Aburi: The “Sovereign National Conference” That Got Away

COUP PLOTTERS: OJUKWU’S PROPHECY

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?”.

THE STAR OF THE SHOW

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”.

THE CONSTIUTIONAL DEBATE

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.

Using his “skilful histrionics and superior intellectual adroitness”,[2] Ojukwu managed to get the other Colonels to understand, and share his reasoning: that in order to keep Nigeria together as one nation, its constituent regions first had to move a little further apart from each other. Ojukwu used a metaphor to explain his reasoning: “It is better that we move slightly apart and survive, it is much worse that we move closer and perish in the collision.” This may have been a paradox, but the Colonels accepted the logic of Ojukwu’s argument. The problem then (as it still is in Nigeria today) is that Nigeria is so large, diverse and unwieldy that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find a leader who can elicit popularity and a following throughout, or most of the country. Amazingly Gowon accepted Ojukwu’s thesis without really understanding the constitutional implications of what he was agreeing to. Gowon was effectively sanctioning measures which would paralyse his own powers. Lt-Colonel Katsina and Colonel Adebayo also agreed and were attracted to the concept of regional autonomy. Adebayo agreed so enthusiastically that he advocated a “repeal [of] those Decrees that were passed after 15th January, 1966 but I think we should revert to what the country was as at 14th January, 1966, that is regional autonomy”. Ojukwu envisaged a titular Head of State that would act only with the concurrence of the various regional governments: “what I envisage that whoever is at the top is a constitutional chap – constitutional within the context of the military government. That is, he is a titular head, but he would only act where, say when we have met and taken a decision”. Having got what he wanted Ojukwu was not content with the agreement to be an oral one (even though it had been taped). He insisted that “we must write it down in our decisions quite categorically that the legislative and executive authority of the Federal Military Government shall be vested in the Supreme Military Council because previously it had been vested in the Supreme Commander”. The reason for this nuanced request from Ojukwu is that Gowon was now the Supreme Commander. By vesting official authority in the SMC (of which Ojukwu was a member) rather than the Supreme Commander Gowon, Ojukwu could ensure that no official decisions could be taken without his consent. To signify the limited powers that would be exercised by the Head of State envisaged, Ojukwu proposed that the diluted phrase “Commander-in-Chief” should be used to address the Head of State as opposed to “Supreme Commander” (a phrase signifying immense power). The title “Commander-in-Chief” has been employed by every Nigerian Head of State subsequent to Aburi.

While the other delegates arrived at Aburi with a simple, but unformulated idea that somehow, Nigeria must stay together, “Ojukwu was the only participant who knew what he wanted, and he secured the signatures of the SMC to documents which would have had the effect of turning Nigeria into little more than a customs union”.[3] Ojukwu managed to get virtually everything he wanted, and was so pleased by his success that he even declared that he would serve under Gowon if he (Gowon) kept to the agreements reached. At that point, Gowon arose from his table position and embraced Ojukwu.

The fulcrum of the agreement at Aburi was that each region would be responsible for its own affairs, and that the FMG would be responsible for matters that affected the entire country: a simple enough concept. Afterwards the officers toasted their reconciliation and agreement with champagne. The federal delegation’s jubilation was such that on his plane flight home, Ojukwu asked one of his secretaries whether the federal delegation had fully understood the implications of what had been agreed. Hindsight tells us that no one at Aburi (other than Ojukwu) really understood the constitutional implications of what had been agreed. Ojukwu was obviously delighted with this – hence why he was in such a hurry to implement the decisions taken, and why the Federal Government had to renege on them. Some have argued that Ojukwu took the SMC for a ride by using his superior intelligence to trap the SMC officers into an agreement they did not understand. Ojukwu was engaged in a constitutional debate by himself against five military officers, and two police officers, yet still got his way. He can hardly be faulted for outwitting opponents that outnumbered him by seven to one. Questions might be asked of the other SMC members of greater numerical strength who allowed Ojukwu to extract such substantial concessions from them.

A CONSTITUTION IN WAITING

By failing to implement the Aburi decisions, Nigeria missed a golden opportunity to find a constitutional arrangement acceptable to all of its constituent parts. Had even half of the Aburi accords being ratified, Nigeria may have saved itself a substantial amount of the subsequent bloodshed that ensued over the next four decades. It is a sad commentary on the lack of progress that Nigeria has made since Aburi that the issues discussed then (over 40 years ago years ago) are still being argued over today. Back in 1967, the Aburi decisions were not implemented for one primary reason: oil. Nigeria’s greedy power brokers did not want a loose constitutional arrangement that would deprive them of the vast revenues which Nigeria earns from its crude oil exports. Hence Nigeria is glued together under a powerful central government of a type more suitable to a country with contiguous ethnicity. Nigeria is quite simply too large, too diverse, and too fractious a country to have an all powerful central government of the type it has today. Across Nigeria, there are groups agitating for greater devolvement of federal power to the regions. Although the mantra of these groups is “restructuring” of the Nigerian federation – what they really intend is what Ojukwu wanted to achieve at the Aburi conference in 1967: a constitutional arrangement that would devolve so much power to the regions that the entity known as Nigeria would exist in name only.

Rather than engaging in another constitutional drafting/conference exercise at which will waste more taxpayers’ money, and serve as a means for corrupt “big men” to get even richer, Nigeria would do well to dip into its archives and review the transcript of the debate at Aburi which is gathering dust in the national archives. The debate transcript is sufficiently detailed to serve as a constitution in waiting. To learn from the debates and mistakes of the past may ensure a better future for Nigeria. What Nigeria needs is a “constitutional chap” of the type envisaged by Ojukwu back at Aburi. As Ojukwu said “It is better that we move slightly apart and survive, it is much worse that we move closer and perish in the collision.”

*The above article is an extract from a forthcoming book by the author.



[1] Akpan – The Struggle for Secession.

[2] Kirk-Greene “Crisis and Conflict”.

[3] John de St Jorre “The Brothers’ War”.

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