The Facts And Fiction Of The January 15 1966 Coup

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

Awoyokun asserts that if it were not for the ‘Igbo’ coup of January 15 the massacres of the Igbo in Northern Nigeria six months later would not have occurred. This thesis arises from his criticism of Achebe’s location of the massacres in resentment and blame of the Igbo for any problem in Nigeria. Permit a verbatim quote from Awoyokun in part 3 of ‘The News’ magazine trilogy (p.16):

‘To Achebe, the final straw that led to the secession was the alleged 30,000 Igbos killed in the North. He carefully structures the narrative to locate the reason for this systematic killing/pogrom/ethnic-cleansing in the so-called usual resentment of the Igbo and not from the fallout of the first coup in the history of Nigeria. Achebe dismisses the targeted assassinations as not an Igbo coup. The two reasons he gives are because there was a Yoruba officer among the coup plotters and that the alleged leader of the coup, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was Igbo in name only. ‘‘Not only was he born in Kaduna, the capital of the Muslim North, he was widely known as someone who saw himself as a Northerner, spoke fluent Hausa and little Igbo and wore the Northern traditional dress when not in uniform.’’’ P.79 of ‘There was a country.’

So what is the truth? Where do we draw the line between opinion and fact? Not a few writers such as Nowa Omoigui and D. J. M. Muffet take the position that the first coup ignited the massacres and the July 29 1966 coup.

Before examining the January coup I must ask Awoyokun and those who share his position: why were the Igbo the primary target of the 1953 Kano Riots? Southern-Yoruba, Igbo, Niger Delta-politicians argued for independence in 1956 as against the Northern demand for independence as soon as practicable. Southerners, not only the Igbo, reacted hostilely to the Northerners’ carrying the day at the end of proceedings in the Legislative Chamber in Lagos. Chief S. L. Akintola, the chieftain of the dominantly Yoruba party, Action Group, set for a rather provocative tour of Kano shortly afterwards. Though the tour was called off the violence was not. In his autobiography ‘The Story of My Life’ Sir Ahmadu Bello stated: ‘Here in Kano, as things fell out, the fighting took place between the Hausas…and the Ibos; the Yorubas were oddly enough out of it.’

It is clear that it was not in 1966 that the ritual of killing the Igbo in the North at the slightest whim started.

Adewale Ademoyega, a full blooded Yoruba army officer, was deeply involved in the planning and execution of the January coup. His book ‘Why We Struck’ gives insight into the coup’s antecedents; planning; modus operandi and partial success. Any study of January 15 that ignores Ademoyega’s book is incomplete.

Awoyokun insinuates that Odumegwu-Ojukwu was sympathetic to the first coup. Ojukwu’s actions during the coup are really a weird way of showing support for the putsch. In his book Ademoyega who knew Ojukwu wrote: ‘Lieutenant-Colonels Ojukwu and Njoku were unsure and preferred to adopt the ‘‘if you boys succeed, we shall go along with you’’ attitude.’ (p.51). In the run-up to the coup many Nigerian military officers, including Ojukwu (by his own admission: see his interview with ‘Newswatch’ magazine of 28 September 1992), were aggrieved with the way the country was being run to the extent that some of them considered a coup. Interestingly some of them were among the casualties of the January coup. In a September 5 2010 interview with ‘The Nation’ newspaper, Matthew Mbu, then a Junior Defence Minister, narrated how, at an Air Force base in Kaduna on an official assignment on 5 January 1966, he was bluntly told by Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun that the military was going to sack the government. Ademulegun made no bones about their plan to shoot key members of the political class, notably Chief Okotie-Eboh, the Minister for Finance.

Much has been made of the non-killing of Igbo members of the political class; that no coup was carried out in Enugu; and Ifeajuna tipped off President Nnamdi Azikiwe. Till date, in certain circles, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the killing of Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Unegbe is attributed to his possession and non-surrender of the Lagos armoury keys to the plotters. Some scholars of the coup even argue that no Igbo were killed. They describe Unegbe as a Mid-Westerner from Anioma. I wonder if the Anioma are not a major part of the Igbo stock west of the River Niger in present day Delta State. Frankly, I fell for this line of thought till, after the online and print publication of my article on the coup titled ‘The Shot that shook the nation,’ a townsman of Unegbe’s emailed me to inform me that the Colonel was from Ezioha village in Ozobulu in present day Anambra State.

Those who argue that Unegbe would have been spared if he handed over the armoury keys and that he was not on the plotters’ list are perpetuating a myth. Unsurprisingly this myth is rooted in the pro-Northern Federal Government accounts of the coup within the crisis period of 1966-1967. The facts are different.

By January 1966 Unegbe was the Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army. This post is an army’s administrative livewire as its holder is responsible for its entire supplies from pens to pistols. He is not in charge of any combat unit so he has no business with the armoury, though he stocks it. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines a Quartermaster as ‘an officer in the army in charge of providing food, uniforms and accommodation.’ As professional soldiers the plotters knew this. Going by the accounts of Ademoyega and Gbulie who wrote ‘Nigeria’s Five Majors,’ what the plotters desperately needed were armoured vehicles to consolidate their gains in Lagos on January 15. Major John Obienu, the commander of the Abeokuta-based Second Reconnaissance Squadron, who had what they needed, had initially thrown in his lot with

the plotters only to back out on the D-day. Ben Gbulie teased a fellow plotter (who actually had access to the Lagos armoury) that he misplaced his armoury keys in Unegbe’s house following the coup.

The fact is that given his sensitive position in the army and friendship with some of the pro-Establishment officers who would oppose the coup, Unegbe was a target from day one. In the words of the Police Special Branch report on the coup, one of the objectives of the plotters was ‘the assassination of all senior officers known to be in a position to foil successfully the conspirators’ efforts to topple the governments of the federation.’ In page 60 of his book, Ademoyega mentioned Unegbe as one of the officers he and his colleagues had marked down for arrest.

The Special Branch report that was released by the Gowon regime came into being following the interrogation of the plotters. Its contents go a long way in contributing to the myth that the plotters had no plans for Benin and Enugu, the Igbo political class-dominated regional capitals. Permit me to quote relevant sections of the report’s preamble:

‘It has been established that sometime during August 1965, a small group of army officers, dissatisfied with political developments within the federation, began to plot in collaboration with some civilians, the overthrow of what was then the Government of the Federation of Nigeria. The plot which eventually emerged from their deliberations was that on a date not yet decided at that time, the following action would be taken by troops from selected units, led by the ringleaders of the plot: the arrest of leading politicians at Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna, Enugu and Benin. The plan stipulated that wherever resistance was encountered, the individuals concerned were to be killed…


h the original plan stipulated that the action intended by the plotters should take place simultaneously, in all the Regional capitals, no arrangement was made to implement these intentions in Benin and Enugu.’

So what actually happened at Enugu? Why didn’t the likes of Michael Okpara and Akanu Ibiam fall like Balewa, Akintola and Ahmadu Bello?

Going by the accounts of the surviving plotters, recruiting officers for the putsch was as delicate as the actual operation. According to Ademoyega, in the North, Nzeogwu as the acting commandant of the Nigerian Military Training College, Kaduna, had success in mobilizing men and resources. Down in the South (West, East and Mid-West), it was far more difficult, especially with the political violence in the West. According to Major Alexander Madiebo, ‘by October 1965, rumours of an impending coup were already circulating within the country. A circular letter was passed around all army units to alert army commanders to the possibility of a coup.’ (P.14 of ‘The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War.’). Thus Ifeajuna and Ademoyega, the coup’s linchpins in the South, had
to move sneakily.

In the First Battalion in Enugu, only Major Chude-Sokei threw in his lot with them. His operational briefs were Enugu and Benin since Benin had no army formation then. But Chude-Sokei was posted to India for a course so the plotters had to hastily recruit a young Lieutenant Oguchi. (Ademoyega. pp.56 and 69).

A verbatim though lengthy quotation of Ademoyega’s account of what happened on the D-day in Enugu is instructive:

‘The story of the Enugu operation was punctuated by a mishap. First, Lieutenant Oguchi did not leave Lagos (he was on a course there) on January 13, as was previously planned, because his military vehicle was not ready. Finally, he left on the 14th but suffered a breakdown on the way. He eventually arrived at Enugu in the early hours of the 15th. He had borne written orders with him from Lagos. However, on his arrival at Enugu, he found the final signal that ordered him to go ahead with the execution of the tasks. He organized a small body of troops with a Land Rover and a 3-tonner.

‘He sent a small detachment to the Eastern Nigerian Broadcasting Service (ENBS). This detachment seized the station, stopped the normal programme and ordered the broadcasters to play only military music while awaiting latest news from Lagos. At the same time, Oguchi himself made for the Premier’s lodge. Therein, he found that he had not only the Premier, Dr. Okpara, on his hands, but also an august visitor, Archbishop Makarios, the president of Cyprus who, after the conclusion of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in Lagos on January 12, had arrived in Enugu on the 13th on a state visit. With such a man of international repute present, Lieutenant Oguchi could do no more than bide his time. A couple of hours later when the Archbishop had departed, he placed Dr. Okpara under house arrest, deploying his troops to guard the lodge. He himself went to the ENBS and made a tentative announcement that the Army had taken over power. He stopped at that while he awaited more news from Lagos. Later on, his own troops were replaced by those sent on Ironsi’s orders and Dr. Okpara was transferred to a prison detention. Because of his lateness to start, Oguchi had not yet sent troops to Benin before Ironsi’s men took over.’ (Ademoyega. pp.82-83).

An independent source may help sceptics realize that Enugu was not deliberately excluded by the January 15 plotters in order to spare their ‘own’ and kill others; this comes from Matthew Mbu. In his words: ‘I came back on the 6th of January and went to tell Okpara. Nobody took me serious. It was God that saved Okpara (on 15 January). At the Enugu airport the army boys asked him to alight from his official car. He was waiting for Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus who was visiting Nigeria then.

‘He defied the soldiers’ orders and was about to be shot when Sir Francis Akanu Ibiam (Governor of the Eastern Region) grabbed him and forced him from the car.’ (‘The Nation’ newspaper, 5 September 2010. p.56).

There are sources that report that Ifeajuna tipped off President Nnamdi Azikiwe. Perhaps one of the most significant is an article in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper of May 18 1999 in

which late M.C. Kafundu Ajuluchukwu, a prominent Zikist in his heydays and one of Azikiwe’s close right hand-men, made the allegation. I have not been able to independently confirm or disprove it but the fact that the President left Nigeria on health grounds shortly before the coup and did not return even for the first Commonwealth conference to be hosted in Lagos is suspicious. If Ifeajuna really gave him the tip-off what did he do with it? But one must not facilely conclude that since both Ifeajuna and Azikiwe are from Onitsha, the former did it to protect his kinsman.

Awoyokun should have done more research before concluding that the coup was an Igbo affair. Northern officers and men were involved, especially at the execution stage. Max Silloun, the military historian, mentions them in his landmark online article ‘The inside story of Nigeria’s first military coup Parts 1 and 2.’ It can be accessed from most search engines. Prominent among these Northern officers was the then Lieutenant John Atom Kpera who later became the Benue State governor in the Babangida regime. Kpera participated in the coup under Captain Ben Gbulie, Nzeogwu’s right hand-man in Kaduna. (See Ben Gbulie: ‘Nigeria’s Five Majors.’).

In an interview with Nzeogwu by the Kaduna-based ‘New Nigerian’ newspaper, 18th January 1966, he described the detachment he used to overrun Premier Ahmadu Bello’s compound as a ‘truly Nigerian gathering.’ He said that the northern soldiers with 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.’ (See Silloun’s article.).

Although Ademoyega is the most prominent Yoruba participant in the coup, there were other Yoruba officers who were involved at the dangerous execution stage of the coup. One of them is Second Lieutenant Olafimihan, an officer serving under Madiebo in Kaduna. He was sent by the plotters to gauge his commander’s loyalty. (See Madiebo pp.17-18). Another is Lieutenant (some books refer to him as a Captain) Fola Oyewole. He, like Ademoyega, went on to fight for Biafra and wrote a book on his coup and wartime experiences. The book’s title is ‘Reluctant Rebel.’ There is also Captain Ganiyu Adeleke who became an instructor in the Biafran Infantry School. For confirmation, see the list of coup plotters detained by Ironsi’s regime in Ademoyega pp.106-108, and this quote from Nowa Omoigui’s online account: ‘Mid-Western Invasion of 1967’: ‘Captain Ganiyu Adeleke, who had taken part in both the January 15 coup and the Mid-Western invasion before becoming an instructor in the Biafran School of Infantry was released at a later date after his co-plotters had been freed.’ Omoigui’s work is significant because, though he exhibits a high level of professionalism in his research, he has no sympathy for the January 15 coup. If his facts corroborate Ademoyega’s they are worthy of attention.

To my surprise Awoyokun sought to consign the Awolowo connection to January 15 to the dung heap. Even the poet and polemicist, Odia Ofeimun, did not sit history on its head in spite of his trenchant criticism of Achebe’s ‘There was a country’ (see ‘The News’ magazine, 12 November, 2012, pp.14-27). Awoyokun should download ‘The Forgotten Documents of the Nigerian Civil War whic

h is freely available on the internet.

Ofeimun wrote and published it. It will provide fresh insights on the Awolowo link. Nobody is saying that Awolowo was involved in the putsch. But the plotters saw in him a man who they thought would guide Nigeria aright and so they wanted him to be in charge, with or without his consent! Awoyokun’s claim that ‘in reality there was no army unit heading to Calabar to spring Awolowo from jail’ in contrast to Ifeajuna’s revelation to Action Group’s chieftain, S.G. Ikoku, that they wanted to free Awolowo and make him Prime Minister is inaccurate. Pages 68-69 of Ademoyega’s book counter this inaccuracy:

‘There was one arrangement that had been left till the date (of the coup) was fixed. It was the arrangement for the release of political prisoners, particularly Chief Awolowo. Now that our own date had been tentatively fixed for mid-January, it became necessary to gear up that arrangement.

‘At the end of the first week in January, Major Anuforo and I, arranged to meet Captain Udeaja, a young engineering graduate from the Royal Military College of Science, Shrivenham, UK….Having briefed Udeaja generally and got his consent, we gave him his task. He was to fly a special plane provided for the purpose to Calabar on the morning of the D-day, to effect the release of Chief Awolowo and bring him to Lagos on the plane. We had already arranged for a plane of the Nigerian Air Force to be made available for that morning. This was done through Major Nzegwu (not Nzeogwu) of the Air Force. The Captain was to be assisted by a young officer on the D-day.’

With the lightning counter-coup measures by Ironsi that put the January 15 plotters on the defensive, this plan could no longer be carried out.

I have gone to this extent to let all those who wish to justify the near-extermination of their fellow human beings because of what a group of who Ofeimun aptly described as ‘hotheaded Nigerians who believe their country needed to be better run’ did know that history is like pregnancy which cannot be covered. Thank God the facts came from a Yoruba. God knows why He allowed Nzeogwu and Ifeajuna to go first and spared Ademoyega long enough to write his book.

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