Aburi: The “Sovereign National Conference” That Got Away

After Nigeria was dragged to the brink of the abyss by two military coups in 1966, its military leaders met to try to bring the country back from the brink. The meeting evolved into perhaps the best documented constitutional debate of all time which touched upon fundamental concepts regarding the balance of power between the central government and federating regions in a federation and professional soldiers’ outlook to military coups and seniority. It was a potential breakthrough occasion. Between January 5th and 7th 1967, the members of Nigeria’s then ruling military junta, the Supreme Military Council (SMC), met for the first time at Aburi in Ghana under the auspices of the Ghanaian Head of State: Lt-General Joe Ankrah. Ankrah was no stranger to coup plots as he had become Ghana’s first military Head of State after Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah was deposed in a coup while Nkrumah was abroad visiting China. Ankrah was later forced to resign in April 1969 after admitting his role in a bribery scandal. Ankrah had served in the Congo during the UN peace-keeping mission there in the early 1960s and it is likely he personally knew the Nigerian soldiers (including Ironsi, Fajuyi, Ojukwu and Gowon) who served in the same mission. The meeting at Aburi was the first official meeting of all members of that SMC. Following a second bloody army coup in July 1966, the Military Governor of the eastern region of Nigeria: Lt-Colonel ‘Emeka’ Ojukwu had refused to attend any SMC meeting outside the eastern region of Nigeria due to concerns over his safety. The massacre of tens of thousands of Igbos in northern Nigeria only heightened Ojukwu’s sense of isolation and insecurity. In turn, Ojukwu’s public belligerence towards the SMC (whom he suspected of tacitly supporting, or having a hand in the massacres) served to antagonise the SMC, who began to suspect that Ojukwu was planning the secession of the eastern region from the rest of Nigeria.

The fashionable political theory being bandied about in Nigeria today is that a “Sovereign National Conference” (SNC) should be held to resolve the country’s constitutional problems and coup plotting culture. Many do not realise that Nigeria has already had half a dozen constitutional debates – none of which has ever resolved the nagging problems which have dogged Nigeria from independence till today. Nigeria has wasted billions of Naira on constitutional debates and constitutions that are no longer in use, and a future SNC is unlikely to discuss anything that has not already been covered in the previous constitutional debates. Ironically the best recorded of these constitutional debates was never implemented, and Nigeria has been paying the price since. To plan for the future Nigeria might do well to go back into its archives and learn from the “SNC” which it has already had.

BETWEEN ONE AMBITIOUS MAN AND THE REST OF THE COUNTRY

In the months preceding Aburi the SMC and Ojukwu had engaged in a war of words with the two sides trading multiple accusations and blaming each other for causing or exacerbating the crisis. The Military Governor of the north: Lt-Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina dismissed Ojukwu’s confident and eloquent public statements on the crisis as attempts by Ojukwu “to show how much English he knows”. As far as Katsina was concerned, Nigeria’s problem was a stand-off “between one ambitious man and the rest of the country”. Throughout the six months following the coup of July 29th 1966, Ojukwu repeated his mantra that “I, as the Military Governor of the east cannot meet anywhere in Nigeria where there are northern troops”. That virtually ruled out an SMC meeting inside Nigeria’s borders. Ojukwu had even turned down offers to attend an SMC meeting on board a British (whom Ojukwu, and Igbos in general did not entirely trust) naval ship, and at Benin, but was finally convinced to attend in the neutral territory of Aburi in Ghana. Ojukwu’s aides were not without doubt. Some warned him that the Aburi meeting could be a trap set by anti-Igbo members of the Federal Government to arrest or kill 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:

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