Aburi: The “Sovereign National Conference” That Got Away

him. Ojukwu brushed aside their concerns by pointing out that he had received a guarantee of safe passage from Lt-Colonel Gowon, and that he had to trust Gowon’s word as an officer and a gentleman. Virtually everything discussed at that Aburi conference is relevant till today. So much so that a reader would be tempted to believe that the discussion was on Nigeria’s current problems, rather than over 40 years earlier, in 1967. It is probably the best recorded constitutional debate in history. Aware that something momentous was occurring, the Ghanaians had the conference tape recorded. The tape of the discussions was later released by Ojukwu as a series of six long playing gramophone records. In attendance on the Federal Military Government (FMG) side were:



Lt-Colonel Yakubu Gowon

Head of the SMC*

Commodore Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey

Head of the Nigerian navy

Colonel Robert Adeyinka Adebayo

Military Governor of the western region

Lt-Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina

Military Governor of the northern region

Lt-Colonel David Akpode Ejoor

Governor of mid-west region

Major Mobolaji Johnson

Military Governor of Lagos

Alhaji Kam Selem

Inspector-General of Police

Timothy Omo-Bare


*Head of the SMC as Ironsi’s whereabouts were “unknown”.

Ojukwu was in attendance as the eastern region’s Military Governor. The FMG delegation arrived “wreathed in smiles”[1] and anxious to mollify their former brother-in-arms Ojukwu. Colonels Adebayo and Gowon even offered to embrace Ojukwu. However Ojukwu was still stung by the terrible massacres of his Igbo kinsmen in northern Nigeria the previous year and was in no mood to embrace his former colleagues. The contrast in the demeanour of the participants was in itself a microcosm of what took place over the course of the next two days. While the federal delegation behaved as if the Aburi conference was a social gathering to reunite former friends who had fallen out in a social tiff, Ojukwu saw the conference for what it really was: a historic constitutional debate that would determine Nigeria’s future social and political structure.

Typically, western perspective was focused on image, rather than on the genuine problems of the protagonists. Secret diplomatic dispatches later declassified by the United States State Department depicted the FMG-eastern region stand-off as a personality clash between Ojukwu and Gowon. According to the American perspective: “many Americans admire Ojukwu. We like romantic leaders, and Ojukwu has panache, quick intelligence and an actor’s voice and fluency. The contrast with Gowon – troubled by the enormity of his task, painfully earnest and slow to react, hesitant and repetitive in speech – led some Americans to view the Nigerian-Biafran conflict as a personal duel between two mismatched individuals”.[2] As they were busy fighting in Vietnam and fighting a “cold war” against the USSR, the Americans did not become militarily or politically involved in the dispute. Instead, treating the conflict as one falling within Britain’s sphere of influence.


The Ghanaian host Lt-General Ankrah made a few introductory remarks and reminded his guests that “the whole world is looking up to you as military men and of there is any failure to reunify or even bring perfect understanding to Nigeria as a whole, you will find that the blame will rest with us through the centuries”. Ankrah added that although he understood that the eastern region/rest of Nigeria stand-off was an internal matter for Nigerians, they should not hesitate to ask him for any help should they feel the need. Although Commodore Wey played an avuncular role, the discussion revolved around the younger Colonels: Adebayo, Ejoor, Katsina, Ojukwu and Gowon. Ojukwu showed from the beginning that he was prepared for serious business. He arrived at the conference armed with notes, and an army of secretaries. The extent of Ojukwu’s pre-preparation is shown by the fact that he gave the other debaters copies of documents he had prepared in advance, which enunciated his ideas. The other debaters should have realised at this point, that something serious was going to occur. After the hostility and bitterness that preceded the Aburi meeting, the civilian observers were stunned at the camaraderie displayed by the military officers. The debaters threw off formality and addressed each other by their first names: “Emeka”, “Bolaji”, “Jack” (nickname of Lt-Colonel Gowon) were thrown around as if addressing each other in at a social gathering. One of Ojukwu’s secretaries was amazed to observe that “the meeting went on in a most friendly and cordial atmosphere which made us, the non-military advisers, develop a genuine respect and admiration for the military men and their sense of comradeship. The meeting continued so smoothly and ended so successfully…..that I for one, was convinced that among themselves, the military had their own methods”.[3]

Ojukwu decided to show his good faith, and to test the good faith of the others by asking all present to renounce the use of force to settle the crisis. Ojukwu’s motion was accepted without objection. While this request by Ojukwu may sound very noble, he was in fact playing a cunning soldier-politician. Ojukwu (despite his boasts of the eastern region’s military prowess) realised that he could not succeed in a military campaign against the far more heavily armed FMG. By getting them to renounce the use of force, Ojukwu was trying to negate the FMG’s military advantage. For he knew that if the political situation eventually got out of control, the FMG would find it difficult to resort to a military campaign having already given their word that they would not use force. This may have been an influential factor in Gowon’s subsequent reluctance to engage the eastern region in a fully fledged war.


The assembled military officers struck a chord in unison on the subject of politicians. All of them voiced their contempt for the behaviour of civilian politicians whom they blamed for the wholesale bloodletting of the previous years (ignoring the fact that more Nigerian civilians had been murdered by politically motivated violence, in the one year of military rule so far, than in the preceding five years of civilian democratic rule). Commodore Wey slammed the point home rather forcefully when he declared that “Candidly if there had ever been a time in my life when I thought somebody had hurt me sufficiently for me to wish to kill him it was when one of these fellows [politicians] opened his mouth too wide”.


Despite Ironsi’s murder six months earlier, no public announcement regarding his death had been made and his whereabouts were still presumed unknown, although most of the SMC definitely knew he was dead. Gowon’s regime had eerily repeated the mistake made by Ironsi himself: failing to publicly acknowledge the army officers killed in a coup d’etat. By not announcing Ironsi’s death, Gowon also made his own position tenuous and gave Ojukwu the opportunity to reason that since the Supreme Commander Ironsi was “missing”, only the officer directly behind Ironsi in army seniority could replace him as Supreme Commander. Major Mobolaji Johnson encapsulated the issue that the east was steadfastly refusing to recognize Gowon as Head of State while the other regions accepted him (albeit tentatively in the case of the west): “The main problem now is that as far as the east is concerned, there is no central government. Why? This is what we must find out. …..For all the east knows the former Supreme Commander [Ironsi] is only missing and until such a time that they know his whereabouts they do not know any other Supreme Commander. These are the points that have been brought out by the east.” Ojukwu demanded that Gowon make a categorical public statement on the fate of Ironsi. Ejoor supported this by flatly requesting “we want to know what happened to Ironsi and Fajuyi”. Despite Ojukwu’s request for an announcement, most, if not all the participants already knew that Ironsi had been murdered. Gowon was informed of the death of Ironsi and Fajuyi not long after they had been killed. Gowon’s ADC Lt William Walbe was one of the junior northern soldiers that led Ironsi and Fajuyi into a bush alongside Iwo road outside Ibadan and murdered them there. Colonel Adebayo had ordered a search for their bodies, which were eventually discovered by the police. The head of the police Kam Selem would have been informed when his men discovered the bodies. Although Ojukwu was several hundred miles away in the east when Ironsi and Fajuyi were murdered, he likely would have had the story of their death relayed to him by one of Ironsi’s ADCs Captain Andrew Nwankwo who was captured along with Ironsi and Fajuyi but managed to escape moments before they were shot. Nwankwo eventually managed to find his way back to the east. Commodore Wey acknowledged that all the debaters already knew what happened to Ironsi. Ojukwu simply wanted Gowon to publicly acknowledge what the SMC members already knew: that Ironsi was dead. Ojukwu later acknowledged that “I heard the rumour that he [Ironsi] had been assassinated, so I began making contacts because I wanted to force them out in the open so that we could start dealing with the real situation.”[4] Gowon agreed to make a public announcement, and Kam Selem concurred, although he counselled that “the statement should be made in Nigeria so that the necessary honour can be given”.

After the soldiers agreed to make a public statement formally announcing Ironsi’s death shortly after they returned to Nigeria, the microphones were switched off and the civilians were asked to leave the room. Gowon then narrated the grisly tale of how Ironsi and Fajuyi had been abducted from State House in Ibadan by junior northern soldiers (including Gowon’s ADC Lt Walbe), driven out to an isolated bush outside Ibadan and shot there.

[1] Akpan: The Struggle for Secession.

[2] Airgram from US Embassy in Nigeria to the Department of State: Lagos A-419, February 11th, 1968.


[4] Vanguard, 17 November 2003.

Written by
Max Siollun
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