By Chris Onuoha
Chief Femi Fani-Kayode is a former Minister of Aviation. In this interview, he speaks on the crisis of 1966 in which his father, who was the Deputy Premier of Western Region, the late Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, was an actor.
Opinions are divided about the inevitability of the January 16, 1966 coup. With a benefit of hindsight, can you tell us what happened?
Let me put it like this. People would give many reasons for a military insurrection or a coup d’etat. And of course, it is always very easy to rewrite history after an act is done and give reasons that never existed at the time. But there are many schools of thought as to why that coup took place. First, it was an insurrection by the junior officers against very senior officers. But whatever the reasons were, whether you thought that the situation in the country was so bad, and of course, there were so many inequities, but the question to ask is ‘was it right and proper to slaughter no less than about 20 people in a space of one night? Not just them alone but also their wives and in some case their children. Mind you, it is very difficult to justify the shedding of innocent blood. It is something I cannot possibly accept or praise anybody for. That is the issue concerning the January 16, 1966 coup. The way it was executed, the betrayal, the killings of people’s wives and not just military officers alone, but leaders that deserved not to be executed. It was an unnecessary and barbaric slaughter of human beings which of course now led to the serious consequences six months later when the northern officers did their counter-coup. They killed over 300 Igbo army officers in retaliation, including the Head of State, General Aguiyi Ironsi and a military administrator, Col Adekunle Fajuyi, who was the right-hand man to Ironsi. It didn’t stop there. After that, there was more retribution because 100,000 Igbo people were killed in the north and finally after that, there was a civil war where three million Igbo people were killed including one million children. The prize of the January 16, 1966 coup affected millions of people, not just the causalities of that night. The whole thing was a tragedy of one night.
The coup was described as Igbo coup targeted at the North and it caused misgivings among northern leaders. Is the description valid and do you think the coup plotters were right in the first place?
No! Nobody can. Did you say Igbo coup targeting the north? Let me tell you. There are two facts I will let you know about that coup. There indeed was no getting away from the fact that about 90 per cent of the officers that led that coup was from the east. That is a historical fact. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was an Igbo coup because there were other non-Igbo involved. Some would describe it as an Igbo/Yoruba coup. But whichever perspective you look at it, it is up to you depending on how you see things. But most importantly, where you are factually incorrect is to say that it was an attack against the north. No! It was an attack against every single zone in the country apart from the east because Yoruba were killed, like Akintola from the West, my father was abducted, Ademulegun, the number two man in the military was killed in the north with his eight-month pregnant wife, Shodeinde was killed, Okotie-Eboh from the South-South was also killed. Pam from the Middle Belt was killed. Largema was from the Northeast and so many others. People were killed from all the zones except the east. But even from the east, an officer named Unegbe was killed. Certainly, it was not only the Northerners that were killed but people from other parts of the country. It was a counter-coup when the northerners after about six months later, killed 300 Igbo army officers at one night together with the Head of State and Fajuyi, a Yoruba man who courageously said he will stand with the Head of State and die rather than allow them to kill him.
Were the plotters right in the first place?
As I told you, it depends on how you look at it. As far as I am a concern, there were very serious inequalities at the time.
This is a very dangerous question I must answer very well. There were glaring inequalities in those days. And many of the things they complained about then, are what we are seeing today, where you have the power firmly in the hand of the Northern Moslems and there were hegemony and interference in the affairs of the South by the central government. There was this idea of Northern expansionism and sending everybody into slavery. That is what they were fighting against which is very laudable and objective. Nobody can take that away from them. However, the way the coup was executed with innocent people being slaughtered almost 20 of them with their wives, unarmed, in the middle of the night, is what I cannot regard as being a noble act. If it was a soldier killing a soldier, yes, but it is not what they did, I can never support that. It was horrific, barbaric and unacceptable. But I would never justify what happened next as a consequence which was the killing of 300 soldiers from the East alongside the 100,000 Igbo people living in the North including three million Igbo during the civil war. That was even more barbaric in the history of Nigeria.
After the coup, the nation began to drift and many people thought Ironsi made many mistakes that did not help the national interest including the promulgation of his Unitary Decree.
What actually happened?
That is a good one because there were three major mistakes he made at that time. The first one was that he surrounded himself with what was considered to be National Council of Nigeria and Cameroons, NCNC, Igbo hardliners. He had a very small caucus of Igbo Union members and NCNC which was actually an Igbo party at the time as his advisers. That was a challenge because people thought that when the Igbo wanted to stage a coup on January 16, 1966, that did not succeed, then, Aguiyi Ironsi came in, took power after the Nzegowu coup failed and after that, he surrounded himself with hardliners of Igbo nationalists.
The second challenge was the Unification Decree which he signed into law that made Nigeria a unitary state when the basis of our union was federalism. He scraped it and of course, the North was not prepared to accept it neither the East. It was actually the NCNC programme and agenda which he implemented. So, this points to the confirmation that this man was operating the NCNC Igbo agenda even though the Igbo was not successful in that coup.
North had to strike
Now the third and most serious thing he did which they held against him from what people said, was the fact that when the coup failed, probably carried by the Igbo officers, he locked them up after confessing and boasted about the crime. He refused to prosecute them and made life easy for them in prison. The Northern officers confronted him and asked why he was not prosecuting them. He couldn’t answer. That also set the narrative that the coup was an Igbo collision and therefore, the North had to strike. Now, when Danjuma went to arrest Ironsi, he had a grenade in his hand and was very ready to detonate it at any strike. He commanded Ironsi to stand up and asked him straight, ‘why did you not prosecute those that killed our leaders. Did you keep them in prison? Why? Why? Why? After that, Ironsi was abducted and later killed. These are the three major mistakes I believe Ironsi made and these are what the northerners held against him before the acted.
At the time of the counter-coup of January 29, 1966, the nation was at the verge of dividing with the Northern military spearheading the secession bid called ‘Araba’ until the British ambassador reportedly advised them against it.
Where the Northern leaders right in their secession bid?
Listen, my views are simple. I wish they were allowed to do so because we would have had far more peace. Probably, we would have avoided the civil war and probably, the two separate nations would have developed far more, than where we are by now. At that time when they made the decision, it wasn’t a decision which they made lightly. Gowon was never meant to be the Head of State. The condition the Northerners gave by which they agreed to drop ‘Araba’ and stay as one Nigeria, was for Gowon to remain the Head of State and take over the reins of power. Gowon had three army officers senior to him, which was Ogundipe and Ojukwu and others that they overlooked and made him the Head of State. Having succeeded with that, it was not enough as far as they were concerned. That was why they killed 300 hundred Igbo soldiers in one night and also killed Fajuyi. A few months later, three separate pogroms were executed in the North. If anybody tells you that it was spontaneous, you tell him, historically speaking, that Fani-Kayode said, they are lying. These were well orchestrated and organised pogroms in the North. They carried it out and killed people like flies. Perhaps, that would have been avoided if ‘Araba’ secession bid was allowed.
We had a civil war. When the Igbo said, they have had enough and wanted to leave because their people were slaughtered in the North, the Northerners primarily agreed with them and later said no. Let me tell you something because we need to be ashamed of ourselves; that pogrom is the greatest act of genocide in the history of Africa. The only near case is the King Leopold of Belgium, who killed 10 million Congolese in what is known as Zaire Congo today. They killed three million Igbo and that would have been avoided if the country agreed to split at the time. As far as I am concerned, it was just unfortunate. Some of the issues we struggled are still happening today.
Do you think that what led to the counter-coup and the consequences of some of the issues were properly handled?
No! Why should you punish a whole ethnic nationality, killed their women and children simply because you were aggrieved at the January 16, 1966 coup? If you honestly believed that it was an Igbo coup in 1966 which many people do not agree including me, even at that, can you go killing 300 Igbo officers in one night including three million Igbo civilians who were not soldiers? That is barbaric. I am sorry to say here that we need to apologise to the Igbo for doing that to them. No nation on this planet would do that kind of carnage and would not pay the price for it. We have to apologise for what we did to those civilians and not the Biafra soldiers. The Igbo civilians did not deserve this.
There’s one aspect of the history which has not been said, that I am making public, every single officer that participated in that January 16, 1966 coup, that actually killed somebody, died before 1970; four years after the carnage. The only man who survived till date is Captain Nwobosi. He is the one that came to arrest my father and he also killed Akintola but he is the only one living today. That to me is part of the retribution they paid because they didn’t get a mandate from Igbo people before they carried out the act.
The pogrom led to the civil war in which the rest of the country fought against the Igbo. Opinions are divided on why Igbo people saw the war as the last resort. What is your stand?
What did you want the Igbo to do? Wait a minute! Saw war as a last resort? That question is completely absurd, that Igbo saw war as a last resort. I don’t agree with that. Listen, the problem we have here is that a lot of people don’t know the history because history is no more taught in schools. It is always a subjective understanding or subjective analysis of what happened. If you are an Igboman who knows what happened and was living in the north, chances are that you would have been killed. You don’t need to ask why the Igbo went to war. I am a Yoruba man and I am not speaking out of emotions. The fact is that the Igbo people were targeted in the north for mass murder, ethnic cleansing and genocide and they were killed, including the Head of State, Aguiyi Ironsi, an Igbo man. Then, they all started running back home where one of their own, a gallant and courageous Igbo commander, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu asked them to come home. To me, he did the right thing because there was fear in the air. They all went home and that’s what happened. It was fair enough.
Let me tell you, had it not been that Gowon was a very restrained man at that time; that is the truth people don’t want to hear. Gowon was very restrained because people like Muritala Muhammed wanted him to simply march to the East and kill every single Igbo person there. Muritala was a hardliner, who led the July 29, 1966 coup. He told Gowon, we must go to the east and kill all of them and finish the project. Gowon said no and that led to the Aburi Conference where a truce was agreed upon by everyone on a confederation. When Gowon came back from Aburi, the same Muritala Muhammed and others including some civil servants did not accept the outcome, saying “Kai! We are giving them too much. We must not accept the confederation and we must control everything from the centre.” It was then that Gowon reneged on Aburi Accord.
Ojukwu on his own made a statement saying ‘On Aburi we stand” and that led to the secession that we know today as Nigeria/Biafra civil war. I don’t think we have to blame the Igbo for the war. Nigeria was unfair to them and reneged on the agreed accord held in Aburi Ghana. The Asaba Massacre was a similar case of Nigeria’s unfair treatment of the Igbo. I think we owe them a lot of apology at this time. I am not been sentimental about it, but it must be.
The war ended with the Gowon regime’s declaration of ‘No Victor, No Vanquished’ How true was the slogan even at this time?
It is one of the most absurd and dishonest statements made in the history of our country. How can you say no victory any vanquished? How do you justify that assertion when you allowed an Igbo man to posses only 20 pounds out of his millions deposited in his Nigerian banks? You took all his property away from him and called it ‘abandoned property’ everywhere in the country except Yorubaland, yet you said, no victor, no vanquished. They came back to Nigeria and started from scratch. You humiliated them and did not give them any strategic position in government for so many years. It was only in 1999, when Obasanjo came to power that an Igbo man became a General Officer Commanding (GOC) in the Nigerian army again and a Deputy Police Inspector General, Onovo. I think there was this understanding back then that Igbo should not be allowed to hold key positions in the Nigerian Army. Certainly, there was a victor and a vanquished in that war. The Igbo were vanquished, everything was taken away from them.
Obasanjo and Jonathan came back and gave Igbo some level of belonging. But then, Buhari came again and reversed everything. Buhari was a junior officer in Lagos, a lieutenant when the January 1966 coup took place and he also participated in the war. He saw all that happened and these probably had an indelible effect on his mindset.