Written by Gbenro Adesina, PM News
“The biggest mistake he (Ojukwu) made was to have put the country through an unnecessary war” – Richard Akinjide
*Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN), Nigeria’s former Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, speaks on Nigeria-Biafra civil war years to Gbenro Adesina of PM News
What are your recollections of the Nigerian Civil War?
The Nigerian Civil War is now part of our history. The war has come and has gone and Nigeria is stronger for it. One of the major unfortunate aspects of that war is that many Nigerians who know so much about it have not told the truth about what happened. This makes it correct to say that there are certain things in Nigerian history that may not see the light of day for a very long time to come. I was in the parliament when the first coup took place; I was there before independence. I had access to a great deal of information, some of which will never see the light of day. That is understandable because people like to leave certain facts to future historians. The three critical persons during that period are all dead: Chief Obafemi Awolowo from the West, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe from the East and Sir Ahmadu Bello from the North. To me, it is clear that as at that time, Nigeria was not a nation, but a country. Meanwhile, I must admit that today, Nigeria is a nation not a country. The forces at play at that time have played themselves out. We must admit that what really triggered the war was the coup of 15 January 1966. If that coup had not taken place, the history of Nigeria would have been totally different. Though young at that time, I had access to certain important information. When I entered the parliament in my 20s, we were using the British system for intelligence gathering. The people that had enormous access to information at that time were British and a lot of it will not see the light of day. Let us thank God today that Nigeria is a single, solid country. We are one and we will remain one forever.
You said Nigeria was a country, but is now a nation. But considering the agitation for self-determination, zoning of the presidency and other fault lines, do you think it is right to describe Nigeria as a nation?
A nation is like one family. All the forces that work regard themselves as an entity. In a nation, all the components see themselves as one. We are already a nation. Nigeria is a nation, not a country. The fact that Nigeria has 36 states doesn’t mean we are a country; we are a nation. The zoning you mentioned is a duty of political parties to decide where they want the president to come from. It is not in our constitution.
What were the roles played by each of the critical persons you mentioned in the civil war?
Chief Awolowo, Azikiwe and Ahmadu Bello were very critical to the history of the country. It is impossible to write the history of this country without those people. They played very critical roles. That is the truth. And the roles they played have not been critically analysed by our historians. I have read a lot of history books, but I am yet to see the type of objective and critical analysis as they do in civilised countries and I like to believe that when we do the analysis, their roles are going to be very critical because we could not have created what really emerged without the solid foundation of what those people did.
You were quoted in the secret US diplomatic dispatches we published as saying that Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was subconsciously seeking revenge for his early rejection by his father as well as trying to seek the recognition he was denied. Could you throw more light on this?
The reasons for the war are very many. Possibly, what you just said is one of them. But the immediate cause was the 1966 coup. The Igbo people felt they suffered too much in the North and that many of their people were killed. But many important people from other parts of the country were also killed in that coup. How do we explain the deaths of Balewa, Ahmadu Bello from the North; S.L. Akintola, Ademulegun and others from the West?
Don’t you think the fact that the Igbo felt persecuted made the war a necessity?
It was most unnecessary. The American Civil War became necessary because it was forced on Abraham Lincoln, not because Lincoln wanted it. He was determined that America must remain a nation and no part should be allowed to break away. In Nigeria, the government at that time, headed by Yakubu Gowon, believed that Nigeria should not break up and therefore, like America believed that if it needed a war to preserve the unity of the country, they just had to do it.
Who should get the blame for the genocide on the Igbo?
I don’t accept there was genocide. During the First World War, a lot of people died. The same thing happened during the Second World War. But nobody calls those two events genocide. Therefore, it is absurd to call what happened in Nigeria as a consequence of an all-out war genocide. Nobody could have prevented it. During crisis, there is bound to be casualties and we should know that.
How well did you know Ojukwu?
I knew him, but not very well. He was quite a brilliant person and well brought up. He attended very good schools in Nigeria and UK and he spoke very well. I liked him very much. The biggest mistake he made was to have put the country through an unnecessary war. He had to leave the country when he realised he would lose the war. He should have negotiated and secured a political solution rather than going to war, which is too evil and bad for any nation.
What are the lessons from the war?
The first lesson is that we should not fight such a war again. No matter how difficult, we should always negotiate because we are brothers and sisters. There was no need for the war and the evil that followed it.
The US documents also quote you as saying that Ojukwu suffered from “Hitler-like megalomania”
Hitler was a very peculiar person. Though there might be something in Ojukwu which might be similar to some traits in Hitler, but Ojukwu was far better than Hitler. I will not say that he was as bad as Hitler. But I would have preferred that he didn’t go to war at all. I had the privilege of drafting the instrument of pardon that President Shehu Shagari instructed me to do, which Shagari signed to give Ojukwu pardon. Whatever he might have done was forgiven by that presidential action and all those are now part of our history.
Do you blame all Ojukwu did on his father’s unwillingness to accept him?
It is difficult for me to make a statement on that because I did not speak to the father, so I don’t know his own side of the story. I did not speak with Ojukwu either.
So, how did you come to your conclusion on Ojukwu, as recorded in the US dispatches?
I made my judgment on the information I collected from certain sources.
Who are the sources?
I don’t want to mention the sources.
Considering that Nigerians continue to be aggrieved about uneven distribution of wealth, perceived marginalisation and sundry issues, how do you think we can move forward and avoid another civil war?
I believe we are moving forward. I believe President Jonathan has been excellent and I don’t think someone else would have done better. Nigeria is moving forward. Nigeria is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. This is recognised globally by economic writers and political commentators. Those who are running Nigeria down have been unfair to the government and Nigeria. The economic growth of Nigeria is unbelievable. It is better than that of Europe or America.