During its first five years of independence Nigeria had looked like the most hopeful of all African countries. Then, in 1966, amid a tragic and complex drama of coup, countercoup, and communal massacre, the precarious balance between the three main regional states making up the federation was broken. At the end of 1966, few observers thought Nigeria could survive. Only by early this year was an uneasy peace achieved, as the country attempted to undo the damage of the past year’s debacle. Why had this tragedy occurred?

From the first, skeptics had said that Nigeria, a British creation, was a mere “geographical expression.” Indeed, the Negroid peoples of the Eastern and Western Regions had attained much higher levels of economic and social development than the Sudanic peoples of the Northern Region. More important, Nigerian political parties did not, for the most part, cut across regional and tribal lines. In both East and North the dominant party was the political vehicle for the region itself, and this hardly hastened national integration.

The East, a region of 12 million people, is predominantly Ibo, and set the pace for political development throughout Nigeria. Its first great leader, Dr. Azikiwe, came to America in 1925 for his education, and returned to become one of the fathers of African nationalism. The East, however, was too small to contain the ambitious and often radical I bos, several million of whom spread throughout Nigeria, trading, developing businesses, working the railroads. But their remarkable success created fear and resentment among the indigenous peoples wherever they went, particularly in the much less advanced North, and they came to describe themselves more and more as “Africa’s Jews.”

The West, a relatively prosperous cocoa-growing area of 10 million people, predominantly Yoruba, was fractured politically after 1962. Politics in the developing world is very much a “zero-sum game” (“what I win you lose”), and as there is little enough patronage to go around, the political process is a peculiarly bitter one for the loser. Chief Awolowo, who had founded the nationalist movement in the West, had become Federal Opposition leader, and grew increasingly frustrated. In 1962 he attempted a coup and was imprisoned. But the splinter group which took office, and which allied itself with the federal coalition, had few popular roots, and dissatisfaction gradually mounted.

The enormous North could hardly have been more different from the East and West. The tall, graceful Hausa-Fulani people live in a feudal and Islamic system that was in fact strengthened by British “indirect rule.” The emirs consolidated their power, and the system came to show remarkable resilience to change, in contrast to so much of Africa. With 30 million people, the region easily dominated the federal legislature, and resisted attempts by the East and West to split it into smaller parts. The autocratic Northern Prime Minister, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was the most powerful man in Nigeria, and sent his political lieutenant, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to Lagos, the federal capital, to be federal Prime Minister.

That the federation survived so long was a tribute to Sir Abubakar, a respected moderate who alone was capable of conciliating the competing factions. He brought the Eastern politicians into a coalition government, and later the Western ruling groups as well. In fact, the federal government was an alliance between the conservative Northern leaders and the Southern nouveau riche businessmen and politicians, and it appeared to be working.

The framework of parliamentary government was preserved despite mounting tensions in the West, and restiveness among radical Eastern Ibos, who resented the North’s dominant position. The economic problems were staggering, with several million unemployed, but solutions were in sight. Confidence abroad in the regime meant that foreign private investment almost doubled annually, to $180 million in 1964.

Furthermore, new oil productions in the East had eliminated the chronic balance of payments deficit by 1966, and Nigeria’s pragmatic diplomats had looked to their national interests and negotiated a remarkable agreement with the European Common Market that guaranteed access for their commodities while granting few concessions in return.

Nigeria not only looked like the African success story; it was developing a colorful international personality, through such men as Wole Soyinka, whose Lion and the Jewel had a successful run in London recently; Dick Tiger, the world light heavyweight boxing champion; Chief Simeon Adebo, a popular diplomat at the United Nations; and numerous others.

But in 1965 the domestic political scene became increasingly turbulent. Sir Abubakar could hold his government together only by turning a blind eye when politicians took bribes, or when they sacrificed the national good to regional and tribal interests. The bands of radicals, whose influence was growing, and who claimed to speak for “the masses” of Nigeria as a whole, grew more and more dissatisfied.

The Ibos rebel

The federal substructure was insufficiently strong to contain all the pressures building up within it. Violence spread in the West after a blatantly fraudulent election there; pressing needs, like local government reform, were neglected. Only the politicians seemed to be thriving; one Nigerian scholar described the regime as “government of, by, and for the politicians.”

On January 15, 1966, a group of young rebel majors seized power throughout the federation, in order to “unify the country and extricate it from the clutches of Western imperialism,” as one said. In much of Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa hopes were stirred that the revolutionaries could settle Nigeria’s problems. Ominously, though, they were all Ibos. They had murdered Sir Abubakar, Sir Ah mad u Bello, and the Western Prime Minister, S. L. Akin tola, but not the Ibo Prime Minister in the East.

Almost immediately, the survivors of the federal cabinet of Lagos handed power to the senior army officer, General Ironsi, to prevent the majors from consolidating their regime. Ironsi thus appeared to stand between the ancien regime and the young radicals, and had, perhaps, a unique chance to reconcile factions and clean up the government. The Northerners, however, had seen their leaders and officers killed and demanded military justice for the Ibo majors before reconciling themselves to the new order.

But Ironsi himself was an Ibo, and many observers are convinced that he had from the first been in contact with the majors. In any case he proceeded to court Northern displeasure, first by the appointment of a close associate of the rebel leaders as Eastern regional governor, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, an Oxfordeducated officer about whom more was to be heard. And of the twentytwo military promotions during his period as Federal Supreme Commander, almost all went to Ibos. Worse, he declared the federal constitution null and void, and Nigeria a unitary republic, even before a constitutional commission could make a report.

To the North all this meant rule by the Ibos. As a result, the hopes raised by the outcome of the January coup were betrayed, and a “revolution” that could have been a catalyst for reform throughout the country became an instrument of Ibo nationalism, merely replacing Northern with Eastern domination. As a result, the North threatened secession, and in May, more than a thousand Ibos working in the North were massacred. Now Ironsi and the Northerners were clearly on a collision course.

Violence begets violence

Ironsi’s policies simply set the stage for a second coup, and a second round of violence. On July 29, 1966, Northern soldiers mutinied, killed every Ibo soldier in sight, kidnapped Ironsi, and then killed him. “Tit for tat,” a Northerner commented. Ibo suffering increased in the North, and thousands began streaming back to their Eastern homeland.

The tables were now once again completely turned. The North demanded one of its own as Federal Supreme Commander and head of government, and they got it, Lieutenant Colonel “Jack” Gowan, a handsome thirty-two-year-old Sandhurst graduate, and luckily a moderate man, a non-Muslim, from a minority tribe of the North. Now the Easterners were in the exact position the Northerners had been in after the January coup. Their man, Ironsi, had been killed, several thousand of their people had been massacred, and a Northerner was again in power. Gowan was, in fact, junior to the Eastern military governor, Lieutenant Golonel Ojukwu. From the first, Ojukwu, a stocky and proud soldier and son of one of the richest Ibos in the East, refused to recognize Gowan’s authority.

Gowan now had to hold the standard of Nigerian unity, and he decided that it was time for some steps backward, for as he said, “The base for unity is not there.” He called a constitutional conference in September, to attempt to reconcile differences and to pave the way back to civilian — and federal — rule. But he did not appreciate how deep Eastern resentment was as a result of the massacres, or how little operational authority was left to him amidst the chaos.

Thus, there was little progress at the conference table. The East, out of bitterness, didn’t even want a federal legislature, and called for a simple association of the regions. Nigeria had never faced so serious a contest of wills — but the worst was yet to come.

Butchery in earnest

On September 29, for inexplicable reasons, new waves of violence spread throughout the North, and according to official figures, 7000 Ibos were killed. They were shot, beheaded, raped, and mutilated in ways that could never be forgotten, much less forgiven, and over a million jammed the railways and planes in a mass exodus to the East. But in Lagos and the North, instead of immediate condemnation of the atrocities, there was an embarrassing amount of comment that the Ibos had “brought it on themselves.”

Violence spread throughout the country. No sector of society was guiltless, and indeed, the intelligentsia seemed worst of all. Nigeria was on the brink of civil war.

Somehow, passions cooled in time, but now it was not possible even to get the Easterners to the conference table, to talk about “rebuilding” Nigeria. They blamed Northern leaders for sparking the massacre and began talking openly of secession. They were overwhelmed with the task of resettling their million refugees, healing their wounded, finding sufficient food for their much expanded population; and in this context directives, even suggestions, from Lagos seemed irrelevant at best. Secession was developing a logic of its own.

To quiet Eastern fears, Ojukwu proceeded to reinforce the Eastern position. He ordered all non-Easterners to leave the region, and he sent home non-Eastern soldiers of the federal army stationed in the East and openly began recruiting willing Ibo refugees to replace them. Finally, with reports rife that Lagos plotted military invasion of the East to bring it to heel, Ojukwu began looking for arms. The search was at first clumsy; a plane, loaded with arms procured in Europe, crashed in neighboring Cameroon in midOctober.

Gowan, in Lagos, desperately tried to get the constitutional conference going again, but the Easterners refused to attend, fearing for their lives and waiting for gestures of reconciliation to come out of Lagos. Gowan and Ojukwu seemed united on only one thing, their unwillingness to request an outside commonwealth force to guarantee security in Lagos — though London anticipated a request at one point. It was, ironically, that same pride, typical of all Nigerian leaders: both Gowan and Ojukwu said that they didn’t want to lose face. But matters got worse, and there was little face left.

Gowan tried summoning a consultative assembly, and this too was unsuccessful, and so he became more and more convinced that the East planned secession. Gowan then threatened that “if circumstances compel me to preserve the integrity [of Nigeria] by force, I shall do my duty to my country.” But this only confirmed Eastern suspicions, and set off a further round of insults from each side just as the unhappy year ended.

The tribal tendency

Thus disaster followed disaster in 1966. The original government had not brought stability or vigorous government to the people, and it had not solved the delicate question of regional balance. But reform in Nigeria has always come at the eleventh hour, and Nigerian leaders for over a decade have played the game of brinkmanship. There is reason to think that Sir Abubakar had been on the verge of drastic steps, including the formation of a more broadly based national government, to solve the crisis in the Western Region, when the military intervened. Nigeria, in any case, was one of the few African countries where there was an outlet for political agitation, and this, combined with the improving economic situation, might well have absorbed and channeled much of the conflict and led to a solution. But the rebellious majors opened a Pandora’s box from which came endless miseries. Historic feuds that were on the way to being forgotten were brought to the fore. Tribalism, in its unpleasant manifestation, had its origins in the differing economic positions of separate competing groups, and seemed in part to be on the wane. But now tribalism pure and simple became the dominant force. General Ironsi’s regime, which came to power two days after the rebel majors struck, might have cleaned up the government and led the country back to civilian rule if he had been more imaginative and the Ibo people had been less determined to turn the tables on the previously dominant Northerners. Northern leaders, in turn, could have done far more to restrain their own people from taking revenge on Ibos in the North, who were least responsible for the January coup.

After the last major round of violence, at the end of September, chaos was far too great for a young and relatively inexperienced soldier like Gowan to find an easy solution, and resentment in the East was too great for Ojukwu, the Eastern governor, to take the first step toward reconciliation.

There were additional reasons for pessimism. Ojukwu’s position had become that Nigeria should “pull a little further apart” to survive; otherwise, with the regions too close, Nigeria might “perish in the collision.” Yet no confederation with links as weak as those he prescribed had ever lasted.

Moreover, the physical links of the confederation were badly impaired: vital railway services had been disrupted when 6000 Ibo railroad workers fled East. The Northern economy seemed on the verge of collapse: tin mining, the principal industry, had almost stopped because of the departure of the Ibos, and the banks had to retrench their services by almost 50 percent.

There was also the danger that events would continue to develop their own momentum. Unbelievable suspicion clouded the air on both sides, and for every event there were two versions — that of Lagos and that of the East. Worse, the East was learning how to obtain arms discreetly, thanks to the international arms hawkers, who rush to any politically disturbed area. There was the charge that foreign businesses and governments were encouraging Eastern secession, and in fact, very senior officials in Lagos privately blamed the traditional scapegoat, the CIA, for the October arms deal.

There was, in any case, the evident reality that few Ibos would be willing to leave Eastern soil for at least several years — but was it not likely that by then all links would have been broken with the rest of Nigeria? Finally, there was the feeling among many observers that, as one diplomat put it, if Gowan and Ojukwu did get to the conference table, “they would talk and talk until there would be nothing left to talk about.”

But luck seemed to change with the new year, and a different set of possibilities became apparent. For six months the more fortunate Ghanaian military leaders had sought a way to help their Nigerian comrades, and finally, early in January of 1967, they succeeded. General Ankrah sent his jet from Accra to Eastern Nigeria to bring Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu to Aburi, ex-Prcsident Nkrumah’s lavish resort, where he joined Gowan and the other Nigerian military leaders for talks.

It was the first time the Nigerian military command had met in more than three months, and the results were more hopeful than anyone could have expected. A series of concessions were quite rightly made to Eastern pride; even to have gone to Ghana for the meeting was a concession to the East. The use of force was renounced, and Gowan agreed to become Chairman rather than Supreme Commander of the Military Council.

Hopeful signs

There was still much ill will between Gowan and Ojukwu, but the chance that secession would be averted was reinforced by a scries of other factors. Industrialists and investors in the East were understandably reluctant to see their properties elsewhere in Nigeria jeopardized by secession — and much of Nigeria’s private wealth is Ibo. Nor was it only the rich: the East is far too small to contain all the Ibos, and sooner or later many of them would begin again to offer their talents to other regions, or the East could not itself prosper. It also seemed that the Eastern leaders, particularly Ojukwu, were playing the old game of brinkmanship to improve the East’s position at the federal bargaining table, and this policy early in 1967 was having much success. There are enormous refugee claims to be met. Also, the $48 million oil revenue paid to the federal government has to be divided among the regions, and the East wants the lion’s share (already the federal government has increased their share). And it seemed just possible that as talks progressed, the Eastern leaders would admit the need for strong federal links, something Ojukwu hinted at in January.

There were also some hopeful signs in Nigeria. Despite the departure of 3000 Ibo civil servants, the federal government was still running with remarkable efficiency. In the North, crash programs to replace the departed Ibos were having some success. There were signs that even the effort was instilling a sense of confidence in the North, without which peace between the regions seemed unlikely. In the West and East, the economy — almost entirely in private hands — has barely been affected by the turn of events. In balance, there seemed much reason in early 1967 to believe that Nigeria would survive, and perhaps, within five years, begin to be more than a “geographical expression.”

But the cost of the Nigerian disaster in the meantime has been incalculable — not least to the rest of Africa, where Nigeria had been the most influential of the black states. Sir Abubakar’s quiet diplomacy had had the elfect of reassuring the tiny insecure states that make up so much of the continent, and Nigeria had stood as an ideal of unity to them as well. Nor was there other leadership to replace him elsewhere. A senior African diplomat, after the hapless meeting of the Organization of African Unity in November of last year, commented, “Africa has lost its anchor of stability, and we haven’t begun to count the consequences.” Nigeria’s young leaders were aware of the losses, however, and perhaps this was enough to be grateful for. — Scott Thompson


Douglas Kiker regularly writes out of Washington for the ATLANTIC. He is on ABC’s capital staff. The Nigeria Report is the third ATLANTICarticle by Scott Thompson, a young American graduate student at Oxford. Marlin Page, author of the Persian Gulf Report, is a British free-lance writer. In future issues, as in this one, some reports will be unsigned at the request of their authors. The ATLANTIC,of course, assumes responsibility for them.