Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Operation 'Aure' Postscript:
An Interview with the Colonel - Parts 1 & 2
continued from http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui13.htm
Dr. Nowa Omoigui
July 29, 2003 will mark 37 years since the "northern" military counter-coup of 1966. Already, http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui13.htm is re-publishing the series "Operation Aure" which I had first written in 2002.. It was with mixed feelings that I took the chance to read what I had written once again, after carefully burying it away in my subconscious, a psychological method one uses for all such painful events. History can be good, bad, and ugly. But it is history nonetheless, and to forget history is to condemn oneself and future generations to repeat its errors. This is the only justification for doing what I do.
Much has been written about the July 1966 counter-coup. As was observed about the January 1966 coup which provoked it, 'events of this nature require prolonged, painstaking investigation.' Even then, there is no guarantee that it will all ever be fully unearthed. Even direct witnesses and participants disagree about details. To this day, therefore, I still take every opportunity to learn new details about every such event in Nigerian history, hoping to record for posterity what has not previously been recorded or evaluated or viewed from one perspective or the other. I am also open to comments from surviving participants (and witnesses) who care to comment about what I have written. Only through this iterative process can we eventually dig it all up - no matter how uncomfortable.
In December 2002, I was in Benin City, Nigeria to deliver a guest lecture on the Midwest referendum of 1963. Preparing for that exercise was hard enough, requiring massive coordination from abroad with contacts on the ground who made numerous forays to the various National Archives. But what I did not reveal to many at the time was another very important reason for my trip to the federal republic - a personal rendezvous with Colonel William Walbe (rtd). Then Lt. (now Colonel (rtd)) Walbe is the only surviving member of the pair of officers who took control of Government House Ibadan on July 29, 1966 from then Major (now Lt. Gen. (rtd)) TY Danjuma after the arrest of Major General Ironsi and Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi. His 'operational' colleague, then Lt. (later Colonel) Garba Dada ("Paiko") is deceased, as are many of the other storm troopers during the harsh events of those days.
Prior to meeting Colonel Walbe personally, I already had access to reports of other interviews he had granted to other researchers over the years, including Professor Elaigwu. What then did I hope to gain from further elucidation? The first was to provide an opportunity for him to react to what I had written on the internet about "Operation Aure," having integrated an extensive list of other sources of information. A coup, like an elephant, looks different, even to its operators, depending on where one is standing. The second was an opportunity for me to follow-up on certain mysteries about that coup which have never been explained to this day. The third reason was to continue my ongoing research into another July 29 coup - the one that deposed General Gowon in 1975. William Walbe was General Gowon's ADC at the time. That particular coup (as well as the one of December 31, 1983) will form the subject of future discussions on dawodu.com.
Hooking up with the Colonel was initially provoked by a comment from one my readers, William Etim Bassey of the Lester Pearson Center in Canada. We soon got into a three way electronic conversation with Oche Onazi, on ground in Nigeria. Oche had the admirable habit of printing my musings from the Internet and supplying them to the Colonel for comment. Although full of praise for the truthfulness and depth of the "Operation Aure" write-up in general, the Colonel apparently reacted to an aspect of my description of the planning in Lagos - as described by the late Major General JN Garba. He also questioned the role of a minor figure (Jeremiah Useni) in the disturbances at Ibadan. Therefore, I offered a direct one on one meeting to allow him to expatiate. In parallel, recognizing the critical need for trust in such an interview on such a delicate subject, I requested an Uncle of mine who had worked in Interpol and whom I knew to be close to the Colonel to contact him directly to "certify" me.
And so, with both tracks of contact activated, my assignment with the "Midwest referendum" completed, I went to the Edo Line Bus-Stop on James Watt Road in Benin City on December 23, 2002, chartered a "public transport" vehicle (504 Estate) and headed out on the long, sometimes dangerous road journey to Jos in Plateau State. Suffice it to say that armed with no more than a phone number, I arrived safely after night fall, with most of the lights in the city of Jos off, courtesy of NEPA power failure. With no functioning public phone in sight, finding the Colonel's house proved to be stroke of divine luck. I had this wild idea to ask around in the motor park, and sure enough, someone knew who he was!
When I arrived at his house, all was dark. Although he has a powerful generator, the Colonel had decided long ago not to stand out from his neighbors by putting on his generator whenever NEPA fails. He prefers to share in their misery of power failure. And so there he was, with a torch in hand, to receive me, all the way from America, via Benin City.
We spent the first hour or so fencing and sizing each other up. He was obviously "checking me out". He then placed a call to Oche to notify him of my arrival. Meanwhile we discussed his early days in the Army, beginning at the Nigerian Military School in Zaria, his cadet training in the United States, first posting to the 4th battalion at Ibadan etc. It turned out that he spent most of his early years in the army as a 2/Lt in the newly created Midwest region. During the celebrated Darnley Alexander Tribunal of Inquiry into the Owegbe cult, Walbe was detailed for internal security patrols in Benin and other Midwestern towns. An hour later, with some red wine onboard, after inspecting his elaborate and meticulously preserved personal museum (along with Oche), the ice was broken. We all settled down to talk about "Operation Aure." In the course of the conversation, I sought direct clarification from him about matters which he could reveal to me but might not like to be divulged publicly - for whatever reason at this time. Therefore, as with other key witnesses in various coups in Nigeria's sad history, nothing I shall write in this essay violates agreed confidentiality.
My focus in this essay is on those details that have not previously been published or which are at variance with what has been published.
Before I begin, let me state for the record that Colonel William Walbe (rtd) went to great lengths to emphasize again and again that a coup is not something to be proud of. He was at pains to point out that - in his view - the situation in which he and others found themselves in 1966 was very unusual, most unexpected, and extremely provocative. It violated all the norms of professional military tradition. He said, again and again, that the duty of the Armed Forces is to be loyal to constitutional authority. Several times during our conversation he would pause to reflect on the past, and express regret at the loss of life in the atmosphere of suspicion that consumed the Armed Forces after the January 1966 coup. A lot of innocent people died, he said. We must never forget.
The coup of January 15, 1966 came to the young Lieutenant. serving with the 2nd Battalion in Ikeja at the time, as a surprise. Was any attempt made to recruit him for it? Not directly, he explained. It was after the coup took place that he began to "put two and two together" regarding certain unusual conversations he had had with some of the officers who later emerged as key actors. As one of the few officers trained on the American 106 mm recoil-less rifle, Lt. Walbe was "academically" questioned about its capabilities in urban 'Internal Security' operations in the Lagos area, and the availability of appropriate ammunition. His responses (about the weapon's "back-blast" and shortage of ammo) apparently did not excite the plotters and so they ceased any further thoughts of approaching him. At that time his nickname was "Tanker" because of his association with that weapon. He also recalled certain liaisons during a course at Abeokuta which later led him (and others) to suspect (correctly, based on testimony from Major Ademoyega) that late Lt. Col. Fajuyi was aware of the impending coup and likely helped some of the officers with the planning.
Anyhow, very early in the morning of January 15, Major General Ironsi showed up at Ikeja Barracks to rouse the 2nd battalion, telling them that there had been unusual movements that night in Lagos. They were to dress up in full combat gear and head out to Lagos Island and Apapa to take control. The very first vehicle to drive out of the Ikeja barracks was a land rover with a mounted 106 recoil-less rifle under the command of Lt. Walbe. Who were the other officers on the ground who assisted Ironsi in mobilizing the battalion against the plotters? Major Henry Igboba, then the 2ic, had taken temporary command from Lt. Col. Hilary Njoku who was in the (inexplicably delayed) process of handing over to Lt. Col. Y Gowon. Major Igboba, Major Anago, Lt. Col. Gowon, and Captain Martin Adamu (then the adjutant) were crucial in the mobilization. There were others. But Walbe emphasized that Igboba certainly knew absolutely nothing about the plot and was very sincere in his commitment to restoration of law and order. What about other officers present in the 2nd Battalion? Walbe recalled that apart from Njoku, then Captain Megwa was unusually inquisitive about what Walbe had observed when he returned to report on his observations of happenings in Apapa and Lagos. Indeed, when Megwa kept probing for information they exchanged words.
Walbe's patrol visited the Officers Mess in Ikoyi (where Fani Kayode was temporarily detained by Captain Nwobosi) and then headed out to the houses of certain senior officers, like the late Colonel Pam who was of Plateau origin like Walbe himself. In his travels in Ikoyi, he came across fresh blood stains at various locations where different senior officers (including Pam) were gunned down earlier that morning.
Next, with his emotions increasingly frayed, he went to Apapa where he almost got involved in a fatal shoot out with then Lt. Paul Tarfa of the Federal Guards Company. Tarfa was leading another patrol sent out by Gowon, but in the confusion of the coup aftermath with all units under suspicion, neither officer was aware that they had been sent on the same errand by the same senior officer. And so, they thought of each other initially as mutineers and were quite prepared to shoot it out. It was the timely arrival of Gowon (who was moving around as well) that stopped an impending blood bath.
After Ironsi eventually took over two days later, he assured the soldiers that helped him crush the mutiny in Lagos that the mutineers would be investigated and punished according to military law. By July 29, 1966, however, this had not happened. Colonel Walbe feels that this was the most serious error (from a military and security perspective) Ironsi made because it denied him the power base of a united military. In his words, :"Ironsi had the chance of being a great leader if he had tried and punished those boys."
Planning for July 1966
The way we were
In 1963, Colonel WG Walbe (rtd) underwent United States officer cadet training along with officers like JA Nenger, Isa Bukar, Nuhu Nathan, M Obogo, Pam Mwadkon, RN Ogbonna, PN Onyeneho, Ganiyu Adeleke, EK Fakunle, EA Etuk, etc. He still recalls the Army of that era with nostalgia. He described a highly motivated organization with strong esprit de Corps. In particular he recalled the strong bonds of brotherliness and camaraderie that existed between officers in the Barracks. Officers were so close that if an officer's relation were to visit the barracks while he was away on official assignment, his neighbor would care for that relative as if he or she was his own relation. Indeed relations of officers often preferred to be hosted by their colleagues because of the 'royal' treatment. Mess life was active and Mess traditions revered. Officers across ethnic and regional boundaries acted as best men at each other's marriages, Godfathers to each other's children, Masters of ceremony at each other's social gatherings, etc. They endured the hardships of training together, celebrated their successes together, went to war together, and grieved together. In summary, as I attempted to decode his mind as he spoke somberly, what he may have meant was that the Army was a tribe in its own right.....until the early hours of January 15, when some members of the tribe violated sacred tribal trust, broke into the homes of their colleagues and killed them in cold blood.
The road to perdition
Like Walbe, others have also pointed out that the stage for the military aspect of the conflict that eventually consumed the Ironsi regime was set within a few days of January 15. He assumed full political powers in controversial circumstances, presumably to restore law and order which, some argue, he did not need political power to achieve, the coup having already collapsed in the south and Kano. Then he promised the army boys who stayed loyal to the Army Hierarchy and actually assisted him take control of Lagos that those who carried out the bloody mutiny would be punished according to military law. But at the same time he promised the mutineers - through their spokesman Major CK Nzeogwu - that they would not be punished. Obviously, both promises could not be kept simultaneously.
As the regime steered an ultimately untenable middle course, veering from one side to the other, trying to please both sides, it opened itself up to hostility from both camps. Indeed, to this day, based on well-documented comments and writings, the one thing that the core mutineers of January 1966 and the storm troopers of July 1966 have in common is their common disdain for the Ironsi regime. The January mutineers feel he hijacked their coup. The July storm troopers feel he tolerated the illegality of the January mutiny - for whatever reason.
Lost in all
of this, I thought to myself, is the role of analysts who argued behind the
scenes that the January mutineers were "politically popular.” One wonders if an
act of extra-judicial murder against an allegedly "politically unpopular" person
or persons is not an act of murder in the eyes of the law. In any case the
military casualties could hardly be described as "politically unpopular."
Furthermore, many people hold the opinion that the killings of January were not inevitable. Other than Chief Akintola, no other operational target resisted arrest (although most were summarily shot). Even then, as of the time Akintola surrendered to his wounded and likely very angry captors, he had run out of ammunition. A few years ago, Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi (rtd) who was wounded by the ricochet of Akintola’s submachine gun bullets told an Army Historical Interview Team that "Akintola had to go immediately."
Interestingly, Captain Ben Gbulie, one of the January mutineers, wrote in his book 'Nigeria's Five Majors' that "Major Chude Sokei and Lieutenant Jerome Oguchi of the 1st Infantry Battalion, Enugu, had ranked very high on the list of the strong advocates of a bloodless coup.....There was no earthly reason why anyone should engage in blood-letting if one could avoid it...." The implication is that there was some discussion of the topic of killing before the coup. Obviously the advocates of a bloodless coup did not prevail. Looking back, one of the great-unanswered questions of history will forever be how Nigerian history might have been affected had the mutiny/coup of January 1966 been bloodless or if it had never occurred.
Anyway, as is
well known, in spite of Ironsi's promise to Nzeogwu, the mutineers were arrested
and an investigative Board of Inquiry was established at the Police HQ. Indeed,
(according to minutes of the Aburi meeting) a divided Supreme Military Council
agreed belatedly – in spite of alleged objections from Lt. Col. Fajuyi - that
the mutineers would have to be dealt with by court-martial, but the decision was
curiously left in abeyance and never implemented. Instead the vast majority of
suspects were inexplicably detained in the Eastern region while a security vise
was slowly closing in on the soldiers who helped re-establish order in Lagos on
January 15 and were known to hold the view that the January mutineers should be
punished. One of those soldiers was then Lt. WG Walbe.
What began as murmurs of disapproval and tension in the barracks evolved into full scale planning for a coup. As planning began in earnest to redress what was seen by the July coupists as a deliberate act of inaction against injustice, Walbe recalls the first formal meeting he attended in the Ikoyi house of then Captain (later Major General) Joseph Nanven Garba, acting commander of the Federal Guards Company. Apparently, no more joint meetings were held there out of concern for operational security. It was not so much out of fear of surveillance as it was the demeanor of some of those present, who were allegedly fearful of the risks involved in staging a coup. Thereafter, a system of go-betweens was adopted. The go-between between then Lt. Walbe and then Major Danjuma, for example, was one Sergeant Idi Adi Gani [later, Sergeant Idi Adi Gani became General Gowon's driver until he was overthrown and retired from the military as a captain in 1979].
All of this
was occurring in an atmosphere of rumors. Almost every little activity on the
part of certain officers sparked some kind of official reaction, particularly
after the May riots and the controversial Army promotion exercise. On one
occasion, which he remembers vividly, Walbe paid an innocuous social visit to
Lt. Col. Gowon's house. Barely a few days later, a parade was called out at the
2nd Battalion in Ikeja and the Battalion commander, Major (later Lt. Col.) Henry
Igboba, spoke in general terms, condemning officers who spent their private time
visiting senior officers. He never mentioned Walbe by name, but Walbe assumed
(correctly) that he was referring to him. And so the young officer stepped
forward right there in front of the entire parade and identified himself as the
officer in question. He challenged Igboba's interpretation of his action - for
which Igboba later privately apologized, saying he was within his rights to
visit whomever he pleased.
this juncture I asked if then Lt. Col. Y Gowon, then Chief of Staff, Army was
aware of the July plot. Walbe remarked categorically that Gowon knew nothing of
it beyond the general rumors that everyone was privy to at that time. Walbe
recalled that when rumors became very strong that something was in the works,
Gowon, (who was in the habit of visiting Army barracks to ask soldiers to
forgive the January coup and leave everything to God) sent for him. He took him
aside into his private study, looked him in the eye and bluntly asked him if
reports of a planned counter-coup by "northern" troops were true. Walbe denied
with a straight face, concerned that by virtue of his status, Gowon would have
difficulty keeping such information to himself. No need to place him in a
difficult position, he explained.
Walbe, by virtue of his command of the 106 recoil-less rifle group, was a permanent fixture of the support weapons group in General Ironsi's bodyguard. That he was not suspected earlier - in his view - was because of his name. For quite sometime, no one could reliably place his origin from Plateau province. The names William and Walbe did not ring alarm bells. But Lt. Col. Hilary Njoku, who had replaced late Brigadier Maimalari as Commander of the 2nd Brigade in Lagos, was not so easily fooled. As his former battalion commander at the 2nd Battalion he knew who he was. He was also aware that Walbe was among the very first officers to roll out of Ikeja Barracks to confront the trail of bloodshed left behind by the January mutineers in Lagos in the confused early hours of January 15. On no less than three occasions, therefore, citing need for ‘additional training’ or rest from 'hard work', he tried to get Walbe posted out of the 2nd Battalion and, by implication, away from General Ironsi's security detail suspecting, perhaps, that the young officer may have been emotionally scarred.
But on each
occasion, Walbe recalls Captain Martin Adamu (of the 2nd Battalion) and Major TY
Danjuma (of Army HQ) maneuvered to block the transfer citing one "professional"
excuse or the other. It would appear that since there was no hard evidence,
Njoku could not openly request his transfer ‘for security reasons’ merely on
account of his ethnicity or perceived closeness to one or more of the murdered
officers in January or because he did not like his face. His Battalion
commander, Henry Igboba, had long since reconciled himself with rumors of
Walbe's movements and was not going to take action without additional evidence.
Those were the days when things were generally done properly. Without support
from either the Army HQ or the soldier's unit a Brigade Commander could not just
wake up one morning and post someone away. [I could not help fast forwarding
with amusement to an event that took place during the regime of then Major
General Babangida in 1985, during the trial of Major General Vatsa and others.
Then Brigadier Joshua Dogonyaro, then GOC of the 3rd Armored
Division, rounded up all the young officers under his command who he did not
feel comfortable with – for any reason - and flew them to Lagos enmasse for
Nevertheless, on or about July 26th 1966, as General Ironsi was about to leave for Benin, on his tour of the Midwest, Hilary Njoku (now acting Brigadier) approached Walbe again. He told him that he had seen to it that after the General's return to Lagos from Benin and Ibadan, Walbe would be given leave to take a rest from his onerous security duties. Walbe listened patiently and thanked him for his concern knowing full well that the final signal for the coup would be arriving shortly from Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed.
message that arrived was not what they had been expecting. Instead, Murtala
Mohammed asked the storm troopers to stand down - once again. There would be no
coup attempt for now.
It is at this point that one of the great mysteries of the July 1966 coup was finally clarified. Exactly how "accidental" or "spontaneous" was the coincidental outbreak of an "other ranks” mutiny at Abeokuta on the night of July 28th when in fact it had been decided by the “coup command” trio of Lt. Col. Mohammed, Major Danjuma and Captain Adamu, that the coup would be put off?
It would appear that when Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed's message made the rounds, subgroups of plotters discussed its implications. Lt. William Walbe, traveling with General Ironsi and Lt. Pam Mwadkon of the Recce unit at Abeokuta apparently discussed it and may have agreed - in what can probably be fairly described as coup within a coup - to ignore Mohammed's order. As it was, Pam Mwadkon (younger brother to the late Lt. Col. James Pam who was murdered in January) was the Duty officer at the Abeokuta Garrison that night, a position that provided ample leverage for mischief. It was on his shoulders, therefore, that the responsibility for establishing a casus belli for the July 1966 counter-coup was to fall. It would appear that a combination of fortuitous events played into his hands - and triggered mayhem.
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