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July 29, 1966: Nigeria’s Accursed Day

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Brigadier Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi


It is typical of Nigerian society to easily forget, especially historical records. And this is partly attributable to the culture of fatalism (bakwomi), which has been foisted on the society by the prevailing ruling culture, which abhors any kind of perspicacity in thought process or reflection on the past. Otherwise, July 29, every year should be a day marked out in its infamy and remembered as the momentous and infamous day in which Nigeria nationhood was killed, burnt and laid waste on the ashes of republicanism, universal brotherhood, justice, love and truth.

Prologue: On July 29, 1966 at the Army Garrison barracks at Abeokuta in the then Western Region of Nigeria, but now capital of Ogun State, one of the gerrymandered vassal units of Nigerian unitary empire the simmering cauldron of the ethnic distrust fuelled by the suspicions generated by the most unfortunate and dastardly killings of Nigerian top military and political leaders by executors of the January 15, 1966 coup came to boiling point and exploded. It was a mutiny by the low-level soldiers of Northern Nigerian origin, which dovetailed and precipitated an earlier planned coup by some middle level Northern Nigerian officers to avenge the killings by the executors of the January 15, 1966 coup. The January 15, 1966 coup was led by an ethnic Igbo (Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu) from the then Midwest Region of Nigeria. Other key members of the January 15 coup, except one Major Adegboyega (Western Region) were all ethnic Igbo from the Igbo mainland of the then Eastern Region of Nigeria. The 15th January coup was foiled due largely to the efforts of ethnic Igbo military officers such as Major Arthur Unegbu (Quarter-Master of the Army who was killed for not cooperating with the dissident officers), Lt. Col. Emeka Ojukwu (garrison commander at Kano) and Major General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi (General Officer, Commanding the Armed Forces). The predominance of the Igbo ethnic group in this entire macabre dance was largely accidental or fortuitous as the officer corps of the armed forces was dominated by the Igbo young men who like in other sectors of the political economy of the new country had spread out to occupy the chances purely on meritocratic rules dictated by the British colonial system.

A Coup D’état Like No Other: Kaduna, January 15, 1966, Early Morning Putsch: Major Kaduna Chukwuma Nzeogwu led a detachment of soldiers mainly Hausa, which he had in furtherance of the coup carefully drilled on the operation to overthrow the government of Nigeria which he codenamed “Damisa” Hausa word for “Tiger”. The putsch led to the killing of the undisputed political leader of the then Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, his lieutenant, Sir Balewa and Chief Akintola his ally, Okotie Eboh and other high ranking Yoruba and Hausa army officers such as Brigadier Maimalari, Brigadier Ademulegun and Col. Shodeinde in charge of Army 1st Division and the Nigeria Defence Academy. Thereafter he made a broadcast denouncing misgovernance, bribery and corruption and declared martial law in the Northern Region on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Revolution.

As stated earlier, the killings of the political leaders of other ethnic groups – mainly Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Urhobo generated suspicions after the euphoria that attended the putsch, which had attracted widespread support due to the revolutionary and nationalistic fervor of the coup leaders’ declarations in their coup speech had died down. The rump of the failed regime handed over power to General Ironsi who foiled the coup but revanchists alleged he had browbeaten the remnant of the destroyed regime to hand over power to him and the armed forces in order to restore law and order in the country. This necessity or demand was accepted by the remnant of the regime.

On assumption of office, General Ironsi promptly declared martial law and among other unitary measures promulgated Decree No. 34, 1966, otherwise called the Unification Decree which abolished the federal system and emplaced a unitary one over the country in accordance with the command-structure of the military regime. This did not go down well with the political leaders of the defunct Northern Region who had always entertained suspicions of Southern domination, especially by the Igbo. They promptly kicked and whipped up the already simmering cauldron of ethnic distrust fuelled by the lopsided casualties of the January 15, 1966 coup and the allegedly seeming indifference or lack of will to bring the failed-coup leaders to account in accordance with the law. It was no wonder that the Northern soldiers started plotting not to right the wrongs of the failed-coup leaders of the January 15, 1966 or that of the inheritors of the new military regime but rather to exact revenge – and maximally so even if it resulted in the destruction of the country. So they plotted covertly and even in several instances voiced their readiness to avenge the shame of the otherwise ethnically slanted coup killings against the North. Intelligence reports available to the Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces (Major General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi) were overwhelming and in one instance when one Igbo military officer (Patrick Anwunah) reported of a coup plot afoot to him he promptly summoned his deputy the then Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon who had been linked to the coup plot and confronted him in the presence of the Igbo military officer-informant. Lt. Col. Gowon denied the plot and that was the end of the story for the Supreme Commander neither investigated the allegation further nor took other steps to inquire into the simmering open discontent in the army.

The Revenge Mutiny: Evening, Friday, July 29, 1966: Army Barracks, Abeokuta. There was widespread rumour of coup plots not from one but from several quarters – mainly the Northern aggrieved soldiers who were disaffected by the killings of their leaders (military and political), the supporters of January 15, 1966 coup who felt that their original coup and their mission had been foiled and hijacked and so there ought to be another coup to topple Ironsi and free Nzeogwu and his cohorts and even an alleged coup plot by some Igbo military officers who were disenchanted with both Ironsi and the original coup. All the rumour were swirling round and virtually suffocating the society when on the night of July 29, 1966 at the Army Barracks, Abeokuta, Lt. Col. Gabriel Okonweze (Midwest Igbo) and Major Obienu – both ethnic Igbo in charge of the barracks had directed Lt.

Abdullahi Mamman to summon a meeting of the officers (attended by Lieutenants D. S Abubakar, I. S. Umar, Gabriel Idoko, etc.) at the Officers’ Mess for a discussion of the loud whispers of rumour of coups, especially the information he received from Defence Headquarters, Lagos on July 28, 1966 of an impending coup, and the need to guard the barracks against unnecessary incursions as happened in January 15, 1966 coup. The two officers – Lt. Col. Gabriel Okonweze and Major John Obienu had briefed officers of the rumour and the need to guard the barracks against incursion from outside. One of the resolutions of the meeting was that arms were to be issued to soldiers for the defence of the facility against possible incursion from outside. This order was passed, but instead of complying with the intent it was breached as the northern soldiers hijacked the exercise and instead turned it against their Igbo and other southern compatriots. Lt. Col. Okonweze and Major Obienu were still sitting at their high table and had hardly finished the meeting when two soldiers Sergeant Sabo Kwale and Corporal Maisamari Maje (the unit’s armourer) intruded into the meeting and shoot dead Lt. Col. Okonweze and Major Obienu. Lt. Pam Mwadkon, Corporal John Shagaya, Inuwa Sara and others rallied other Northern soldiers to the mutiny, which had spread out to hunting and killing any available Igbo and southern officers and soldiers. Not even the intervention of Domkat Bali and Mohammed Remawa could restrain the Northern soldiers’ rage.

Report of the mutiny ironically by an Igbo officer, Lt. Rowland Ogbonna had got to the planners of the northern coup of revenge led by Murtala Mohammed, Martin Adamu, Joe Garba, Nuhu Nathan, Malami Nassarawa, Muhammadu Buhari, Paul Tarfa, Musa Usman and Shittu Alao in Lagos, while Ibadan was taken charge of by Garba Dada, Jerry Useni, Ibrahim Bako and assisted by TY Danjuma, William Walbe, who were part of Lagos group but being part of General Ironsi guards participated by default as they accompanied General Ironsi to his official tour of the Western Region. So seised with this vital information the coupists immediately seized the moment to escalate the mutiny into a full fledged coup and mother luck smiled on their treasonous intentions. The Lagos squad used Ikeja Barracks as their operational base, while the Ibadan group used the 4th Battalion as base and to devastating effect. General Ironsi and Col. Fajuyi were seized by TY Danjuma and William Walbe and killed. The Abeokuta orgy of violence was repeated both in Lagos and Ibadan and across Northern cities with greater vehemence and outrage as civilian Igbo and other easterners were added to the lot marked for elimination in most brutal manner and savagery.

The original intention of the planners of the revenge coup code-named ‘araba’ Hausa for secession was to destroy the country and take the Northern Region out of the federation. It was the British High Commissioner (Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce) and the United States Ambassador (Elbert Matthews) who dissuaded and prevailed on the coupists from seceding. You can still observe this neo-colonial interference in Nigeria today.

Having agreed to remain in the country and take power. Lt. Col. Gowon was chosen as the compromise head of state to the annoyance of Murtala Mohammed. The pogroms against the Igbo continued in most Northern cities and towns and it was even reported that there were lynching of the Igbo in Lagos. The constitutional crisis generated by the dissidents’ choice of Lt. Col. Gowon against the suggestion by Col. Ojukwu that the most senior military officer should succeed General Ironsi met with stiff opposition by the ‘Araba’ military clique and their foreign backers mainly Britain and the USA. Col. Ojukwu in a rare insight had warned that allowing mutinous soldiers to benefit from their crime of indiscipline would become a norm, which will be difficult to extirpate from the body politic. This warning was not heeded and indiscipline being the springboard of corruption has become part of Nigerian norm. So those fighting corruption had better trace the ill from its source.
A Conference was summoned at Aburi at the instance of the Ghanaian military head of state (Lt. General Joseph Ankrah) where the leaders of Nigeria had the last chance to salvage Nigeria on the basis of justice and equity. Agreements were reached and duly signed but on return to Nigeria the Federal Military Government now taken charge of by ‘araba’ coup clique and civil servants balked at the decisions and disputed the purports of the resolutions reached at Aburi. This became another crisis and it eventually led to the civil war, which claimed over two million people, mainly Igbo children. On January 12, 1970 the war was officially declared over after Biafra capitulated.

Fifty Years of Impunity and Kleptocracy:
IT is a now fifty one years today since that infamous July 29, 1966 mutiny that took Nigeria through hell and returned it to the valley of hopelessness, impoverishment, subjugation and slavery. One major lesson which has been difficult for Nigerians to understand is that the ‘araba’ coup which begat the present socio-political and legal order was not an ordinary event as it effectively marked the creation and entrenchment of the norm legitimating a group taking over the state and appropriating same to achieve narrow selfish interests quite apart, antithetical and different from the public good or welfare of the peoples of Nigeria. And the irony of it is that the same group and their cohorts and acolytes spread across the country see nothing wrong with the pernicious system. A call for change attracts retorts from them that such calls are tantamount to the disintegration of the unity which they singsong as being “non-negotiable, indivisible, sacrosanct, indissoluble” and such other hollow words of slavery. The country has quaked on the weight of dislocated socio-political and economic disequilibrium resulting from the fascist and prebendal statehood that subjugates and exploits the society.

During colonial rule the people retained some modicum of power to protest certain misrule but now the conquest is by the indigenous elites and nobody knows where to start the struggle for liberation because if you take a closer study of the socio-political system your relation, either by family, tribe or religion benefits from the rot. So everyone has resigned to fate believing that one’s turn to ‘chop’ will surely come, for nothing is impossible in the present Nigerian conundrum where a thief of yesterday may become a governor or president tomorrow and a pauper or tout or a thug of today transforms not by genuine reformation into a leader of the people, but by impunity and corruption, which is actually the grease that lubricates the engine of the system. This fatalism fuelling the prevailing complacency in the society is sustained especially on the fact that quite unlike the colonial overlords who conquered the pre-colonial ethnic nationalities and imposed the Nigerian nation-state and imposed taxes to govern it, the present rulership operates and sustains their system based on the rent from the sequestered petroleum resources of the Niger Delta region, quite outside the personal income taxation system of the colonial era that fuelled agitations such as the Aba Women Riots of 1929. Wise enough, the people are spared these taxation troubles, which would have otherwise created an environment for civic protests. So the only trouble to contend with is the internecine struggles through partisan politics during civil rule and coup d’états during military rule, and in both through unspeakable violent and white-collar crimes by all and sundry to be accommodated on the prebendal system.

Hope of Redemption Bleak, But… It is difficult to say how the entire problem will be resolved but one thing is clear: by the inexorable march of history, until Nigeria accepts to confront its ugly past and resolve the issues generated by the incidence of the July 29, 1966 Revenge Coup and subsequent legal order imposed with truth and sincerity, it will continue to wobble and quake on the weight of the unresolved ethnic distrust and of a society severely riven by several socio-political issues. It is difficult to state if this present system can endure the myriad of problems brought about by socio-political discontent and alienation. Those who pride themselves as ‘mangers of the turbulent’ according to Jos University Faculty of Social Sciences scholars in their book “The Kaduna Mafia” may continue to believe the problems having stayed for over fifty years may endure, but it is better to pay heed to ominous warnings sign-posting that all is not well and the auguries everywhere forebode evil days ahead. The darkened cloud may be interpreted to forebode either beautiful rainfall or a hurricane but it may not always be what it seems for in either case it may cause havoc. Nigerians ronu!
Onwe (Doctoral student of law is former Political and Legislative Adviser to the Governor of Ebonyi State, 2001 – 2011.)



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