When Gowon, Ojukwu and the rest of the Supreme Military Council gathered at Aburi, they were trying to avoid what seemed to be the only possible outcome – war.
After returning from a lengthy medical leave in August 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari held his first presidential address in months. Under gleaming lights and the gaze of millions of Nigerians, Buhari said, “Nigeria’s unity is settled and non-negotiable.” They were strong words, emphatic in their purpose. But they were so familiar that they have turned stale – too simple to capture the reality of the British commercial experiment that became Nigeria. The existence of Nigeria as a singular entity has been fraught with a myriad of delicate fault lines since the amalgamation in 1914. Each side managed their differences for more than half a century – albeit under the watchful eye of Britain’s political games. But 1960, independence and the distribution of power along regional lines created a fertile ground for age-long resentment to fester.
The 1966 coup and the July counter-coup unearthed this bag of aggressive, power-hungry worms, so much that for the first time since 1914, the unity of Nigeria became subject to public debate and the power plays of the uniformed men who now held power.
The North on one side was certain that the Easterners had their eyes set on dominating everything – as Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of the Northern Region, so eloquently put it in an interview with the BBC before his death.
“The Igbos are more or less the kind of people whose desire is mainly to dominate everybody”, the Sardauna told the British Broadcast Corporation in 1964, shortly before that year’s general elections, “If they go to a village or town, they want to monopolise everything in that area.”
The East, on the other, had tired of the North’s grasp on federal power, a system of institutional tribalism and the neglect of the region.
By the time the Supreme Military Council, made up of the Northern-run Federal government and the regional governors, met in Aburi, Ghana, to discuss a way forward, both sides were trying to avoid the only outcome that seemed to be on the table: war.
Decades of resentment had erupted into heavy communal violence, and a series of ethnic pogroms had left many Igbos in the North dead. Hundreds of thousands fled in an exodus to their eastern homeland. It should be noted that after the coup, the North also considered secession. Consultations with the British and American ambassadors changed their minds. Instead, they chose the highest ranking Northern officer, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, to be head of state.
Even with Gowon in power, the Federal Government proved unable to quell the pogroms. With Ojukwu in his Queen’s English-speaking glory at the helm, the calls for secession in the East began to form and project at the same time.
The palpability of the tensions that necessitated the meeting at Aburi had even determined its location. The Eastern delegation, led by Ojukwu, was certain that their safety could not be guaranteed within Nigeria. In the inverse, both sides had agreed on the small hillside town of Aburi, in Ghana, famed for its colourful botanical gardens. There were no flowery emotions at the meeting. The Chairman of the Ghana Liberation Council, Lt. Gen. J.A Ankrah presided over the gathering. In attendance were Gowon, who was Supreme Military Commander at the time, His Vice President, Commodore Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey, Governors of the four regions and Lagos State – Lt.-Col. David Ejoor, Lt.-Col. Hassan Katsina, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, Colonel Robert Adebayo, and Major Mobolaji Johnson. They were joined by their secretaries and the Permanent Under-Secretary of the Federal Cabinet Office, S. Akenzua, who would ascend the throne of Benin as Oba Erediauwa 1.
According to official records of the minutes of the meeting kept by all sides, many issues formed the agenda, but only three of these would have ramifications on the future of Nigeria, and by necessity, the civil war. The Armed Forces’ recruitment scheme had given the North an unfair advantage that became evident after the first coup. Ojukwu believed a re-organisation of the armed forces was necessary. Some decrees also vested absolute power in the federal government, a condition that Ojukwu and many of the regional governors wanted to be reversed. According to the Daily Times, dated Tuesday, August 2, 1966, Ojukwu had, in a speech broadcast across the Eastern region, suggested that negotiations be held to allow the people of Nigeria determine the nature of their future association. The Aburi meetings were those negotiations.
The Kaduna pogroms that had displaced many Igbo from around the country were also, as a matter of first necessity, on the table. After initial pleasantries, Gowon took charge of the meeting. Gowon and Ojukwu addressed suspicions that they were stockpiling weapons for war – a plane had crashed near Enugu carrying new weapons from a foreign supplier. The Federal Government was also amassing weapons in Kaduna, deliveries from purchases valued at over three million pounds. The council then adopted a declaration proposed by Lt.-Col. Ojukwu, that all members renounce the use of force to settle the Nigerian crisis.
Other issues were discussed, including the fact that the East did not recognise Gowon as the Head of State, as the whereabouts of Aguiyi-Ironsi were not publicly known at the time. In a show of amenability, Gowon called the governors in secret, to tell them what they already knew, that Aguiyi-Ironsi was dead. Even though Gowon was the de-facto head of the Supreme Military Council, he showed an unusual willingness to agree to nearly all requests made by Ojukwu and the other regional governors. In retrospect and in the eyes of the other governors, especially Ojukwu, it raised questions about whether his concessions were genuine, or the meeting was simply a ploy to bring the regions to the negotiating table as part of “due process”, to explore the option of dialogue, especially since most of the recommendations and agreements were never implemented.
Later, Ojukwu would say in an interview with the NTA after his return from exile, “Our case was so clear that I actually believed at the end of Aburi that the problem was not Gowon but probably some ambassadors in Lagos who were pressing for something else.” “Because we agreed on everything”, the Zungeru-born Eastern governor emphasised. These vested interests to which Ojukwu referred were the British and American Ambassadors who were believed to be absolutely in tandem with the Northern elite. That group of influential military officers and highly respected civilian interests exercised some influence over Gowon – they had put him in power through the dominance of Northern officers. As they had made clear in the months before, that set of people did not want a position that conceded much power to the East or any other regions.
And while Ojukwu may have portrayed himself as the willing negotiator, his demeanour at the meeting was jaded and standoffish, almost detached from the events around him. In the anxious weeks leading to the meeting, the Oxford-educated colonel had begun pushing aggressively for all easterners to return home. In the words of Paddy Davies, who worked in the Biafra Propaganda Directorate until 1970, “To the domestic constituency, Ojukwu targeted the information that if they did not go along with Biafra, the northerners were going to advance, carry on the Jihad and kill everyone in Eastern Nigeria and dip the Qoran in the sea, that was the euphemism used at the time” For some, there was the impression that Ojukwu had come to the table, resigned to the eventuality of a civil war that each side believed the other was already preparing for. If nothing, that meeting proved that no single man absolutely represents the claims and whims of any group in Nigeria. Behind the scenes, many vested interests on both sides pulled the strings that determined the eventual outcome. It is partly why, till this day, even where Presidents and Governors pronounce the unity of Nigeria, there is a deep-seated wariness, almost a mistrust of the other’s intentions. That deep mistrust led to the definitive nail in the coffin of dialogue. After two days of deliberations that were jovial in spurts and heated at times, the Supreme Military Council found a middle ground on most of the agenda. Among these, all parties agreed that all army personnel of Northern origin should return to the North to douse tensions. The army would then have a heavy recruitment exercise in the West to balance the deficit in the number of soldiers from each region.
The most notable, however, was about the system of government and sharing of power. According to the official records of the meeting, it was agreed that all decrees passed since January 5, 1966, should be repealed, which would have removed the Unitary system of government that Aguiyi-Ironsi established. The council also agreed that the Supreme Military Council, with the Head-of-State in charge, should have legislative and executive authority, but also refer to the regional governors for “comment and concurrence”. The regions were also allowed to have area commands for internal security. Later, Ojukwu alleged that a revenue sharing formula was discussed to allow the regions a certain degree of autonomy. As far as records show, the meeting ended amicably, with a set of decisions that were referred to as the Aburi Accords.
Ultimately, a difference in interpretation and that inherent wariness of the other parties led the East and the North to pull down what had been built. Perhaps wary that Gowon would change his mind, or anxious to express his small “victory”, Ojukwu returned to Enugu to declare his interpretation of what had been agreed upon. In a widely-publicised broadcast, he said that the Supreme Military Council had agreed to a confederal system of government. If this had come into effect, it would have given autonomy to the regions and to an extent, opened the door to self-determination.
Decades later, Gowon would tell the NTA, “If I had the opportunity to make my broadcast first because that was the agreement if I had committed myself to what he said, then there wouldn’t have been any problem”
“But he went and said certain things that looked wrong. We saw in practically everything he did that he was playing to the gallery and not being sincere”, the former Head of State said.
Today, one can look back and question the motives of both parties, Gowon and Ojukwu.
Considering the events that followed, the Aburi meetings turned out to be little more than a stop-gap in an avoidable descent into war.
Even though the accords were simple agreements with no legal founding that were never implemented, that meeting in a small Ghanaian town changed Nigeria forever. “Ojukwu believed that the odds were stacked against the people of the east. As a result, he was looking to get a fair deal which is why one of the clauses was that decisions of the government would not fly unless they ran them by the Supreme Military Council, which included Ojukwu himself“, says Tony Atambi, an Abuja-based legal practitioner and political commentator. “One of the reasons for the accord was at that time, there was already a mutual distrust, which remains to this day, as to which part of the country was taking advantage or was going to have the better end of the deal.”, he continued. “That mutual distrust did not end after the accord. It seeped into our relationship and things began to decline from there on” “It is why even though rogues have taken over the struggle for Biafra, there is this feeling that we are being left out, it would appear as though the North and the South-West have been getting better deals and leaving the East out. That feeling continues till today”, Atambi added.
Till this day, it is difficult to convince the Igbo that any federal government, as presently constituted, has their best interest in mind.
The meetings in Aburi exposed the fragility of Nigeria’s association. They revealed a pervading mistrust that defines our relationship till this day.
If there were any lessons to be learned from Aburi, Nigeria has ignored them.