By Douglas Anele
These attacks were partly due to the tendency of responding to crisis in Nigeria by blaming without careful thought and corroborating evidence those from the other ethnic group or other side of the country. 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.”

The main thrust of my arguments in the preceding paragraphs is that, contrary to the incendiary falsehood in certain quarters that the coup of January 15, 1966 was planned and executed by Igbo military officers to entrench Igbo domination of the country, it was a well-intentioned but fatally flawed attempt by a group of naive, overenthusiastic and idealistic soldiers to halt the decadence of the First Republic and make Nigeria, in the words of Major Nzeogwu, “a place we could be proud to call our home.”

But the pernicious lie of an “Igbo coup” had to be invented by certain power-intoxicated elements in the northern establishment, including army officers, to justify the bloodthirsty revenge coup of July 29, 1966 and end the leadership of Maj. General Aguiyi-Ironsi, who, in their warped political calculus, ought not to lead because he was Igbo. Of course, that very lie fits well with the malicious argument that the subsequent pogroms against Ndigbo living in the north can be excused or at least explained on the ground that “they started it all.”

Now, even if the allegation of Igbo coup was correct, does that justify the senseless massacres of easterners and revenge coup of July 29, both of which eventually precipitated the bloodiest civil war in Africa? In the attempt to answer that question, we shall reanalyse, albeit briefly, the keynotes of Ironsi’s regime, how he was toppled, together with the traumatic events leading up to the civil war and their horrifying aftermaths. Although, sadly, the first military coup was not bloodless, it definitely was far from a bloodbath. Of the senior military officers that were killed, four were from the north, two from western region, and two from the east (Lt. Col. Unegbe and a Major who was shot by loyal troops on the mistaken belief that he was one of the dissidents). The civilian casualties include two prominent politicians from the north, one each from the western and midwest regions. From the low casualty rate, it appears that the coup plotters did not actually intend to kill anyone. However, given the unpredictable nature of coups no matter how well planned in advance, things can go awry. In fact, Major Nzeogwu admitted later that there should have been no casualties at all, except that some of his colleagues became too excited and overzealous.

As the most senior military officer and GOC commanding the Nigerian army, Ironsi took over power to forestall further degeneration of the confusion and crises that followed the coup of January 15. It was formally handed over to him after a council of ministers meeting by the Senate President and Acting President, Dr. A.A. Nwafor-Orizu. Ironsi was a career military officer, not a politician; yet he responded admirably to the daunting challenges of the moment foremost among which was to rebuild the crumbling country and reunite its deeply divided military.

The new regime began on a positive note largely because it was supported nationwide. All over the country, including the north, people were happy that corrupt politicians had been swept out of office and hoped that things would improve. With the benefit of historical hindsight, one of the mistakes of Ironsi was that he largely ignored knowledgeable, trustworthy and hard working politicians in the scheme of things. That was probably because at the beginning of his tenure majority of Nigerians thought that most politicians were irredeemably corrupt and incompetent.

Therefore, it seemed to Ironsi and other members of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) that the best thing to do was to distance his government from them. We have already noted the promotions and appointments he approved both in the military and the civil service which demonstrate that Ironsi strongly believed in the concept of “One Nigeria,” that he bent over backwards to placate northerners, to the extent that he was criticised by fellow easterners.

In order to buttress this point further and expose the deceit of mischievous historical revisionists, especially ethnic bigots brandishing academic titles of “professor” and “doctor” who falsify history by deliberately omitting in their accounts Ironsi’s sincere efforts to run an inclusive government, we should point out that a reasonable percentage of his close aides were from the north. For example, he appointed Mallam Hamzat Ahmadu, a relative of late Sadauna of Sokoto, as his private secretary,Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, as his Chief of Army Staff, while his personal escort was composed mostly of Hausa soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Walbe, a fatal error, as the July 29 revenge coup later proved.

Among the litany of lies paraded by apologists of the revenge coup was that because Ironsi was Igbo and majority of the coup plotters were Igbo also, he was unwilling to bring them to justice. It never occurred to those who argue this way that, perhaps, the tension and confusion of the moment prevented Ironsi from moving against Nzeogwu and his group under detention as quickly as champions of “an eye for an eye” response to the coup would have wanted. Moreover, in such matters, there must be meetings and consultations among members of the highest decision-making body in the country, the Supreme Military Council – Ironsi could not have taken decisions all by himself.

In Lindsay Barrett’s book, Danjuma: The Making of a General, one of the arrowheads of the revenge coup, Major T.Y. Danjuma, accused Ironsi of doing nothing to bring Nzeogwu and his fellow conspirators to justice. But Danjuma, probably blinded by obsession to avenge for prominent northern politicians and senior military officers killed in January 1966, was just looking for an excuse to liquidate Major-General Ironsi who promoted him some months earlier to the rank of Major. Major-General Hassan Usman Katsina in 1968 acknowledged that the SMC chaired by Ironsi eventually decided that the officers involved in the failed coup would be courtmartialled not later than October 1966. Majar-General David Ejoor corroborated this: according him, although there were conflicting views when members of the SMC discussed the issue during their meetings, a consensus was reached that the coup plotters should be tried.Thus, it is false to claim that Ironsi was uninterested in holding the coup plotters accountable for their action.

On May 24, 1966, Ironsi promulgated the Unification Decree 34, which abolished the four regions and divided the country into provinces. The decree stipulated that Nigeria ceases to be a federation and becomes simply the Republic of Nigeria. It also unified thepublic services of the federation and regions into one national public service superintended by a National Public Service Commission. The Unification Decree was followed by Public Order Decree 1966, which abolished all political parties and other organisations based on tribal, sectional and regional affiliations.

Ironsi envisaged the resumption of political party activities by January 17, 1969, with the possibility of reducing the waiting period if normalcy returned and was sustained before then.Unfortunately, the Unification Decree was not well received in the north. Katsina, its military governor, in response to demonstrating civil servants in Kaduna demanding secession of the north, called a meeting of all northern emirs. When the meeting ended, the emirs sent a memorandum to Ironsi demanding the abrogation of decree 34 or the north would secede. Ironsi explained to them that nothing much had changed: the decree, he said, was a temporary measure intended for administrative efficiency in a military regime and that no permanent changes in the machinery of governance would be carried out without the referendum he had promised earlier.

Apparently, Ironsi’s explanation fell on deaf ears: five days after the decree was announced, riots broke out in many parts of northern Nigeria against southerners, especially Ndigbo. It has been estimated that over three thousand of them were killed, more than that numberwounded, and valuable property running into hundreds of thousands of pounds destroyed. As usual, Ironsi had been blamed unfairly for promulgating the Unification Decree that purportedly ignited the riots, forgetting that it was the outcome of several meetings of the SMC comprising nine members among whom were Gowon and Katsina, who did not protest against it.

That the decree triggered the riots is a red herring, because the extent of the mayhem implies that a lot of planning over several weeks or even months must have preceded the actual execution that started on May 29, 1966, less than a week after the decree was announced. Moreover, on closer inspection, the decree did not change the status quo substantially: it merely formalised the type of government that had existed since the army took over in January 1966 and ruled through the SMC based on the central command system embedded in military regimes.

To identify the real cause of the May riots, therefore, one needs to go deeper than the facile resort to Decree 34, which was not as stifling and unitarist as the ones promulgated by Gowon when he became head of state after the gruesome murder of his supreme commander, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi. To begin with, many northerners might have been convinced after several months of overt and covert brainwashing by some elite and elders in the north, such as Aminu Kano, Inua Wada, Adamu Ciroma, Suleiman Takuma, and Umaru Dikko, that the uppity Igbo were really working to use their considerable educational advantage and technical skills to rule over the rest of Nigeria. To be concluded.

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