By Douglas Anele,
But before we identify those Ironsi promoted when and why, I should point out that Dr. Mbadiwe, Minister of Trade, who was among those pencilled down for assassination by the coup plotters, had a lucky escape. Having killed the Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the dissidents went after Mbadiwe. No one knows precisely how Mbadiwe did it, but he eluded his would-be assassins and hid in the State House, residence of Dr. Azikiwe who was away in London for medical treatment.
Fortunately, the soldiers did not search the house. Now, even if Mbadiwe’s escape was based on a tip-off from someone involved in the coup, does that corroborate the incendiary allegation of Igbo coup? I do not think so, because the “Igboness” of the coup is not entailed by the fortuitous escape of a single politician. Now, back to the promotions in the army by Maj. Gen. Ironsi: the first officer elevated after he became Head of State, according to Iloegbunam, was Major Hassan Usman Katsina, who was moved to Lieutenant Colonel. The second promotion exercise, carried out on February 14, led to the promotion of Titus W. Numan and E.O. Moronfolu, who were granted regular Quartermaster commission in the rank of Lieutenant.
About Two months later, sixty officers were promoted, comprising forty-five Second Lieutenants, one full lieutenant, three acting Captains and eleven Majors. Because of the quota system introduced after independence by Alhaji Tafawa Balewa’s government, which marked the beginning of politicisation of the Nigerian army leading to steady displacement of merit by ethnicity, the same number of officers were promoted from the north and the south. Among those promoted to substantive Lieutenants were Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Muhammadu Buhari, Abdulahi Shelleng, Ibrahim Salihu, Ibrahim Bako, all of whom, in collaboration with other northern elements in the army, participated one way or another in the bloody overthrow of Ironsi. Meanwhile, A.D.A Ogunro, F.A. Onifade, F.A. Fajobi and F.A. Wilcox were promoted to the rank of Captain. None of these officers was Igbo.
It was in the promotion from the rank of Major to Lieutenant Colonel that the Igbo had numerical superiority – eight out of eleven. Superficially, this would seem to substantiate allegation of Igbo coup and ethnic bias against Ironsi. However, a little investigation would blow it into smithereens. Before the coup of January 15 1966, there were forty-five Majors in the army. Thirty of them were Igbo: all had been commissioned prior to independence and before the quota system of Balewa, when British military officers were responsible for enlistment and selection for officer training in the army. As we have seen in the case of promotion from Second Lieutenant to full Lieutenant where more northerners benefited than their southern counterparts because they were more in number, the same pattern was replicated in the rank of Majors where the Igbo had numerical superiority. Therefore, the promotion of Igbo Majors was long overdue.
Additionally, no northern Major was leap-frogged by a southern colleague in the exercise. Actually, the Igbo promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel were discriminated against in previous promotion exercise. For example, Patrick Anwunah, Alexander Madiebo and Michael Nduka Okwechime were Sandhurst course mates with Yakubu Gowon. They were all commissioned four days before Christmas in 1956. Seven years later (1963), Gowon was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel whereas as at the time Nzeogwu and his group staged the first military coup, Anwunah, Madieboand Okwechime were still Majors.
Gowon’s accelerated promotion was not necessarily due to his superior military skills or knowledge over the others.Madiebo, in his book, The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War, attributed Gowon’s meteoric rise to favouritism by the British authorities, which led to resentment even among his fellow northern officers. Similarly,in Reminiscences, David Ejoor noted that before he went to England for a course, Gowon was his junior; when he returned a year later, the latter had been made a Lieutenant Colonel. Ironsi gave T.Y. Danjuma a morale-boosting elevation to the rank of Major, and promoted Joe Akahan, Murtala Mohammed and Mohammed Shuwa to lieutenant Colonels. Keep in mind that, unlike Gowon and successive military Heads of State (except Muhammadu Buhari) who used their position for self-elevation by pretending that the promotions were instigated by the Army Council, Ironsi did not promote himself to a higher rank while in office. After all, Murtala Mohammed did not even wait for up to six months before promoting himself from Brigadier to General.
One of the best ways to ascertain the appropriateness or otherwise of the description “Igbo coup” is to examine the antecedents of Nzeogwu and his group, and especially their justification for plotting the coup. To discuss each of the five Majors would elongate our essay unnecessarily; hence let us illustrate our point with Nzeogwu, the group leader. According to records, Nzeogwu was an idealist, patriotic but somewhat overzealous and ascetic military officer of Igbo extraction from the defunct Midwest region who had lived all his life in the north and spoke Hausa better than Igbo. His justification for the bloody coup was that “Our purpose was to change our country and make it a place we could be proud to call our home…. Tribal considerations were completely out of our minds at this stage.” Interestingly, the coup plotters decided to appoint late Chief Obafemi Awolowo head of the government that would emerge after the coup.
The rationale for the choice of Awolowo was clearly articulated by Major Ifeajuna who claimed that despite Awolowo’s tribalistic and parochial proclivities, he was an honest, courageous and disciplined politician capable of providing effective leadership. Major Adewale Ademoyega, one of the coup plotters, wrote in his book, Why We Struck: The Story of the First Nigerian Coup, that they had already made strategic plans in the morning of the coup for a plane of the Nigerian Air Force to fly to Calabar and effect the release of Chief Awolowo. The young officer mandated to fly that plane was Captain Udeaja, an Igbo. Why would an Igbo coup be staged with the intention of appointing a Yoruba politician the Prime Minister of Nigeria? Does it make sense for an Igbo officer to risk flying to Calabar to release from prison a non-Igbo politician chosen by the coup plotters as Balewa’s replacement if the coup was really an Igbo coup?
There is a very crucial point often neglected by fanatic believers in the myth of Igbo coup: the fact of initial spontaneous support of the coup nationwide, especially in the north. Available records establish that the First Republic was hideously corrupt, a trend that has continued ever since, which has metamorphosed into a cynical excuse used by overambitious greedy military adventurers to seize political power from democratically elected but corrupt and inept governments.
Therefore, it was not surprising that Nigerians all over the country jubilated when news of the coup became public. For example, in Kaduna a crowd of cheering Hausas attacked the palatial residence of late Ahmadu Bello, Sadauna of Sokoto. More tellingly, a smiling Major Hassan Usman Katsina, son of the Emir of Katsina, sat alongside Major Nzeogwu at a press conference before the latter appointed him military governor of the north. Even Alhaji Ali Akilu, head of the northern civil service, offered unequivocal support to Nzeogwu. From the foregoing, one can infer that even if the Nzeogwu-led coup was an Igbo coup (although it was not), its aftermath was supported initially by some members of the northern establishment.
What happened from January 15, 1966 showed that ethnic cleavages which reared their wicked ugly heads before independence might have widened after the departure of British colonial authority. Shortly after the coup, Ndigbo living outside Igboland, particularly in northern Nigeria, were viciously attacked both randomly and systematically.
These attacks were partly due to the tendency of responding to crisis in Nigeria by blaming those from the other ethnic group or other side of the country without evidence. As the late novelist, Prof. Chinua Achebe, observed, “there seemed to be lust for revenge, which meant an excuse for Nigerians to take out their resentment on the Igbo who led the nation in virtually every sector – politics, education, commerce and the arts….an open target, scapegoats for the failings and grievances of colonial and post-independent Nigeria.”
Having compellingly argued in the preceding paragraphs that the first military coup in Nigeria which led to the demise of the First Republic was not an Igbo coup, the next question that one can raise is – even if the coup was indeed spearheaded by the Igbo to dominate compatriots from other parts of the country, does that justify the pogroms and revenge coup of July 29, 1966, both of which led to the maiming and murder of thousands of Ndigbo across the country (except Igbo heartland) and wanton destruction of their property? In the attempt to answer that question, we shall establish our fundamental thesis that the revenge coup was completely irrational and futile. To be concluded.