.

The example of Igbo integration in Lagos is particularly exciting. Lagos has produced Igbo top civil servants, councilors, council vice chairmen, federal state legislators, commissioners, and special advisers and political party chieftains.

Can there be enhanced political collaboration between Southwest and Southeast? The proposal for collaboration was frustrated by Azikiwe in 1960 when Awolowo suggested that the defuct AG and NCNC should combine strengths so that Zik would be Prime Minister and Awo would be Minister of Finance. Also, the Progressives Party Alliance (PPA) could not fly in the Second Republic due to suspicion and deep-seated rivalry and hostility between Zik, leader of the proscribed Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) and Awo, leader of the banned Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN).

In 1979, Igbo produced the late Dr. Alex Ekwueme as vice president. However, apart from Ironsi, who was military Head of State for six months, Igbo have not produced President of Nigeria.

The debate on Igbo’s quest for the presidency is on. Can the region get it in 2023? It is debatable. There is no assurance that the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which controls four of five Southeast states, will zone its presidential ticket to the region. The region’s numerical strength in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is low. If the ticket is zoned to the South, Southwest, which has a better stake in the party, seems to be the region to beat.


What future for the Southeast in a United Nigeria? There are still legitimate agitations by some groups in the region for more recognition and dividends of democracy.

The agitations extend to Igbos in the Niger Delta, particularly Delta State, who wants compensation for the Asaba massacre. Azinge, president of Asaba Development Association complained that the town was destroyed without provocation, adding that it has remained marginalised in the post-war period. “Asaba is the only state capital in Nigeria without a university,” he said, urging the Federal Government to look into the demand for a tertiary institution.

In the core Igboland, cries of marginalisation fill the air. The pains and scars of the civil war cannot fizzle out completely. Obviously, there is no political compensation that can mitigate the monumental loss of human and material resources and the collective memories of horror.

These painful realities have often influenced the renewed and zealous clamour for political relevance within the defective federal structure, especially when it now appears that the push for secession and national disintegration has inadvertently become failed weapons of negotiation.

The quest for self-determination by the socio-cultural organisation, Ohaeneze Ndigbo, MASOB and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) are legitimate. After all, there was no discussion on the modalities for peaceful coexistence when the diverse social formations were forcefully lumped together in a country by the British interloper, Lord Lugard, in 1914.

Ohanaeze has stepped up the non-violent agitations on the platform of restructuring, urging President Muhammadu Buhari to redesign or reconfigure the country. In other words, the group is pressing for the reversal of unitarism, which is the legacy of Ironsi, an Igbo. It is an option President Buhari is not eager to consider, judging by his body language and inspite of his party’s decision to set up the Nosiru el-Rufai panel on federslism/restructuring.

In another breath, IPOB, led by Nnamdi Kanu, appeared to have pressed for a semblance of violent struggle, which has also been condemned at home, although the primary objective of the agitation, which is to draw attention to the unfinished business of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction appears rational. The thinking in some quarters in the Southeast is that integration can only be underscored by the attainment of the presidency. It is ironical that while the Southeast is clamouring for power shift, zoning or rotational presidency, a section of the region is rooting for illogical seccession and balkanisation of Nigeria.

Is it true that Igbo has been marginalised in terms of the distribution of infrastructure and political slots? President Buhari has been extremely blunt, saying that he could not reward a zone that rejected him at the poll. It is not a mark of statesmanship. But, in subsequent explanations by Information and Culture Minister Alhaji Layiwola Mohammed and his Works counterpart, Babatunde Fashola (SAN), there has been equitable distribution of ministerial slots in Nigeria, based on the quota system. Also, there is evidence that the president has tried to fight the infrastructure battle in the Southeast, although more needs to be done for the region, and indeed, other regions.

Avoiding past pitfalls:
Stakeholders are unanimous that Nigeria cannot afford another civil war.

At the ‘Never Again Conference jointly organised by two groups, ‘Nzuko Umunna and Ndigbo Lagos, to mark the 50th year anniversary of the civil war at the Muson Centre, Onikan, Lagos, the speakers were unanimous that Nigeria cannot afford another hostility.

Second Republic senator and historian, Prof. Banji Akintoye Akintoye, said the mood in Nigeria was similar to the mood in the country months before the civil war.

“The prevailing mood among us Nigerians (now) is chillingly similar to the character of the affairs of our country in the months leading to the civil war.

“The government is being managed in ways that make it look like an exclusive preserve of a particular minority. There seems to be an agenda being pursued to establish this minority in all positions of command in the executive, administrative, judicial and security services of the country.

“The voices of the majority register protests continually and are continually disrespected and ignored. The state of the law is patently being subsumed to the needs of that agenda, with seriously damaging effects on human rights. These situations are inevitably fostering, among the peoples of the Middle Belt and South of the country, the feeling that they are being reduced to the status of conquered peoples of Nigeria,” he added.

Akintoye called for the restructuring of the country “with the objective of giving our country a federal structure.”

Nobel Laureat Prof. Soyinka said to avoid another civil war, Nigeria should enthrone the principles of democracy.”

He said the popular saying that “no nation has ever survived two civil wars” may not be historically sustainable.

Prof. Pat Utomi said: “Had the Shagari mindset resulted in Ekwueme’s Presidency in 1987, the ghost of the Biafran War would have been buried permanently but that was aborted in 1983.”

Prof. Anya Anya, who chaired the occasion, said the country should learn from the example of Germany and Japan that bounced back from World War II to become economic giants.

He added: “We have not learned lessons from our past and the experiences of others.”