GOWON, THE SECOND MILITARY HEAD OF STATE
After Ironsi’s death, the next senior officer who should have taken over leadership of the country was Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe. Ogundipe was a balanced, experienced and highly-respected officer in the Nigerian Army. He was General Everard’s choice to succeed him as General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army but the Minister of Defence, Alhaji Ribadu and the Prime Minister Sir Abubakar decided on Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi, who had earlier commanded the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in the Congo. Ogundipe could not take over the mantle of leadership after Ironsi because in the prevailing situation, he did not command the respect of the army. He subsequently opted to be Nigeria’s High Commissioner in London. The honour and burden of leadership fell on Lt-Col. Yakubu Gowon to become Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria on 1 August 1966.
Gowon as the new Head of State, inherited many problems. He allowed Lt-Col. Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Lt-Col. Hassan, Lt-Col Ejoor to remain in their positions as Governors of the Eastern, Northern and Mid-Western regions respectively. Whilst he appointed Col. Adeyinka Adebayo to became Governor of the Western Region on the death of Col. Adekunle Fajuyi who was killed in Ibadan along with General Ironsi during the 29 July Coup 1966. He needed wisdom and patience as well as firmness to get on with the task of moving the country forward. The time needed reconciliation. He appealed to all parties concerned to give peace a chance and made all conciliatory moves to heal the wounds brought about by the January and July coup of 1966. He demanded and called for support from the regional military governors which he got from most of them except Lt-Col. Ojukwu who rejected his leadership and that of the country.
RELEASE OF CHIEF OBAFEMI A WOLOWO FROM KIRIKIRI PRISON
Soon after Gowon became Head of State, one of his strategic moves in early August 1966 was to release from prison Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the highly influential former Premier of the West, who had been imprisoned by the Balewa government for treason. I had the honour to bring the Chief out of the Kirikiri Maximum Prison to take him to No. 36 Glover Road, Ikoyi, Lagos. General Gowon appointed him Commissioner of Finance and Vice Chairman of the Federal Executive Council. After the latter appointment, Awolowo called his people to support the Federal Government against the rebellion. Awolowo denounced all allegations that he would take the West out of the federation if the East seceded.
When he came out of the prison gate to enter the Limousine, I saluted him smartly and introduced myself. He was definitely informed of the release plan before my arrival. I could see he was impressed by my turnout and the courtesy I gave him. In the Limousine on the way to Ikoyi, he said to me, “Officer, what did you say your name is?” I answered, “My name is Paul Tarfa:’ He appeared interested to know more about me and asked again, “Where do you come from? I said, “You will not know the place sir, because I come from a small village in the North”. He said, “No say it”. Then I told him, ‘the name of my village is Garkida in Adamawa Province.’ Chief Awolowo replied, “I was there during the 1959 Federal Elections. I landed on a primary school football field in a helicopter from Biu. Yes, I know the village.” It was the first time I met Chief Awolowo and I had great respect for him.
SEARCHING FOR PEACE: THE ABURI, GHANA, MEETINGS
Six months into the Government of Gowon and the continuing estrangement between General Gowon and Lt.-Col. Ojukwu, General Ankrah, the Military Head of State of Ghana arranged for the leadership in Nigeria to meet in Aburi, Ghana. They met on the 4th and 5th of January, 1967. That meeting afforded them opportunity to discuss their problems on a neutral ground. They attended the meetings with delegates made up of military and civilian staffs, viz:
* Colonel Robert Adebayo, Military Governor, West.
– Lt-Col. C. O. Ojukwu, Military Governor, East,
– Lt-Col. H. U. Katsina, Military Governor, North,
– Lt-Col. David Ejoor, Military Governor, Mid-West
– Commodore J. E. Wey, Head of the Nigerian Navy
– Major Mobolaji Johnson, Military Administrator, Lagos
– Alhaji Kam Salem, Inspector-General of Police
– Mr T. Omo-Bare, Deputy Inspector-General of Police
The meetings which were held at Peduase Lodge, Aburi Ghana on the 4th and 5th of January 1967, discussed various issues affecting the future political status of the country and the demand by Ojukwu for a confederal system of government for Nigeria. Ojukwu wanted Eastern Region by that arrangement to have a separate army and police force and to renounce the use of force as a means of settling the crises in Nigeria. They agreed to continue with their negotiation and peace talks, exchanging information on quantities of arms and ammunition being held by army units in each region. During these talks, the question of the Nigerian state remaining as a single entity was most paramount in the minds of the Nigerian delegation, while the eastern regional delegation wanted decentralisation of the federation, calling for confederation. Gowon and the Nigerian delegation called for a return to federal system prior to the Unification Decree. The Aburi agreement was subsequently adopted with minor modification to preserve the unity and entity of Nigeria and was overtaken by successive events.
The delegates also agreed that the use of force should be renounced as a means of settling the crisis in Nigeria. They agreed that negotiations and peace talks should continue on the exchange of information on quantities of arms and ammunition of army units in each region. But in the end, preservation of Nigeria as a single entity was paramount in the minds of the Nigerian delegates. While Ojukwu wanted a complete decentralisation of the federation, Gowon stressed that the country should return to its position before 17 January 1966 when Ironsi took over. In other word, implementing the Aburi agreement to the letter would have ended the federation of Nigeria.
Back home in Nigeria, Ojukwu continued to defy the Federal Government. Some of his actions were extreme provocation. The catalogue of his provocations to the Government of Gowon was long. They included the seizure of property belonging to the Northern States Marketing Board, the hijacking of a Nigeria Airways Fokker Friendship 27 aircraft with which he used to bomb Lagos and the environs, the takeover of Federal Government offices, Central Bank Building, and withholding of Federal Revenue, etc. He also confiscated one third of the rolling stock of the Nigerian Railways and stopped the transportation of oil products from the refinery at Port Harcourt to the North. Ojukwu announced the takeover of all federal institutions in the East including port, post and telegraph and the Nigerian Railways. By these actions, it was only a matter of time for Ojukwu to unilaterally declare the Eastern Region as an Independent State. While he persisted with these defiant moves, he seemed to be encouraged by a reported pronouncements from the West Region that if he was allowed to go out of the federation, the West would also follow suit. As though to buttress this point, some elites and political leaders including some highly respected army officers also joined in the agitation against the presence of northern troops in Lagos and the West, demanding that they should return to the North. Such officers included then Major, now General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd), and Lt-Col. Adeyinka Adebayo, now a retired Major-General.
One afternoon, standing by the gates of Dodan Barracks, Garba and I were amazed and bemused to watch a procession of Yoruba elders delegation carrying placards saying ‘Northern troops must go.’ They proceeded to the State House, Dodan Barracks, to present their demand to General Gowon. I could remember one senior officer among them, saying ‘Our demands are not much, all we want is that northern troops must go, so that we can get on with the job of reconstruction’. It was disappointing to some of us but we understand that that was the feeling at the time in the country.