Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Operation 'Aure' Postscript:
An Interview with the Colonel (3)
continued from: http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui36.htm
D-day and the days after
Much of what
subsequently transpired has previously been written [http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui13.htm].
The Colonel did not contest the details. Instead of a carefully choreographed
coup carried out simultaneously in multiple locations with precision and
coordination, what transpired was a rolling mutiny, which spread from Abeokuta
to other parts of Nigeria over the course of days.
While Lt. Pam
Mwadkon, using a preselected group of non-commissioned officers of northern
origin, was busy confronting his garrison commander, Lt. Col. Okonweze, in
Abeokuta, a state reception for the visiting delegation was ending in Ibadan.
At the dinner there was an atmosphere of foreboding to anyone with discerning
temperament, but many chose to tuck their concerns away and enjoy the food and
drink. Group photographs were taken, including one interesting photograph
showing Major Danjuma in a ceremonial mess outfit, Major Anago, Lt. Nwankwo
(General Ironsi’s Air Force ADC), Lt. Sani Bello (General Ironsi’s Army ADC),
Lt. WG Walbe (in a traditional attire of some kind), and perhaps one or two
others. They all looked so young, so disarming, so handsome and so benign. But
Several hours later, the historic roles of the various young men in that photograph - as putschists and near victims - crystallized as the rolling mutiny spread from Abeokuta to Ibadan. When Major Danjuma arrived in a borrowed combatant uniform with his hastily assembled group from the 4th Battalion’s Letmauk Barracks in Mokola to notify co-conspirators among the guards at the Government House of the sudden and unexpected outbreak of violence at Abeokuta, he wasn’t saying anything they did not expect.
Unlike Danjuma, however, Walbe had a huge advantage with the 4th battalion. Although lately in service with the 2nd Battalion at Ikeja in Lagos, it was with the 4th battalion that his career was initiated as a 2/Lt. He had served in that unit, lived in their barracks and was well known to many of the NCOs and soldiers with whom he had gone on numerous patrols as a platoon commander. Therefore, the transition from member of the “C-in-C’s delegation” to “bereaved co-conspirator of the 4th battalion in Ibadan” (as the soldiers of the 4th battalion viewed themselves following the loss of two former commanders during the January 15 coup) was easy. He had no initial command and control problems to deal with, unlike Danjuma who was respected for his rank but was basically unknown to most of the soldiers in that unit. As regimental discipline broke down completely, such nuances took on great significance during the Government House drama – with ultimately fatal consequences for Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt. Col. F. A. Fajuyi.
But as all
officers involved in the “northern counter-coup” were to discover, no one could
be fully assured of the unquestioning obedience of furious northern soldiers and
NCOs once the genie was out of the bottle. The best many could hope for was to
“ride the tiger” as “crimes of passion” were being unleashed around them. And
so it was that deep into the process of interrogating Ironsi and Fajuyi about
their alleged roles in the January 15 coup and the strange reluctance to appoint
a court-martial for the mutineers, Ironsi was suddenly and without warning, shot
dead by an “angry northern soldier.” The soldier was allegedly frustrated by
Ironsi’s refusal to answer questions. Nevertheless, Fajuyi (who was reportedly
more cooperative in providing information) followed soon thereafter.
The “escape” of the ADCs
I did not explore the escape (or release) of General Ironsi’s ADCs (Nwankwo and Bello) with the Colonel. A version of how both men escaped has previously been written – and widely popularized - based on an account by former Biafran Army Commander, Major General Alexander Madiebo who says he was quoting then Lt. Nwankwo. Since then, however, I have learnt (from usually well-informed sources that prefer not to be named) that there was more to then Lt. Sani Bello’s escape. Apparently, once it became obvious that there was trouble at the Government House and that the delegation was surrounded, contact was made (by phone) with then Lt. (later Major General) Mohammed Magoro of the 4th battalion to appeal for help. It was Magoro that reportedly chased the convoy and confronted northern soldiers (of the 4th battalion) who held the ADCs hostage in a vehicle behind the one carrying Ironsi and Fajuyi. He bluffed them by apparently claiming that he had orders to seek the release of the ADCs, convincing the soldiers that since the main targets (Ironsi and Fajuyi) had been “secured”, holding the ADCs was of little value. The soldiers only reluctantly complied because there was this perception at the time that any northern officer or soldier who was close to General Ironsi (as then Lt. Bello was considered) was a traitor to his region. A similar phenomenon has been described by others, including then Lt. (later Lt. Gen. Garba Duba) who was harassed for providing armored vehicle escort during the northern phase of General Ironsi’s nationwide tour.
One of the first destinations after the unfortunate killings of Ironsi and Fajuyi was the Agodi prison. Although much has been made about the release of NNDP (pro-Akintola) political sympathizers who had been jailed by Colonel Fajuyi back in January, it seems clear that the core objective of the “visit” was to “apprehend” any January mutineers that might have been detained there. Although the assault group came up empty-handed (because no January mutineer was there) the visit to the Prison was anything but straightforward.
Then Lt. Walbe, arrived at the Prison – with his shoulder rank flaps upturned for anonymity - accompanied by a detachment of the same group of soldiers that took Ironsi and Fajuyi away. He was received by the Prison Officer who had absolutely no idea that he was talking to soldiers (or rather, men in uniform) who had only just completed the interrogation and killing of the Head of State and Regional Military Governor. And so the unfortunate Prison Officer – assuming that normal conditions of law and order were in effect - reacted negatively when gently asked to produce the keys. As Walbe was arguing with him, he felt a sensation of intense heat streak across his body torso, barely missing him. It was a burst of gunfire from an on-looking soldier who thought the conversation was getting too complicated. The Prison Officer was killed instantly.
Thereafter, the Prison was forced open by elements of the 4th battalion and Fajuyi’s political prisoners released.
If the young Walbe thought he had seen the most extreme expressions of hurt, impatience, anger and violence among the mutinying troops along Iwo road and at the Prison, surprise awaited him at the Barracks.
The Guardroom at the Letmauk Barracks
Government House mutiny group (for lack of a better term) was out and about in
Ibadan, certain soldiers and officers were being rounded up at the Letmauk
Barracks for no other reason but suspicion of complicity in the January coup
or open sympathy with it. The process of arrests was guided by nothing more
than pure suspicion and usually involved regional stereotyping by name or
association. Frustrated by lack of direct access to the January mutineers,
soldiers made do with alternatives, particularly those perceived not to have
shared in their grief.
In fact the situation was so fragile that Major Anago, the company commander (of Camerounian origin) in the 2nd Battalion at Ikeja who had helped to crush the January mutiny in Lagos was also arrested and detained. Lt. Walbe was shocked to see Anago in the guardroom – and proceeded to impress upon the ‘northern’ (and pro-Akintola western) soldiers present to have him released immediately. But as he led Anago out of the guardroom area, the soldiers decided that there would be no more negotiating for additional detainees by any “misguided” officer. Suddenly, and again, without warning, as the Colonel recalled somberly, a soldier lobbed one or more grenades into the packed guardroom, blowing all the occupants to bits. Unsurprisingly, this incident helped Anago decide that it was time to leave the Nigerian Army to pursue other interests.
Fire and Crossfire
for many officers and soldiers who had nothing to do with the January
mutiny/coup or perhaps even helped to crush it, to get caught in the uprising of
July was not unique to Ibadan. It shows just how much water had passed under
the bridge since those heady early hours of January 15. Issues had become
somewhat blurred by subsequent events and storm troopers soon forgot what it was
they were actually angry about. No one was above suspicion.
Lt. Col. Okonweze, who was killed on July 28 inside the officer’s mess at Abeokuta, actually assisted in neutralizing mobilization for the January mutiny when he was serving with the 1st battalion at Enugu as a Major. Major John Obienu, who was killed shortly after Okonweze at Abeokuta has since been accused by some of the January mutineers of leaking the plot to Major General Ironsi and then failing to provide Armored Vehicles he had allegedly promised to the putschists that night. Lt. Orok who was gunned down shortly after Obienu had nothing to do with the January plot. Many others would follow who neither had foreknowledge of the January mutiny nor supported it. But for some reason they were perceived as belonging to pressure groups that allegedly planned, sanctioned, tolerated or benefited from the sad events of January. This tendency to hold entire groups responsible for the actions of individuals and for self appointed spokespersons of groups to instinctively support individuals merely because they belong to their group, is a political problem that continues to dog Nigeria to this day. Many innocent people with no interest in or understandings of contemporary events get caught in crossfire as a result.
But that is not to say that there were not victims whose perceived allegedly indiscreet and open praise for the killings of January brought admittedly disproportionate reprisals to their doorsteps in July. Then there were some whose specific actions in the climate of tension and suspicion in the Barracks allegedly led directly to their deaths. At the same time the quick thinking of certain officers saved many others. We have already discussed events in the National (Federal) Guards Company at Ikoyi where then Captain JN Garba and Lt. Paul Tarfa stood down violence, and at Enugu where Lt. Col. Ogunewe pacified an explosive situation. A similar thing happened in Kano.
When Lt. Col. Gowon contacted the 5th Battalion with a view to alerting Lt. Col. Shuwa of disturbances in Abeokuta, Ibadan and Lagos, it was then T/Major (later Major General) Oluleye who took the call. He immediately asked Company Commanders to lock all weapons in the armory and submit the keys to him. By the time news of the violence in the south became public a few hours later, nearly all the weapons of the battalion had been withdrawn from circulation and an order was issued confining soldiers to Barracks.
Unfortunately, Major Ihedigbo sought and got permission to leave the Barracks to refuel his car in town. Once outside the Barrack gates he unadvisedly placed a trunk call to Lt. Col. Okoro in Kaduna and requested for grenades from the 3rd Battalion armory. The call (as were all operator-assisted calls in those tense days) was overheard by the operator, who then passed the information around. Okoro was shot dead in Kaduna by his RSM later that day. Rumors then made the rounds back in the Bukavu Baracks in Kano that ‘Igbo’ soldiers were stockpiling weapons and ammunition in their private quarters. Shuwa and Oluleye conducted a search, which, according to Oluleye, did in fact reveal the presence of stockpiled private weapons, fueling the worst possible speculations among their ‘northern’ colleagues. Thereafter, then Lt. Col. Shuwa, who was in receipt of reports that civilians from town were urging ‘northern’ soldiers in his battalion to contribute their quota to the mayhem unfolding in other parts of Nigeria, made a fateful decision. He decided to separate the Igbo soldiers from non-Igbo soldiers by sending Igbo Soldiers to Wudil Camp under escort. However, once on the road to Wudil, the “escort commander” then decided – in violation of orders - to execute the entire group (comprising Major Ihedigbo, Captain Egbunam, Captain Maduabum, Lt. Ovueziri and six NCOs).
I have not
been able to establish whether this “escort commander” was ever disciplined.
But it is common knowledge that Lt. Col. Shuwa later had to take refuge from his
own battalion when soldiers got upset that he was preventing them from taking
part in the carnival of death.
from Jos by Edo Line the next morning (on January 24th) after a
well-deserved night of rest at Oche Onazi’s house. My destination was
Benin, via Abuja, where I had planned another interview with an important
figure. I finally made it back to Benin in time for Christmas, barely avoiding
a diplomatic problem with my family.
The Surgeon and the General
Back in Benin, a few days later I was visiting
with Dr. Ekhaguosa Aisien, a well-known surgeon and author who was inducted into
the Nigerian Army as a military surgeon during the civil war. His wartime diary
is a treasure trove.
For some strange reason, out of the blue, he decided to talk about his recollections of the January and July 1966 coups. Sometime in February 1966, he recalled that as a medical officer in the Midwest region, he had been invited to conduct medical examinations on a group of January 15 coup suspects who were detained at the Benin prison. He recalled the light-complexioned Major who was the most senior in the group. He had been very reserved, soft spoken and concerned about the medical condition of his fellow detainees who were mostly soldiers and one or two NCOs. When Dr. Aisien politely and by way of conversation, asked him for his name, the Major said it was against Prison rules for him to reveal his name. And so the Surgeon left it at that – but has wondered ever since about his identity. Who was it among the “Majors of January” had he had the opportunity to meet?
Major Christian Anuforo, I replied. According to the special branch report, he was allegedly personally responsible for the deaths of Colonel Kur Mohammed, Lt. Col. James Pam, Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. Although initially billed for transfer from Kiri-Kiri to Ilesha prison, he was later brought to Benin. He would later be forcefully extricated from Benin Prison on or about August 16, 1966, interrogated, and shot along the Benin-Ore road by elements of the 4th battalion upset with the delay in trying him and the other January mutineers.
Dr. Aisien sighed. So much bloodshed in Nigeria,
he reflected. Then he recalled his last meeting with Major General Ironsi. He
had been among those invited to a reception for the General at Agbor as he wound
up his visit to the Midwest before his fateful journey to Ibadan through Benin.
At the reception Aisien raised some questions with the General about provisions
of basic universal social welfare amenities across the country but was unable to
get a full response because of others who were angling to shake the General’s
hands and engage in small chat. However, the next day, as General Ironsi’s
convoy drove out along the road, a strange thing happened. The General
recognized the Surgeon in the crowd, stopped his convoy, emerged from the open
State Car (leaving Lt. Col. David Ejoor behind) and walked toward him, as
security men scrambled to understand what was going on. Ironsi told him that
he thought he had asked a good question the previous night, but that for what he
was requesting to be a reality, the economy would first have to be built up.
Only after that could welfare amenities be sustained meaningfully. After the
explanation the General asked him if he understood what it was that he had
explained. The Surgeon replied in the affirmative. Then the General took
leave, shaking his hands as he did so. Little did the Surgeon know that he
would be dead less than 48 hours later.
Curious, I thought, that within a few days of one
another, I had spoken to two very different people who both saw the General in
his final days and viewed him from radically different angles. Most probably,
they might even have come in contact at Agbor when Ironsi dramatically stopped
his motorcade just to fully answer a question he was asked the night before at a
banquet. Such humility, I observed. How many Nigerian Heads of State in more
recent times would do that, I wondered? Could this be what Colonel Walbe was
referring to when he said, "Ironsi had the chance of being a great leader if he
had tried and punished those boys." Why, I thought, did the General not
court-martial the January mutineers over the course of seven (7) months? Why?
Colonel William Walbe to be a very engaging man, very thoughtful, highly
structured and focused. He remains very nostalgic for his military days and
quite unhappy with those he says destroyed the Nigerian Army. After the events
of July 1975, he became a Nigerian military attaché at the embassy in Washington
DC. It was to be his last military posting before requesting retirement in
The main focus of my conversation with him was on the military aspects of the July 29, 1966 rolling mutiny/counter-coup. What I have written about in this postscript are those aspects that either supplement or contradict what has already been previously written.
We did move on to discuss the July 29, 1975 coup that brought then Brigadier (later General) Murtala Mohammed to power – but that is for another day.
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