Yakubu Gowon and Chukwuemeka Ojukwu shake hands in the meet at Aburi, Ghana, January 1967.
For many Nigerians, the failed implementation of the famous accord reached in Aburi, Ghana by leaders of the contending federal and secessionist forces during the internecine hostilities that led to the civil war in Nigeria 45 years ago, is at the root of the crisis of structure and federalism in the country today. The accord, was allegedly breached by then Head of State, Gen Yakubu Gowon, acting on the advice of permanent secretaries. Chief Philip C. Asiodu, one of the central Super permanent secretaries of the era, and prime actor of the day, recounts the details, no holds-bared, revealing and insightful.
Nigeria is at a crossroads. Some blame it on the amalgamation of 1914. Some blame it on the constitution. Some blame it on so many things. Military intervention and all that. What do you think is responsible for the instability in the country?
I think what we are suffering from in Nigeria is a failure of leadership. Because if you look at Nigeria, you are practically one race. Our appearances too don’t vary too much. Countries which are great today, keep trying and taking their steps. The United States of America is a fantastic example of how we can get people from diverse backgrounds. Why do I say it is a failure of leadership? What are people reacting to? Suppose in this country with the enormous endowments God gave us- natural resources- we are moving forward, developing ourselves with it, that people get requirements as human beings, they want shelter, they want food, they want a situation in which you know that your child has good prospect to be better off than yourself. These are the things people demand. And if you give it to them, they do not ask where you came from.
In this country, when we started in the first republic, with the accommodation made by the leaders, we started developing. Before then, under the British, it didn’t matter where you came from. I was the son of a civil servant. Born in Lagos, within three months posted to Calabar. Back to Lagos. Southerners were in different parts in the North. Northerners were here. Even at the eve of independence …What went wrong?
You just posed the question back to me but I will return it to you. What went wrong?
This is what I am going to address. Supposing we had a leadership, which continued to preach as, they did in mobilizing us towards independence. Preach of the great role for Nigeria as a catalyst for African renaissance. As a catalyst for re-establishing the pride and respect of the black man, so thunderously and criminally destroyed in the three hundred years of colonialism and slave trade. Supposing we have leadership pointing to a greater height.
When I was a student, we used to pay with our own pocket money to go and listen to Dr Zik, it wasn’t the politics we have today. People were telling us that when we become independent, life would be better. And as soon as they got regional self-government in the West, in the East, and the North. What did we see? Scholarship schemes, much more than the British ever did. New schools. Industrial estates. And progress was there. If you were around in the fifties, in the run up to independence, so great was the expectation. So happy were the people, because things were literally improving.
Immediately after the independence, before the crisis, we were growing at more than six per cent per annum. Inflation was less than 2 per cent. So you could see visible improvement and people were happy.
Unfortunately, we had this terrible military intervention in 1966. Maybe well intentioned by the young boys; but extremely naÃ¯ve and extremely disastrous to expect that four majors had the answers to the great problems of Nigeria. And they began the destruction of African liberation. Because, after that political parties were banned then there was a counter coup, July 1966, which then destroyed what was left of the Nigerian Army. And put us in the hands of servile officials, who had not reached the level in the Army at which officers used to be brought into council with civilians to determine the affairs of state. Luckily, the first two military leaders, Ironsi and Gowon led the government which was able when things looked very bad to keep semblance of normalcy to get government restored. But those coups as it were has effectively terminated our political revolution. The views of the founding fathers which would have lifted us above our dreams, because man does not live by bread alone. You must be inspired to join this hype. But what happened? In 1975, there was a coup against General Gowon.
The military destroyed the state. They then proceeded to remove ten thousand civil servants- the best amongst them. Destroyed institutional memories. Destroyed continuity. Destroyed commitment to service- selfless service. Destroyed respect for public funds and public property. And having now got the civil service prostrate, no checks and balances. Worse than that, they then abandoned the 75-80 plan which was to introduce the transformation of the economy radically . That plan talked about moving on to produce capital good.
Having a solid base for industrialization and value added economy, they abandoned it. I am sad to say, the leading members of that government which succeeded Gowon, Murtala and Obasanjo, were members of Gowon’s cabinet which approved this plan. Why did they abandon it? And it is that abandonment of the plan (75-80) which initiated our divergence from the good path of the Asia Tigers. Up till that time, we were not behind Malaysia. We were not behind Singapore. In fact, Malaysia came here to take palm seedlings to begin their economy after they succeeded in beating back the communist insurrection. Malaysia had even more serious problems than ourselves ……they do not take religion the way some of us take it, Christians and Muslims. But they had faith go to that place now, you will be proud of what they have achieved.
Now, they abandoned not only the plan, but the discipline of planning. And once, you abandon the discipline of planning, which gives you priority that when money comes, this is what abc will do. When money comes, it disappears and there would be nothing to show for it. And it was that combination that resulted in declining activity
Before the coup of 1975, the country was growing at 11.75 per cent per annum after the civil war. Imagine, if we had continued on that trajectory for 10 more years, 20 more years, we would not be talking about poverty today. We will be nearing first world. We will be with the big countries. Now, that plan was abandoned and the discipline of planning. And then what happened? Money came but not with planning. Things would have continued evolving, people having quality education. Up till 1975-1980, Nigerian Universities was ranked then among the first 200 in the world. Now, we are not even up to the first 1500. See the decline, because of no planning and coups.
This Boko Haram, this instability has just crept up consequently out of the failure of leadership and good governance. Not that we are not able as we were six years ago. If you are not responsible to the peoples need, you may still have power. But the leadership and commitment are not there.
So, coming back to what I am saying, what is the failure of leadership? I have told many people, you can go and look at the books. Throughout British stay in Nigeria, revenue never rose more than 40 million pounds a year. Forty million pounds a year for the central government. Under Balewa and Okotie-Eboh, it reached 60 million pounds a year. Under Gowon in the second year, we were already in the civil war, that was when it reached 100miilon pounds. We fought that civil war and came out of it without borrowing. Now what did the British, what did the first republic do with the little resources they had. The habours of Lagos, Warri, Sapele, Port Harcourt, Calabar were built under the British.
When I left kings college, I went straight to Oxford University. Can you do that today? The five thousand kilometres of telegraph lines, crisscrossing the county. And the four thousand kilometres of railway crisis crossing the country. Thousands of kilometres of telegraph lines, were constructed under Gowon, and since Gowon nothing has been added and mark you, it was only in 1975 that after negotiation, we agreed with partial nationalization of shell and other oil companies did we begin to think of these oil revenue that you are talking about. And under Gowon, in that 1975 revenue was to come to about 4bilion naira. But he was removed three months of implementation, but I know that from January 1999 to 2007, because of the unprecedented escalation of oil prices, this country must have earned about 300billion US dollar.What have we done? …Abuja. That is all. But even Abuja is about 60 per cent private investment in property and all that. So, you see the consequences of leaders not adhering to the discipline of planning.
Two, they rail roaded us to the destruction of our political evolution. Because after 13 years in 1979, the Army said politicians should come back to power. At that time, Zik was still alive. Shagari, others. So, the politicians of the second republic still had the dreams and motivation of our founding fathers. Then came the terrible coup of December 1983. Politicians , many of them were locked up. 24 months, 27 months, no questions asked. Everybody scattered. Then in 1985 another coup, Babangida came to power. He was nice, his intention would have been good, but it was in turn characterized by things beginning to happen without base. People talk about the age of settlement. It seemed as if integrity, honesty, respect for public property, use of public fund went backward. Finally, the civil service having been practically destroyed in the 1975 putsch, this time introduced a new reform whereby permanent secretaries were no longer to be called permanent secretaries but director generals. They were no longer accounting officers. And the principle of having accounting officers who are permanent secretaries is because ministers come and go. Parliament come and go, but the officials should be there to account to subsequent Public Accounts Committee of subsequent parliaments. That was the system. But worse than that, ministers now think they could hire and fire civil servants. And if there is anything, the British did to where they were, to India, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, it was that professional, objective civil service, tenure guaranteed, rules upheld, if you breach those rules, you are punished instantly. We now politicised our civil service, made them impermanent, made them insecure, and of course what has happened? They have been cohorts with the rest of the politicians in the total abuse of public funds. As we are now reading, scams of billions, it is unthinkable.
You spoke about the coup, Ojukwu and the famous Aburi accord which tried to address some of these problems. What in your opinion led to the collapse of the Aburi Accord?
You see unfortunately, the dramatist personae of the time, many of them have gone. Anything not founded on objectivity , transparency and truth cannot last. Somehow, Ojukwu persuaded Gowon that they were going to Aburi as gentlemen of the Nigerian Army to discuss certain things. Acknowledgement of what happened. Already, of course he knew that after the pogrom against Easterners, against Igbo in 1966, the Army, except in Lagos and the West had gone back to their places of origin. Now, no need bringing officials. So, guys we’re going to talk as officers and gentlemen. Of course Gowon did not inform his secretary to government. He did not tell anybody, until the eve of the day he was going. So, if you were going to a conference, you will normally say what is the agenda. You will prepare, with the assistance of the agenda.
Think about them. Think about various scenarios, and go and discuss. That didn’t happen. Lo and behold when they reached Aburi, there was Ojukwu with a battery of permanent secretaries and one of the most formidable intellectual this country has ever produced, Dr Pius Okigbo. All in the delegation. Who went with Gowon? Nobody. Not even secretary to the government. None of the so-called permanent secretaries. And they went there and talked and said they reached agreement. He stepped down as supreme military commander and they talked about the divisions in the Nigerian army and if Nigeria was attacked, then they will consult and decide whether they are going to fight.
In modern days it took like 24 hours to finish Poland. You will still be consulting. Anyway, be that as it may, nobody could make ambassador, nobody becomes a super scale officer, senior assistant secretary, group 7 except there was a unanimous agreement. And if you know history, there was once in history where a single member of the parliament can exercise veto.
They did this and they came back. Just like they looked at the proposal after the second coup of July 66, some of the northern assistants in Nigeria, were saying we will blow up Carter bridge, blow up the second mainland bridge.
When they subjected this Aburi accord to simple analysis, it was simply saying Nigeria is no more practically. And civil war or no civil war, then chaos would have started later. All the same, we said look, … if we still want to be a country….authority which deals with customs, currency, federal trunk roads, foreign and external defences, that is more than enough for a government. But it must be able to act. You can not say that in the Ministry of Defence, you can not promote somebody a Lt Col, except you have a unanimity. You cannot move one plane to another place except through unanimity. Even when you have those limited powers, they must be able to function. And you cannot function in the context of those things they said. And then what you have is four countries.
And the permanent secretaries vetoed it?
No . the permanent secretary made analysis and said look, if you are really serious, if you say you are having Nigeria, you must have central function which must be fulfilled. There is no need saying this is central function and you cannot fulfill it. So, we analysed and said these were based on incorrect premises. People came with proper papers, well formulated. The other side just went thinking they were going to do initial breaking of the ice. Therefore, please try to reconcile this to ensure that we still have a country. Gowon in fairness, vetoed that approach, and still proceeded to have decree number 8 of 1967. If you go and read that decree, and if the East had accepted that decree, there would have been no need for secession. Nigeria would have disintegrated within three months. And you cannot move anybody without unanimity. You collect revenue, you cannot transfer it…
Decree 8 was an affirmation of Aburi accord?
It was an affirmation of the Aburi accord which gave the East under Ojukwu, more than 95 per cent of what Aburi meant. But because there were maybe one or two phrases which they didn’t like, if they read that thing and it is still there, they have got what they wanted. But if it was such, that hostilities would have broken out among four independent countries. Not one on one.
And I think, we don’t have much time now. With the present challenges in the country and the lack of serious effort to address the issue, we may even be in worse position if we are not careful. Because, this time, it will not be federal versus Biafra, but among 110 million people. So we are going to end up with warlords, if authorities should finally break down and I appeal to God that we avoid that, by stopping all these jokes as if we can continue milking this country forever. What we are doing is not sustainable. And the sooner we address, try to create a new national austerity programme, discipline ourselves, decide that we cannot be millionaires, billionaires in little islands with a whole ocean of poor wretched people, there would be this tsunami which will overwhelm all of us.
So, the leadership now has a big challenge to begin to readdress things. We can’t carry on like this. But I am saying that whereas in 1967 we had an authoritative civil service which commanded respect, across Nigeria and internationally, we still had a fairly disciplined Police Force. We still had fear. People didn’t take government fund and use it with impunity. There was shame to be jailed or detained for corruption. All these underpinnings of society must be respected and because the things to prevent us from horrendous, murderous anarchy are not in place and we should not over try our luck.
But coming back from what I was saying. Go and read decree 8, if we had implemented it in three months, we would have had four independent states.
Why was it not implemented?
Because, it didn’t satisfy the Easterners. The decree had been promulgated by Gowon. It was to be implemented then. But it was seen by Ojukwu as not being sufficient. I am saying that politics is something which has to be played with some tact. Sometimes my brothers there see black and white where there is immediately green in between. Sometimes, there is really no finesse in politics. They will think the reality is not important as how you get there. The reality was that Nigeria was finished under decree number 8. The reality is that although it was finished, they didn’t proclaim ‘we hereby dissolve Nigeria’. But that was of no effect. You go and read it. But it was rejected . Having been rejected, these people have no obligation to it anymore.
And that led to the civil war and Gowon now declared Police action on Biafra?
Ojukwu now called his people and said we went to Aburi , Aburi has not been respected. We must defend ourselves. We must think a way of saving Nigeria, and if it came to secession. I want your mandate. He got the mandate.
Gowon then replied. Before then, he had told the Northerners that the killings had gone too far, and must have to stop. He then said everything will be done to make amends. He said we will bend backwards, implement certain decision these soldiers, go back to your places of origin. But then, he added that if it becomes necessary to defend the integrity of Nigeria by force of arms, he will do so.
I was a friend of Emeka Ojukwu from Kings College, we were friends in Oxford. And when he was made military governor, he invited me to go with him. And I told him, that I do not believe in regional politics. And of course, at that time in fairness to Ojukwu and co, nobody was talking about regions. He said we will abolish the regions in a few months. Obviously, like Army men, they still talked of unitary structure and all that. And I simply told him that by the time you live with a people, participate in their hopes and dreams, you are a different person. That is that.
Then few of us- Alison Ayida, late Aliu Martins, myself, Abdulaziz, who served in the East, ‘we went to ask Ojukwu what is it you want so that we could prepare the ground for a meaningful conference, where every side would know what they are saying.’ Eventually, just as Ojukwu was warming up to tell us what he wanted , so that we could have come back to Lagos, sell those ideas to Gowon, and see if we can reach agreement, C. C. Mojekwu came and broke up the meeting.
He destroyed that last chance, and we flew back empty handed. Before they started cooking up the Aburi, they went there with unequal preparation. But before then, General Gowon was only communicating with him as an officer. He did know that behind Ojukwu, people were working. So, we didn’t want Ojukwu to get the wrong impression. In anyway, we then agreed that a letter be prepared, addressed from my house, signed by Alison Ayida,who was in Oxford (cuts in, he was in Oxford too?) at the same time? Two of us signed this letter trying to spell out to him the consequences of what will happen if secession was declared. That there would be war and if there is war, until you vanquished federal authority, you will not get recognition which will give you access to the sea, and so on.
I can be embittered. I can feel for my people. But I have a duty to make sure that every step I take, I have calculated all the scenarios and make sure that in the worst scenario , I am not taking them to a worst decision.
If one was there, one would have pointed out certain things. He knew that we proclaimed a state for Rivers people, Ogoja people. One thing the federal government did was to order a sea blockade. And instead of making loose speeches like no power in black Africa can stop Biafra, you had to sit down and count what guns you have. Igbos were three quarter of the officer corps before the coup of 1966. But I doubt if they were even 5 per cent of those carrying guns. Fulani maybe five per cent of the officer corps. But the people carrying guns were mainly from Benue / Plateau area.
But the critical thing is that the man who said they can’t be blockaded; didn’t do much. If at that time Igbos probably went and bought two merchant ships, with Igbo captains who were ready to risk their lives, it is a different thing. But to have no boats, and think a white man or a blue man with captain will risk his life against NNS Nigeria? No.
These were some of the things. One thing is to draw up an agreement. Rhetoric. Our job as good civil servants was to see how this can be implemented. How it can be monitored to achieve what you say is your purpose? I am sorry, that was not quite there. Hence, we went into what we went into.
I still believe that when you go and read it and see all the powers which had been conceded, and all the things which were subject to veto by just one person because it required unanimity, decree number 8 promulgated by Gowon had given 95 percent of the substance. And if it was taken, it was only a matter of three months for everybody to realize that there was no Nigeria.
But as night follows day, we have become used to economic integration. So, the point is whether 1914 was described by whoever, was it Sar’duana, I don’t know, as a mistake, and has been taken up by some southern irredentists as a mistake, the point is that we have gotten used to certain extremes, which we cannot wish away. Which if we wish away will bring us to a lower standard of living than we are used to now.
Philip Asiodu. Image: Youtube/Channels TV April 18, 2016