A narrative of the events after Biafra was evicted from the Midwest
A month after the Midwest was liberated, Lt Col. Murtala R. Mohammed, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Division, wrote a letter to Gowon. In the letter, Muhammed described the problems of the Midwest as greater than the one secession had posed. The 2nd Division was formed to liberating the Midwest, Biafran had occupied on 8 August 1967.
“The few weeks the 2nd Division spent in the Midwest have given us an insight into the complex problem of each ethnic group in the state. It is true that senior army officers in the Midwest, who are from Ika-Ibo and Asaba, joined hands with the rebels [Biafrans] in one way or the other. This notwithstanding, other ethnic groups have made the Ikas and Asaba people their scapegoats…It is a fact that people from Ika and Asaba cannot travel out of their areas to other parts of the state. The few, who travelled to Benin City or Sapele in order to resume their various works or trade, were never heard of again. This persecution is being done by civilians against civilians,” Muhammed noted in the letter. ”
The commanding officer was so distraught about treatment of the Ika and Asaba people that he also wrote: “One wonders at times: Why fight to keep Nigeria as one country if two and a half million people in a state of the country cannot live together happily.”
Immediately Gowon received the letter in November1967, he summoned the Midwest Solidarity Committee which, at that time, had been established in Lagos. Since the committee did not include any Igbo Midwesterners, Gowon invited his 33-year old Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Industries and a Midwest Igbo, Philip Asiodu, to join. He then read to them Murtala Mohammed’s letter and ordered the formation of Midwest Reconciliation Committee. This committee subsequently met in the Benin. The Reconciliation Committee came up with the recommendation of disbanding “the witch-hunting Omo-Eboh Rebel Atrocities Committee”. The letter was cyclo-styled and distributed to the Midwest Reconciliation Committee on November 25, 1967, at Gowon’s request.
According to Elbert Matthews, American Ambassador, “the letter is a sharp contrast to the general impression of Murtala Mohammed as “a murderer”, following the terrible atrocities the soldiers under his command committed during the liberation of the Midwest from six weeks of Biafran occupation. A hefty total of 1,258 people were murdered by a special unit of the Mohammad’s Division called “the sweepers” in the first 24 hours of entering Benin City on 20 September 1967.
Once regular combatants captured a place from the Biafran troops, the “sweepers” killed those they regarded as undesirable elements. On 21 September 1967, Mohammed announced the appointment of Major Samuel Ogbemudia as the temporary Military Administrator of Midwest. Gowon, the American Ambassador noted, was not happy that he was not consulted although he later regularised the appointment. Mohammed, to the displeasure of Gowon and the Defence Headquarters, began signing himself as General Officer Commanding, Second Division, when he was only a lieutenant colonel.
In a separate development related to the Ika-Igbo and the people of Asaba, who were widely suspected of harbouring hit squads loyal to Biafra across the border, Ogbemudia, on 12 July 1969, signed the Rebels (Protection Against) Offences Edict that specified a five-year prison sentence and hard labour for anyone failing to report a rebel soldier or for harbouring, comforting or assisting a rebel soldier. In the edict, he defined a rebel as “anyone who within the state took up arms or takes up arms under the command and control of Mr Chukwuemeka Odumegu Ojukwu, including the said Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu himself as well as any person who joins such a person in prosecuting his purpose”.
It was said that hit squads in mufti came from Biafra to commit atrocities. According to information made available to the Deputy British High Commission in Benin by Van Der Laan, the expatriate manager of Rubber Estate south of Ogwashi-Uku on 18 April 1968, Biafran hit squads infiltrated the area in civilian clothes. “They came in small groups and were not in any military formation. They approached the Catholic Mission Hospital and killed every Federal soldier there. Two days before, they abducted a German doctor from that same hospital,” wrote Laan.
Ogbemudia made the edict retroactive. It effectively began on 20 September 1967, almost two years before the day federal troops dislodged the Biafrans from Benin.