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January 15, 1966 was not an Igbo coup (2)



The object of this second half of my article is to challenge Nigeria and Nigerians: Please make an honest effort at determining the truth of Nigeria’s contemporary history! It is the sure way of exorcising the demons needlessly thwarting every chance of Nigeria attaining nationhood. If Nigeria refuses to confront the truth of its history, it will continue to tug at centrifugal forces guaranteed to eternally forestall any contingency of mastering the contradictions that dog every centimetre of the country’s path.

The 50th anniversary of the January 1966 coup d’etat afforded the country a golden opportunity to turn its back permanently against historical lies, especially lies of the variety that inflame passions and further entrench the existing divisions between the disparate peoples forged into one country by the sleight of British colonialism. Unfortunately, revisionists seized the public space, retold falsehoods previously discredited and, thus, blew the opportunity. 

Reuben Abati is one such revisionist. In the first half of this article, we exposed his lies in an article he entitled Armed Forces Day: January 15, Remembering Where We Came From. Abati had claimed in that article that “An Igbo man, Nwafor Orizu, the acting President, handed over power to another Igbo man, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi.” We proved that this was blatantly untrue. He had also downplayed Aguiyi-Ironsi’s central role in putting down the coup, for which we pointed out that he was being disingenuous. 

There are two other distortions in Abati’s article that must be discredited. He wrote that (1) Aguiyi-Ironsi treated the January coup plotters with kid gloves, and (2) Aguiyi-Ironsi imposed Igbo hegemony on Nigeria. Whether in scholarship or in journalism, whoever made claims such as these, would be expected to deploy empirical evidence in support of his assertions. But not Abati. We must dismantle his fabrications, of course. Before doing that, however, some background information is imperative. Fifteen years ago, Abati wrote a two-part article entitled Obasanjo, secession and the secessionists (The Guardian on Sunday, December 16 and 23, 2001). 

That article contained all the lies that he regurgitated in his latest piece. It elicited a lot of reaction from observers of the Nigerian condition who believed that Abati should know better, and should wield his pen with some circumspection. We will return to this. Let’s first reexamine the facts. Abati said that Nzeogwu and his cohorts were treated with kid gloves? In Nzeogwu: An intimate portrait of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu (Spectrum Books, Ibadan 1987) Olusegun Obasanjo reproduced copies of handwritten letters from his friend, Nzeogwu, which detailed the ill-treatment they suffered in detention. But far more important is the fact that Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) took a decision to subject the coup plotters to public trial.

In his biography, Reminiscence, (Malthouse, Lagos, 1989), General David Ejoor states that Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Supreme SMC, of which Ejoor was a member, decided on the trial of the January coup makers (p39). Also, in The Barrel of a Gun: The Politics of Coups d’Etat in Africa, (Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London, 1970), Professor Ruth First attributes the following to Hassan Usman Katsina. “By July (1966), the minutes of the SMC recorded that the young majors were to be court-martialed not later than October. The proceedings were to be in public.” (p307). General Hassan, also a member of Ironsi’s SMC, lived for over 25 years after First’s book was published but never denied the statements credited to him. Aguiyi-Ironsi was assassinated two months before the court-martials were to begin. So where is Abati’s kid and where are his gloves? I must state in parenthesis that Yakubu Gowon was Head of State for nine years, without court-martialing a single participant in the January and July coups. Yet no one ever blamed him.

It is a horrendous amputation of Nigerian history for Abati to state that Aguiyi-Ironsi’s regime was a promotion of Igbo hegemony. Of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s nine-member SMC, the highest decision-making body in the country, only two were Igbo – Ironsi (by virtue of being Head of State) and Ojukwu (because he was a Military Governor). The SMC had three Yoruba members – Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe (Chief of Staff, Armed Forces), Commodore Akinwale Wey (Head of Navy) and Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi (Military Governor, West). The North had two members: Colonel Yakubu Gowon (Chief of Army Staff and Colonel Hassan Usman Katsina (Military Governor, North). Other members were Colonel George Kurobo (Izon) (Chief of Air Force ), Colonel David Ejoor (Urhobo (Military Governor, Midwest). 

The Federal Executive Council had the same membership as the SMC, plus Attorney General Gabriel Onyiuke (Igbo), and Police Inspector General Kam Selem (Borno). Aguiyi-Ironsi appointed 21 Federal Permanent Secretaries. Of these, only three were Igbo – P. C. Asiodu (Industries), T. C. M. Eneli (Establishments) and B. N. Okagbue (Health). Four were from the West, five from the North and eight – If Asiodu is included – from the Midwest. Aguiyi-Ironsi also appointed Alhaji Sule Katagun the chairman of the Public Service Commission. He appointed Mr. Howson-Wright the chairman of the Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC). He appointed Mr. A. I. Obiyan the chairman of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA). He appointed Mr. H. O. Omenai the chairman of the Nigeria Airways. None of the four came from the East; none was Igbo. No Northerner was superseded in military promotions. No officer was promoted under Aguiyi-Ironsi that was not due for promotion, except Major Hassan Usman Katsina who was pitchforked over about 15 Igbo officers to become a Lieutenant Colonel!

If Aguiyi-Ironsi’s appointments are compared to those of President Muhammadu Buhari, for instance, it will readily be determined who the hegemonic cap fits. 

To return to Abati’s 2001 article! It provoked numerous indignant responses. Obi Nwakanma took him to the cleaners in Abati’s Revisionisms and Distortions of Nigeria’s history


Samuel Bayo Arowolaju made a mincemeat of him in The fallacy of Reuben Abati: Igbo and secession (http://nigeriaworld.com/feature/publication/arowolaju/011402.html). I engaged him in Reuben Abati and other anti-Igbo bigots in Nigeria 

(http://www.usafricaonline.com/chuksilo.igbohater.abati.html). I have provided these web links for people to read and confirm that our subject is an incorrigible artist in perfidy. Although I count Abati as a friend, I had tagged him “a conceited ignoramus” in my 2011 piece. Today, the temptation is overpowering to dub him a recalcitrant recidivist. But, I will resist it and, instead, introduce specificity in my challenge to Nigeria and Nigerians.

The original copy, and exemplifications, of the Magna Carta, the charter of liberty and political rights that rebellious barons obtained from King John of England in 1215, survive to this day and are available for public scrutiny. That is the way of serious countries desirous of learning the appropriate lessons of history. In Nigeria, priceless historical documents are either doctored or destroyed or dumped in private vaults, a lamentable practice that encourages Abati’s ilk to go sowing the seeds of discord. Nigeria should place the transcripts of the meetings of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s SMC in the public domain. This will, among other things, confirm that the body had decided to court-martial the January 1966 coup plotters.  

Also, 50 years after the event, the document by which parliamentarians handed over power to the military remains in private hands of Alhaji Abdul Rasak (SAN). He should be persuaded to relinquish it to the Nigerian state.



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