If one asks the everyday person from Edo or Delta States, which make up the now-defunct Mid-West region or Bendel State, or anyone from the rest of Nigeria who Albert Okonkwo was, probably much less than 1% would know the answer. Many would ask why they should know who Albert Okonkwo was in the first place. But why not?
Major Albert Nwazu Okonkwo, a Biafran military officer and medical doctor, was a former Governor [Military Adminitrator] of Mid-West Region, Nigeria during the Civil War i.e. when the Biafran army successfully though temporarily annexed that region after crossing the Niger and capturing Benin-City. Okonkwo was Governor for 67 days (August 17, 1967 – October 20, 1967) taking over the Government House in Benin-City. There some Nigerian Governors who have served for less time than Okonkwo did but his history simply cannot be found in the “regular” history of Nigeria. Andy Uba, former Governor of Anambra State, holds the Guinness World record for being the shortest-serving governor in world history, 16 days, but it is a part of mainstream Nigerian history.
While much that has been reported about this brief tenure appears apocryphal, one interesting fact about the reign of Okonkwo as governor was it gives some insight into a subtle part of the strategy the Biafran High Command adopted to incorporate non-Igbos into the realisation of the Republic of Biafra. “Ethnic cleansing” and “forceful subjugation” are widely reputed to be the strategy by which the Biafran High Command was going to dominate non-Igbo Easterners and Mid-Westerners. Such a claim has currency because of the incomplete history of the annexation of the Mid-West. Did the Biafran High Command ever make plans to “cleanse” the ethnic groups of what now constitutes the Mid-West peoples? It is a rational question. Besides suppositional or unverified evidence, there is no proof that such an action was ever planned or undertaken even though there was much resistance from the aforementioned groups towards the Biafran army. War is a very terrible thing and has its costs which are usually even more terrible and enduring. One cannot make excuses for war and its consequences. Yet, rumours and talk of violent secession or the unlikely belief in “peaceful secession” seems to have captured the nation today.
The paramount goal of Albert Okonkwo was to “persuade” (with the help of the barrel of a gun) the people of the Mid-West to declare their own Republic as the Eastern region had done and the Western region had promised to do but never did. The Biafrans knew the Mid-West had the wherewithal to stand alone as a nation. The autonomous independent “Republic of the Mid-West” or “Republic of Benin” according to mainstream history was declared by Okonkwo on October 19, 1967; a day before Col Murtala Mohammed regained control of the region with a decisive military victory. There is at least one credible source that the independent Republic of Mid-West was declared by Okonkwo on behalf of the Biafran High command as early as August 1967. The Biafrans knew the South-South was not part of them and resorted to persuasion.
Many might argue that this declaration was a devious stratagem by the Biafran High Command to first befriend the Mid-West region in its attainment of its own independent republic from Nigeria back then assuming the secession war had succeeded and later conquer and integrate it into Biafra. Others can refute such arguments on the premises that the Mid-West was highly strategic to Nigeria especially in economic terms and if it got its independence, Nigeria would be less of a threat to Biafra. Some might even argue that Major Okonkwo and his governorship is not important enough to be remembered. Today such arguments continue without missing pieces of history. It is unfortunate that the current state of affairs in Nigeria laden with multiple insurgencies and resistances that have the potential of ripping the nation asunder actually encourages such thinking for the worse. However, was the Republic of Mid-west a fluke, a one-off or a future possibility many secretly look forward to? It may not be too easy to envision what the independent Republic of Mid-west would have been if it existed today. Taboo topic?
Nevertheless, Biafra in the Mid-west is an interesting missing piece of Nigerian history like others that may perhaps create some useful new perspective on the current state of ethnic relations within Nigeria. It is a possibility worth exploring. The seeds of the future are often found in events of the past. At least, we should learn from our mistakes not repeat them.
Persuasion without the barrel of a gun to shoot from is what Nigeria needs if only it will listen.