What Ojukwu told me before the Civil War – Gowon

39 min read

‘Ojukwu boasted I won’t fight. That he knows me very well. That my only weapon is the Holy Bible. But I fought to keep my country together.’—Gowon


By Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe

Nigeria’s wartime leader, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, the man they call Jack, sits face to face with us, dishing out stories about Nigerian history he has told nobody before now. It is a foretaste of General Gowon’s much-anticipated war memoirs unveiled to Nigeria’s corporate biographers.

It was supposed to be an interview, a dialogue, but it almost turned into a monologue as Gowon went on memory lane, bringing back the buried stories of the past—about his rivalry with Ojukwu, about how he (Gowon) nipped in the bud a coup that would have taken place in Nigeria around 1964, about what actually transpired at the controversial Aburi Conference in Ghana, about how he suffered a bout of malaria at Aburi and yet had to struggle to wade through the peace meeting.

Nobody can tell the story of the Nigerian Civil War better than the man who fought it. In this “memoir” before the memoir, Gowon tells us the untold stories of the Nigerian Civil War—how he was outsmarted by Ojukwu in Aburi, how he lived under the shadows of Ojukwu’s perceived brilliance, how he was overthrown during the OAU conference in Kampala and how he turned into a Shakespearean character reciting verses from the great bard.
From there, he had to eat the humble pie by going back to school to fill in his inadequacies by studying history and international politics at Warwick University, one of Britain’s top universities.

Then of course, there is the Obasanjo angle—where Gowon stamps his authority as the leader under whose command Obasanjo commanded the federal troops that secured Biafra’s surrender.
Says Gowon: “Obasanjo may have written his memoir, My Command, but he was also under my command. Whatever he did in his command was commanded by me, even though my system of command is that I give you instructions on what to do and you do it.”
It’s all about strategy and “lessons of history” as told by Nigeria’s war leader, a man forever cloaked in humility. Below, we present you with an advance insight into Gen. Gowon’s War Memoirs—the Memoir before the Memoir.


After my overthrow in a coup while I was in faraway Kampala where I had gone to attend the summit of the Organization of African Unity, a journalist, the late Yakubu Abdulazeez, the then editor of Nigerian Herald was crying and I was consoling him, but to my surprise, I read his report where he said I was crying when I heard of my overthrow.

Honestly, I wasn’t crying. He was the one crying. I was looking forward to seeing him and reprimanding him for such misrepresentation but I later learnt that he had died. May his soul rest in peace. The truth is that I never cried or shed tears over my overthrow. I accepted it as the will of God and even quoted William Shakespeare, who said in one of his plays that the world is a stage and we are all players, we have our exits and entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts. At that stage, I said: “This is my exit. Ladies and gentlemen, give support to the new government for the sake of Nigeria.”

For me, there was the temptation to come back to Nigeria, but I did not. It wasn’t because one was afraid but I thought if I came back, there might be another round of bloodshed which was unnecessary because Nigeria had had enough of bloodshed and we should give the country a chance. Let’s hope that they would do better than I did. And if they did, then it would be Nigeria that would be the beneficiary and Nigerians would enjoy the progress and development.

But unfortunately, they did not continue with the development plan which we had from 1975 to 1980 which would have changed the story of this country development-wise, security-wise, financial-wise. All these problems we are having about fuel shortage, fuel importation and fuel subsidy payments would not have been there. We had plans to build five export-oriented refineries in addition to the three that were meant for domestic use in Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna. And with that plan in place, we would have had no fuel problem in this country. And if those three cannot satisfy Nigeria’s internal consumption need, then of course, we can divert from the export-oriented refineries for our internal consumption. Then there would have been nothing like fuel subsidy as far as we are concerned. The subsidy that we were dealing with at the time was to ensure that there was price equalization of the product throughout the country. If anything at all, that was where we were putting money for subsidy so that we have same price as we get in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Maiduguri, Sokoto, Daura, Bayelsa and every part of Nigeria.

Back to school
After my overthrow, I decide to go back to school. The decision to go back to school was actually taken after the event. Finding myself out of office, I asked myself: What am I to do now? Naturally, I was reflecting on what next to do with my life. Yes, there was an agreement between me and the government of the day that I could return to the country when it was mutually acceptable. But I didn’t want to sit down idle, doing nothing. I needed to occupy myself with something.
I couldn’t have gone into business at that time because that was not my line of interest. Probably if I was the type who liked money a lot at that time, I would have gotten money from the government, but for me money is immaterial. Once I am able to live reasonably within my salary, I am satisfied. That for me is OK.

The idea of going to school was to give me time to be able to change from the lifestyle that I was used to—a secure life of being a public figure. Now, I was leaving the military. I was having a transition from an old lifestyle to a new one. Not as a soldier anymore but as a civilian. As an ordinary person like everyone else. I needed to prepare myself to be able to relate to people from the standpoint of the ordinariness. Not as a head of state any longer. That was the motivation.
Interesting enough, even before these changes, when I was a Visitor to most of the universities in Nigeria, I used to tell the students how lucky they were to go through university education where they would have big letters after their names: B.A., BSc, MSc, MA, PhD and whatnot. And I said to them: “Me, Yakubu Gowon. For all my hard work and studies, I only have military qualifications and letters after my name. And they are all written in very small letters. So small that you will need a magnifying glass to see or read them. Letters like: Psc (Passed Staff College), Jssc (Joint Services Staff College), Jfsc (Joint Forces Staff College), IDC (Imperial Defence College) and things like.”
I told the students how I wished I could have such big letters after my name like BA, MA, PhD and so on. So, there was this desire to seek further education and to broaden my intellectual horizon. And as they say, every disappointment is a blessing. With the change of government and not knowing what the future would be for me, I wanted this transition from military and from this secure life that I was used to before to ordinary life. So, the best place to do it was to go to school. And interestingly enough, after my overthrow, the press started writing that the reason I was overthrown was that I did not know politics, that I did not study politics at the university level, that the reason things didn’t go right was because I didn’t have education in courses like economics and politics.
So, I decided to go seek knowledge in these areas of studies. I was eager to know something about politics, about economics and about law, because these were the areas people said I was weak. That if I had known them, it would have helped me when I found myself in leadership position. I wanted to study those three at the university. Only to be told by the vice chancellor of Warwick University and his team of academics that interviewed me that even a genius cannot do these three disciplines at a go. I had to choose only one or two. What they did was to fashion a course of study that would give me some insight at the university level into all these three: politics, economics and law. So I read politics with international relations. At the university, we call it “Polint.” So, I had BA (Polint). And then later on, I did my masters and then converted it to PhD.

Chapter 2/Rivalry with Ojukwu

I heard certain insinuations that I went back to school because (Chukwuemeka Odumegwu) Ojukwu was outshining me educationally. But I must say that militarily, as far as I am concerned, I know that I am still superior to him in terms of the institutions I went to, the training that I got and all the courses that I took—even though he too attended one of the courses I went through: The Joint Services Staff College. And that was the last one I did. I was about to move a step higher to go to the Imperial Defence College when circumstances changed and I remained in the country and later on I became head of state.
To respond to these insinuations, no, my going to school has nothing to do with rivalry with Ojukwu. Yes, he went to Oxford, and interestingly Oxford was one of those universities I wanted to go to but I couldn’t because they had already finished accreditation. I would have gone to Cambridge but they had just given me an honorary degree there where they described me as a man of “muscular Christianity”. I really liked that turanci, that big grammar. It was beautifully done. So I could not go to Cambridge because of that, otherwise it would be embarrassing to them and probably to me to. In the end, I went to Warwick University which is one of the top-level, newer set of universities or “red brick” universities as they are called.

But, it is true that Ojukwu also is a very intelligent man and certainly his command of English language, having been to the English public school, having been to one of the top British universities, yes you can give it to him that he probably has a better command of English. My own command of English is more of the military language. As u waya! (As you were!)
Even at the Aburi Conference preceding the Nigerian Civil War where we sat at the negotiation table, trying to make peace and avert war, people still said I was competing with Ojukwu but I wasn’t in competition with him in anyway. The purpose of going to Aburi was to try and find a means of coming together again and know ourselves and try to co-operate and work together in the interest of the country. And so, we went there with no set position but to be able to discuss generally and work together to restore the trust and confidence that we used to have in the army. The unity and trust which unfortunately were broken by the event of January 1966 (When Major Nzeogwu led the first coup).
I was the only lucky beneficiary to be alive among the senior northern officers from the same school, from Barewa College. The coup plotters happened to have come from Umuahia Government College. For me, this is quite interesting. And of course, I went to Sandhurst with quite a number of them like Alex Madiebo and Pat Anwuna. They were together (with us) at Sandhurst but they were not part of those who did the coup.

I questioned Nzeogwu: Why did you do coup?

I remember that events were so horrifying to me that when Nzeogwu was brought down to the teaching hospital here in Lagos, I asked him why he did such things. “Why did you do such a thing? Do you realize the harm you have done to both the political and the military, especially the military?”
Because that comradeship and brotherliness that were very essential in the army between officers and officer, between officers and men, were really severed. Trust was broken among the officers and the rank and file. The soldiers knew the true import of what had happened.
But for the grace of God and for the pleading that I made to all the soldiers at the time plus the trust and the confidence they had in me, as one-time Adjutant General in the Nigerian army, the story at that time would have been different. All of us soldiers for example, we do not know what could have happened.
Considering the caliber of the leaders killed, some of their favorite leaders were killed, especially from the North. And honestly, I can assure you the pressures that we northern officers had from a lot of people asking: “What are we doing? From the North, your leaders have been killed, your political leaders have been killed, your senior officers have been killed, what are you doing? You haven’t had any revenge?”
But revenge was not my inclination. I can assure that that was not my mindset at the time. Rather, it was to get to the bottom of crisis and to try and see how we can resolve it. But in the end, we were not fortunate enough to avert the spiral effect that culminated into the Civil War.
That’s why I paid a long tribute to Ojukwu when he died. In spite of everything, we were friends quite alright and honestly in the end, we remained friends.
‘I came to Aburi with malaria’
At the Aburi Conference, Ojukwu was the only one who came with set papers and a list of demands, what he wanted to be done. And every demand was read from that particular paper. And it was written on a pink paper. And during our staff college training days, if you have anything written on pink paper, it means it is the S-solution, the staff-solution answers to the subject that you are discussing. And so we joked about that, that he has his solution to the problem. With the rest of us, myself and the other governors from the West, from the North, from the Midwest at that time, I said let us go there with an open mind to discuss the issues or whatever it is with a view to bring us all back together. Because as at that time Ojukwu had really cut off from the meeting with the rest of us all this time and even after Aburi.

After the Aburi meeting, we scheduled a meeting to discuss the agreement that we reached at Aburi and to bring out a decree that would really represent the decision that we took there but Ojukwu would not come to that meeting.

In absenting himself from the meetings, Ojukwu tried to use insecurity as excuse. But to me, that was absolute nonsense. Even in Accra, in Aburi, there could be the question of insecurity there. Anything could have happened. If we wanted, could we not have arranged for some deranged persons in Ghana to deal with that particular problem?
That was really the question that he tried to raise. That it was insecure for him to come for meetings. We promised him security. That all of us military governors were there and none of us would have had any desire to hurt or harm him, or to hurt the Ibos.
Because if you do anything, you are hurting the Ibos. And if you do that, then they would have had all the rights to say that if you have done this to our leader, we are not accepting anyone else, unless you produce him. At least, we are honest and honorable enough to ensure the security of everyone there, for the sake of the country.

Instead, Ojukwu came immediately after that meeting to Benin to meet with David Ejoor to know the outcome of our meeting which he deliberately absented himself from. And the outcome of that decree was honestly to give Ojukwu practically everything that he wanted in order to have him back to the team so that we can work together to try and solve the problem of the country.
My stand was this: You cannot undo what had already happened. I mean the crisis that we’ve had from that coup to all the killings that took place in the northern part of this country at that time. Those things you cannot undo but at least we can now work together to try and get to the bottom of it and deal with any perpetrator and try to ensure that it does not happen again in the country. This was the essence of that decree which if agreed to would have given us that opportunity. The only thing that I added was a clause—the non-secession clause. From the intelligence gathered at that time, we knew that there were plans by the Eastern Region to break away. And that was part of the reason Ojukwu had not been coming or agreeing to our meeting all the time. We had sufficient intelligence that this was what was going to happen. And so, I added one clause which is that there would be no secession. It was on that score that they rejected that decree but I can assure you that the decree represented the honest view of everything that was agreed to at Aburi which gave Ojukwu practically everything he wanted.
In that decree, we even had a clause that as the head of state, if any governor refuses any decision that I thought was for the good for the country, it cannot be
carried out. I had the veto power as head of state but I had to forego some of my powers for peace to reign.
Back to the Aburi Conference, it was not me who was answering or commenting on some of the points that Ojukwu made. Unfortunately for me at that time I was having a very serious attack of malaria fever.
But I went through the meeting all the same. The decision we took was that when we come back, I was going to make a statement to the nation before any of the governors make any statement concerning Aburi. But still, the fever was there and I was down. As such, I was unable to make any statement on that day or the following day. Whereas Ojukwu when he came back, he went straight to the radio station to say that he got everything and we even agreed to separate.

So I was woken up in the early hours of the morning by the governor of the Midwest who asked: “Have you heard the news or the comments by Ojukwu over the air concerning Aburi?”

“No,” I replied. “What did he say?”
And then I was told what he had said. So I asked the Midwest governor: “Was that what we agreed upon?”

“No, that was not,” he replied. “But Ojukwu has gone ahead to announce a different thing to his people and to the whole world.”

Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I believe honestly that that was fortuitous. God probably meant it to happen so that at least that agreement we got into in Aburi would not strangle the country. Which meant that Ojukwu could have easily decided to secede. And there is nothing that you could do with it because we had agreed to everything at Aburi, except of course when I put in that clause. That was the only additional thing that I added.

Well, they can say that at Aburi, Ojukwu won the argument but as far as I was concerned, I was honest and sincere in dealing with this thing.
There was no cover up in our decision and my feelings towards finding solution to the problem which required honesty and sincerity as well as carrying along all your colleagues in the interest of the country.
Once that was broken, I am afraid I know my duty, I swore allegiance to defend the unity of the country, the sovereignty and the integrity of my country. And as a soldier, this is what I am supposed to do.
At that time, I was also the head of the country and so I had the duty and the responsibility to ensure the continuation of Nigeria as a sovereign, unified country. That was why the war happened.

To be continued .



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