OPERATION “AURE” – THE NORTHERN MILITARY COUNTER-REBELLION OF 1966. PART 4

BENIN, JULY 29 WEEKEND, 1966

Benin-City was quiet during the weekend of July 29, 1966. It had hosted General Ironsi with fanfare on the 27th. School children lined the routes and there was pomp and pageantry. Underneath it all, however, fate beckoned. It was from Benin that Ironsi departed on his way to Ibadan where he met his death. In the atmosphere of myths that evolved in the years after 1966, there was even a story that “Operation Aure” was not launched in Benin because of the intercession of the Oba of Benin. That story is false, although it is true that the traditional institution offered prayers for the country’s stability. A strong delegation of chiefs and traditional rulers from the Midwest region attended the conference in Ibadan.

During the weekend of the mutiny there were no rebellious activities within the small detachment of the 4th battalion under S/Captain Adeniran stationed in Benin. However, the tour of duty in Benin made it possible for soldiers in that company to discover that some of those detained for their part in the January 15 mutiny were at the Benin Prison. This information was to take on greater significance, when on August 16th, there was a raid on the prison carried out by those elements of the 4th battalion who had initially been redeployed back to Ibadan, but then made a special trip back to Benin just for the heist.

The immediate motive for the August 16 raid was to release their more unruly northern colleagues from the Battalion who had been detained there in early August for their part in the events at Ibadan on July 29 in which General Ironsi, Col. Fajuyi and some Midwestern officers and soldiers in the 4th battalion (like Lt. Jasper) lost their lives. One account claims the soldiers were from the 1st battalion at Enugu, detained by Ejoor, but I have a conflicting account on personal authority from a participant in the raid that they were not.

The rescuers did not stop at releasing their colleagues. They removed Igbo soldiers who had long been detained there for their part in the January mutiny, including Major Christian Anuforo who had personally executed Lt. Cols. Arthur Unegbe, Kur Mohammed and James Yakubu Pam, as well as Federal Finance Minister Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. All of these individuals – including Anuforo – were tortured and then shot after private trials conducted by northern NCOs along the Benin-Ore road, although S/Captain Adeniran himself, pro-Akintola as he was, and a lucky survivor of the January operations, may not have been a neutral observer. Indeed, one of the less well publicized activities of mutinous troops in the 4th battalion was the release of NNDP supporters who had been detained in Ibadan Prison by Lt. Col. Fajuyi back in January. It was a stroke of fortune for Major Adewale Ademoyega, another one of the January conspirators, who paired up with Anuforo for Okotie-Eboh’s execution, that soldiers from the 4th battalion were unaware that he had been transferred to Warri Prison from the East. Needless to say, the Military Governor, Lt. Col. David Ejoor was very embarassed and protested vehemently to Gowon.

IBADAN, FRIDAY, JULY 29, 1966 (“Paiko’s Wedding”)

The situation in Ibadan on July 28 was tense. Northern civil servants, chiefs and traditional rulers who had come for the Conference of Traditional rulers were eager to get out of the South, fearful that they would be targetted in the so called “Plan 15” Igbo Plot. Indeed there were false rumors that the conference Hall was slated to be blown up. At the regimental parade for General Ironsi a small controversy erupted in the Press about the observation that northern troops refused to (or could not) sing the National Anthem. Arguments went back and forth on TV about whether their lips were moving.

Nevertheless, there was a grand reception in the evening hosted by the Military Governor, Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, which belied the tensions that were simmering underneath. Fate was beckoning. Both Ironsi and Fajuyi were distinguished veterans of the Congo peace-keeping operations (ONUC) from 1960-64. Then Brigadier JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was the overall Force Commander for the last six months of the operation. Fajuyi was well known as the first Nigerian officer to be honoured with an international military citation. As a Major, he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for personal action in leading C company of the 4QNR in combat on November 27, 1960 and subsequently extricating it from an ambush during operations on January 3, 1961.

However, following the call from Lt. Pam Mwadkon in Abeokuta, Lt. Garba Dada (Paiko) woke up other northern officers at the 4th Battalion, including Major TY Danjuma, a staff officer at AHQ who was temporarily staying at the Letmauk Barracks, having accompanied Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi from Lagos. The Barracks is named after a town called Letmauk, site of a bitter campaign in April and May 1944 to retake AN from the Japanese in Burma, by the 1st Nigerian Brigade of the 82nd West African Division during World War II.

Dada told Danjuma: “Sir, we will have to do the same thing. The most important target is the Supreme Commander. For as long as he is there, everything we are doing here is nothing. We should go there.”

After a brief meeting with Lts. Ibrahim Bako and Abdullai Shelleng, a quick phone call was made to Lt. Col. Murtala Muhammed in Lagos, seeing as Muhammed had earlier contacted the boys to stand down from their group’s pre-planned coup. But Muhammed initially urged restraint, seeing as he was unsure whether his earlier confrontation with Anwunah meant that Igbo officers and soldiers in Lagos were already armed and may well have the advantage – as Anwunah had threatened. However, concerned that exposed northern mutineers in Abeokuta would be isolated and thus likely arrested and charged if they delayed action, Danjuma, Dada, Bako, Shelleng, and the duty officer (James Onoja) decided to overrule Muhammed and proceed with operations in Ibadan. Because Danjuma did not go to Ibadan with combat dress, he borrowed one from Lt. James Onoja* who had recently come back from a course in the US, and wore it right over his pyjamas. Then Danjuma armed himself with a hand grenade for suicide in the event of mission failure.

(*Some accounts say it was Akahan’s uniform, but the Onoja version is likely more correct, confirmed by Danjuma himself. In any case Akahan was out of the loop until daybreak).

Soldiers were then hurriedly selected from infantry companies at Mokola commanded by Onoja and Shelleng. While Shelleng took one group to man checkpoints along the Lagos and Abeokuta roads to protect the southern approaches to the city, 24 soldiers under Lt. James Onoja, some say in two landrovers mustered by the MTO, Lt. Jerry Useni, accompanied Major Danjuma to the Government House in the early hours of July 29, 1966. The specific initial objective was to isolate the premises, disconnect the Supreme Commander from the chain of command and arrest him as a tool for negotiations regarding the boys who killed Okonweze and others at Abeokuta. The Government House was already guarded by elements of the National Guards company, led by Lt. William Walbe, who was in charge of a 106 mm recoilless rifle group, along with some soldiers on duty from the 4th battalion whose reporting relationship was to the adjutant of the battalion as well as the duty officer.

THE TAKE-OVER OF THE GOVERNMENT HOUSE, IBADAN

Upon arrival there, having established that the Supreme Commander was in, Major Danjuma was confronted by two command problems. Both arose from the fact that he neither belonged to the 4th battalion nor was he part of the National Guard, although he was senior to all the boys on the ground. First task, therefore, was to ensure the cooperation of those elements of the 4th battalion who were on duty there. The second was to secure the cooperation of the National Guard Commander on the ground. In order to address the first problem he asked the adjutant (“Paiko”) to issue a “legitimate” order that all his soldiers on duty be disarmed by the duty officer (Onoja) who was there to conduct a “legitimate” inspection. After being disarmed by the Duty Sergeant, they were illegitimately screened and those who could be trusted (i.e. northerners), illegitimately rearmed. Then they were supplemented by the pre-selected group Danjuma brought along from the barracks with Onoja. To deal with the second problem he confronted Lt. William Walbe directly and secured his cooperation. This wasn’t too difficult. Although they were in different cells, Walbe himself had been attending separate meetings in Lagos with Joe Garba and others and was well aware of the outlines of a coup plot although he did not expect one that night.

Once the building was surrounded and the 106 mm gun positioned in support, Danjuma came under pressure from the boys on the ground to proceed with the operation. There were fears, based on myths acquired in the Congo, that General Ironsi was assisted by “juju” and that he could disappear at anytime using his “crocodile” (see note below on Ironsi’s crocodile”) Junior officers who had come to join the party urged immediate attack, some even suggesting a repeat performance of the Nzeogwu assault on the Nassarawa Lodge in Kaduna in January. They wanted the 106 mm weapon used to bring down the complex. Danjuma resisted the pressure.

Lt. Col. Hilary Njoku, Commander of the 2nd Brigade in Lagos, then emerged from the main building and was walking right past the soldiers on duty moving toward the gate. One account says he came up from Lagos with Ironsi, had been staying at the guest house next to the main lodge, but was at the main lodge where Ironsi was staying, socializing with both Ironsi and Fajuyi. Another account says he came up from Lagos that evening when rumors of a coup gained strong currency among senior Igbo officers in Lagos to brief the C-in-C. When he attempted to leave the premises, ostensibly to mobilize loyal units, he was shot at by soldiers who had been ordered not to let anyone out and he responded in kind. (Some say he shot first). Luckily he escaped with serious injuries, some say with no less than 8 pieces of shrapnel in his thigh. Njoku initially made his way to the University College Hospital but had to escape again when a “mop up” team came searching for him.

At this point, Lt. Onoja asked for permission to leave, saying he was going to get more ammunition from the barracks. However, he panicked and ran away in one of the landrovers, fearing that Njoku’s escape meant the coup would fail. He was later arrested at Jebba.

When it became apparent that Njoku had escaped, Danjuma, guarded by two soldiers, made rounds to check all guard positions around the lodge and was moving toward the guest house when he heard the phone there ringing. He asked one of his guards to break the window so he could reach in to answer the phone.

According to General Danjuma (rtd), this is how the conversation went:

Danjuma: “Hello”

Gowon: “Hello. I want to speak to Brigade Commander. I want to speak to Colonel Njoku.

Danjuma: “May I know who is speaking?”

Gowon: My name is Gowon. Yakubu Gowon.”

Danjuma: “Ranka dede. This is Yakubu Danjuma.”

Gowon: “Yakubu, what are you doing there? Where are you?”

Danjuma: “I am in the State House here.”

Gowon: “Where is the Brigade Commander?”

Danjuma: “He is not around.”

Gowon: “Have you heard what has happened?”

Danjuma: “Yes, I heard and that is why I am here. We are about to arrest the Supreme Commander. The alternative is that the Igbo boys who carried out the January coup will be released tit for tat since we killed their own officers.”

Gowon: (after a period of silence) “Can you do it?”

Danjuma: “Yes, we have got the place surrounded.”

Gowon: “But for goodness sake we have had enough bloodshed. There must be no bloodshed.”

Danjuma: “No, We are only going to arrest him.”

At this point Danjuma replaced the phone as yet another command crisis with the soldiers on the grounds was brewing. It is not clear from available information what Gowon did with the explosive information he had just gained from Danjuma or how he and Ogundipe planned to deal with it. Danjuma does not say that Gowon or any other senior officer explicitly ordered him to desist from his activities. To what extent, then, did knowledge that Ironsi was already surrounded by elements of the 4th battalion affect efforts to send a Helicopter or the force structure of any potential rescue mission? It appears that, at least in dealings with Ibadan, a decision was made, by omission or commission, to adopt a negotiating rather than fighting attitude to the mutiny.

This is an area which will attract considerable attention of researchers in the future. Some have used it to implicate Gowon in the coup but depending on what other information he had at that point about availability of loyal fighting units, this may be too harsh a conclusion to draw without additional clarification from Gowon himself. He may well have been stalling to allow him time to make alternative plans. Certainly, neither the National Guard company, 2nd (in Lagos) nor 4th (in Ibadan) battalions nor the garrison at Abeokuta were usable at that point. Even if they were willing, battalions in Enugu, Kaduna and Kano were too far away to be useful, particularly considering the lack of emergency strategic airlift capability. In any case, any thinking along these lines was quickly neutralized by Murtala Muhammed’s decision to seize Ikeja airport at dawn. Lastly, Gowon may have viewed Danjuma as the lesser of two evils – the other being an all out effort by mutinying junior officers to get their hands on the General (which is what eventually happened). In retrospect, at that point only a foreign power could have mustered the might to stage a complex night-time military rescue operation to save Ironsi. But there is no evidence that such an option was ever considered.

In any case, when Onoja ran away, TY Danjuma was isolated. With no duty officer on ground, and no other officer from the 4th battalion on the premises, the NCOs began to wonder if they should take strange orders from this Major they had never met, wearing a mis-sized American satin combat uniform on top of pyjamas and who wasn’t even from their unit. They began to wonder if Danjuma might even be an Igbo officer based on his physique and bearing and perhaps even his reluctance to destroy the building. Fortunately for Danjuma, Lt. Abdullai Shelleng returned briefly from his checkpoint on Abeokuta road to check on things and persuaded the NCOs to obey him, assuring them that he was a northerner.

Other officers also arrived back on premises as daybreak approached, including “Paiko” himself. Nervous soldiers then appealed directly to Garba Dada (Paiko) to blow up the house but he refused to do so unless Danjuma gave the okay. Danjuma chose to maintain the siege, waiting patiently for the occupants to emerge from the building. The opportunity would come at 8 am when the Governor and Head of State were scheduled to go for official engagements in town. The one curious oversight, though, was that no effort was made to cut off the phone lines at the lodge.

At 6:30 am General Ironsi’s Army ADC, Lt. Sani Bello emerged from the building to find out what was going on. After a brief confrontation with Danjuma and a group of hostile northern NCOs, he was arrested, told to remove his shoes and sit down on the ground. As members of the Head of State’s convoy and delegation began arriving from guest chalets they too were detained and asked to sit on the ground. They include many others like Colonel Olu Thomas, an army physician, and Chief C. O. Lawson, Secretary to the Government, arrested at about 7:30 am.

At this point, Lt. Col. Fajuyi personally emerged from the building. Some accounts claim that his ADC had absconded during the night and switched sides.

Danjuma describes his conversation with Fajuyi as follows:

Fajuyi: “Danjuma come. What do you want?”

Danjuma: “I want the Supreme Commander”

Fajuyi: “Promise me that no harm will come to him”

Danjuma: words to the effect that no harm would come to Ironsi and that he was only being arrested.

Fajuyi: “I will go and call him.”

Chorus of northern NCOs: “No, Sir. Don’t allow him to go.”

Danjuma: (talking to Fajuyi who had briefly turned around) “Sir, you see what I have. This is grenade. If there is false move two of us will go.”

At this point Fajuyi led the way into the building with the grenade bearing Danjuma and five armed soldiers (including Lt. Walbe) right behind him, essentially using him as a cover as they climbed the staircase and went upstairs to meet General Ironsi.

Ironsi: “Young man”

Danjuma: “Sir, you are under arrest.”

Ironsi: “What is the matter?”

Danjuma: “The matter is you, Sir. You told us in January when we supported you to quell the mutiny that all the dissident elements that took part in the mutiny will be court-martialled. It is July now. You have done nothing. You kept these boys in prison and the rumours are now that they will be released because they are national heroes.”

Ironsi: “Look, what do you mean? It is not true.”

At this point Ironsi and Danjuma began arguing, with Fajuyi getting in between them and reminding Danjuma again and again of his promise that no harm would come to Ironsi.

Danjuma: “Fajuyi get out of my way. You, just come down.”

Danjuma: (to Ironsi) “..You organized the killing of our brother officers in January and you have done nothing to bring the so called dissident elements to justice because you were part and parcel of the whole thing.”

Ironsi: “Who told you that? You know it is not true.”

Danjuma: “You are lying. You have been fooling us. I ran around risking my neck trying to calm the ranks, and in February you told us that they would be tried. This is July and nothing has been done. You will answer for your actions.”

At this point Danjuma and Lt. Andrew Nwankwo, Ironsi’s AirForce ADC, had a fierce verbal exchange, with one holding a grenade with the pin pulled and the other holding a pistol. But with the fingers of five other soldiers on the triggers of automatic weapons, Nwankwo was outgunned.

IRONSI AND FAJUYI ARE KIDNAPPED

When the group got downstairs, Danjuma instructed the 4th battalion adjutant, Lt. Garba Dada (“Paiko”), to arrange for both Fajuyi and Ironsi to be taken to the guest house on the cattle ranch at Mokwa “pending date of full inquiry”. Lt. “Paiko”, however, informed Danjuma that he was not a party to the commitment he made to Fajuyi (or Gowon) about their safety and a fierce emotional argument erupted between Danjuma and the others. At this point a northern soldier tapped Danjuma on the shoulder with a loaded rifle and, speaking in Hausa, said:

“These foolish young boys. That is the kind of leadership you have given us and messing us up. They killed all your elders and you are still fooling around here. The man you are fooling around here with will disappear before you know it.”

The other soldiers agreed with this soldier and pounced on both Ironsi and Fajuyi, wrestling them to restrain any movement. Danjuma, faced with one command crisis after another all night, had finally lost control.

Fajuyi turned to Danjuma and said: “You gave us the assurance.”

Danjuma replied: “Yes, Sir. I am sure you will be all right.”

He was wrong.

Two landrovers took the captives away while Danjuma hitch-hiked back to the barracks. Both Ironsi and Fajuyi were squeezed into the front seat of one vehicle while Ironsi’s ADCs, Lts. Bello and Nwankwo were behind. Two officers, Lts. Walbe and Dada, accompanied the group with one joining the driver of the lead vehicle. The command vehicle led another vehicle full of armed troops. Among those soldiers said to have been present include the 4th battalion unit RSM Useni Fagge, Sergeant Tijjani (from Maiduguri), Warrant Officer Bako, and other soldiers including Dabang, Wali, and Rabo. Some of those involved were later to come to prominence during the unsuccessful Dimka coup of 1976. (Although Colonel Yohana Madaki (rtd) was at that time an NCO in the 4th battalion, there is no evidence that he accompanied the soldiers that took Ironsi away).

They drove to Mile 8 on Iwo road, where the group dismounted and went into the bush, crossing a small stream. Ironsi and Fajuyi were subjected to beatings and interrogation. General Ironsi acted a soldier as he was questioned, refused to be intimidated and remained silent, refusing to confess any role in the January 15 coup. Indeed, according to Elaigwu, “It was reliably learnt from an officer and a soldier on the spot that it was Ironsi’s muteness amidst a barrage of questions that led to his being shot by an angry Northern soldier.” Other sources suggest that the “angry northern soldier” may have been Sergeant Tijjani. Details are murky.

Fajuyi was also shot. Although the western region publication “Fajuyi the Great” published by the Ministry of Information in 1967 after his official burial said he had offered to die rather than “abandon his guest”, those involved in his arrest and assassination insist that he was an even more critical target than Ironsi and made no such offer to die with Ironsi. Lt. Col. William Walbe (rtd) said:

“….We arrested him as we arrested Ironsi. We suspected him of being party to the January coup. You remember the Battle Group Course which was held at Abeokuta. Fajuyi was the Commander of the Battle Group Course. All those who took part in the January coup were those who had taken part in that course. It gave us the impression that the Battle Course was arranged for the January coup, so he had to suffer it too. I am sorry about that but that is the nature of the life of a military man….”

General Danjuma confirms this opinion. He says that at another training camp in Kachia commanded by Lt. Col. Fajuyi, Major Nzeogwu rehearsed the assault on Sardauna’s house in the presence of some northern mortar officers who did not appreciate the significance of the exercise until after the coup. In Danjuma’s words, “The chaps could not stomach Fajuyi such that if there was anybody who should die first, as far as they were concerned, it was Fajuyi, not even Ironsi.”

How true are these claims about Fajuyi’s role in the January coup? I found an answer in the book “Why we Struck” by Major Adewale Ademoyega, one of the January mutineers and a Yoruba officer like Fajuyi. Ademoyega states that Fajuyi supported the first coup, knew of it and made suggestions to plotters on how it could be best carried out. According to Ademoyega, that he did not actively participate was only as a result of his posting at the time the coup was launched. However, Ademoyega eulogizes the late Colonel for opposing all efforts in the Supreme Military Council to bring the January 15 coupists to trial.

IRONSI’S ADCs ESCAPE

Major General Ironsi had two ADCs, Army Lt. Sani Bello and AirForce Lt. Andrew Nwankwo. Speaking Hausa, Bello, whose ethnic origin is Kontagora, appealed to ‘Lt. Paiko’, who was an acquaintance from the same Niger province in the North, to let him and his Igbo colleague off the hook since they were not the targets of the soldiers and were only performing official functions as ADCs.

According to Madiebo:

“While Ironsi was being shot, Nwankwo said he ran into the bush and escaped. He emphasized that his escape was not due to his cleverness, but because his colleague, the Hausa ADC who was also present, wanted him to escape. Nwankwo explained that during the month of June, 1966, he and his Northern colleague had discussed the possibility of another coup. The Northern officer was emphatic the Ibos were going to do it again, but Nwankwo swore it was going to be done by Northerners. According to him, at the end of a long but heated argument, they came to an agreement that whichever side did it, the man on the winning side should save the other’s life. Based on this agreement, the Northern ADC whispered to Nwankwo to escape while Ironsi was being shot, and also discouraged the soldiers from chasing after him. Nwankwo said he later made his way to Lagos and contacted this Northern officer again, who not only hid him for a couple of days, but eventually took him out of Lagos in the boot of a car.”

BACK AT THE 4th BATTALION

Later that morning, on Friday July 29, back in the barracks, T/Lt. Col Joe Akahan, Commander of the 4th battalion , who had essentially been ignored all night by junior officers, tried to reassert control. He (or someone acting in his name) apparently called a meeting of all officers at 10am which Akahan did not attend. By this time, Lt. Pam Nwadkon’s Ferret group had arrived from Abeokuta bringing more inciting news about how Igbo soldiers there had been hunted down and killed. At this meeting surviving Igbo soldiers were allegedly rounded up by NCOs and later killed, some say by being packed like sardines into a tailor’s shop and then blown up with grenades. The intelligence officer of the battalion, Lt. Jasper, from the delta part of the Midwest, was killed based on an allegation that he had been an informant for senior Igbo officers in Lagos. NNDP detainees at the Ibadan prison were released.

Later in the afternoon around 4 pm, weary from negotiations with rebels at Ikeja, Gowon called from Lagos and spoke to Akahan, seeking to establish the status of the Supreme Commander. Akahan passed the question on to Danjuma who then informed Gowon that Ironsi had been snatched from him by officers of the 4th battalion. When Danjuma confronted the Battalion adjutant with the same question, he says the adjutant “told me one story after the other. But I saw the officers in twos and threes whispering to each other and it was running to about 7pm.”

At this point let me address a pertinent question. Is there is any independent corroboration for Danjuma’s story that he arrested Ironsi but did not order or partake in his torture and execution? Yes, at least two. In the book “Power with Civility”, Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu says: “In fairness to Danjuma, his mission was to arrest the Head of State in a bloodless coup, but having accomplished it successfully, he was shoved aside by a mob who had reserved a fatal fate for their captive.” General Gowon (rtd) also confirmed in an interview with Elaigwu that then Major Danjuma was very sad when he later learnt about the deaths of both Ironsi and Fajuyi, having given his word that no harm would come to them.

On Saturday, July 30, T/Lt. Col. Akahan finally came to grips with the situation, albeit temporarily, ordering all soldiers to be disarmed in response to direct orders from Lagos.

But the 4th battalion, incidentally the direct descendant of “Glover’s Hausas”, was not done yet. In time it would acquire a reputation as the most unruly battalion in Nigerian history. On August 16, a detachment of the unit staged a raid on the Benin Prison, followed by an all out battalion-wide riot in Ibadan. Later that month when a decision was made to transfer the battalion en bloc, now under Major Danjuma’s command, to Kaduna, NCOs and junior officers again went berserk. Using tactics reminiscent of the Japanese in Burma, they went to hospitals all over Kaduna to look for sick Igbo officers, one of whom was killed. Another officer, then Major Alabi (later renamed Alabi-Isama) of the NMTC, who had actually served with the 4th battalion before the January coup narrowly escaped back to the Midwest. He was smuggled out of Kaduna by a team of officers led by the Military Governor, Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina.

Detachments of the 4th battalion deployed to other northern towns continued their acts of lawlessness everywhere they went. Soldiers in the infantry company deployed to Makurdi (under S/Captain Adeniran who replaced T/Major Daramola of the 3rd battalion) were instrumental to the outbreak of systematic killing in September of Igbos fleeing from other parts of the North. It is not for nothing that the vehicle and railway bridge over the River Benue at Makurdi was nick-named the “Red Bridge”. In a pattern established by the preceding unit, easterners (particularly those with low Military or Police style crew hair cut) were allegedly screened out at the Train station, or hunted down in joint Army-Police-Militia house to house searches, then taken to an open field in Makurdi North where they were allegedly executed. All of these alleged activities could not have escaped the attention of the local Police Special Branch officer, then ASP Shettima, but it is unclear what steps were taken by authorities to bring the situation under control, assuming they were even aware of what was going on. Those easterners who escaped the Makurdi railway bottleneck had to contend with molestation and looting by rural opportunists along the Makurdi-Otukpo road, if they thought going by road was safer. If they escaped that, they had to survive a final checkpoint at Otukpo, allegedly manned by one Lt. Obeya.

In addition to hair style, all sorts of criteria were used to screen out those marked for execution. Soldiers or Policemen who were multilingual would speak English or vernacular to the “suspect” and then listen for tell-tale accents in the way certain words were pronounced. Another popular screening method was one’s tribal marks. Yorubas with large tribal marks would often be jokingly referred to as “Akintola” and let go. Not to have obvious identifiable tribal marks, however, was an invitation to trouble, which is how many got killed, whether they were Igbo or not – including some local Idoma and Tiv people, merely on account of their physical features. It used to be quite effective for some time for southerners without prominent tribal marks to escape by claiming they were from “Benin” in the Midwest, until the soldiers began demanding that the alleged “Benin people” speak or sing in the Edo language. But there were other ways one could get into difficulty. For example, not even the Benue Provincial Police Officer, Mr. Agbajor, an Itsekiri from the Midwest, was safe. He barely escaped ambush at the Makurdi club after attracting attention to himself by driving around in a car with license plate number EW 1, which stood for ‘East, Owerri, 1’. Agbajor was to come to public attention again, when, in August/September 1967 he agreed to serve the short-lived Biafran administration in the Midwest as Chief of Police. His career in the Nigerian Police ended shortly thereafter.

About 5 days after their deaths, the corpses of Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt. Col. Fajuyi were retrieved by the Police Special Branch (including CSP J. D. Gomwalk) from a makeshift grave near the town of Lalupon outside Ibadan and transferred to the Military cemetery where they were specially marked for future identification. It was not until after the Aburi conference in January 1967 that their deaths were announced (by Lt. Col Ojukwu), following a pattern that had originally been established by General Ironsi. Ironsi refused to announce the deaths of or allow official funerals for most of the victims of the January coup (including his military colleagues) throughout his six month long regime.

After yet another exhumation, however, General Ironsi was finally reburied with full military honours at Umuahia on January 20, 1967 while a few days later Lt. Col Fajuyi was reburied at Ado-Ekiti.

CASUALTIES OF JULY 29, 1966 REBELLION AND AFTERMATH

According to an Eastern Regional Government publication titled “January 15: Before and After; No. WT/1003/3674/40,000, 1967”, the casualty list of the counter-rebellion included 33 Eastern, 7 Midwestern, and 3 Western Officers and 153 Eastern, 14 Midwestern and 3 Western Other ranks. Of the 33 Eastern officer deaths, there was one Major General, one Lt. Col, nine Majors, eleven Captains, eight Lts. and three 2/Lts. The Midwest lost one Lt. Col, two Majors, two Lts, and two 2/Lts. The West lost one Lt. Col and two 2/Lts. Of the 153 Eastern other ranks who died, eleven were Warrant Officers, twelve Staff Sergeants, thirty Sergeants, twenty five Corporals, twenty-two Lance Corporals and fifty three Privates. The Midwest lost one Warrant Officer, six Staff Sergeants, four Sergeants, two Corporals, and one Lance Corporal. The West lost one Warrant Officer and two Staff Sergeants.

The grand military total, according that report was 213 casualties. However, names of newly trained or single soldiers who were killed could not be ascertained, so the figures will always remain an estimate. In any case the Eastern list was contested by the Federal Government and to this day no-one has publicly confirmed the full reconciled list of all those who lost their lives. Most observers, though, feel the list provided by the Eastern regional Government was as close to the truth as any list will ever get. Pensions and gratuities have been paid over the years to many families. Indeed those spouses who did not remarry and maintained their dignity as widows continued to be supported for many years. In special cases children were awarded special scholarships up to University level.

Over the years, I have been able to gather a list of the officers who were confirmed killed. It includes two names (Musa and Drummond) missing from the Eastern list and excludes two names^ on the Eastern list (Ibik and Waribor):

1) Major Gen. J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi`

2) Lt. Col. F.A. Fajuyi`

3) Lt. Col. I.C. Okoro

4) T/Lt Col G. Okonweze

5) Major Christian Anuforo~

6) Major Donatus O. Okafor ~

7) Major T.E. Nzegwu (NAF) `

8) Major J.K. Obienu`

9) Major Ibanga Ekanem

10) Major P.C. Obi (NAF)

11) T/Major C.C. Emelifonwu

12) T/Major B. Nnamani

13) T /Major J.O.C. Ihedigbo

14) T/Major O.U. Isong

15) T/Major A. Drummond

16) T/Major A.D. Ogunro

17) Capt. J.I. Chukwueke

18) Capt. H.A. Iloputaife

19) Capt. A.O. Akpet

20) Capt. S.E. Maduabum

21) Capt. G.N.E. Ugoala

22) T/Capt P.C. Okoye

23) T/Capt. I.U. Idika

24) T/Capt. L.C. Dilibe

25) T/Capt. J.U. Egere

26) T/Capt. T.O. Iweanaya+

27) T/Capt. H.A. Auna

28) T/Capt. R.I. Agbazue

29) Lt. G. Mbabie

30) Lt. S.E. Idowu

31) Lt. E.C.N. Achebe

32) Lt. S.A. Mbadiwe

33) Lt. F.P. Jasper+

34) Lt. P.D. Ekedingyo+

35) Lt. S.E. Onwuke+

36) Lt. J.D. Ovuezurie+

37) Lt. A.D.C. Egbuna

38) Lt. E.B. Orok

39) Lt. J.U. Ugbe

40) Lt. Francis Musa*

41) 2/Lt A.O. Olaniyan

42) 2/Lt. A.R.O. Kasaba

43) 2/Lt. F.M. Agronaye+

44) 2/Lt. P.K. Onyeneho+

NOTES: *Some of the names here (like Musa) appear northern in origin but are actually names of Igbo officers who had joined the Army using northern names.

~Active participant in January mutiny ` Major T.E. Nzegwu was the airforce officer allegedly approached to help organize a plane (along with Captain Udeaja) to fetch Chief Awolowo from Prison in the event that the January 15 coup should succeed.

Major John Obienu is alleged by Major Ademoyega to have initially agreed to take part in the January coup but changed his mind at the last minute. Although there was a rumor that it was Obienu who tipped Ironsi off about the January plot, Ironsi himself said he found out about the mutiny from the wife of Lt. Col. James Pam (some say Pam himself) when he returned home between 2 and 3 am on January 15 from a second party following the earlier one at Brigadier Maimalari’s house. Others claim it was either Lt. Col. Ojukwu (CO, 5th Bn) and/or Hilary Njoku (outgoing CO, 2nd Bn) that tipped Ironsi off, having been directly contacted themselves by the conspirators. Lt. Col. Fajuyi is confirmed by one of the January 15 plotters (Ademoyega) to have provided ideas on how it should be carried out although he did not take part directly. Ademoyega also confirms that both Ojukwu and Njoku had foreknowledge of the January plot, and says that all his efforts to be entrusted with the arrest and/or neutralization of General Ironsi were resisted by Major Ifeajuna, who opted instead to allot that sensitive task to Major Okafor. Captain Nwobosi says that there was poor operational security at Major Ifeajuna’s house when Lagos plotters met for final orders before “H hour”, opening up a window of opportunity for Ironsi and perhaps others to be alerted.

+2/Lt Agronaye is not reflected on the Eastern List. Instead a similar name, spelled differently as 2/Lt. Agbonaye is listed. T/Capt. T.O. Iweanaya is also spelled differently as Capt. T.O. Iweanya on some versions of the Eastern list. Lt. S.E. Onwuke is spelled Lt. S.E. Onwukwe on the Eastern list. Lt. F.P. Jasper is identified as 2/Lt. F. P. Jasper and said to be from the 3rd Bn in Kaduna on the Eastern list. However, federal sources place this officer in the 4th Battalion at Ibadan, as a full Lt.. In fact the eastern list does not identify any officer casualty whatsoever from within the 4th battalion, Ibadan which can’t be true. Lt. P.D. Ekedingyo is spelled Lt. P.D. Ekediyo on the Eastern list. Lt. J. D. Ovuezurie is spelled Lt. J. D. Ovuezirie on the Eastern list.

^Lts. P. O. Ibik and K. D. Waribor are listed on the Eastern list of casualties of the July counter-rebellion, but not on my list because I have not been able to confirm the date and circumstances of their alleged deaths in the July counter-rebellion and after. However, according to the Special Branch report, 2/Lt. P. Ogoegbunam Ibik of the 2nd Field Squadron, Nigerian Army Engineers occupied the P & T Telephone Exchange under the supervision of Captain Ben Gbulie during Kaduna operations on the night of January 15, 1966. 2/Lt. K.D. Waribor of the “C” Coy, 3rd BN NA played a peripheral role securing the outer perimeter in the assault on the Nassarawa Lodge in Kaduna, as well as the attempt to arrest Alhaji Makaman Bida on the same night – during which Ahmadu Pategi, a Government driver was killed. They were, therefore, likely detained by General Ironsi unless they escaped (as Ifeajuna – initially – and Nwokedi did). Strangely, neither officer was ever listed on either the Federal or Eastern region lists of officers detained for alleged complicity in the January coup – supporting the “escape” theory, unless they were killed soon after that mutiny in circumstances similar to the deaths of 2/Lt Odu and Major Adegoke. It is also possible that Ibik’s case was handled like those of other 2 Field Engineer subalterns like 2/Lts. S.E. Omeruah, Ezedima, Ileabachi, Atom Kpera and Harrison Eghagha who all claimed they were merely obeying “internal security” operational orders, the illegal significance of which they were unaware. However, the Eastern region list of detainees was not complete because Major Ademoyega, for example, was never listed as a detainee when, in fact, he was. He had been transferred from an eastern prison to Warri in the Midwest. The dynamics of updating Prison lists as detainees were being moved around may have affected the accuracy of various lists. What is clear, however, is that if they were either at the Abeokuta or Benin Prisons in the weeks following the July 29 mutiny, they are very likely now dead. However, all said and done, the most accurate thing one can say about Lts. P. O. Ibik and K. D. Waribor is that they are unaccounted for.

POST-SCRIPT

The officers (and civilians) who planned and carried out the January 15 and July 29 1966 military rebellions have never been tried or convicted before any military court-martial although there was an agreement at Aburi that this should occur. This, as we know, was overtaken by events leading up to and including the Nigerian Civil War.

The only exception made among the January 15 group was for those surviving officers who not only took part in the January 1966 coup but also participated in the Biafran invasion of the Midwestern region in August/September 1967. Most officers in this overlapping group were brought before a Military Board of Inquiry, jailed until October 1974, and all – except Lts. J.C. Ojukwu and Ijeweze (?Igweze) who were retired – eventually dismissed. They include Major A. Ademoyega, Captain Ben Gbulie, Capt. E. M. Udeaja, Lt. F.M. Okocha, Lt. B.A.O. Oyewole, Lt. N.S. Nwokocha, Lt. G.B. Ikejiofor, Lt. G. G. Onyefuru, Lt. A.R.O. Egbikor, Lt. A. N. Azubuogu, and 2/Lt. C.G. Ngwuluka. Interestingly, prominent surviving January 15 mutineers like Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi (rtd), who did not take part in the Midwest invasion, but played other roles in the civil war (as a Colonel in the Biafran Army, Field Commander and later Chief of Staff in General Ojukwu’s HQ) were spared in a general amnesty covering both the January and July 1966 rebellions.

What used to be known as Race Course in Lagos was renamed Tafawa Balewa Square after the late PM. A prominent street in Jos is also named after him. The street in Victoria Island, Lagos, straddling the Bar Beach, is named after the late Sir Ahmadu Bello. A prominent street in Kaduna is also named after him. Streets in Lagos (Ikeja) and Abuja are named after Samuel Ladoke Akintola, late Premier of the West.

When he came to power in 1975, late General Murtala Muhammed – coup leader of the July 1966 uprising – went to great lengths to look after the family of the late Major General Aguiyi Ironsi. In 1993, General Ibrahim Babangida – a participant in the July 1966 revolt – named an Army Barrack after the late General and post-humously awarded him the Great Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR). A street in Abuja was also named after him. A Barrack in Abuja is also named after Ironsi’s successor, General Yakubu Gowon (rtd). The International Airport in Lagos is named after General Muhammed while the one in Abuja is named after former President Nnamdi Azikiwe, and the one in Kano after late Malam Aminu Kano.

Some streets in Lagos (Ikeja) and Ibadan are named after the late Lt. Col. F. Fajuyi. The Barracks where the Headquarters of the Nigerian Army Armored Corps and School is based in Bauchi is named after Major John Obienu. NAF Majors Nzegwu and Obi have names of streets within certain AirForce Bases named after them. In 2001, President Obasanjo, on the other hand, named certain streets and monuments in Abuja, Nigeria’s new capital, after the military officers who were assassinated during mutiny-coup of January 15, 1966 – a long overdue gesture. In a separate essay, I shall preview the outcome of the lives of some of the key players in the January and July 1966 rebellions.

NOTE:

THE IRONSI’S CROCODILE

During the UN Peace-Keeping operation in the Congo (ONUC) myths were woven around some Nigerian personalities. At that time Brigadier JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was an acting Major-General and commanded the entire UN multinational force in its last six months (1964). As a Lt. Col., he had previously commanded a battalion in 1961 (around Kivu) before being posted to London as Defence Attache.

All sorts of stories gained credence among soldiers and other ranks (many of whom were rural folk) about Ironsi’s alleged ability to survive live bullets.

Like many Generals, he often carried a swagger stick, but his had a crocodile design – likely a traditional form of artwork from the Congo. Very soon, this innocuous ornamented baton became the focus of tales of “juju” in various versions. The story became embellished such that it was even said that the “swagger stick” was actually a live crocodile which served the purpose of sucking up all ammunition fired at the General and when necessary would mediate his disappearance from a particularly difficult situation.

These rumors were so strong that they were believed by both his admirers and opponents. It was a factor in the way he was treated by fearful soldiers at the Government House on July 29, 1966. It was also a factor in the decision by some Igbos to return to the North in late August 1966 claiming that there had been ‘live sightings’ of the General in Umuahia walking around with his ‘crocodile’. Since his death was not officially announced until much later, myths took hold. Conventional wisdom was that he had disappeared from among the soldiers who arrested him and Fajuyi and that there was nothing to fear.

Ironsi was not the only one who had such myths woven around him. Even Fajuyi did too, particularly after his gallantry at the head of his troops in 1960/61 in difficult situations against Katanga tribesmen.

Maimalari also had similar myths told by his admirers who were in denial about rumors of his death in January 1966.

A similar phenomenon has been described among fans of Elvis Presley who kept sighting him many years after he died from recreational drug overdose while sitting on the toilet.

The end.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s