On May 30, 1967, a section of the Nigerian army, led by Lt Col Odumegwu Ojukwu, steered a break away from eastern Nigeria to form the Republic of Biafra. Nigeria was then led by Gen Yakubu Gowon.
More than a month later, on July 6, 1967, troops from the federal government of Nigeria attacked the self-declared Republic of Biafra, starting a 33-month civil war.
Ten months into the war, the international community looked for a peaceful solution to the crisis. Former colonial masters Britain, working through the Commonwealth, brought the two warring parties to a round table in London.
The London meeting resolved to have peace talks to end the hostilities. It was agreed that a convenient place be found outside Britain to hold the talks.
The Biafran team preferred Senegal capital Dakar because their president was the first head of state to recognise Biafra. But the Nigerian government was not willing to have talks in a country it deemed hostile.
At the London meeting, Commonwealth secretary general Arnold Smith had asked the two parties to present a list of capitals they preferred to host the talks. Kampala was the only capital to feature on both lists.
In choosing Kampala, the Biafra delegation said Kampala had not shown any hostility towards them.
“Uganda is a member of the Commonwealth, OAU [Organisation of African Unity] and the East African Common Services Organization. Kampala may be a compromise choice that appears to reconcile the claims of Lagos that talks should be held under the auspices of the Commonwealth or OAU,” writes John J. Stremlau in The International Politics of the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-1970.
“The Ugandan head of state, Dr [Apollo Milton] Obote has not shown any hostility towards Biafra since the struggle began, and the influence of our vocal East African friends will be around the corner to strengthen Biafra’s position.”
The two parties were to meet in Kampala for nine-day talks starting from May 23, 1968. The Nigerian government delegation was led by commissioner for Information and Labour, Anthony Enahoro. Others on his team were Aminu Kano, Col George Kurobo, Ukpabi Asika and Dr B.J. Ikpeme.
The rebels’ delegation was led by the chief justice of Biafra, Sir Louis Mbanefo. Members of his team included C.C. Mojekwu, James Udo-Affia, Prof Eni Njoku and I.S. Kogbara.
As chairperson of the talks, president Milton Obote was given a free hand to appoint observers, provided they were not heads of state. They had to be of any standing in society.
Obote appointed Uganda’s Foreign Affairs minister Sam Odaka and Commonwealth secretary general Smith as the two observers.
While opening the talks at the Parliament Building in Kampala, Obote said: “It is with this basic consideration that I would urge you to be magnanimous, to take the lead in initiating an immediate agreement on the secession of hostilities. To both delegations, I would say that the federal nation of Nigeria before the conflict was the kingpin of African freedom.
“Political solutions are fundamental in these talks and should be given more emphasis than the military aspects.
Political decisions and understanding are useful and necessary and it’s possible to guarantee their permanence through mutual confidence. Such confidence can only be generated when there is mutual respect and genuine appreciation of fears each group entertain.
“I am of the opinion that you are capable of spearing the necessary confidence among yourselves for the success of these talks. For the last 11 months, the civil war has given the impression that you have sought to shut your heart and eyes upon one another. My appeal today is that you open your hearts and minds and you retrace your steps. The prayer of all your well-wishers is that the painful process of the past 11 months be reversed if you are to find a lasting solution.”
The talks did not start well on day one. News reached Kampala that Port Harcourt had been captured by the federal troops from the rebels. This dampened the spirit of the Biafran delegation in the same measures it strengthened the government’s delegation, giving it an upper hand in the talks.
The bad omen of the day was not reserved for the rebels alone. An aide to the head of the government delegation, Johnson Bajo, disappeared from his room at Apollo Hotel, now Sheraton Kampala Hotel.
“The Uganda police discovered the body in a swamp outside Kampala long after the conference, and from the autopsy it concluded he had been murdered. The federal government had no idea who the adductors were, but suspected the crime was somehow linked to the Ugandan domestic politics and the then incipient secessionist movement among the Baganda,” writes Stremlau.
After the delegations overcame the slow start, the two parties again failed to reach a compromise on the fourth day.
Writing in Nigeria: Echoes of A Century, Ifeoha Azikiwe, says: “The Kampala peace initiatives could not advance progressively due to disagreement. The Nigerian delegation wanted the discussions to be held before the ceasefire, adding that anything to the contrary was running away from the problem. The Biafran delegation demanded for immediate secession of hostilities, removal of economic blockade, and removal of federal troops to pre-war boundaries.”
With each side standing its ground, the talks came to a halt. The government delegation thought it had an upper hand as it was making advances on the battle field. It saw no need of making concessions with the rebels.
Days later, on May 29, 1968, Lt Col Ojukwu dealt the talks a blow during his speech to mark Biafra’s first anniversary.
“They believe in nothing but a military solution and would prefer that to peaceful negotiations. Their insincerity about the current talks has been borne out by Nigeria’s delaying manoeuvres, first during the preliminary talks and now during the full-scale negotiations. Nigeria and Britain will bear the full responsibility for the failure of the talks,” he said in a midnight radio broadcast.
Following his leader’s declaration, the leader of the Biafra delegation, Sir Louis Mbafeno, started sending signals of his side’s intentions to pull out of the talks.
It took the Commonwealth general secretary’s convincing for Mbafeno to delay his walkout, which he eventually did. On May 31, 1968, after hours of pleading by Smith, who even suggested a one-week break to consult with his principles. Mbafeno, however, declared that they were leaving Kampala. And that evening he left Kampala for London.
“The Biafran delegation does not see that any useful purpose can be served in Kampala while more lives are lost daily in this gruesome war,” he was quoted as saying, adding that since the Biafran army was not yet defeated, they would not surrender.
His counterpart representing the Nigerian government, Chief Enahoro, stayed around for a while during which time he held a series of meetings with president Obote.
Enahoro wanted to get assurance from the Ugandan president that he was not going to recognise Biafra as a state.
“The Nigerian federal government should consider a unilateral ceasefire for about a week. The Nigerian government is in a strong enough position militarily and politically to be magnanimous and should accept the Biafran challenge. This would also strengthen the hands of Nigeria’s friends,” Obote told Enahoro in his parting remarks.
“That is not possible,” Enahoro responded.
Breakdown in talks
The first to react to the collapse of the talks was the Vatican, with Pope Paul VI saying “the breakdown of the Kampala talks had cancelled the prospects of a rapid and peaceful solution to the Nigerian crisis”.
A few days later, the Nigerian government issued a statement, saying: “The Kampala talks broke down because the rebel leaders wanted a ceasefire, the mere shadow of peace.”
From Kampala, the two delegations headed back to London. They wanted to do a post-mortem on what went wrong in Kampala.
Britain, having been behind the talks, immediately sought ways of how to save its image. The Labour government of then prime minister Harold Wilson was accused of fuelling the crisis through its continued supply of arms to the Nigerian government. The sale of arms and failed Kampala peace talks were discussed by the British parliament.
According to the British Parliament Hansard of June 1968 volume 766, then British secretary of state for Foreign Affairs Michael Stewart said, “Until recently our main hopes for success were in those Kampala talks. These talks may be resumed.”
Britain’s state minister for Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Shepherd, was placed in charge of convincing the two parties to return to Kampala for talks.
The London deliberations were seen by some as a delaying tactic by the British government to prolong the suffering of the people of Biafra.
“No more negotiations with Britain. There is little doubt now that negotiations are being used by Britain to delay further recognition of our country by other peace-loving states. The government of the people of Biafra demand an immediate end to the Lord Shepherd hypocritical negotiations in London,” Mbanefo declared.
“We call on Britain to think seriously on her peace moves or continue the supply of arms to Lagos and drop all the pretences at playing the role of a peace maker.”