The American Files Are Not From Heaven: It Was Much More Than Ironsi Not Executing Nzeogwu And Company

Before I go further I must make the following views clear. First, just as I am against the slaughter of Eastern military personnel during the 29 July 1966 coup I condemn the killings by the January 15 plotters. Every life is equal and precious. Second, my understanding of Nigeria’s chequered history from the fifties to the coup period indicates that the political leaders, by their actions and inactions, gave these idealistic, naïve and ambitious soldiers the opportunity to strike. Nigerians were sick of the politicians, though in varying degrees, by January 1966. The initial nationwide reaction to the coup is well documented. The hangers on which the advocates of an ‘Igbo coup;’ ‘the Igbo had it coming to them’ hang their rationalizations came much later.

It is baffling that Balewa and Ahmadu Bello did NOTHING about the reports of military restiveness that came to them from sources like the Police Special Branch, British Intelligence/Diplomatic circles and even Balewa’s Minister, Matthew Mbu.

Please, Awoyokun should answer this question: did the actions of Majors Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna, Anuforo, Chukwuka, Okafor and Onwuatuegwu; Captains Gbulie, Ogbo Orji and Nwobosi represent millions of other Igbo? Undoubtedly, Ademoyega, Adeleke and Oyewole’s participation in the coup did not imply Yoruba involvement by proxy.

General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army at the time of the coup. Various sources indicate that he was a prime target of the plotters though pro-Northern Establishment writers like D.J.M Muffet who wrote ‘Let Truth Be Told’ believe he was somehow involved in the putsch. When he was arresting Ironsi six months later Major Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma reportedly accused Ironsi of ‘organizing the killing of our brother officers in January and you have done nothing to bring the so-called dissident elements to justice because you were part and parcel of the whole thing.’ (See Nowa Omoigui’s ‘Operation ‘‘Aure:’’ The Northern Military Counter-Rebellion of July 1966.’ www.

But Ironsi was a target of the plotters who he outwitted in Lagos. Nzeogwu’s account of the coup in the British ‘Daily Telegraph’ of 22 January 1966 is significant: ‘We got some but not all. General Ironsi was to have been shot. But we were not ruthless enough. As a result he and the other compromisers were able to supplant us.’

Ironsi put down the coup with the help of a number of army officers notably Odumegwu-Ojukwu (Igbo), Alexander Madiebo (Igbo), and Yakubu Gowon (Northern Nigerian). The circumstances in which he became Head of State are controversial. Surviving members of the civilian cabinet like Alhaji Shehu Shagari, Chief Richard Akinjide and Alhaji Shettima Muonguno say that the General coerced them into signing over power even though they had chosen Zana Dipcharima , the most senior Minister, to act as Prime Minister pending when the truth about Balewa’s whereabouts (then he was presumed missing) was known. Senate President Nwafor Orizu, an Igbo who was standing in for President Nnamdi Azikiwe, refused to swear in Dipcharima and cooperated with Ironsi. Chief Akinjide’s account which appeared in ‘Vanguard’ newspaper, July 9 2000, and reproduced by Nowa Omoigui is quoted here:

‘Talking on the first coup, when Balewa got missing, we knew that Okotie-Eboh had been held, we knew Akintola had been killed. We, the members of the Balewa cabinet started meeting. But how can you have a cabinet meeting without the Prime Minister acting or Prime Minister presiding? So, unanimously, we nominated an acting Prime Minister among us. Then we continued our meetings. Then we got a message that we should all assemble at the cabinet office. All the Ministers were requested by the GOC of the Nigerian Army, General Ironsi, to assemble. What was amazing at that time was that Ironsi was going all over Lagos unarmed. We assembled there. Having nominated Zana Dipcharima 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 unless he is sworn in. Nwafor Orizu refused. He said he needed to contact Zik who was then in West Indies.

‘Under the law, that is the Interpretation Act, an acting President, Nwafor Orizu, had all the powers of the President. The GOC said he wanted to see all the cabinet ministers. And so we assembled at the cabinet office. Well, I have read in so 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 handover? 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 hand over to him. He was controlling the soldiers.

‘The acting President, Nwafor Orizu, who did not cooperate with us, cooperated with the GOC. Dr. Orizu and the GOC prepared speeches which Nwafor Orizu broadcast handing over government of the country to the army. I here state again categorically as a member of that cabinet that we did not hand over voluntarily. It was a coup.’

On the basis of this account it appears that Ironsi strong-armed himself into power. But there are other dimensions to the story. D.J.M Muffet and other sources describe Ironsi as an apolitical soldier who, in response to his men’s growing politicization, reportedly complained: ‘I asked for soldiers and am being given politicians dressed in uniform.’ Does such a man strike the picture of one who would coerce the civilian government to hand over to him?

Shehu Shagari reported that not only did Ironsi weep openly over the killing of his officers by Nzeogwu and Company; he also told the cabinet that in spite of his political incompetence, he was being pressured by loyalist officers to take over power. (See Shagari’s biography ‘Born To Serve.’). Shagari’s observations are noteworthy because he was also present at the cabinet’s meetings like Akinjide:

‘When we (the rump of the cabinet) reminded 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. Accordingly we acceded to his request since we had no better alternative. Ironsi then insisted that the understanding be written.’

Who were those officers pressuring Ironsi? It is true that the Nigerian military was a hotbed of political intrigue at that time. Many of the advocates of the ‘Igbo coup’ theory forget that the last thing jubilant ordinary Nigerians would have accepted was a restoration of the discredited civilian government. Then until he was persuaded to stand down, Nzeogwu was ready to attack Lagos and complete the coup. (See Madiebo pp.17-28). Could Ironsi have risked a war? Militarily, Nzeogwu appeared to have the upper hand; most of Nigeria’s fighting formations at the time, including the Air Force, were in the North. With the notable exception of the Kano-based Fifth Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu’s command, virtually all of them came under Nzeogwu’s sway.

But even those officers who opposed the coup would not back a return to the status quo. In his book ‘The Biafran Story’ Forsyth provides insight into the situation:

‘When the cabinet finally met,

he (Ironsi) had to tell them that he could not ensure the loyalty of his officers and prevent civil war unless he himself took over. In this he was right as numerous officers have made known since. Even those who had not taken part in the coup would not have accepted a return to the rule of the now thoroughly discredited politicians.’ (Forsyth pp.41-42).

So this politically unprepared general (he never even thought of appointing a cabinet! See Walter Schwarz, Nigeria,’ p.200) who never bargained for power took over a polarized Nigeria rattled by a bloody coup. It is necessary to realize the situation Ironsi found himself before berating him for not executing the coup plotters.

Is it standard military practice to try and most likely execute unsuccessful coup plotters? In most cases, especially in African and other Third World countries where the coup culture is pervasive, and the ruling elite are often unpopular military or civilian dictators, it is given that failed plotters against the state pay with their heads. Back in history, ancient Rome, medieval Europe and even Biblical states like Israel did not spare failed coup plotters. Treason was a capital crime. It still is in most countries. But even in modern times there have been exceptions, including Coast’s President Felix Houphouet-Boigny was not known to have meted out the death sentence to plotters against his government. The example may not pass here because Boigny was not a military man.

The Northern elite who bore the brunt of the January coup understandably wanted the plotters’ heads. And much more. Even if the plotters had been executed my understanding of that sad period indicates that the displaced elite would not have been placated. Ironsi would still be an enemy who took ‘their birthright’ and they would not rest till the pendulum of power swung back to them. The only difference is that perhaps radical Nigerians, including soldiers, who backed the ‘January Boys’ might have unseated Ironsi.

The issue of the ‘January Boys’ was dicey for the Ironsi regime. Some sources like Chuks Iloegbunam, the author of ‘Ironsides-The Biography of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi,’ claim that Ironsi planned to court-martial the plotters before he was overthrown. It was the Ironsi regime that set up the panel that interrogated the plotters and put together the report that formed the basis of the Special Branch report on the putsch. The Gowon regime released the report.

But other sources like Nowa Omoigui argue that Ironsi dithered and his regime put up obstacles to the court-martial though they had the report in their possession and on time, too.

When the civilian government of Tafawa Balewa was overthrown, it was not just the fall of a handful of men. It was a mighty establishment rooted in years of power, privilege and easy access to national resources. Those who suddenly lost this when the British-supervised political gains were abruptly reversed would not take things lying low. So the build-up commenced. These accounts explain the situation better:

Forsyth: ‘When the politicians fell, it was not just the downfall of a small handful of men. Thousands more lost an easy meal ticket when the politicians were separated from access to public funds. Enormous families found themselves without support and the prospect of work loomed before them; hangers-on; party hirelings, agents, canvassers, contractors who had made plump profits through their connexions in high places, administrators who could not have held down their jobs without political protection, found themselves on the breadline. When a few souls started to agitate against the Ironsi regime the accoutrements were easily to hand: an army of willing voices to spread the rumours, inflame the passions and fire the hearts; the spectre of the all-dominating Ibo; the apparent stripping from the North of its traditional protective isolationism; lastly the revenge motive could be easily played upon, and it was. Thus the dead Sardauna was built up again into a saint, and the jailed officers who led the January coup into devils.’ (p.48).

Madiebo: ‘The plot to overthrow Ironsi’s government was slow, deliberate and systematic. Said to have been conceived in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, it was worked out in detail by Northern civil servants and politicians and executed by the entire Northern civilians and their military counterparts….The first sign of trouble for the Ironsi regime came from Ahmadu Bello University where it was alleged that a group of expatriate and Northern lecturers were inciting Northern students against Southerners shortly after the coup. These lecturers were said to be openly advising the Northern students on the need for an immediate counter-coup to restore Nigeria’s political power to the North; the alternative, they claimed, was for the North to be enslaved by the South for an indefinite period.’ (p.29).

Nowa Omoigui: ‘Northern civilian propagandists used the tools of psychological warfare and worked tirelessly to incite the northern military. In the (Nigerian) Army’s official history, General Gowon said ‘‘The northern politicians infiltrated the Northern soldiers and officers, trying to convince them that there was a need for them to retaliate.’’ General Babangida put it this way: ‘‘There was a very calculated and subtle but very efficient and effective indoctrination of the Northern officers by the civilians. They kept hammering on it that our leaders had been killed and we were doing nothing, that we were cowards.’’ General Shuwa (rtd) described documents passed around Kaduna purporting to show plans for senior Igbo officers to meet at Hamdala Hotel to plan the liquidation of remaining northern officers after January. But Babangida also said ‘‘…there was a threat that the Igbos wanted to take revenge. Now sitting down and looking at it, quite honestly in retrospect, I think WE USED THAT SO AS TO GAIN SUPPORT, TO GET PEOPLE COMMITTED SO THAT YOU DID’T GET CAUGHT (Emphasis mine). It was preemptive.’’ Indeed the rumours were so detailed that operational code names using animals were even ascribed to parts of the alleged grand Igbo plot to continue Operation Damisa (Leopard) which had already taken place on January 15.’

These quotations do not need any elaboration. The July 29 coup and the large-scale killings of Eastern Nigerians, especially the Igbo, was a systematic, well-planned affair spearheaded by elements of the old Establishment who wanted to rule Nigeria forever as teleguided by the British. Any change, irrespective of any good it would bring to Nigerians, including the Northern masses, was unacceptable.

With the insight one has into Ironsi’s regime it would be wrong to wholly absolve it of blame.

First, why did it finally promulgate Decree 34, the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) Decree, despite obvious Northern restiveness? Against this backdrop, I wonder what ranking members of Ironsi’s regime like Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the Chief of Army Staff, and the Northern Region Governor, Colonel Hassan Katsina, did to stop the Decree from being passed.

Then Ironsi should not have appointed his longtime associate, Francis Nwokedi, as the sole person in charge of the Unification of Public Services Commission. Even the later addition of a Mid-Westerner was insufficient. Such a sensitive body should have been broad-based and chaired by a non-Igbo.

Ironsi alienated the Niger Delta by using force to suppress the Isaac Adaka Boro uprising. But in retrospect he could not have shirked his duty as Nigeria’s Head of State by allowing the first bid for secession in the country.

Some scholars argue that Ironsi refused to mete out justice to Nzeogwu and Company because of the agreement he made with the rampaging Kaduna-based coup commander

. Consequently, Nzeogwu backed down. A study of Ademoyega’s book and ‘Nzeogwu,’ the coup chieftain’s biography by Olusegun Obasanjo indicate that such an agreement was drawn up and one of its terms was that the plotters would be free from ‘legal persecution then, or at any later time.’ (Ademoyega p.93 and Obasanjo p.101).

Superficially, this was why Ironsi did not try the plotters. But we must not forget the circumstances at the time of the coup. It was militarily unlikely that Ironsi could have gone on an all-out blitz against the ‘January Boys.’ If he had accepted the rump of the cabinet’s offer of British assistance most likely matters would have escalated; it is doubtful British forces would have gone on a total war against Nzeogwu’s men.

Having picked up all the plotters peacefully, including Ifeajuna who fled to Ghana, Ironsi detained them. In page 16 of ‘The News,’ 11 March 2013 edition, Awoyokun claims that all the ‘January Boys’ were detained in the East. This, to him, is a plank for the ‘Igbo coup’ theory; Ironsi and Ojukwu were deliberately shielding their own from justice.

Again, the facts are different from the myth. After initially detaining the plotters in Lagos Ironsi had them dispersed. Most of those who were detained outside the East lost their lives when the July 29 coup exploded. Major Don Okafor who was detained at Abeokuta was reportedly abducted and buried alive by the plotters. Major Chris Anuforo and many Igbo non-commissioned officers who participated in the first coup were seized from their Benin prison cells and shot. Ademoyega, detained in Warri, was fortunate that the July 29 plotters did not spread their tentacles there. Obasanjo wrote in his book that all of Nzeogwu’s colleagues detained outside the East were killed in the wave of the vengeful counter-coup. (Obasanjo p.129). Since Ademoyega survived, this statement is not quite accurate. But the ‘January Boys’ detained in the West did not live to tell the tale.

Awoyokun does not mention, or perhaps the American files are silent on the subject, that Northern participants in the first coup were not detained by Ironsi. (See Ademoyega p.108). Maybe Ironsi was placating the Northern Establishment. Maybe the Northern elements in his government who were part and parcel of the plot to sack Ironsi were systematically laying the foundation by ensuring that the January coup took on a ‘Southern/Igbo’ colouration by eliminating any trace of Northern participation.

With the massive pressure being piled on his regime by both supporters of the January coup and its virulent opponents, if Ironsi had plumped for the supporters, stability would have suffered. It eventually suffered when the opponents took matters into their hands, but like I stated earlier, only Ironsi throwing in the towel would have placated his enemies.

The complex and unhappy nature of inter-group relations in Nigeria at that time is not often given its due place by those who blame Ironsi. Many ethnic groups, not least the Yoruba, had reason to be unhappy with him. He did not release Obafemi Awolowo, the Yoruba leader jailed by the former civilian government. Then with Ironsi, an Igbo, as Head of State, there were fears, probably unfounded, that he would give fillip to Igbo control of the federal civil service. To undermine his regime, the Yoruba bureaucrats, according to James O’Connell, ‘seized on and carefully leaked or communicated every weakness of the regime’ thus ‘they played no small role in creating the mental climate in which the Northern soldiers overthrew Ironsi.’ (See ‘Issues in Contemporary Nigerian History.’ P.21). So almost all Nigerian elite had an axe to grind with this politically illiterate general.

Awoyokun’s plank for the argument that the Igbo deserved what they got between May-September 1966 is the way Igbo people in the North reacted to the coup. He cites Celestine Ukwu’s song ‘Ewu Na Ebe Akwaa’ (Goats are crying) released within this period to allegedly mock the slain Northern leaders; the infamous posters, stickers, etc that portrayed the January coup plotters as heroes and their victims as devils. Igbo people allegedly lapped them up, flaunted a ‘We are in charge’ posture to their hosts, and stoked the fire.

This is a very sensitive issue any true lover of peace in Nigeria should be cautious in bringing up at any discussion of the conflict from 1966 to 1970. All of us know what unwholesome depictions can cause. So before you accuse anyone of using art, popular or otherwise, to cause a conflagration, better get your facts right.

There are other sources that report that the song was released by Cardinal Rex Jim Lawson, the Rivers highlife maestro who also sang in Igbo. The full title of the song is ‘Ewu Na-Ebe Akwaa, Nkita Na-agbo Agbo.’ (Goats cry, Dogs bark). I do not know how it became translated as Igbo jubilation over the January coup. I have read fictional accounts (Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun.’) that depict it as derisive entertainment by Igbo living in the North at that troubled time. Ordinarily, the song might not have implied anything derogatory to those fallen leaders but the situation was not normal. The feudal North had lost its pride; its elite had lost their bastions of power; and these uppity ‘Nyamiri’ (a derogatory Hausa word for Igbo which stems from the Igbo words ‘Nye m miri’-give me some water) were now in power. One had to walk on eggs not to bruise already tender sores. That song should not have been released at that time.

The infamous edition of Drum magazine that blew the North sky-high is also attributed to the Igbo. Perhaps this account by Nowa Omoigui from his masterpiece ‘Operation ‘‘Aure’’’ will enable us draw a balanced conclusion:

‘Following General Ironsi’s broadcast on Tuesday evening, May 24, making Nigeria a Unitary State, initially peaceful demonstrations by civil servants and students began on Friday May 27. On Saturday May 28 copies of the June edition of Drum magazine arrived in the North containing two provocative articles: ‘Why Nigeria Exploded’ by Nelson Ottah which allegedly derided Northern leaders, and ‘Sir Ahmadu rose in his shrouds and spoke from the dead’ by Coz Idapo which allegedly featured a cartoon in which the revered Premier was asking for forgiveness from Idapo. Some authors have blamed these articles for the subsequent outbreak of wanton violence and barbarity on May 29 continuing to June 4-5 which led to at least 600 Igbo deaths (according to ‘London Telegraph’), particularly in northern provinces like Kano, Bauchi, Sokoto, Katsina and Zaria. Indeed the Hausa phrase ‘A raba’ meaning ‘Let us separate’ may first have been used by the Bauchi rioters in May.’

Several questions arise. One: Coz Idapo does not sound like an Igbo name to me. Two: till it ceased publication in the country-it started in the 1950s as a South African magazine-Drum was one of Nigeria’s respected press publications between the 1960s and probably the early 1980s. Who comprised the editorial team that authorized the publication of such deadly material at that time? Who edited the June edition? Three: was there more than meets the eye in the movement of the magazine to the North at that time? This poser is vital if we recollect that Northern agent provocateurs were sowing seeds of disaffection at that time, and Ironsi unwisely gave them the matchstick to light the fire by proclaiming Decree 34. Fourth: Omoigui’s narrative states that the cartoon depicted the Sardauna begging forgiveness from Idapo, not Nzeogwu. Who is this Coz Idapo who openly tore Nigeria apart? Was he a cover to ‘take out’ the Igbo?

The American narratives quoted b

y Awoyokun do not acknowledge provocative media and art from other components of Nigeria in Ironsi’s time. Madiebo who was an army unit commander in Kaduna at that time wrote that ‘by the end of April 1966, the press and radio of the North had joined in the hostile campaign against the South. These mass information media were then fully employed in preparing the people’s minds for the coming counter coup. Starting from the beginning of May 1966, Radio Kaduna played every day for three weeks, recorded speeches of late Sir Abubakar and Sir Ahmadu. These political campaign speeches were carefully selected to arouse tribal feelings, passions and hatred against the people of the South. While the Radio networks blared the speeches, the official government daily newspaper, the ‘New Nigerian’ carried daily for sometime serialised articles on the Islamic war of conquest or Jihad, both in English language and local vernacular.’ (‘The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War’ pp.34-35).

Madiebo probably saw things where they did not exist. But anyone who has an insight into Nigeria between January and May 1966 will not dismiss the above observations airily. The North was being programmed.

In the East the editor and cartoonist of the ‘West African Pilot’ was detained for portraying the Ironsi regime as a large cock (the defunct National Convention of Nigerian Citizens party symbol) crowing ‘One Country, One Nationality.’ Ironsi was not in the good books of some of his home region’s political elite; his government slung the Eastern Premier Michael Okpara into detention. It was in response to these inflammatory depictions that Ironsi enacted the Defamatory and Offensive Publications Decree.

Going by Awoyokun’s account as gotten from Nnamdi Azikiwe’s work ‘Origins of the Civil War,’ between August and September 1966 the Igbo in the East set upon Northerners in their midst. When Radio Kaduna carried the story, as relayed by Radio Cotonu but suppressed by Radio Enugu, the Northerners went haywire and thus the massive September-October killings of Easterners. In other words the Igbo started it. What are the facts?

The violence that shook Nigeria following the July 29 coup was aimed at mostly, though not exclusively, the Igbo. Save for the Eastern and Mid-Western regions where the plotters did not seize power, other parts of Nigeria, namely the Northern and Western regions and the then federal capital, Lagos, were hard hit, especially the North. The tide of violence had many reasons underlying it: revenge; bid for secession by the North (which later became Northern take-over of power); decimation of perceived Igbo threat; vendetta and bloodlust; plain old hatred for a supposedly different people. That the Igbo would retaliate is to be expected; these were satanic times in Nigeria. But independent sources indicate that: (a) the Eastern attacks on the relatively few Northerners in their midst manifested seven full days after the violence in the North; (b) the Eastern Region governor, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu, made largely successful efforts to get the Northerners in his domain home to safety before matters escalated. (See ‘The Biafra Story’ p.77 and ‘Emeka’ pp.70-71).

Azikiwe’s narrative does not tell us that the report from Cotonu (in Dahomey, now Benin Republic) was relayed to Radio Kaduna by the US monitoring service there. Why was the US so keen on relaying this news to Radio Kaduna? To save Northern lives or stoke the fire?

Finally, why did these second wave of killings arise at the time of the Ad-Hoc Constitutional Conference which was holding to save Nigeria? These posers are for all those who are quick to conclude on issues about Nigeria between 1966-1970 just to suit preconceived notions.

(This is the third installment of the serialization of my booklet: ‘Nigeria from 1966-1970: The American Files Are Not From Heaven.’ Watch out for the next sizzler: ‘OJUKWU: THE MEGALOMANIAC AND DEMAGOGUE: REALLY?).

Written by
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
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