The 50TH Anniversary of the End of the Nigerian Civil War: Revisiting the Ante-Bellum Strategies

Frank Aragbonfoh AbumereFrank Aragbonfoh Abumere is the Leader of the Global South (Developing World) Research Unit at the Arctic University of Norway. Until recently, he was a: Senior Member of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford; Visiting Fellow, African Studies Centre, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford; and Visiting Research Fellow, Department of International History, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).


On the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigeria Civil War, the consequences of the war still plague the Nigerian state. In other words, the Nigerian state is not merely faced with residual losses; the tragedies of the war have become recurrent phenomena. The combats and deaths of the war might have ended; nevertheless, the destruction, devastation, disunity and enmity left behind by the war are a spectre hunting the Nigerian state today. This prompts one to ponder on what could have been done strategically in order to prevent the war since failure to prevent the war was largely a failure of strategy. Except such failure of strategy is examined, even if history does not repeat itself, it may rhyme. The war has already happened once as tragedy, it should not happen secondly as a farce.

When dealing with crises and conflicts, many times we commit four errors of strategy. One error of strategy is the failure to use hard power when and where it is required. Another error of strategy is the failure to use soft power when and where it is required. The other errors of strategy are using only hard power when and where a combination of hard and soft powers (smart power) is required and using only soft power when and where a combination of soft and hard powers (smart power) is required. These errors of strategy sometimes result in grave and disastrous consequences. In order to prevent, resolve, manage or deal with crises and conflicts successfully, we need to understand that some crises and conflicts require hard power, some require soft power, yet others require both hard and soft powers (smart power). Hence, I argue that relying on hard power when and where soft power is required, relying on soft power when and where hard power is required, and relying on either hard or soft power alone when both are required to prevent, resolve, manage or deal with crises and conflicts is a project in futility which may result in grave and disastrous consequences. In the ante-bellum period of the Nigeria Civil War, the afore-mentioned four errors of strategy made it impossible to prevent the war. 

The war failed to be avoided because of a combination of errors of strategy by the principal actors in the ante-bellum period. I shall focus on the principal actors of the ante-bellum period since it was their actions and omissions that were of utmost importance to the country during that period. I am not necessarily isolating the principal actors as individuals; I see them both as individuals and representatives of the various collaborators with whom they acted or failed to act, and the various constituencies they represented.

The Coup Leaders

The January 1966 coup leaders believed it was only through hard power that they could bring about the revolution they wanted. This extreme reliance on military hard power did not only result in the July 1966 counter-coup and the subsequent crisis which culminated in secession and civil war, it would also have a domino effect that would go on to establish a coup culture and military rule in Nigeria until 29th May, 1999.

The July 1966 counter-coup leaders believed the only way they could get the ‘justice’ they wanted for the slain northern political and military leaders, the change of leadership of the country, and the secession of the northern region was through hard power. Like the January 1966 coup leaders’ extreme reliance on hard power, the July 1966 counter-coup leaders’ extreme reliance on hard power did not only result in the subsequent crisis which culminated in secession and civil war, it would also have a domino effect that would go on to establish a coup culture and military rule in Nigeria until 29th May, 1999.

Aguiyi-Ironsi

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s failure to ‘adequately’ punish the January 1966 coup leaders and Gowon’s total failure to punish the July 1966 counter-coup leaders can be considered to be grave strategic failures of relying on soft power when hard power should have been relied on. Aguiyi-Ironsi was seen as being too ‘soft’, rather than ‘hard’, on the January 1966 coup leaders. This contributed to northern military officers’ quest for ‘justice’ or vengeance which resulted in the July 1966 counter-coup. To what extent Aguiyi-Ironsi should have used hard power to adequately punish the coup leaders is difficult to tell. But having already used hard power to successfully check the coup leaders and arrest most of them, prosecuting and adequately punishing them were the next steps he failed to take. On his part, Gowon’s placating and pacifying the July 1966 counter-coup leaders rather than punishing them contributed to the Igbo (in particular) and the easterners (in general) deciding they were no longer safe anywhere in the country except in their own region. It was this grounded feeling of insecurity that would subsequently, one year later, lead to secession and consequently the war.

Aguiyi-Ironsi did not use military power to stop northerners from massacring the Igbo in particular and killing easterners in general. Here, Aguiyi-Ironsi needed to act urgently; he should have immediately used hard power to stop the massacre, and then employ soft power to pacify, reconcile and reintegrate both sides of the conflict. Gowon too did not use hard power to stop the northern soldiers who were massacring Igbo soldiers in particular and also killing soldiers from the eastern region in general. Furthermore, Gowon did not use military force to stop northern civilians from massacring Igbo civilians in particular and killing eastern civilians in general. 

Aguiyi-Ironsi opted for extreme pacifism and persuasion to the extent that although the country was very volatile, he failed to employ military power to quell the ongoing unrest and to prevent the imminent violence that was almost certain to happen. He only relied on ‘soft’ consultations and persuasions; he went on a nationwide tour to seek the support of leaders in the different regions (especially traditional rulers) in pacifying and persuading their people to shelf violence. It was on that tour that he too was assassinated. While engaging on pacifism and persuasion, Aguiyi-Ironsi should have at least put the security threat level on ‘red’, and hence put his hard power on alert since he knew the country was facing severe security risk.

Gowon

Like Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon extremely relied on soft power and failed to use hard power when he should have used it to prevent an imminent civil war. In essence, he failed to combine hard power with soft power; in other words, he failed to use smart power when it was required. While engaging in pacifism and persuasion, Gowon too should have at least put the security threat level on ‘red’, and hence put his hard power on alert since he knew the country was facing severe security risk. Gowon believed that persuasion would work; hence the Aburi meeting which led to the Aburi Accord. He would later agree that persuasion failed. Moreover, he believed that ‘appeasement’ of Ojukwu and the eastern region would work.                                                                                                                                           

But Gowon would later agree that appeasement failed. Even when using hard power, Gowon was extremely cautious to the extent that rather than using military action to prevent the secession, he opted for, and attempted to use, police action. It was only when his first and preferred option failed that he opted to use military action. Nevertheless, to his credit, Gowon was conscious of the fact that in trying to prevent a civil war like the Nigerian one, the problem with using excessive hard power is that even if it succeeds to prevent the war, it will still be counter-productive later on. Using too much hard power, even if it succeeds in preventing the secession, may make the Igbo resentful of Nigeria. If the Igbo’s resentment of Nigeria is a continuous one, then this raises questions of domination and legitimacy. Continuously forcing a people to be under you against their will is arguably tantamount to domination and hence the question of legitimacy will becloud the achieved ‘forced unity.’

Ojukwu

During the January 1966 coup, Ojukwu relied on hard power to contribute to stopping the coup leaders from taking over the country. After the coup, during the subsequent crisis that ensued, Ojukwu initially relied on soft power – as evidenced by the Aburi meeting and accord. But, he would later resort to hard power to get the secession of the Eastern Region. Firstly, when he needed to use hard power during the January 1966 coup, he did. Secondly, when he needed to use soft power during the subsequent crisis which ensued after the coup, he did. However, thirdly, when he totally jettisoned soft power and absolutely relied on hard power in order to guarantee the secession of the Eastern Region, he fell into an error of strategy. During the Aburi meeting he wanted a clause to be included in the accord; this was to allow regions to secede if they so wish. But the clause was rejected by the representatives of the federal government, hence its non-inclusion in the accord. So, we can say Ojukwu first attempted to use soft power, when that failed, he resorted to hard power. Nevertheless, the war became inevitable the moment he decided to totally jettison soft power and absolutely rely on hard power. Ojukwu over-relied on hard power and then got his strategy wrong.  

Conclusion

In summary, it is not that Ojukwu, the January 1966 coup leaders and the July 1966 counter-coup leaders should have totally rejected hard power and absolutely opted for soft power. So also, it is not that Aguiyi-Ironsi and Gowon should have totally rejected soft power and absolutely opted for hard power. Soft power might work extremely well, or it might not even work at all.  So also, hard power might work extremely well, or it might not even work at all. Soft power might work well to some extent and might not work well to some extent. So also, hard power might work well to some extent and it might not work well to some extent. Some contexts require soft power just as some contexts require hard power. But some contexts require smart power. Given that smart power contains the resources of both soft and hard powers, smart power has the best possible chance of success and hence it is the best possible option.

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