Nigeria, at 154 million, is the most populous nation in Africa and was one of the first countries on that continent to be granted independence from European rule. In the years following World War Two until the independence of October 1960, a program of Nigerianization was instituted allowing for a Western-educated Nigerian elite to take positions in the civil service. Thus, a native ruling class steeped in the ideology of a united Nigeria was ready to govern the new country. Many problems awaited this new ruling class however. Chief amongst those was what form the new country would take.
Owing to the fact that Nigeria is a vast nation with a much varied geography, polity, culture, and economy, founding fathers like Benjamin “Zik” Azikiwe, the country’s first governor general, were aware that allowances had to be made to accommodate the country’s many interests and yet they also saw the need to have a strong central government in place. The result was the creation of a federal government in Lagos and houses of assembly for the three regions present; Northern, Eastern, and Western. A Federal Territory of Lagos was also formed that was directly administered by the central government. In 1963, Mid-West Region was carved from the Western Region.
There are three principal ethnic groups in Nigeria in addition to hundreds of smaller ones. Yoruba people are a majority in the West and were represented by the Action Group party (AG) during the First Republic. The North has a Hausa majority populace that preferred the Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and the East was Igbo dominated by way of leadership provided by the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC).
Nigeria’s first republic came to an end in January 1966 through a military coup. All three regional premiers were arrested. The Northern and Western Premiers and the federal Prime Minister were killed as well as many northern military officers. Major General John Aguiyi-Ironsi, commanding officer of the Nigerian army, assumed control of the Federal Military Government (FMG). Ironsi outlawed political parties and placed military governors in each of the regions. Also, a unitary government replaced the now abolished federal government.
Whether by coincidence or by design, the majority of victims of the January 1966 coup were northerners and so in July of 1966 Northern military officers launched a counter-coup. Ironsi was killed and Lieutenant Yakubu “Jack” Gowon was chosen to take his place. Meanwhile in the north, resentment towards what was seen as an Igbo-contrived coup in January of that year led to massacres against Igbo people that led to the deaths of tens of thousands. An exodus of Igbos to the south and east thus ensued during late 1966 and early 1967.
Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern Region appointed by Gowon, declared independence for the east on May 30, 1967 after failed talks with the FMG. Ojukwu claimed that since Gowon was not the most senior officer in the army, his rule was not legitimate. Ojukwu also stated that as a result of the pogroms against Igbos elsewhere, they were not safe outside of the east. Colonel Ojukwu called on Igbo people to return home and for northerners in the newly created Biafra to leave for their own safety.
After two and a half years of war, the Army of Nigeria defeated that of the Republic of Biafra. Over one million lost their lives in that war, most of those from the east by way of starvation. Perhaps the most atrocious part of the Nigerian Civil War occurred during the recapture of the strategically important town of Asaba, located on the western bank of the River Niger and opposite of the Biafran capital of Onitsha. It is the massacre of many of the town’s Igbo inhabitants that will be the focus the following interviews as part of the Asaba Memorial Project. Below are some of the people, places, groups, and events that will be mentioned in the oral histories related to this project.
Compiled by James Scholz 2009/2010.
Political Parties (in order of inception)
Northern People’s Congress (NPC)
Founded in 1943 as the Bauchi General Improvement Union and renamed as the Northern People’s Congress in 1949, the NPC was intended to be a safeguard of Northern unity and to protect against Southern “domination”. This organization was relatively conservative in nature and sought to work within the existing political structure. They sought for a decentralized government with regional autonomy.
National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC)
Founded in 1944 as the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons by then journalist Zik as a conglomeration of ethic and social unions, the NCNC promoted pan-Nigerianism and self-governance. The party has its main base of support in the East. They advocated for a strong, central government in the years leading to independence from Great Brittan in 1960.
Action Group (AG)
Headed by Awolo, a Northerner, the AG was centered in the Western Region. They formed part of the NPC-NCNC coalition of the late 1950s but became the opposition party after the 1959 election.
United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA)
The NCNC, AG, and minority parties from the Northern Region formed the UPGA to both remove the NPC from the federal government and to reintroduce the AG as the dominant party in the Western Region.
An Asagba is a traditional king/ruler in Asaba. The position is rotary amongst the five quarters of Asaba.
Sardauna of Sokoto
The Sardauna of Sokoto is a spiritual leader of Muslim inhabitants in the north of Nigeria.