The Coup Against Gowon - PART 1
Introduction: "Nigeria Gowon Kaput"
In German, the word "kaput" means 'broken',
'utterly defeated', 'finished' or 'destroyed'.
On Tuesday, July 29, 1975, a German evening newspaper ran a provocative headline stating "Nigeria Gowon Kaput", implying that the nine-year-old military regime of General Yakubu Gowon of Nigeria was over. He had been deposed.
The newspaper had good reason to splash such an aggressive headline. At 0600 hours earlier that day the following broadcast was monitored from Radio Nigeria, Lagos:
"Fellow countrymen and women, I, Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba, in consultation with my colleagues, do hereby declare that in view of what has been happening in our country in the past few months, the Nigerian Armed Forces decided to effect a change of the leadership of the Federal Military Government.
As from now, General Yakubu Gowon ceases to be head of the Federal Military Government and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria. The general public is advised to be calm and to go about their lawful duties.
However, in view of the traffic situation in Lagos area, all workers other than those on essential services like NEPA, Medical Services, Water Works, NPA, the P & T, all workers and all Tanker Drivers will observe today, 29th of July, 1975, as a work free day.
A dusk to dawn curfew is hereby imposed until further notice. Nigeria Airways operations are suspended and all Airports and Borders are closed till further notice.
Fellow countrymen, this has been a bloodless operation and we do not want anyone to lose his or her life. You are therefore warned in your own interest to be law abiding. Anyone caught disturbing the public order will be summarily dealt with.
We appeal to everyone to co-operate in the task ahead. Further announcements will be made in due course. Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria."
JOSEPH NANVEN GARBA AND THE BRIGADE OF GUARDS
The officer who made the announcement was no ordinary Colonel. He was the Commander of the elite Brigade of Guards in the federal capital, a position he had held – as the Federal Guards Company evolved into a Battalion and then Brigade - since August 1966, except for the year he was away in Britain at the Staff College, Camberly. He was also widely regarded as a confidant of General Gowon and trusted loyalist of the regime. His co-option and active participation or neutralization was crucial to the bloodless nature – and success - of the coup.
Many sources claim that Colonel (later Major General) Joseph Nanven Garba (deceased) was distantly related to Gowon maternally. However, while Garba acknowledged the fact that his maternal grandfather originated from a village two miles from Gowon’s aboriginal village in Angas, then Benue-Plateau State, he never – according to him - actually confirmed the said relationship. On his father’s side, he was Langtang, also from then Benue-Plateau State. As a lieutenant in November 1964, Garba was originally handpicked (by then Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon) from the 4th battalion in Ibadan, to the Federal Guards Company where he became the second-in-command to Major Donatus Okafor. He remained there until July 1965 when he was posted to 2 Brigade HQ as GSO III under Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna who served as Brigade Major to Brigadier Zak Maimalari. Both Ifeajuna and Okafor were later inner-circle mutineers in January 1966. However, Garba was away as a UN observer along the Indo-Pakistani border when the coup took place. Upon his return to post-coup Nigeria, ‘northern soldiers’ of the Federal Guards, apparently now suspicious of ‘Igbo officers’, insisted that he return as second-in-command as a condition of accepting Major B. Ochei, a Midwest Igbo-speaking officer, as the new Commander of the unit in place of Okafor. Okafor had been arrested for his role in the assassination of the Prime Minister. However, with Ochei unable to garner the confidence of the ‘northern’ soldiers, Garba virtually became the defacto commander of the unit, beating back an attempt by 2nd Brigade Commander, Lt. Col. H. Njoku to have him posted out in late May 1966.
After the July 29, 1966 coup, Garba assumed the command of the unit formally (on August 16th). He was instrumental (along with then Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed) in selecting the former residence of the late first republic Defence Minister, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu, as the new residence of the new C-in-C within the Dodan Barracks perimeter. During the civil war, Garba selected a special unit of men drawn from the Angas tribe and charged them with Gowon’s personal safety. As the unit expanded it became more complex. On April 1st, 1968, it was upgraded to a Guards Brigade. Quite apart from its role in the personal security of the C-in-C and the defence of Lagos, units of the Guards were involved in crucial operations of the 3 Marine Commando and 2nd Infantry Divisions during the Civil War. It developed a Brigade HQ, a Guards Garrison at Dodan barracks, as well as several “Guards Battalions.” In 1972, then Major General Gowon ordered a detachment of the Brigade to stand-by at Ikeja for emergency deployment to Niger republic during a coup attempt against then President Hamani Diori.
Within the Dodan Barracks clique, Colonel JN Garba, Lt. Col. Paul Tarfa (Garba’s 2ic, and Guards Commander in Garba’s absence), Lt. Col. William Walbe (Gowon’s military ADC), and the Police ADC, Mr. Yaroson, organized concentric rings of security as the “Czars of Dodan Barracks”. This was quite separate from the role of the Head of Police Special “E” Branch, Alhaji MD Yusuf, who was Gowon’s Chief Security Officer (CSO). According to Oluleye, Gowon’s military ADC, William G. Walbe was so security conscious and strict that Gowon did not even know his own phone numbers and thus could not independently arrange for persons to call him directly. Underneath it all, however, were some personal rivalries. Garba, who was Walbe’s course-mate at the Nigerian Military School, for example, had superseded his contemporaries back in 1965 – although he claimed that Gowon reversed his ‘seniority’ in 1971. Garba was later to complain that after October 1974, Gowon – or rather one of the other ‘czars’ - required him to book appointments before seeing the C-in-C. Added to all of this were some tensions with the first lady.
That said, in time to come an image emerged externally that the Guards Unit was an elite military cult deliberately populated by fearsome soldiers of middle belt origin. This was not a completely fair characterization, although there was certainly a very strong middle belt flavor until the events of 1976 resulted in its disbandment and reconstitution. [Paul Tarfa, for example, is from Garkida in the NorthEast. But then Major John Shagaya, Commander of the 2nd Guards Battalion was Langtang, from then Benue-Plateau State, like JN Garba]. The rumors alleging sub-regional bias aside (which probably emanated from the special Angas unit raised during the war under Lt. McDonald Gotib), Garba certainly ran a tight ship, projected a lot of professional confidence, and insisted on the very best ceremonial turnout among his soldiers. He was fond of personally recruiting officers and men for service in the Guards (rather than rely on the Military Secretary’s Office), as long he liked your height, bearing and drill – irrespective of your ethnic background. During NDA passing-out parades, he would show up with the express intent of picking his officers right off the parade ground. That was how my bosom friend, 2/Lt. (later Major) Garba Ismail (deceased), for example, became a Guards Officer when he graduated from NDA.
According to the Army web site,
“Guards Brigade is unique in its customs and
traditions. It is the only formation in the NA where Commissioned Officers carry
walking stick as part of their dress regulation. Officers are allowed to wear
web belt in the Mess, an exception [to] the rule in all other Messes. The
Brigade is also one of the few formations in the NA where all ranks fly plums
(Green-red in colour). It is customary for all officers posted to the Brigade to
be decorated with its insignia, Walking sticks, lanyards and plums on assumption
of duty. Another unique feature of Guards Brigade is a very high level of
proficiency in drills of all types. It has highest level of espirit-de-corps in
To a large extent, these traditions are a legacy of the late Major General JN Garba. However, he was not the first Commander of the Federal Guard (later Bde of Gds). In the first four years after it was established in 1962, Lt. Col. Wellington U Bassey, Major David S Ogunewe, Captain Mobolaji Johnson, Captain Frank Obioha, Major Donatus O. Okafor, and Major B. Ochei all had the privilege of leading it.
As of July 1975, with all of its enhancements,
General Gowon held the view, for good reason, therefore, that a military
rebellion against him could only succeed if the Brigade of Guards was
compromised. Indeed, this had been the case with the violent coups against
Prime Minister Balewa and General Ironsi in 1966. But the military pillars of
his regime also included some other key officers and units. Brigadier Ibrahim BM
Haruna was in command of the 1st Division in Kaduna and had always
been an ally. Gowon had been good to him. Brigadier James Oluleye, a straight
talking, apolitical and honest officer, was in command of the 2nd
Division in Ibadan and had always been frank and loyal to him, serving him
closely as a staff officer during the civil war. Brigadier TY Danjuma (from
Benue-Plateau) was in command of the 3rd Infantry Division in Jos,
and had been his stalwart ever since July 1966. In fact he consistently had
private dinner sessions with the C-in-C during his visits to Lagos. Brigadier
Godwin Ally, another honorable officer who was loyal to the chain of command,
commanded the Lagos Garrison Organization. Colonel Anthony Ochefu – one of
Gowon’s trusted officers, also from Benue-Plateau - was in command of the Corps
of Military Police (Provost-Marshall). Ochefu had even served, simultaneously,
as the first formal Director of Military Intelligence (DMI). When Major General
David Ejoor, Chief of Staff (Army), left the country in July 1975 on a trip,
Brigadier Martin Adamu – another Gowon stalwart from Benue-Plateau – was the
acting Chief of Staff (Army). The Director of Military Intelligence, then
Colonel (later Major General) Abdullahi Mohammed (from Kwara), had served as the
GSO (II) Intelligence all through the war years. Surely, he would not betray the
C-in-C. Or so Gowon thought. There were many others, buried away in various
formations upon whom, he thought he could rely, for old time’s sake.
How did General Yakubu Gowon lose grip?