July 14, 2024

Throughout much of 1965, tension between the Igbo, a major tribe, and the rest of Nigeria, primarily the Hausa tribe, reached a boiling point. ‘Domination of other tribes’, a historically deadly accusation, was the way other Nigerians demonized the way the Igbo went about their daily buying and selling activities.

Punishment follows every accusation. It was only a matter of time before the other tribes dealt a blow to the overconfident Igbo.

The opportunity to crush the Igbo came sooner than many had predicted when, in the military coup of January 15, 1966, an independent-thinking army officer of Igbo descent named Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu shot and killed the prime minister from the north, Sarduana from Sokoto. — Sir Ahmadu Bello. At the same time, four other coup plotters killed Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister of Nigeria, and a few other political leaders, mostly Hausa.

Attempts at national reconciliation and tribal appeasement failed. Six months later, on July 29, 1966, northern Nigerian army officers launched a retaliatory coup during which they killed Aguyi Ironsi, the Nigerian head of state, an Igbo man who had succeeded Tafawa Balewa. Dozens of Igbo military officers were also persecuted and killed.

Then the mob expanded, became more bloodthirsty, and began methodically killing all the Igbo in their midst: men, women, children, and babies. A great exodus began as Igbo people from northern Nigeria rushed home to eastern Nigeria in search of safety.

Many Igbo were ambushed and killed while trying to escape. Decapitated heads rolled through the streets of Kaduna. Severed arms and legs alphabetize the bushes. Babies taken from their mothers’ wombs were said to have their brains smashed with stones. Igbo hunting spread to Jos, Sokoto, Kano, Katsina and others. The imitators persecuted the Igbo who lived in Lagos and other parts of western Nigeria. It is estimated that 30,000 Igbos or more died.

With two heads of state assassinated in six months and 30,000 Igbos killed, an inferno of fire swept through many cities across the country.

Army officials fought among themselves over which of them would succeed Aguyi Ironsi as the next head of state. Wielding tremendous tools of intimidation and political mentorship from Britain, Northern Nigeria insisted on Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, a choice that drew the ire of other tribes and many high-ranking army officers, especially the governor of the eastern region, Lt. Col. Chukwuemka Ojukwu. He would become Gowon’s archenemy in the rapidly approaching civil war.

If Nigeria did not like the Igbo and could not guarantee their safety, they would stay in their enclave in eastern Nigeria to govern themselves, protect themselves and feed themselves. The Igbo returned home en masse, from the north and west to eastern Nigeria, grieving but not broken, a proud and unstoppable race.

Austine, SO Okwu, was only weeks into his last assignment as a counselor at the Nigerian embassy in Washington, DC when Aguyi Ironsi was assassinated and thousands of Igbos were killed in northern Nigeria.

It didn’t take long for the Federal Republic of Nigeria to imagine Igbo diplomats abroad sympathetic to the problems of their relatives at home. Mistrust pushed them to take immediate action.

Secret orders from Lagos quickly reached Washington, DC, instructing Ambassador Martin to cut anyone of Igbo descent from embassy business without delay. Don’t worry about getting paid without working, the memo said. Tie them up, if necessary, with trivial tasks like making okra soup, eguisi soup, or mashed yucca.

Overnight, friends at the embassy became enemies. Foreign Service personnel, previously indispensable, suddenly became useless.

Yesterday, Austine, SO was the quintessential outspoken diplomat who defended the pride and interests of Nigerians. From January 1967 he became an outcast. His work desk was relocated to the third floor, tucked away between giant empty wooden cabinets where he could never hear office conversations or read colleagues’ body language.

Lately, and now more often since he was relocated to the third floor, streams of reflections followed him to the bed.

‘This,’ he used to tell himself, ‘is a country I fought so hard for and served without reservation.’

Then he thought of how in 1961, as the Chief of the Nigerian Foreign Ministry in Ghana, he had challenged Prince Philip for presenting racial discord in Nigeria in a derisive light. “If the English, the Welsh and the Scots can exist under British rule despite several wars,” Austine told Prince Philip, “Nigeria, borrowing from you, can learn to coexist.”

How wrong he was, he was sorry. Not even the village oracle who, before Austine was born, had accurately predicted his career path, could have foreseen the turn of events.

One Sunday night in May 1967, Austine fell asleep remembering how, again in 1961, he had stepped in to save Nigeria some of the cost of building an oil refinery at Alesa elema, near Port Harcourt.

Shortly after three, a phone rang, waking him up. Beneath the blanket, Austine reached out, groped, and picked up the receiver.

“Austine,” the caller said, his voice distant but clear, as always on morning calls.

Godwin! Is everything okay with you, dear?

‘Yes, listen: His Excellency Governor Chukwuemeka Ojukwu wants to speak with you, at his home in Enugu. Can you get on the plane tomorrow morning?

Austine tossed the blanket aside with her right hand and sat on the edge of the bed, the receiver over her left ear.

Final

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