Last week was a week of reminiscences. It was the week when egg heads in the academia, political enthusiasts, patriots and other sundry leaders of thought across the country gathered to remember some fallen heroes, who, without the efforts of the conveners of such glittering gatherings, would have continued to remain unsung and forgotten.
Some of these memorial events took place in Ibadan, Kaduna and in some towns, South East of the country. It was not a celebration as such but the events were intended to remember the sad events of July 29, this day which has the dubious distinction of being a counterpoise to January 15, in the country’s chequered political calendar.
The first military coup took place on January 15, 1966. Regarded as the coup of the five majors, it led to the killing of Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Nigeria’s first and only prime minister to date, as well as Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, premier of Northern Nigeria who was also the Sardauna of Sokoto and his Western Region counterpart, Samuel Ladoke Akintola. Federal Minister of Finance, Festus Okotie-Eboh was also killed in the coup. Many leading officers from the North were also killed. They included Brigadier Zakari Maimalari, Col Kur Mohammed, Lt Col Yakubu Pam, and Lt Col Abogo Largema. Death toll included three southerners, Col R. Shodeinde and Brigadier Ademulegun from the West and Col Unegbe from Mid-West. Because of the selective killings and the lopsided composition of the coup plotters, majority of them, Igbo officers, led by Major Chukwma Nzeogwu, the coup was seen as an Igbo plot to eliminate the Northern political as well as military leaders.
No Igbo political leader was killed in the coup and no attempt was made, thereafter to punish the coup plotters who were regarded as mutineers. Indeed Major General Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi who took over as head of state and supreme commander of the Armed Forces, to all intents and purposes, seemed to have found himself on the horns of a dilemma. He promised to try the coup plotters not only to assuage the feelings of the North but to restore order and discipline in the force. But he prevaricated. In the south, Nzeogwu and his colleagues, who were arrested and detained, were regarded as heroes. The North saw them differently. Apparently Ironsi did not want to sacrifice the support of those from the south who did not want anything to happen to their heroes. And he took no steps to restore disciple as Supreme Commander. Sadly he paid with his life.
On July 29, officers from the North, led by then Major Yakubu Danjuma, went on revenge mission. They got General Ironsi who was in Ibadan to hold a meeting with traditional rulers and shot him along with his host, governor of Western Nigeria, Col Francis Adekunle Fajuyi. Thirty-two-year-old Colonel Yakubu Gowon succeeded Ironsi as head of state.
Fifty years down the line, the events that shook the country to its foundation and which eventually culminated in an unfortunate civil war from 1967 to 1970 have not been erased from our collective memories. In fact, that was the main reason for the Ibadan gathering; to remember and celebrate the gallantry of Colonel Fajuyi, the host who courageously offered himself to be killed with his guest, if he could not do anything to save him.
Fifty years on, Nigerians seem not to have come to full terms with this ugly chapter in the country’s history. There have been no unanimity of views of what happened and why it happened. Each side has a story to tell. And each narrative is so impressive and so convincing until you get into another narrative. From the Ibadan gathering last week where Major General Olufemi Olutoye, the Owa of Ido-Ani who presided over the function came a totally shocking revelation. General Olutoye was not a stranger to Major Nzeogwu, the coup leader. They were course mates in India in 1964.
General Olutoye said he knew about the coup plan way back in 1964. Nzeogwu told him of the coup. He said he lost interest in it because Nzeogwu said it was going to be bloody. Olutoye said he did not join the army to turn the gun against his own people. The real bombshell, I think, is the Owa’s claim that the coup plotters would have transferred power to Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was then serving a prison term in Calabar convicted of treasonable felony. He said Nzeogwu did not lay claim to any political leadership qualities and did not intend to govern Nigeria after the coup. This brilliant academic-turn soldier now a traditional ruler must know what he meant. Very revealing. But how would this have suited Awo, the democrat and nationalist who was then serving term for a similar offence? Proof of Awo’s culpability or the wishful thinking of Nzeogwu, a clear-eyed radical idealist, who wanted to remake the country in his own image? We can never know.
But the bottom line is that till this day, 50 years later, the wounds inflicted on the nation by the January 15, 1966 misadventure have not fully healed despite Gowon’s famous three Rs – rehabilitation, reconciliation and reconstruction that signalled the end of the civil war in January 1970.
One significant fall out of this crisis is the continued tales of conflict, contradictions and agitations even threats of secession as if they are our local equivalent of the weapon of mass destruction. Today, those who want Nigeria restructured seem not so sure, in my view, how they want it done. Before the advent of the military in 1966, Nigeria started off as a federation of three regions: the North with NPC in power, the East of NCNC and the West of Action Group, a federal structure which Ruth First likened to a tripod of three regions with the legs of uneven length and fashioning. The North was too big and it was domineering, so said its critics. The West under Action Group put up a ferocious fight to see to the breakup of the North into more manageable pieces. The agitation which this engendered led to the Tiv riots of 1964 and the demand for Middle Belt Region. It did not come to be but the brinkmanship deployed by political rivals led, instead, to the breakup of the Western region and this resulted in the creation of Mid Western region. There was a similar agitation by the minority ethnic groups in the Eastern Region that wanted a space for themselves.
This was the situation up to the time of military intervention in 1966. When Ironsi crushed Nzeogwu’s rebellion and took power from the rump of the federal civilian cabinet, the first wrong step he took was the abolition of the regional governments and putting an end to federalism. Instead of the regions, Nigeria was to be broken into groups of provinces and in place of federal structure, the Supreme Commander imposed a unitary system of government with the military’s central command structure.
This misstep was one of the reasons for the overthrow of his government. Gowon who took over from him listened to the yearnings of majority of the people and after due consultation broke the country into 12 states, bringing, as the popular parlance went then, government closer to the people. There was louder agitation for creation of more states. In response, the Murtala Mohammed regime that came into office in 1975 created more states and brought the number to 19. Today, the number of states has morphed to 36. Those who want the country restructured want a return to the regional structure and government further away from people? The Ijaw, the Ibibio, the Kalabari, Ogoja and sundry others who wanted states of their own distinct from the one that they felt choked them in the Eastern regional arrangement want a return to status quo ante? Or this agitation is merely a political ploy, in the manner of impudent child, full of tantrums, mischievously drawing attention to himself?
I thought someone was being uncharitable when he said the other day that the tribe of the proponents of restructuring grows rapidly large each time it falls out of the loop of power and political reckoning. With recent events – Edwin Clark and co shouting loudest- I don’t know what to believe. His man Friday, President Goodluck Jonathan set up the last national conference and generously funded it to come up with a formula for dealing with the Nigerian project. The conference did its job and submitted its report in volumes. What happened? Was it merely a political ploy? Was the conference merely to generate sound and fury?
Honestly, I am for structuring but it has to start with the structuring of the elite, their inordinate appetite for wealth at the expense of the ordinary people and their appetite for corruption in all its ramifications. And when they are in power, their appetite for kleptocracy needs restructuring. Let us for once be honest with ourselves.