At the time of Nigeria’s independence, Britain was pleased to claim much of the credit for the seeming early success of the experiment; Britain cannot now avoid much of the responsibility for the failure, for Nigeria was essentially a British and not a Nigerian experiment. For years Whitehall’s political thinking on Nigeria had been based on a resolute refusal to face the realities, an obstinate conviction that with enough pulling and shoving the facts could be made to fit the theory, and a determination to brush under the carpet all those manifestations which tend to discredit the dream. It is an attitude that continues to this day.
* Walter Schwarz, Nigeria, London, 1968, p. 86.
The Coup that Failed
Two coups were probably brewing during the first fortnight of 1966. The evidence for the one that did not occur is largely circumstantial; but subsequent assertions that the coup of 15 January baulked another coup scheduled for 17 January are certainly very plausible.
The other coup which was planned would have begun with a brief reign of terror in the Niger Delta of the Eastern Region, headed by a student at Nsukka University, Isaac Boro, who was supplied with funds for the purpose. This would have offered Prime Minister Balewa the chance of declaring a state of emergency in the East. Simultaneously, according to the charges later made in the West, units officered by Northerners were to carry out a ‘ruthless blitz’ against opposition (that is, UPGA) elements in that region. The two-pronged action would have broken the UPGA opposition party, again reinforced Akintola in the premiership of a region which by now hated him, and left the Sardauna of Sokoto’s NNA party in supreme control of Nigeria.
A number of moves were made which seem to give credence to this. On 13 January Sir Ahmadu Bello, who had been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, returned to his Northern capital Kaduna. The following day there was a secret meeting between him, Akintola, who flew north for the day, and the Commanding Officer of the First Brigade, a pro-Akintola Western officer, Brigadier Ademolegun. Previously the Federal Defence Minister, a NPC Northerner, had ordered the Army Commander Major-General Ironsi to take his accumulated leave; the Inspector-General of Police, Mr Louis Edet, another Easterner, was also ordered on leave; the Deputy Inspector-General, Mr M. Roberts, a Westerner, was sent into premature retirement to be replaced by the Hausa Alhaji Kam Salem, who would thus have been in control of the Federal Police by 17 January. The President, Dr Azikiwe, was in England on a health cure. If that was the plot, it failed because it was preceded by another coup, plotted in equal secrecy by a small group of junior officers, led mainly though certainly not exclusively by men of Eastern origin.
In Kaduna the group leader was the left-leaning and highly idealistic Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, an Ibo from the Midwest Region who had lived all his life in the North and spoke Hausa better than Ibo. On the evening of the 14th this brilliant but erratic chief instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy of Kaduna led a small detachment of soldiers, mostly Hausas, out of town ostensibly on routine exercises. When they arrived at Sir Ahmadu’s splendid residence Nzeogwu told the soldiers they had come to kill the Sardauna. They made no demur. ‘They had bullets. … If they had disagreed, they could have shot me,’ he said later.* They stormed the gate, killing three of the Sardauna’s guards and losing one of their own number in the process. Inside the compound they shelled the palace with mortars; then Nzeogwu tossed a hand grenade at the main door, coming too close in the process and injuring his hand. Once inside, the Sardauna was shot, along with two or three house servants. Elsewhere in Kaduna another group entered the house of Brigadier Ademolegun and shot him and his wife while in bed. A third group killed Colonel Shodeinde, the Yoruba second-incommand at the Defence Academy. With that the bloodshed in the North was over.
In the afternoon of 15 January Nzeogwu broadcast from Kaduna Radio, telling his listeners, ‘Our enemies are the political profiteers, swindlers, men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten per cent, those that seek to keep the country permanently divided so that they can remain in office as Ministers and VIPs of waste, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles.’ Later he said privately: ‘Our purpose was to change our country and make it a place we could be proud to call our home, not to wage war… . Tribal considerations were completely out of our minds at this stage.’
In Lagos the coup was in the hands of Major Emmanuel Ifeajuana, a young Ibo who had had a taste of fame for his earlier performances as an athlete. Some hours after dark he drove into Lagos with several truckloads of troops from Abeokuta barracks. Small detachments went off all over Lagos seeking their objectives. Three senior army officers of Northern origin, Brigadier Maimalari, commanding the Second Brigade, Lieutenant-Colonel Pam, the Adjutant-General, and Lieutenant-Colonel Largema, co
mmanding the Fourth Battalion, were killed, the first two at their homes and the third at the Ikoyi Hotel where he was staying. Major Ifeajuana himself went after the politicians. The Prime Minister, Balewa, was arrested at his home and bundled into the back of a Mercedes where he was made to lie on the floor. The Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, a Mid-Westerner who had made himself a byword for corruption and venality even in Nigerian politics, was shot at his home and his body dumped in the boot of the Mercedes. The troops also went after Dr Kingley Mbadiwe, the Ibo Minister of Trade, who escaped across open gardens and hid in the empty State House, home of the absent President Azikiwe. It was the one place the soldiers never thought of searching.
The last casualty in Lagos that night was another Ibo, Major Arthur Unegbu. He was in charge of the ammunition store at Ikeja Barracks, and was shot dead for refusing to hand over the keys of the armoury to the dissidents.
At Ibadan, capital of the West, the obvious target was the hated Akintola. Soldiers surrounding his house were met by a volley of automatic rifle fire. The Premier kept his own private arsenal. After storming the house, during which three soldiers were killed, Akintola was dragged out badly wounded and finished off. Elsewhere in Ibadan his Deputy Premier Chief Fani Kayode was arrested. As the soldiers dragged him away he cried, ‘I knew that the army was going to come, but I did not know that was the way they would come’.
So far the coup had gone roughly according to plan. By the small hours the insurgent officers, if they had consolidated, could have claimed to control the capitals of the North, West, and Lagos, the Federal capital. Benin City, the capital of the tiny Midwest Region, seems to have been left out of their plan; not without reason, for the Midwest could have been taken later.
Even from eyewitnesses and participants, versions of what exactly went wrong vary considerably; one can only try to draw some kind of coherent account from the varying impressions. Major Ifeajuana and his co-plotters in Lagos seem to have headed back towards Abeokuta in the Mercedes, dumping the bodies of Balewa and Okotie-Eboh on the way. It is still largely presumed that Balewa was shot, although one eyewitness has sworn he died of a heart attack. The bodies were found on the Abeokuta road a week later.
Ifeajuana and his collaborator in Lagos, Major David Okafor, Commander of the Federal Guard, seem to have made the crass error of not leaving anyone of calibre in the Federal capital when they left. This was largely why the plot failed, coupled with the brisk action of the GOC, Major-General Ironsi.
The result was that when the Ibadan group swept into Lagos shortly after dawn with the body of Akintola and the trussed but living form of Fani-Kayode in the back of the car, the city had changed hands. The Ibadan group were arrested by soldiers loyal to Ironsi and Fani-Kayode was freed.
Meanwhile Ifeajuana and Okafor realized there was no officer to take charge of Enugu, capital of the East and the last of the four cities they aimed to control. They then set off in the Mercedes, followed by a Volkswagen with some soldiers, for the 400-mile cross-country drive to Enugu.
One of the props for the idea that the coup of 15 January was an all-Ibo affair aimed at bringing about Ibo domination of Nigeria has always been that there was no coup in Enugu. The evidence does not support this theory. Troops of the First Battalion, garrisoning Enugu, moved against the Premier’s Lodge at 2 a.m.; they surrounded it, but waited for orders before attacking the house and its occupants. The Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, a Yoruba, was away on a course; the second-in-command, Major David Ejoor, a Midwesterner, was in Lagos. The troops, not predominantly Ibo as had been suggested but largely Middle-Belt infantrymen from the Northern Region, crouched round the house as dawn rose and waited for orders. Meanwhile Ifeajuana and Okafor were speeding across country to give those orders.
No man did more to foil the coup than the Army GOC Major-General Ironsi. Himself an Ibo from Umuahia, he had joined the army as a boy soldier and come up through the ranks. He was a big bull of a man, a thorough-going professional soldier who knew where his duty lay and stood no nonsense.
It seems he too was destined for death that night. Earlier he had been at a party given by Brigadier Maimalari and had gone on to another party on the mailboat Aureol, moored at Lagos docks. When he returned home after midnight his telephone was ringing. It was Colonel Pam, to say there was something afoot. Minutes later Pam was dead. Ironsi put down the phone as his driver, a young Hausa soldier, came in to say there were troops driving through the streets. Ironsi moved fast.
He jumped into his car and ordered the driver to take him straight to Ikeja barracks, the biggest barracks in the area and home of the Army Headquarters. He was stopped by a road-block of Ifeajuana’s soldiers who pointed their guns at him. Ironsi climbed out, stood up straight and roared ‘GET OUT OF MY WAY’. They moved.
At Ikeja he headed for the regimental sergeant-major’s quarters and rallied the garrison. From Ikeja he sent out a stream of orders throughout the morning. Troops loyal to him and the Government took over. Major Ejoor, reporting to him just before dawn, was ordered to get back to Enugu and resume command as fast as he could. Ejoor went to nearby Ikeja airport, took a light plane, and headed for Enuga airport. On the way he overtook Ifeajuana’s Mercedes driving along the road below.
Ejoor, arriving first in Enugu, took over the garrison and withdrew the troops around Dr Okpara’s home. At 10 a.m. the same troops stood guard of honour as a fearful Premier said goodbye at the airport to President Makarios of Cyprus who had been finishing a tour of Nigeria in Enugu. Later Dr Okpara was allowed to leave for his hometown of Umuahia.
In the Midwest dissident troops arrived at the Premier’s Lodge at 10 a.m., but were withdrawn on orders from General Ironsi at 2 p.m. The coup had failed. Ifeajuana and Okafor arrived in Enugu to find Ejoor in the saddle. They hid in the house of a local chemist, whence Okafor was arrested; Ifeajuana fled to Ghana, later to return and join the other plotters in prison.
It was not a bloodless coup, but it was far from a bloodbath. The Premiers of the North, the West and the Federation were dead, as was one Federal Minister. Among senior army officers three Northerners, two Westerners and two Easterners were dead. (Another Ibo major had been killed, this time by loyal troops who thought wrongly that he was among the plotters.) Apart from that a handful of civilians including the wife of one of the officers and some houseboys from Sir Ahmadu Bello’s household, together with less than a dozen soldiers, had died. Nzeogwu maintained later that there should have been no deaths at all, but that some of his colleagues became over-enthusiastic.
In Lagos General Ironsi had taken command of the army and had restored order, but it was not that which later put him in power. It was the reaction of the population as much as anything else that made quite plain to all that the reign of the politicians was at an end. This public reaction, often forgotten today, gives the lie most firmly of all to the idea that the January coup was a factional affair.
In Kaduna a throng of cheering Hausas sacked the palace of the dead autocrat. A smiling Major Hassan Usman Katsina, son of the Fulani Emir of Katsina, sat beside Nzeogwu at a press conference prior to which the latter had named Hassan Military Governor of the North. Alhaji Ali Akilu, Head of the Northern Civil Service, offered his support to Nzeogwu. But the Ibo major’s star was falling.
In Lagos and the rest of the South, Ironsi held the reins and would have no truck with the plotters. But he had the sense to realize that, although what the plotters had done went against all his own training and inclinations, they had still performed a popular service and had a lot of mass support. On Saturday afternoon, 15 January, he asked the Acting President to appoint a Deputy Premier from whom, according to the Constitution, Ironsi could take valid orders. But the politicians procrastinated through into the Sunday morning, and when the Cabinet finally met he had to tell them that he could not ensure the loyalty of his officers and prevent civil war unless he himself took over. In this he was almost certainly right, as nume
rous officers have made known since. Even those who had not taken part in the coup would not have accepted a return to the rule of the now thoroughly discredited politicians.