Throughout much of 1965 the tension between Igbos, a major tribe, and the rest of Nigeria-mainly the Hausa tribe-reached explosion point. 'Domination of other tribes,' a historically deadly accusation, was how other Nigerians demonized the ways the Igbos went about their daily business of buying and dealing.
Punishment follows every accusation. It was only a matter of time before the other tribes dealt a blow to the overconfident Igbos.
The opportunity to crush the Igbos came sooner than many had predicted when, in the military coup of January 15, 1966, an independent-thinking army officer of Igbo background, named Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, shot and killed the Northern Premier-- Sarduana of Sokoto-- Sir Ahmadu Bello. At the same time, four other coup collaborators killed Tafawa Balewa, the Nigerian Prime Minister, and a few other political leaders, mostly of the Hausa ethnic group.
Attempts at national reconciliation and tribal appeasement failed. Six months later, on July 29, 1966, army officers from Northern Nigeria launched a retaliation coup during which they killed Aguyi Ironsi, the Nigerian head of state, an Igbo man who had succeeded Tafawa Balewa. Also hunted down and killed were scores of Igbo military officers.
Then the mob expanded, became more bloodthirsty and began methodically killing all Igbos in their midst-men, women, children, and babies. A major exodus began as Igbos in Northern Nigeria hurried home to Eastern Nigeria for safety.
Many Igbos were ambushed and killed while attempting to escape. Decapitated heads rolled on the streets of Kaduna. Chopped-off arms and legs littered the bushes. Babies cut out from mothers' wombs were said to have had their brains smashed with stones. The Igbo hunt spread to Jos, Sokoto, Kano, Katsina, and others. Copycats chased the Igbos living 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, a hell of fire spread into many cities across the country.
Army officers wrestled one another over who among them would succeed Aguyi Ironsi as the next head of state. Northern Nigeria, who wielded tremendous bullying tools and political mentorship from Britain, insisted on Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a choice which drew anger from other tribes and many high-ranking army officers, especially the Governor of the Eastern region, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemka Ojukwu. He would become Gowon's archenemy in the fast-approaching civil war.
If Nigeria did not want the Igbos and could not guarantee their safety, they would stay in their enclave in Eastern Nigeria to govern, protect and feed themselves. Igbos went home in mass, from north and west to Eastern Nigeria, bereaved but not broken, as a proud and an unstoppable race.
Austine, S. O. Okwu, was only a few weeks into his latest assignment as a counselor in the Nigerian embassy in Washington, DC when Aguyi Ironsi was assassinated and thousands of Igbos killed in Northern Nigeria.
It did not take the Federal Republic of Nigeria long to imagine Igbo diplomats abroad sympathetic with the troubles of their relatives back home. Mistrust pushed them to take immediate action.
Secret orders from Lagos quickly arrived in Washington, DC, instructing Ambassador Martin to cut off any person of Igbo heritage from embassy business without delay. Don't worry about them getting paid without work, the memo said. Tie them up, if necessary, with trivial tasks such as how to prepare okra soup, eguisi soup or pounded cassava.
Overnight, friends at the embassy turned into foes. Previously indispensable Foreign Service staff suddenly became worthless.
Yesterday, Austine, S.O was the quintessential, outspoken diplomat who defended Nigerian's pride and interests. From January 1967 he became a pariah. His work desk was relocated to the third floor, tucked in among giant empty wooden cabinets where he would never be able to eavesdrop on office conversations, or read his colleagues' body language.
Lately, and now more frequently since they relocated him to the third floor, floods of reflections followed him to bed.
'This,' he would often say to himself, 'is a country I fought so much for, and served without reservation.'
Then he would think about how in 1961, as the Nigerian Head of Chancery in Ghana, he had challenged Prince Philip for casting the racial discord in Nigeria in a mocking light. 'If the English, the Welsh, and the Scottish can exist under British rule in spite of several wars,' said Austine to Prince Philip, 'Nigeria, borrowing from you, can learn how to coexist.'
How wrong he was, he grieved. 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 of 1967, Austine fell asleep while reminiscing how, again in 1961, he had intervened to save Nigeria some of the cost of building an oil refinery in Alesa elema, near Port Harcourt.
At a little after three o'clock, a phone rang and woke him. Under the blanket Austine stretched out a hand, groped about and lifted the receiver.
'Austine,' the caller said, his voice distant yet clear, as always in early morning calls.
'Godwin! Is everything okay with you, my dear?'
'Yes, listen: His Excellency, Governor Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, wants to talk with you, at home in Enugu. Can you get on the plane tomorrow morning?'
Austine tossed the blanket aside with his right hand and sat on the side of the bed, the receiver clasped over his left ear.