KWENU: Our Culture, Our Future
The inside story of Nigeria's first military coup (2)
Wednesday, December 6, 2006
In the weeks leading up to January 15th Nzeogwu carried out reconnaissance on the official Lodge of the Northern Region Premier: the Sardauna of Sokoto Ahmadu Bello. Nzeogwu often took his men on a night-time “training exercise” known as “Exercise Damisa.” The men were unaware that the military exercise they were participating in was actually a practice run for a military coup to overthrow the Government. The commander of the 2nd Brigade in Kaduna Brigadier Ademulegun became aware of and was irritated by the night-time training (when he became aware that soldiers had been going near the Premier’s Lodge). He reprimanded Nzeogwu in a telephone call and warned him to keep his military exercises a safe distance away from the Premier’s Lodge. Although Ademulegun complained about the commotion, he took no further action as he was unaware of the exercise’s real purpose. Ademulegun was a polished soldier that had been Maj-Gen Ironsi’s rival for the job of GOC. His control over his troops was such that very few soldiers from his Brigade participated in the coup. Thus Nzeogwu had to conscript young soldiers from the Nigerian Military Training College to carry out the coup in Kaduna.
In the early hours of January15 1966, Nzeogwu decided to turn “Exercise Damisa” into a full-blown military coup. Nzeogwu led a group of soldiers into a bush adjacent to the Premier’s Lodge. Once there Nzeogwu informed the men of their real mission: they were to attack the Premier’s Lodge. Nzeogwu and his men blew open the gates to the Sardauna’s lodge and Nzeogwu personally conducted a search of the residence – hunting for Bello. After losing his temper at his initial failure to locate him, Nzeogwu found Bello hiding with his wives. Bello was shot by Nzeogwu. Bello’s faithful bodyguard who came to defend him with a bow and arrows was also shot, as well as one of his wives who tried to shield him with her body. Nzeogwu was fiercely committed to the coup and was the only one of the coupists able to execute his mission. His personal assertion that “it is impossible to vote out a Nigerian minister” showed his own conviction in his actions.
Nzeogwu’s co-conspirator in Kaduna, Major Tim Onwuategwu, personally led a detachment of soldier to Brigadier Ademulegun’s house. Onwuategwu made his way up to the Brigadier’s bedroom where he was laying beside his wife. Upon seeing Onwuategwu enter the room, Ademulegun shouted at him “Timothy, what the devil do you think you are doing?” (see Gbulie: “Nigeria’s Five Majors”). Onwuategwu told Ademulegun that he was “under arrest.” According to the Majors’ version of events, Ademulegun reached for a drawer beside his bed, and as he did so, Onwuategwu shot him dead in his bed, along with Ademulegun’s wife who was lying beside him.
The head of the NMTC Colonel Ralph Shodeinde was also killed. The manner of his death is unclear. His wife (who was present when he was killed) testified that he was shot by several soldiers including Majors Nzeogwu and Onwuategwu. Other accounts claim that a grenade was tossed at him. It is not clear whether Nzeogwu could possibly have been involved in Shodeinde’s death since presumably he was pre-occupied at the time with killing Ahmadu Bello. Most accounts place responsibly for Shodeinde’s murder with Onwuategwu. The Majors’ bloodlust in some cases and failure to kill others is puzzling. The same Major Onwuategwu who shot his commanding officers and their wives arrested, but did not harm the Governor of the Northern Region: Sir Kashim Ibrahim. When released, Ibrahim vouched that he had been treated with utmost respect by the men who abducted him. The Majors clearly had their “favourites” when it came to sparing or ending lives.
The commander of the 2nd Recce squadron in Kaduna was not harmed during the coup. Shortly before the coup, Katsina bumped into Nzeogwu. Nzeogwu exchanged pleasantries with Katsina and inquired about Katsina’s children and family. Some have speculated that the conversation between the two men may have saved Katsina’s life as Nzeogwu’s familiarity with Katsina’s personal life may have led to him to exclude Katsina from his calculations out of empathy. Whether that is true or not, when the two men first met again shortly after the coup, Nzeogwu directly asked Katsina: “Are you with us or against us?” Seeing that Nzeogwu was holding a gun, Katsina wisely replied, “You know I am with you.” Nzeogwu used the strategy more than once in the days following the coup as a means of testing the loyalty of other officers.
The Lagos branch of the coup was led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna. As well as being a degree holder before his military career, Ifeajuna had been an international athlete who held the commonwealth high-jumping record. The key officers assisting Ifeajuna in Lagos were Majors Wale Ademoyega, Don Okafor, Chris Anuforo, and Humphrey Chukwuka.
At around 2 am, Ifeajuna and some lieutenants left the 2nd Brigade HQ and made their way to Prime Minister Abubakar Tafewa Balewa’s residence. They overpowered (but did not kill) the police officers standing guard there, and Ifeajuna kicked down the door of the Prime Minister’s bedroom before leading him out at gunpoint. It appears that while the arrest of the Prime Minister was part of the plot, his murder may not have been, and Ifeajuna and some of his co-conspirators may have exceeded their orders in killing him. In the aftermath of the coup, Nzeogwu rattled off a list of names that were on the Majors' hit list. He mentioned the usual unsurprising suspects such as Bello, Azikiwe, and Akintola. Balewa’s name was conspicuously absent. Balewa was not killed until it was clear that the coup was doomed to fail. Balewa asked for, and was given time to say his prayers before he was shot by Major Ifeajuna. It was clear that not all arrested persons were to be killed. Some politicians (such as Sir Kashim Ibrahim and Dr. Michael Okpara) were arrested but released unharmed.
Many of the army’s senior officers were attending a party in honour of the Lagos-based first Brigade’s commander, Brigadier Maimalari. Some of the officers attending that party (including Maimalari himself) were to meet the grim reaper less than 24 hours after that party. Ifeajuna’s murder of his commanding officer Maimalari was probably the single greatest act of treachery on the night of the coup. In the absence of the vibrant and instant news media of today, an information chasm existed as the Government (for fear of increasing tension in the country) made little or no comment about the events of January. Thus rumours and conspiracy theories about victims’ whereabouts and miraculous manner of death/survival thrived. A riot almost broke out when an attempt was made to replace Brigadier Maimalari's commanding officer nameplate at the 2nd Brigade Headquarters in Lagos.
Maimalari was widely regarded as an excellent soldier that was headed for the top. His toughness was such that many northern NCOs refused to accept his death and instead believed that Maimalari had made a miraculous escape from the January Majors and was still alive. This had a tiny semblance of truth: Maimalari managed to escape from the first attempt to arrest him by Major Don Okafor by jumping over a wall behind his house but, as he was escaping on foot, he came across the car of his Brigade Major: Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Maimalari recognised Ifeajuna (who was Maimalari’s Brigade Major), and did not realise that Ifeajuna was part of the coup plot. Erroneously believing that Ifeajuna could be trusted, Maimalari waved down the car, and was promptly shot dead by Ifeajuna. Maimalari's murder was a great loss to the northern soldiers who respected him and to Nigeria as a whole. So famed was Maimalari’s toughness that the northern soldiers who murdered Maj-Gen Ironsi and Lt-Col Fajuyi six months later in a revenge coup actually “interrogated” the two men and demanded that they disclose the whereabouts of Brigadier Maimalari (whom they believed was still alive).
The commanding officer of the Ibadan based 4th battalion, Lt-Col Abogo Largema, was a guest at the Ikoyi hotel on the night of the coup. Ifeajuna arrived at the hotel and forced the desk clerk at gunpoint, to inform Largema that he had a “phone call.” When Largema emerged from his room to take the bogus “phone call" call, Major Ifeajuna and a subaltern emerged from their hiding place in the corridor and shot Largema dead.
Other officers who were considered as pro-Government or who could prevent the coup were also killed. The army’s GOC Major-General Ironsi was tipped off about the coup by a telephone call from the Army’s Adjutant-General, Lt-Col James Pam. Shortly after ending the telephone call with Ironsi, Pam was abducted from his house and shot dead by Major Chris Anuforo. Pam was the son of the chief of Jos and was widely liked within the army, and regarded as a very capable officer. He was also a father of six. The Majors' decision to kill him mortified his colleagues. Anuforo was most hasty in the use of his firearm on the night of January 15. He personally shot dead Lt-Cols Pam and Unegbe, Colonel Kur Mohammed, and the Finance Minister Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. Okotie-Eboh was widely disliked during the first republic for his corruption, and the former British colonial officer Sir James Robertson once referred to him as “a cheerful rogue” and “a byword for making money on the side.” Okotie-Eboh’s arrest was particularly aggressive and eyewitnesses say that the soldiers who arrested him tossed him into their army Land Rover “like a sack.” He was shot dead by Major Anuforo despite pleading for his life. Balewa, Kur Mohammed and Okotie-Eboh were initially kidnapped, but killed later when it became clear that the coup was not going to succeed.
The coup caught many of the army’s high command by surprise as many of them were away from their posts. Lt-Col Francis Fajuyi was on leave, and command of the Lagos battalion was in the process of being transferred from Lt-Col Hilary Njoku to Lt-Col Gowon, who was returning from a course overseas. In Ibadan, the Premier of the western region Chief Samuel Akintola had been forewarned that soldiers were coming to get him. Akintola had heard rumours of a coup and had travelled to Kaduna to warn the Premier of the northern region Ahmadu Bello. Frustrated that his warnings failed to elicit the required degree of urgency from Bello, Akintola returned to Ibadan and armed himself with a rifle. His deputy Chief Fani-Kayode was first arrested by the coupists. After this arrest, Kayode’s wife informed Akintola of what had happened. Shortly afterward, a detachment of soldiers led by Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi arrived at Akintola’s residence. Upon sighting the soldiers, Akintola opened fire – lightly wounding a few of them including Capt Nwobosi. After bravely fighting for his life and engaging the soldiers in a gunfight, Akintola was shot dead by Nwobosi and his men.
THE ROLE OF NORTHERN SOLDIERS
Not many realize that several officers of northern origin took part in Nigeria’s first military coup. The “Igbo coup” tag attached to the Majors’ assault ignores the fact that scores of northern officers took part in the Lagos operations, and even assisted Nzeogwu when he stormed the residence of the Northern Region’s premier: Ahmadu Bello. Nzeogwu later described the detachment of troops accompanying him to Bello’s house as “a truly Nigerian gathering” (New Nigerian – 18th January 1966). Nzeogwu pointed out that the northern soldiers accompanying him “had the chance to drop out. More than that, they had bullets. They had been issued with bullets but I was unarmed. If they disagreed they could have shot me….most of the Other Ranks were Northerners but they followed.” Among the prominent northern soldiers that helped Nzeogwu to overthrow the Northern Region’s government was John Atom Kpera. Kpera later became the military governor of Benue State. Many of the soldiers that accompanied Major Ifeajuna when he abducted the Prime Minister: Tafewa Balewa, were also northerners.
THE ONLY IGBO TO DIE
Many claim that the January 15th 1966 coup was a gigantic Igbo plot to transfer control of the Federal Government from northerners to the Igbo. However, one stumbling block in this argument was that the Majors killed an Igbo officer during the coup. The proponents of the “Igbo coup” argument have tried to rationalize the murder of Lt-Col Arthur Unegbe by arguing that he was not initially a target of the Majors, but was only killed because he refused to surrender the keys of the armoury. This argument displays an ignorance of military postings and procedure. At the time of the January coup, Unegbe was the Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army at Army Headquarters in Lagos. Not being in command of a combat unit, he had no access to any armoury keys. As soldiers, the Majors would have known this. Also, the fact that Unegbe was SHOT proves that the Majors were already armed when they got to him. Why kill him to get access to weapons they already had? Additionally, the mutineers in other units outside Lagos managed to get their hands on weapons without resorting to killing the respective Quartermasters of their various units. What is more probable is that Unegbe was killed because he was known to be close to Brigadier Maimalari. Thus the Majors probably figured that Unegbe had to be silenced in order to prevent him from raising the alarm.
The Majors’ failure to arrest or kill the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Nigerian Army, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, has led some to believe that he was part of, or was at the very least tipped off about, the coup plot. Ironsi and other senior officers had in the weeks leading up to the coup become concerned by the possibility of a junior officers’ coup. These concerns were passed on to the Prime Minister who either did not take them seriously, or chose not to act in response.
Depending on whose story one believes, Ironsi was either (i) in on the plot and an ally of the Majors (ii) was on the Majors hit list but managed to escape due to being tipped off by Igbo participants within the coup circle. The truth may lie within Nzeogwu’s famous “Africa and the World” interview with Dennis Ejindu. Nzeogwu’s comments in that interview are instructive. Nzeogwu said of the coup plot: "We got some but not all. GENERAL IRONSI WAS TO HAVE BEEN SHOT. But we were not ruthless enough. As a result he and the other compromisers were able to supplant us" (Daily Telegraph, 22nd January 1966). If Ironsi was part of the coup plot, why would the Majors plan to kill him?
Ironsi’s survival in January owed more to good fortune than to him being privy to the coup plot (as well as the Majors tactical mistake in arresting or killing other senior officers before they got hold of Ironsi). As the GOC, he was tipped off that in the early stages of the coup, and was informed something that unusual was occurring via a telephone call from Lt-Col James Pam.
The commotion caused by the murders of other officers alerted Ironsi to the coup and he was able to rally troops who helped him to put down the Majors’ coup. On his way to commence moves to crush the coup, Ironsi actually came across some junior officers that were involved in the coup. It is possible that some of these young officers lost their nerve when confronted by the intimidating presence of their GOC. When he encountered a checkpoint manned by some of the mutineers, Ironsi simply stepped out of his vehicle, and roared “get out of my way!” (an order which was promptly obeyed) before continuing his journey. After the coup was suppressed, Ironsi met with the surviving members of the federal cabinet. Even northern ministers present at that meeting conceded that Ironsi was genuinely upset by, and wept about the death of his military colleagues.
Maj-Gen Ironsi rallied the bulk of the army and managed to put down the coup. The coup leaders (except Ifeajuna who fled to Ghana) were placed under arrest. Major Nzeogwu handed over control of the northern region to Ironsi’s appointed designee, Major Hassan Katsina, and was escorted by Lt-Col Conrad Nwawo (an officer whom Nzeogwu trusted) to Lagos where he surrendered to Maj-Gen Ironsi. The surviving members of the Federal cabinet handed over the reigns of Govt to Ironsi who suspended several parts of the constitution (mostly those parts dealing with party politics), banned all political parties and formed a new military government with a Supreme Military Council consisting of the following:
After the January 1966 coup, a succession of military Governments led Nigeria for thirteen years until a military regime headed by General Olusegun Obasanjo (the current democratic president) restored the country to civilian democratic rule in 1979. The army returned to power again in 1984 and did not leave until 1999. The Majors’ coup proved to be the catalyst for several military regimes – each one progressively more authoritarian than the one that preceded it. Most of the January Majors are not alive today to tell their stories. Of the conspirators Major Ademoyega and Captain Gbulie have written books on the coup. The following table shows the fate of the key participants.
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