Aburi: The “Sovereign National Conference” That Got Away


When Ojukwu expressed his disgust over the murder of Igbo army officers by their northern colleagues in July 1966, Lt-Colonel Katsina interjected by asking Ojukwu why he had not reacted with the same revulsion when senior northern military officers were murdered by Igbo soldiers seven months earlier. Ojukwu reasoned that in January 1966, soldiers from every region of the federation (Nzeogwu: Mid-West, Ifeajuna-East, Ademoyega: West, Kpera: North) had staged a coup in which soldiers and politicians from every region of the federation (Akintola: West, Balewa: North, Unegbe: East, Okotie-Eboh: Mid-West) were also killed. Whereas when northern soldiers staged a revenge coup in July, soldiers from one region of the federation only (North: Danjuma, Murtala, Martin Adamu et al) singled out soldiers from one region in the federation as their targets (East: Okoro, Ironsi etc). Katsina took this opportunity to remind Ojukwu of the effort he had put in to prevent the murder of Igbos. Katsina told Ojukwu that “If you know how much …we have tried to console the people to stop all these movements and mass killings, you will give me and others a medal tonight.”

Despite agreeing to attend the conference, Ojukwu was still refusing to recognize Lt-Colonel Gowon as Nigeria’s Head of State. Ojukwu had defiantly continued to address Gowon as the “the Chief of Staff (Army)” (the post which Gowon occupied before the July counter-coup) in his public statements. Ojukwu was alarmed at the ascension of Gowon to the highest office in the land despite the presence of several other officers who were more senior than him (Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, Commodore J.E.A. Wey, Colonel Adebayo, Lt-Colonels Hilary Njoku, Phillip Effiong, George Kurubo, Ime Imo, Conrad Nwawo and Lt-Colonels Ejoor and Ojukwu who were promoted to Lt-Colonel in the same week as Gowon). Ojukwu almost prophetically warned that allowing a middle ranking officer backed by coup plotters to become the Head of State irrespective of seniority would create a dangerous precedent which Nigeria would find difficult to emerge from. He told Gowon that “any break at this time from our normal line would write in something into the Nigerian army which is bigger than all of us and that thing is indiscipline…..How can you ride above people’s heads purely because you are at the head of a group who have their fingers poised on the trigger? If you do it you remain forever a living example of that indiscipline which we want to get rid of because tomorrow a Corporal will think….he could just take over the company from the Major commanding the company…”. Ojukwu’s warning was of course not heeded and his prediction that junior officers would in future overthrow their superior officers proved prophetic. The NCOs and Lieutenants that shot Gowon to power graduated into the Colonels that overthrew him exactly nine years later. As Brigadiers, they overthrew the elected civilian government of Shehu Shagari on the last day of 1983, and removed Major-General Buhari from power in 1985. Ojukwu’s impassioned monologue at Aburi could serve as an anti coup plotter thesis. He continued to Gowon “you announced yourself as Supreme Commander. Now, Supreme Commander by virtue of the fact that you head or that you are acceptable to people who had mutinied against their commander, kidnapped him and taken him away? By virtue of the support of officers and men who had in the dead of night murdered their brother officers, by virtue of the fact that you stood at the head of a group who had turned their brother officers from the eastern region out of the barracks they shared?”.


It was obvious to the non military observers of the Aburi conference that Ojukwu “was clearly the star performer. Everyone wanted to please and concede to him”.[1] On the federal side, only the Military Governor of the Northern Region: Lt-Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina, seemed to realize the significance of what was going on. Anxious not to allow Ojukwu’s domination of the proceedings to continue for too long, he at one point dared Ojukwu to “secede, and let the three of us (West, North, Mid-West) join together”. Alarmed by talk of a possible break-up of Nigeria, Ankrah quickly interjected and told his guests that “There is no question of secession when you come here [Ghana]”. Although the FMG delegation was keen to mollify and make concessions to Ojukwu, Lt-Colonel Katsina was blunter than his other colleagues. He declared matter of factly to Ojukwu: “You command the east, if you want to come into Nigeria, come into Nigeria and that is that”.


Back then as now, each region of Nigeria was petrified of domination by other regions. No region of the federation was keen to adopt a course which would concentrate too much power at the hands of Nigeria’s central government. Even Gowon acknowledged this (and unwittingly played into Ojukwu’s hands) by admitting that he would “I would do away with any decree that certainly tended to go towards too much centralisation”. Ojukwu pounced on the central powers theme and remarked that “Centralisation is a word that stinks in Nigeria today. For that 10,000 people have been killed” (this figure was later revised up to 30,000, and then 50,000). The clash, and ill defined relationship between Nigeria’s central and regional governments has been the greatest source of political bloodletting in the country’s history. It led indirectly to the gruesome “religious” clashes that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians over the introduction of Sharia law in some northern states in 2000. It led to the civil war in which over a million civilians died. It led to the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa after he agitated for greater self determination for his Ogoni people.

[1] Akpan – The Struggle for Secession.

Written by
Max Siollun
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