In the early hours of January 15, 1966, citing a laundry list of complaints against the political class, there was a military rebellion in Nigeria against the first republic.
Led by a group of Majors who were predominantly revolutionary, the Prime Minister, a federal minister, two regional premiers, along with top Army officers were brutally assassinated. A number of civilians were also killed.
The coup succeeded in Kaduna the northern region capital, failed in Lagos the federal capital and Ibadan the western regional capital, but barely took place in Benin the midwestern capital, and Enugu the eastern capital.
The majority of those murdered were northerners, accompanied by some westerners and two Midwesterners. No easterner lost his or her life. On January 16, rather than approve the appointment of Zanna Bukar Dipcharima, a politician of northern origin, as acting Prime Minister, the acting President, Nwafor Orizu, himself of eastern origin, handed over power to Major-General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi, the GOC of the Nigerian Army, also of eastern origin. This was allegedly at the behest of the rump cabinet, allegedly to enable Ironsi put down the revolt which, as of then, had already failed in southern Nigeria. Until it became apparent recently in separate testimony by Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Chief Richard Akinjide, it had always been publicly assumed in the lay Press that the hand-over was voluntary although unconstitutional – since no such provision existed in the Nigerian constitution. However, it does seem that as far back as 1969, Martin Dent pointed out the involuntary nature of the so-called hand-over in an academic paper, based on an interview with Alhaji Shettima Ali Monguno.
In July 2000, at a public book launching ceremony in Nigeria, Chief Richard Akinjide stated:
“Talking on the first coup, when Balewa got missing, we knew Okotie-Eboh had been held, we knew Akintola had been killed. We, the members of the Balewa cabinet started meeting. But how can you have a cabinet meeting without the Prime Minister acting or Prime Minister presiding. So, unanimously, we nominated acting Prime Minister amongst us. Then we continued holding our meetings. Then we got a message that we should all assemble at the Cabinet office. All the Ministers were requested by the G.O.C. of the Nigerian Army, General Ironsi to assemble. What was amazing at that time was that Ironsi was going all over Lagos unarmed. We assembled there. Having nominated ZANA Diphcharima as our acting Prime Minister in the absence of the Prime Minister, whose whereabout we didn’t know, we approached the acting President, Nwafor Orizu to swear him in because he cannot legitimately act as the Prime Minister except he is sworn- in. Nwafor Orizu refused. He said he needed to contact Zik who was then in West Indies.
Under the law, that is, the Interpretation Act, as acting President, Nwazor Orizu had all the powers of the President. The GOC said he wanted to see all the cabinet ministers. And so we assembled at the cabinet office. Well, I have read in many books saying that we handed over to the military. We did not hand-over. Ironsi told us that “you either hand over as gentlemen or you hand-over by force”. Those were his words. Is that voluntary hand-over? So we did not hand-over. We wanted an Acting Prime Minister to be in place but Ironsi forced us, and I use the word force advisedly, to handover to him. He was controlling the soldiers. The acting President, Nwafor Orizu, who did not cooperate with us, cooperated with the GOC. Dr. Orizu and the GOC prepared speeches which Nwafor Orizu broadcast handing over the government of the country to the army. I here state again categorically as a member of that cabinet that we did not hand-over voluntarily. It was a coup. ”
Corroborating Akinjide’s account, according to Shehu Shagari, in his Book “Beckoned to Serve”,
“…….At about 7.00 am, I returned to Dipcharima’s residence to meet with some NPC ministers who had gathered there. Dipcharima was then the most senior NPC minister available. We received the latest reports on the situation, first from Alhaji Maitama Sule, Minister of Mines and Power, who had visited the PM’s residence by bicycle! We then heard from Alhaji Ibrahim Tako Galadima, the acting Minister of Defence, who had brought along with him Chief Fani-Kayode.
Chief Fani-Kayode said he had been fetched from Ibadan early that morning by rebels and locked up at the Federal Guard Officers Mess in Dodan Barracks, where the mutineers initially made their headquarters. Disguised in army uniform, loyal troops handed him over to Alhaji Galadima, who had called in at the barracks, which was a stone’s throw of his residence……The acting Minister of Defence assured us that Major-General Ironsi was doing his best to arrest the situation.
Maitama Sule and I were separately detailed to explore with our absent NPC and NCNC colleagues the possibility of naming someone to stand in for the PM. I was consulting with NCNC ministers at Dr. Mbadiwe’s residence when we heard that the Northern and Western premiers, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Akintola respectively, had been assassinated. Hence I rushed back to Dipcharima’s residence, where I found my colleagues in a state of shock and desperation.
However, we decided to recognize Dipcharima, a Kanuri from Bornu, as our interim leader; and to ask the acting President, Dr. Orizu (President Azikiwe was away on leave), to appoint Dipcharima acting Prime Minister. We also summoned Major General Ironsi and gave him full authority to use every force at his disposal to suppress the rebellion. He moved his headquarters temporarily to the police headquarters at moloney street to facilitate easy communication with army units in the regions.
While at Dipcharima’s residence, we contacted the British High Commission and requested for military assistance in the event that our loyal troops should require any. The response was positive, but the British insisted that the request must be written by the PM; or, in his absence, by a properly appointed deputy. We, therefore, drove to the residence of Dr. Orizu, and requested him to appoint Dipcharima acting prime minister. Dr. Orizu requested to see our NCNC colleagues to confirm whether they supported our proposition, and they joined us soon afterwards. They had apparently been caucusing at Dr. Mbadiwe’s residence. He (Mbadiwe) was their choice of acting Prime Minister. This was naturally unacceptable to us since the NPC was the major governing party.
While we were at Orizu’s residence, Major-General Ironsi, who had seemingly secured Lagos, came in with some armed escorts. He requested for a tete-a-tete with Orizu. The two had a 40 minutes discussion in another room, while we waited anxiously in the sitting room, with the armed soldiers standing and staring at us. When Major-General Ironsi finally emerged, he talked to Dipcharima sotto voce; and then drove off with his troops. Dr. Orizu then joined us, regretted his inability in the circumstances to oblige our request. He suggested we all return to our homes and wait until we were required. All efforts to get any clarification failed, and we left in utter desperation.
I was about to break the Ramadan fast on Sunday 16th January, when all ministers were asked to report to the Cabinet Office at 6.30 pm. The whole premises was surrounded by soldiers in battle order that some of us initially hesitated to enter. In the Cabinet chamber were Major General Ironsi, Bukar Dipcharima and Ibrahim Tako Galadima. There were no officials present.
Major General Ironsi admitted to us that he had been unable to suppress the rebellion, which he said was getting out of hand. He stated that the mutineers were in control of Kaduna, Kano and Ibadan, and had killed two regional premiers, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Akintola. They had also murdered a number of his best officers, including Brigadiers Maimalari and Samuel Adesujo Ademulegun, the Commander 1st Brigade Headquarters in Kaduna. Ironsi was full of emotion and even shed some tears. When we asked him about the whereabouts of Sir ABubakar and Chief Okotie-Eboh, he said he still did not know but averred efforts were being made to locate them. At this stage Mbadiwe broke down and kept crying: “Please where is the Prime Minister?”
When we reminded Major-General Ironsi if he needed to avail himself of the British pledge of assistance, he replied it was too late as the army was pressing him to assume power. Indeed, he confessed his personal reluctance to take over because of his ignorance of government; but insisted the boys were adamant and anxiously waiting outside. He advised it would be in our interest, and that of the country, to temporarily cede power to him to avert disaster. Accordingly, we acceded to his request since we had no better alternative. Ironsi then insisted that the understanding be written.
Surprisingly, there was no stationery to write the agreement; and all the offices were locked while no official was around. Alhaji AGF Abdulrazaq the Minister of State for the Railways (former NPC legal adviser), managed to secure a scrap paper on which he drafted a statement, which we endorsed. That was the so called voluntary hand-over of power by the Balewa Government to Major General Ironsi! It was agreed that the statement would be typed and Dipcharima would sign it on our behalf. We were then advised to return home and await further instructions. I only got to break my Ramadan fast around 9:30 pm.
Later at 11.50 pm, Dr. Orizu made a terse nationwide broadcast, announcing the cabinet’s voluntary decision to transfer power to the armed forces. Major General Ironsi then made his own broadcast, accepting the “invitation”. He suspended certain parts of the constitution; set up a national military government, with the office of military governors in each region; and briefly outlined the policy intentions of his regime. Nigeria’s first democratic experiment was effectively over. And although the mutiny had by then practically collapsed, military rule had arrived. It was a fact.
The following morning, 17 January, Alhaji Kam Salem, the Deputy Inspector-General of Police (then also doubling for the Inspector-General, Mr. Louis Orok Edet, while on vacation), called at my residence to confide that both the PM and Chief Okotie-Eboh had been confirmed killed. He then hinted that Major General Ironsi was still negotiating with the rebels in Kaduna, led by Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu”
Then Lt. Col. (later General) Gowon, who was not physically present when the rump cabinet was handing over, says he was later told by Ironsi and other officers (who were outside the cabinet office chambers, and thus did not themselves witness the event) that it was voluntary. He recalls asking three separate times to be certain, but now says that had he known it was not, he would have acted differently on that day as the Commander of the 2nd Battalion at Ikeja which supported Ironsi in putting down the Ifeajuna-Nzeogwu revolt.
The substantive President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, also of eastern origin, had left the country in late 1965 first for Europe, then on a health cruise to the caribbean, after allegedly being tipped off by his cousin, Major Ifeajuna, one of the masterminds of the coup and, some say, overall leader. Interestingly, (assuming reports that he had foreknowledge are true) Azikiwe did not notify his alliance partner, the Prime Minister, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, with whom he had clashed over control of the armed forces during the Constitutional crisis of January 1965, following the controversial December 1964 federal elections. [http://www.gamji.com/nowa/nowa11.htm]
In fact President Azikiwe’s personal physician, Dr. Humphrey Idemudia Idehen, abandoned him abroad when he got tired of the “health trip”, having run out of his personal estacode allowance, unaware that there may have been a good reason why Azikiwe did not want to return to Nigeria, after their original planned return date in December 1965 passed. Not even the Commonwealth Leaders’ Conference hosted for the first time by the country in early January was incentive enough for the President to return, for obvious reasons of protocol. However, after the coup, in a statement to the Press in England on January 16, among other things, Azikiwe did not condemn the coup per se, but said:
“Violence has never been an instrument used by us, as founding fathers of the Nigerian Republic, to solve political problems. ..I consider it most unfortunate that our ‘Young Turks’ decided to introduce the element of violent revolution into Nigerian politics. No matter how they and our general public might have been provoked by obstinate and perhaps grasping politicians, it is an unwise policy….As far as I am concerned, I regard the killings of our political and military leaders as a national calamity..”
Major Ifeajuna was later to be accused by Major Patrick Nzeogwu, leader of northern operations, of bungling or ignoring an apparent understanding to assassinate General Ironsi in Lagos – an oversight, or “misguided consideration” (to use Nzeogwu’s words) that caused the failure of the coup. Indeed, Nzeogwu bluntly declared publicly that the execution of the coup in the South was tribalistic. Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi (rtd), leader of operations in the Western region, has since corroborated the view that operations in Lagos were compromised by nepotism. For this and other reasons, over the years, some analysts have come to view Nzeogwu, who was recruited two full months after the plot was already in progress, as a tool in a plot he never fully understood. Indeed, in offering condolences for the death of the Sardauna of Sokoto, ex-Senate President Nwafor Orizu told Alhaji Shehu Shagari that Major Nzeogwu was “an unknown entity among the Ibos (sic) in the Eastern region.”
Those who have defended the January mutiny as being motivated by nationalistic, rather than tribal instincts, say Ironsi escaped because he had gone for a party on a Boat along the Marina that night and was not at home when mutineers allegedly came calling. Tenuous explanations exist for why the Igbo speaking Premiers of the Midwest and Eastern regions were spared and no Igbo commanding or staff officer was specifically targetted. January apologists also say that there were a few non-Igbo officers involved (although none were entrusted with key targets and most were brought in at the last minute). It is argued that the mainly Igbo speaking plotters intended to release Chief Obafemi Awolowo (a westerner) from jail in Calabar to make him leader. Others interpret the same information, combined with the highly specific pattern of killings, to mean that the coup was carried out by officers sympathetic to the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA), although hijacked by the GOC of the Nigerian Army, possibly encouraged by Senate President Nwafor Orizu, and urged on by officers like Lt. Col. Victor Banjo, Lt-Col. Francis Fajuyi, Lt. Col. H. Njoku, Lt. Col. C. O. Ojukwu and Major Patrick Anwunah.
On January 17, Major General Ironsi established the Supreme Military Council in Lagos and announced Decree No. 1, effectively suspending the constitution, although it was not formally promulgated until March. Later that day Major PCK Nzeogwu, the leader of the revolt in the northern region negotiated a conditional surrender in which Ironsi agreed not to bring the mutineers to military trial. The next day, military governors were appointed for each of the four regions (Major Hassan Katsina – North, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Ojukwu – East, Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi – West, and Lt. Col. David Ejoor, Midwest).
Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo was briefly summoned back from the Imperial Defence College where he was undergoing a course. Brigadier Babatunde Ogundipe, erstwhile Chief of Staff, Nigerian Defence Forces, was made Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. Lt. Col. Yakubu Chinwa Gowon, the most senior surviving northern officer, who was in the process of assuming command of the 2nd Battalion at Ikeja on January 14/15, a unit which proved critical to restoration of order in Lagos, was made Chief of Staff (Army).
Other early military appointments include:
Chief of Staff (NAF), Lt. Col. George Kurubo (East, non-Igbo)
Commanding Officer, 2 Bde, Lt. Col. H. Njoku (East, Igbo)
Commanding Officer, 2 Bn, Major H. Igboba (Midwest, Igbo)
Commanding Officer, Abeokuta Garrison, Major G. Okonweze (Midwest, Igbo)
Commanding Officer, 4 Bn, Major Nzefili (Midwest, Igbo)
Commanding Officer, Federal Guards, Major Ochei (Midwest, Igbo)
Commanding Officer, 1 Bn, Major D. Ogunewe (East, Igbo)
Commanding Officer, 1 Bde, Lt. Col W. Bassey (East, non-Igbo)
Commanding Officer, 3 Bn, Major Okoro (East, Igbo) Commanding Officer, Depot, Major F. Akagha (East, Igbo)
Commanding Officer, 5 Bn, Major M. Shuwa (North)
It is said that there was initial euphoria by the public, even in the far north, against old ministers. However, there were some early problems too, which, to discerning eyes, were pregnant with foreboding. In his book “Years of Challenge”, Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia (rtd) recalls:
“Before January 15, 1966, I had thought that the Nigerian soldier was not blood thirsty, thus ruling out the possibility of a bloody coup. Events proved me wrong and forced me to change my opinion about the Nigerian soldier. Although the ordinary man on the street welcomed the change of government, rejoiced and danced away in ecstatic jubilation, the atmosphere was muggy.”
For example, in the West, AG/UPGA supporters settled scores against supporters of former Premier Akintola’s NNDP, creating a major crisis which evolved into an international refugee problem. It is said that 2000 refugees fled across the border to neighbouring Dahomey before the border was closed from January 16-26. No less than a thousand people were killed in the melee before Lt. Col. FA Fajuyi, the new military governor, detained surviving NNDP supporters allegedly for their own protection. In the North, there were some subdued early signs of a recoil among civilian elite, while unrest simmered in the Army. The net result was that Ironsi quickly felt threatened by Nzeogwu’s supporters on one hand, and upset northern troops on the other.
REFLECTIONS OF AN IGBO DIPLOMAT
In his book, “No Place to Hide – Crises and Conflicts inside Biafra”, Bernard Odogwu, then a Nigerian diplomat, but destined to become Chief of Biafran Intelligence, reveals that shortly after the coup of January 15, 1966 he and a fellow diplomat called Adamu Mohammed at the Nigerian mission to the United Nations in New York had a frank discussion about it. Odogwu wrote that “we were both in agreement that the so called ‘revolutionaries’ had performed very badly, in view of the one sidedness of the operation and the selectiveness of the killings.” Following this discussion Odogwu made an entry on January 23, 1966 into his personal notebook:
“With all the returns in, we now seem to have a complete picture of the coup, the plotters, and the casualties. Reading through the newspapers, one gets the impression that this national catastrophe which is termed a “revolution” is being blown greatly out of proportion. It does appear to me though, that we have all gone wild with jubilation in welcoming the so-called ‘dawn of a new era’ without pausing to consider the possible chain reactions that may soon follow….I shudder at the possible aftermath of this this folly committed by our boys in khaki.; and what has kept coming to my mind since the afternoon is the passage in Shakespeare’s MACBETH – ‘And they say blood will have blood’.
First I ask myself this question; ‘What will be the position as soon as the present mass euphoria in welcoming the ‘revolution’ in the country fades away?’ There is already some rumour here within diplomatic circles that January 15 was a grand Igbo design to liquidate all opposition in order to make way for Igbo domination of the whole country. What then is the Igbo man’s defence to this allegation in light of the sectional and selective method adopted by the coup plotters?
Although, sitting here alone as I write this, I am tempted to say that there was no such Igbo grand design, yet the inescapable fact is that the Igbos are already as a group being condemned by the rest for the activities of a handful of ambitious Igbo army officers; for here I am, with the rest of my Igbo colleagues, some thousands of miles away from home, yet being put on the defensive for such actions that we were neither consulted about, nor approved of. Our Northern colleagues and friends now look on us Igbos here as strangers and potential enemies. They are now more isolated than ever before. Their pride is hurt; and who would blame them?
Secondly, I ask myself the questions posed to me this afternoon by my colleague; What would I do if I were placed in the position of the Northerner? What do I do? How do I react to the situation? Do I just deplore and condemn those atrocities or do I plan a revenge? I do not blame the Northern chaps for feeling so sore since the events of the last few days. They definitely have my sympathy, for it must have been shocking to say the least, for one to wake up one fine morning to find nearly all one’s revered leaders gone overnight. But they were not only Northern leaders as such, and I am as much aggrieved at their loss as any other Nigerian, Northern or otherwise. I am particularly shocked at the news that Major Ifeajuna personally shot and killed his mentor, Brigadier Maimalari. My God! That must have been Caesar and Brutus come alive, with the Brigadier definitely saying ‘Et tu Emma’ before collapsing…”
“…As for the new man at the helm of affairs, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, he too like the majority of the Majors is an Igbo, and that has not helped matters either. …”
“…Granted that he is such a good soldier as he is reputed to be, the question is: ‘Are all good soldiers necessarily good statesmen? Again how well prepared is he for the task he has just inherited?’ I do hope that he is also as wise as he is reputed to be bold, because if you ask me, I think the General is sitting on a time bomb, with the fuse almost burnt out. We shall wait and see what happens next, but from my observations, I know the present state of affairs will not last long. A northern counter-action is definitely around the corner, and God save us all when it explodes.”
MISUNDERSTANDING AND SUSPICION
Indeed, misunderstandings and suspicions in Ibadan and Kaduna led to the deaths of Major S. A. Adegoke (who was accused of running a checkpoint but was actually killed on suspicion of cooperating with the mutineers) and 2/Lt. James Odu respectively, several days after the Nzeogwu-Ifeajuna January mutiny had already been put down. In the 4th Battalion at Ibadan, northern troops drove Igbo officers out of the barracks and refused to cooperate with Major Nzefili, a midwesterner from Ukwuani and the 2ic to late Lt. Col Largema, for no other reason than he was ‘Igbo speaking’. Nzefili had absolutely nothing to do with the January coup and, paradoxically, first heard of it via early morning phone calls to the barracks from the American and British embassies in Lagos looking for information. Nevertheless, four weeks later, he had to be replaced by Lt. Col Joe Akahan, a Tiv officer from the North, just to placate the soldiers. In exchange, Nzefili was made the General Manager of the Nigerian Railway Corporation, where had previously worked in the days prior to joining the Army.
In Kaduna, when Odu was killed by soldiers, several northern officers actually ran away from the barracks, fearful for their lives. In the Federal Guards Company in Lagos, northern rank and file fuming over the role of their commander, Major Donatus Okafor, in the coup, refused to accept Major Ochei as their new commanding officer unless Captain Joseph Nanven Garba was redeployed from Brigade HQ and appointed his second in command. While all this was going on, about 32 officers and 100 other ranks were initially detained at KiriKiri prison on suspicion of complicity in the coup. Captain Baba Usman, General Staff Officer (II) Intelligence, was appointed military liaison to the Police and was responsible for transporting them daily to Force Headquarters Moloney where most were interrogated by a Police team on their part in the coup. This team included Isa Adejo, MD Yusuf, and Mr. Trout, an expatriate who was then Head of Special Branch. When the interrogations were completed in March the detainees were distributed away from each other to other prisons, all of which were in the South, but predominantly in the East – which proved to be another source of suspicion. The report was then submitted to the government and a panel nominated to court-martial the detainees, chaired by Lt. Col Conrad Nwawo, the midwestern Igbo speaking officer and personal friend of Nzeogwu who had negotiated Nzeogwu’s surrender in January. However, even this panel found that every time it wanted to sit, the date was postponed by directives from Supreme HeadQuarters, a process that repeated itself again and again until overtaken by events in July.
On Friday January 21, acting on a tip off, the decomposing corpse of the slain Prime Minster, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, and others were discovered by Police at Mile 27 on the Lagos-Abeokuta road. The only hint that gave away the identity of the late Prime Minister’s body was the ‘frog and bridle pattern’ of the white gown he had worn when arrested by Major Ifeajuna. The next day, coinciding with the moslem festival of Id-el-fitr, the Prime Minister’s death was officially announced and he was buried in Bauchi. However, the Ironsi government decided not to publicly announce the deaths of others who had been killed in the coup, including all the top military officers, leaving room for rumors and innuendos. Indeed their deaths were not officially publicly announced until Ironsi was overthrown.
The shape of Ironsi’s advisory team became clear as time went on. Chief among them was Francis Nwokedi, former permanent secretary in the ministry of external affairs, who had become close to him during his days in the Congo. Others were Pius Okigbo (economic adviser) and Lt. Col Patrick Anwunah who was later Chairman of the National Orientation Committee. However, most of General Ironsi’s advisers were faceless civilians. The most common complaint was that, although highly qualified and distinguished, they were either all Igbos or Igbo speaking. I have no way of verifying or refuting this allegation. Knowing how other governments in Nigeria have behaved (and continue to behave), it is hard to know what to make of these observations, but they were recorded by observers across ethnic and regional boundaries.
On February 12, Ironsi took his most sensitive decision to date when he made Nwokedi the sole commissioner for the establishment of an administrative machinery for a unified Nigeria – even though he already appointed a separate Constitutional Review Panel under Rotimi Williams which had not submitted a report. Four days later he promulgated the Suppression of Disorder Decree making allowance for military tribunals and martial law. About this time too, he abolished the compulsory Hausa language test for entry into the northern civil service – a decision which appealed not just to non-Hausa speaking northerners but also to southerners eyeing northern public service careers as well. Ironsi also authorized a counter-insurgency campaign against Isaac Boro’s “Peoples Republic of the Niger Delta”. The internal security operation in the Kaiama area of present day Bayelsa state that captured Boro was led by Major John Obienu of the Recce regiment supported by infantry elements of the 1st battalion in Enugu, prominent among whom was then Lt. YY Kure. Boro, (along with Samuel Owonaru, Nottingham Dick and Benneth Mendi) was eventually convicted of treason and sentenced to death only to be released by the subsequent Gowon regime and die fighting during the civil war.
The fissures in the polity were becoming increasingly glaring. For example, on the one hand, Peter Enahoro (Peter Pan) criticized Ironsi’s indecisiveness with national issues. On the other, the murder of northerners in January and lack of prosecution of those responsible was the focus of increasingly strident write-ups in Gaskiya Ta Fi Kwabo, a Hausa newspaper. In the background, increasing food prices as a result of the delayed effect of 1965 crises in the west on planting was beginning to affect the prices of food stuffs everywhere.
Anyway, on February 21st, General Ironsi announced a bold reform policy. A few days later on the 25th the former President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, quietly returned to the country, only to become the focus of controversy when subsequently dismissed by Lt. Col Ojukwu as Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
On March 7, sensing some heat, former leading politicians in the Western and Eastern regions were detained, but those of the northern region were left alone because of political sensitivities resulting from the coup. Indeed, Ironsi made an effort – ultimately insufficient – to walk on eggs with the North. The way his advisers saw it, he had appointed and promoted the son of the Emir of Katsina as the new military Governor, released NPC ministers who were detained by Nzeogwu in Kaduna, reappointed Sule Katagum to the Public Service Commission and placed Malam Howeidy in charge of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria. In May, among other promotions, he promoted three substantive northern Captains (Ibrahim Haruna of Ordnance, Murtala Muhammed of Signals and Mohammed Shuwa of Infantry) who were then acting Majors to the ranks of temporary Lt. Cols. But he fell short on more culturally sensitive matters. For example, the military governor of the northern region, then Major Hassan Katsina, was discouraged by the Ironsi government from attending the funeral of the late Prime Minister Balewa in Bauchi. Proper funerals were not allowed for the other victims of the January coup.
On March 31st, military governors were asked to join the federal executive council, thus enlarging its membership. On April 14, native authority councils and local government entities in the North were dissolved. By then the concept of unification was garnering controversial attention. Mustafa Danbatta and Suleiman Takuma wrote strong public letters against unification in April 7 and 19 respectively. Takuma was arrested, in part because he raised the sensitive issue of trying the January plotters.
On 12 May, proposed Decrees 33 and 34 were discussed by the SMC. Decree No. 33 was a list of 81 political societies and 26 tribal and cultural associations that were to be dissolved. Decree No. 34 divided Nigeria into 35 provinces and made all civil servants part of a unified civil service. It is said that there was opposition and that the final version was watered down. Even then, although Ironsi did not legally require approval of the SMC for decisions, there continues to be doubt about whether Ironsi fully appreciated the depths of opposition which Decree 34 would create in the North. How vigorously did Katsina, Kam Salem, and Gowon, for example, forewarn him of consequences? Had he by then become hostage to a kitchen cabinet outside government?
The answer may have been provided by two sources. According to Brigadier Ogbemudia (rtd) who was then Brigade Major at the 1st Brigade, during a visit to Kaduna, 1st Brigade Commander Lt. Col Bassey tried to advise General Ironsi to back off from the controversial decree, but a civilian adviser who came along with the General retorted saying: “Colonel, the General understands Nigerians more than you here. You will find that the people will soon see him as the much sought redeemer of our dreams. Do not worry. Everything is under control.” It was claimed that national surveys had been done to show that the decree was welcome all over the country. More recently General Gowon has said the matter was still being discussed in the SMC when the government suddenly promulgated the decree. That said, Eastern region Governor Lt. Col. Ojukwu did not help matters for the General when, the next day after promulgation on May 24, he publicly announced in Enugu that on the basis of seniority, Igbo civil servants would be transferred to other regions and Lagos. Needless to say, he unintentionally sent shivers through the northern civil service because that region was not only educationally disadvantaged but traditionally paid the lowest salaries in the federation, automatically relegating northerners to the bottom of any unified civil service.
Caught between radical (pro January 15) and conservative (anti January 15) polarities, Ironsi could be said to have promulgated the 24th May decrees to satisfy the radical intelligentsia in the southern press while projecting vision, authority and control. But funny enough the leading spokesman for the January coup, Major Nzeogwu, was later quoted during his last interview in April 1967 (with Ejindu) as saying the Unification decree was “unnecessary, even silly”. It is also on record that a group of lecturers at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka opposed unification. So it would seem Ironsi was responding to other impulses.
According to Norman Miners, the unitary concept advanced by Ironsi’s advisers was more likely motivated by ideological, personal and economic agendas. In the book “The Nigerian Army 1956-66”, he expresses the opinion that the theoretical foundations date back to the 1951 party congress of the NCNC. Indeed, the concept of federalism which we now all sing about, was regarded by columnists in the West African Pilot in the fifties as a colonial “divide and rule” contraption cooked up by Britain as a concession to the North after the April 1953 riots in Kano. The second plank upon which unification was built was the cost argument. Unification was economically cheaper than multiple layers of administration in the country – a position that was argued by Dr. Sam Aluko, a notable economist. The third plank was the personal motive factor. Unification offered southerners (including Igbos) vast new employment opportunities in the “northern frontier”. The flip side of this was the provocation of morbid fear of domination in the North, fear which united hitherto antagonistic northern political constituencies.
While all of this was going on, complaints about “Igbo provocations”, were increasing. Northerners filed reports about parties being called by their Igbo colleagues to celebrate what they called the “January Victory”. Offensive photographs showing Major Nzeogwu standing on the late Sardauna of Sokoto were said to be distributed in the open including market places. Some Igbos were even alleged to have worn stickers to that effect and were eager, in conversations with northerners, to point to Nzeogwu saying ‘Shi ne maganin ku”, meaning “he is the one who can knock sense into you”. Grammophone records with machine gun sounds were released, to remind Northerners, it is said, of the bullets that felled their leaders in January. Celestine Ukwu, a popular Igbo musician allegedly released a piece titled “Ewu Ne Ba Akwa” meaning “Goats are crying” in Igbo (although there is an account that claims that this song originated from a non-Igbo artiste from Rivers). Derogatory remarks about Northerners were reportedly commonplace, even in Army Barracks. To compound matters, resentment began building against Igbo traders who had allegedly raised the prices of their foodstuffs to match the increases in the West. All of these factors were shrewdly exploited by an unlikely coalition of disenfranchised politicians, petty contractors, marketing board and northern development corp debtors, civil servants and university students of northern origin fearful of future career prospects in the public service. As former President Shehu Shagari put it in his biography “Beckoned to Serve”, .’From the northern viewpoint, the implications of all this in terms of distribution of power, the allocation of public resources and amenities, the prospect of Igbo and southern domination, and the threat to mainstream northern ways of life were unmistakable.’ Opposition to unification in particular was spearheaded by northern students and civil servants.
THE MAY RIOTS
Following General Ironsi’s broadcast on Tuesday evening May 24, making Nigeria a Unitary State, initially peaceful demonstrations by civil servants and students began on Friday May 27. On Saturday May 28 copies of the June edition of Drum magazine arrived in the North , containing two provocative articles; “Why Nigeria Exploded” by Nelson Ottah which allegedly derided northern leaders, and “Sir Ahmadu rose in his shrouds and spoke from the dead” by Coz Idapo, which allegedly featured a cartoon in which the reverred late Premier was asking for forgiveness from Idapo. Some authors have blamed these articles for the subsequent outbreak of wanton violence and barbarity on Sunday May 29 continuing through to June 4-5 which led to at least 600 Igbo deaths (according to the London Telegraph), particularly in northern provinces like Kano, Bauchi, Sokoto, Katsina, and Zaria. Indeed the Hausa phrase “A raba” meaning “Let us separate” may first have been used by Bauchi rioters in May. Interestingly, there were no May riots in Borno, Ilorin and Makurdi. The riots were particularly bad in Gusau. But in Sokoto township the combination of intervention by the Sultan, the deployment of an Igbo dominated mobile Police Unit and the decision by Igbo traders there not to fight back led to quick stabilization of the situation.
One development during the May riots which exposed the military vulnerability of the Ironsi government was the fear to deploy troops for internal security duties. Back in March, increasingly concerned about restive northern troops, General Ironsi had issued an order that soldiers were not to be issued ammunition even for target practice. During the May riots in the north, because of the dominance of northerners in the rank and file of infantry units it was feared that soldiers would not take orders to shoot against fellow northerners in defence of Igbos.
The Ironsi regime, shaken by the riots and unnerved by its lack of confidence in the state machineries of coercion, reacted to the riots by blaming foreigners. It deported Major Boyle (rtd) along with British correspondents Schwarz and Loshak, and took the conciliatory position that the May decrees were only transitional measures pending the return of civil rule. The government promised massive assistance to educationally backward areas of the Country and sent campaign vans to explain itself in vernacular all over the country. Unfortunately, one of the deported British journalists (Walter Schwarz) went back to Britain and wrote an article in the Guardian on June 25, titled: “General Ironsi’s trust in his friends leads Nigeria back to tribal strife”.
On June 1st, General Ironsi issued orders that anyone displaying provocative pictures or singing offensive songs should be arrested for incitement and would face 3 months imprisonment or 50 pounds fine or both (Decree 40). Realizing the folly of hitherto ignoring traditional lines of communication, he sought to enlist the support of the Emirs to calm down the people. During a June 1 conference of Northern Emirs and Chiefs with Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina, the regime even went as far as saying that the May decrees did not affect the territorial divisions of the country, and promise a constituent assembly and referendum on any new constitution.
On June 8, the regime restated its constitutional position. After this, the Sultan of Sokoto broadcast an appeal for calm on June 17 and asked those who had left the North in fear to return. On June 24, the government announced that it would set up military courts to try nepotism and corruption. Simultaneously, nine (9) northerners were detained (including the editor of gaskiya ta fi kwabo), and an Army company was deployed to Sokoto as a permanent garrison allegedly under an Igbo Major. This otherwise routine internal security move which resulted from intelligence reports following the May riots caused apprehension locally since no such military unit had been deployed there for many years going all the way back to the days of the British and the Satiru rebellion. The editor and cartoonist of the “Pilot” in the Eastern region were also detained for a cartoon which showed the Ironsi government as a large Cock (which used to be the NCNC symbol) crowing ‘One Country, One Nationality’. Subsequently, on June 26, the Brett tribunal was appointed to inquire into the May disturbances – to the consternation of the North.
Still, the issue of what to do with the January boys remained a sore point and mutual suspicion remained. On July 13, Ironsi announced military prefects at local level, and proposed rotation of military governors. Northerners interpreted this as meaning that Ojukwu, already being viewed with suspicion for his public pronouncements about unification, was to be posted to Kaduna. There is, however, no evidence that this is what was intended.
In the meantime, other than one exploratory meeting with Lt. Col Hassan Katsina, old NPC politicians like former Defence Minister Alhaji Inua Wada (who was also an uncle to Lt. Col. Murtala Muhammed) and Aliyu Makaman Bida may have had unhindered access to unaudited NPC funds. Wada is alleged by some to have wooed disaffected NEPU and UMBC leaders like Aminu Kano and Joseph Tarka to share a common northern political vision threatened by the new order. However, Military and Police intelligence completely missed the boat when, based on nothing more than his personal relationship with the late Prime Minister and Premier, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was invited to Lagos in late July for 3 days of questioning about disposition of certain NPC funds during the first republic. The intelligence community was barking up the wrong alley – although it is also true that the houses of Inua Wada, Daggash and others were searched.
This was not to be the only alleged failure of intelligence in establishing the civilian linkages to and sponsorship of the events of May and subsequent coup in July. Ojukwu claims that he gave a tape of a conversation made in Kano about the planned July 29 coup to Ironsi who then passed it on to acting Police IG Kam Salem (a northerner), who by implication, buried it. Madiebo cites a flurry of other intelligence failures in the North including an alleged leak from an informant called Alhaji Suya who was supposedly a cousin of the late Sardauna.
TENSIONS WITHIN THE MILITARY
Quite apart from the shenanigan that led to General Ironsi’s assumption of power (also known as “civilian hand over”), the fundamental crisis of confidence within the military was borne out of the failure to try the January plotters according to the manual of military law. General Ironsi became hostage not only to radical opinion in the southern Press that hailed them as heroes but also to the curious five point agreement he had negotiated with Nzeogwu in Kaduna back on January 17. Meanwhile tension and suspicion was rising in officers messes and barracks. Placatory visits were made to Barracks by Lt. Col. Gowon to appeal to northern troops to forgive and forget. Based on discussions and assurances by Ironsi, other northern officers like Major Danjuma also tried to calm down the troops and assure that the January mutineers would be tried in due course since the C-in-C had described them as rebels. On his part, every time he was asked, General Ironsi would respond by saying “Justice will be done”. On one occasion he offered a pay raise to troops.
In the years since the end of the Ironsi regime it has been alleged by commentators and propagandists that Ironsi personally tasked Gowon to investigate the January coup. Gowon tacitly denies this. The coup had already been investigated by the Police. That report, according to then Captain (now Brigadier) Baba Usman (rtd), Ironsi’s liaison with the Police, was ready in March 1966. In fact, according to Professor Elaigwu, a panel was set up under Col. Nwawo to follow up the Police report with formal charges but it never sat. Meanwhile, as is eloquently described in the book “Why we Struck” by Major Ademoyega, each time the matter was brought up for discussion at the SMC, Colonel Fajuyi, Governor of the West, was opposed to any trial. (Funny enough, as will be seen later, when trying to contain the revolt in Lagos on July 29, Brigadier Ogundipe tried to sell a dummy by telling Captain JN Garba that the report on the January boys had only just reached him that morning)!
Meanwhile rumors were swirling. It was alleged that the mutineers were being treated specially in prison, illegally receiving full pay along with a prison allowance, some getting promoted, and granted access to their families. Some of these rumors can now be confirmed to have been false. The controversy about their pay can easily be settled by referring to Sections 149 and 150 of the Military Forces Ordinance No 26 of 1960. Part VII on Pay Forfeitures and Deductions states that pay should continue before the verdict. At the time of the Ironsi regime that law was in force. However, what was not allowed under the law was an arbitrary delay in proceeding with trial, any form of prison allowance or artificial separation from other political prisoners.
Regarding the widespread reports about seven of the plotters being promoted in Jail, that too is untrue. Only one officer among those arrested, 2/Lt Ojukwu, no relation of the Colonel, was promoted Lt – and it may have been an error. As regards a ‘Major Okafor’ being promoted, Major DC Okafor/N74 was the one promoted, not Major DO Okafor/N73. Major DO Okafor was the January plotter.
Another source of suspicion in the Army was the promotion exercise carried out in May. There were three complaints about it. First that it should not have happened at all because there was a moratorium on promotions in force at the time. Second that it “favored” Igbo officers and consolidated their control of the military. Third, that northerners were also “favored” along with Igbos while Yoruba officers were “marginalized”. The sources of each of these lines of thinking is easy to guess. Eleven (11) Majors were promoted substantive Lt. Cols while fourteen (14) Majors were made temporary Lt. Cols. Of these, 19 were Igbo or Igbo speaking easterners and midwesterners, 5 northerners (Katsina, Akahan, Shuwa, Muhammed, Haruna) and one Yoruba (Olutoye). On the surface, it looked a crude attempt to favor Igbo or Igbo speaking officers. But in reality no Igbo or Igbo speaking officer was promoted who was not due for promotion, considering that between 1955 and 1961 the vast majority of officer recruits were of Igbo or Igbo speaking origin. There was no quota system for officers at that time and those who joined then had risen to middle level ranks by 1966. However, the appearance of a sudden lopsided “pro-Igbo” promotion exercise carried out by an allegedly “Igbo regime” when there was a moratorium in force and tension in the barracks was a public relations disaster, particularly since there were quite a few Yoruba officers (Obasanjo, Sotomi, Adekunle, Ayo-Ariyo and Rotimi) who were clearly bypassed. There is a body of opinion that, unknown to the public, three Igbo Majors (Obienu, Aniebo and Chude-Sokei) were also bypassed, but followed soon after by the Unification decree, the imagery of the promotion exercise removed all doubts about prevailing conspiracy theories.
Northern civilian propagandists used the tools of psychological warfare and worked tirelessly to incite the northern military. In the Army’s official history, General Gowon said “The northern politicians infiltrated the Northern soldiers and officers, trying to convince them that there was a need for them to retaliate.” General Babangida put it this way: “There was a very calculated and subtle but very efficient and effective indoctrination of the Northern officers by civilians. They kept hammering on it that our leaders had been killed and we were doing nothing; that we were cowards.” General Shuwa (rtd) described documents passed around Kaduna purporting to show plans for senior Igbo officers to meet at Hamdala Hotel to plan the liquidation of remaining northern officers after January. But Babangida also said: “.there was a threat that the Igbos wanted to take revenge. Now sitting down and looking at it, quite honestly in retrospect, I think we used that so as to gain support, to get people committed so that you didn’t get caught. It was preemptive.” Indeed the rumors were so detailed that operational code names using animals were even ascribed to parts of the alleged grand Igbo plot to continue Operation Damisa (Leopard) which had already taken place on Jan 15 . These were Operation Kura (Hyena) to eliminate certain chiefs, Operation Zaki (Lion) to eliminate remaining chiefs and finally Operation Giwa (Elephant) to carve the country up into individual districts administered by Igbos. This kind of uncorroborated preposterous disinformation is what informed the nervousness with which certain traditional rulers approached the conference of traditional rulers in Ibadan on July 28.
However outlandish they were, civilian agents provocateur were unwittingly aided by inept handling of public relations by the Ironsi regime and real provocations by some Igbo civilians and soldiers. In his biography titled “Power with Civility” by Oleka and Ofondu (Neskon 1998), Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, an Igbo easterner who later fought in the Biafran Navy, states: “That Igbos, including soldiers in the barracks, teased their Northern counterparts about what they regarded as swapping of fortune, served to fray tempers. It was not long before Northerners vented their spleen on their Igbo guests. An orgy of killing of Igbos throughout all nooks and crannies of the Northern Region kicked off.” In his book, “Revolution in Nigeria, Another View” late General Garba describes how his soldiers in the Federal Guard broke down in tears in Jankara market in Lagos when they heard the album “Machine Gun” . General Danjuma (rtd) says even the wives of Igbo soldiers were taunting the wives of Northern soldiers.
All of this was amplified not only by the truly very violent nature of the January take over, but by a whispering campaign of highly provocative but unproven stories about the grotesque manner in which some of the northern politicians and soldiers had been killed in January. There are northern officers I have spoken to who still say Prime Minister Balewa had his phallus cut off and placed in his mouth by Majors Ifeajuna and Okafor. Another story had it that a kola nut was placed in his mouth after being shot to taunt the northern custom of eating kola nuts – a curious story considering that all Nigerian tribes, especially the Igbo, value kolanuts in their custom. Yet another tale had it that he was asked to turn around and pray and that while he was praying he was shot from behind creating a large hole. All of this was embellished by the story that he cursed all Igbos before he died. On careful thought, such a large hole could have been an exit wound, meaning he was more likely shot from the front – although an entry wound from a concentrated burst of SMG fire can be big. But if any given northern NCO had believed that he was so mistreated, one can see how Major Okafor was singled out for extreme treatment.
Same goes for Lt. Col Largema, Commander of the 4th Battalion, who was shot outside his room at Ikoyi Hotel. As late as the year 2000, former Army Chief Lt. Gen Danjuma (rtd) was still of the opinion expressed in the Army’s official history – which he has probably held over the years – that Largema’s corpse was thrown out of the 11th floor window at Ikoyi Hotel by Ifeajuna to the ground. However, I visited Room 115 in the old wing of Ikoyi Hotel myself to physically appreciate the setting in which that fine officer was killed. The room, right next to a stairwell, is on the first floor. The building has no 11th floor. His corpse was more likely dragged one floor down the steps to the waiting Mercedes car in the parking lot. It is bad enough and inexcusable that he was murdered in cold blood but if his corpse had really been thrown out the window from the 11th floor, Ifeajuna is lucky Ojukwu got to him before northern troops from Largema’s 4th battalion did.
Likewise, Nzeogwu’s destruction of the Premier’s lodge using an anti-tank weapon and killing of his wife offended the sensibilities of many officers and gentlemen including some Igbo speaking officers I have spoken to who shared Nzeogwu’s Sandhurst background. For example, in a telephone conversation, Lt. Col. Alphonsus Keshi (rtd) then Brigade Major of the 1st Brigade, described late Major Nzeogwu to me as a “murderer”. Onwatuegwu on the other hand, not only shot Brigadier Ademulegun but killed his pregnant wife – an abomination in african tradition. For some weeks after the coup one could get a guided tour of Ademulegun’s blood spattered bedroom in Kaduna with the right connections at 1 Brigade HQ. Those who went for the tour did not emerge from it with any feelings that mercy should be shown if the perpetrator was ever caught. These were the sorts of emotions that friends and family and professional colleagues of the slain officers and politicians were dealing with in the months leading to July. For the military casualties in particular, the typical question was, “If your quarrel was with politicians why did you kill our loved relations, colleagues and senior officers in the military?”
In an interview back in the early eighties with Radio Kaduna, then Brigadier (later Major General) Mamman Vatsa, now deceased, is quoted by Elaigwu as saying:
“The July coup was motivated by the actions in January 1966 whereby an illegal action was legitimized. If you do that, you expect a counter reaction. July 29, 1966 was a reaction to an inaction against an illegal action..Right from the beginning, the GOC, Nigerian Army regarded these people as ‘rebels’. If that was accepted, the immediate thing was to take the necessary action to get them disciplined legally. If this was not done, then the GOC was condoning indiscipline or treason. Rather than punish men from his army who were on mutiny, he was now asking the civilian government to hand over to him before he could maintain discipline in an organization of which he was in charge..In the first instance, he shouldn’t even have taken over the power..”
In the final analysis, though, certain events conspired to push northern troops over the edge. In July, many northern recruits were turned away from the Army depot in Zaria and preference allegedly given to southerners. For example, the entire batch from Sokoto province was rejected. It is entirely possible that such rejections were based on principle but in the prevailing environment of suspicion the implications were alarming. Secondly, General Ironsi told the 4th battalion a week before the mutiny that they would rotate with 1st battalion in Enugu, which happened to be Governor Fajuyi’s former unit which he had commanded for three years. Unfortunately for Ironsi the announcement not only caused anxieties usually associated with change but played right into an unfounded rumor that had been making the rounds that a train carrying the 4th battalion was to be derailed by Igbo sappers between Makurdi and Otukpo. All of this for a battalion that lost three former commanding officers in January (Maimalari, Kur Mohammed and Largema) and was a thoroughly politicised pro-Akintola outfit, moulded in the furnace of Ibadan politics. When, therefore, soldiers of the 4th battalion were asked to provide guard duty for Ironsi and Fajuyi at the Government House Ibadan on July 28, 1966 it was like asking the Fox to guard the Hen House. On July 29, 1966, mutinous soldiers, taking a cue from their colleagues elsewhere surrounded the premises, arrested the General and his host and eventually kidnapped them both, taking them to mile 8 on Iwo road where they were shot and buried.
By the time the July 1966 mutiny had run its course, no less than 213 predominantly Igbo officers and other ranks had been killed. An untold number of civilians also lost their lives.
TO BE CONTINUED
By Nowa Omoigui