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The Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series #15

A Meeting of the Minds
(Gen. Yakubu Gowon in Conversation with Pini Jason, Part I)

The Chinua Achebe Foundation

Gen (Dr.) Yakubu Gowon,

Yakubu Gowon

Gen. Yakubu Gowon


Chinua Achebe Foundation

Prof. Chinua Achebe

’s military Head of State for nine years, from 29 July 1966 to 29 July 1975, was born on 19 October 1934 in Pankshin, Plateau state. He was educated at St. Bartholomew School, Wusasa, Zaria from 1939 to 1949; Government College, Zaria (1950-53). He received his military training at Officer Cadet Training School, Teshie Ghana (1954); Eaton Hall, Chester, England (1955); Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, (1955-56); Young Officers’ College, Hythe Warminster (1957;, Staff College, Camberley, England (1962); Joint Services College, Latimer, England, (1965).


He held many appointments in the Nigerian Army. He was Gen Ironsi’s Chief of Army Staff in 1966 when Ironsi was killed in a counter coup of young Northern officers on 29 July 1966 and he became Head of Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces throughout the civil war years of 1967-70. He was toppled while attending the OAU Summit in Kampala, Uganda on 29 July 1975. When he was overthrown in 1975, he enrolled at the University of Warwick from where he obtained a Ph D.


Following the Col Buka Suka Dimka-led aborted coup of 13 February 1976 in which Gen Murtala Ramat Mohammed was killed, the Federal Military declared him wanted and stripped him of his military rank.  In 1981, President Shehu Shagari offered him state pardon, which he rejected. His military rank was restored in 1987.


Gen Gowon was very instrumental to the formation of the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS. He was chairman of OAU 1973-74. He was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by Universities of Benin, Ibadan, Lagos, Ife as well as the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Shaw University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA and University of Cambridge, England. He has been honoured by several African countries.


Gen Gowon leads an NGO, Nigeria Prays, and is on the board of several blue chip companies in Nigeria. He is married to Victoria Hansatu and they have three children.


He was interviewed by PINI JASON.


Q. General, you have played a major role in world affairs and have now become a respected elder statesman in the country. What are your fears, today; your disappointments, regrets concerning Nigeria?


A. It is a great shame that the event of 1975 occurred when it did. If you

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recall, a Five-Year Development Plan had just been launched by my administration; that is, a second Five-Year Development Plan, which was actually the third stage of a long-standing plan. The First Plan was initiated by Sir
Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and we introduced the Second plan from 1970 to 1974, but which did not actually take off until 1975. The Third Plan was to be in place from 1975 to 1980. Now unfortunately, we had to fight a war to keep the nation together, and, therefore, had to wait until there was sufficient restoration of confidence and life in the war-ravaged areas -- especially the Igbo-speaking areas -- before we could embark on the development plans.


Instead of beginning the development plan in April 1970, we waited until October so that the Igbo areas affected by the war would have recovered and become sufficiently rehabilitated to play their proper role as equal partners, and not as a part of the country requiring special favours because of the war. But then come 1975; just when we had planned the next Development Plan. I don’t know if you saw the document…


Q. I happened to be in Kaduna on the day of the broadcast and listened to it…


A. Without a doubt, the development plan would have laid a strong foundation for Nigeria’s industrial takeoff. Although my administration largely targeted the agro-allied industry, there were, indeed, other major areas of development being planned for – the iron and steel, petro-chemical and LNG industries. These areas would have taken off as a result of the industrial takeoff. And my government imposed a certain discipline on itself -- I, as the Head of State, was not excluded; because it had to ensure that the plan was carried through successfully. If there had not been a change of governments, with the determination and discipline we imposed, no doubt about it; the plan would have been a 100 percent successful. And it would have laid the foundation that the country sadly lacks today.


Unfortunately, there was a change. The government that came after us, even though its leadership had been part and parcel of our development Plan, virtually abandoned it. Since then, it is my observation that things are being pursued in a rather ad hoc manner, rather than as an integrated effort. That is the saddest aspect of it all; we do not have a culture of planning from a truly national perspective. Any government with a sense of responsibility does not dispense with a programme simply because of its ties to a previous administration! Perhaps, slight modifications might be made in order to make things a greater success, and even as other, greater programmes are being planned for the future. Then, our desired goals are easily achieved.


If the government that took over from me had continued with the 1975-80 Development Plan, it would have had the opportunity of commissioning one programme after the other, and received credit for them. And if they so chose, they could have given credit to those who initiated the plan or claimed that it is more difficult to execute than to plan (laughter) so that they got all the credit. However, that was not done. And this became a pattern whereby successive administrations abandoned the initiatives of those before them and started their own; concomitantly, their own plans were as well abandoned with a change of government. So – yet another plan is begun, and, consequently, we are left with so many abandoned projects, which cannot augur well for the future of the economy of the country. What we were involved in, in my time, was purely an integrated economic plan.


Q. You are speaking of an intervention in your government during what you referred to as “the commanding height of the Nigerian economy.” And your government did seriously seem to take responsibility for driving the economy. But sadly, this is not the case, today. We now have a situation where the government is selling off some of the very accomplishments of your time, and seems to be distancing itself from even its very basic social responsibility with removing subsidies, introducing monetization, privatization and all kinds of policies that only impose further hardship on the people. Ultimately, the private sector ought to drive the economy; but is the speed, the haste, the right direction?


A. I do not personally feel that things have to move as fast as seems to be happening today. But I want to correct an impression -- the term we used was that Nigerians (and not the government) would take command of the height of the economy. There is a difference between government taking command of the economy, and the citizenry doing so. And my government did not begin with a policy of privatization, but one of indigenization; gradually, we would have gone into various other areas, but in such a way as to have added value and strength, and the participation of Nigerians in the running of our economy.


With privatization, foreigners take over areas where Nigerians should rightfully take advantage of and control. But, I think that what pertains now is simply a difference in government approach. Perhaps, the present leadership, in its wisdom, has decided that what you refer to is the best way of accomplishing things, and it may have received acknowledgement from the powers that be – the World Bank or the IMF -- the powers that virtually enforce control of the economy of the world. Now, that is what we have to live with; but let us hope that whatever decision is taken, profit does not only go outside the country. Otherwise it would be really counter-productive. That is my own personal view.


I would probably not have moved on things as quickly as the present government;

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but even if the reality of the situation demanded immediate action, I would move very sensitively on the issue of subsidies. The countries virtually forcing us to take these actions that you mention; they provide substantial subsidy to areas such as agriculture. Look at what
America and Europe are doing for their farmers! I believe that there are certain areas where both the private sector and the government may be encouraged to invest in, and if the government manages better, all well and good! Where the private sector accomplishes things more successfully than the government, good; the government can learn from this.


Just to give you an example – in my period of leadership, the plan was to involve the Federal and state governments very much involved in large-scale agricultural development. My government also encouraged the private sector and enterprising individuals as well. Now, if everyone was involved in developing agriculture on a grand scale -- the Federal Government, state governments, and the private sector, who would become the beneficiary? Would it not be Nigerians? Food would be cheaper. And since my government’s development plan was based on establishing an agro-allied industry, we would have began to think about making our products more profitable. Nigeria, Nigerians would have benefited. And if there was a problem of food scarcity in other African countries, our country would have been able to provide sufficient aid. If, at any point, the government then decides to get out of that sector of the economy, it could do so gradually, and pass on know-how and the necessary equipment to the private sector. In that way, the industry could only improve.


Q. Prior to 1973, especially during your leadership, agriculture occupied a prominent place in the country’s development plans. But as a result of the Yom Kippur war, there was an Arab boycott of oil supplies to the West, and the subsequent increase in oil revenue influenced Nigeria to open her borders to indiscriminate imports. You were then quoted as saying that our problem was not money, but how to spend it. How do we now get away from fighting over oil money and get back to the basics?


A.  The Yom Kippur war or the Arab-Israeli war really had nothing to do with it. If you recall, my government’s developmental plans took off in 1975; that is how many years after the Yom Kippur war? And yet, the agricultural sector has not developed in any significant way. Well, to be very honest with you, the war you mentioned, yes, increased oil prices from US$2.50 to $5.00, $8.00 and then to $10.00, $15.00 and so on. But that was in October 1973, and you, yourself, know that even if there is a price hike, the benefits are not immediate. This is realized six months later, at the very earliest. This means that we did not realize the benefit until, say, January 1974. And remember, the price advantage hardly went beyond $25.00; unlike today’s price that is well above the $60.00 mark. So bear that in mind.


But it was with that money that we were able to carry out the amount of development we planned for and accomplished. And do not forget that I only had the benefit of that increase in revenue from January 1974 to July 1975; roughly 18 months. So please -- when there is talk of the oil boom that we had, do remember that it was for 18 months! Yet we were able to achieve a great deal, and invest much in agriculture and other industries so as to develop the entire country. Look at the road network that we built, the seaports and the airports; education, too, and so on. Just think back to what was going on at the time. So there was never any question of my government being mesmerized by a great amount of money, and not knowing what to do with it. For you journalists to quote me as saying….


Q. Did you really say so?


A. All right, I said so. But come along; it was merely in a manner of speaking! People had been saying to me that there was all this money, and therefore the government should spend it. And I will tell you who said so -- the Governor of the Central Bank. He rang me one day on the hot line to say that he wanted to see me. I cancelled all engagements thinking something serious had happened. That was my fear. I was worried about paying salaries, paying off our debt, and still being able to embark on the plans we had earmarked. If there was a problem with our finances, there was a big problem. However, the governor of the Central Bank only came to tell me that he had so much money he did not know what to do with it!


I became very angry with him! What do you mean -- you have so much money, and you do not know what to do with it, I said to him. Is that all that you came to tell me? For God’s sake, I thought you would have told me that since we have all this money, there are some excellent ideas on how we can invest it. And I asked him -- who told you that one can have so much money he does not know what to do with it? I suggested that, in lieu of any good ideas, he should go pave the streets of Lagos with the money, then! What we should be talking about, I told him, is not that we have so much money; rather, it is what to do with the money! And that was the context in which I made that statement!


The important thing was not to fritter away the money. I said to the Central Bank Governor: look – the government has pledged to improve small scale industries as well as the agricultural sector and the educational system; we can go ahead and invest in all of these, or defer our plans for a short period and find something else that would provide us with even more funds. As a matter of information – Nigeria had even lent to the World Bank or was it the IMF, at the time -- with the proviso that when the country’s economic programme took off, and we needed to pay off some of our commitments, the money would be released to us! At no time, did we borrow or incur unnecessary debt. All the country’s debts were institutionalized and paid off by the due date! My Finance Commissioners and Economic Advisers were truly very upright. It was never a question of having money, not knowing what to do with it, therefore, steal it! At least, no one can say that my government was involved in any cases of embezzlement or that we siphoned away money for personal use!



Q. I would like to return to the indigenization decree, if I may. You became the Head of State of Nigeria not only at a very young age, but also at a time when the country was faced with, certainly, very formidable crises. How did the responsibilities of the office weigh on you?


A. Just to show you

Colonel Ojukwu and Colonel Gowon: Chinua achebe Foundation

Col. Ojukwu and Col. Gowon

how much effect…exactly one year after Ojukwu’s
UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) (laughter), I had a lone gray hair! I was so happy that, at least, the sign of wahala (stress) was showing on my head! However, thank God! If one is doing honest to God work and not motivated by hatred or the wish to destroy anyone, one can withstand stress and strain. Yes, one had long and sleepless nights and worries here and there; but, of course, there were periods of fun and success that demonstrated that people were generally supportive. That really helped, mainly because what one was doing, was being done for the good of the country and the ordinary people!


It is sad that as a result of the civil war, some people had to suffer various inconveniences to life that should have been avoided. Unfortunately, if there is a situation like that, there is nothing you can do. People are bound to suffer in

Victims of the Gowon/Awolowo Starvation Weapon

Refugee camp victims of the Gowon/Awolowo "starvation is a legitimate weapon of war" doctrine

any crisis situation, no matter how small it is. I can assure you that as one prayed for God’s guidance to do the right thing, not out of wickedness against any person or any group of people, at least one was able to bear the stress. And of course, youth was on one’s side; I was probably able to take some of the strain much better than if I had been older. Otherwise, the concern, the worry, my goodness! When, during the war you hear that your people are suffering in some area, because of lack of food, you hear of kwashiorkor and the like, and you hear some of the exaggerated news from abroad, yes, you are bound to feel concerned!


And that was why one was prepared to open a corridor where aid and assistance for food could go into the East in order to save, especially the little children that bore no responsibility, at all, for the war. I can say that I was able to bear it, because I tried to ensure that everything was done with a human face and feeling for the suffering of those on the other side. Those on the other side, I claimed as mine. That is why I could not feasibly allow them to suffer.


Q. Did you think the civil war was inevitable?


A. No! It was the action of the leaders! When it got to the stage whereby the leaders would not agree then a decision had to be taken. There would not have been a civil war had there not been secession! If there was no decision to break away from the country, certainly there wouldn’t have been any reason to start fighting. The civil war was as a result of the East and the leadership of Ojukwu deciding to break away. Now, I had a duty and responsibility. I swore allegiance to Nigeria, and Nigeria is composed of all the various parts. And the East was part of Nigeria. But the Ojukwu leadership, because of whatever reasons it had, and, of course, I know there were very strong reasons why he made certain decisions; but I know it was personal ambition more than anything else. Yes, unfortunate events had occurred, and I can assure you, if anyone had any sleepless night, it is because of the sort of thing that happened in Nigeria from 1966 up to that time.


Honestly, if you

kwaskiokor victims of Yakubu Gowon's war

Yakubu Gowon imposed a blockade, preventing food and supplies from reaching starving Biafran children, millions of whom suffered and died of kwashiokor.


Victims of Gowon's genocide/ Chinua Achebe Foundation

Biafra (1969): Christopher Kip Warr of Oxfam buries a 4-year Igbo child victim of hatred and genocide. (Courtesy: Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber)

think that one enjoyed seeing the harrowing experiences of the Igbo in various parts of the country, especially in the Northern part of the country in 1966, I can assure you, you are wrong. Well God knows! And that was why one had to use certain expressions at the time in order to keep control of the people. I was accused of using the words: “God had called another Northerner, again, to lead.” But it was the only way I could bring sanity to bear on a situation galloping out of control. And we
were able to bring the situation under control. Now I accept that those were very trying experiences for the Igbo that can make anybody say: well, you don’t want us, so we will go. At least, with our honest and sincere effort to get the situation under control, no matter what anyone would say, you can rest assured that we tried not to allow the situation get to the stage whereby it resulted in civil war.


Q. The Aburi Accord appears to have been the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Why was there a controversy surrounding its interpretation?


A. One thing about the interpretation is that one can take it as a sign of open-mindedness, a sign of weakness, or that it was simply not understood. My stance was this: if you demonstrate that it was weakness that governed your actions, then I will show you that I cannot be taken for granted. The agreement was that everything must be done on consensus, and I was supposed to come back, and then make a statement. But what happened? Ojukwu went back, and made an announcement, and I was woken up by (Major-General David) Ejoor to say that this is what he heard Ojukwu say. And I said: but did we agree to that? And he said, no, we did not. I said this is not on! Was I not supposed to issue a statement first and then, thereafter, all the others would proceed with theirs? If he, indeed, had gone ahead to make that statement, virtually forcing us to accept the memorandum that he came with, then we could not agree. It was from his memorandum that most of his claims were based.


We did not go to the meeting armed with specific terms, because I wanted a discussion that would be followed up with subsequent discussions to get things done. But it was generally agreed upon that we do things by concurrence, in order to give the East the feeling that it was still part and parcel of the nation! I accepted, though I did not want, the name, ‘Supreme Commander.’ I never wanted the name ‘Supreme Commander, at any time!” Probably, I was a fool to have agreed to this. Perhaps, I could have stood my ground to say no to all those things, and, therefore, Aburi would never have occurred. But then, Ojukwu declared: “On Aburi, They Stand!” and I returned: “From Aburi, You Will Fall!” (Laughter).


Q. Commentators blame the controversy on your so-called Super Permanent Secretaries at the time who it is said complained, when you returned from Aburi, that you had given away too much; that you had dismembered the country…


A, (Cuts in) No, no, no! Well, one can go ahead, and blame our Super Perm Secs if they chose, but the truth is this: I was not feeling well at all; I had very high fever when I came back from Aburi. I was really down, and could not even prepare the statement that I was to make, which would have committed everybody to what had been agreed upon. Then Ojukwu, as we arrived, made his statement, and as I told you, I was woken up in the early hours of the morning to be told that this was what was being said. I said -- is that what we agreed to? And the reply was “no.” I then said that if that was Ojukwu’s interpretation, I was rejecting it.


What we did at NIFOR (the Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research on the outskirts of Benin) was meet (and Ojukwu was supposed to be there) to discuss the situation. I remember Peter Odumosu, Secretary to the Government of the West, came to see me, and said to me: Sir, if this is what you people agreed, please, as a Christian and as a man of God, implement things as you agreed. Honestly, Decree No.8 (1967) certainly agreed on every thing! The only thing that I had to add to make clear that there was no mistake was there would be no secession! This was because; I suspected that that was where Ojukwu was heading. That was the only addition. Otherwise, the spirit of Decree No.8 was the outcome of Aburi. Nobody should blame the Permanent Secretaries. As they say, the buck stops here! I can assure you, the civil war was as a result of the breaking away of the former East. If you declare independence and in your attempt to effect this, I try to stop you, who, in the end, do you blame?


Q. Now, you spoke passionately about how the sufferings, especially in the war zones, pained you. With that at the back of my mind, I want to ask you: why then was starvation part of your instrument of war?


A. If that were the case, would I have agreed with the international community to have a corridor to supply food, etc to the people? The only thing I said was that a lot of the so-called relief flights that were going into the war zone were not relief flights, and we knew that! It is postulated that one of the flights that Christopher Okigbo supervised was referred to as a “relief flight,” but what do you suppose was in that aircraft? Was it not arms and ammunitions etc? (By the way some of those flights crashed in places like the Camerouns…) We also knew that some of the initial ships that got into Port Harcourt when Ojukwu was controlling that area were ingeniously called ‘agricultural tools’ (General laughter)



Q. (Cuts in) Tractors! (General laughter)


A. So you knew?! There you are! So all that we said was that if those were, indeed, relief flights then let them come through where they could be inspected by the international bodies. Our intention was not to control the movement of the flights. After inspection, the planes could then take off to a designated airport in the East for relief services. But certainly; starvation was never, never, at any time, the policy during the war! If any thing at all, I can assure you that during the war, when contacts were made with friends of ours in the East, a lot of assistance was sent to them through some of my relations. My younger brother, Isaiah did quite a lot of that, at the time. And I will say with all sense of responsibility and sincerity, that no; I can never wish to see anyone starve, especially children. What have they done to cause such suffering on them? But the actions of their leaders caused some of this hardship to befall them.

Q. Was there any time you entertained fear of losing that war?


A. No! I don’t think there was any fear, at all, at any time. There were anxious moments, like when Gen Hassan (Katsina) came to tell me that “Warri has fallen!” And he came with all his staff officers! “Warri has fallen; how come?” I demanded. When did things degenerate so much for the rebels to come right across to take Warri?” But it was not Warri that he meant! He paused and then said: “Oh Sir, not Warri in Mid-West, Warri in East Central!” Owerri! (General laughter) But I also knew that the situation at Owerri, at one stage, had degenerated, and there was the issue of how to extricate our troop from possible total annihilation! There were anxious moments like that.


But a total loss, no! But for my policy of ‘no total war’ it would have been a different thing. If it was a total war and, therefore, an “anything goes to destroy anything to get to the destination,” stance was adopted, it would have been an entirely different story. But it was a controlled and, as much as one can call it this, humane war. You probably know about our code of conduct. There was no question of going all out to destroy. But because the war had continued longer than anticipated, we got to a stage when I said that the day we linked up Umuahia and Aba would be the beginning of the end.


It was getting to a stage, however, where I decided that, in the event, that prospect failed, I would arm the First Division with the latest artillery pieces that we had recently acquired as reinforcement. And from wherever the Division was, linking from Umuahia right up to just North of Nnewi, it would start a new operation -- almost a scorched earth policy. And the soldiers had begun the training for this; I was about to give them the orders when the surrender came, and I had to give orders to “stop, no further use!” And I thank God, because, otherwise, it would have been destruction that would have been inflicted on ordinary people. I don’t know if I would have been able to live with that.


I wanted to finish the war quickly…my instructions to Obasanjo was—once you link up between Umuahia and Aba, and the rebels are on the run, don’t stop. This was because, we had shrunk the rebel area to a small size, and the only direction they could run was towards the First Division. And the First Division could hole its ground firmly; it was extremely disciplined. And there was the lesson of history, too. We stopped at Enugu to reorganize. By that time, as well, I was very short of arms and ammunition; I can tell it to you now (General Laughter). There is nothing you can do about it now. We were short of arms and ammunition and we could not get any from Britain or anywhere. And I felt that I could not allow my troops to go on, because what if I was not able to supply them with ammunition; what would happen? If my men had lost ground, the rebel soldiers would have run to, I think, River Benue and Makurdi Bridge. And I would not have been able to chase them (the rebels).However, if we had continued the chase with appropriate armaments, the war would have ended within three months of the fall of Enugu (Enugu fell in October, 1967)



Q. You mention the

General Effiong and General Gowon at the January, 1970 Armistice

General Effiong and General Gowon at the January, 1970 Armistice

surrender. The man who surrendered Biafra to the Federal Government, Col (to Biafrans, General) Philip Effiong, said in his memoir that when Ojukwu was leaving Biafra, there was no discussion of surrender. In other words, it was entirely Effiong’s initiative, and he courted a lot of danger in taking that action. He writes: here was a man who in today’s Nigeria was a minority, leading a major ethnic group and commanding their loyalty to the extent that when he asked them to lay down arms, they agreed. Effiong who ended the war was dismissed from the Nigerian Army, and never received pardon until he died. However, Ojukwu -- and I mean no disrespect -- was pardoned. Would you say that Effiong’s treatment was just in this regard?


A. What you should remember about the time -- and, at least, give us some credit for it -- is that we did not take what would be considered normal action under such circumstances. In such an instance, all the senior officials involved -- politicians as well as in the military -- would have been strung up for their part in the war. This is what happened at the end of the Second World War in Germany; it happened in Japan at the end of the campaign in that part of the world. This is the civilized world’s way of doing things. But we did not do even that. We did set up committees to look into cases such as where rebel officers had been members of the Nigerian Armed Forces, and their loyalty was supposed to be to the Federal Government. When the war ended, we reabsorbed practically everyone who was in the Army. But there were officers at a certain senior level that we insisted had to accept responsibility for their role in the secession. It was the only thing to do. Probably I could have given pardon; however, I was not the one who gave pardon to Ojukwu.



Q. I know.


A. His own instance was a political one. Remember that because of what subsequently happened, I was accused of something, became a wanted man, and then they tried to give me pardon. But I refused. I said I was not going to accept any pardon, because it meant I was guilty and needed to be forgiven. And I refused to accept that. I had nothing to do with what they accused me of! I was a very busy student at this point. I had no time, and it was a good thing that I was not sitting idle to even begin thinking of such a stupid thing.


But in the case of Ojukwu, he had committed treason against the country! No matter how you see it, as far as the Nigerian context was concerned, he was the guilty party. In other areas, he would have been eliminated, and I thank God that He never put him in my hands. Otherwise I would have found it very difficult to save his life, even though I would try my best to save his life, because he was an old colleague, an old friend. But the public pressure would have made it impossible. So that was what happened in the case of people like Effiong. A few of the senior ones that were directly involved, we felt they should go. I think Effiong was dismissed. All that happened to the others was that they lost the few years of seniority gained during the period of the civil war.


Q. The civil war was fought ostensibly to keep Nigeria one. Looking at Nigeria today, and the crises of National Questions, the aggression and divisive tendencies looming large in our nation, would you say the objective of the war was realized?


A. Well, at least the nation is still together. All manner of aberrations are bound to occur with human beings, and people do have the freedom of expression -- so long as this does not create a threat that plunges the nation into another crisis. I truly pray to God that none of this happens, for it would be a very sad, tragic thing. I have prayed that, no matter what happens, we must never again become involved in a situation whereby we start killing and destroying one another. But would that stop some of these things happening? Look at what is happening in Ibadan between the Governor and one of the strong political leaders! Now, it is the same sort of thing that started the Nigerian civil war; a similar crisis and a coup, “Operation wetie” and so on.


Those who staged the coup used it as an excuse to overthrow the government of the day! I can understand they have the right to express their feelings, but I hope they do not take things to the extent of taking up arms against the lawful government of the nation, and thereby forcing a situation where the nation is embroiled in another crisis like we had from 1967 to 70.


Q. Much earlier you said in respect of the war: “thank God, at least the Igbo came back.” But, today, I am sure you must have heard the word “marginalization” used by the Igbo to describe their fate in Nigeria since the end of the war. On the other hand we have a group of young men who call themselves MASSOB, Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra, asking for the state of Biafra. The Igbo still believe that they are being punished because of the civil war. The Indigenization Decree is an example, they point out, that was taken when the group was economically weakened and thus, as it were, kept them out of playing a role in the economy. They still feel they are being punished because of the civil war.


A. It is a pity that they think this way. The indigenization decree -- I think it was 1972 or 73…that decree was really to ensure the participation of every part of the country, unlike the privatization policy now in place. Businesses are indigenized within one’s own area -- in the North, in the East in the West, etc. And who are the beneficiaries in those areas? It is mostly the people native to the particular area. And I am sure that by 1972, many Igbo had recovered sufficiently enough to participate, not only in their own area, but also in Lagos. You tell me, who owns most of Lagos?


Q. (Cuts in) Two years with twenty pounds; the Igbo were still trying to find their feet! They were in no position to buy into any company!


A. No. Remember, what was being indigenized before it was speeded up were some of the small Lebanese businesses like textile stores, in which, in any case, the Igbo were very well established, yesterday, today and even tomorrow. Probably in Lagos, they were not able to buy into as many such businesses as they would have desired. Otherwise, certainly I know that by 1972, there was sufficient recovery enabling the Igbo to participate. Now the incident of twenty pounds that you refer to was enforced immediately at the end of the war. Because your economic gurus will tell you that because of your economic value, you cannot exchange the Biafran note; what is it called?


Q. The Biafran Pound.


A. Is it the Biafran Pound? But now, I am told that it is selling like hot cake! I am told that it is being used especially in the West Coast! So I said, well, you see the ingenuity of the Igbo man? (General laughter). People say it is even more valuable than the Naira!


Q. May be as a collector’s item!


A. But there it is! No. I think the policy of twenty pounds was never an attempt to impoverish the Igbo people. The government was very generous in giving funds to Ukpabi Asika so that the government of the East could circulate money and get businesses off the ground, as well as embark on various rehabilitation and reconstructions that were taking place. Probably the exchange rate in Nigerian currency for the Biafran pound seemed not to be on equitable terms. If we said they could exchange at par…



Q. (Cuts in) I would have been a millionaire!


A. You’re telling me! (General laughter) And probably bought off the rest of the country! That was not the policy of indigenization. It was meant to help. For example, the government was able to provide Asika with funds so that people could get Nigerian currency even as a loan. It was probably some of the bigger businesses indigenized later that you are talking about; but that occurred only after my overthrow. The government of Obasanjo, I think between 1975 and 79, speeded up taking over some of the big businesses, especially in Lagos, which was to the advantage of his people, because they were the ones on the spot, and a lot of their people were in the banks and knew how to use the banks to give loans to their own people to buy some of these things. But this was not the case in other parts of the country. So when it comes to that, you can rest assured that it was not only the Igbo that felt left out; other parts of the country that were not as well positioned as the people from the West, felt the same way.



Q. Another issue was that of Abandoned Property, especially in Rivers State, and the context in which your government allowed some property belonging to the Igbo to be taken over. The case was made by the new Rivers State government that its people were like tenants in their own state. After you left office, it became clear that several individuals actively exploited the issue, buying up former Igbo owned property and using these properties as collaterals for business ventures often obtaining loans from banks controlled by certain people with anti-Igbo sentiments. Many blamed these series of developments around Abandoned Property on you. What is your reaction?


A. There was no doubt that it was a very knotty issue. I think there should have been justice and fair play. And as far as I was concerned, although pressure was being brought by the Governor and the Government of Rivers State at the time, my position was, if any property was to be taken for the use of the government, it had to pay proper compensation. And true enough, I think at the time, there were many Igbo who wanted to sell their property. Therefore there was hardly any problem from that point of view. But I know that later, the Rivers state indigenes themselves became fully involved, and virtually pressurized the subsequent government.


I think, honestly, that a lot of the damage was not done during our time. At least, we were keeping it under control, and working hard to ensure that there was justice. Since it was one Nigeria, we must allow people who wanted to come back to, at least, come back to their business and properties. But I know that quite a lot of this did not happen, subsequently and it left a very bad feeling that, as you said, the Igbo were being penalized because of the war. I am not sure of what really happened at that time, since I was away from the country. But I know that my effort was not to deprive people of their property. Those who wanted to sell did so at the market price at the time. But those properties the government wanted for their use, it was to pay the economic rate at the time. Of course, policies changed thereafter.


Q. In your October 1st 1974 broadcast, when you launched the Third Development Plan, you did say that Nigerians had not learned the lessons of the civil war and, therefore, it would be “utterly irresponsible to leave the nation in the lurch by a precipitate withdrawal.” Reflecting on the intolerance of our politicians today, do you think they even remember that a civil war was fought to keep this country one?


A. It is very difficult for me to comment on that. But to be honest, I meant

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what I said with all sense of responsibility. I said that, because I could see exactly that things were beginning to repeat themselves as in the period prior to the crisis we had in
Nigeria. And I felt that this was the sort of thing that makes it appear as though the politicians have not learned the lessons. Yes, we were trying to give them opportunity. Yes, I did say we were to return the country to civilian rule by 1976. But it got to the stage where, because we allowed freedom of expression, and political groups wanted to come into it straight away, virtually doing exactly what brought the trouble in the first place, I said, this is not what I was expecting. I said we will provide the opportunity for return, if only people would be patient and not go about making statements that could exacerbate feelings, and once again, create another crisis situation as was done at the beginning of 1965/66.


And I said that we could not leave the nation in a lurch. I said it would be wrong; it would be irresponsible to do so! Therefore what I wanted to do was to hold back political activities and concentrate on economic development so that we could arrive at the desired goal. Once you were able to get the economy going, when the politicians returned, they would be thinking more along the lines of ensuring that the economy was going well. The economy would have had its momentum. The people would have told the politicians to stop talking rubbish; to talk, instead, of improving the economy, rather than becoming involved in tribal and all manner of questionable politics. Then we would be thinking in terms of politics that could improve the nation.


But the momentum itself could not be stopped by any incoming government of any particular party or military group, because the momentum had already gathered sufficient force, and like a rolling stone, would be gathering more and more moss as it went, and would have become thrice as big as it was. And so when people think of becoming involved in politics, it would not be the politics of poverty, but the politics of the well being of people, because that is what politics is all about.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the interview are not necessarily those of the Chinua Achebe Foundation. The Chinua Achebe Foundation, an intellectual and cultural organization, believes in the right of every Nigerian to express their opinion.

Chinua Achebe Foundation Interview Series: Gen. Yakubu Gowon in Conversation with Pini Jason, Part I