The 1966 Coup and Counter Coup: Looking Back So We Can Look Forward By Reno Omokri

First published in my column, #TheAlternative, in Sunday ThisDay of May 24, 2020.

It was Winston Churchill who said “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” So, in this week’s #TheAlternative, I will be looking backwards to the January 15, 1966 coup and the July 28, 1966 counter-coup, with the purpose of learning lessons from those two fateful events.

I was inspired to write this piece because there is a real danger that history could repeat Itself in Nigeria. Do you doubt me? Then, you have not been paying attention on Twitter and other microblogging sites. Consider the statement made last year, by Bashir El-Rufai, a boy born 20 years after the end of the Civil War: “A segment of the nation undertook a coup and killed other regional leaders with so much disrespect and expected peace and acquiescence thereafter. Then attempt to make history solely define it as revenge when same was done to them. It was revenge and it was sweet. The North remembers.”

Without further ado, let us delve into history and the questions raised. I will ask some questions, go into some detail, and dovetail into something more general to the Black Race. I watched an early 60s video in which Sir Ahmadu Bello spoke disparagingly about the Igbos as an ethnicity and did not hide his disdain from them. He casted the Igbo race as people who seek to dominate others. This video is available on YouTube. I sometimes find myself asking if this video could have played a role in precipitating the coup and its pattern of killings. For instance, about the January 15, 1966 coup, why did Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna elect to kill those they toppled? Why not just arrest them? And why was there such a determination to kill Ahmadu Bello?

The ironic thing about that coup is that the Ifeajuna/Nzeogwu coup was foiled largely by then Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu in Kano, and Major General Aguiyi Ironsi in Lagos. Yet, these two individuals later became casualties of the July 28, 1966 counter-coup. Also, the January 15, 1966 coup is frequently described as the Nzeogwu coup, but the truth, from documentary evidence, is that Emmanuel Ifeajuna was actually the ring leader of the coup. Was Nzeogwu just a pawn in Ifeajuna’s coup?

In retrospect, if the coup was an Igbo coup, why did two Igbos (Ironsi and Ojukwu) foil it? Another question that arises out of the coup is what did the plotters want? Some claim that Awolowo was to be made Prime Minister (I think this was a carrot dangled at Nzeogwu, who was widely known to be an admirer of Chief Awolowo. I do not think that this was ever meant to materialise). In my opinion, it is as Chinua Achebe said in his seminal work, Arrow of God. A small boy may think he is the owner of a goat. He may fetch it food and look after it. But when the goat is killed, the real owner will be known. Nzeogwu was the small boy.

Power is the goat. Nobody obtains power and gives it away. No one. Absolutely no one. Perhaps Nzeogwu was naive. And those who called the January 15, 2020 coup an Igbo coup are not fully informed. That coup was not just a military coup. It was masterminded by Majors Ifeajuna and Okafor. However, Ifeajuna was an intellectual. He graduated from the University College, Ibadan, and many of his contemporaries at that school were the backbone of the intelligentsia. At that time, tribe and religion was not such a big deal amongst the intelligentsia.

One of Ifeajuna’s contemporaries at the University College, Ibadan was Wole Soyinka, who was then a lecturer at the University of Lagos. He was a known confidante of Ifeajuna, and it is believed that he and other lecturers of the University of Lagos knew of, and perhaps even initiated the idea, or at the very least planned the coup with Ifeajuna. There are two reasons for that school of thought. One is that Wole Soyinka was a known critic of the Tafawa Balewa administration. The second is that Soyinka had himself tried to effect a change of regional government by holding up a radio station in Ibadan and asking them, at gunpoint, to broadcast a message he had authored, calling on the Premier of the Western region to vacate office.

However, the strongest circumstantial evidence for Mr. Soyinka’s involvement is the fact that he influenced his colleagues at the University of Lagos to write a letter to Ironsi, in May 1966, asking the then head of state not to court-martial or execute the coupists. In the said letter, which Wole Soyinka signed as secretary, along with several other lecturers of mostly Yoruba origin, Mr. Soyinka said ‘The people of this nation have demonstrated an overwhelming support for the overthrow of the last regime, and the Nigerian Army stands high in public regards for this very act’.

Be that as it may, the following questions remain: After the coup was foiled, why did Major General Ironsi not restore power to the next most senior minister in the Northern Peoples Congress government, which would have been either Shehu Shagari, Muhammadu Ribadu, or Zanna Dipcharima? However, I can understand, because of human nature, why Ironsi took power. But why did he not try Ifeajuna’s, Okafor, Nzeogwu, et al? That was not only the right thing to do, it would also have placated the North. Could the Igbo pogroms that began in May 1966 in the North have been prevented?

I think the failure of Ironsi to try the plotters and the triumphalism displayed by Igbos in the Eastern region and around Nigeria after the January 15, 1966 coup was certainly a trigger, though not a justification, for the pogrom. Given such a charged environment, why did Ironsi promulgate the infamous Unification Decree No. 34? I almost wonder if he was misadvised on this issue by fifth columnists. And then there was the counter-coup of July 28-29, 1966. Some of those who either planned or executed that coup are alive and can not deny that the original intention of the coup was Araba or division.

The counter-coup was a revenge, pure and simple. And who could blame the plotters? Had Ironsi tried the January 1966 coupists, he might have eased the Northern angst. However, two issues arise, why were the mutineers bent on genocide against the Igbos? And why did they retain the same Unification Decree No. 34 which they had previously rejected? And then why did the same set of people, who had previously wanted Araba (division), reject the various compromises that were agreed on at the Aburi conference? If the Aburi Accord had been implemented, there would certainly have been no Nigerian Civil War.

The Igbos as a people were not responsible for the Nzeogwu/Ifeajuna coup. But even if they were, they have paid a great price and should stop being punished by Nigeria.

The current marginalisation of the Southeast by General Buhari is the harshest there ever was. It was these same conditions that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. The harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty put post-world war Germany under unimaginable strain. Yes, they were not quite so innocent, but the whole purpose of being defeated is that the war is over. Nigeria may have created such an environment with the Igbos, who share a remarkable similarity with the Germans in work ethic, racial brilliance, and singleness of mind. The recent renaissance of Igbo irredentism is as a direct result of the hardline postures of General Buhari and his fellow right-wingers (it is an insult to call Buhari a progressive).

I do not want to reopen too many old wounds. I just want Nigeria to come to terms with some of these issues and if possible have some closure. Because, as the words of Bashir El-Rufai show, there has been no closure. To have closure as a nation, Nigeria should consider a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as soon as possible (some of those who can tell the truth may be close to the grave), so that we can establish the truth, and as Christ said, ‘the truth shall us free’.

The 1966 Nigerian coup and counter-coup, and the resultant civil war can reoccur because our youth have little to learn from since little has been written about the coup. Other than Obasanjo (a highly unappreciated African) and Ademoyega, most of the dramatis personae of those events did not put pen to paper.

I must commend Alexander Madiebo, for his book The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War. Along with Obasanjo’s My Command, and Adewale Ademoyega’s Why We Struck: The story of the first Nigerian coup, Madiebo gave a detailed account of his civil war experience. However, there is still much that is unknown about those events, which could only be known if the eyewitnesses write down their accounts. For example, once Gowon dies, much of our history dies with him.

It is even more disappointing that Emeka Ojukwu, a man who read history up to Masters level at Oxford, did not pen a detailed account of the events of that dark period in Nigeria’s history. Ojukwu’s book, Because I am Involved, is not a detailed account of either the 1966 coup and counter-coup or the civil war. It is more of a mishmash of anecdotes and opinions he had about the state of Nigeria up until the time he published it, (1989). I have read it. It is more of a pseudo biographical book. He even mentioned Bianca and her dad in it. For someone of Ojukwu’s pedigree and education, Because I am Involved should have been better. TY Danjuma can throw so much light on the shrouded circumstances of those days if only he would write. And this failure to record history is not a Nigerian tragedy. It is an African tragedy. The protagonists of Apartheid have written more books than the leaders of the South African freedom movement. Belgians have written more books about Patrice Lumumba, than the Congolese people whom he served, and Kwame Nkrumah is remembered more by African Americans, than by Africans. One of the reasons why former President Jonathan’s popularity has risen after his electoral defeat in 2015, is because I wrote a book detailing his achievements and the conspiracies against him, and have answered every attempt by the Goebbelsian regime of General Muhammadu Buhari to rewrite history. That book became a bestseller proves that the demand for African history is there. What is missing is the supply.

However, we, as Africans, are quiet when the West attempts to rewrite our history. That is why today, modern depictions of Egyptians have them as Caucasoid or Semitic, rather than the more accurate Black Nubian that they are. That is why the German American archaeologist, George Andrew Reisner, refused to accept that it was a dark-skinned people who built the pyramids (there are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt) and kept on looking for an alternative that does NOT exist, until he died.

Even today, Western archaeologists are still coming up with outlandish theories, including that aliens helped to build the pyramids, because their minds cannot accept that Black people could have pulled of such a feat, without the help of Europeans. You see, as the late Chinua Achebe said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” The above quote from Achebe is why our children are still taught stupid lies, such as that it was Mungo Park that discovered the source of the River Niger, or that John Hanning Speke discovered the source of the Nile.

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