It had been agreed at Aburi that all previous decrees assuming over-centralisation and detracting from Regional autonomy should be repealed and a decree enacted before 21st January restoring the regions to their position before the military takeover on the 15th January, 1966.
Eventually a draft decree was issued by the Lagos authorities and submitted to the regional governors for their approval. Both the Eastern and Western Regions rejected this draft on the grounds that it was contrary to the spirit of the Aburi agreements and was at variance with the agreements reached by the Solicitors-General at Benin on the 14th January, the latter having met to examine and recommend which decrees should be repealed on the grounds that they detracted from the position of the Regions before the military take-over.
It was then agreed that officials from the different governments should meet at Benin to discuss and advise on how the Aburi agreements could best be implemented. The officials met on the 17th and 18th of February and made a number of recommendations.
Another draft decree was prepared which, again, was totally unsatisfactory in the light of the Aburi agreements. Eventually, on 19th March, Decree No. 8 was formally published, the draft of which the East had found objectionable and had rejected for the following reasons:
(a) It gave Lt. Col. Gowon a personal veto power over the concurrence of all the Regional Military Governors.
(b) Empowered the Supreme Military Council to declare a State of Emergency in a Region against the wishes of its Governor.
This decree, as the recordings and transcripts clearly demonstrate, was contrary to the Aburi agreements and yet Lt. Col. Gowon has publicly claimed that in the promulgation of this decree the Aburi agreements were implemented.
It is also an important fact to bear in mind that at Aburi it was agreed that the Supreme Military Council should meet to appoint the Commander-in-Chief and Head of the Federal Military Government. That decree was never implemented.
These actions and the withholding of essential revenues due to the East (Civil Servants not paid up to 31st March as agreed at Aburi) only exacerbated the Easterners’ fear and distrust of the Northerners and the Northern-dominated Federal Government.
Lt. Col. Ojukwu’s reaction to this refusal by the Lagos Government to accept the decisions of the Supreme Military Council was to inform Lt. Col. Gowon and the Military Governors of the other regions that he would be compelled to implement certain of these decisions unilaterally. In his letter of 16th February addressed to Lt. Col Gowon he fixed 31st March, 1967, the end of the Nigerian fiscal year, as a deadline.
It was in answer to this ultimatum that the Lagos Government on 19th March passed Decree No. 8 which it introduced to the country and the world at large as the implementation of the agreements reached at Aburi. The East had, however, rejected this decree for the reasons already stated above.
It was therefore only after 31st March that the Eastern Government enacted those measures essential for the government and financial self-preservation of the East, namely the Revenue Collection Edict, Court of Appeal Edict and Registration of Companies Edict. The first of these pieces of legislation, in particular, reveals the intentions of the Eastern Government at the time. In accordance with the Edict, revenues which were normally collected in the East for payment to the Federal exchequer were to be paid instead to the Eastern treasury in Enugu.
In this manner it became possible for the Eastern Government to carry out the obligation of the Lagos Government, clearly entered into at Aburi, to meet the salaries of Federal employees of Eastern origin who had been forced by circumstances to seek refuge in the East. Quite apart from the sum total of these salaries it is interesting in this context to note that according to the Financial Times (14th April, 1967) a total sum of £11,330,000 was owing to the Eastern Government by the Federal Government at the end of February. The East plainly faced economic collapse at that time if it had not passed the legislation necessary to enable revenue to be raised in order to offset this debt and, at the same time, meet the salaries of refugee employees of the Federal Government.
The Federal Government retaliated to the measures taken after 31st March by imposing economic sanctions on the East. Throughout April and May several efforts were made to bring the disputants together, but all failed.
On the 26th May, 1967, there took place in Enugu a joint meeting of the Advisory Committee of Chiefs and Elders and the Consultative Assembly. Lt. Col. Ojukwu, after reviewing at some length the events of the previous 17 months, asked the Consultative Assembly for a mandate for future action. It was clear from the manner in which the Military Governor put to the Consultative Assembly the choices before them that he was asking for a mandate to assert the autonomy of Eastern Nigeria without specifying either when or in what form this autonomy should be finally claimed. “It is for you as the representatives of the 14 million people of Eastern Nigeria to choose from:
(a) Accepting the terms of the North and Gowon and thereby submit to domination by the North, or
(b) Continuing the present stalemate and drift, or
(c) Ensuring the survival of our people by asserting our autonomy.
If we have no alternative to the third choice, we shall leave the door open for association with any of the other regions of the country that accept the principle of association of autonomous units.”
On the following day, the 27th May, the Consultative Assembly unanimously mandated Lt. Col. Ojukwu in the most precise terms “to declare at the earliest practicable date Eastern Nigeria a free sovereign and independent state by the name and title of the Republic of Biafra”.
It is plain that the Consultative Assembly was not prepared to allow Lt. Col. Ojukwu a great deal of latitude either on the form which autonomy should take or on the time at which it should be implemented.
The reaction of the Lagos Government to this mandate from the representatives of the East Nigerian people to their Military Government was the sudden enactment of a new constitution for the Nigerian Federation based upon the division of the four Regions into 12 States. The Eastern region, in particular, was to be divided into three states; Rivers, East-Central and South-Eastern.
Little detail is available on the actual form which this new constitution was intended to take. Certain elements of the 12-state legislation are, however, clear by implication:
- The proposal to divide Nigeria into a larger number of units pre-supposed a stronger central government in Lagos and thus contradicted the consensus of opinion reached on the two previous occasions upon which representatives of all the regions had been represented at discussions, namely the September meeting of the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference and the January meeting of the Supreme Military Council at Aburi.
- The new constitution had been enacted without consultation with East Nigeria and states had been created without a referendum; as a Federal Constitution is plainly workable only if there is agreement to make it work by its constituent parts, it was natural that the East should react by calling the proposals dictatorial.
- The division of the Eastern Region into three states was made in such a way as to deprive the Ibo hinterland of the Eastern Region of its outlet to the sea (Port Harcourt) [See Willink Report 1958, Cmnd. 505, paras, 13 and 14] and of several other Ibo-speaking areas which happened also to be oil producing areas.
It is not therefore surprising that the reaction of the Eastern Government to this move was to consider it a crude political attempt to divide the unity of the East by appealing to its minorities and engendering separate nationalisms and, at the same time, render the predominantly Ibo East Central State economically unviable and therefore permanently dependent upon the Lagos Central Government.
The inevitable reaction of the Eastern Government to the legislation was on the 30th May, 1967, to proclaim Eastern Nigeria the sovereign Republic of Biafra.
LISTEN TO AUDIO RECORDING: BIAFRA THE CASE FOR INDEPENDENCE – PART 6