Military Rebellion of July 29


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Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975:

The coup against Gowon - Part 6

continued from





Nowa Omoigui


Another important factor – in the view of some - was the replacement of then Brigadier (later Major General) Hassan Katsina as Chief of Staff (Army) with Major General David Ejoor in late 1972.  Hassan (who was actually junior to Ejoor) moved up to become the Deputy Chief of Staff SHQ (to then Rear Admiral Wey) and Federal Commissioner for Establishments. Hassan was a very confident officer who could look Gowon in the eye and tell him what was going on in the Army.  He also had back channels to far north sentiments and Gowon may have thought – professional considerations aside – that he would be more useful as a political symbol at the Supreme Headquarters dominated by he and Wey who were both Christians.  But as Hassan became disconnected from the Army (by appointment and lack of interaction) and took more and more interest in playing Polo his military utility to Gowon declined proportionally.  I do recall, however, one very prominent newspaper headline that quoted Hassan, on his return from a 1974 trip to Britain as saying “This country is sick, from top to bottom.”

Ejoor, according to some reports, preferred a more oblique, some say sycophantic and perhaps even slippery approach.  Some senior officers say they could never be certain that what they discussed at meetings with Ejoor would get back to Gowon accurately.  Then GOC, 2nd Division, then Brigadier (now Major General (rtd) Oluleye recalls how a very divisive and angry meeting of senior officers in May 1975 which took place in Kaduna was paradoxically reported to Gowon (by Ejoor) as “successful.”  It was at that meeting, Oluleye recalls that then Brigadier Danjuma (GOC, 3rd Division) who was a known Gowon stalwart, asked him if a coup was possible in Nigeria.  

Such misleading feedback to Gowon by Ejoor, if true, would have had the effect of disconnecting the C-in-C from reality – if one did not know better that Gowon had other sources.   But as if that was not enough, an atmosphere of suspicion enveloped the military, allegedly orchestrated, some say, from the office of the Chief of Staff (Army).  At a certain point in time, officers who were “suspected” of not being loyal enough began to have their mail opened and read by security services and their telephones tapped.  When a critical mass of highly professional officers with no intentions of doing the government any harm began to share such personal experiences with one another, it created another nidus of alienation, further isolating General Gowon. None of this was helped by the lingering doubt in the minds of some officers over Gowon’s decision to rehabilitate Ejoor, first as a Staff Officer in SHQ, and then, in January 1969, as Commandant of the NDA.  He emerged in Lagos on or about September 20, 1967 after Murtala Mohammed’s successful campaign to retake the Midwest. He had earlier escaped on a bicycle to his mother’s village when Biafran troops invaded the Midwest in August 1967 and has explained that he was monitoring the progress of the war from there. He too suffered from the “we versus they” mentality common among those who fought the war.  He was not considered as ‘one of them’ even though he was a key player in the political run-up to the conflict.

That said, it needs to be noted that Major General Ejoor (rtd) has a different recollection of some of these events and does claim that he advised General Gowon appropriately. 

The Plot

As previously noted, hints of tension in the military were already apparent as far back as 1972 when Lt. Col. SM Yar’Adua made an oblique and unguarded public comment at a public forum in Zaria.   But no one in the government took notice.  >From late 1973 to early 1974, however, contacts between certain agitated civilians in the core north and their military contacts increased and open disgust was already being expressed against Gowon – at least in part because of his response to the famine.  To this was added a variety of other frustrations, personal, ethnic, religious and national, all embodied in hostility to his political plans.  These tensions preceded his October 1974 speech.

In mid-1974 Shehu Yar’Adua was conveniently redeployed from his command of the 9th Infantry Brigade in the Midwest and asked to resume as General Staff Officer II at the Lagos Garrison Organization, based at Victoria Island.  It was from this position that he later coordinated the putsch against Gowon.  It is not clear whether Yar’Adua contrived this redeployment but it seems logical that it was not an accident.

It is, however, interesting that while based in the Midwest, Yar’Adua was in contact with another officer who would later play a key role in the events of 1975.  Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo (formerly known as Ibrahim Kagara) was then based at the Supply and Transport Unit in Benin.  Taiwo had previously come under suspicion of plotting against the government. He was redeployed from Benin after an investigation to take up duties as a Staff Officer in the 3rd Infantry Division, then based at Port Harcourt. Taiwo and Yar’ Adua had been colleagues in the 2nd Division (under Murtala Mohammed) during the war. 

At about the time of Yar’Adua’s fascinating redeployment, however, then Brigadier Murtala Mohammed, then Inspector of Signals, was under suspicion for a curious unauthorized expenditure of N9 million belonging to the Army Signals Corps.  Some elements in the Gowon regime were convinced that a political-military group was already making plans for a coup and that Mohammed was arranging the funding from government sources.  The Brigadier had to offer complex explanations at the Army Training Conference that took place in Kaduna and government made sure that hints were dropped that the financial indiscretion was being viewed as possibly treasonable.   But Gowon did not act on it. Instead, as a follow-up to his presumed rapprochement with Mohammed back in 1972 – which Colonel JN Garba organized – he appointed Mohammed into the federal cabinet as the Federal Commissioner for Communications when JS Tarka resigned in August. 

In spite of this “settlement” gesture, however, there was still a passive-aggressive relationship between both men.  Mohammed was reportedly often rude to other Federal Commissioners during heated meetings.  Former President Shehu Shagari – who was then the Finance Commissioner - recalls the case of a spending memo Mohammed tried to rush through the Federal Executive Council (FEC) without approval of the Finance Ministry.  His rationale was that he was trying to avoid “unnecessary bureaucratic red tape.”   But when his memo was rejected by the FEC he went back to Shagari and sought advice on appropriate modifications to the memo that Shagari then agreed to present in his behalf since he was going on pilgrimage.  But when Shagari tried to present the modified memo to the FEC (in Mohammed’s absence), Gowon refused to allow it, citing a conflict of interest.  The Finance Commissioner could not – in Gowon’s view – be presenting a request on behalf of another ministry, which was seeking money from his own ministry.  When Mohammed returned and learned of Gowon’s decision to block the memo he got upset and told Shagari:

“Don’t mind him!” “We shall soon change him. We put him there and we can remove him anytime!”

Anyhow, let us return to September 1974

By that time tensions were building along multiple fronts.  Concerned about the depth of controversy regarding the census, revenue allocation, states creation and a host of other matters, he began to wonder whether 1976 – the year he had promised to return power – was still realistic.  He was encouraged along this line of thinking by businessmen who had benefitted from his regime, along with top federal bureaucrats, civil commissioners in the States and some Governors – including then Colonel (later Brigadier) Samuel Ogbemudia who made public speeches along such lines.  However, it should be understood – as previously pointed out - that the not so subtle campaign to get Gowon to stay in office actually began back in 1971.

Back from China and fresh from the Gomwalk and Tarka controversies Gowon called senior military officers to a meeting in Lagos and sought their opinion about the hand-over date.  Most senior officers reportedly ‘supported’ him staying on in office – as long he changed the Governors - while a few opposed it.  It was this meeting that gave him the false confidence to declare 1976 unrealistic during his broadcast of October 1st that year.    During the Independence day speech Gowon touched on many other matters, including the 3rd National Development Plan, a “Green revolution” in Agriculture, the Universal Primary Education Scheme as well as establishment of new Universities. He also discussed malaria eradication, construction of new teaching hospitals, thousands of new postal centers, massive rural electrification, water supply and the new revenue formula.  He announced plans to reshuffle the federal cabinet in January 1975 and Governors in April. He also decided against creation of new states for the time being but promised creation of advisory councils and a review of the constitution.  He made no mention of his thoughts for a new federal capital even though he had privately flown in a helicopter over what is now Abuja back in May.  Then he announced the release of nearly all military detainees who were detained on account of either the civil war or the January 15, 1966 coup. 

Although the speech was designed to please a broad swath of interested parties, it also displeased many.  The Political class was not happy about the indefinite postponement of civil rule – and absence of a new date to aim for.   The military war crowd was wary of waiting until April for the change of Governors.  Civil servants at State level were increasingly irritated with their civil commissioners.  Those businessmen who had not gained from the regime were not pleased – while those who had gained were excited.  University lecturers, intelligentsia and students had nothing to applaud. 

Unfortunately, many of those Army officers who urged Gowon on at the September meeting were privately getting tired of him.  Some began to be alarmed that they might be destroyed if they remained allied with him in the face of opposition from the Army and increasing public tension.  Among those who felt this way were two of his closest protégés, Colonel JN Garba of the Guards Brigade and Colonel Anthony Ochefu, Provost-Marshall.  After a private meeting in Garba’s office a few days after the Senior Officers meeting (and several weeks before his October 1st speech), they both resolved that not only the Governors but also Gowon himself must leave office – preferably in a bloodless putsch.  

According to Elaigwu, between Ochefu and Garba, Garba was then detailed to establish contact with certain ‘Hausa-Fulani’ officers ‘who were known to be very keen in organizing for a change of government and that their cooperation would be readily available.’  What Elaigwu (who was presumably quoting Colonel Ochefu) does not explain is how Garba and Ochefu knew that these officers - including Lt. Col. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Lt. Col. Muhammadu Buhari and Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo – were ‘keen in organizing for a change of government and that their cooperation would be readily available.‘    It illustrates that a nascent conspiracy was already in existence when they joined it.  My investigations do in fact confirm this hypothesis.  Yar’Adua dangled a bait and Garba took it.

Lt. Col. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua was at the center of it.  He had conspiratorial links to the Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), then Colonel Abdulai Mohammed (based in Lagos) as well as Colonel Taiwo now based in Port Harcourt – and later Jos when the 3rd Division was transferred there.   Taiwo later took on the role of “national coup coordinator” under cover of his “Supply and Transport duties”. The Acting Director of the Supply and Transport Corps, then Lt. Col. Muhammadu Buhari, in coordination with Colonel Abdulai Mohammed (DMI), initially shielded Taiwo’s activities from suspicion at the AHQ and SHQ.   But in time to come, the plotters became so open about their plans that they did not bother to hide.  

Taiwo, for example, once contacted Police Inspector-General Kam Salem directly and sought a meeting with him.  At the meeting he is said to have lamented that he was wrongly accused of a plot in late 1973/early 1974 but that he now had proof that some officers were indeed planning a coup.  When Kam Salem asked him who they were, he brought out the Army’s Seniority Roll List, crossed out the names of Gowon and Ejoor, and gave it to Kam Salem. In other words the entire Officer Corps!  Kam Salem – faced with this ridiculous proposition - may have thought Taiwo was being ‘tongue in cheek’ mischievous.  But it was part of an orchestrated campaign to wear the government down with frivolous reports and false alarms. 

Kam Salem was not the only one with such an experience.  According to Obasanjo, Gowon’s then Chief Security Officer, MD Yusuf, was directly approached by Brigadier Murtala Mohammed and told that a coup was in the offing and that he could tell “anyone he liked.” It was the second time Mohammed would come to him in such a blatant manner. The first time was back in July 1966. 

Indeed, in an interview with Antony Goldman in March 2002, MD Yusuf said:

“I think it was the most open coup. Everyone knew that something was cooking. When it was going to happen, what shape it would take was what remained for people to find out. Everybody was fed up with Gowon. Not him personally, but because of the governors, what they were doing, everyone was worried about that. And he was advised to change them. He would have been alright if he had done that. I think some of them said well, if you change us, afterwards they will come back and change you, you too are tired. It was quite open, everybody knew……..From Christmas 1974, it was open, military officers were talking about change.”

Yar’Adua’s recruitment activities ensnared his one time neighbor and friend, the Commander of the 4th Reconnaissance Regiment, then Lt. Col. Ibrahim Babangida, as well as other officers in key positions in the Lagos area like Lt. Col. Sani Bello and Lt. Col. Alfred Aduloju. Aduloju was brought in because of the need for assets in the Signals Corps.  He was also personally close to Murtala Mohammed and took over the Signals Corps after the coup.  Others drifted in by virtue of personal friendships and shared values. There was a clique of Air Force officers like Lt. Cols. Muktar Mohammed (a close friend of Buhari), Mustafa Amin, Ibrahim Alfa etc. Separately, Garba and Ochefu were critical in ensnaring key middle belt officers in charge of certain vital units – as well as an array of Christian officers from different parts of the country.   Officers like Paul Tarfa had had a long personal relationship with JN Garba.  He was also a Brigade of Guards insider and had previously commanded the 11 Infantry Brigade, which was an offshoot of the Guards Brigade.  Colonels George Innih and Paul Omu, for example, were among those Brigade Commanders with the same religious background with Garba and Ochefu.  Through such “boot strapping” and “targeted affiliation” the conspiracy significantly enlarged beyond its original nucleus, wrapping itself with a vast outer coalition of unrelated interests.  But there was one constant – Shehu Yar’Adua’s mistrust of Joseph Garba.  Up until the announcement on Radio Nigeria, Colonel JN Garba – unknown to him at the time - was under secret surveillance by a special team organized by Lt. Cols. Yar’Adua and Abdulai Mohammed.

Most meetings apparently took place in Yar’Adua’s house in Lagos under cover of a game of monopoly.  Sometimes plotters would arrive and then enter the gate of the neighboring house as if that was their destination and then - once out of street view  - cut across a hole in the fence between both compounds to get to their real destination for that day.  At other times they did the reverse by entering through Yar’Adua’s house but ending up in the neighboring house. 

Some senior Police officers were also aware of the plot.  But some – like Muhammadu Gambo who accompanied Gowon to Kampala – are said to have since denied their alleged roles.  Umaru Shinkafi’s role is unclear. 

But Gowon did make some counter-moves to “settle” some of the war-fighting crowd.  In addition to the August 1974 appointment of Brigadier Murtala Mohammed (2DIV) as a Federal Commissioner, for example, he appointed Brigadiers Obasanjo (2nd Division and later 3MCDO) and Abisoye (1st Division and later 3MCDO), Colonels Inua Wushishi (1st Division) and Dan Suleiman (NAF), as well as Navy Captain Olumide to the cabinet in January 1975.  To these war veterans were added, Major General Ekpo, Brigadier Henry Adefope, and Police Commissioner Adamu Suleiman. Major General Mohammed Shuwa (1st Division) was already in the cabinet. 



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This page was last updated on 10/27/07.