By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
Fifty years after a group of young Nigerianmilitary officers carried out the first coup which ended Nigeria’s democraticexperiment, their action still rankles and haunts the country. One would havethought fifty years is long enough to enable survivors of the generation thathad ringside seats to that experience and its ugly fall-outs and succeedinggenerations of Nigerians, to which this writer belongs, come to terms with thatunedifying phase of her history. Perhaps, I assume too much: for one, from a historicalperspective, fifty years is a mere drop of water in the ocean of time. Eventsthat occurred in the lives of countries centuries before our first coup stillpolarize and haunt them. Till today, there are segments of the Germanpopulation who have not come to terms with the enigma of Adolf Hitler.Secondly, it serves certain political, sectional and group interests tocontinue to perpetrate myths about the January coup. Although there is evidenceto indicate that things might not be what they seem or is generally assumed,the myths continue to gain currency because many of its perpetrator aredecisive game-changers in Nigeria’s councils of the high and mighty; becausethe study of history in Nigerian schools is virtually ancient history; and tomake matters worse, contemporary Nigerian politics is still shaped byperceptions from that coup. But if Nigeria must move forward, we Nigerians mustlook the spectre of January 15, 1966 in the eye.
This essay should not be interpreted as either pro or anti January 15, 1966. Personally, I wish the coup never took place; that the people killed that day were not murdered. But the coup plotters did not just emanate from the invisible realm. Even if they were ambitious or idealistic or naive or just bitten by the coup-plotting bug which was spreading through recently post-colonial Africa, starting with Abdel Nasser’s coup which got rid of the Egyptian monarchy in 1954, certain factors predisposed Nigeria to that bloody loss of her political virginity.
The journey to January 15 began with the nature of the phased colonial hand-over to the emerging Nigerian political class. Already, colonialism had created adversarial inter-group relations between different ethnic units. From these tribes emerged people who would constitute the new leadership elite, popularly called nationalists. Since it pleased the departing colonial masters to retain a significant measure of domination over their creation, they ensured that political power was retained by those components of the political class who would not jeopardize their interests. Harold Smith, a senior British colonial officer who midwifed the 1959 elections that ushered in independence, forthrightly admitted in his autobiography that the elections were stage-managed by the British to ensure that power was in the hands of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), a predominantly Hausa-Fulani party which was unapologetically pro-Northern Establishment. The Western region was in the grip of the mostly Yoruba political party, the Action Group (AG). The East was in the hands of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC); hitherto a pan-Nigerian movement which degenerated into a bulwark of Igbo politics.
The in-built constitutional favouritism to the Northern region began after the 1953 Kano Riots. Incensed by their humiliation at the hands of Lagos politicians who did not find funny their opposition to the call for Nigeria’s independence in 1956, the mostly NPC leaders, at British-sponsored talks after the riots, came close to seceding unless they got majority of the seats in the Nigerian Parliament. The British granted them their request and subsequent constitutions retained this provision.
Independent Nigeria was a gun with a faulty safety mechanism. The different tribes, especially the major three-Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba- had been at each other’s throats since colonial rule and the new order it introduced brought them in contact with each other. Inter-group contact should not have been evil, but it suited the colonial masters to play the groups against each other. It paid conservative Northern political elite to portray the Igbo and Yoruba, with their educational achievements and Christianity, as agents of domination bent on taking over the country and squeezing the relatively backward North into the backyard. Igbo and Yoruba politicians invoked spectres of domination, slippery tribalism, and commercial infiltration against each other to stoke ethnic fires so that they could coast home to electoral victories.
The crises between 1962 and 1965 are well documented and need not be repeated here. Although the accounts of these conflicts are subject to different interpretations, it was obvious that by December 1965, the five-year old pride of Black Africa was seriously sick.
Did The Coup Plotters Have The Cure?
The plotters would say yes. In his unpublished manuscript on the coup Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a key participant, declared: ‘we (the plotters) had waited enough. Here at last was the challenge at our feet. We heard them challenge us to stand up for our people or fall supine with them, and their voices kept ringing in our ears, calling us to emergency action. We could not stop!’
There are fundamental questions which have been of concern to students of Nigeria’s political crises in the 1960s, especially the Western Region conflict which was a fallout of the Regional elections hotly contested by the pro-Ahmadu Bello (the Northern leader) / Akintola (Western leader)’s Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) and the pro-Obafemi Awolowo’s United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA): first, did the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, deliberately refuse to impose a state of emergency, bearing in mind he did the same in the region three years earlier for a relatively less serious conflict? Or was he seeking for a political solution, as some reports have it; a political solution which was stampeded by the coup? Second, what was the actual design of the NNA (which dominated the central government) for the West, seen as the centre of opposition? Adewale Ademoyega, one of the plotters, gave details of a plan by the NNA to wallop the West on pages 66-68 of his book ‘Why We Struck.’ It could be argued that he wrote this to justify their coup but, if that is the case, why the reshuffling of the military and police hierarchies to prune them of seemingly politically unfavourable commanders? The proposed plan would have had Northern officers fully in charge. Why? To what end? Max Silloun, the respected Nigerian military historian, pointed out on page 39 of his book ‘Oil, Politics and Violence’ that ‘these reshuffles may have been routine but by accident or design, would result in the replacement of officers from the NCNC power base of the Eastern region by Northerners.’
It is not the duty of military officers to resort to instruments of their trade to correct the deficiencies of their country. Ifeajuna admitted in his unpublished book that ‘we fully realized that to be caught planning, let alone acting on our lines, was high treason. And the penalty for high treason is death. We knew.’
But what about the Nigerian ruling class back then? Why did they continue to stoke crisis after crisis either deliberately or inadvertently- the 1962 Action Group conflict; the 1963 Census uproar; the sham that was the 1964 general elections; the 1965 Western regional ‘war’, misnamed election; the Tivland riots of 1960 and 1964? Undoubtedly there were honest people in the ruling elite but it was within their dispensation that the foundation for the festering corruption and sleaze that defines Nigerian politics was laid. In a September 2010 interview with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, the late Matthew Mbu, a Minister in Balewa’s government, admitted the rot in the government and the high feelings it generated among the military, including many officers who did not participate in the January coup. His words are noteworthy:
‘On the night of January 13, 1966, SirAbubakar opened the Niger Bridge; on the 13th of January I begged him to call ameeting of the council of state, that there was going to be a coup.
‘I heard the coup plot being discussed openly in Kaduna a week earlier. I had gone to open the Air Force base in Kaduna as a Junior Defence Minister. My good friend, Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun (one of the coup’s casualties), told me how they were going to wipe out all of us for corruption. I begged Ademulegun as they were discussing how they were going to kill us openly. He pointedly told me they were not going to touch me. That it was Okotie-Eboh (the Finance Minister) and his likes who normally collect ten percent on contracts. This was on the 5th of January.
‘I returned to Lagos after opening the Air Force base to warn Sir Abubakar. I told him to sack all of us, telling the world that we were corrupt. He said I should not worry; that the Police will protect us. I told him how I saw the police joining Imoudu (Nigeria’s pioneer Labour leader)’s crowd in stoning our cars in Enugu. He disagreed and said the police would not join them in the act.’
Outgoing British governor, Sir James Robertson, called Chief Samuel Festus Okotie-Eboh a ‘cheerful rogue.’ In Kaduna, Major Nzeogwu saw a customized Rolls-Royce imported for the Premier of the North, Sarduna Ahmadu Bello. He wrote about this in a letter to his American Peace Corps friend, Timothy Carroll, shortly before the coup.
But when one looks at the coup and developments that followed it, the strong probability is that these young plotters could not have saved Nigeria. Although many argue that their rescue operation nearly killed Nigeria and remains a foundational cause of her contemporary polarizations and conflicts, I take a position based on the contradictions inherent in the coup and the vision of its plotters:
First, how could the plotters have carried out their highly idealistic political programme? Their ideology is beautifully explained in Chapter 3 of Ademoyega’s book ‘Why We Struck.’ This question is relevant if we take into account what Nzeogwu said in an interview published in the ‘Nigerian Tribune’ newspaper on July 2, 1967: ‘Neither myself nor any of the other lads was in the least interested in governing the country. We were soldiers and not politicians… We were going to make civilians of proven honesty and efficiency who would be thoroughly handpicked to do all the governing.’
Amazing. The plotters had planned to install Obafemi Awolowo, the imprisoned Opposition Leader, as head of the government. Ever seen a revolution succeed at the hands of proxies? Besides, there is no evidence that Awolowo, whom the plotters highly regarded, would have accepted to be machine-gunned to power.
The execution of the coup remains a sore point. No matter what pro-Establishment figures may say or write years after the event, the coup took place in Enugu in the East. Major Chude-Sokei, the officer in charge, was posted overseas for a course before the coup. Lieutenant Oguchi who was recruited to replace him suffered vehicle problems and got to Enugu from Lagos late. He had to use his discretion to avoid entangling Nigeria in an international incident because Premier Michael Okpara had a visiting president, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, as a guest. Max Silloun believes that the coup in Enugu was bloodless because Oguchi was one of the firm advocates of a bloodless coup. But since perception usually determines reality the plotters have been permanently tarred with the accusation of sparing their Igbo kinsmen in power. A strong argument for these no-coup-in-Enugu theorists came from, of all people, Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. In a report he sent to Ironsi in February 1966, Ojukwu stated that Ifeajuna and his co-plotter, Don Okafor, met Okpara in the early hours of January 15 and had a conversation, but the subject is unknown. Their colleagues were shooting other Premiers at that hour.
Then is it possible that the plotters had different agenda in spite of Nzeogwu’s fiery broadcast on the coup day which began with ‘In the name of the Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed Forces?’ Nzeogwu’s nationalism, indifference to ethnicity and opposition to secession is a matter of record acknowledged even by his adversaries. Ademoyega’s book speaks for him. Ifeajuna, regarded as the coup’s intellectual powerhouse, if not its leader in some circles, might have been of the same mould as his colleagues. But his flaws on the D-day were overwhelming. Why did he disappear in the heat of action when a concerted strategy with his colleagues might have won Lagos from Ironsi? Why did he insist on Okafor arresting Ademoyega though the latter was clearly more competent and committed to the coup? What actually happened to Balewa? Did Ifeajuna shoot him in the bid to get rid of ‘excessive baggage’ while fleeing or did the Prime Minister die from an asthma attack as indicated by Mbu, based on the story from the late Igbo poet and Ifeajuna’s close friend, Christopher Okigbo? There are speculations that Ifeajuna tipped off President Azikiwe about the coup. In the tribalism-riddled Nigerian consciousness, it makes sense. Both men are from the great Igbo commercial city of Onitsha so Ifeajuna would naturally protect his brother. But the same Ifeajuna in his manuscript about the coup praised Awolowo and recommended him to lead Nigeria. His views about Azikiwe are best left unmentioned but I will simply say that if those views were accepted, then Azikiwe would be unfit to lead a garbage collector’s union, let alone Nigeria.
Maybe when the last of the generation of Nigerians who witnessed the events of 1966-1970 as adults have passed away, records may be unearthed that tell the history of Nigeria as it actually was.
But that does not mean Nigerians and her friends must subsist on a diet of untruths.
One: No matter the superficial impression,
the January 15 coup was not an Igbo coup. Apart from Ademoyega, there were many
Yoruba officers who either took part or gave the coup their blessing. The
Police Special Branch report on the coup is available for perusal. I will only
name some Yoruba officers here:
Captain Fola Oyewole: He participated in the Lagos arm of the coup with Ifeajuna. In a recent interview, which is available to me, Oyewole referred to Ifeajuna as his friend. He wrote a book titled ‘The Reluctant Rebel.’
Captain Ganiyu Adeleke: He was in the Lagos operations, too.
Colonels Francis Adekunle Fajuyi and Victor Banjo: According to Ademoyega and other accounts, both officers supported the coup and its aims. Though they could not take part, they contributed ideas. Fajuyi’s death during the second coup is attributed to the fact that the mainly Northern plotters of the coup saw him as involved in the January plot.
Lieutenant Olafemihan of the Artillery Unit in Kaduna: He took part under Nzeogwu and probably acted as a spy for him to gauge his Igbo commander (Major Alex Madiebo)’s disposition to the coup.
The record of non-commissioned officers and ordinary soldiers who carried out orders of the plotters, was in Nzeogwu’s words, a ‘truly Nigerian gathering.’
Northern military personnel took part in the coup. I recommend a study of Max Silloun’s ‘Oil, Politics and Violence’ with emphasis on pages 141-143 and 226 for a comprehensive list of Northern participants in the coup. In 1986, the late Colonel Yohanna Madaki, a former military governor in military president Ibrahim Babangida’s regime provoked an awesome controversy when, in an interview with the pro-Norther newspaper, ‘New Nigerian’, he declared support for the January coup and said if Nzeogwu had asked him, he would have gladly participated. This Northern officer was not alone in his sentiments about the coup.
Two: Colonel Arthur Unegbe, one of the officers shot by the plotters in Lagos, was an Igbo from Ozobulu in present-day Anambra State. He was the army quarter-master at the time. His killing was deliberate like those of his non-Igbo colleagues who fell to the guns of the plotters. In his book Ademoyega mentioned him among the officers they had marked out for arrest. He was known for supporting the status quo and died for it, not because the plotters wanted keys to the armoury in Lagos. The idea that the armoury’s keys could be bandied about was amusing to the plotters (See Ben Gbulie’s book on the coup titled ‘Nigeria’s Five Majors. Gbulie participated actively in the coup in Kaduna).
Three: Apart from Ironsi and Ojukwu, there were other Igbo military officers who, along with their non-Igbo colleagues, crushed the coup. They include: Lieutenant-Colonels Hilary Njoku and Patrick Awunah; and Major Alexander Madiebo. This list is not exhaustive because the country’s armed forces largely rallied round General Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the army once he got on top of the situation in Lagos.
Four: Ironsi’s six months as Nigeria’s first military leader was an unenviable period. From day one he knew no peace from various segments: the British who were alarmed at the loss of power by their protégés; supporters of the January plotters who were enraged at this interloper who scuttled their ‘revolution’; Northern politicians and soldiers smarting for revenge. Ironsi himself confessed he knew nothing about government.
Contrary to the widely held notion that Ironsi had no intention of trying the plotters, there is verifiable evidence that, without a formal announcement, the Head of State and his Supreme Military Council decided to put the plotters on public trial in August 1966 but the date was shifted to October to allow conclusion of investigations. All the military governors of the regions were present when the decision was taken. Perhaps if Ironsi had made this decision public, it might have calmed the Northern officers angry over their losses in the January coup. But then he was fighting for national stability because the January plotters were seen as heroes by some Nigerians. But it is possible the coup would have still taken place: the presence of an ‘outsider’ in the seat of power was too offensive to behold by some people, both Nigerians and foreigners.
— Onyema is a professional historian andwriter. He is the chief creative officer of 2-4 henritz writing agency, Lagos.Email: firstname.lastname@example.org