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January 15, 1966 was not an Igbo coup


Igbo chiefs

Reuben Abati earned a PhD in Dramatic Arts over two decades ago. He was chairman of the Editorial Board of The Guardian for nine solid years. And he was spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan for another four years. In terms of education and exposure, therefore, he ranks with the best, not just in Africa, but globally. Yet, in Armed Forces Day: January 15, Remembering Where We Came From, an article recently published extensively in both the orthodox and social media, he made many false and unwarranted statements, only two of which must be debunked in the space available here.

Abati claimed that in January 1966, “An Igbo man, Nwafor Orizu, the acting President, handed over power to another Igbo man, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi.” He also claimed that, Ironsi “had been instrumental to making the coup fail.” 

Kaneng Daze, the daughter of Lieutenant Colonel James Yakubu Pam, a victim of the January 15, 1966 coup, granted an interview, which The Punch published in its edition of January 17, 2016 and which is also circulating in the social media. At the time of the coup, Mrs. Daze was only eight years old. The following is a part of what she recalled: “So, my father dressed up and got out of the room and started following them (the coup makers) down the stairs. Before then, he made some few calls while he was with our mother… The first was to (Brigadier Zakariya) Maimalari… I think it was that call that alerted Maimalari that made him to escape. The second call was to General (Aguiyi) Ironsi. Ironsi appeared not to have shown any surprise as he kept saying, ‘I see! I see!! Okay!!!’ He dropped the phone and went down the first stairs.” 

Dr. Abati and Mrs. Daze represent two broad types that straddle Nigeria’s contemporary history. Abati is of the class of Nigerians fully knowledgeable about the minutest details of Nigeria’s history but are crippled by a curious inability to live the truth. Mrs. Daze belongs to the class unwilling or unable to reach beyond fairy tales and determine for themselves the truths of their country’s stories. 

Let’s quickly dispense with the Daze problem. Any eight-year old child roused from sleep in the dead of the night by her screaming mother who woke up to the sight of gun-totting soldiers abducting the father would be hysterical. It is implausible that she would have distinctly heard the telephone conversation between her father and General Aguiyi-Ironsi, let alone form the judgment that “Ironsi appeared not to have shown any surprise” at the astonishing information he was receiving. At nearly 60 years today, this blessed lady should have separated fantasy from fact and she could have done that by dispassionate research. For not doing so, her guilt is one of deliberate prejudice. 

Abati’s problem is far more sinister. Lieutenant Colonel Hilary Njoku, Commander of the 2nd Battalion in Lagos wrote in his book, A Tragedy Without Heroes: The Nigeria-Biafra War [Fourth Dimension, Enugu; 1987, page 15], that a conference of senior military officers had urged General Aguiyi-Ironsi to seek a hand-over of power from the politicians following the bloody Nzeogwu coup. According to Njoku, the officers at that crucial meeting were “Major-General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi (GOC), Lt-Col. Francis Fajuyi, Lt. Col. Victor Banjo, Lt. Col. Jack (Yakubu) Gowon, Lt. Col. George Kurubo, Major Patrick Anwunah, Commodore Wey of the Navy and (Lt. Col. Njoku).” 

General Gowon and Colonel Anwunah are still alive. Neither has ever denied Njoku’s assertion. 

Equally, it is a historical certainty that the politicians agreed a handover of political power to the military. The minutes of the conference in which the rump of the federal cabinet handed over power to the military was recorded by Alhaji Abdul Rasaq (SAN). He was at the time the legal adviser of the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC). Alhaji Abdul Rasaq told me in his Ikeja home many years ago that he still had in his possession the hand-written, original minutes of the meeting, which included the signatures of all those present.

Indeed, Gowon confirmed this story when he told the London-based West Africa magazine of August 24, 1968 that, “Before I was ready to serve General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s regime, I made every effort to be sure that the civilians really asked him to step in. Then I served him loyally.”

In the light of the above, it is shameful, pathetic and preposterous for Abati to claim that “An Igbo man, Nwafor Orizu, the acting President, handed over power to another Igbo man, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi.”  He was guilty of purposeful deceit. Between his deceit and Mrs. Daze’s prejudice lies a chasm in which has lain buried every hope of a Nigeria marching to nationhood. It explains the massacre of 50,000 Ndigbo in the pogrom of 1966. It was what led to the civil war. It is the reason Ndigbo are still being shot and killed across the length and breadth of Nigeria like game – even for indulging in celebrations.

The story that January 15, 1966 was an Igbo coup will forever remain a fallacy. On that morning, there were six Igbo Lieutenant Colonels. None participated in the coup. On that morning, there were 45 Majors in the Nigerian Army. About 24 of them were Igbo. This means that, at the very least, 18 Igbo Majors had nothing to do with the coup. On that morning, the General Officer Commanding was Igbo. The Commander of the 2nd Battalion in Lagos was Igbo. His 2ic was Igbo. The Brigade Major was Igbo. The Federal Guards Commander was Igbo. The Staff Officer “A” Branch at Army Headquarters was Igbo. If all these had fixed the coup, could it have failed?

According to published and authenticated statements by Majors Adewale Ademoyega, Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Patrick Nzeogwu, the inner trio of the coup plot, their intention was to install Chief Obafemi Awolowo as President. How incongruous that an Igbo coup’s primary objective would be the installation of a Yoruba politician as Nigeria’s Head of State? 

Abati wrote that that, Ironsi was “instrumental” to making the coup fail! Instrumental! How very convenient! And how very generous of him! Abati knows, and evidence abounds, which clearly show that Aguiyi-Ironsi had crushed that coup. Not Yakubu Gowon who had no command on that morning, and not anyone else. But Abati dared not acknowledge this fact, which would have knocked the bottom off the falsehood of the Igbo coup!


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