Jan 1966 Coup: Ironsi detained me over Balewa’s, Okotie-Eboh’s decomposing bodies — Ex-police chief

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By Olalekan Bilesanmi

Alhaji Ahmed Ibrahim Babankowa, in his late ‘70s, was a police commissioner. In this interview, Babankowa recounts how he led an operation during the January 1966 coup to discover the bodies of the Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa, his Finance Minister, Chief Okotie Eboh, and other members of the federal cabinet who the coup makers had taken to the outskirts of Sango-Otta, then in Western Region but now in Ogun State, and shot dead. He also shares his thoughts on some national issues.

How has it been since more than 30 years back that you retired?
Quite interesting. I have seen a lot of things which I never thought could happen but are happening. Some of them come as a surprise and sometimes shocking. It is really amazing how things are going on in this country.

What role did you play during the 1966 coup and where were you at that time?
I am not a coupist and I didn’t play any role other than my normal police role. However I can tell you what happened. It was not only the night of the coup but it continued for about three days later when we discovered the bodies of the prime minister and some of his cabinet members. First of all, I was at Sango- Otta during the coup where I had been transferred. I was initially at Mubi. They called it Southern Province which is the present Adamawa State. It used to be called Gongola State. I was drafted to the Western Region during the Operation Wetie crisis. I was drafted from Mubi to Kaduna and then to take riot unit to Ibadan. On my arrival at Ibadan, my late commander, Peter Pam, told me that Akure, Ondo and Owo were burning and I was moved to Akre, then to Owo and then Arigidi, a border town between the West and the North. While I was there, Shomolu in Lagos was burning. I then deployed to Shomolu, and, suddenly, they said Agege to Abeokuta was burning as they were doing Oro (cult). Then I was later moved to Sango- Otta where I was on the fateful night of the coup. I was manning a road block which was primarily to check the menace of the Operation Wetie. Suddenly we saw a convoy of military trucks and cars. It was in night, it was when they moved closer that we realised that army officers were in the convoy. We were happy and comfortable seeing them because our assumption was that they were also helping out in fighting the crisis, and we allowed them to pass and they moved on to Abeokuta which was the direction they were headed not knowing that in that convoy were the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, the Minister of Finance, Okotie Eboh, Abogu and Kuru Muhammed. Not more than half an hour later, the convoy returned and headed for Lagos. We didn’t take any notice of anything not knowing that these leaders were actually taken into the bush and shot dead, six of them. It was the next morning we heard that there was a coup; and that Tafawa Balewa and co were killed.

*Babankowa

*Babankowa

Now the Western Region crisis was no longer an issue because of the coup. Few days later, I had cold and had to go to hospital for treatment. I understand a bit of Yoruba language, it was in the hospital at Sango -Otta that I was listening to some patients talking about some odour of some dead bodies in their vicinity. They were complaining about the odour. Meanwhile the nation was already talking about the missing bodies of these leaders. So, when I got to the office, I divided my men into groups, while some went to the particular place where the patients in the hospital talked about, others went the other way. Lo and behold, the bodies of these leaders were there on the ground, already decomposing. Tafawa Balewa’s body was in his white attire, his cap on the floor and his rosary near the cap and maggots had started coming out of it. That was the most terrible sight I have ever seen in my life. So I reported the matter to the authorities. It was Kam Salem that was around at that time because Louis Edet was on leave. Kam Salem was the acting IG. Knowing how difficult it could be to get the IG, I decided to go to Ikeja Police Station, I knew the officer in charge, Alhaji Kafaru Tinubu. I told him I wanted to see the IG, and I told him the reason. So we called the IG in Tinubu’s office and he said I should come right down to the Force Headquarters in Lagos immediately.  On getting there, Ironsi had abandoned his barracks and took refuge at the police headquarters. He was operating from the police headquarters.

Why would he leave the barracks that is more fortified for the police headquarters?
I will tell you. When there is a coup, everybody is suspecting his colleagues. He already had loyal troops around the police headquarters protecting him. Tanks were everywhere. He probably thought he was safer with the police and loyal troops protecting the place than staying in the barracks where he would not know who was for him or who was against him. On my arrival, I was taken straight to the office of the IG where he was sitting with Ironsi on the same table in the conference room. I was marched to the place bare footed and without cap or belt, this was after my pistol had been taken away from me. I can understand why. The first question came from Ironsi. ‘You said you saw the dead body of the prime minister?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did sir’. He was talking to me in Hausa. He spoke fluent Hausa. He was just like Odumegwu Ojukwu’s  father who also spoke fluent Hausa. He then asked how I knew it was Tafawa Balewa and I told him that I knew him very well because I was security officer to the late Sardauna. We normally came to Lagos to see Tafawa Balewa and he knew us as security officers of Sardauna. He then ordered that I should be arrested and detained in the naval base, Apapa. Kam Salem pleaded that I should be detained in our own cell and anytime I was needed, he would produce me.

I was then marched out of the room and later I was marched in again before Ironsi now said Kam Salem could detain me and I was taken to Yaba Police Station. I was there till 1.30 am the following day. And suddenly I was hearing a voice saying ‘where is this Ibrahim Ahmed?’ And so I was brought out. I saw Maitama Sule, Madawaki of Bauchi whom I knew very well in Tafawa Balewa’s house, and Balewa’s ADC, immediately I knew they wanted me to take them to the site. When we got out, I saw trucks and ambulances and so I was asked to lead the way to Sango- Otta. This was in the night. Could you believe that my policemen who I asked to guard the place were still there when we got there? That is the difference between the police of that time and those of now. These were officers that didn’t eat from the previous day till the following night that we got there. If it were these days, they would have left there .Which police would you leave with a decomposed body for 24 hours now? We packed the bodies. Six of us flew Tafawa Balewa’s body to Bauchi: Myself, Kam Salem, Madawaki Bauchi, Mataima Sule, William Garuba, ADC to IG, Tapgum, Tafawa Balewa’s ADC, in a small aircraft while the Balewa family members flew in a bigger aircraft. We arrived Bauchi on Sallah day. People were coming out of the prayer ground and running down to the airport to welcome the prime minister but, unknowingly to them, we were bringing the dead body of Balewa. From there, Kam Salem said I should move my unit back to Kaduna and then to Mubi and then start my annual leave.

It is alleged that the police are partisan compared to the one you operated in, in your days. Do you agree?
This is an area I know very well. The policeman is like the district officer of those days. But the police are now being controlled by whoever is in power. In my days, the police was independent. Their allegiance was to the nation, not individuals as we now see these days. In those days, whoever was in power could not control the police as he or she wished. It was run according to rules and regulations. What you find now is a police which are more or less in disguise as state police. The one in Rivers State is completely a different one. But you find in some other states that whoever is the governor controls the police.

Thought it is the Federal Government through the police Inspector General of Police that controls the police.
You are right but don’t forget that the governors have their own line of communication with the IG such that whatever the governor wants, once he contacts the IG, the IG passes the information to the commissioner and his biddings are carried out. The police, unlike before, are not structurally based but controlled by individuals instead of being institutional. However, the problems with our police, in my opinion, started in 1983 when there was a military coup that ousted the President Shehu Shagari administration.  Sunday Adewusi was the IG; I was still in the force at that time. The army realised that the police was getting too powerful and they did not want that because they wanted to rule without hindrance. So they tried to render it ineffective. It was starved of funds, salaries were poor; even the allowances were not forthcoming, arms and ammunitions including logistics were not forth coming, that was when the police began its descent and, up till now, nobody is willing to do anything about it. Don’t ask me if we are ripe for state police because my answer would be no. Until there is justice, sincerity and fair-play, I will never subscribe to state police. We cannot handle state police now.

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