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By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema


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‘In the name of the Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed Forces I declare martial law over the Northern provinces of Nigeria.’ Those words, uttered by Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, in a broadcast in the afternoon of January 15 1966, violently violated Nigeria’s political virginity.
Forty-five years later it is appropriate to dispassionately examine that cloudy phase of our history and draw lessons for Nigeria’s march to national cohesion, stability and political maturity. Rattling ethnic sabers whenever the coup of January 15 1966 is mentioned will not help Nigeria. Confronting historical facts is often painful but the end-product is usually worth the effort.

For the benefit of the younger Nigerian generation who are educated in a system that has consigned history to the pit toilet, on Saturday 15 January 1966 a group of majors and captains carried out a bloody coup against the then civilian government. A number of senior civilian and military officials, including Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, lost their lives as a result of the putsch. The plotters succeeded in Northern Nigeria but failed in the South where their bid was scuttled by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian army. The plotters eventually surrendered to Ironsi who took over the reins of power in rather controversial circumstances. Spearheading the coup were Majors Chukwuma Nzeogwu, Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna, Christian Anuforo, Adewale Ademoyega, Humphrey Chukwuka, Donatus Okafor, Timothy Onwuatuegwu; Captains Ben Gbulie, Emmanuel Nwobosi and Oji.

This article does not exhaustively analyze the factors that compelled the soldiers to rise against their government. There are many printed and online sources about the coup. I only want to share some perspectives with the hope that both Nigerians and non-Nigerians will draw worthwhile conclusions.

Even the most rabid haters of Nzeogwu and Company agree that by 1965 the political situation in Nigeria, particularly in the old predominantly Yoruba Western region, was terrible. The near anarchy in the area over the regional elections that restored power to Premier Samuel Ladoke Akintola is a matter of record. One can argue that the duty of the soldiers was to assist in restoring law and order, not to introduce even more lawlessness through a coup. But what would have happened to Nigeria if the situation had been left unchecked? Even if Balewa was willing to take measures to end the mayhem what of his party and allies who were favoured by the status quo? In an interview published in ‘Sunday Vanguard’, October 3, 2010, Alhaji Maitama Sule, a key player in Balewa’s government, said that Balewa had been prepared to declare a state of emergency and appoint a sole administrator. How even-handed would this measure have been, given the hostility between the ruling Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) and the opposition United Grand Progressive Alliance (UPGA)? Why did the government not act earlier, thus canceling the probably inaccurate impression that it was not a neutral umpire?

Books by participants in the coup such as Adewale Ademoyega’s ‘Why We Struck’ and Ben Gbulie’s ‘Nigeria’s Five Majors’ paint the plotters as idealistic army officers who meant well for Nigeria. Since most of the plotters are dead and history has no means of deciphering the contents of a man’s heart, such accounts as well as those that sign off the coupists as the sons of Satan must be read with caution. However, many military and civilian personnel, some who are still alive and have participated at the highest levels of government in Nigeria, have good words for Chukwuma Nzeogwu and some of the other participants in the coup. Retired Generals Yakubu Gowon, Domkat Bali and Theophilus Danjuma opposed the coup and either had foreknowledge or actively participated in the July 29 1966 coup that overthrew Ironsi. But their documented views on Nzeogwu are far from adversarial.

Was the bloodshed that accompanied the coup necessary? The composition of the plotters and casualties is apparently very sectional. But Adewale Ademoyega, a key insider, is Yoruba. Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Unegbe, one of the casualties, is Mid-Western Igbo and he was not in charge of any armoury as the army’s Quarter-Master general at the time of his death. Evidence from even would-be targets of the coup show that the plotters wanted to free the imprisoned Yoruba Opposition leader, Obafemi Awolowo, and install him in government. Whether this would have worked is a great ‘if’ of Nigeria’s history. However, is it true that Nnamdi Azikiwe, the president at that time, got away because he was tipped off by Ifeajuna? Ifeajuna and Azikiwe are Igbo from Onitsha in Anambra State. What did Azikiwe do with such ‘hot’ information?
Senior Igbo officers like Ironsi, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Major Alexander Madiebo actively participated in crushing the coup. So where is the basis for the theory that the Igbo tried to take over Nigeria on January 15? But we must not neglect evidence from many credible sources that indicate that power-seeking agendas were rife among the officer corps of the Nigerian army at that time. Highly politicized officers were in cahoots with ambitious politicians. This situation cut across all tribes. Small wonder Ironsi once lamented that ‘I asked for soldiers and am being given politicians dressed in uniform.’ So the probability that the suppression of the coup was not motivated by law-and-order, military reasons should not be ruled out.

Then who led the coup? In recent years Emmanuel Ifeajuna has taken the ‘honour’. Justifying it are the following facts:

By virtue of his education at the University of Ibadan, Ifeajuna was exposed to radical intelligentsia like Christoher Okigbo and J.P. Clark who sowed the seed of a coup to redress Nigeria’s ills in him.

Ifeajuna’s sensitive post as the Brigade Major of the Second Brigade of the army at the time made him an inevitable hub for the plot.

When Ifeajuna failed in Lagos, the former seat of power in Nigeria, the coup collapsed, in spite of Nzeogwu’s outstanding success in Kaduna.

Ojukwu, who knew Ifeajuna intimately, disproved Nzeogwu’s leadership of the coup in an extensive interview with ‘Newswatch’ magazine in 1992.
In 2009 Peter Enahoro (Peter Pan), the legendary editor of ‘Daily Times’ and younger brother of Anthony Enahoro, sensationally revealed in his memoirs ‘Then Spoke the Thunder’ that Ifeajuna’s handwritten account of the putsch was with him when the July 29 coup raged. The manuscript, which Enahoro burnt for security reasons, gave an insight to the coup. Enahoro claims that the current manuscript attributed to Ifeajuna and published in Olusegun Obasanjo’s biography of Nzeogwu is a ‘polished’ version of the original. The journalist also pointed out that in Biafra, Ifeajuna’s effort to publish an account of the coup failed because the publisher, Chinua Achebe, rejected the work for ‘being self-serving.’ The account implies some antagonism between Ifeajuna and Nzeogwu, probably rooted in the coup’s failure in Lagos.

Going by the report of the Police Special Branch which investigated the coup, Nzeogwu came into the plot at the concluding stages. According to the report the plot began in August 1965 with Majors Ifeajuna and Okafor and Captain Oji as the brains. Anuforo recruited Nzeogwu in October. This contradicts Ademoyega’s position in his book that Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna and himself initiated the coup. This may partially explain the coup’s failure because it implies divergent agendum of a group which culminated in the sacking of an admittedly unpopular government, especially in the Western, North-Central (Middle Belt) and Eastern areas of Nigeria.

Though the British are known to be friends of the Northern establishment that has dominated Nigerian politics till very recently, their efforts to protect their protégés from the coup they from all indications had knowledge of, was inadequate. Whether this was deliberate is beyond the scope of this article. In a recent interview with ‘Sunday Vanguard’ in the wake of the controversy over Matthew Mbu’s revelation over how Balewa died, veteran journalist, Segun Osoba, indicated that the British security services ought to have known a coup was likely. Victor Adetunji Haffner, the former boss of the defunct Nigeria External Telecommunications, revealed in an interview with ‘Sunday Punch’, October 3, 2010, that the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, asked Balewa to go with him to Rhodesia (now Zimbawe) to speak to Ian Smith, the proclaimer of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. This was after the Commonwealth Ministers Conference in Nigeria a week before the coup. Balewa refused. He also declined the invitation of the British High Commissioner to come to his residence on the night of January 14.

Although these efforts are significant why did the British not bring their undoubted influence to abort the Commonwealth conference in Nigeria ? Did they lack diplomatic and intelligence sources that would intimate them about the crises in their ex-colony? What if Wilson’s safety had been threatened as that of Makarios, the Cyprus leader’s came close to being imperiled by being caught up in the coup when he visited Enugu just after the conference? The plotters were infuriated by the conference. By hosting it Balewa, in their eyes, became Nero who fiddled while Rome burned. It was an ample opportunity to perfect their designs. Even when General Welby-Everard, the last British GOC in command of the army was in the saddle, what did he do about the palpable discontent and politicization of his officers? Did the British pass on actionable intelligence to the Nigerian government on the radical component of the military? Such information existed – e.g. Nzeogwu‘s outbursts were known to the military authorities.

The climate for a rebellion is built up overtime. The plotters, even if they had external support, even if they worshipped at the shrines of Lenin and Mao Tse Tung, might not have had the impetus to strike if our rulers had not been so disconnected from the ruled. Mbu, a Minister in Balewa’s government, revealed in an interview with ‘The Nation’ of 5 September 2010 that things degenerated to the extent that the police joined the supporters of Michael Imodu, Nigeria’s labour leader at the time, to stone the cars of Ministers at Enugu. Tragically, Balewa relied on police protection from the plotters. Nearly fifty years on, are Nigerian leaders connected to their people? Can any of them freely walk our streets? In the years before the coup our rulers earned incomes right out of the moon. This quotation from the Special Branch report may drive home the unpleasant truism that history repeats itself for those who fail to learn from it. ‘When all the officers (who carried out the Northern end of the coup) were assembled, Major Nzeogwu addressed them on the subject of the rapidly deteriorating political and security situation in the Federation…He compared the incomes of the politicians with those of Nigerian workers and urged the officers to support the rebellion.’ Compare this situation with what obtains in the contemporary Nigerian dispensation.

All scholars of Nigeria’s history should engage this poser: where is the second part of the Special Branch report on the coup? Even the first one in public domain is incomplete. Availability of that report is an obligation the Nigerian authorities and their foreign partners owe Nigerians so that the truth will be known. 
You only have to read chapter three and the last chapter of Ademoyega’s book to realize that the plotters were unhappy with the British-designed structural imbalances of Nigeria. Forty-five years later, do we have a satisfactorily balanced Federation?
The coup started a chain of events that culminated in the Nigerian civil war. May we  learn from the past and arrest destructive trends in our country before they get out of hand.

Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a Lagos-based writer and historian.