Urhobo Historical Society

Obasanjo, the Civil War, and Resource Control

By A.A. Madiebo

 VANGUARD [Lagos, Nigeria]
Thursday, 14 June 2001

Vanguard Introduction

Major General Alex Madiebo was a commander in the Biafran Army.Until recently he has remained calm in retirement,but President Obasanjo provoked some comments from the retired general which he argued was the real reason why the Ibos fought the rest of Nigeria.Obasanjo had commented that the civil war was all about resource control,but Madiebo has a more fundamental explanation to offer

WHEN Nigeria embarked on the civil war in 1967, she emphasized that she fought the war only for national unity with the slogan: "To keep Nigeria One, is a task that must be done." But recently, President Obasanjo restated the aim of that war when he said in Yenogoa that the war was motivated by resource control considerations. He implied that the Biafrans fought just to gain control of the oil wells of the Delta Region. The President added: "If Biafra had won the war, I would have been dead; your governor would not have been in the position he is today." These assertions are far from the truth, and I consider it my duty therefore as the commander of the defunct Biafran Army, to try and put the records right as briefly as possible, for the benefit of posterity.

To start with, it is regrettable that such inciting statements (whether true or false) should come from a Southern Nigerian President at a time the South is enjoying the strongest political unity since 1952. It is most embarrassing to note that, for their tenure as rulers of Nigeria, no Northern Nigerian Head of State ever incited one Nigerian tribe against the other in peace time, for whatever reasons. This is why the President’s frequent anti-Ibo statements in recent times both in Yenogoa and elsewhere, should be of great concern to all Nigerians. These unguarded utterances if not restrained may adversely effect the Southern Nigeria political unity, in the same way the carpet-crossing drama of 1952 did in the Western House of Assembly. That show of shame divided the South politically, and pitched Zik against Awolowo for the rest of their lives, to the political benefit of Northern Nigeria. It has taken the South almost 50 years to recover from the consequence of that incident. But now that we are faced with a situation where our President assumes a belligerent mood whenever he visits the South-Eastern States, and walks hand in hand with the State Governors when he visits the West, the newly found political unity of the South is again threatened.

The President as a soldier knows or should know that resource control had absolutely nothing to do with the civil war, unless Nigeria had it as their real motivation unknown to the rest of the world. For Biafra, it was simply a war of basic survival because in 1966, the oil industry had not even become a major factor in the Nigerian economy to tempt the Ibos to sacrifice 3 million lives in an attempt to gain control of the oil wells. Without doubt, the civil war had its roots in the January 1966 coup which was executed by officers and men from all the Nigerian tribes, led by mainly Ibo and Yoruba Majors plus other junior officers including those from Northern Nigeria. When the coup failed, Northern troops staged a most vicious and barbaric counter-coup in July 1966, against their counterparts from all tribes of Southern Nigeria without exception. In the first few days, every tribe in the South suffered casualties with lucky ones including the President, narrowly escaping death before going into hiding. After a few days of indiscriminate massacre, the Northern leadership re-defined the January coup as an "Ibo Coup" as opposed to a "Southern Nigeria Coup" and thus exonerated all other tribes except the Ibos. They took this action because, with the complete success of their counter-coup, the North saw no need to secede from Nigeria as they had originally planned, but needed allies in the South to enable them rule the country. With the Ibos isolated to facilitate the impending pogrom, the rest of the southern tribes and their soldiers (including President Obasanjo who was then a Major), heaved a sigh of relief. Even before that coup, the "Araba" riots of May 1966 had cost the Ibos 30,000 lives. That was followed by the ethnic cleansing of Ibos or pogrom all over Northern Nigeria towards the end of that year at a loss of 50,000 Ibo lives.

As a result of the counter-coup, the civil riots and the massacres of 1966, most people of Eastern Nigeria, particularly the Ibos, were back in their home Region by the end of the year. Even there, the danger of more attacks still existed, thus giving rise to an urgent need to secure arms and ammunition for self defense. We could only do that as an independent nation, so we declared our Region an independent Republic of Biafra. The only alternative to this was to wait for the Nigerian troops to invade our homes and wipe us out without a fight. Simply put therefore, Biafra to the Ibos, meant organised resistance against the first ethnic cleansing or pogrom on the continent of Africa. Perhaps, every Nigerian tribe had its own reason for fighting the civil war, and what the President said in Yenogoa can only be assumed to be his own reason for doing so.

It does not make sense that Biafra which was motivated by resource control consideration to fight a war in which she lost 3 million lives, could withdraw from the entire Delta Region without damaging a single oil installation. What is more, though under heavy pressure throughout the war, Biafra did not mortgage the oil installations under its control to a world power for military assistance to enhance her fire power and prolong the war. All the same, if the President still wants to convince the Delta Region in particular, and all Nigerians in general about the resource control intentions of Biafra, let him answer the following questions: Why did Nigeria continue the war after the Delta Region was liberated ? Why did the President not give Resource Control as a reason for the war in his book "My Command"? Nigeria liberated the Niger Delta from Biafra over 30 years ago, why have the resources not been returned to the owners since then? Why did General Obasanjo join the civil war in mid-1969 inside Ibo heartland where the only resource left to be controlled were war exhausted Ibos? Or are the Ibos being classified as a National Resource to be controlled by Nigeria at any cost in lives to their tribe? Finally, it is common knowledge that President Obasanjo’s Ibo friend, Major Nzeogwu led the failed January 1966 coup meant to arrest the political drift and corruption at that time, in order to ensure One Nigeria. With that in mind, does the President really believe that his friend could in 1967, opt to fight and die in Biafra against one Nigeria just for resource control considerations?

The civil war ended more than 30 years ago, and most Nigerians prefer to put the sad event behind them. Biafra as an entity, died with the end of the war and our President has nothing to gain by flogging a dead horse like Biafra, except resentment from some sections of the country. What is required now is true reconciliation and relentless fence-mending which the President started when he changed the dismissal of Biafran officers to retirement. Admittedly, it may be difficult for him to completely forget his six months civil war exploits that brought the collapse of Biafra, and set the stage for him to be an Army General as well as the Nigerian head of State twice. However, whenever the General reflects openly over his glorious conquests (as he often does), he should please exercise restraint and not forget that Biafrans are now his compatriots and no more his enemies. Above all, he should always remember that the Biafran officers he voluntarily retired in May 2000, are yet to be paid any pensions and gratuities. In other words, like during the civil war, they are still without any resource to control.