July 28, 2019

Why July 29, 1966 still echoes


*From left: Major General Hassan Katsina , Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, Col. Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Major General David Ejoor

By Chioma Gabriel, Special Features Editor

Ab initio, Nigeria was contrived by its founding fathers to be a country standing on a tripod, with Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba leading the other numerous ethnic groups.


But shortly after Nigeria came to be, indications emerged that the tripod could not stand. Something shook the table and it collapsed under the weight of its problems. 

The existence of Nigeria as a singular entity is fraught with a myriad of delicate fault lines since the amalgamation in 1914.

Independence and the distribution of power along regional lines in 1960, however, created a fertile ground for age-long resentment to fester.

The 1966 coup and the July counter-coup unearthed issues that were not hitherto foreseen by the colonial masters and those who later held power.

And Paul Unongo would later put it in an earlier interview with this writer, “When Chief Anthony Enahoro moved the motion for independence in 1956, the South wanted independence there and then but the Sardauna said no, that the North was not ready for self-government. This didn’t go down well in some quarters. They said he was not revolutionary enough, but there was a conference in 1957/1958 and the colonialists granted self-government to the Eastern and Western Regions first in 1957 and, two years later, the Northern Region got self-government. But it was like the British created Northern Nigeria in a lopsided manner. 

“The North was almost covering three-quarters of the nation’s landmass, and that was going to be destabilising once the British left because they failed to create the Middle Belt Region in the North. Calabar also wanted what they called Cross River State, and the British should have been the one to create these regions to have a more balanced federation, structurally.”

What happened to Nigeria later left a bitter taste in the mouths of Nigerians.

There were several accounts that the immediate precursor to the massacres was the January 1966 coup d’etat believed by many to be led mostly by young Igbo officers. Most of the politicians and senior army officers killed were northerners.

Paul Unongo would also join those who said the 1966 coup was an Igbo coup; that Aguiyi Ironsi thought the Igbo would use the army to dominate Nigeria, forgetting that the military was dominated by Hausa/Fulani and the Middle Belt and there was no way the Middle Belt would fight against the Hausa?

From different accounts of what really happened, it was indeed clear the last has not been told of the story of what went wrong with Nigeria and what really caused the Nigeria-Biafra war. 

So far, those who have tried to tell the story did so from their individual points of view and to get the true account depends on whose book you are reading, who you are listening to and what account you choose to believe.

As many, including General Gowon, tagged it an Igbo coup, others felt otherwise. These accounts would posit that the problem did not start with the Igbo but rather, the Igbo were dragged into it. 

For instance, Mrs Maria Okwor, a Zik’s associate said, “it was the hatred for the Igbo that made them tag the coup Igbo coup and the reason is simple. The Igbo are hard-working and when one is doing well, there is a tendency for people to get jealous and hate the person. Now, about the 1966 coup, Nzeogwu was the leader but there were more Yorubas than Igbos in the coup. There were also northerners. Gowon knows the truth but refused to say the truth and they termed it Igbo coup. The person who was sent to the East to deal with the leaders chickened out. It was a well-planned coup to install the right government and Awolowo would have been the beneficiary of that coup if it had succeeded. There is a book you should read. It’s indeed a pamphlet where those who participated in the coup shared their personal perspectives of it. It was the Igbo that released Awolowo from prison where he was charged for treason and serving in Calabar.”

Maria Okwor opined it was after killing Aguiyi Ironsi that problems that now led to Aburi Accord and later the civil war started, because of the issues between Emeka Ojukwu and others under Gowon. 

“They went to Aburi where they had an agreement under General Aggrey of Ghana. There, they agreed to restructure Nigeria in a decentralized way, including the armed forces. But the Aburi Accord was not kept. Gowon and his advisers, the British did not keep it because there was to be a conference in Lagos by the civilians to adopt what the military did on how to restructure Nigeria. But Gowon cancelled that conference and that was the exact situation that caused the disagreement and after that, we went into war in order to stop the Eastern region and Ojukwu from having a formidable control. 

“Before the war, Gowon restructured Nigeria by creating 12 states: six in the north and six in the south. But having done that, did he now give the states their residual powers? He didn’t because he was going to fight a war. Things seem funny in Nigeria because the system of governance is wrong. It’s a devious system, a wrong system and has to be demolished for something better.”

Now, these different accounts of what really happened before the war is part of Nigeria could not document what really went wrong.

In the months following the first coup, it was feared that the Igbo had set out to take control of the country and in the North of Nigeria; the fear of Igbo dominance became intense. 

The war was the most tragic period in the annals of Igbo history. The Igbo were subjected to overwhelming violence and unremitting brutality. The pogrom was supervised and implemented by the state that the Igbo had played such a crucial role to liberate from foreign conquest and occupation. 

3.1 million Igbos were murdered and their renouncement of Nigerian citizenship was the indictment of a state that had risen thunderously to murder its people.

The pogroms led to the mass movement of Igbo and other Eastern Nigerians back to Eastern Nigeria. It is estimated that more than one million Igbos returned to the eastern region.

Many years after that pogrom, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Two Division of the Army during the civil war, Maj.-Gen. Ibrahim Haruna said he had no regret for the Asaba massacre in which over 500 Igbo men were killed by his troops.

In his testimony for the Arewa Consultative Forum (ACF) at the Oputa panel sitting many years ago, Gen. Haruna also revealed that Nigeria’s late Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa had foreknowledge of the 1966 coup that claimed his life.

He said the late Prime Minister even turned down an invitation from the British government to pass the night of January 14, 1966, at the British High Commission in Lagos to escape from the coup plotters.

When he was reminded that Gowon had apologized for the war, he responded:” As the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apology for those massacred in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke-Item. I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria,” he declared.

“If Gen. Yakubu Gowon apologised, he did it in his own capacity. As for me, I have no apology,” explaining, however, that “it was as barbaric as the 1966 coup; it was as barbaric as the pogrom, if there was also any other atrocity, the Kano extrajudicial killing was as barbaric as that.”

With the benefit of hindsight, that mutual distrust that occasioned the civil war did not end after the war. It has seeped into our relationship and things have continued to decline.

Also read: The long read: Nigeria’s War of the Land

Till this day, it is difficult to convince the Igbo that any Federal Government, as presently constituted, has their best interest in mind.

The meetings in Aburi exposed the fragility of Nigeria’s association. They revealed a pervading mistrust that defines our relationship till this day.

But if there were any lessons to be learned from Aburi, Nigeria has ignored them.

Today, many have started beating drums of war again and Nigerians tend to forget easily that no country survives civil war twice.   

The perception in many quarters is that only restructuring will bail Nigeria out. We should focus on things that unite us and jettison divisional tendencies.