January 15 every year is Nigeria’s Armed Forces Remembrance Day: wreaths are laid, statements are made, soldiers, government officials and the Nigerian Legion attend parades, pigeons symbolizing peace are released, a dinner is organized for widows of fallen soldiers and there is so much talk about death and dying for one’s country all in honour of Nigerian soldiers who have had to die so that Nigeria may live. In terms of context however, what is also celebrated is the surrender of the secessionist Biafran forces to the Nigerian government on January 15, 1970, a throwback to the country’s three years of civil war.
This is downplayed just as government similarly conveniently ignores the fact that January 15 is also the date of the first coup d’etat in our country. It is 50 years today since that incident. And it is most unlikely that the Federal Government will devote much attention to that particular aspect of our history. But even if they don’t, the families of those who fell to the bullet on January 15, 1966 will certainly remember. It is a day that should be specially remembered by all Nigerians and students of history because that was when things finally fell apart and the rains began to beat our roofs. On this day in 1966, four Igbo military officers and one Yoruba, five Majors in all, led by 29-year old Major Kaduna Nzeogwu struck in Kaduna, Lagos, and Ibadan, as they sought to take over Nigeria by revolutionary means in a bloody coup d’etat.
Nzeogwu told his compatriots: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent; those that 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 calendar back by their words and deeds. Like good soldiers we are not promising anything miraculous or spectacular.
“But what we do promise every law abiding citizen is freedom from fear and all forms of oppression, freedom from general inefficiency and freedom to live and strive in every field of human endeavor, both nationally and internationally. We promise that you will no more be ashamed to say that you are a Nigerian…”
Opinion is radically divided, North and South, as to whether the January 15 putschists were heroes or villains. What can be said is that Nzeogwu’s revolutionary statement was a pointed summary of widespread discontent with post-independence realities in the First Republic. When Nigeria became independent on October 1, 1960, there was so much optimism about the future. On November 16, 1960, when Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe assumed office as Governor-General of the Federation, he proclaimed: “the past is gone, with all its bitterness and rancor and recriminations.” But the past did not go anywhere. Instead, it caught up with the present, and ruined the future, with all “its bitterness and rancor and recriminations”.
At no time did the British colonialists make any effort to run Nigeria as a single nation, if anything, they sowed the seeds of discord as has been admitted by a colonial officer, Harold Smith who confessed that Nigeria was deliberately rigged to fail as an independent country. This much was evident during the years and events leading up to independence, particularly the Constitutional Conferences, 1950 -1958, and the elections, 1951-1959. The political parties of the time – the AG, NPC, NCNC, NNDP, NEPU, UMBC and even the smaller parties were all ethnic-based, promoting either sectarian or sectional interests.
The political elites were all ethnic gladiators, motivated by prejudices. They fought not for Nigeria, but for power and their kinsmen’s interests. In effect, the people of the South did not feel comfortable with the people of the North whom they considered “feudalistic and backward.” The Northerners in return did not trust anybody from the South. They resented the growing presence of Easterners in their region and the attempt by Southerners to dominate the Northern Public Service. Regional competition was fierce and when any region felt uncomfortable, there were threats of secession. In 1953, in fact, the West threatened to secede from Nigeria. That same year, a clash between Igbos and the Hausa/Fulani in the North left over 30 people dead. By 1958, Sir Ahmadu Bello had boasted that the North will dominate the entire Nigeria. The minorities also began to express their concerns about being dominated by the majorities and they actively set up platforms to give themselves a voice in the Nigerian Federation.
This was the setting at independence in 1960. The country’s leaders posed for photographs but the recent past was fully embedded in their consciousness. It didn’t take long before the past caught up with the present. The British who used to mediate and act as a stabilizing lever had begun to disengage. The field was left open for all the recriminations of the past to take centre stage and they did. Everything in the First Republic became a problem. The new leaders could not organize themselves politically without rancor and violence, or a resort to ethnic prejudices. They fought over derivation formula, census, elections, positions in government at the Federal and regional levels. In 1962, the Western region practically slipped into crisis resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency by the Balewa Government.
The victims were the Nigerian people. They watched as the new political elite became rich, how they gave positions to their kith and kin, how government became a centre of corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and mediocrity. Whatever traces of integration and trust that may have existed began to disappear. This was the Nigeria of Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People. The people expected independence to bring quality change but it left them worse off than they were under the British.
This of course inspired youth radicalism with groups like the Dynamic Party led by Dr Chike Obi, the NCNC Youth Association led by Mokwugo Okoye, the Nigerian Youth Congress led by Dr Tunji Otegbeye, and the National Union of Nigerian Students (NUNS) beginning to query the country’s democratic prospects. Concerns were expressed about the usefulness of Westminster parliamentary democracy and whether it would not have been better for the country to adopt socialism, a masses-oriented system. It was also the age of Pan-Africanism. It was also around this period that African intellectuals began to ponder the possibility of having benevolent dictatorships to give post-colonial Africa, the stability it needed.
But the idea of dictatorship did not quite gain grounds in Nigeria. When there was a coup in Sudan in 1958, and Togo in 1963, the reaction in Nigeria on both occasions was that it would never happen here. But it did happen, 50 years ago today. By the time the coup failed and ended, what was left, fairly or unfairly, was its ethnic colouration and bias. The key plotters except one were all Igbos. The people who were targeted in the main theatres of operation: Kaduna, Lagos and Ibadan were all non-Igbos. Only one Igbo life was reportedly lost: Col Arthur Unegbe, and that was because he could not be trusted. The received impression is that the coup failed on the platforms of irredentism, its selectiveness and one-sidedness, even if some of the other ranks under Nzeogwu’s command in Kaduna were actually Northerners and other Nigerians.
Senior officers, like Brigadier Zakari Maimalari and Brig. Samuel Ademulegun, were killed by younger officers who were well-known to them. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa’s body was dumped somewhere along the Lagos-Abeokuta road. The Premier of the Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello was killed along with his wife, driver, and security assistant. Chief SLA Akintola, Premier of the Western Region was gunned down in his bedroom. Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh also lost his life.
Others included Col. Ralph Shodeinde, Col Kur Muhammed, Lt Col. Abogo Lagerma, Lt Col. James Pam, PC Yohanna Garkawa, PC Haga Lai, Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo, Sgt. Daramola Oyegoke, PC Akpan Anduka and Ahmed Ben Musa. And when it was all over, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was conveniently, and most suspiciously, away on a cruise in the Caribbean. An Igbo man, Nwafor Orizu, the acting President handed over power to another Igbo man, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi.
Although a highly qualified officer, Ironsi didn’t stand a chance. He had been instrumental to making the coup fail, and had tried to promote Northern officers after the January coup, but he was, all the same, accused of treating the coup plotters with kid gloves, and of trying to impose Igbo hegemony on Nigeria. The January 15 coup brought all extant suspicions to the fore; by May, there were reports of Igbos being killed by Northerners and cries of likely secession by the North.
On July 29, 1966, young Northern military officers, responding to widespread anti-Igbo sentiments in their region over the January coup and objections to Ironsi’s Unification Decree, staged a counter-coup. Led by Lt. Col. Murtala Muhammad, they had among them a few South Westerners and minorities. They removed the Ironsi government from office, killed him and Brig. Adekunle Fajuyi, his host, and thereafter took over power. This rise of the North will last for decades in one form or the other. Many of those young officers have remained at the centre of Nigerian politics ever since.
But the significant point is that the inherited “bitterness and rancor and recriminations” have not gone away. They caused the civil war of 1967-70. They are also the reason why 50 years later, Igbos still feel alienated and the minorities are claiming that they are under assault from majority-domination. All the cleavages of old have remained active made worse by religious conflict, greed and heightened elite incompetence.
“There was once a country,” Achebe said. But unfortunately, there is still no nation, no freedom from fear, oppression, erosion of democratic norms of fair play, distrust of the political elite, rising expectations, corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, vengeance and blood-letting. May be economic prosperity and justice for all is the answer. But when will that happen? Nigeria’s story being a story of ifs and wherefores: after more than ten coups since January 15, 1966, and so many endless recriminations, we can only perhaps hope that sustained democratic rule will in the long run, provide us the necessary opportunities to make amends.