My encounter with Ironsi on coup day – Rita-Lori


Maj-Gen JTU Aguiyi Ironsi
Maj-Gen JTU Aguiyi Ironsi

Chief Mrs. Rita Lori-Ogbebor was one of the country’s leading broadcast journalists at the time of the January 15 coup and was the first Programme Director of the Nigerian Television Service, NTS. On the morning of the coup she encountered the General Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Army, General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi near the Parliament Building as he bustled to suppress the uprising.  Fifty years after the coup she asserts that the plotters were perhaps not motivated by the lust for power, being that they desired a better society, Charles Kumolu writes…

As a witness to history, would you say the reasons given by the plotters were sufficient to provoke the coup?

They should come and see what is happening in the country now.  These were young people, who came out of the university and went into the army. They had been indoctrinated. They came out of school wanting to see an ideal society. They had their mindset on the right things they felt the country should do. Any other way would not be tolerated. And they swallowed all they read and learnt. They were looking for perfection. It is not that they came out wanting to kill because they wanted positions. They came out to do what they did because they were indoctrinated and they wanted a country that is perfect. But I think also that they may have been used by some greedy politicians.

In every society you must have greedy ones.  And they did not know that our country was very fragile, we were all in the process of learning. They themselves were in the process of learning and therefore should not have taken away what we did not have. At that time, we were all learning. From the permanent secretaries to the politicians, we were all learning. So, they may not have known that what they were doing was going to boomerang because they took away our founding fathers, who were just building a new nation.

These founding fathers had constitutional meetings in Europe, trying to have a country.  They did not put all that into consideration. So, the country did not quite settle before they struck.  Today, more provocative things are happening in the country as obtained during Jonathan’s administration but there was no coup because of our past experiences.  The country was saved by the prayers of Nigerians like the Roman Catholic Church that says the Prayer for Nigeria in Distress. They did not know what they were doing.

Looking at the ethnic composition of the principal actors in that putsch, would it be right to say that they were nudged to carry out the action by ethnic sentiments?

All these boys were young men propelled  by ideology. They had been tutored during their training in the army to ensure a disciplined society. They wanted a perfect situation through elimination of corruption in the country. If you look at all of them, some were the first set of our boys, who had university education. So their idea was to have a united perfect country. Before now soldiers didn’t believe whether you were Ibo, Hausa or Yoruba.

They believed in the oneness of the country. Soldiers are trained to be their brothers’ keepers and to believe in themselves. And I don’t think that any of those young soldiers had sectional ambition because none of them wanted to become Prime Minister. And you can see that if they wanted political power, they could have gone for Ironsi.  In those days, they had not become ambitious. Even the Ironsi, who took over did not know what to do. That was why he introduced the unitary system which is a system of the army with a chain of command.

As a journalist at that time can you recollect the early post-coup events in Lagos at that time?

I just came back from England after a television course.  I was supposed to report to my office to cover the parliament. I was to cover the parliament with the OB-Van (Outside Broadcast Van) and my thoughts then were to collect my OB-Van and go to the Parliament the next day. But early in the morning around 6 am the late Cyprian Ekwensi drove to my house.  He said to me ‘’have you heard what is happening?’’ I said no.  He said ‘’I am sorry your uncle has been taken away.’’ I did not understand what he was talking about and I said ‘’who are you talking about?’’ He said ‘’your uncle, Okotie Eboh has been taken away.’’ I did not understand, so asked where he was taken to? And he said there was a coup. That was when it dawned on me that there was trouble. But even then it was still not clear as to the full meaning. For me, my uncle was a great man and I was lost as to who could have taken away my uncle.  Immediately he said so to me, he went away. He also told me that the Prime Minister was taken away. As he was hurrying away, I too drove straight to my uncle’s house opposite the Island Club.

I drove straight to his house and I found that his gate had been flung open. And one of the housekeepers, whom I knew was crying. And I asked what had happened; he told me that my uncle was taken away by some soldiers. Even at that stage it did not dawn on me that I was not going to see him again neither did I know that they were going to kill him. I just thought that it’s all politics that he was going to come home sometime in the day. Then I moved to the Prime Minister’s house and found same situation.

The door was thrown open and his orderly was crying. It was then that it was getting clearer to me what a coup actually is. I then knew that it was a matter of life and death. So that is the way it was at time. I must say, however, that at the time I was driving to my uncle’s house, I saw vehicles of soldiers speeding in a manner I had never seen. I drove to my office and proceeded to the parliament. At the parliament we were told to pack up and start moving.

Who gave that order?

Ironsi was the person, who asked us to go. And not even all the ministers had heard about what happened then. So I saw this huge tall man, the late Aguiyi Ironsi, who came and asked us to go in an unusual manner. And this was a man, who used say to me:  ‘’hello, how are you my young director,’’ he used to joke with me. But this time, he was not joking. He commanded all of us to get out of the parliament.

Had he assumed power as the Head of State at the time he was giving such orders in Lagos?

He was the most senior officer in the army. So he took control immediately and of course he was the one commanding everybody to get moving. And that was the first time everybody was seeing soldiers in action in the country. Even some flamboyantly dressed ministers, who came and were showing themselves to the camera quickly respected themselves and put themselves back in their cars. Those days our ministers were flamboyant in their dressing and carriage.  For instance, my uncle when going to present a budget dressed as if it was a Christmas Day.

So the ministers were flamboyant but not like the ones stealing today. Their flamboyance was not about stealing of public funds because they still had in them the idea of the founding fathers that their duty was to make Nigeria great. Everything that mattered to them then was Nigeria. And that was why Nigeria developed at a fast rate then. So, all the flamboyant ministers then chickened out of the presence of the soldiers who gave order for people to leave the parliament.  They entered their cars and went away.  The atmosphere was an unhappy and uncertain one because we did not expect what happened. But much later it started to dawn on us and the country has never known peace after then. It surprised us to know that the killings were not uniformed. And that of course led from one coup to the other.

So what happened after the dispersal?

They called us later to brief us about what had happened and why they took over the reins of government and what it means. Then the northerners started to feel differently because Abubakar and Sardauna were killed.  It was since that coup that Nigerians started looking at Nigeria differently. That was the beginning of the problems we are in. Again is the fact that the soldiers who planned the coup were very young. Even when I was in school (Saint Theresa’s College Ibadan) soldiers like Ifeajuna used to come and talk with the senior girls. So they used to come and brief us about the country. It was much later that I realised that they had something more than just talking to us about the country.

During those visits by Ifeajuna and other young officers, did someone like Ifeajuna sound revolutionary?

We were too busy trying to pass our exams, so we did not really understand that they had long felt different about happenings in the country. That was years before the coup.  These were restless people especially that Ifeajuna. They were just young and excited officers.

When the army took over it was a shock to all of us. But one thing we had in those days was freedom of speech which we inherited from Zik and Awolowo, who were journalists. It was a legacy we got from them because we did not fight any war to get our independence. It was a war of the pen. So, we enjoyed that. But that became a luxury when the army came. When I was a programme Director at the NTS , I did what I think I should do and before I knew, a soldier came to the control room and took me away. That was after the coup.

My offense was that I took a shot where Aguiyi-Ironsi was eating. In that picture, Ironsi was heaping food into his mouth. I was neither the one who took the shot nor edited it. I just ran it because it had been edited that way.  It was shocking when we saw soldiers in our place of work. When they started calling us to come we did not come, don’t forget that we were pretty young girls in our own world so we refused to come. But one of us was given a slap by the soldiers.  So, that experience marked the beginning of impunity that became the order of the day during military rule.  Things changed with the first coup.

Unitary government

Ironsi introduced unitary government but some part of the country did not like it. Ojukwu was part of the young officers who went to the university.  He was in the east and when the unitary government came some did not like it. And by that time some of us already felt bad. People like Peter Enahoro (Peter Pan) ran away after writing some articles. That was a bad period for us because people we trusted could not be trusted any more. Unitary system worsened the situation and perhaps led to the second coup. Again, I was in Ibadan to cover the event that Aguiyi Ironsi had come for.

I arrived in the evening. In the morning the news came to us that there was a coup. So, before we could get to the venue of the event, we started hearing that something had happened and for somebody like me, who saw the first one in Lagos, I took to my heels. When my uncle, the Prime Minister and Sardauna of Sokoto were killed, I had no faith again. At that time, the impression the north gave to us was that they had revenged and that they were going to join Niger Republic. In that coup, the governor of Western Region was also killed. The Yoruba were angry about that. (Source: Vanguard)

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