By Douglas Anele
The industrious disposition of the Igbo in general could have been harnessed by a creative and farsighted leadership to stimulate healthy competition among the ethnic groups in learning and achievement. Unfortunately, Balewa’s larcenous government stifled opportunities for such competition by sacrificing merit on the socially radioactive altar of mediocrity so that the “uppity” Igbo can be put in their place as conquered subjects of the caliphate.
In addition, myopic unhealthy ethnic rivalries and I-too-know syndrome among prominent southern politicians were exploited by Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa and other caliphate colonialists to consolidate northern domination of power at the federal level. Therefore, a plausible case can be made that incompetent handling of the crises that reared up after independence by leaders of the NPC, NCNC and AG is the most decisive factor that led to the bloody coups of 1966 and, ultimately, to the disastrous civil war.
The military coups of January 15, 1966, and July 29 the same year, have had profound negative effects on Nigerian history from which the country is yet to recover. Sometime ago, citing relevant literature, I demonstrated that the notion of Igbo coup was a myth orchestrated by haters of Ndigbo who are either appallingly ignorant about the principal motivation, character and intension of the ringleaders of the first military coup or shamelessly looking for a reason to justify the bloodthirsty revanchist coup of July 29, 1966, led by Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed, Major T.Y. Danjuma and, arguably, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon.
That no other coup in Nigeria has been labelled to reflect the ethnic origin of its publicly known leading executors is an indication of the worrisome level of negativity with which anything involving the Igbo, even if unintended or premeditated by them, is deliberately misinterpreted and garbled by a cross section of Nigerians from other ethnic groups.
This writer will be among the first to admit that certain circumstances, particularly the simple arithmetic of casualties and survivors of the January 15 coup, make it very tempting to conclude that the coup was an all-Igbo affair intended to bring about Igbo domination of the country.
All that pale into insignificance, however, when placed side by side with the fact that Major Kaduna Chukwuemeka Nzeogwu and other ringleaders of the coup (majority of whom wanted Chief Awolowo to be Prime Minister had the plot succeeded) declared that they were motivated by nationalistic considerations to eliminate “political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places, that seek bribes and demand ten percent…the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing in international circles… .” Besides, three army officers who played the most decisive role in aborting the coup, namely, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Major John Obienu, were Igbo, whereas majority of the soldiers that accompanied Major Nzeogwu in storming Ahmadu Bello’s house on the night of the coup, including Second-Lieutenants Harris Eghagha and John Atom Kpera, Sergeants Musa Manga, Daramola Oyegoke and Yakubu Adebiyi, were non-Igbo (in fact, the last four were northerners).
Obviously, most Nigerians do not know that a reasonable number of core participants in the January 15 coup were not Igbo. This fact became publicly available almost two decades after when some of those who masterminded it published insider accounts revealing the involvement of northerners and the Yoruba.
Now, although prominent caliphate colonialists are loath to admit it, and often times use the regrettable deaths of Bello, Balewa and some senior northern soldiers in the failed “Nzeogwu coup” to incite hatred against the Igbo, the military takeover by Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi was enthusiastically welcomed even by a broad section of northerners at the time. For instance, NPC, the pre-eminent northern party that lost power after the coup, affirmed that: “The party gives its unqualified support to the military regime and to the Major-General in particular. We call on all our party members and supporters to co-operate with the military regime and to give the new administration unflinching support in its great task of bringing peace and stability to Nigeria…We pray that the almighty God may help Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi in the execution of the difficult national duties thrust upon him by the present circumstances.”
On the other hand, Dr. Azikiwe, who was recovering from medical treatment abroad when the Majors struck, expressed dismay at the degree of violence unleashed by the coup plotters: “Violence has never been an instrument used by us, as founding fathers of the Nigerian Republic, to solve political problems…I consider it most unfortunate that our ‘Young Turks’ decided to introduce the element of violent revolution into Nigerian politics.
No matter how they and the general public might have been provoked by obstinate and perhaps grasping politicians, it is an unwise policy…As far as I am concerned, I regard the killings of our political and military leaders as a national calamity.” Now, if indeed the coup was an Igbo plot, why would the foremost Igbo politician of that era who was safely overseas and might benefit politically from it make such a statement?
There is no doubt that the politically seismic events which occurred during the period between the first and second military coups are inextricably linked to the Biafran phenomenon. Just as the coup that inadvertently brought Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi to power was a textbook case of good intentions that led to dreadful consequences, the same is true about his brief tenure as Nigeria’s first military head of state.
It is still being alleged in certain quarters, and often cited as one of the justifications for the bloodthirsty revenge coup of July 29, 1966, that Ironsi was decidedly pro-Igbo in the manner he ran the country and naïve in his approach to governance. The charge of championing an Igbo agenda against Ironsi is false, a fact acknowledged by retired General Yakubu Gowon who argued that “I think it would be unfair to accuse him of ethnicity.
I do not think I had ever known him to be ethnic.” A few examples will demonstrate that, as a matter of fact, Ironsi bent over backwards to appease the north to the extent of compromising merit sometimes. Of the twenty-one members of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) he constituted, seven were northerners while only two were Igbo. At great risk to himself, Ironsi entrusted his personal security to northern soldiers: he appointed Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon Chief of Army Staff and Major T.Y. Danjuma (who eventually betrayed him) his Principal Staff Officer; his police Aide de Camp was Timothy Pam (younger brother of Lt. Col. James Pam murdered in the first coup), and most of his bodyguards were northerners.
His personal secretary was Hamzat Ahmadu, a relative of the late Sir Ahmadu Bello. Northern officers enjoyed substantive promotions under Major-General. Ironsi. Top on the list was Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon who, as we mentioned a moment ago, was appointed Chief of Army Staff whereas Major Murtala Mohammed became Inspector of Signals to replace Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, one of the masterminds of the January 15 coup. Major Joe Akahan and Mohammed Shuwa rose to become commanders of the fourth and fifth battalions respectively, while Major Ibrahim Haruna took over from Lt. Col. Philip Effiong as the Chief Ordinance Officer.
Also, Captains Domkat Bali and Baba Usman were given the posts previously occupied by two of the coup plotters, Major Christian Anuforo and Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi, in that order. These were substantial promotions for the northern military officers concerned, considering that there were more experienced Igbo officers ahead of them. Indeed, some Igbo officers actually complained that Ironsi was bending over backwards too much to overcompensate northerners for the January coup. Their complaints were ignored.
To be fair, Ironsi inherited an extremely challenging situation for which he was intellectually, temperamentally and psychological unprepared. Of course, he needed to placate northerners to foster national unity and demonstrate in concrete terms that he was not an ethnic jingoist. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, his efforts were frustrated by the dominant section of the norther military-civilian elite and every decision he took was looked at with cynical suspicion.
Thus, he made serious mistakes which an astute politician or, more accurately, a military officer imbued with Machiavellian mentality in the same situation could have avoided. Keep in mind that Ironsi was primarily a dyed-in-the-wool soldier; he lacked the survivalist chameleonic attributes of people like retired Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida. As a result he assumed, wrongly, that his good intentions for the country would almost automatically translate into long-lasting goodwill, that his unification efforts would be appreciated and reciprocated by Nigerians across ethnic nationalities and religious differences.
To be continued…