Because of the death of most of the principal actors, the true sequence of events during Nigeria’s first military coup of January 15th 1966 have become clouded by rumour, and outright mythology. Several misconceptions formed in the gossipy aftermath of the coup have assumed the status of fact. I attempt in this article, to expose some of the primary myths.
One enduring myth is that Nigeria’s first military coup was carried out by “five Igbo Majors”. The source of this myth is the “we were five in number” comment, which the coup’s most visible, participant: Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, made in an interview with Dennis Ejindu (Africa and the world - May 1967) after the coup. The “five Majors” myth was later perpetuated by Captain Ben Gbulie’s book on the coup entitled “Nigeria’s Five Majors”, the title of which he recently admitted borrowing from a BBC play of the same name.
When Nzeogwu made his infamous “we were five” comment, he made no reference to the rank of the “five”. He was merely referring to the five designated strategic regional commanders of the coup. In fact, no less than nine Majors were originally billed to take part in the coup. These were Majors Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna, Ademoyega, Okafor, Anuforo, Chukwuka, Obienu, Onwuatuegwu and Chude-Sokei. Shortly before the coup, Chude-Sokei was posted overseas. On the coup day itself, Obienu failed to show, leaving seven Majors as participants. When it came to execution, the Majors designated five officers as regional commanders for the coup’s execution. Of Nzeogwu’s “five”, there were “the two of us in the North” (Nzeogwu and Major Tim Onwuatuegwu), and three more in the South.
The head of the Lagos operations was Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna. That makes three Majors so far. The squad, which killed Chief Samuel Akintola in Ibadan, was led by CAPTAIN Nwobosi. That makes four (three Majors and one Captain). There was no coup in the Mid-West as no military formation was based in that region. However, Lieutenant Oguchi was dispatched to the east to arrest the Premier of the Eastern region: Dr Michael Okpara. The identity of the fifth member is the most problematic. Majors Don Okafor and Adewale Ademoyega were given much responsibility for the Lagos branch of the coup, and it is likely that one of these two men was the fifth commander.
Major Nzeogwu has since 1966, been touted as the leader of the January 1966 coup. This has been widely presumed due to the visible role which Nzeogwu played during and after the coup. Nzeogwu was the only Major to successfully execute the coup in his designated target region. He then followed up his coup success with his infamous “our enemies are the…..” speech. Thus the (false) assumption that he was the coup leader spread. The truth may be somewhat different. It was not until the coup plot reached its logistical stage that Nzeogwu was brought in to the conspiratorial group. The brains behind the coup was probably Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, however Ifeajuna was chased out of Nigeria’s then capital city of Lagos by Major-General Ironsi. Realising that Ironsi was rounding up those that took part in the coup, Ifeajuna fled to Ghana, leaving Nzeogwu to hold the fort.
The ideological circle of for the January coup seems to have consisted primarily of officers who had embarked upon military careers after completing university degrees. The late former military governor of the Northern Region: Hassan Katsina once commented on the presence of some “bookish people” who had joined the Army for rather different reasons from the normal military crowd. Katsina was probably referring to the graduates that had begun to join the Army. These graduates may have been exposed to the left wing political doctrine which was sweeping across much of Africa, Asia, and South America at the time. In January 1966, the Nigerian Army had six graduates: Ojukwu, Olutoye, Banjo, Ademoyega, Ifeajuna, and Rotimi. Three or four of these graduates were involved conceptually, or physically in the January coup. Of the direct participants, Ademoyega had a degree in History from the University of London, and Ifeajuna was a graduate of the University of Ibadan.
Although not physically involved in the January coup, Lt-Colonels Ojukwu and Banjo had been accused of showing a greater than average interest in political matters. Security reports concerning coup plotting by Banjo were passed to Prime Minister Balewa, who ignored them. Major Ademoyega claims that the Majors had at some point in time, floated the idea of a coup to Ojukwu and Banjo, along with Lt-Colonels Hilary Njoku and Francis Fajuyi. The four Lt-Colonels were not opposed to a military coup, but Njoku and Ojukwu were “unsure” about whether to participate (see Ademoyega: “Why We Struck”). None of the four Lt-Colonels got physically involved when the Majors eventually struck and three (Njoku, Ojukwu, Fajuyi) actually played a role (to varying degrees) in crushing the coup, while Fajuyi and Ojukwu became military governors in Ironsi’s military administration.
Nzeogwu was a devout catholic, a teetotaler, a non-smoker, and despite being a bachelor, did not spend much time chasing women. What possessed a puritanical, bible bashing, innocent young man like Nzeogwu to murder unarmed civilians in the middle of the night? What is clear is that Nzeogwu had harboured some anti-government sentiment for several years before 1966. Nzeogwu’s boss at the Nigerian Military Training College: Colonel Ralph Shodeinde, had in the past reported Nzeogwu to Army Headquarters for allegedly disseminating anti-government rhetoric to junior officers. Shodeinde’s report claimed that Nzeogwu had been attempting to poison junior officers’ minds against the Government (see Obasanjo: “An intimate portrait of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu”). Nigeria’s current Defence Secretary: Lt-Gen Theophilus Danjuma was aware of Nzeogwu’s coup recruitment policy. As a former colleague of Nzeogwu, Danjuma noted that “Nzeogwu was a very charming person. He had his method, he would start by criticizing government and then watch your reaction…..if you joined him in criticising the government…..then he would say well, we would (sic) fix them one day. That’s how he recruited”. Tim Onwuatuegwu bought Nzeogwu’s anti-government line. Onwuatuegwu was a colleague of Major Nzeogwu at the Nigerian Military Training College, where Onwuatuegwu was also an instructor. Onwuatuegwu was tagged a dull, parade ground “goody two shoes” type by one his own course-mates at Sandhurst but fell under Nzeogwu’s spell and was convinced enough to break into the house of, and shoot his own Brigade commander (Brigadier Ademulegun).
One officer that seems to have been unaffected by Nzeogwu’s political rhetoric was a cadet named Salihu Ibrahim. Ibrahim was training at the Nigerian Military Training College while Nzeogwu (chief instructor at the College) and company hatched the coup plot. Despite being close to Nzeogwu, Ibrahim matured into a “vintage professional soldier” (Chris Alli: The Siege Of Nation) who abhorred military participation in Government. Ibrahim retired from the Nigerian Army in 1993 after rising to the rank of Lt-General, and serving as Chief of Army Staff. Strangely for a man who disliked military coups and military governments, he served as a member of firstly Major-General Buhari’s Supreme Military Council from 1984-85, and in Ibrahim Babangida’s Armed Forces Ruling Council thereafter.
Many claim that the January 15th 1966 coup was a gigantic Igbo plot to transfer control of the Federal Government from northerners to Igbos. However, one stumbling block in this argument was that the Majors’ killed an Igbo officer during the coup. The proponents of the “Igbo coup” argument have tried to rationalize the murder of Lt-Col Arthur Unegbe by arguing that he was not initially a target of the Majors, but was only killed because he refused to surrender the keys of the armoury. This argument displays an ignorance of military postings and procedure. At the time of the January coup, Unegbe was the Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army at Army Headquarters in Lagos. Not being in command of a combat unit, he had no access to any armoury keys. As soldiers, the Majors would have known this. Also, the fact that Unegbe was SHOT proves that the Majors were already armed when they got to him. Why kill a man in order to get something you already have? Additionally, the mutineers in other units outside Lagos managed to get their hands on weapons without resorting to killing the respective Quartermasters of their various units. What is more probable is that Unegbe was killed because he was known to be close to Brigadier Maimalari. Thus the Majors probably figured that Unegbe had to be silenced in order to prevent him from raising the alarm.
Not many realize that several officers of northern origin took part in Nigeria’s first military coup. The “Igbo coup” tag attached to the Majors’ assault ignores the fact that scores of northern officers took part in the Lagos operations, and even assisted Nzeogwu when he stormed the residence of the Northern Region’s premier: Ahmadu Bello. Nzeogwu later described the detachment of troops accompanying him to Bello’s house as “a truly Nigerian gathering” (New Nigerian – 18th January 1966). Nzeogwu pointed out that the northern soldiers accompanying him “had the chance to drop out. More than that, they had bullets. They had been issued with bullets but I was unarmed. If they disagreed they could have shot me….most of the Other Ranks were Northerners but they followed”. Among the prominent northern soldiers that helped Nzeogwu to overthrow the Northern Region’s government was John Atom Kpera. Kpera later became the military governor of Benue State. Many of the soldiers that accompanied Major Ifeajuna when he abducted the Prime Minister: Tafawa Balewa, were also northerners.
The Majors’ failure to arrest or kill the General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Nigerian Army: Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, has led some to believe that he was part of, or was at the very least tipped off about, the coup plot. Ironsi and other senior officers had in the weeks leading up to the coup become concerned by the possibility of a junior officers’ coup. These concerns were passed on to the Prime Minister who either did not take them seriously, or chose not to act in response.
Ironsi was definitely on the Majors’ hit list and Major Nzeogwu later regretted that they did not manage to get him (“We got some but not all. General Ironsi was to have been shot”). Ironsi’s escape owed much to good fortune, and the Majors tactical mistake in arresting or killing other senior officers before they got hold of Ironsi. The commotion caused by the murders of other officers alerted Ironsi to the coup and he was able to rally troops who helped him to put down the Majors’ coup. Ironsi had been tipped off about the coup by a telephone call from the Army’s Adjutant-General: Lt-Col James Pam. Shortly after ending the telephone call with Ironsi, Pam was abducted and murdered by officers involved in the plot. On his way to commence moves to crush the coup, Ironsi actually came across some junior officers that were involved in the coup. It is possible that some of these young officers lost their nerve when confronted by the intimidating presence of their GOC. When he encountered a checkpoint manned by some of the mutineers, Ironsi simply stepped out of his vehicle, and roared “get out of my way!” (an order which was promptly obeyed) before continuing his journey. After the coup was suppressed, Ironsi met with the surviving members of the federal cabinet. Even northern ministers present at that meeting conceded that Ironsi seemed genuinely upset by, and wept about the death of his military colleagues.
As often happens with emotive events, we sometimes allow our judgment, and the facts, to be obscured by rumour and grab hold of any theory – no matter how implausible. I hope that I have managed to shed more light on the events of that fateful night that so drastically altered Nigeria’s political landscap