The first military coup happened in Nigeria on 15 January 1966, organized by some young officers of the Nigerian army led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. The story has ever since been that Nzeogwu led a condemnable military coup that truncated democracy and cost human lives. No story is being told on why they struck, and at the time they did. They were not a bunch of lunatics, they were not religious bigots nor were they tribally prejudiced persons by any stretch of imagination.
Human lives were lost and that is why many condemn the coup. No story is being told if, how and why loss of lives became inevitable. Of course those were soldiers and were trained to kill when they felt it was necessary (they could make wrong judgments as humans, though) and when commanded. Lives lost were those of prominent and illustrious Nigerian leaders. No story is being told why they had to target those people they targeted, some of whom they succeeded in killing. These untold parts of the stories were carefully edited out. The effect of the rest of the story is well known.
Principally, it effectively created wrong perceptions that still cause problems today. The most damaging perception is that the coup was an Igbo coup, which is subsisting in place of the right notion that it was a nationalistic action and a very patriotic one although it was marred by loss of lives, and that the composition of the coup plotters being mostly Igbo officers does not in any way make it an Igbo coup but just reflected the fact that Igbos were, and still are, the most nationalistic Nigerians without any iota of doubt, as aptly symbolized by the position in Nigerian politics, of Zik, compared with those of Awolowo and the Sardauna. The Igbos were also the most interested in joining the army at that time, which was the most nationalistic and most detribalized body in Nigeria.
This fact about the Nigerian Army was why the young Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, with his most revered education abroad and in spite of the fact that his father was, probably, the richest man in Nigeria at that time, decided to join the Nigerian Army instead of taking up a very high position in the civil service and other corporations where he had bright chances of quickly being a leader; neither did he join his father’s business empire. Igbos were the most interested if not the most qualified to join the officer cadre of the army and so had the greatest number of army officers.
The number of Igbos among the coup plotters reflected their number in the officer cadre of the army. Practically, all the senior army officers that foiled the coup were also Igbos:
“Now it is strange that Nigeria forgot that those who foiled the Nzeogwu coup were Igbo senior officers. General Johnson Aguiyi- Ironsi, Lt.Cols Emeka Ojukwu, Conrad Chukwujimje Dibia Nwawo (NA 10), Alexander Attah Madiebo and Major Alphonso Keshi.
“As Brigade Major, 2 BDE Kaduna, Keshi informed Madiebo of the coup. Madiebo moved over to the Brigade Headquarters where Nzeogwu had taken over Ademulegun’s seat and worked on Nzeogwu. Ojukwu, Commanding Officer Third Battalion, Kano stood his ground strategically and all worked with Ironsi to fly in Nwawo, then Defence Attaché in London, and Nzeogwu’s teacher. Only then could the Major be softened.
“No non-Igbo officer was bold enough to challenge Nzeogwu. Major Hassan Usman Katsina, Inspector of the Recce Squadron in Kaduna was confused. Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon’s contribution from Lagos was for Madiebo to ask the doctor to sedate Nzeogwu, a man who was in full control of Kaduna.
“The man that should have made a broadcast after the January coup was Ademoyega, a Yoruba. Their plan was to release Chief Obafemi Awolowo, another Yoruba from jail and make him Prime Minister. The Army Chief would have been Lt. Col David Akpode Ejoor, an Urhobo. The young officer who secured radio Nigeria was Capt. Gibson Sanda Jalo. Among those who took part in Exercise Damissa were subalterns like John Atom Kpera, Harris Eghagha, Sani Abacha, Bob Egbikor, Fola Oyewole and Olafimihan. Of the 28 officers and men that followed Nzeogwu to the Sardauna’s house, 22 were non Igbo. Yoruba officers like Victor Adebukunola Banjo,Fajuyi, Olusegun Obasanjo and Oluchi Olutoye knew about the coup”1
Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, Conrad Nwawo, Emeka Ojukwu played key roles in foiling the 15 January 1966 coup
People also spend so much at pointing out that Eastern leaders were not killed. There was also no activity in the Midwest. They did not believe in blanket killing as Eastern Nigeria was relatively peaceful (and so it was with Midwest) and their leaders were not involved in the intrigues and deadly maneuvers that put parts of Nigeria in turmoil – the Tiv Riots, the Wild-Wild-West and other restive situations. They could not harm uninvolved good men. Samuel Akintola was deeply involved in the crisis and he was used by Ahmadu Bello, who was behind the travails of Awolowo and his imprisonment. It is instructive that Akintola, whose Western Region was burning, had traveled io Kaduna just to say “welcome back” to ahmadu Bello who had just returned from Mecca, and that he (Akintola)had just returned to Ibadan that morning2 when both were simultaneously killed by different coup groups in their different homes. Ahmadu Bello was also said to be implicated in the messy handling of the Tiv Riots.
Not many stories are told about how these northern and Western politicians were at the verge of plunging Nigeria into a very deep catastrophe at the time the coup happened. It is not seriously told that the political crisis in Nigeria was already very dangerous. The so-called Nzeogwu coup was the only patriotic and the only nationalistic among all the coups that happened in Nigeria.
As a child, I saw frantic Mobile Police force movements as they were mobilized to join others in the Western conflict. We also saw how politicians came to Enugu and recruited mercenary thugs from among the very Bad Boys who had the Crystal Cinema at Coal Camp, Enugu, as their base. One of them, a tall man called Manchester, came back with a bandaged arm and a collar-and-cuff sling, proudly showing himself off as a wounded strongman just back from the war in the West.
Some senior army officers were said to have been used by the politicians to further their cause and so were thought to have stained the integrity of our distinguished army. Senior army officers were, therefore, also penciled down for execution, including GOC Nigerian army, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo man. It was one of the executed senior army officers, Lt Col Pam, who had telephoned and alerted Ironsi just before they killed him. Ironsi quickly foiled the coup through senior army officers, mostly Igbo.
What stands out but at the same time highly diminished by the fact of the bloody nature of the coup is the sacrifice of the coup plotters themselves especially Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. Their love for Nigeria was as large as the decision to take that big risk, to kill human beings and even the head of state, in order to save Nigeria that was on a brink, with nobody listening to anybody. The power madness was so bad, for instance, that a personality like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, with all he had done for his people and for Nigeria, was accused of treasonable felony, for nothing, expected to be executed since the charge was treason, for nothing, imprisoned, for nothing. Unofficial but widespread reports had it that he was about to be poisoned in prison before the military coup altered the state of affairs.
As a military intelligence officer, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu participated in the trial investigations of Awolowo and some other Action Group members for treasonable felony. Olusegun Obasanjo wrote that “Chukwuma had some scathing remarks to make about [Nigeria’s] national security, and about those who were being investigated. If he had his way, he said, his treatment of the whole case would have been different”.4
Major Nzeogwu was said to be admired for his great intelligence, his warmth and charm, and was feared for his suicidal courage. He had the necessary information about the danger Nigeria was in and he had the kind of zeal, the kind of patriotism and the kind of courage to do something, and he did. Was it ever in Kaduna Nzeogwu’s nature to care who was Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba? He was known to be obsessed with what was the best for Nigeria.
With all that happened to Igbos, the war already going on, and he fighting for Biafrans, he still differed with Ojukwu and the rest of us, on secession, and continued to prefer and believe in One Nigeria. That is, probably, why Ojukwu did not assign him any official military duties although he was promoted, and also stopped his Abakaliki troop-training exercises, perhaps fearing a similar Damissa outcome. Nzeogwu then busied himself with Dare-Devil personal expeditions with his personally-conscripted Biafran soldiers until he died.
“Even in death, Nzeogwu was still respected by federal and northern troops. Domkat Bali referred to him as ‘a nice, charismatic and disciplined officer, highly admired and respected by his colleagues….We believed that he was a genuine patriotic officer who organized the 1966 coup with the best of intentions, who was let down by his collaborators.’”5
A special Branch Police Report containing details of the motives, the planning and the execution of the 15 January 1966 coup, exists2. Part of it that is not easy to understand, suggesting there was an anticipation of significant resistance, at the residence of Ahmadu Bello, is the use of so much fire power from outside, especially with the two Carl Gustav anti-tank guns stationed outside ten yards apart and fired continuously at the ground floor of the house until 5 projectiles were fired and the house caught fire (sections 147 and 148).
Another part of it that shows there was actual significant resistance, is number174 of the report: “After the completion of the operation at the Premier’s Lodge, 2/Lt. Waribor met Major Nzeogwu near the main entrance to the Lodqe. The Major had been wounded during the attack and had bloodstains on the right side of his face and his shirt.- – -”.
It is believed that knowing the whole truth will change a lot of narratives, and the perceptions, concerning Nzeogwu and the January 1966 Coup. Kaduna Nzeogwu was a top class Intelligence operative, the best in Nigeria and former head of Military Intelligence. He must have known a lot we do not know and may never know.
1.Obasi Emeka, When intelligence failed Nzeogwu, Vanguard, April 15, 2017, https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/04/intelligence-failed-nzeogwu/
2. Omoigui, Nowamagbe. “SPECIAL BRANCH REPORT: “Military Rebellion of 15th January 1966”, http://www.gamji.com/nowa/news1103.htm
4. Oyebode Austin, How Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu plotted the 1966 coup and died in ambush near Nsukka in 1967, Naij.com, https://www.naija.ng/1111269-how-major-chukwuma-nzeogwu-plotted-1966-coup-died-ambush-nsukka-1967.html#1111269
5. nigeriamasterweb.com Obafemi Awolowo: Hero of Yoruba, Killer of Biafra, Betrayed by the North, https://www.google.com/search?q=awolowo+and+biafra+starvation+issue&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b&gfe_rd=cr&dcr=0&ei=Xkk4Ws-tNouaX4Dai8AP