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To Save Nigeria: the Revolutionary Coup and the Civil War

By Obi Nwakanma
: G.C. Onyefuru’s recent memoir re-examines Nigeria’s road less travelled

MAJOR Godwin Nwachukwu Chukwukaodinaka  Onyefuru is an aging man now, and his sight is impaired by glaucoma.

He lives currently in retired circumstance in Enugu. His current circumstance belies his place and worth in the evolution of contemporary Nigerian history.

There was such a time when G.C. Onyefuru was a young man – an idealistic, well trained officer and gentleman soldier, willing to give his life “to save Nigeria,” this nation that has tried much of our patience and wounded our conscience.

He joined the Nigerian Army to serve the new nation emergent from colonialism and by his account, moved to save it from its path of iniquity and its postcolonial blues, not too long after it emerged independent from colonial Great Britain and slid into listless decadence.

That indeed is precisely the tenor and title of Major Goddy Onyefuru’s book: To Save Nigeria: the Revolutionary Coup and the Civil War, published recently by Rabboni Publishers in Enugu.

Major Onyefuru was commissioned an officer of the Nigerian Army and earned his pips as 2/Lt. at the time of the momentous first coup of January 15, 1966 in which he played a very active role on the side of the putschists.

He earned his pips as a Major on the battle fields for the Peoples Army of the now defunct seceding Republic of Biafra. Major Onyefuru compresses the insight gained from his direct and active life as a revolutionary soldier and as a combatant on behalf of Biafra to render a very readable account of events.

These events gain the pulse of immediacy from the power of witness that animates Onyefuru’s intimate narrative of events as they came to happen.

Major Onyefuru’s account can be considered important in a number of respects: for one thing, aside from Wale Ademoyega’s memoir of events published in Why We Struck (1981), no other account has emerged until Onyefuru’s recent book, to clarify the situation of things on the night of January 15, 1966 from the point of view of the coup plotters and participants.

Colonel Anwuna has published an account of the efforts to counter the coup that night from the perspective of the loyalist forces. But why did the coup fail in Lagos?

What happened? What were the roads not taken? Onyefuru gives us a very thrilling account of that night in which he went out at the sound of the revolutionary bugle to answer the call of duty.

I spent some time this past June in Enugu with G.C. Onyefuru, and a particular evening at his home with his commander, now the only surviving member of the inner circle of the “Five Majors,” leaders of the first coup in Nigeria, Colonel Humphrey Chukwuka.

“The truth is” said Onyefuru, “I was his only troop!” in response to my question about the failures of troop mobilization that night. “I returned with him to the Ikeja barracks that morning. We had walked across the front of Colonel Njoku’s home.

We did not know that General Ironsi was hiding in Colonel Hillary Njoku’s house that morning. If we knew, Major Chukwuka and I would have gone in and arrested him.

That would have ended the matter!” That was one of the missed opportunities that day. One of the paths not taken, and with grievous results. Apparently, Ironsi’s escape from the dragnet led to the collapse of the operations.

Major Onyefuru’s insight is compelling, and his bona fide, equally intriguing.

As he notes very early on in his book, “Just as the British determined from the beginning the political horizon of the new nation, so they also determined her military.”

It was to this military shaped by British imperial and colonial policies to which Goddy Onyefuru found his early moorings, and against which he apparently rebelled.

But what compelling facts and situations; what psychological impulses drew Onyefuru to the army and to his path of endeavor?

It may have been in his stars, but what is more correctly known is that Onyefuru was born in Achi, Oji River in Eastern Nigeria in 1942, while the fire was raging and the clash of metals loud in western Europe during the Second world war.

From Chapter three, “The January coup: Planning and Personnel” we begin to encounter Onyefuru’s near-forensic recollection of events; his own deep, personal involvement and recruitment to the plot.

The most important and compelling account, at least for me, is the activity of the author on the night of January 15, 1966.  In his own words, “the group detailed for the arrest of Lt. Col. Pam was led by Major Humphrey Chukwuka, assisted by me.

Also in that group were Sergeant N.N. Ugongene, Sergeant H. Okibe, Sergeant B. Anyanwu, Sergeant L. Egbukichi, Sergeant P. Iwueke. We went to the residence of Colonel Pam, overcame the little resistance we met and gained access into his house.

We led him at gunpoint to the waiting vehicle and drove to the Federal Guards Officers Mess, the agreed rendevous.” Apparently, the task forces sent out that night seemed like a disciplined well-organized group, which had accomplished what Onyefuru describes a “rare art.”

Since by “O400 hours almost all the key personnel detailed for arrest had been neatly arrested and were kept in custody.” So what happened thereafter? “Simply put, the coup failed in Lagos.” Onyefuru states quite poignantly.

“The coup failed not because all the strategic locations were not fully manned. Indeed, two hours from H-hour all the major strategic locations were fully manned.

But the operators of the coup in Lagos panicked and rather than put heads together to decide on the next line of action after a bit of their first expectation failed, the key operators were mainly concerned for their individual safety and in the process, they abandoned their loyal junior officers at the specific locations which they had instructed them to guard while waiting for further instructions.”

Onyefuru’s book is a tour de force, through the first coup to the civil war, and its aftermath. In many instances it gives new compelling detail to the tangled event of January 15, and it gives a balanced account of all those experience of coups and wars with measured grace and in compelling and readable prose.


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