By Emeka Obasi
It is nearly 50 years since Chukwuma Patrick Nzeogwu exited this world in an ambush around the Nsukka axis during the early months of the Civil War. The young army Major made headlines following the first military coup d’etat of January 15, 1966 which his group codenamed Operation Damissa.
In April 1967, Nzeogwu in an informal chat with Denis Ejindu of Africa and the World, dispelled fears of a looming war. He said: “No nobody wants to fight . The East which is best equipped and best prepared for war, does not want to attack anybody. The North cannot fight and Lagos cannot fight now. If they had attacked the East in August or September, they would have had a walk over. Today, I think they will be ill-advised to try.”
Nzeogwu should have known better. He was the First Nigerian to become an officer in Military Intelligence. Born in 1937, he was just 20 when he joined the army in March, 1957. From officer training in Teshie, Ghana, the young man was moved to the elite Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, United Kingdom where after two years of training he was commissioned Second Lieutenant in 1959.
So much has been said of this intelligent officer but not many have come to realise that beyond all the sentiments and hero-worship, Chukwuma Nzeogwu was simply a man carried away by youthful exuberance. A soldier who wanted the best for his country, bold and brave, who did not understand that the problem with Nigeria was more than a band of young Majors could solve with the barrel of the gun.
Nzeogwu recruited officers who joined the Army after him and believed so much in his ability to make them work according to his bidding. And in this group, there were two University graduates: Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna and Wole Ademoyega, commissioned in 1960 and 1962 respectively. Both were Mons trained. Just like Donatus Okafor who was also commissioned in 1960.
Chris Anuforo, Hilary Iwuchukwu Chukuka and Tim Onwuategwu passed out from Sandhurst like Nzeogwu three years and more later. With these pals, the coup leader thought he could easily achieve his dream of a New Nigeria where tribe and tongue would not make any difference, where corruption would disappear and everyone free to enjoy the dividends of democracy.
Nzeogwu was smart and lucky. He was well loved by many of his fellow officers and subordinates. His superiors loathed him. The Major was seen as one who believed he knew it all. They therefore sent him to the Nigeria Military Training College (NMTC) Kaduna to train future officers. He was not to be trusted with a command position. And Nzeogwu was there as Chief Instructor.
Okafor was the only one who commanded troops as head of the Guards Brigade. Ifeajuna was Brigade Major, Second Brigade, Lagos under the Command of Brigadier Zakariya Abubakar Hassan Maimalari,the first Nigerian to go through Sandhurst. Anuforo was with the Reconnaissance, Ademoyega and Chukwuka had little to offer while Onwuatuegwu served under Nzeogwu.
Lucky man. By January 1966, the Commandant of the NMTC Col. Raph Shodeinde had moved to the newly established Nigeria Defence Academy (NDA) , as Deputy Commandant. His successor, Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi was in the West conducting a Battle Group Course. Nzeogwu was therefore acting as the Commandant of the NMTC. Tactically he used that position to cover up his impending coup as it afforded him the power to ask for troops to embark on a certain night exercise.
The First Military Coup pioneered by Nzeogwu was therefore bound to fail because his three years as an Int. Officer did not teach him to embark on such grandiose dream with more grandiloquence and mere grandstanding. Yes, they achieved some of their aims which was to kill senior officers who occupied strategic positions.
The Commanding Officer, One Brigade, Kaduna, Brigadier Samuel Adesujo Ademulegun was killed with his wife, Latifat (Sisi Nurse ). Maimalari was executed, Adjutant General, Col. James Yakubu Pam, Quarter Master General, Lt. Col. Arthur Chinyelu Unegbe, Commanding Officer, Four Battalion Abeokuta, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, Chief of Staff Army Headquarters , Col. Kuru Mohammed were all executed.
Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa was not spared. Two Premiers , Sir Ahmadu Bello of the North and Chief Samuel Ladoke A-
kintola of the West died as well as Finance Minister Festus Okotie Eboh.
In May 1967, just a month after the chat with Ejindu there was War. Nzeogwu did not see it coming. And it consumed him. Here lies the irony. The war came simply because some parts of Nigeria felt the January coup led by Nzeogwu was a grand plan by the Igbo to take over Nigeria. Thus the North paid back with a counter coup on July 29, 1966. Thousands of innocent Igbo soldiers and civilians were murdered. Millions were later to be killed during the war.
Now it is strange that Nigeria forgot that those who foiled the Nzeogwu coup were Igbo senior officers. General Johnson Aguiyi- Ironsi, Lt.Cols Emeka Ojukwu, Conrad Chukwujimje Dibia Nwawo (NA 10), Alexander Attah Madiebo and Major Alphonso Keshi.
As Brigade Major, 2 BDE Kaduna, Keshi informed Madiebo of the coup. Madiebo moved over to the Brigade Headquarters where Nzeogwu had taken over Ademulegun’s seat and worked on Nzeogwu. Ojukwu, Commanding Officer Third Battalion, Kano stood his ground strategically and all worked with Ironsi to fly in Nwawo, then Defence Attaché in London, and Nzeogwu’s teacher. Only then could the Major be softened.
No none Igbo officer was bold enough to challenge Nzeogwu. Major Hassan Usman Katsina, Inspector of the Recce Squadron in Kaduna was confused. Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon ‘ s contribution from Lagos was for Madiebo to ask the doctor to sedate Nzeogwu, a man who was in full control of Kaduna.
The man that should have made a broadcast after the January coup was Ademoyega, a Yoruba. Their plan was to release Chief Obafemi Awolowo, another Yoruba from jail and make him Prime Minister. The Army Chief would have been Lt. Col David Akpode Ejoor, an Urhobo. The young officer who secured radio Nigeria was Capt. Gibson Sanda Jalo. Among those who took part in Exercise Damissa were subalterns like John Atom Kpera, Harris Eghagha, Sani Abacha, Bob Egbikor, Fola Oyewole and Olafimihan. Of the 28 officers and men that followed Nzeogwu to the Sardauna’s house, 22 were non Igbo. Yoruba officers like Victor Adebukunola Banjo,Fajuyi, Olusegun Obasanjo and Oluchi Olutoye knew about the coup.
Nzeogwu did not believe in Biafra , was named Kaduna by his Northern friends and spoke Hausa more than Igbo. Yet he was killed by Nigerian soldiers of the 21st Battalion near Nsukka on July 29,1967. The troops were under Captain Inua Mohammed Wushishi . The Sector was led by Nzeogwu’s friend Lt.Col Folusho Sotomi.
Asaba suffered because of Nzeogwu.Thousands were murdered by Nigerian troops allegedly led by Col. Murtala Mohammed and Major Ibrahim Adetunji Taiwo.Okpanam, Nzeogwu’s hoedown is just a stone throw from Asaba. The only other name that people remember about the town is Patricia Ebigwei (Patty Boulaye ). Actress,singer. Face of Lux soap in the UK for five years whose daughter, Emma once became a beauty queen.
Some poke fun at Okpanam and call it Okpa nama (cow leg). Nigeria has abandoned the town. Nigeria killed Nzeogwu and gave him full military honours. Nzeogwu believed in Nigeria yet the Igbo and Okpanam continue to suffer because of a coup led by Nzeogwu. Simply, this was a young man who had dreams but in Nigeria , military intelligence is never politically correct.