Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
The Northern Counter-coup of 1966: The Full Story
Most essays and books on Nigeria’s military coups have focused on the aims of, and events during the "Igbo" coup of January 1966. While much has been written and speculated about that coup, almost nothing has been said about the counter-coup that occurred seven months later. The void of literary material on that second coup is one that I will attempt to fill. I believe that the coup which started on July 28th 1966, shaped Nigeria's
political destiny like no other, and that Nigerians deserve to learn the truth regarding an event that has affected their lives till today. From articles, published interviews with eyewitnesses, and books over the last three decades from the principal actors, I have managed to piece together an account of the most influential, yet most mysterious coup, in Nigeria's history. In this article, I attempt to show that the consequences of that coup are still with us till today. As a student of historical FACT, I have included citations, and anybody who doubts the veracity of anything I have written in this article should consult the numerous sources and eyewitness accounts I have cited below.
It is undeniable that the counter-coup by northern officers in 1966 was a reaction to the coup staged by mostly Igbo officers in January of the same year. Northern soldiers had been enraged by the murder of their two most senior politicians (Prime Minister Tafewa Balewa, and northern regional premier, Ahmadu Bello), and four most senior soldiers (Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, Colonel Kur Mohammed, Lt-Cols
Abogo Largema and James Pam) by Igbo officers in January.
Despite the murders of the humble Balewa, and the avuncular Bello, northern soldiers were more angry at the death of their respected senior officers whom they had looked up to. Their anger increased when southerners jubilated when news of the coup spread. For months, they were subjected to incessant pressure to avenge the deaths of January by northern civilians, their wives, families, and junior officers. Additionally, there was a feeling that Igbos
were getting too big for their boots.
By mid 1966, there was an unwritten consensus among northern soldiers that there would be a "July rematch" with their Igbo colleagues. With their overwhelming numerical presence in the infantry (up to 75% of the army's riflemen were northerners), it was clear that a revenge coup by northern soldiers would have drastic consequences. The (mainly northern) Ibadan based 4th battalion was particularly angry and hurt after losing its current
(Lt-Col Abogo Largema) and former (Colonel Kur Mohammed) commanding officer during the January coup. Their anger increased when the Igbo Deputy Commander (Major Nzefili) took command of the battalion following Largema's death. The Head of State, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, was forced to replace Nzefili with a northern (Tiv) officer (Major Joe Akahan) when the northern officers refused to take orders from Nzefili. The same scenario was played out in the Kano based 5th
battalion, where the Kanuri Mohammed Shuwa was appointed to replace Major David Okafor. Despite these attempts by Ironsi to placate them, northern soldiers were not happy and many openly voiced their intention to gain revenge for the killings of their northern brothers-in-arms in January. Even the newly promoted Lt-Col Murtala Mohammed was not placated. In an unguarded outburst in the presence of Igbo officers, the volatile and newly appointed Inspector of Signals referred to
Ironsi as a "fool" (see Madiebo: “The Nigerian Revolution and The Biafran War”).
For fear of increasing tension in the country, the Government had made no official announcement on the fate of the soldiers who had been killed in January. Thus rumours and conspiracy theories about their whereabouts, and miraculous manner of death/survival thrived. A riot almost broke out when an attempt was made to replace Brigadier Maimalari's commanding officer nameplate at the 2nd Brigade Headquarters in Lagos. Rumours were so rife that many
northern NCOs believed that Maimalari had made a miraculous escape from the January Majors and was still alive. This had a tiny semblance of truth, Maimalari had managed to escape from the first attempt to arrest him by Major Don Okafor, but as he was escaping on foot, he came across the car of his Brigade Major: Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Recognising Ifeajuna, Maimalari waved down the car, and was promptly shot dead by Ifeajuna.
The de facto leader and co-coordinator of the north's revenge coup was the Inspector of Signals; Lt-Col Murtala Muhammed. Having finalised arrangements for their coup, northern officers twice postponed it because of last minute changes of heart and logistical problems. An opportunity arose when the Head of State, Maj-Gen Ironsi decided to undertake a nationwide tour. On the first leg of this tour, gunshots were heard while Ironsi was at Kaduna
airport. Nothing further than this occurred on the northern lap of Ironsi's tour, thanks largely to the personal intervention of the Emir of Kano. Northern traditional rulers had cautioned against spilling Ironsi's blood on northern soil. Thus northern soldiers decided to deal with Ironsi when he arrived in Ibadan (where a large contingent of northern soldiers was based, and which had an indifferent local population) for the western leg of his nation-wide tour.
After addressing an assembly of western traditional rulers on July 28th, Ironsi decided to spend the night in the Ibadan State House with the members of his entourage. In an effort to prove that he was not heading an "Igbo regime", Ironsi had with great courage entrusted his personal security to northern soldiers (including Major Yakubu Danjuma, Lieutenants William Walbe, Titus Numan and Sani Bello). One of his ADCs was the younger brother
of Lt-Col James Pam (who had been murdered during the January coup). By surrounding himself with northern soldiers, Ironsi sealed his own fate.
ABEOKUTA: THE CATALYST
On July 28th, the commanding officer of the Abeokuta Garrison; Lt-Col Gabriel Okonweze became concerned by reports he had received which indicated that another coup was imminent. Anxious to avoid a repeat of the killings that had occurred in January, Okonweze decided to call a meeting of, and addressed officers at the Garrison. Rather than calm tempers, the meeting further agitated junior northern troops, who assumed that the meeting was discussing
plans to finish them off. While the meeting of officers was going on, northern NCOs led by Sergeant Sabo Kole and Corporal Maisamari Maje burst into the officers' mess, and shouted "hands up gentlemen" before shooting Lt-Col Okonweze and the commander of the Recce Squadron in Abeokuta: Major John Obienu. Obienu had been billed to appear in the January Majors' coup but lost his nerve on the D-Day and failed to show up. Lt
Orok was also shot dead after driving into the mess premises and stumbling on the commotion occurring. Shortly afterwards, Captain Domkat Bali (later General, Defence Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Babangida's regime) arrived at the mess and was shocked to discover the corpse of Lt Orok.
Lt Rowland Ogbonna telephoned Lagos to inform Army Headquarters of the killings. Unfortunately, Ogbonna's call was connected to Lt Nuhu Nathan (who unknown to Ogbonna was within the coup plot). Ogbonna's call merely served as the rallying call for other northern troops (who up till now were unaware that the coup had begun) to mobilise. In Lagos, Lieutenants Nathan and M.M.Nassarawa alerted the coup leaders: Lt-Col Murtala Muhammed and Major Martin
Adamu. Lt Pam Nwadkom telephoned the Adjutant of the Ibadan battalion; Lt Garba Duba, and informed him of the killings at Abeokuta. Nwadkom advised Duba (who later rose to the rank of Major-General and became a prominent member of Babangida's government) to commence the coup in Ibadan. Now in control of the Abeokuta garrison, northern soldiers then conducted a door to door search of the garrison for Igbo soldiers. When found, Igbo soldiers were shot and their bodies dumped
into a vehicle parked near one of the officers quarters (a full account of events in Abeokuta, and interviews with some of the principal actors such as Col D.S.Abubakar, Abduhalli Shelleng, and T.Y.Danjuma, is given in the Nigerian Army’s history of the civil war entitled “History and Reminiscences” – edited by Hafiz Momoh).
In Ibadan, troops under the command of Major T.Y. Danjuma (whom Ironsi had recently promoted) surrounded the State House where Ironsi, the military governor of the Western region, Lt-Col Francis Fajuyi, and 2nd Brigade commander Lt-Col Hilary Njoku were located. Danjuma received a telephone call from Lt-Col Gowon in Lagos and informed the latter of his plan to capture Ironsi. Gowon asked Danjuma "can you do it?" (see Barrett, "Danjuma:
The Making Of A General"), and cautioned Danjuma to "make sure there is no bloodshed". Biafran propaganda claims that Gowon was part and parcel of the coup. This is not entirely accurate. Whilst Gowon doubtless knew that a counter-coup was on the way, he was not physically involved in it.
By this time, Ironsi had already been informed that a counter-coup was underway and that he was the next target. Unaware that they were surrounded by conspirators, Ironsi and Fajuyi sent out various aides from the State House to appraise what was going on outside. Being privy to the coup plot, these men did not alert Fajuyi and Ironsi of the danger they were in. Fajuyi's ADC, Lt Umar went out, conferred with Danjuma's troops and returned to falsely
inform Ironsi and Fajuyi that all was well.
Next to venture outside was Lt-Col Hilary Njoku. Njoku was recognised by the northern troops outside the State House who opened fire on him. Njoku was wounded in the thigh but managed to escape. Eventually, Danjuma and his troops gained access to the State House from where they abducted Ironsi, and his Air Force ADC, Captain Andrew Nwankwo. Also kidnapped were Lt-Col Fajuyi, and another member of Ironsi's entourage; Lt Sani Bello. The four men were
led out with their hands tied behind their backs.
The captives were stripped naked, and beaten by their captors. Ironsi and Fajuyi took the brunt of the beatings. As the beatings continued, the captors "interrogated" Ironsi about his knowledge of the January coup and the whereabouts of the men who had been killed in January. After denying any involvement in the January coup, Ironsi switched off and endured the blows that were being rained down on him. The captives were loaded into a land
rover, and driven off in a convoy that included two other vehicles. Major Danjuma did not accompany the convoy, but instead departed for Lagos. Present in the convoy were Lieutenants William Walbe, Garba Duba, Titus Numan, Abdullahi Shelleng, Warrant Officer I.Baka, Sergeant Tijiani and Regimental Sergeant Major Useni Fegge. Ironsi and Fajuyi were so badly beaten and wounded that they could hardly stand. They were led out into the bush where they were killed by a few rounds
of machine gun fire. Capt Nwankwo managed to escape as his captors' attention was focused on Ironsi and Fajuyi. It is from he, and Lt Bello that the most reliable eyewitness accounts of Ironsi and Fajuyi's last hours emerge (for which see “Ironside” by Chuks Iloegbunam).
Ironsi and Fajuyi's deaths were not officially announced for six months, and during the tense days of August 1966, the military governor of the eastern region; Lt-Col Ojukwu, repeatedly asked Gowon "where is the Supreme Commander?".
The coup in Lagos was initiated by Lts Nathan and Nasarawa who managed affairs until their superiors; Lt-Col Murtala Muhammed, Major Martin Adamu, Shittu Alao, and Baba Usman arrived.
At the Ikeja airport in Lagos, northern troops commanded by Murtala Mohammed took over the airport and hijacked a British plane which they intended to use to ferry their families back to northern Nigeria after the northern region’s secession. Captain Okoye who was passing through Ikeja airport, was captured, tied to an iron cross, beaten and left to die an agonising death in the guardroom. A detachment of troops sent to try to recapture the airport
was ambushed and routed by northern soldiers. In an irony of fate, ten years later, the international airport at Ikeja was renamed after the man who had captured it by force.
Some Igbo soldiers were able to escape from Lagos due to the clemency of Captain Mumadu of the 1st Brigade signals troops who allowed them to flee.
The theory that the counter-coup was prematurely triggered by events in Abeokuta is lent credence by the fact that nothing happened in the north until 24 hours after the murders of Okonweze, Obienu, and Orok at Abeokuta. After hearing what had happened in the south, the Igbo commander of the Kaduna based 3rd battalion; Lt-Colonel Israel Okoro addressed his troops and asked them to remain loyal despite events that had just taken place.
Okoro's plea was ignored. His northern Regimental Sergeant Major informed him that he was required in the guardroom. When Okoro arrived for the non-existent assignment in the guardroom, he was questioned, then shot by two of his northern troops. The whole guardroom episode had been a ploy to lure Okoro into being murdered. Deception played a large part in the murders of Igbo soldiers. A consistent pattern
emerged whereby northern officers would disarm their southern counterparts, sound an alarm, and then segregate and murder Igbo soldiers when they came to answer the alarm.
Also in Kaduna, the commander of the 2nd Recce Squadron; Major Isong (an Eastern officer of non-Igbo origin) was killed. Among the officers stationed in Isong’s squadron in Kaduna was a young Lieutenant named Ibrahim Babangida.
The 5th battalion in Kano was commanded by Lt-Colonel Mohammed Shuwa. Thus northern officers did not have to forcibly take control there. However, in October 1966, Shuwa lost control of his own troops who mutinied and joined civilian mobs in murdering and terrorising Igbo civilians. Such was the mayhem that Shuwa was forced to flee for his own safety.
A coup in the Eastern region (and the elimination of the Eastern region's military governor, Lt-Col Emeka Ojukwu) was also planned. However, this plan was forestalled by the responsible acts of the commander of the Enugu based 1st battalion, Lt-Col David Ogunewe. On learning of the mass murder taking place in other military formations in the country, Lt-Col Ogunewe locked his battalion's armoury and placed it under the joint guard of northern and
southern officers. He also encouraged northern and southern soldiers to live together in the mess and grounds of the battalion. Among those who were to have staged the Enugu coup were Lt Shehu Musa Yar'Adua and Captain Gibson Jalo (who later rose to the rank of Lt-General and became President Shagari's Chief of Defence Staff).
As in January, the coup did not take off in the east or mid-west (where no troops were stationed). However, Lt-Col Murtala Muhammed repeatedly sent signals for northern soldiers in Enugu to complete the coup in the Eastern region. Some northern officers attempted to break into the Enugu armoury but were overpowered. The failure of the coup in the east created a stalemate similar to the one that existed in January 1966 when Nzeogwu was in control of
the north, while Ironsi had the south. This time, the counter-coup had succeeded in every region other than the east. The desire of the northern officers to extend the coup to the east led to the civil war, and the war itself may be regarded as a continuation of that coup. Only in January 1970 did northern troops gain control of the east (and by extension the whole of Nigeria) and finish the counter-coup after a four year stalemate.
OGUNDIPE IN DISTRESS
Following the murders of 200-300 Igbo soldiers (names, ranks, units and numbers are listed in Hilary Njoku’s: "A Tragedy Without Heroes" and the Eastern Ministry of Information’s "January 15th: before and after"), Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe (a mild mannered Yoruba officer with no political ambition) was now the most senior surviving officer. When the British handed over command of the Nigerian army to indigenous soldiers in
1965, the outgoing General Officer Commanding, Major-General Welby-Everard had recommended Ogundipe as his replacement without success. However, as mayhem ensued following the mutinies across the country, Ogundipe could not assert his authority over the northern troops.
Via telephone, Ogundipe informed the military governor of the Eastern region; Lt-Col Ojukwu, that northern troops had stated their conditions for a “ceasefire”: the killings of Igbos would continue until the northern region seceded from the federation, and northerners and southerners were repatriated to their respective regions of origin. Ojukwu replied "if that is what they want, let them go" and replaced the receiver (see N U Akpan -
"The Struggle For Secession").
The Ikeja cantonment became the undeclared Headquarters of the mutineers. Ogundipe dispatched a platoon from the Federal Guard to Ikeja cantonment. However the northern troops refused to accept their orders and turned them away. Ogundipe’s own orders received a similar response. The “limit" came for the
Brigadier when a northern Sergeant quipped to him: "I do not take orders from you until my (northern) captain comes". To a seasoned professional soldier like Ogundipe (accustomed to unquestioning obedience of his orders during a military career spanning over 20 years), such disobedience was beyond comprehension. A northern private similarly refused to obey orders from the Military Governor of Lagos State; Major Mobolaji
The exasperated Ogundipe sent the Chief of Staff (Army), Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon to bargain with the mutineers. Gowon like other senior northern officers Lt-Col Hassan Katsina, and Lt-Col Mohammed Shuwa was not personally involved in the mutiny. However, when the smoke temporarily cleared, they gave their assent to the fait accompli and were brought in to participate in the Ikeja negotiations.
When Gowon arrived, it appears that he was not a free agent and was held in circumstances amounting to arrest (see Ruth First: “The Barrel Of A Gun”). The northern officers were joined by a number of federal secretaries, two Judges, prominent northern civil servants and by British and American diplomats who asked the northern soldiers to drop their plan to secede from the federation. As negotiations continued in Ikeja, the explosive Lt-Col Murtala Muhammed was the most
vociferous and uncompromising advocate of northern secession. The civilian participants managed to persuade the northern soldiers to drop their secessionist plan, and their most senior member; Lt-Col Gowon was appointed Head of State.
Convinced that he was to be the next target of the northern soldiers, Brigadier Ogundipe departed with his pistol, to emerge in London as Nigeria's High Commissioner in the United Kingdom.
As the leader of the counter-coup, Murtala Muhammed commanded almost mythical loyalty from northern soldiers. He was from an influential northern family with close links to the NPC, and his uncle Inuwa Wada, was the former Defence Minister. Even when Gowon became the Head of State, he remained the power behind the throne. If anyone was going to rebel against a perceived anti-northern regime - it was Murtala. He would not tolerate disobedience from
his subordinates, despite himself having "very little respect for constituted authority" (see Oluleye: "Military Leadership In Nigeria").
COLLAPSE OF DISCIPLINE
The deaths of hundreds of Igbo soldiers, and the sight of one of their number as Head of State did not mollify some northern soldiers. Discipline among them got so bad that some northern officers had to on occasions, threaten to shoot their own wayward troops. This threat was hardly ever carried out, although Lt-Cols Hassan Katsina and Mohammed Shuwa had at great risk to themselves put down an army
mutiny in Kano. Even northern officers became cautious around their own troops, some of whom were behaving in bizarre manner. Lt-Col Akahan was kept away from his barracks by his own men. Tied in to the furious violence of the coup were strange attempts by junior northern officers to militarily legitimize their actions by asking their superior officers for "orders" to kill Igbo soldiers, or to turn a blind eye when they did so. For example, the junior officers who
killed Ironsi asked their superiors for permission to deal with him. This pattern of behaviour was repeated in 1975 when the officers who were planning to overthrow the Head of State: General Gowon (Babangida, Yar'Adua, Buhari, Ibrahim Taiwo, Abdullahi Mohammed) asked their superior officers; (Danjuma, Murtala Muhammed, Martin Adamu) to turn a blind eye while they got on with the job of removing Gowon.
In the early stages of the counter-coup, Igbo soldiers were killed if they were suspected of complicity in, or supporting the coup of the “Five Majors” in January 1966. Later on, simply being Igbo became reason enough to be killed. As Gowon struggled to stabilise himself in power, random murders of Eastern Region soldiers continued to occur. The army's Provost Marshal, Major Ekanem, was shot dead on Carter Bridge by Sergeant Lapdam while en route
to an errand for Gowon. Senior northern officers could no longer control the violence they had unleashed. Some northern NCOs became prone to strange superstitious behaviour bordering on mysticism. Such acts included mutilation of the bodies of murdered Igbo soldiers, and addressing themselves by the rank and names of the men they had killed (see Luckham: "The Nigerian Military"). It is likely that some of the NCOs were psychologically affected by the murders they
had carried out. Such an outcome would not be surprising. After murdering the Sardauna of Sokoto in January, the normally fluent Major Nzeogwu became nervy and uncomfortable when asked by journalists about the night he killed the Sardauna.
Some of the officers involved in the January coup were subjected to grisly treatment by northern soldiers. In August 1966, northern soldiers raided the Benin prison and released the northern troops who were detained there for their part in the coup of January. Igbo officers also held for the same offence were not spared. Five of them (including Majors Chris Anuforo and Don Okafor) were tortured to death. Anuforo was shot dead, and Okafor was buried alive (see Ruth First, Forsyth: "The Biafra Story", and Madiebo).
Amidst the murders, tension, and mutual suspicion, there was a remarkable display of military camaraderie in the 1st battalion at Enugu. Northern and Igbo officers toasted each other with drinks, and posed together for a final photograph before northern soldiers departed the battalion following the agreement to return all soldiers to their respective regions of origin. Such
comradeship in the midst of bitterness was not isolated. Ironsi’s ADC Captain Nwankwo managed to escape due to a pre-existing agreement he had with one of his northern captors. The two men had previously agreed that whomever of them came out on top during the counter-coup should save the life of the other. Despite the murders of Ironsi
and Fajuyi, the northern officer honoured the “gentleman’s agreement” (see Madiebo). Such honour and camaraderie was again evident the following year, when members of the Supreme Military Council met and deliberated at Aburi, Ghana, in the most cordial manner despite months of mutual suspicion, accusations, and murder. The smooth procession of the debate stunned civilians who were present.
THE ROLE OF SOUTHERN OFFICERS
The counter-coup was carried out almost exclusively by northern officers. However, consternation at Igbos was so great that a few southern officers also participated. Six Yorubas are known to have taken part. Of these, four were northern Yorubas from the Ilorin and Kabba provinces of the northern region. One of them (Major Shittu Alao) later became the head of the Air
Force. One mid-western officer also took part (see Luckham).
Southern officers of non-eastern origin were largely left alone during the counter-coup unless they obstructed the work of the mutineers. In the early stages of the coup, some Yoruba soldiers were detained, but then later released.
Then Major Benjamin Adekunle (the famed “Black Scorpion”) drew the ire of some northern soldiers for promising safe passage to a group of Igbo officers. Unbeknown to Adekunle, an ambush had been laid for these soldiers by northern troops. Several of the Igbo soldiers were killed, and
Adekunle himself was only saved by the intervention of Captain Gibson Jalo.
THE COUNTER-COUP'S CONSEQUENCES
After eliminating Igbos from every position of influence in the army, northern soldiers now held sway at all levels in the army. With Igbo officers either murdered during the "July rematch" or dismissed after the Civil War, the northern soldiers could dictate the direction which the army, and by extension, Nigeria, would take. Some northern soldiers now began to see the army as their personal property. Retired Major-General David Ejoor
claimed that northern soldiers were unhappy with Gowon's choice of him as Chief of Staff (Army). They instead preferred a northern soldier to occupy the post rather than Ejoor, even if such a soldier was more junior than Ejoor.
Now firmly in control of the army, northern officers distributed senior military postings among themselves and created a northern military dynasty. Since the counter-coup, 17 officers have occupied the post of Chief of Army Staff. Of these 17, 15 have been northerners (the only two southerners to occupy the post during that time; Lt-Generals Alani Akinrinade and Alexander Ogomudia, were appointed by General Obasanjo in 1979, and 2001 respectively).
The northern soldiers who carried out the counter-coup have constituted themselves into Nigeria's de facto ruling class. Of the soldiers who took part in the counter-coup, four (Murtala, Buhari, Babangida, Abacha) became Head of State. Several of them held prominent government and security positions throughout the last three decades. For example, Lieutenants Walbe, Duba, and Shelleng were among the party that murdered Maj-Gen Ironsi and Lt-Col Fajuyi. Walbe was
rewarded by being appointed as Gowon's personal bodyguard, and today Duba and Shelleng are members of the millionaire Generals club, sitting atop massive fortunes and business empires acquired after years of participation in military regimes. Mamman Vatsa was the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory until he tried one coup too many. Abba Kyari and Baba Usman served as military governors under Gowon for eight years. Gado Nasko
became a Major-General and was the Minister of the Federal Capital territory during the regime of Ibrahim Babangida. Some of the mutineers occupy prominent government positions till today; Lt-Gen Danjuma (who led the arrest party that abducted Ironsi and Fajuyi) is the current Defence Secretary, and Maj-Gen Abdullahi Mohammed is the current Chief of Staff at the presidency).
The succession of military regimes in Nigeria were inevitably led by the northern soldiers who carried out the counter-coup. Their proficiency at, and knowledge of coup plots is demonstrated by the fact that they managed to put down violent coup plots against them in 1975 and 1990.
Even southerners have learnt, and accepted, that they cannot govern Nigeria without the co-operation of the north and its soldiers. The late Moshood Abiola first sought the blessing of senior northern officers, and the Sultan of Sokoto before contesting for, and declaring himself, President of Nigeria respectively. Quite why a man who won an election should seek another's blessing before asserting himself the winner of that election, is mystifying.
Did President Shehu Shagari ask for the blessing of Lt-Gen Alani Akinrinade or the Oba of Benin before contesting for, or declaring himself President following his electoral victory in 1979?
The failure to bring any of the mutineers and murderers of late 1966 to book gave a platform for the numerous military coups of the following years. That coup established that a “successful” coup plotter would never be called to account for his actions. We have paid the price for our failure to enforce discipline, and for our acceptance of the law of
the gun. The fact that men who murdered a Head of State, and their professional colleagues can occupy government positions, is itself symbolic of the indiscipline in Nigerian society till today.
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