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“January 15, 1966 not Nzeogwu’s Coup”

Allegations of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s involvement nonsense, says Peter Enahoro

The official version of the failed  coup that set off the collapse of the First Republic, led to the Nigerian Civil War and ushered in thirty years of military interventions in Nigerian politics is that the munity was masterminded by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, an officer at the Nigerian Military Training Centre (NMTC) in Kaduna.

It is a claim that has been mildly contradicted in the past by Dim Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu who led the Biafran secession. Now comes an assertive support of that denial from an independent, non-military source, turning the official version on its head.

Author, publisher and international journalist, Peter Enahoro was the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Times newspapers, popularly known as columnist Peter Pan at the time of the events of January 15, 1966 and the subsequent July 29 “revenge coup” that brought then Lt-Col. Yakubu Gowon to power. Enahoro fled Nigeria in self-exile when armed soldiers failed to find him at home.

In his memoirs titled: “Then Spoke the Thunder”, published this month in Nigeria by Napmind Communications Ltd. Enahoro argues forcefully that the failed coup was the brainchild of Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who was the Brigade Major of the 2nd Brigade, Apapa, commanded by Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, third highest ranking officer in the Nigerian Army and the most senior officer of Northern origin.

Enahoro writes: “Nzeogwu has been credited with top billing as the master-planner partly because he was successful in Kaduna –  bastion of Northern political pride at the time – but mostly because his broadcast, unprecedented in Nigerian history, gave a revolutionary voice to the events of that day and thus drew a national focus that turned him into a folklore figure.

Nzeogwu’s true place in the story of January 15, 1966 was that he achieved its main objectives in the capital of the Northern Region, and in the absence of an expected dawn broadcast by Ifeajuna from Lagos, he went on air in Kaduna at midday to stake a claim that should have come from the Federal capital, where Ifeajuna, the arch originator of the plot, had woefully failed to fulfil his assignment before fleeing the country.”

But Enahoro’s conclusion is more than conjecture. He says he had a copy of Ifeajuna’s account of the coup handwritten by the major in Accra to where he fled after the failed coup: “I had a photocopy of the document in my possession on that day of July 29 when the revenge coup raged savagely. It was given to me to keep after Ifeajuna returned from Accra.”

Enahoro says he received a call on the afternoon of July 29 instructing him to burn the manuscript: “You know that thing? Put am for ECN,”said his caller who is named in the book. “I knew at once he meant the copy of Ifeajuna’s manuscript. I understood him to mean I should burn the manuscript. “ECN’ was the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria and electric power (or light) in Yoruba is the same word for “fire”. Put am for ECN meant put it to fire. Burn it.”

“Thus was lost to me a copy of Ifeajuna’s handwritten Accra account of the failed coup attempt that induced a Civil War and led to thirty years of military interventions in Nigerian politics. In a way the contents of that document changed the course of my life for ever.”

There is evidence also that Ifeajuna tried to have a manuscript published in Biafra. Christopher Okigbo and Chinua Achebe jointly formed a publishing company they called Citadel Press in the early days of Biafra. Ezenwa-Ohaeto says in his biography of Chinua Achebe that “Okigbo brought (a) manuscript … from Emmanuel Ifeajuna” which, he “enthusiastically passed on to Achebe.” Achebe “discovered there were flaws in the story” and turned it down.

Years later, Achebe told his biographer: “It seemed to be self-serving. Emmanuel was attempting a story in which he was a centre and everybody else was marginal. So he was the star of the thing. I did not know what they did or not but reading his account in the manuscript, I thought that the author was painting himself as a hero.”

Enahoro writes: “Achebe misled himself in dismissing Ifeajuna’s account. Like many people caught up in the romanticism that came to surround Nzeogwu, Achebe was prejudiced and did not give himself a chance to consider the true facts. If anyone had an ego question in this specific matter it was Nzeogwu. Ezenwa-Ohaeto says that, Okigbo came to Achebe (a few days later) and told him that Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu had asked him, ‘I hear you and Achebe are going to publish Emma’s lies.’ That comment by Nzeogwu, a principal actor in the January coup, confirmed that the manuscript was unreliable,’ Ezenwa-Ohaeto concluded.”

Enahoro continues: “Ifeajuna certainly did not defer to anyone as the leader of the January 15 uprising though he did not publicly challenge the assumption that Nzeogwu led it. That should be no surprise. It was in his character to avoid responsibility for failure. He failed where Nzeogwu succeeded in his assignment. He might even have felt good to have attention deflected from him. He had nothing to commend him and challenging the myth surrounding Nzeogwu in the atmosphere of 1966 would only have drawn unwanted attention to his own failure in Lagos.

Enahoro refers to a newspaper interview by Nzeogwu in which the major said himself: “He (Ifeajuna) was in charge of a whole brigade and had all the excuse and opportunity in the world to mobilise his troops anywhere, anyhow and any time.”

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo in his tribute to his friend Nzeogwu quotes Ifeajuna stating as follows: “I had to pass messages to Enugu and Abeokuta. From these centres, our people were to take action in distant zones. These were the messages that were to throw the machinery of the whole operation into gear all over the country at the same time.”

Enahoro says that “Ifeajuna, not Nzeogwu, flagged off the operation because it was his coup,” and goes on to argue that, “the facts are compelling that Ifeajuna was better placed to organise the network of conspirators.”

“Ifeajuna had his commander’s full confidence. As chief of operations at brigade headquarters he knew the details of the commanders’ conference that took place that week in Lagos. He had the records of the hotel accommodations for the visiting commanders, which made it easy for those marked for elimination to be tracked down and murdered in their rooms. It was Ifeajuna who gave the pep talk and it was from his residence that the coup-makers fanned out to carry out the night’s work in Lagos.”

Peter Enahoro recalls that Nzeogwu was a training officer at the Nigerian Military Training Centre in Kaduna and says that the major’s access to manpower and other resources was limited; that, “he was a long way from Lagos, the Federal capital – surely a vital consideration that would have been pivotal to the planning.”

“It would have been a curious state of affairs if indeed Nzeogwu held the core planning in his hands. The man who had to make the most critical decisions, who had a greater access to manpower and knew where the top officers likely to foil the coup attempt would be at a given time, was Ifeajuna.

“Nzeogwu had a lower schedule; he was a long distance away in Kaduna, far from the command centre of the most decisive operations, which were the operational imperatives in Lagos.

“Most of all, a coup that failed to capture the Federal capital would instantly lack credibility, as evidenced by the failure of the Army to rally to Nzeogwu’s banner after his broadcast from Kaduna. The consequences of the failure in Lagos must have been clear to him even as he made his belated noontime broadcast.

“Nzeogwu’s afternoon broadcast thus had an element of bravado. Without success in Lagos and with General Aguiyi-Ironsi on the loose the attempted coup had effectively collapsed. Nzeogwu’s threat to march on Lagos was another bluff.

He did not have the necessary troops at his command. He was in hostile territory in the North; his contacts in Lagos were in disarray – he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the operational chief in the plot or of the other collaborators. Peacefully handing over power to Major Hassan Katsina in Kaduna was a palliative political move by a man now motivated by a natural survival instinct.”

The author believes that Ifeajuna later revised the account he wrote in Ghana. He writes: “I do not believe the document I had was an exact copy of what General Obasanjo describes as Ifeajuna’s ‘unpublished work’. The document that came to me had no pretensions of a “work”; instead, it struck me as a hastily written apologia, a mea culpa, essentially intended to impress General Aguiyi-Ironsi. To be sure there was a rushed attempt to explain the background to the failed coup, but it did not have the quality of an address to posterity deserving of Obasanjo labelling it an ‘unpublished work.’

I thought at the time that Ifeajuna sought to ingratiate himself with the Supreme Commander, saying that the aim of the plot was to overthrow the civilian government and hand over the reins of power to ‘my general’, which I’m sure was how he put it in the manuscript I had.

“The fact that General Obasanjo’s book records him as stating that ‘we were to present our senior officers with a fait accompli’ suggests to me that there was an afterthought between the time of the manuscript I had in my possession and the time Ifeajuna wrote the script from which Obasanjo lifted his quote.

In other words, that Ifeajuna may have thought it expedient to broaden his appeal.

That would mean that the account he wrote in Accra was later updated and given a polish; which may be why General Obasanjo dignified the version he refers to with the nuance of a classic.”

“With the spotlight on Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna had the partial anonymity that would allow him concentrate on plotting his next big adventure: seeking the downfall of Odumegwu-Ojukwu, a man the January mutineers thought a carpetbagger and for whom they could barely conceal their resentment.

Ifeajuna’s unsuccessful plot to overthrow Odumegwu-Ojukwu in Biafra was his last failure for which he paid with his life.”

The official account says that Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was arrested by Major Donatus Okafor, Commander of Federal Guards in Lagos.

Enahoro asks, “Where was Major Ifeajuna at that moment? If he was not physically in charge of the Prime Minister at which point did Okafor hand the Prime Minister over to him?” He says he asks the question “because there is no question it was Ifeajuna who killed Sir Abubakar …”

An attempt by the revenge coup perpetrators to justify the killing of General Aguiyi-Ironsi by linking him with the January 15 failed coup is not accepted by Peter Enahoro’s account. He says that the General was in fact marked down for elimination by If eajuna and that one man that could have exonerated Aguiyi-Ironsi was the Inspector-General of Police, the late Alhaji Kam Salem who the author says telephoned the military commander to inform him that the police were reporting usual troop movements in Lagos.

“Neither Nzeogwu nor Ifeajuna had a great regard for General Aguiyi-Ironsi.,” Enahoro writes and quotes Nzeogwu saying of his Commander-in-Chief, in the major’s magazine interview earlier referred to: ‘He actually joined the army as a tally-clerk and was a clerk most of the time.’

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s remark to Obasanjo when the latter flew to Lagos to intercede on behalf of his friend was a clear indication that there was no love lost between Nzeogwu and Aguiyi-Ironsi.

“Nzeogwu talked about safe conduct for him and his colleagues, when I spoke to him,” the General told Obasanjo; and then he asked, “What exactly does he mean? Does he want medals for what they have done?”

According to Enahoro, “(Ifeajuna) had Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa in the back of his car as he drove around Ikoyi trying to regain advantage in the botched coup, as he continued his desperate search for General Aguiyi-Ironsi who he had down for elimination.”

Enahoro asserts that Ifeajuna made a stop to drop off one of his wounded men at the Ikoyi flat of Sam Agbam, an External Affairs officer who had been his fellow alumnus at Ibadan University. He told Sam Agbam he had Sir Abubakar in the car and he boasted to his friend, “We are taking over the government”.

Ifeajuna told Sam Agbam that when he told the Prime Minister he had to come with him Sir Abubakar asked for a minute or two to pray.

“Whether he granted Sir Abubakar’s wish has passed on with the Souls of the only two men who knew exactly what took place,” writes Enahoro, adding: “Ifeajuna also told Agbam that Sir Abubakar said to him, ‘Do you think you’ll succeed in this thing you are doing?”

Did Ifeajuna make that scene up in his hurried account to Agbam on the night of the attempted coup? The author does not think so.

Footnote: The book: “Then Spoke the Thunder”will be launched at Sheraton Hotel, Abuja on Monday 7  December, at 11 am.


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