January 15th is Armed Forces Day, Nigeria’s Remembrance Day. It commemorates Nigeria’s fallen in all its conflicts from WW1 to Op Lafiya Dole.
Unlike in the UK or other countries it does not have as much relevance amongst civil society, with no concerted effort to create a national myth or narrative around it and is little recognised beyond the military and government functionaries, most of latter whom barely understand or know the significance.
January 15th was chosen because it as the day of Nigeria’s first coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and the day that The Republic of Biafra ceased to exist.
This day and what it led to, taught me several random lessons which I will list below.
- Good intentions can have bad consequences: Major Nzeogwu (an Igboman from present day Delta State) was by all accounts a thoroughly detribalised, idealistic, nationalist, having grown up in the north was more comfortable speaking and fraternising with Hausas than Igbos. After his death, he was buried with full military honours by the Federal Military Government. The stated reason for the coup was to eliminate the corrupt government, end the political crisis which led to a state of emergency in the Western Region and free Western Region politician Chief Obafemi Awolowo. All of this notwithstanding, a coup led by nationalists with overtly nationalistic goals, led to the murder of several innocent Nigerians including the spouses of their targets. This was followed by the counter coups and pogroms which led to the murder of thousands of other innocent people and then the civil war. As Iraq, Libya and other examples have shown, the success or failure of the first act does not necessarily produce the desired outcome.
- Utility of Force: it can be argued that Nzeogwu’s use of lethal force to kill rather than detain his targets created more problems than it solved. Detaining their targets might have removed the sting from the coup and removed a rallying cry from the counter coup plotters, particularly in view of the ethnically lopsided nature of the killings.
- Control the narrative: initial reactions to the coup, even news of the death of the Sardauna were met with jubilation, even in the North. Yet with the coup defeated and a politically tone deaf officer Maj Gen Ironsi (also Igbo) taking over, opportunistic, displaced politicians aided by British migrant workers began to craft a narrative of Igbo domination. This narrative was not ably contested by the Federal Military Government or Regional governments and issues exacerbated by the clumsy handling of certain issues such as Decree 34, which took power away from the Regions, in a well meaning effort to reduce regionalism and tribalism (as well as centralise power) but was again portrayed as an instrument of Igbo domination. This narrative was reinforced by allegations of Igbo teasing of Northerners which was serious enough for Ironsi to issue a warning. The counter coup planners understood their audience and messaging and disseminated it appropriately with great success.
- Have a plan (and a back up plan): the coup plotters had no contingency plans, external allies or objectives beyond eliminating the existing political class and apparently expecting Nigeria to automatically fix itself. Nzeogwu’s initial speech showed a fairly liberal attitude to using capital punishment for offences as varied as spying, shouting slogans to homosexuality. Either he was hoping popular support would keep people in line along with the violent threats however, shooting someone for tearing down a poster would have rapidly eroded any popular support they had.
Once the coup was defeated in the south and in Kano, the coup plotters had few options short of an all out war which they would have lost and thus surrendered without achieving any of their goals except eliminating an element of the political class and senior military leadership.
- Nature abhors a vacuum: the lack of political experience of Gen Ironsi and the murders of senior Northern officers left a dangerous vacuum in Army leadership. Ironsi’s determination to appear even handed meant he did not discipline potentially mutinous Northern officers or the January 15th coup plotters. The loss of senior Northern officers such as Brig Maimalari who would have exerted a calming influence allowed extremist officers to be manipulated by Northern politicians and British migrant workers in the Northern administration.
- Be prepared: the best chance to avert war was at the Aburi Summit in Ghana. The Eastern Region delegation led by Col. Ojukwu, prepared their strategic objectives, negotiating positions and tactics, red lines and what they were willing to concede beforehand. The Federal Military Government led by Col Gowon simply turned up with a vague desire to preserve the Army as a national institution and the country as a whole. Unsurprisingly the resulting Aburi Accords contained all of Ojukwu’s positions essentially turning Nigeria into a loose Regional Confederation as well as renouncing the use of force, none of which were unreasonable. The Aburi Accords remains the sole time Nigeria’s constituent parts discussed the ways and means of staying together.However, the agreement was unacceptable to a clique of Nigerian civil servants and British diplomats, compelling Gowon to renege on them. This act of bad faith coloured all future discussions, leading the Easterners to undertake unilateral actions such as refusing to remit tax to the Federal Government in order to pay the salaries of displaced civil servants (one of the agreements at Aburi) leading the Federal government who in turn imposed a blockade. Each step and subsequent counter step led to an inevitable conflict. Biafra’s success as a country was due to their detailed preparations prior to the conflict, utilising the competent Nigerian Civil Service that pertained in 1960’s to mobilise every sector of society for the coming conflict. Military preparations ironically (considering the background of the leaders) were the worst, with weapons purchases outsourced to unqualified civilians, training deliberately restricted and military organisation hamstrung due to Col Ojukwus fear of being overthrown by senior colleagues, indeed the most senior of whom Brigadier Njoku was jailed early on in the war for the duration. These preparations particularly in terms of harnessing their human resources enabled them to respond to crisis much quicker and easier than the Federal forces. The Federal Military Government on the other hand failed to prepare adequately for the coming conflict relying on hubristic belief in the superiority of the remnants of the Army.
- The fallibility of labels: the British colonial authorities had a fascination with the ‘martial race theory’ in that certain peoples as the Pashtuns, Ghurkhas, Sikhs, Hausas (in fact any nation that put up a good fight before being decimated) were naturally better soldiers and thus were the back bones of their colonial regiments.The 20th century revealed that training, leadership and motivation were more importance than genetics. The Jews derided in anti Semitic propaganda as cowardly, produced one of the most successful fighting forces in history, likewise the Indian Army which was made up of tribes that the British Raj had derided as effete, comprehensively beat the Pakistani Army (made up of majority of the ‘martial race Regiments’) at every encounter.
Hausa’s were the backbone of British colonial West African forces so much so that people from other parts of the country pretended to be Hausa in order to join.
The predilection for the better educated Easterners to gravitate towards technical corps also led to a derisive ‘Army of pen pushers’ label to be applied to the nascent Biafran Army whom all within and without Nigeria expected to be defeated in days, in the end it took 2.5 years.
This had less to do with the genetics of either side and more to do with the fact that the Biafrans despite fighting with antique arms and chronic shortages were highly motivated by a genuine belief that they would be massacred, with a cadre of well trained, professional officers and NCO’s who survived the pogroms.
The Federal Army was hamstrung by the fact that it had lost a large portion of its senior leadership through coups, pogroms and secession and had to rapidly expand with less than stellar personnel or training facilities. Likewise, the Army was not only prosecuting a war but running a country, two things they had limited experience of. The breakdown in discipline occasioned by the coups, disrupted chains of commands, thus you had officers of relatively junior rank commanding Divisions and having to take orders from their peers, leading to a dysfunctional relationship in which each Division more or less fought and even sustained themselves independently of the others.
- Experience is the best teacher: Murtala Mohammed, TY Danjuma and several other officers were the ringleaders of the counter coup and were the most extreme in their desire for retribution (the latter is one of the richest men in Nigeria, the former assassinated 7 months after his own coup in 1976).
Their desire to extract revenge for the initial coup and ‘punish’ Easterners led them to murder large numbers of officers and men in the counter coup who had no involvement in the initial coup other than the fact that they were Easterners. Which in turn led to pogroms of Eastern civilians. As a wartime commander, Murtala was one of the most gung-ho in pressing for a military solution yet was relieved of command early on in the war having distinguished himself in a few short months by conducting one of the worst massacres in Nigerian military history in Asaba and decimating his Division with 2 ill-conceived river crossings at Onitsha and the loss of his entire logistics chain at Abagana. By wars end both these officers were infinitely less rabid in their dislike for the Igbos and played important roles in post war reconciliation.
- Amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics: the Germans in World War 2 and Biafrans were tactically and operationally superior to their opponents despite their opponents’ superior manpower, firepower and logistics. However, their tactical and technical innovations could not outmatch their opponents’ abilities to pour more men and materiel into the field than they could. Although the Federal Army’s logistic effort is in fact a cautionary tale on how not to sustain a war, it was sufficient to get the job done. In the case of the Allies, their application of industrial techniques and procedures to every stage of the war effort from design, production, distribution and replenishment ensured that they were able to continuously maintain pressure on the enemy and defeat them. It is universally acknowledged that had either losing side been evenly matched with their opponents they would have won.
- Starvation is a weapon of war: whilst one would never advocate the deliberate starvation of a civilian population (it’s a war crime) and as barbaric as the tactic might be, depriving an enemy populace of the capacity to sustain itself puts such intolerable on that sides political leadership that it is virtually impossible to continue in conflict (if that political leadership cares about its populace).
- Propaganda is a force multiplier: the Biafran war effort was literally sustained in the latter 2 years by propaganda (or psychological operations or influence operations or media operations as it’s called in modern parlance). By weaponizing the starvation of their population, they were able to attract the largest humanitarian airlift since the Berlin airlift, enabling them to keep at least a portion of their population alive, smuggle in arms and ammunition and generate foreign exchange by cynically charging the aid agencies landing fees in foreign currency for the privilege of feeding their own people. Without this assistance, the war would have ended in 1968.
- Your enemy is as tired as you are: despite having been constantly victorious whilst maintaining a complete superiority over the enemy, Federal forces by 1969 were depleted by heavy losses particularly in infantry, demoralised by Biafran resistance and their own poor administration and were fixed in position unable to make much headway. Following the Federal defeat in the epic Siege of Owerri, genuine calls for peace were being heard even from hard liners.For Biafrans Umuahia (their latest capital) had fallen immediately prior to the Owerri victory, the latest disaster after years of constant defeat, blockade, bombardment, starvation and retreat, leading many to petition for peace talks.
If either side had exploited their opponents’ weaknesses politically or diplomatically or been able to follow up their psychologically devastating victories (for example if the Federals had attacked towards Uli or the Biafrans had attacked Port Harcourt), they could have negotiated terms favourable to them.
Critically whilst the Biafrans lacked the military means to effect change the equation, the Federal forces lacked the will and ability, until they reorganised themselves.
- Wars need to end: somebody needs to win a war. The most pernicious conflicts on the globe are either frozen causing death, injury and destruction and storing up resentment for future generations. Whilst the Nigerian political class clearly failed to learn the lessons of war and its preceding crisis, if the Biafran forces had continued the war as an insurgency, there would have been no reconciliation or reconstruction and attitudes would have hardened into implacable hatreds. Kashmir, Israel/ Palestine. Nagorno Karabakh remain frozen, Colombia, Afghanistan drag on. In contrast Sri Lanka, Angola, Sierra Leone and others have been able to move on to their next set of problems.
- Impermanent friends, impermanent interests: the UK and USSR overtly supported the Federal Military Government while France, Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa covertly supported Biafra these curious bedfellows did not support either side out of ideology but out of naked self interest, the UK wished to preserve their influence through the established political order. The USSR wished to gain influence and draw Nigeria closer to the communist bloc, France wished to stymie Britain, Rhodesia, Portugal and South Africa wished to neutralise the wealthiest and most advanced Black African country (although to be honest they should have saved their money as Nigerians did the job more effectively than they ever could). The only ‘conscientious supporters’ such as Tanzania, Haiti, Ivory Coast and Gabon who recognised Biafra, were completely powerless to render meaningful assistance and had virtually no trade or other relations with Nigeria thus lost nothing.
The US remained neutral, freeing up their options to deal with whichever side won. The brutality of realpolitik however is that the USSR beyond selling Nigeria weapons received virtually no diplomatic support or major projects except the Ajaokuta Steel Project several years later. The UK despite its lavish military and diplomatic support saw its premier oil company British Petroleum nationalised as African Petroleum in 1976 in response to BP selling Nigerian oil to South Africa, whilst the French saw Elf, Total and myriad other companies prosper and expand throughout Nigeria.
- Not all fairytales have a happy ending: the story of tiny plucky country fighting for 2.5 years after pogroms and displacements, making its own weapons and refining its own oil, against a bigger power supported by the USSR and UK inspired admiration around the world. Biafrans genuinely believed in Biafra and believed despite their tribulations they would win. They believed that having been massacred and pursued from Nigeria and then attacked and blockaded for having the temerity to try and leave, there would be a miracle and they would survive.
Unfortunately for them, the grass did not come and fight for them and their defeat was as much a shock to them (although not to their leaders who conveniently escaped just before the end) as it was inevitable from a historical viewpoint.
- Rules matters: the armistice ending the war was not dictated by the Federal Military Government or international arbitrators. It was negotiated between Biafran and Nigerian lawyers, with each line debated and agreed.
It is fascinating to imagine that despite having lost the war and virtually all their country the Biafrans were granted the opportunity to negotiate terms (although to be fair the negotiation essentially consisted of negotiating how to phrase their surrender). However, the FMG understood then (at least) that for the peace to have legitimacy, the Biafrans must formally surrender and be seen to have surrendered of their own free will. Thus the Biafrans derided as ‘rebels’ throughout the war were afforded the dignity and status of a nation state for the brief period that was needed to formally surrender and dissolve the country. This tortuous device worked with no Biafran insurrection or agitation (until 1999) reinforcing the importance of an acceptable rules based system.
- Capacity of Nigerians for kindness: the slogan at the end of the war was ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ and the Gowon government took great pains to provide relief and reconstruction, despite logistic and other problems. Whilst certain issues such as the £20 ex gratia payment and abandoned property remain as points of contention, Igbos rapidly retook their place in society and spread out once again throughout the Federation. It is rare in wars, particularly African wars that a conflict of such violent, beginning and middle, ended with no massacres, show trials or mass dislocations. Likewise, numerous stories abound of individual officers who risked their lives in the confusion of the war to seek out old comrades in the Biafran forces and ensure they were well looked after, many officers and civilians looked after the properties of their Eastern friends, neighbours and colleagues during the war and returned it at the end. These positive stories are seldom told.
- Accountability: Conveniently the most notorious actors of the 15th January coup died in the war, minor actors were imprisoned for up to 4 years after the war and then discharged after a Board of Inquiry. On the other hand, nobody was ever tried, convicted or in any way held accountable for the massacres of 1966 or major atrocities during the war, in fact many of the counter coup plotters remain in positions of wealth, power and privilege in present day Nigeria. The impunity this group enjoys has permeated to every strata of Nigerian polity.
- Same thing, same results: Nigeria appears to enjoy recycling personalities, thus certain personalities from the civil war era still feature in Nigerian politics today as do people from each political iteration. A tradition enthusiastically embraced by each political iteration, leading to a political class of no discernible skill or achievements beyond wealth, advanced age and corruptibility. A massacre of an Islamic sect in 2009 led to the Boko Haram insurgency. Yet barely 8 years later the military which is stretched by insurgencies to the north, south and centre, massacres members of another Islamic sect in Zaria and expects different results.
These random musings or lessons, hold no great or new truths, however it would behove Nigeria’s political and military leadership to attempt to review this date with more circumspection and learn that the most important lesson is that it is important to learn lessons.
May of all the victims of the Nigerian crisis and civil war be at rest and know peace.