Omatseye’s Obituary, By M T Usman

NIGERIA-UNREST-MAIDUGURI-SHUWA-FILESLast week’s IN TOUCH column was indeed an obituary of sorts – on the reputation and standing of Sam Omatseye as a political analyst/ public affairs commentator whose writings can serve as reference material on current developments in the country. The article under reference oozed bigotry, using Brigadier Alabi – Isama’s book and a series of interviews with General Akinrinade as props to impugn the reputation of the “others” of Nigerian politics. The Nigerian Civil War has had its fair share of heroes as well as villains and in Omatseye’s reckoning commanders constituted the latter group. Commanders and officers from the South who put down their war experience in books and extended press interviews are acclaimed. Not that they do not deserve it, but the element of self – promotion is clearly at work here. That aside, the performance of officers in that war can withstand the scrutiny of military historians.
It is both laughable and insulting to describe General Yakubu Gowon as a bumbling commander in chief. The needs of the moment, in times of peace or in war, determine the kind of leadership that emerges. Gowon was the type of personality prescribed by the temper of the time, both in the aftermath of the events of 1966 and the resultant Civil War. He became head of state not as a result of a compromise but because he was the most senior officer.
The demands upon leadership in the circumstances of a civil war are markedly different from those in inter – state wars. A civil war has to be managed in such a way as to make reconciliation easier at its end. That was how Gowon directed the war, with maximum restraint but with the necessary firmness to achieve result. It began with “police action” before it transformed into full military operation after the rebel incursion into the Midwest. There was however no adoption of a scorched – earth policy or terrorising of the population.
Turning a 10,000 – man mainly ceremonial army into a fighting force of over thirty thousand in the first six months of the war was no easy task. The command and control infrastructure of the military was rudimentary then, making micro-management of the war well-nigh impossible. It was therefore more practical to allow field commanders much latitude within the overall strategy adopted to prosecute the war. No account should be taken of Col Madiebo’s assessment of Gowon and his commanders. They won by pluck and Madiebo & co lost. What better evidence of bumbling success and brilliant failure?
The criticism of General Mamman Shuwa’s is equally laughable. Wars are won by capturing and holding territory, and 1 Division did that eminently. Fighting in the of Igbo territory where resistance would be stiffest, from the onset of the conflict, 1 Division held every territory it liberated from the rebels and provided the needed security and assistance to the inhabitants. Shuwa’s campaign in the sector was methodical and clearly going by the results. Compare that with the relative chaos in the southern sector where the 3 Marine Commando operated and to which the duo of Alabi – Isama and Akinrinade repaired after falling out with General Murtala Muhammed in the western sector. The Division’s campaign began to stutter when it left the friendly peoples of the Niger Delta and approached Igbo territory. The result was the loss of an under-strength brigade in the first attack on Aba and, more consequential to the war effort, the siege of federal troops in Owerri for six months. Col Utuk’s 16 8rigade was down to less than 200 soldiers when it broke the siege, carrying the body of the slain 2 i/ to his family in Benin.
If there had to be a hero of the Civil War Shuwa would be it. Pray who is more “tyrannous”, the generals who lost troops in the course of fighting or the one who plotted the ambush and murder of subordinates?
Gowon has no blood on his hands on account of the failure of the operations to cross the River Niger at Asaba to capture Onitsha launched by General Murtala Muhammed. Sadly, there was heavy loss of life but not on the scale being bandied about.
The tragic event at Asaba where many civilians were killed did not qualify as genocide. There was no premeditation either on the part of the federal government or General Murtala.
The position of the Midwest in the run – up to the start of fighting had nothing to do with the loss of lives of the Igbos and “other southerners” in the civil disturbances that took place in the North. Rather, it was deemed necessary for the Midwest to remain neutral in not to cause in-fighting among troops repatriated to the region, the majority of whose officers were Ika-Igbo likely to be sympathetic towards their kinsmen across the Niger. The rebel Biafran invasion of the Midwest proved fears of fifth columnists .
Murtala was not “from the old Midwest, now Edo, by birth.” He was born, bred and raised in Kano city, claims of his ancestral links with wheresoever notwithstanding; his northerness had never been in question.
It is a curious subversion of history to dwell on the events of May/June 1966, the counter- and the Civil War without recognising the proximate cause. January 15 was the fulcrum of all the tragic events in that period in Nigeria’s history. It is intellectual dishonesty to treat it as a foot-note in the rendering of our past.
Since this is a time of reminiscences here’s one as complement: it was reported that the Iraqi Revolution of 1958 alerted one of the victims of the January to the potential of the military in countries approaching from colonial rule. He therefore demanded, in the series of constitutional conferences being held preparatoy to , adequate representation for his region in the military of an independent Nigeria.
Writings by prominent in the drama of Nigeria’s history help to guide in the contemplation of a different trajectory for a better future for the country. No one has the to use such works for unworthy causes.
M T Usman

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