THERE is a point on which no argument exists regarding the revolt of January 15, 1966. It fundamentally altered Nigeria’s political landscape. It marked a major turning point in the country’s political trajectory. The constitution was overturned. The elected government was sent parking. Some of the elected and appointed leaders were murdered. Democratic government gave way to military totalitarianism. Beyond this point lies a welter of biases and prejudices. What had actually happened? Had the military, as a body, sacked the Balewa administration? Or was its ouster the work of a cabal within the uniformed ranks? What role had tribalism played? What role by religion? In what connection had there been the politician’s overarching arm? In all of this, had there been a room, however tiny, for altruism?
There is a second point on which there should be no argument regarding January 15. It set off the bloody relay of coups d’etat that left Nigeria in shambles to this day. If this is not recognised in certain quarters, it is for the same reason that the truth of January 15 has not been embraced by the whole country. If it is possible to say with certainty that the last World Cup, held in 1998, was won by France, why has it been impossible to underline with certainty and unison the interplay of variegated forces that culminated in the sacking of the First Republic? Why is this impossibility not present when Nigerians turn pundits on the coups in Ghana, the coups in Sierra Leone, the coups in Burundi and the coups elsewhere? Is it because objectivity has a place only in the analysis of otherness?
A point to bear in mind is that the confusion, genuine and contrived, over January 15 is at the bottom of the country’s problems. It reared its ugly head recently during the public sittings of the Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission (HRVIC), otherwise known as the Oputa Panel. The Ohanaeze Ndigbo had presented a petition to the Panel, citing marginalisation, demanding compensation. The petition elicited a reaction from the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF). This body had previously discounted the need to present a petition of its own. Only when the Ohanaeze made a case did it occur to Arewa to make a counter case. In wisdom, the Oputa Panel allowed the Arewa its say, long after the deadline for such presentations had lapsed. In addition, Afenifere was invited to present a petition.
As was presented by Chief Ayo Adebanjo, the Afenifere called for a Sovereign National Conference for the solution of Nigeria’s lingering problems. To me, this position is laudable. Between the Ohanaeze and Arewa, a contention arose over January 15, 1966. People, including people who see themselves as respectable, mounted the witness box, swore by the holy books and proceeded to celebrate mendacity. Now and again, extraneous matters and dramatics took centre stage, what should attract attention seemingly forgotten. In sum, the Arewa claimed that the coup of that day was an Igbo affair aimed at decimating their people and enthroning perpetual Igbo domination of the Nigerian entity. They insisted that, contrary to all claims, Ndigbo are not marginalised and, therefore, do not deserve any compensation. It is for the Oputa Panel to decide.
What all Nigerians must determine is the true nature of January 15, 1966. Was it an Igbo coup? This was a question put to Lieutenant General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma ten years ago. This was his response: "No. Yes, the core of the coup was Igbo but they roped in a few others..." (See Newswatch magazine of November 2, 1992). At the Oputa Panel, Ohanaeze lawyers had a few questions to ask people with this view. For instance, if January 15, 1966 was an Igbo coup, what were all those other coups organised and carried out by the Hausa/Fulani? Again, why did this curious Igbo coup have as objective the installation of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, a Yoruba, as Prime minister?
Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna wrote in his unpublished manuscript that they intended to hand the leadership of Nigeria over to Awolowo. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu said so in an interview. Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna are long dead but Major Adewale Ademoyega is not only alive and well but easily accessible. Is it really correct to say that someone of the stature of Ademoyega, a history graduate, was roped into the Nzeogwu coup? The man thinks differently on the matter for, according to him, the innermost caucus of that coup consisted of Ademoyega, Ifeajuna and Nzeogwu. On pages 68-69 of Why We Struck: The Story of the First Nigerian Coup, (Evans Brothers Limited, Ibadan, 1981), Ademoyega states that they organised through Air Force Major T. E. Nzegwu for a plane to take Captain Udeaja to Calabar to effect the release of Awolowo from prison and fly him to Lagos to assume duties as Prime Minister. Why is this never put into consideration? There is another angle to look. If January 15, 1966 was an Igbo coup, how come that an Igbo aborted it? There are accounts still in circulation that credited Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon with crushing the coup. All such accounts failed to substantiate the claim with any credible materials. Gowon had no command on the right of the coup.
The troops sent into Lagos Island to encounter the coup makers was sent by General Aguiyi-Ironsi and led by Major Hans Anagho, a Cameroonian, who is still alive and proud of his role. Said Colonel Anagho: "Gowon knows very well that it was my company, "D" Company, 2nd Battalion, Nigerian Army which occupied Lagos from Ikeja, as spear-head of the loyal troops. Records show and history will tell that I was the commander of that Company."
General Yakubu Gowon has not commented on, let alone refute, Anagho’s position. All along, he has managed to maintain a deafening silence on January 15 and the events surrounding it, preferring to have "experts" with vested interest speak for him. But on September 3, 2001, Gowon presented a keynote address on the Nigerian civil war at the University of Ibadan. The event was organised by The Programme On Ethnic and Federal Studies (PEFS). Why did he suddenly start speaking? It was just before the Arewa and Ohanaeze were to make their final presentations at the Oputa Panel. Based on the way Gowon danced around the truth in his address, is it possible that he intervened just in time to provide incorrect ammunition for people minded to make a mockery of the Panel’s work? In due course, it will be necessary to review his paper appropriately so that his long-promised autobiography will have a chance of concerning itself with relevant questions.
It is because the truth about January 15 is yet to come from high quarters such as Gowon’s that today’s offering is even more urgent. Gowon attended the conference of senior military officers, which urged General Aguiyi-Oronsi to seek a hand-over of power from the politicians following the bloody Nzeogwu coup. We have it on the authority of Brigadier Hilary Njoku that other officers present were, "Major-General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi (GOC), Lt-Col. Francis Fajuyi, Lt. Col. Victor banjo, Lt.Col. Jack (Yakubu) Gowon, Lt.Col. George Kurubo, Major Patrick Anwunah, Commodore Wey of the Navy and (Lt. Col. Njoku)." Why has Gowon never acknowledged this conference and its decision? Aguiyi-Ironsi, Banjo, Fajuyi, Kurubo and Wey may be all dead. But Njoku and Anwunah are alive and well. Did the conference not hold and was it not on the strength of its decision that Ironsi took power?
One final point. The minutes of the conference in which the rump of the federal cabinet handed over power to the military regime of General Aguiyi-Ironsi was recorded by Alhaji Abdul Rasaq (SAN). He was at the time the legal adviser of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). Alhaji Abdul Rasaq told me in his Ikeja home many years ago that he still had in his possession the original minutes of the meeting which included the signatures of all those present. Should this historical document which could throw more light on the vents of January 15, 1966 remain in private hands?