By Omoniyi Salaudeen
Today marks the 51st anniversary of Nigeria’s first military coup organised and executed by a group of young army majors on January 15, 1966. Hiding under the guise of corruption among the political class, they struck and overthrew the democratic government of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in a violent military coup. The leader of the coupists, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, in his speech, which was broadcast on Radio Kaduna around 12a.m., described their action as a brief and temporary revolution to end corruption and ethnic rivalry. “We wanted to get rid of rotten and corrupt ministers. We wanted to gun down the bigwigs in our way,” he said.
This ultimately led to the assassination of 11 senior politicians, two soldiers and kidnapping of three others. The Lagos branch of the coup was led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna with the support of Majors Wale Ademoyega, Don Okafor, Chris Anuforo and Humphrey Chukwuka, while Nzeogwu took the lead in Kaduna.
While announcing an immediate suspension of the constitution, Nzeogwu declared: “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. The Constitution is suspended and the regional government and elected assemblies are hereby dissolved. All political, cultural, tribal and trade union activities, together with all demonstrations and unauthorised gatherings, excluding religious worship, are banned until further notice.
“The aim of the Revolutionary Council is to establish a strong united and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife. Our method of achieving this is strictly military but we have no doubt that every Nigerian will give us maximum cooperation by assisting the regime and not disturbing the peace during the slight changes that are taking place.
“Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.”
Though the coup was later foiled, this intervention, no doubt, had a profound impact on the nation’s politics. To say the least, it introduced politics of bitterness, distrust and mutual suspicion among different ethnic nationalities into the country.
Execution of the coup
In executing their plan, the coup plotters simultaneously attacked the cities of Kaduna, Ibadan, and Lagos and blocked the Niger and Benue Rivers before they were subdued. Nzeogwu, who was the Chief Instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna, carried out reconnaissance on Ahmadu Bello’s mansion in Kaduna. He had to conscript young soldiers from the Nigerian Military Training College at Kaduna to his troop because his control of the army was said to be little.
In Lagos, according to an account of the coup, about 2a.m, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and some lieutenants from the 2nd Brigade Headquarters made their way to Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa’s residence and overpowered the police officers standing him. Ifeajuna then kicked down the door of the Prime Minister’s bedroom before leading him out at gunpoint. The army’s GOC Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was tipped off about the coup by a telephone call from Lt. Col. James Pam. Shortly after ending his telephone call with Ironsi, Pam was abducted from his house and shot dead by Major Chris Anuforo. Col. Kur Mohammed and Minister of Finance, Festus Okotie-Eboh, were initially kidnapped, but were later killed. Balewa’s body was discovered at a roadside near Lagos after six days.
Acting President, Nwafor Orizu, subsequently made a nationwide broadcast after he had briefed President Nnamdi Azikiwe on the phone the decision of the cabinet, announcing the “voluntary” transfer of power to the armed forces. Azikwe had travelled out of the country before the military struck. Aguiyi-Ironsi then made his own broadcast, accepting the “invitation”. On January 17, Aguiyi-Ironsi established the Supreme Military Council in Lagos and effectively suspended the constitution.
All the coup leaders, except for Ifeajuna, who had fled to Ghana, were placed under arrest. Nzeogwu handed over control of the Northern region to Aguiyi-Ironsi’s appointed designee, Major Hassan Katsina, before being escorted by Lt Col. Conrad Nwawo to Lagos where he surrendered to Aguiyi-Ironsi. Aguiyi-Ironsi used the coup as a pretext to suspend the Federal Government and bring an end to Nigeria’s First Republic.
However, as soon as the dust settled and it was widely noted that four of the five army Majors who executed the coup were Igbo and that Aguiyi-Ironsi who took over power was also Igbo, there was the fear that the Igbo had set out to take control of the country. Northerners interpreted the coup as an Igbo-led conspiracy to subjugate the north and impose Igbo domination. The fear of Igbo dominance became intense. The Ironsi government’s efforts to abolish the federal structure and the renaming of the country the Republic of Nigeria on May 24, 1966 raised tensions further. This resulted in the massacres of Igbo residents in the North, culminating into the Nigerian Civil War.
Six months later, precisely, July 1966, northern soldiers staged another bloody counter-coup against their Igbo counterparts. This, they did, to avenge the assassination of prime minister Tafawa Balewa, Northern region premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello and some other army officers of Northern origin. In the end, Major General Yakubu Gowon emerged as the Head of State.
Prelude to civil war
Reactions to the Nzeogwu-led coup prompted mob action which resulted in the killing of about 30,000 Igbos, while several hundreds fled to East. In the same vein, Northerners living in Igbo areas were also killed in revenge attacks. Following the Northern pogrom and the unaddressed grievances by the Federal Government, the late Emeka Ojukwu led the attempt to create a separate state in the Eastern region. Although the army suppressed the attempt at secession after a brutal civil war, bitterness and distrust remain 51 years later. The memory lingers on. Today, many Igbo still feel that Nigeria is still punishing them for their previous attempt at secession. Thus, the continued protests by the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) led by their detained leader, Nnamdi Kanu, demanding the region’s secession from Nigeria is a testimony to the fact that all is not well within the present federal arrangement. The origin of Biafra movement can, therefore, be traced back to the January 1966 coup.
Aftermath of the coup
The coup exposed the vulnerability of the political system and made it easy for soldiers to attack democratic structure rather than protecting it. The suspension of the constitution and subsequent promulgation of laws that gave the Federal Government ownership of all mineral resources is the fundamental cause of restiveness in the Niger Delta region as well as separatist agitations in different parts of the country. For some people, the only way out of the present quagmire is restructuring of the existing federal arrangement.
Beyond that, politicisation of the Nigerian army is also one of the greatest damages incessant coups have done to this country. This became more evident in the recent past when the Nigerian troop could not demonstrate common unity of purpose in the fight against Boko Haram. Until President Muhammadu Buhari took over the reign of power and restored the confidence of the officers, Nigerian soldiers were working at cross purposes.
The elaborate power-sharing arrangements in Nigeria’s constitution and the unwritten rule regarding rotation of political power between the north and south are legacies of the mistrust engendered in the 1966 coup.
Reflections on the coup
This year’s celebration provided yet another opportunity for stakeholders to reflect on the past and proffer a possible way forward.
One of the old disciples of the late Obafemi Awolowo, Senator Femi Okurounmu, recalling the memories of the coup in a telephone interview with Sunday Sun, said Nigeria would have been better for it if the coup had succeeded. His words: “Those who planned the coup had good intention but unfortunately they were not well thorough in their planning. If they had succeeded in taking over power, Nigeria would have been different today. But the coup did not actually go as planned. And because it did not go as planned, it fell into the wrong hands. Since then, the military has usurped power and the country deviated from the path of progress. We have not been able to get our affairs correctly. To some extent, the coup had set the country backward.”
Expressing a different opinion on the ethnic colouration some people attached to the coup, he added: “It was planned to be an all sweeping coup, but it assumed ethnic dimension the way it was executed. A few of the coup planners got misled; so, it gave it an ethnic undertone and that was what got us into wrong hands. It was hijacked by conservative elements. Those who planned the coup were young radical army who were progressives. The subsequent military take over heightened the level of corruption and destroyed good governance. The structure introduced by the military destroyed the country.”
He, therefore, stressed the need for an urgent restructuring of the country as a way to end the emerging trend of separatist agitations, noting that the grievances that led to the civil war had not been addressed by successive governments. “Since the July 1966 coup and what happened during the civil war, the Igbo have always felt marginalised. Most of the agreements reached at Aburi were never implemented. But it is not the only Igbo that are being marginalised, the whole country is being marginalised by the Fulani. Even the Yoruba who helped the present government to get to power are being marginalised. The lesson we need to learn is that we must go back to the old federal structure we had at independence. That is the only thing that can guarantee peace and stability of Nigeria,” he posited
In the same vein, the presidential candidate of the UPP, Chief Checkwas Okorie, speaking with Sunday Sun, declared the coup as a disaster for Nigeria, saying that it derailed the country from the path of progress. “To me, the coup was a disaster. One of the critical issues raised by the planners was corruption among the political class. But the intervention of the military in politics has accentuated corruption in the system. We would have been far ahead of Namibia, Malaysia and others, if not for that intervention that put us on the path of division. Whatever we are suffering today is as a result of that incident in our history. Whether you call it civilian or military, you will see military in Agbada or uniform. And there is always this military culture of not carrying people along. There is nothing positive to write home about the coup. What is the difference between Obasanjo in uniform and Obasanjo in Agbada? What is the difference between Buhari in uniform and Buhari in Agbada? Since that coup, Nigeria has been under the stranglehold of the military. And the military is not trained for social, cultural and economic development of any nation. They have promoted corruption to indescribable level. The current agitation for separation is as a result of the military manipulation of the federal structure. The bad governance in the country is also due to the military over lordship and that can be traced to the coup of 1966,” he lamented.
An elder statesman and a notable leader of thought in the North, Alhaji Tanko Yakassai, also corroborating the same view, had this to say: “Military rule was one tragedy that befell Nigeria. And 1966 coup was the beginning of military rule. Our woes and our sufferings are due to military rule. Unfortunately for the country, the military insisted on ruling us either in uniform or in civilian cloth. So, in the last 51 years, the only time we can say we had a civilian regime was during the Second Republic under former president Shehu Shagari. Two things characterised the military rule in Nigeria. One is incompetence; the other is motivation and desire to get rich. They did not have commitment to move Nigeria forward. And we cannot develop until the military allows us to develop our democracy and build political parties. Our problem in Nigeria is the military’s insistence that they must rule the country either in khaki uniform or civilian cloth. And we cannot get it right until they allow politicians to develop democracy and build political parties on their own and not through manipulation by the military.”
Without a doubt, five decades is a chunk in the life of a nation. With an appellation of giant of Africa, Nigeria is expected to be a leading democracy on the continent. But regrettably, the country is still grappling with the vestiges of military rule at 56. For the first time since independence, Nigeria has experienced 18 years of uninterrupted democratic rule. And the system is evolving but rather very slowly. It is hoped, therefore, that the stakeholders would do the needful and ensure the stability of the polity through a review of the present structure that engenders sustained separatist agitations.