By Gambo Dori
LAST week I promised readers that I would return to the subject of coups, counter-coups and other national upheavals witnessed by General Paul Tarfa and extensively covered in his autobiography, A Profile in Courage. The most intriguing part of the story is that Tarfa despite being always in the vortex of these happenings was never involved in the conspiracies leading to the coups. He just happened to have been there. As a young Lieutenant, he had been posted in December 1964 to the Federal Guards, the elite unit that was charged with the responsibility for the safety and welfare of the Prime Minister and some key installations in Lagos and environ.
His commanding officer Major Donatus Okafor was one of five majors deeply involved in the conspiracy to kill some key political and military leaders and overthrow the government. Tarfa had no inkling of the heinous plans and on the night the killings took place, he was doing what any young lieutenant would have been doing. He took his girlfriend to the cinema and thereafter to a leisurely drive around Ikoyi before dropping her at home. He returned to his residence and slept off.In the book Tarfa continued the story:
“I was disturbed by heavy banging on my front door. The time was 4 a. m., 15th January 1966. I heard, ‘Sir, Sir, wake up!’ I looked down through the window. What I saw frightened the hell out of me. It was a Land Rover full of soldiers in battle dress. Confused, I thought for a moment that they had come to arrest or shoot me, I could not think of the reason for their being there at that time. But I heard the voice of Samuel Tayo, the Guard’s Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), who led the troops to my residence saying, ‘Thank God, he is still alive!’ He said in Pidgin English, ‘Sir, come down now, now. The country is in confusion.As we dey here now is not good for we. Them don kill the Prime Minister and Maimalari. Please, sir, hurry let us go to the barracks.’ What a rude shock! It had not dawned on me that a coup was taking place. Coup and counter coup was not one of the subjects I was taught as a cadet in Nigeria or Canada. I started to put on my boots but realized that I was still in pyjamas. When I got out of the initial shock, I knelt down for a short prayer. From then on I composed myself and prepared for the unknown.”
On getting into Dodan Barracks, Lieutenant Tarfa and his band of non-commissioned officers immediately took control of the situation and opened the Armoury and Magazine to issue arms to soldiers.In the absence of his Commanding Officer, Tarfa led his men to disarm dissident officers and locked them up. It was a courageous act which helped to stabilising the situation around Dodan Barracks and Ikoyi in general.
The country was stabilised and General AguiyiIronsi assumed power as Head of State.The stability was however only on the surface as deep divisions came to manifest in the Nigerian Army. Hatred and contempt for one another quickly spread in the Army and across the country. And it did not help matters that the coup executors were not punished immediately. This laid the foundation for the July 1966 counter-coup. The wanton one-sided killing of the political leaders was galling but the majority of the soldiers were particularly piqued by the murder of the charismaticMaimalari, the Commander of the 2nd Brigade.
As Tarfa said in the book, “In my opinion, the killing of Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, in particular, was the main recipe, as far as loyal soldiers of the Nigerian Army were concerned, for the entire crisis that trailed the January 15th coup. He was revered by his superiors and subordinates alike. Had he escaped that night, Nigeria would have been spared of all the coups and counter-coups that followed. The perpetrators and their supporters would have been rounded up and dealt with military precision. There would have been no military governments and subsequent self-proclaimed messiahs in uniform. There was no one like him in the Nigerian Army.”
The revenge coup was bloody in other places such as Ibadan, where the Commander-in- chief was on an official tour. He was abducted along with his host Colonel Fajuyi and killed by dissident troops. At Ikeja and some other barracks dissident soldiers ran amok killing all those they imagined to be sympathisers of the January 15th coup. However, to their eternal credit both Tarfa and Captain Joe Garba leading their soldiers ensured that no one was killed in Ikoyi. They even protected their Commanding Officer, Major Ben Ochei.
General Yakubu Gowon took over the reins of government. He needed the goodwill of all interest groups to assist him in the conciliatory moves to heal the wounds brought about by the January and July coups of 1966. He created States and opened the prison gates to let out those incarcerated on political charges. Tarfa recalls the role he played when he was sent to bring out Chief Obafemi Awolowo from Kirikiri. In the book Tarfa said:
“Soon after taking over power from General Ironsi, General Gowon decided to grant Chief Obafemi Awolowo pardon. I was then a 2nd Lieutenant. Little did I know that the honour to bring Chief Awolowo out of prison would fall on me. On the orders of General Gowon, I went to Kirikiri Prison to bring Chief Awolowo to No. 36 Glover Road, Ikoyi Lagos. On the day in question, I dressed up smartly and got to the prison office where I met the officers and introduced myself and told them who sent me. They were delighted and cooperated with me. Minutes after the Chief appeared, waving gently to the officers that had looked after him. When he came out of the prison gate to enter the black, Mercedes limousine, I saluted him and introduced myself. I could see he was impressed with my turn out and the courtesy I gave him.
In the limousine, on the way to Ikoyi, he talked nicely to me and asked a few questions. ‘Officer what did you say your name is?’‘My name is Paul Tarfa, sir.’He appeared interested in knowing more about me, so he asked again. ‘Where do you come from?’ I said, ‘You will not know the place, sir, because I come from a small village in the North’. ‘No tell me’.’Garkida in Adamawa Province’. Chief Awolowo replied, ‘I was there during the 1959 Federal elections. I landed on a primary school football field in a helicopter from Biu. Yes, I know the village. It was my first time meeting Chief Awolowo and I felt happy that he knew where I came from. It was an honour for me to sit and chat with Chief Obafemi Awolowo for about 30 minutes from Kirikiri to 36 Glover Road Ikoyi the house prepared for him by the Government.”
Tarfa remained in the Guards Brigade for many more years and was associated with its rapid growth and development. During the war, they performed creditably being better trained and motivated than most of their colleagues in the Army. Tarfa even commanded a battalion of the Guards Brigade in the Agbor sector. After the war, he returned to Dodan Barracks and was at a time Commander of the Guards Brigade when Joe Garba was away to Staff College, Camberley in 1973. The following year it was his turn to proceed to the same staff college and on his return in November 1974 was posted to Army Headquarters as Assistant Adjutant General.
By 1975, another coup was brewing and as usual Tarfa only came to know about it at the nick of time and it would severely test his loyalty to General Gowon. Come with me next week, as we look at this issue and many more covered in Paul Tarfa’sProfile in Courage.