Breaking News

50th Anniversary of Africa’s bloodiest coup d’état (2)

By Chuks Iloegbunam

Being the concluding part of the article first published yesterda

On the immediate term, the charge of an Igbo coup was understandable. What would the Igbo have said and done if things had happened differently and the coup had been perpetrated by say, Majors Hassan Usman Katsina, Murtala Muhammed, Joe Akahan, Mohammed Shuwa and Abba Kyari, and the victims been, say, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. Michael Okpara, General Aguiyi-Ironsi, Colonel Conrad Nwawo and Lieutenant Colonels Michael Ivenso, Michael Okwechime and Ime Imo? They would have, of course, cried blue murder and almost certainly plotted countermeasures.

General Aguiyi-Ironsi

Not an Igbo coup

But, the true situation was clear in mere weeks and months. The coup had not been an Igbo coup for various reasons. Its primary objective was to replace Prime Minister Balewa with Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the Yoruba Leader of Opposition in the Federal Parliament. Why would Ndigbo carry out a coup in order to install a Yoruba leadership? Three of the leaders of the January 15 action testified verbally and in written form that they had marked Chief Awolowo to head a government of their own creation.

This was how Major Ifeajuna rationalized their decision in his memoirs, which has remained embarrassingly unpublished for 50 years: “Chief Awolowo launched forth his party on a platform of tribalism, and for his parochial and partisan approach to national issues, he got deserving blame. But probably in the later Awolowo of after the 1959 Federal Election that began the fiasco, our people saw for a second time an image of honesty, courage and discipline.

Awolowo refused to betray those who followed him; rather it was some of them that betrayed him. In the face of difficulties and personal tragedy following on the declaration of a state of emergency in Western Nigeria, his treason trial, and the death of his first son, he showed courage and firmness of belief that truly is rare. In time he came to win the respect and admiration of even his greatest detractors, and what was more, he came to represent a rallying point for the young and the intellectual, for all that sought progress and nationhood for our country.”


There were other reasons that made it plain that it was not an Igbo coup. The Igbo General Aguiyi-Ironsi crushed January 15. But, instead of being credited with the feat, Gowon allowed himself to be proclaimed the crusher of the coup, a role he hadn’t played at all. Not just that, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Chinyelu Unegbe, the Quartermaster of the Army had been felled by the coupists of January 15. He was full-blooded Igbo, from Ozubulu in today’s Anambra State. But it served the interest of the counter-coupists to deny this and lie that Chinyelu was from the “Midwest” Region.

A further consideration: On the morning of January 15, 1966, there were six Igbo Lieutenant Colonels. None participated in the coup. On that morning, there were 45 Majors in the Nigerian Army. About 24 of them were Igbo. This means that, at the very least, 18 Igbo Majors had nothing to do with the coup. On that morning, the General Officer Commanding was Igbo. The Quartermaster General was Igbo. The Commander of the 2nd Battalion in Lagos was Igbo. His 2ic was Igbo. The Brigade Major was Igbo. The Federal Guards Commander was Igbo. The Staff Officer “A” Branch at Army Headquarters was Igbo. If all these had fixed the coup, could it have failed?


But the engineers of July 29 did not want to know. People like Mallam Adamu Ciroma, then the Editor of the Northern Government-owned New Nigerian newspaper led the campaign in portraying the January action as an Igbo coup aimed at Igbo domination of Nigeria. These champions of the legend of the Igbo coup had a point, of course. But, as already pointed out above, it was a blunt one, except that in the excitement and tenseness of the season, reason was on leave. First insidiously, but later openly and brazenly, they started and continued to fan the embers of hatred that resulted in July 29and the pogroms that preceded and antedated it.

Biafran Major-General Alexander Madiebo captured the virulent propaganda thus: “By the end of April 1966, the press and radio of the North had joined in the hostile campaign against the South. These mass information media were then fully employed in preparing the people’s mind for the coming counter-coup. Starting from the beginning of May, 1966, Radio Kaduna played every day for three weeks, recorded speeches of late Sir Abubakar (Tafawa Balewa) and Sir Ahmadu (Bello).

These political campaign speeches were carefully selected to arouse tribal feelings, passion and hatred against the people of the South. While Radio networks blared the speeches, the official Government daily newspaper New Nigerian, carried daily for some time serialized articles on the Islamic war of Conquest or Jihad, both in English and local vernaculars.” (The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War, Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, p. 35.)

The anti-South or, more appropriately, the anti-Igbo rhetoric and plots moved on two fronts. Northern journalists and elites trumpeted the propaganda. Northern politicians, included Mallam Aminu Kano, galvanized the mobs while Gowon, the Army Chief, superintended the military angle. It is often said that Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Mohammed led the counter-coup. But this was only because he was the visible face.

The contention here is that Gowon was the actual leader of July 29. He wisely acted surreptitiously because of the position he held and because he was under surveillance. Had he not been party to the counter coup, it would have floundered in its early stages, or even nipped in the bud.

There are many reasons for this conclusion. From the start of the action on July 29, Gowon was incommunicado until August 1, 1966, when he surfaced at the Ikeja Cantonment to be declared Head of State by an Air Force Sergeant named Paul Dickson. Contrast his curious disappearance on July 29, 1966 to January 15 when, as an officer without command who had arrived the country only two days earlier, he joined the Major Hans Anagho team appointed by General Ironsi to go in pursuit of the coup makers.

Again, when Government House, Ibadan, was under siege, Gowon had a telling telephone conversation in which Major Theophilus Danjuma told him that he was on the verge of leading his troops to storm the building and seize Ironsi and Fajuyi. According to Danjuma’s authorized biography, the conversation continued thus:

Gowon: Can you do it?

Danjuma: We’ve got the house surrounded and sealed off, Sir. We can do it.

Gowon: Alright. But please make sure there is no bloodshed. (Danjuma: The Making of a General, by Lindsay Barrett. Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu, 1980. pp 52-53.)

Could Gowon’s acquiescence to high treason in this dialogue be the spontaneous reaction of someone unaware of the details of what was going on? Is it not more rationale to believe that Danjuma had initiated the telephone conversation, in order to give a “sitrep” to the superior officer whose orders he was carrying out? After all, Lieutenant Colonel Hillary Njoku has argued that Danjuma was not qualified to be a part of on Ironsi’s national tour.

“In accordance with staff procedure, Lt-Col. Jack Gowon as the Chief of Staff, Army, was the right man, not Major Theophilus Danjuma, to accompany the Supremo on military matters. If for any reason he was absent, the next man to him should have gone with the Supreme Commander. In that case the General Staff Officer Grade One, Lieutenant Colonel P. Anwunah, or, as it was an administrative tour, the Adjutant-General should have joined or at least represented the Army. Theophilus Y. Danjuma was a major and deputy to Lieutenant Colonel M. Ivenso who was the Adjutant General of the Army…Protocol wise, detailing a Grade Two Staff Officer to represent the Army on a country-wide tour of the Head of State was a capital insult to the person and office of the Head of State.” (A Tragedy Without Heroes: The Nigeria-Biafra War, Fourth Dimension Publishers, Enugu. pp 86-87.)

But Gowon made the anomalous posting, all the same. Max Siollun was, therefore, wrong to state in his essay entitled The Northern Counter-Coup Of 1966 – The Full Story that, “Ironsi had with great courage entrusted his personal security to northern soldiers (including Major Yakubu Danjuma, Lieutenants William Walbe, Titus Numan and Sani Bello). One of his ADCs was the younger brother of Lt-Col James Pam (who had been murdered during the January coup). By surrounding himself with northern soldiers, Ironsi sealed his own fate.” (See>articles>Siollun).

Ironsi’s fate was sealed because he came from an ethnic group not ordained by God for perpetual leadership of Nigeria. Ironsi had not placed Danjuma in the ranks of his personal guards. Gowon did. Ironsi had four ADCs: Timothy Pam (Police), Dennis Okujagu (Navy), Andrew Nwankwo (Air Force) and Sani Bello (Army. None of them was party to the execution of July 29. As a matter of fact, Bello and Nwankwo were among those scourged by Danjuma and his men, and led to the Iwo execution ground with their hands tied behind their backs. Perhaps Ironsi would have been wise if his personal security were in the hands of his Umuahia kinsmen. But Gowon had established a Federal Guards Battalion composed entirely of his Angas people. Yet, his removal from office was swift and ignominious.

Thus, as July 29 dawned, Danjuma who was advantageously positioned had troops from the 4thBattalion in Ibadan given to him by its Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Akahan. Those were the troops he used to replace Ironsi’s regular guards.

They took Ironsi and Fajuyi and subjected them to unimaginable torture, after which he gave “whispered instructions” to those that led the duo, all blood and gore, to their untimely deaths at Iwo. The junior officers who led Ironsi and Fajuyi to their Golgotha included Lieutenants Garba Paiko, Garba Duba, William Walbe, Titus Numan, and Jeremiah Useni, as well as some non-commissioned officers and many recruits.

East escapes counter-coup

The counter-coup spread to all parts of the country except the East where Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu was Military Governor and Lieutenant Colonel Eze Ogunewe the 1st Battalion Commander. In Kaduna they shot Lieutenant Colonel Israel Okoro, the Commander of the 3rd Battalion. In Lagos they shot Major T. E. Nzegwu (not to be confused with Nzeogwu) of the Supreme Headquarters. Major Chris Anuforo was tortured to death.

Major Don Okafor was buried alive. They killed Major B. Nnamani of the 2nd Battalion. The assassinated Major J. O. C. Ihedigbo. The killed Major Ekanem of the 1st Provost Company on Carter Bridge. They killed Major P. C. Obi of the Nigerian Air Force. They killed Major O. U. Isong of the 1st Reece Squadron, Kaduna. They killed Major C. C. Emelifonwu of the 1st Brigade Headquarters. They killed Major A. D. Ogunro of the Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC).

They seized Captain P. C. O. Okoye who was on his way to an overseas course near the Ikeja Airport. The Captain was “tied to an iron cross, beaten and left to die an agonizing death in the guardroom.” They also massacred Captains Iloputaife (MBE), I. U. Idika, A. O. Akpet, L. C. Dilibe, J. I. Chukwueke, J. U. Egere, T. O. Iweanya, H. A. Auna, S. E. Maduabum, G. N. E. Ugoala, and R. I. Agbazue in various military formations across the country. And they ended the lives of 15 Lieutenants all told. As for Warrant Officers, Sergeants, Corporals, Lance Corporals and Privates, about 130 of them paid the supreme price of July 29.

“The original intention of the July 29 counter coup leaders was to seize the reigns of government and then announce the secession of the Northern Region from the rest of the country. This was in line with the general mood of the people of the North whose clarion call during the May 29 disturbances was Araba or Aware (Hausa word for ‘secede’).” So wrote Ahmadu Kurfi in The Nigerian General Elections 1959 and 1979 and the aftermath, (Macmillan Nigerian Publishers Limited, Lagos, 1983; pp38-39.) Again, “Northern civilians and other ranks in the Army kept continuous pressure on us to avenge what seemed more and more to them to have been an anti-Northern coup.” So wrote Major General Joseph in Revolution In Nigeria: Another View, Africa Books Limited, London, 1980; p 60.

Extreme vengeance

Well, vengeance was wreaked to the extreme, majority of the victims being clearly innocent of any crimes or offences. According to the Onyiuke Report (page 103), The May (1966) riots affected mainly the Hausa/Fulani areas of Northern Nigeria. It did not affect the Bornu Emirate to the North-East, the area commonly called the Middle Belt (comprising Benue province with Makurdi as its principal town, Plateau province with Jos as its principal town, Ilorin, and Kabba provinces. The Ilorin and Kabba provinces are mainly inhabited by the Yoruba, the Benue Province by the Tiv and Idomas and other tribes. The Bornu Emirate is mainly dominated by the Kanuri whose head Chief, the Shehu of Bornu is based in Borno…

“The pogrom spread to all parts of northern Nigeria between September and October 1966. The main instrument of spreading the pogrom was the Federal Army and Police and thugs organized on a fairly high level to smother the susceptibilities od some of the local chiefs who opposed it the local inhabitants especially the ex-politicians caught the fever, and horror and disaster spread. The rot was complete.”

After Ironsi was toppled and assassinated, and after “God in his power (had) entrusted the responsibility of this great country of ours into the hands of yet another Northerner,” the Republic of Northern Nigeria was not declared. Why? Despite Gowon’s curious denial to this day that he was going to announce secession on August 1, 1966, the fact is that the move to secede was thwarted by Western powers. According to the minutes of the Cabinet meeting of August 2, 1966 released by the British Government after the mandatory 35-year period of moratorium, and deposited and marked as CAB/128/41 kept at the British Public Records Office at Kew Gardens, London,

“The Commonwealth Secretary (The Rt. Hon. Arthur Bottomley, MP) said that there had been a further mutiny in Nigeria and that Major General Ironsi, the Head of State, had been kidnapped and possibly killed. A L-Col Yakubu Gowon, who was Hausa from the Northern Region, had assumed charge of the Government with the support of the Supreme Council. He had been strongly advised by our own High Commissioner and the United States Ambassador against promoting the secession of the North from the Federation.”

The fact that the counter-coup makers did not sunder Nigeria in 1966 is the reason Nigeria remains where it is today. Max Suillon, in his 1990s essay already cited put things in perspective thus: “Now firmly in control of the army, northern officers distributed senior military postings among themselves and created a northern military dynasty. Since the counter-coup, 17 officers have occupied the post of Chief of Army Staff. Of these 17, 15 have been northerners (the only two southerners to occupy the post during that time; Lt-Generals Alani Akinrinade and Alexander Ogomudia, were appointed by General Obasanjo in 1979, and 2001 respectively).

The northern soldiers who carried out the counter-coup have constituted themselves into Nigeria’s de facto ruling class. Of the soldiers who took part in the counter-coup, four (Murtala, Buhari, Babangida, Abacha) became Head of State. Several of them held prominent government and security positions throughout the last three decades. For example, Lieutenants Walbe, Duba, and Shelleng were among the party that murdered Maj-Gen Ironsi and Lt-Col Fajuyi.

Walbe was rewarded by being appointed as Gowon’s personal bodyguard, and today Duba and Shelleng are members of the millionaire Generals club, sitting atop massive fortunes and business empires acquired after years of participation in military regimes. Mamman Vatsa was the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory until he tried one coup too many. Abba Kyari and Baba Usman served as military governors under Gowon for eight years. Gado Nasko became a Major-General and was the Minister of the Federal Capital territory during the regime of Ibrahim Babangida. Some of the mutineers occupy prominent government positions till today; Lt-Gen Danjuma (who led the arrest party that abducted Ironsi and Fajuyi) is the current Defence Secretary, and Maj-Gen Abdullahi Mohammed is the current Chief of Staff at the presidency).”

Destruction of Igbo relevance

In reverse, July 29 destroyed Igbo relevance in Nigerian politics. Ndigbo became something like fourth-class citizens, to be seen and rarely heard; to be killed at random without consequence; to be told to their faces that Nigerian leadership was outside their tiny scope of entitlements. They may stray into the Armed Forces but could never aspire to ranks above Colonel, except they were in the Medical or Education Corps. They may excel in academics or soccer or the sciences. Their entrepreneurial skills may match the best anywhere in the world. But in the scheme of national affairs, they must stand back.

Things have now gone full cycle. After five decades, the architects of July 29, 1966 have, aided by accessories to political change, have assumed power yet again, cloaked like democrats. But the leopard never changes its spots. Which is why, in informed circles, their mantra of change elicits anything between sceptical smiles and outright indignation.

* Chuks Iloegbunam ( is the author of Ironside, the biography of General Aguiyi-Ironsi.


Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.