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The Igbo and the east had already made a quasi-strategic withdrawal from the all-Nigeria mission they embarked upon in the 1940s/early 1950s as a result of the series of British counter-measures of the subsequent years, including especially London’s decision to hand over supreme political power to its anti-Nigerian liberation-client north region. The Igbo had spearheaded the liberation of Nigeria from formal British rule. The east was a booming economy, enjoying Africa’s highest growth rate. It was educationally and economically much more advanced than any other part of Nigeria. The east was on course to developing into a leading economic and industrial power in another decade, fulfilling a comprehensive socioecconomic transformation goal it had launched in 1954.

By Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

It is important to note the striking disclaimer that Max Siollun makes right from the outset in his article on the Igbo genocide (“The Northern Counter-Coup Of 1966: The Full Story”) published in nigeriavillagesquare.com. Interestingly, Siollun is not prepared to take personal responsibility for his article but instead invites his readers to “consult” his “cited” sources to authenticate the veracity or otherwise of his supposedly “Full Story”. Siollun is undoubtedly aware of the immense gravity of his subject matter, the 1966-1970 genocide against the Igbo during which 3.1 million of these people were murdered – hence, his presumed caution. But this is not good enough. You do not merely lodge a personal disclaimer whilst writing about genocide, this heinous crime against humanity. You condemn genocide – and condemn it unreservedly. You also insist on the punishment of its perpetrator(s). Siollun has done none of these. His recourse to discredited and opportunistic “sources” including some in academia and media such as Robin Luckham and Lindsay Barrett (both of whom have enjoyed lucrative careers in the past three decades, “rationalising”/denying the Igbo genocide) to tell his “Full Story” cannot therefore obviate the saliency and urgency of personal responsibility on this score.

Patrick Wilmot has argued that the sociopolitical leadership in north Nigeria has “no tradition for managing social change. The only answer to dissent or rebellion is the massacre.” Yet, to offer some rational explanation for a reason or reasons for a specific act of massacre of the Igbo carried out by this leadership since 1945, at the apogee of the British occupation of Nigeria, is fraught with difficulties. For instance, when in November 2002 it ordered the murder of hundreds of Igbo immigrants in north Nigeria over the staging, in Nigeria, of the Miss World beauty competition (organised, not by any Igbo business interests, but by a London-based business conglomerate), it would have been most intriguing for any observer to discern the “Igbo connection” that elicited this monstrous act. Similarly, an observer would be hard pressed to locate the “Igbo connection” to astronomy as yet another gruesome example of an ordered Igbo pogrom in the north illustrates. In January 2001, hundreds of Igbo residents in the north city of Maiduguri were murdered by rampaging youths soon after a lunar eclipse was in progress. The émigrés’ homes and business properties worth million of dollars were looted or destroyed during the carnage. For the north leadership, which has since 1945 regarded the Igbo émigrés in its region as a “targeted population” or “hostage population” to attack at will in furtherance of its myriad sociopolitical positions and objectives, “dissent” or “rebellion” or indeed any other factors need not be necessarily associated or referenced to the Igbo directly for it to execute its deadly mission on the latter. We should therefore surmise, following from this, that for 1966, one factor may have prompted the carefully planned genocide of Igbo immigrants in the north. This concerned the outcome of the official inquiry ordered by General Johnson Aguyi-Ironsi, the military head of state, into the failed January (1966) coup led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. As part of his continuing disposition to assure north Nigeria of his regime’s “goodwill” to the region, Aguyi-Ironsi insisted that the 3-person board of investigators to the failed coup be made up exclusively of north officers: M.D. Yusuf, head of the country’s special branch, who came from a prominent Hausa-Fulani family; Colonel Yakubu Gowon, who Aguyi-Ironsi had just appointed chief of army staff, and who would play a key role in the Igbo genocide and the murder of Aguyi-Ironsi himself; Captain Baba Usman, military intelligence.

The inquiry’s terms of reference were comprehensive – to uncover the motives, the intentions, and the long-term objectives of the January majors’ failed coup. It took three months to complete its work. About two hundred officers and other personnel in the military, including the principal leaders of the event, were interrogated. Important coup documents retrieved from Lagos, Ibadan, Abeokuta, Kaduna, Zaria and elsewhere, were exhaustively evaluated. The report on the outcome of the inquiry showed that the plans to overthrow the Balewa government were restricted strictly to the military; there was no involvement by members of the civilian population. While the majority of officers involved in the action were mainly from the south, and particularly Igbo, there was no evidence whatsoever to suggest or indicate that the coup was a south or indeed some Igbo conspiracy to seize and control the country. Nzeogwu and his group acted alone. In May (1966), the board submitted its report to the government. But while the government studied it, prior to publication, Colonel Gowon (board member and army chief of staff, who also worked for British intelligence in Nigeria since his recruitment to this service whilst at the Sandhurst military academy in England in the 1950s) leaked its main conclusions to the British diplomatic mission in Lagos and a number of politicians and local government leaders in the north. Gowon’s motive was essentially to coalesce the activities of the anti-Aguyi-Ironsi forces, whose interests he shared, into some form of revolt. The north leaders were extremely disappointed with the findings of the investigation, despite the fact that it was carried out by well-known and respected north security officers. The leaders had felt, all along, that the south, especially the Igbo, would be found culpable in the failed coup. They expressed their disappointment in a series of memoranda and other representations made on the subject to both the central government and the north region’s military administration in Kaduna. They specifically called on Aguyi-Ironsi not to publish the commission’s report. Pointedly, even General Olusegun Obasanjo’s 1987 study on the failed coup (21 years after the event!) comes to the same conclusion as the Yusuf-Gowon-Usman investigating board: namely, that Nzeogwu and his group’s action was not an Igbo plot to seize power. This is despite the fact that Obasanjo participated in the second phase of the Igbo genocide (July 1967-January 1970), commanding a notorious brigade at the time, which destroyed hundreds of Igbo villages and towns, murdering thousands of people in the process. There is thus no love lost between him and the Igbo.

Yoruba Project

Given the matrix of the evaluative characterisation, interests, and ambitions of the constituent nations in Nigeria of 1966 (Igbo, Urhobo, Ijo, Hausa-Fulani, Tiv, Yoruba, etc., etc), the January majors’ failed coup was effectively a pro-Yoruba project, aimed at achieving the following goals: (a) end the state of insurgency in Yorubaland that had gone on for 3-4 years; (b) ensure the return and rehabilitation of the mass of displaced Yoruba on exile, especially the thousands in the neighbouring Dahomey (now Benin Republic); (c) release Obafemi Awolowo, the incarcerated Yoruba leader, who had been imprisoned by the erstwhile Hausa-Fulani-dominated central government in Lagos; (d) appoint Awolowo the prime minister in a provisional military-civilian diarchal government.

The Igbo and the east had already made a quasi-strategic withdrawal from the all-Nigeria mission they embarked upon in the 1940s/early 1950s as a result of the series of British counter-measures of the subsequent years, including especially London’s decision to hand over supreme political power to its anti-Nigerian liberation-client north region. The Igbo had spearheaded the liberation of Nigeria from formal British rule. The east was a booming economy, enjoying Africa’s highest growth rate. It was educationally and economically much more advanced than any other part of Nigeria. The east was on course to developing into a leading economic and industrial power in another decade, fulfilling a comprehensive socioecconomic transformation goal it had launched in 1954.


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