January 15 1966: Can We Know And Accept The Truth Now?

Fifty years after a group of young Nigerian military officers carried out the first coup which ended Nigeria’s democratic experiment; their action still rankles and haunts the country. One would have thought fifty years is long enough to enable survivors of the generation that had ringside seats to that experience and its ugly fall-outs and succeeding generations of Nigerians, to which this writer belongs, come to terms with that unedifying phase of her history. Perhaps I assume too much: for one, from a historical perspective, fifty years is a mere drop of water in the ocean of time. Events that occurred in the lives of countries centuries before our first coup still polarize and haunt them.

Till today, there are segments of the German population who have not come to terms with the enigma of Adolf Hitler. Secondly, it serves certain political, sectional and group interests to continue to perpetrate myths about the January coup. Although there is evidence to indicate that things might not be what they seem or is generally assumed, the myths continue to gain currency because many of its perpetrator are decisive game-changers in Nigeria’s councils of the high and mighty; because the study of history in Nigerian schools is virtually ancient history; and to make matters worse, contemporary Nigerian politics is still shaped by perceptions from that coup. But if Nigeria must move forward, we Nigerians must look the spectre of January 15 1966 in the eye.

This essay should not be interpreted as either pro or anti January 15 1966. Personally, I wish the coup never took place; that the people killed that day were not murdered. But the coup plotters did not just emanate from the invisible realm. Even if they were ambitious or idealistic or naïve or just bitten by the coup-plotting bug which was spreading through recently post-colonial Africa, starting with Abdel Nasser’s coup which got rid of the Egyptian monarchy in 1954, certain factors predisposed Nigeria to that bloody loss of her political virginity.

The journey to January 15 began with the nature of the phased colonial hand-over to the emerging Nigerian political class. Already, colonialism had created adversarial inter-group relations between different ethnic units. From these tribes emerged people who would constitute the new leadership elite, popularly called nationalists. Since it pleased the departing colonial masters to retain a significant measure of domination over their creation, they ensured that political power was retained by those components of the political class who would not jeopardize their interests.

Harold Smith, a senior British colonial officer who midwifed the 1959 elections that ushered in independence, forthrightly admitted in his autobiography that the elections were stage-managed by the British to ensure that power was in the hands of the Northern People’s Congress (NPC), a predominantly Hausa-Fulani party which was unapologetically pro-Northern Establishment. The Western region was in the grip of the mostly Yoruba political party, the Action Group (AG). The East was in the hands of the National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC); hitherto a pan-Nigerian movement which degenerated into a bulwark of Igbo politics.

The in-built constitutional favouritism to the Northern region began after the 1953 Kano Riots. Incensed by their humiliation at the hands of Lagos politicians who did not find their opposition to the call for Nigeria’s independence in 1956 funny, the mostly NPC leaders, at British-sponsored talks after the riots, came close to seceding unless they got majority of the seats in the Nigerian Parliament. The British granted them their request and subsequent constitutions retained this provision.

Independent Nigeria was a gun with a faulty safety mechanism. The different tribes, especially the major three-Hausa-Fulani, Igbo and Yoruba- had been at each other’s throats since colonial rule and the new order it introduced brought them in contact with each other. Inter-group contact should not have been evil, but it suited the colonial masters to play the groups against each other. It paid conservative Northern political elite to portray the Igbo and Yoruba, with their educational achievements and Christianity, as agents of domination bent on taking over the country and squeezing the relatively backward North into the backyard. Igbo and Yoruba politicians invoked spectres of domination, slippery tribalism, and commercial infiltration against each other to stoke ethnic fires so that they could coast home to electoral victories.

The crises between 1962 and 1965 are well documented and need not be repeated here. Although the accounts of these conflicts are subject to different interpretations, it was obvious that by December 1965, the five-year old pride of Black Africa was seriously sick.

The plotters would say yes. In his unpublished manuscript on the coup Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a key participant, declared: ‘we (the plotters) had waited enough. Here at last was the challenge at our feet. We heard them challenge us to stand up for our people or fall supine with them, and their voices kept ringing in our ears, calling us to emergency action. We could not stop!’

There are fundamental questions which have been of concern to students of Nigeria’s political crises in the 1960s, especially the Western Region conflict which was a fall-out of the Regional elections hotly contested by the pro- Ahmadu Bello (the Northern leader) / Akintola (Western leader)’s Nigerian National Alliance (NNA) and the pro- Obafemi Awolowo’s United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA): first, did the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, deliberately refuse to impose a state of emergency, bearing in mind he did the same in the region three years earlier for a relatively less serious conflict?

Or was he seeking for a political solution, as some reports have it; a political solution which was stampeded by the coup? Second, what was the actual design of the NNA (which dominated the central government) for the West, seen as the centre of opposition? Adewale Ademoyega, one of the plotters, gave details of a plan by the NNA to wallop the West in pages 66-68 of his book ‘Why We Struck.’ It could be argued that he wrote this to justify their coup but, if that is the case, why the reshuffling of the military and police hierarchies to prune them of seemingly politically unfavourable commanders? The proposed plan would have had Northern officers fully in charge. Why? To what end? Max Silloun, the respected Nigerian military historian, pointed out in page 39 of his book ‘Oil, Politics and Violence’ that ‘these reshuffles may have been routine but by accident or design, would result in the replacement of officers from the NCNC power base of the Eastern region by Northerners.’

It is not the duty of military officers to resort to instruments of their trade to correct the deficiencies of their country. Ifeajuna admitted in his unpublished book that ‘we fully realized that to be caught planning, let alone acting on our lines, was high treason. And the penalty for high treason is death. We knew.’

But what of the Nigerian ruling class back then? Why did they continue to stoke crisis after crisis either deliberately or inadvertently-the 1962 Action Group conflict; the 1963 Census uproar; the sham that was the 1964 general elections; the 1965 Western regional ‘war’, misnamed election; the Tivland riots of 1960 and 1964? Undoubtedly there were honest people in the ruling elite but it was within their dispensation that the foundation for the festering corruption and sleaze that defines Nigerian politics was laid. In a September 2010 interview with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, late Matthew Mbu, a Minister in Balewa’s government, admitted the rot in the government and the high feelings it generated among the military, including many officers who did not participate in the January coup. His words are noteworthy:

‘On the night of January 13 1966, Sir Abubakar opened the Niger Bridge; on the 13th of January I begged him to call a meeting of the council of state, that there was going to be a coup.

‘I heard the coup plot being discussed openly in Kaduna a week earlier. I had gone to open the Air Force base in Kaduna as a Junior Defence Minister. My good friend, Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun (one of the coup’s casualties), told me how they were going to wipe out all of us for corruption. I begged Ademulegun as they were discussing how they were going to kill us openly. He pointedly told me they were not going to touch me. That it was Okotie-Eboh (the Finance Minister) and his likes who normally collect ten percent on contracts. This was on the 5th of January.

‘I returned to Lagos after opening the Air Force base to warn Sir Abubakar. I told him to sack all of us, telling the world that we were corrupt. He said I should not worry; that the Police will protect us. I told him how I saw the Police joining Imoudu (Nigeria’s pioneer Labour leader)’s crowd in stoning our cars in Enugu. He disagreed and said the Police would not join them in the act.’

Outgoing British governor, Sir James Robertson, called Chief Samuel Festus Okotie-Eboh a ‘cheerful rogue.’ In Kaduna, Major Nzeogwu saw a customized Rolls-Royce imported for the Premier of the North, Sarduna Ahmadu Bello. He wrote about this in a letter to his American Peace Corps friend, Timothy Carroll, shortly before the coup.

But when one looks at the coup and developments that followed it, the strong probability is that these young plotters could not have saved Nigeria. Although many argue that their rescue operation nearly killed Nigeria and remains a foundational cause of her contemporary polarizations and conflicts, I take a position based on the contradictions inherent in the coup and the vision of its plotters:

First, how could the plotters have carried out their highly idealistic political programme? Their ideology is beautifully explained in Chapter 3 of Ademoyega’s book ‘Why We Struck.’ This question is relevant if we take into account what Nzeogwu said in an interview published in the ‘Nigerian Tribune’ newspaper on July 2 1967: ‘Neither myself nor any of the other lads was in the least interested in governing the country. We were soldiers and not politicians… We were going to make civilians of proven honesty and efficiency who would be thoroughly handpicked to do all the governing.’

Amazing. The plotters had planned to install Obafemi Awolowo, the imprisoned Opposition Leader, as head of the government. Ever seen a revolution succeed at the hands of proxies? Besides, there is no evidence that Awolowo, whom the plotters highly regarded, would have accepted to be machine-gunned to power.

The execution of the coup remains a sore point. No matter what pro-Establishment figures may say or write years after the event, the coup took place in Enugu in the East. Major Chude-Sokei, the officer in charge, was posted overseas for a course before the coup. Lieutenant Oguchi who was recruited to replace him suffered vehicle problems and got to Enugu from Lagos late. He had to use his discretion to avoid entangling Nigeria in an international incident because Premier Michael Okpara had a visiting president, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, as a guest. Max Silloun believes that the coup in Enugu was bloodless because Oguchi was one of the firm advocates of a bloodless coup. But since perception usually determines reality the plotters have been permanently tarred with the accusation of sparing their Igbo kinsmen in power. A strong argument for these no-coup-in-Enugu theorists came from, of all people, Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. In a report he sent to Ironsi in February 1966, Ojukwu stated that Ifeajuna and his co-plotter, Don Okafor, met Okpara in the early hours of January 15 and had a conversation, but the subject is unknown. Their colleagues were shooting other Premiers at that hour.

Then is it possible that the plotters had different agenda in spite of Nzeogwu’s fiery broadcast on the coup day which began with ‘In the name of the Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed Forces?’ Nzeogwu’s nationalism, indifference to ethnicity and opposition to secession is a matter of record acknowledged even by his adversaries. Ademoyega’s book speaks for him. Ifeajuna, regarded as the coup’s intellectual powerhouse, if not its leader in some circles, might have been of the same mould as his colleagues. But his flaws on the D-day were overwhelming.

Why did he disappear in the heat of action when a concerted strategy with his colleagues might have won Lagos from Ironsi? Why did he insist on Okafor arresting Ademoyega though the latter was clearly more competent and committed to the coup? What actually happened to Balewa? Did Ifeajuna shoot him in the bid to get rid of ‘excessive baggage’ while fleeing or did the Prime Minister die from an asthma attack as indicated by Mbu, based on the story from the late Igbo poet and Ifeajuna’s close friend, Christopher Okigbo? There are

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Articles by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema