Chief Obafemi Awolowo played a pivotal role in the restoration of Nigeria’s unity and territorial integrity during the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970. He was indeed one of the major architects of Nigeria’s victory over secession in the 30-month Civil War.
Awolowo’s involvement in the Nigerian civil war came at three intervals: before, during and after the war.
It would be recalled that an attempt by the Ghanaian Head of State, Gen. J.A. Ankrah to resolve the political conflict between Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu Ojukwu at Aburi, Ghana between 4 and 5 January 1967 failed.
This was due to controversies that surrounded the interpretation of the Aburi Accord and the refusal of General Gowon to implement same. Ojukwu had insisted on its implementation or the East would secede
Gen Gowon had returned from Aburi in high commendation of himself having resolved to secession as the only solution to broker peace between the federal government and the marginalised east.
Awolowo inquired from the general what the outcome was and Gowon confidently told him Ojukuwu had no choice but to settle for “secession”. A shocked Awolowo took his time to explain the meaning of Secession and its implication, if that was the resolution in Aburi Ghana.
All hope seemed lost on a peaceful resolution of the crisis.
However, on May 1,1967 Chief Awolowo and other Yoruba leaders met at his residence at Ibadan to deliberate on the stand of the Western region in the impending war which they envisaged may follow the eventual secession of the East.
Four major policy proposals were deliberated and agreed upon as follows: (a) only a peaceful solution must be found to arrest the present worsening stalemate and restore normalcy; (b) the Eastern Region must be encouraged to remain part of the Federation; (c) if the Eastern Region is allowed by acts of omission or commission to secede from or opt-out of Nigeria, then Western Region and Lagos must also stay out of the Federation; (d) the people of Western Nigeria or Lagos would participate in the Ad hoc Constitutional Committee or any similar body only on the basis of absolute equality with other Region of the Federations.
By implication, the West sued for peace and did not support a violent resolution of the political conflict between the Eastern and Northern regions. According to Awolowo, those who advocate the use of force for the settlement of our present problems should stop a little and reflect. I can see no vital and abiding principle involved in any war between the North and the East .
In his capacity as the Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council and as the most prominent and neutral civilian political figure in the country, he led a four-man team of the fourteen member National Conciliation Committee (NCC) to Enugu in May 1967 to persuade Colonel Ojukwu to reconsider his stand on secession and embrace dialogue.
Unfortunately, Ojukwu reiterated his resolute stand not to have anything to do with reconciliation with the North and Gowon
But then, Awolowo made his stand known to Ojukwu against the planned secession bid which he considered‚ a tragedy and disservice to the memories of all those who have gone for Nigeria to be disbanded .
At the end of the day, the intervention of Chief Awolowo to persuade Emeka Ojukwu not to secede but allow a peaceful constitutional settlement of the crisis also failed. Sooner, Ojukwu declared the secession of the Eastern region on 30 May 1967. The war lasted endlessly, almost ending in a stalemate until the decisive strategy of economic blockade and starvation was introduced by the Federal Government of Nigeria.
The idea was mooted by Chief Awolowo. Within about seven months of implementation, the Biafran army surrendered and the war came to an end.
Prior to that date, the Nigerian Federation was made up of four regions: Northern, Eastern, Western and the Mid-Western regions. This was, however, abolished and replaced with a new structural arrangement of twelve states, by the advice of Chief Awolowo
The Eastern Region was divided into three states, two of them dominated by non-Igbo minorities. More importantly, the Central Eastern State of the Igbo was land-locked.
It is true that Gowon declared that the states were essentially created to correct‚ the huge imbalance among the then existing four regions and thereby allay the fears of domination by the minority. It was indeed very clear that the creation of the state exercise was essentially a political strategy to weaken the support base of the Eastern Region and undercut support for the impending‚ Republic of Biafra among the minorities of the Eastern Region and undermine the viability of Eastern Nigeria, if the region eventually declared its secession and independence. It was further meant to sever the vast majority of Igbo from profitable coastal ports and rich oil fields that were recently discovered in the Niger Delta.
The second war strategy of the FMG was the police action. This refers to a relatively localized military action, undertaken by regular armed forces, without a formal declaration of war. It is normally undertaken against guerrillas, insurgents or other forces held to be violators of national or international peace and order.
The police action was carried out by the Nigerian Armed Forces as a form of military intervention within the framework of‚ aid to civil power . This strategy was codified into law through the Police Decree 24 of 1967. It granted the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and the Inspector General of Police the right to arrest and detain without trial, anyone suspected of any subversive act.
This ostensibly was aimed at getting Lt. Col. Ojukwu the ‘Biafran Head of State’ arrested as a way of scuffling the secessionist idea. But apart from that, the police action also constituted an attempt to ‚restore federal government’s authority in Lagos and the break-away Eastern region.
The police action no doubt marked the onset of the deployment of the Nigerian armed forces for the maintenance of internal security as a complement to the activities of the regular police and the Mobile Police force. The FMG also employed propaganda as part of its war strategy, even though minimally. It is widely believed that propaganda is an important part of strategic planning in warfare. On the contrary, however, Yakubu Gowon made frantic efforts to ensure that the Nigerian information network played down the strength of the federal troops as if the conflict was a little disagreement between brothers, and that was what was relayed to the western media.
The toughest weapon against the Biafra is the adoption of a new strategy of economic blockade by the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. It was adopted largely because the Federal Army was probably incapable of conquering the Ibo heartland by direct assault. For instance, in June 1968, Gowon promised that there would be no attempt by the Federal troops to drive into the heart of the East-Central state and no pursuit of the Biafrans into their homeland except as a last resort after all appeals to Biafra had failed.
In such a situation, a total economic blockade of the territory still under Biafra’s control offered one of the most effective and least-costly means of eroding the secessionists’ resistance.
Without much doubt, it was glaring that starvation was considered a legitimate weapon of war by the FGN largely out of desperation. The main exponent of this was Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the then Minister of Finance who declared in a speech in June 1969 that:‚ I don’t see any need why we should feed our enemies fat only to fight us harder.
The Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN) also changed the Nigerian currency in January 1968 purposely to render the Biafran currency non-convertible and virtually useless and thereby cut Biafra off from the international money markets.
Awolowo had accused Ojukwu and his army of looting the Central Bank branches in Benin, Port Harcourt and Calabar. The need to prevent Ojukwu from taking the money to abroad to buy arms led to the change.
As a result of the economic blockade, Biafra experienced acute fuel shortage; hike in prices of foodstuffs, goods and services and the level of economic hardship intensified, beginning from May 1968. A cup of gari was sold for over one pound while a cup of salt sold for 15 Biafran pounds during the period of economic and trade embargo, instead of the six Biafran pounds at the onset of the war. The currency change was also the idea, muted by Awolowo.
In the end, after the war ended in January 1970. The Nigerian government had enough fund to finance a programme to ameliorate the poverty and hunger that has bedevilled the eastern region. According to Awolowo, who was the Finance Minister at the time, he ensured that the revenue which was due to the East Central State throughout the war years, particularly, the subvention of 990,000 pounds per month was kept and saved for them. Upon their liberation, the money, running into millions of pounds was handed over to them.
To date, the eastern historians and witnesses of the civil war still struggle to forgive the late sage over his contribution to the wholesale death and loss of wealth of their people. Renowned Novelist, Chinua Achebe probably took his grievance to the grave, as his last book “There Was A Country, held nothing back in castigating the Hero of Yoruba history, late Chief Obafemi Awolowo.