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Revisiting The Dimka Coup After 40 Years: Was Gomwalk Really Guilty?

By Ahmed Yahaya-Joe

“If We Can’t Be Our Brother’s Keeper, Let Us At Least Not Be His Destroyer “- John F Kennedy

Varying reasons have been propounded on why General Murtala Mohammed was brutally assassinated exactly 40 years ago; they range from the most banal to a host of conspiracy theories. While other reasons are rendered in plain dichotomies some even incorporate the chief victim and the perpetuators in the same narrative.

For instance General John Obada who was the president of the Special Military Tribunal that tried the alleged coupists back in 1976 stated in a Vanguard newspaper interview dated July 3rd, 2010 that the Lt-Col B.S. Dimka led putsch that culminated in General Mohammed’s death was “a very complicated thing because it was a coup within a coup”. The General did not give details on “the coup within the coup” he however maintained that the master mind Col. Dimka “was not ambitious but driven by greed and gross indiscipline”.

While the ace journalist and ombudsman of the Daily Trust titles Dan Agbese puts it that “Murtala was casual about his security” adding that “he distanced himself from imperial grandeur and did not move into the official residence of the Head of State in Dodan Barracks”, the late Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman a historian of repute in his seminal 1979 book ‘For The Liberation of Nigeria’ put it that General Mohammed’s was killed because “he came to understand the essential features of Nigerian society especially the public institutions, and acted on this understanding to change them and make them serve the common people” he went on that “he (Murtala Mohammed) had constructed a model of contemporary Nigeria and had the commitment and courage to attempt to change it”. Dr. Usman’s core argument is that General Mohammed established a link between accumulation of wealth and public service then died attempting to break that linkage having realized that “abuse of public office was central to the chaos, indiscipline, confusion and whole underdevelopment of Nigeria”.

It is against this background of reasons that Joseph Dechi Gomwalk formerly a Commissioner of Police and military governor of the then Benue-Plateau state (1967-1975) was cast for a star role as being privy to the conspiracy that led to the death of Nigeria’s Head of State who had been in office for only 6 months.

For every high crime such as an act of political murder there must be a motive and opportunity. As we have already seen there was a multiciplicity motives and for opportunity it was only after the capture of Col. Dimka following a massive manhunt that had him on the lam for weeks that a Board of Inquiry (BOI) was set up to screen such opportunities as they existed.

Mr. Gomwalk was arrested, screened and tried, he was subsequently acquitted with the charges against him dismissed only for him to be arraigned again and retried then convicted under circumstances that are still subject to debate 40 years after.

The posting on Max Siollun’s blog entitled “The Roller-Coaster Life of Murtala Mohammed” is instructive on Gomwalk’s ordeal where he chronicled that “the board of inquiry that investigated the coup was headed by Major-General Emmanuel Abisoye. The actual military tribunal which tried the suspects was headed by Major-General John Obada. In the grief and atmosphere of vengeance following the coup, no one questioned why the plotters were being tried by a secret tribunal, under legal powers that had retroactive effect, and that suspects could be sentenced to death based on evidence that would not be made public.

Minority officers from the Middle Belt were the new treacherous scapegoats of the day. The tension between Middle Belt officers and those from the far north resurfaced. The coup investigation took on witch hunting proportions and officers were convicted on the most flimsy or circumstantial evidence, often based on Dimka’s uncorroborated testimony”

The Obada led tribunal that tried, discharged and acquitted Gomwalk was disbanded. Another military court was constituted and headed by Brigadier (General) Pius Eremobor which retried the former governor and condemned him to death. Obada in his interview with Vanguard summarized his tribunal assignment succinctly with “I had no choice but I was fair”.

How did Gomwalk an accomplished sleuth and consummate administrator end up so? Or was he deliberately framed and found guilty of something else other than treason?

In 1961 Gomwalk graduated from the pioneer University of Ibadan with a first class degree in Zoology he then joined the famed Northern Region civil service and was posted to the Sardauna Province as Divisional Officer he eventually transferred his services to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture rising up to the level of a Principal Assistant Secretary by February 1966 after specialized training at Scotland Yard and the FBI he was seconded to the Nigerian Police Force as a Chief Superintendent in its elite Special Branch. By July 29th 1966 he had sniffed out the counter-coup that was to climax in Ibadan tailing it to the extent of advising his boss Joseph Adeola then Commissioner of Police in the West to alert visiting General Aguiyi-Ironsi and his host Col. Adekunle Fajuyi of an impending mutiny.

Mr. Adeola would however err on the side of caution till it was too late. 5 days later Gomwalk would lead a team of policemen to recover the bodies of Ironsi and Fajuyi from a makeshift grave near the town of Lalupon outside Ibadan along Iwo road. In May 1967 Gomwalk emerged as a major beneficiary of the very coup he almost foiled albeit by investigation. He was appointed a military governor of what today spans 3 states of the federation in the heart of Nigeria’s Middle Belt region.

When the erstwhile Northern Region was collapsed into 6 states in 1967 Jos gradually became a rival orbit of power to Kaduna chiefly because the then Head of State reportedly used his Ngas kinsman Gomwalk as a second opinion sounding board who with his intellect and depth almost eclipsed the influence of the “Kaduna Mafia” dominated “super perm secs” in Lagos, notably the then Commander in Chief paid more state and personal visits to Jos than to any of his state capitals. General Yakubu Gowon was firmly trapped between Kaduna and Jos the Public Education Edicts of 1971 that took over missionary schools nationwide being part of that disastrous fallout.

The late Joseph Dechi Gomwalk was not without his own cross. Chief Aper Aku (who later in 1979 as civilian governor of Benue state accumulated his own nemesis of corruption charges) on 31st August 1974 swore to an affidavit at the Jos High Court accusing Gomwalk of corrupt enrichment. It was not an isolated incidence in fact it was a deliberate pattern as it later turned out to be a nationwide witch-hunt by the “real military” against the “political military” to the extent that the country’s Attorney-General Dr. Teslim Elias had to issue a caveat on further affidavits against public officials.

The press was subsequently agog with the manufactured perception that the federal military government was abetting corruption in high places. General Yakubu Gowon did not also help matters as he unilaterally cleared Gomwalk and other affected VIPs from any wrong doing personalizing the issue when he declared that “the aim of the campaign of affidavits was to get the man at the top”. Gowon was smack on target unfortunately he had walked into a carefully laid trap that was contrived to be a public relations disaster which helped to a large extent in legitimizing his overthrow by some of those he trusted the most less than a year later.

Haunting Gomwalk is also the apparently inconclusive report of the Mohammed appointed Assets Investigation Panel that indicted Gomwalk but at the same time noted that “the Ministry of Justice and Police will look into it (the panel’s report) with a view to taking the necessary legal action if need be”. Exactly 10 days after General Mohammed addressed the nation on that panel’s report he was felled by a hail of bullets. Mr. Gomwalk’s alleged involvement without the declassification of the court-martial documents of 1976 is at best circumstantial and will continue to remain in the realm of speculation. Many Nigerians still believe he was just a high profile fall guy.

J.D. as Gomwalk is still fondly remembered as is so etched on the consciousness of the Plateau such that as recently as December 2009 when President Umar Musa Yar’adua constituted an investigative panel on the Jos Crisis to be chaired by General Abisoye the outcry against his august appointment was so stringent that another eminent Nigerian eventually headed the inquiry.

Curiously Generals Obada and Eremobor were compulsorily retired from service in 1977 and 1979 respectively. Eremobor’s retirement in April a good 6 months before the hand-over to civilian rule still remains curious. Sadly the duo belatedly joined the over 216 military officers and over 10,000 public servants dismissed by General Mohammed in his brief stint for “divided loyalty”, “declining productivity” or “abuse of office” in the obscurity of premature retirement.

According to the prolific military historian Dr. Nowa Omoigui “all coups are justified in high brow terms designed to appeal to the emotions and patriotism of the uninformed public” if so perhaps a very important and much overlooked reason on why General Murtala Mohammed’s regime was in less than a year shaken to its very foundations is provided through an insight by Mr. Siollum that “the July 1975 coup was a watershed for Nigerian military coups in that it was the first time in Nigeria’s history that the executors of a coup apportioned political appointments between themselves.

The two coups of 1966 were carried out by officers with real and perceived political and military grievances. Despite their murderous intent, they had no interest in governing the country or personally participating in political activity. Most of the key figures in the 1966 coups did not participate in government. The 1975 coup was the first Nigerian coup executed by officers with personal political ambitions”. Did some of these ambitions clash with that of Gomwalk?

Until the Nigerian military musters the candor to open for public scrutiny the judicial details of the events of 1976 more high falutin reasons will continue to be bandied about at the expense of national unity and on why General Murtala Mohammed was assassinated and if one time CP Joseph Dechi Gomwalk was ever a conspirator in that act.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Ahmed Yahaya-Joe and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."