The 1966 Nigerian counter-coup.
Indeed, the Northerners did not find the coup of January 1966 amusing. They felt the Igbos had tried to eradicate them and take over power and so, they were not going to let it slide. They wanted a rematch and this rematch was going to be an event that would witness the killing of more than 50,000 easterners and culminate in a bloody civil war that would almost tear the nation apart.
WHAT LED TO THE COUP?
After the January coup, the northerners were dissatisfied with the balance of power. They were suspicious of the fact that almost no Igbo was killed during the January coup, while the most senior Northern politicians and military officers were murdered. Furthermore, Aguyi Ironsi (the Head of State) did not execute the mostly Igbo conspirators of the January coup for treason. According to Danjuma (one of the coup leaders), the detained soldiers were not only being paid their full salary but they were also afforded the luxury of television in detainment.[i] In fact, some newspapers began calling the detained coupists national heroes and many called for their release.
To top it all, Ironsi made the mistake of enacting a Unification Decree which concentrated power in the central government; a government, which was headed by an Igbo. For this, he was going to pay with his life. This situation made northern civilians to agitate for retaliation and thus, the stage was set for northern aggression.
By mid-1966, it had become obvious that the Northerners were going to have a “rematch” with their Igbo counterparts. Twice however, they postponed plans to execute a coup because of last minute change of heart and logistical problems.[ii] In fact, while Ironsi was at the Kaduna Airport during a nationwide tour, gunshots were fired but Ironsi’s life was spared because of the personal intervention of the Emir of Kano and other northern traditional rulers who did not want Ironsi’s blood to be spilled, at least not on northern soil.[iii] The coupists then decided to find another place and time.
THE COUP PLOTTERS
The two most prominent leaders of the July coup were Lt Col. Murtala Mohammed (the inspector of signals) and Major Theophilus Danjuma. Other coupists included Lieutenant Sani Abacha, Lieutenant Ibrahim Babangida, the murderous Lieutenant Buka Suka Dimka and Muhammadu Buhari (now president) who was a Lieutenant at that time.
Murtala was from a very influential Northern family and his apathy for the January coup and Ironsi was so great that he once referred to Ironsi, in the presence of Igbo soldiers, as a “fool”.[v] Murtala was not a man to tolerate disrespect from his subordinates but he himself “had little respect for constituted authority”.[vi] He also wielded so much influence such that even when Gowon became the military head of state, he was still the power behind the throne.
Theophilus Danjuma on the other hand was not as privileged as Murtala. His father was a peasant farmer and he had joined the military after enrolling to study history at the then Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria (now Ahmadu Bello University). Danjuma was the soldier in charge of the personal security of Ironsi and it is indeed ironic that the insect that eats the vegetable lives within it.
THE COUP (ABEOKUTA)
The first shots that signalled the start of the July coup were fired in Abeokuta at about midnight on July 28 1966. The then commanding officer of the Abeokuta Garrison, Lt Col. Gabriel Okonweze had heard disturbing news about the possibility of a coup and wanted to prevent it.[vii] He called all his officers (all Igbos) to a meeting at the officer’s mess, but rather than help, things escalated. The junior northern officers thought that the meeting was organised to discuss how to finish them off and thus they burst into the officer’s mess, exclaimed “hands up gentlemen !” and riddled them with bullets[viii] This singular incidence disrupted the already fragile peace that existed among the tribes and catalysed the coup.
By the time Lt. Rowland Ogbonna called Lagos to inform the Army Headquarters of the Abeokuta incident, he was put through to Lt. Nuhu Nathan, an officer who unknown to Rowland was part of the coup plotters. Rather than Rowland’s call helping the situation, it served as a rallying call for other Northern troops who up until now were unaware that the coup had begun.[ix] Accordingly, Nehu alerted the Northern coup leaders and the coup officially began. By this time, the Northern soldiers in Abeokuta had begun carrying out an in-house cleansing of Igbo soldiers after which they dumped their bodies into a vehicle parked near one of the officers’ quarters.[x]
When the coup began, the Head of State, Aguyi Ironsi was visiting Ibadan as part of his nationwide tour. He had just addressed the traditional rulers on the 28th of July and then decided to spend the night in Ibadan with the military governor, Lt-col Francis Fajuyi at the State House. Ironsi had made a fundamental mistake of entrusting his personal security to the hands of Northern soldiers, many of whom were in on the coup. In fact, one of his ADCs was the younger brother of Lt-Col. James Pam- one of those who were murdered during the January coup.[xi] Ironsi did this in an attempt to show that he was not heading an “Igbo regime”, but little did he know that he was digging his own grave.
By the time Ironsi was aware that a coup was already taking place, the coupists led by Major T.Y Danjuma had already surrounded the Ibadan State House. Fajuyi and Ironsi did not know that not only were they surrounded by enemies outside, they were also surrounded by enemies within. Therefore, when Fajuyi sent aids to assess the situation of things outside, these aids were deceptive in saying that they were under no threat.
At this point, it is important to note the courage and heroism of Fajuyi. He had been asked by the coupists to hand over Ironsi in exchange for his life. Fajuyi however showed the good quality of the soldier he was by giving up his life rather than handing over his guest. Indeed, he stood with his comrade even to the point of death.
Unfortunately, the coupists gained entry into the state house and abducted both Ironsi and Fajuyi. They striped both men of their clothes, tied them up and severely beat them until they could hardly stand. The coupists kept interrogating Ironsi about his knowledge of the January coup and the whereabouts of the January victims. When he denied knowledge of the answers, they persisted in their assault. The coupists then drove Ironsi and Fajuyi out of Ibadan to Iwo and shot them dead in shallow graves. With the death of the supreme military commander of Nigeria, the nation was scattered like the biblical sheep without shepherd.
The chief coupist, Murtala Mohamed, executed the coup in Lagos. Murtala, along with his Northern troops took over the Ikeja airport (now Murtala Mohamed Airport) and hijacked a British plane, which they intended to use to ferry their families back to the North. The Northerners had intended to secede from Nigeria, but the British and American ambassadors along with some highly placed Nigerian civilians convinced them not to.[xii] It is ironic however, that the same Ikeja airport was renamed after the man who took it by force.[xiii] While the Ikeja incident was on, Captain Okoye was in an unfortunate twist of fate. He was passing through Ikeja Airport and was captured. They tied him to an iron cross, beat him up and left him to die.
While the coup was ongoing in other parts of Nigeria, the Igbo commander of the Kaduna based 3rd Battalion had spoken to his troops and encouraged them to remain loyal. His troops however, turned deaf hears to his words and tricked him into going to the guardroom.[xiv] They had told him that he had an assignment in the guardroom but upon getting there, they interrogated and shot him alongside other Igbos.
Northern solders also attempted to execute a coup in Enugu and tried to kill the Eastern military governor, Lt-Col Emeka Ojukwu but the plans failed. This was because when Lt-col Ogunewe, the commander of the Enugu based Battalion, heard of what was happening around the country, he locked his battalion’s armoury and placed it under the joint guard of both Northern and Southern soldiers.[xv] Although some Northern soldiers still attempted to finish the coup in Enugu (because Murtala kept on sending signals for the Northern troops to act), Ogunewe’s wisdom prevailed.
THE BLOOD THIRST
By the time the coup started, Igbo solders in the North had either been killed, imprisoned or were fleeing south for their lives. The mutineers took the coup to the extreme such that being Igbo was reason enough to be killed. In fact, Emeka Ojukwu (the Eastern military governor) asked; “At what stage does this massacre becomes genocide?”[xvi] And Yakubu Gowon (the military head of state after Ironsi’s death) was forced to state; “It appears that it is going beyond reason and is now at a point of recklessness and irresponsibility”.[xvii] The Northern troops had become so blood thirsty that even the Northern senior military officials could no longer curb their excesses and this eventually led to a bitter civil war (read about the civil war here: ), which almost saw the death of the nation.
A PERSPECTIVE (summary).
The story of 1966 outlines how the actions of a person or a group of persons led to consequences of far greater severity than they had initially conceived. The coup plotters of January 15 1966 (read here about it here: First Military Coup In Nigeria) had planned to execute all the senior officials of Nigeria (irrespective of tribe). They were ambitious for their country and genuinely wanted to correct the political evils and corruption prevailing at that time (Note: this is to neither justify nor condemn their actions). Along the way, those who were delegated with the task of executing at the Eastern front failed. Consequently, the coup immediately took an ethnic coloration.
Because of this, the Northerners thought that the Igbos had intentionally acted in order to eradicate them. The facts available at that time supported the northern perspective, BUT FACTS ARE NOT ALWAYS TRUTHS. The northerners then decided to launch an attack on those they believed had knowledge about the January coup, but this quickly degenerated into what was almost a genocide.
Although these events have continued to remain relevant to the Nigerian situation, the kind of relevance (whether positive or negative) we let it have is dependent on us. It is time we abandoned tribalistic sentiments in favor of a greater Nigeria.
[i] Max Siollun, 2008, The Danjuma Interview, accessed December 2018, http://www.google.com.ng/amp/s/maxiollum.wordpress.com/2008/05/28/the-danjuma-interview/amp/
[ii] Max Siollun, 2015, The Northern Counter-coup of 1966: The Full Story, accessed December 2018, https://dawodu.com/coup2.htm
[v] Max Siollun, 2015, The Northern Counter-coup of 1966: The Full Story, accessed December 2018, https://dawodu.com/coup2.htm
[vii] Nowa Omoigui, MD, 2002, OPERATION ‘AURE’: Northern Nigerian Military Counter-Rebellion
July, 1966, accessed December 2018, http://www.waado.org/NigerDelta/Nigeria_Facts/MilitaryRule/Omoigui/NorthCounterCoup.htm
[viii] Max Siollun, 2015, The Northern Counter-coup of 1966: The Full Story, accessed December 2018, https://dawodu.com/coup2.htm
[xii] Jide Olanewaju, “The Real Story of Nigeria”, YouTube, April 13 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgrVHrTvxC8
[xiii] Max Siollun, 2015, The Northern Counter-coup of 1966: The Full Story, accessed December 2018, https://dawodu.com/coup2.htm
[xvi] Jide Olanewaju, “The Real Story of Nigeria”, YouTube, April 13 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgrVHrTvxC8
[xvii] Chuks Iloegbunam, ‘July 29, 1966 counter-coup: Africa’s bloodiest coup d’état’, Vanguard Newspaper, 29 July 2016, accessed 4 December 2018.