By Owei Lakemfa
This January was filled with activities and reminiscence of what officially was said to be the 50th commemoration of the first coup in the country, the five Majors coup of January 15, 1966. There were speeches and the newspapers were clogged with all sorts of features and advertorials.
However, despite what we chose to believe as our history, and official records, facts show there was no coup on that day, so January 15, 1966 could not have been the first coup in Nigeria.
To clear the cobwebs, we first have to agree that a coup d’etat or coup, is the sudden and forceful seizure of power; the overthrow of government and its replacement usually by a clique.
On that day, a group of Majors led by Emmanuel Ifeajuna struck. In Lagos the federal seat of government, Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa and Finance Minister, Festus Okotie-Eboh were killed but the rest of the coalition government was intact. The mutiny was such a failure in Lagos that the mutineers could not even broadcast their coup speech. This made Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu who led it in Kaduna, seat of the Northern Region Government, to make his famous speech detailing why they struck. But even here, only the Premier, Ahmadu Bello was killed, the rest of the government, including Governor Ibrahim Kashim was in place. Also, the nearby major city of Kano and its military command was not under the mutineers. In the Western Region, only the Premier, Samuel Ladoke Akintola was killed, his Deputy, Remi Fani-Kayode and the rest of the government was in place. In the two other regions; the Eastern and Mid-West, the mutiny virtually did not take off.
By 2pm when the Council of Ministers announced that some dissenting elements in the military had caused disturbances in parts of the federation but that the armed forces remained loyal to the Government, only Nzeogwu and his men in Kaduna remained standing, the others were in disarray or on the run, including Major Ifeajuna who ended up in Ghana.
Also important to note is that the country ran a Parliamentary system, and the parliament was in place. In other words, the January 15, 1966 mutiny was a failed, attempted or aborted coup very much like the February 13, 1975 aborted coup by Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka in which Head of State, General Murtala Ramat Mohammed and Kwara State Governor Ibrahim Taiwo were killed. Very much like the April 22, 1990 Major Gideon Gwaza Orkar aborted coup.
With these findings of fact, how come the government did not continue either at federal or regional level? The simple truth is that there was a second mutiny by more senior military officers who succeeded in overthrowing the government the following day, January 16, 1966. So while the Majors’ coup failed, the one led by Major General Thomas Ifeanacho Aguyi-Ironsi was successful.
Aguyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army had rallied loyal troops. But in the course of this, the top hierarchy of the military had become opportunistic like parasites, and decided to seize power for itself. In his book, “Nigeria and Biafra: My Story by Philip Effiong” the author wrote that when Lieutenant Colonel Victor Banjo briefed him and other army officers in Lagos on the mutiny, he told them that he (Banjo) and some senior military officers “…had tried to influence Ironsi to assume the leadership of the Government”
In his 1999 biography of Aguyi-Ironsi, “IRONSIDE” the journalist, Chuks Iloegbunam quoting one of the participants, Brigadier Hilary Njoku, named those military officers who met and decided to overthrow the government. They were “Major-General J.T.U Aguyi-Ironsi(GOC), Lt-Col Francis Fajuyi, Lt-Col Victor Banjo, Lt-Colonel Jack Gowon, Lt-Col George Kurubo, Major Patrick Anwunah, Commodore Wey of the Navy and Lt-Col Njoku.”
One of the Ministers, Chief Richard Akinjide narrated in July 2000 how Ironsi carried out this coup:
“Having nominated ZANA Diphcharima as our acting Prime Minister in the absence of the Prime Minister, whose whereabouts we didn’t know, we approached the acting President, Nwafor Orizu to swear him in because he cannot legitimately act as the Prime Minister except he is sworn- in. Nwafor Orizu refused…….The GOC said he wanted to see all the cabinet ministers. And so we assembled at the Cabinet Office. Well, I have read in many books saying that we handed over to the military. We did not hand-over… Ironsi told us that “you either hand over as gentlemen or you hand-over by force”. Those were his words. Is that voluntary hand-over? So we did not hand-over. We wanted an Acting Prime Minister to be in place but Ironsi forced us, and I use the word force advisedly, to handover to him. He was controlling the soldiers”
Another member of the Ministers Council, Alhaji Shehu Shagari (later President) narrated a similar experience in his book BECKONED TO SERVE “We, therefore, drove to the residence of Dr. Orizu, and requested him to appoint Dipcharima acting Prime Minister…….When we reminded Major-General Ironsi if he needed to avail himself of the British pledge of assistance, he replied it was too late as the army was pressing him to assume power. Indeed, he confessed his personal reluctance to take over because of his ignorance of government; but insisted the boys were adamant and anxiously waiting outside. He advised it would be in our interest, and that of the country, to temporarily cede power to him to avert disaster.”
Under military treat, with some Ministers like Kingsley Ozumba Mbadiwe and Adeniran Ogunsanya marched to the meeting by soldiers, the Council of Ministers wrote a surrender of power to the military. It can be argued that since the Majors coup dove-tailed or apparently led to the senior officers opportunist seizure of government the next day, it was one and the same coup. I do not agree; what is military coup but an opportunistic seizure of power.
Secondly, the two groups were different in ideology, motive and objectives. Ironsi and his fellow officers who seized power on January 16, 1966 were coup plotters and that is the fact our history books should reflect.