Military Rebellion of July 29


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Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975:

The coup against Gowon - Part 7

continued from




Nowa Omoigui



“If you want to stop a coup, remove the cause.”


Back in September 1974, Brigadier Murtala Mohammed had quipped that if Gowon wanted to prevent a coup, he should “remove the cause.”   Thus the infusion into the federal executive council of military elements seen as “legitimate” in the eyes of civil war veterans bought some time and space for the regime – but not for long.  It showed that Gowon could in fact be pressured into changing his style – even if slowly.  But there were some hidden dangers as well.  It opened up internal deliberations and official secrets of the government to the prying eyes of those who did not necessarily wish it well.  What used to be regarded as ‘rumor’ became ‘matter of fact’ to those whose prisms for viewing government activity were fixed – no matter how hard he tried.  The other issue – which posed even greater dangers - was that it accentuated the rivalry between the Military Governors who constituted the Supreme Military Council and their war fighting rivals, some of who were now in the Federal Executive Council (FEC), which was institutionally subordinate to the SMC.  To make matters worse military Federal Commissioners experienced first hand the powers of the “super-permanent secretaries,” who, as previously noted, were often automatically expected to attend SMC meetings which their commissioners could only attend on invitation. Some of the permanent secretaries sometimes even openly contradicted memoranda presented to the FEC by their commissioners.  (This tension in the ‘pecking order’ of the civil service versus the military was to explode into the open after the coup during the great civil service purge of 1975). 


During his October 1974 speech, Gowon had promised to change the military governors in March 1975. Thus, he bought himself some room for maneuver as far as the military was concerned.  However, some of his Governors were not pleased.  According to Brigadier Ogbemudia (rtd),


“My conclusion then was that he had lost confidence in us, and I felt that it was better for the Governors to resign.  The consensus among the Governors I consulted with was that it would be best to wait for such an action by the Commander-in-Chief as resignation by all of us would lead to a major crisis in the Army and eventually the country at large.  It was clear, however, that the Head of State was under pressure to change the Military Governors.”


But as the appointed time approached, Gowon changed his mind, delaying the promised change until June or July 1975 in order to allow the Governors complete the April budgeting process in their respective states.  As June approached, the retrospective argument was made that redeployments in April would have posed hardships for the families of the Governors since children were still at school until the onset of the summer holidays from June to August. General Gowon also got the idea that since the Queen of England was due to visit Nigeria in October that year it would only be fair to allow the Governors who had been part of the government stay on to welcome the Queen.  Once again, therefore, he prevaricated on the matter.  But that was not all. Since FESTAC was scheduled for November 1975, Gowon’s advisers felt that the Governors should also be allowed to stay on until then.  In other words, Governors would not be changed until December 1975 – assuming nothing else came up.


“Exercise SunStroke” 


Meanwhile the bonding process between Lt. Col. Shehu Yar’Adua and Colonel JN Garba continued.  In the early part of 1975, Garba’s Brigade of Guards finally got a planned military training exercise off the ground.  It was code named “Exercise SunStroke.”  Importantly, without Yar’Adua’s support and enthusiasm, exploiting his staff position at the Lagos Garrison Organization, that exercise – according to the late Major General JN Garba - would never have taken place.  Garba was indebted to him for it.  It allowed troops and units that had not taken part in wartime operations partake in a joint exercise with those who had.  And it brought a group of officers closer to one another for Yar’Adua’s pet project – the overthrow of General Gowon.  


“Exercise SunStroke” was a ten-day field exercise during which all operational phases of war were rehearsed.  Units involved would ‘advance’ motorized and dismounted from Lagos through Abeokuta to Lanlate in Oyo State, conducting a variety of maneuvers.  Lt. Col. Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida led the team of “umpires”.  Others included Lt. Col. SM Yar’Adua, Lt. Col. Abubakar Waziri, Major MC Alli etc.  The post-mortem was presided over by Yar’Adua’s boss, Brigadier Godwin Ally, Lagos Garrison Commander.  However, Ally was totally in the dark about what was really transpiring behind the curtains.  On July 29, 1975 many of the units that took part in “Exercise SunStroke” were out on deployment to secure key points in support of the coup.


April Blues


In spite of the prevailing military tensions, on again, off again “coup talk” and preparatory “bonding”, it was not until April that full-scale recruitment and operational planning went into high gear.  It came against the background of “Udoji award” controversies, labor union and professional strikes, and reports of trouble in the international Oil market. But the specific trigger was when Gowon reneged on his October 1974 promise to change the Governors in April 1975.   


The middle ranking officers who had coalesced around Yar’Adua and Garba found in Brigadier Murtala Mohammed, then Federal Commissioner for Communications and Inspector of Army Signals, an “alternative” to Gowon’s style of and approach to leadership.  According to late Major General JN Garba:


‘Lieutenant Colonel Shehu Yar’Adua and I went to his house one evening to talk to him about it, and found him reciting Koranic verses to the accompaniment of tapes pre-recorded for the purpose. He was in the middle of one of them and barely acknowledged our presence. We waited in silence for some forty minutes, until the tape had finished. I had not been to his house for a long time, indeed, not since 1969.  And even though I had been responsible for reconciling him with General Gowon in 1972, which led subsequently to his appointment as Commissioner of Communications in the 1974 cabinet reshuffle, he and I maintained only a correct relationship, despite our having been very close in the days leading to the July 1966 coup.  He and Shehu Yar’Adua, however, had a closer relationship, and I therefore left the talking to Shehu.’ (Italics mine)


‘When Yar’Adua finished speaking, I interjected a few words in amplification. He looked at us steadily for some moments, and then said,


“I have no intention of taking up arms for Nigeria again. Gowon is too far gone, and I would as soon let him stew in his own juice. If you boys want to stage a coup, which I agree is long overdue, I will not stop you. However, I reject your offer to be Head of State. Indeed, I refuse to have anything to do with it.  But since I believe your motives are correct, the only undertaking I will give you is, should you fail, and anyone wants to execute you, I would do my utmost to save your necks.” 


With that he went back to reading his Koran. After some moments we left, Yar’Adua saying to me not to worry; he would try to make him come around. (Italics mine) He must have done a good job, because eventually Murtala gave his tacit approval, wanting, however, to be distant from the events.  Though he was told all of the details and time, etc, he arranged to be out of the country, and was thus in London when the coup actually took place.  The only aircraft we allowed to land on that morning was the one carrying him back to Lagos via Kano where he deplaned.’


Interestingly, other than that one face-to-face April meeting with Garba, most of Mohammed’s contacts with the conspirators was mediated by Lt. Col Yar’Adua and Colonel Abdullai Mohammed.  Meanwhile conspirators got down to the nitty-gritty of coup making.  Plans were made to confuse government intelligence, neutralize or co-opt political forces and personalities, the media, communications facilities inside and outside the military and government at large, control entry and exit roads to key centers of gravity, secure traffic nodes, airports and public buildings. 


A good analogy by which the strategic underpinnings of the plot may be compared is like the peeling of an orange.   General Gowon was to be ‘peeled away’ from his control of the armed and unarmed segments of the state apparatus.  The underlying operational principles were driven by a desire to avoid the errors of January and July 1966 coups, which were executed by company grade officers and NCOs.  The operational echelon at which inner circle Lt. Colonels and Colonels would execute this coup was at the level of Brigade Commanders (or equivalent).   In addition, there would be no unnecessary bloodshed, as many senior officers in key positions as possible (ie Brigadiers) would be co-opted near D-Day (without compromising operational security) rather than arrested, and there would be no coup-within-a-coup.  The latter consideration, did not, however, imply that there weren’t factions among the plotters.  Indeed, Garba, as previously noted, was kept under surveillance by some of his co-conspirators, notably Yar’Adua.  Many years later, Garba confided in some people that he later came to the conclusion that he had been used.


Some Commissioners and Deputy-Commissioners of Police were also co-opted.  And there is evidence that then Colonel JN Garba discussed the plot with some civilians.  Other military conspirators may well have done so too.


General Gowon, meanwhile, was focused on international issues. In May, he was host to President Eyadema and other West African leaders for the inauguration of ECOWAS.  Also, on Friday May 30th, he flew to Maroua in Northern Cameroon for a summit, accompanied by Brigadiers UJ Esuene and Musa Usman, Governors of the South-Eastern and North-Eastern States respectively.  Among those in his delegation was Alhaji Shettima Ali Monguno, Commissioner for Mines and Power, Ambassador JTF Iyalla, Permanent Secretary External Affairs, and others.    Following airport formalities, Gowon was accommodated at the Prefect’s residence until the evening of Sunday June 1st when he returned to Nigeria. 


His penchant for traveling was not unnoticed by the putschists.   Indeed, they concluded that the chances that the coup would be bloody would be minimized even further if the C-in-C was outside the country, isolated from the rest of the armed forces.  His next major external adventure was the OAU summit in Kampala, Uganda at the end of July.  It would coincide with the anniversary of the July 29, 1966 coup that brought him to power – and, importantly, be obscured by the assumption that no officer in his right mind would attempt a coup on such a prominent rumor associated anniversary.   


Mind games and Information Overload


Prior to this time, dating back to April when Garba and Yar’Adua went to Mohammed’s house, “intelligence noise” was high and “coup indicators” were popping up here and there.   The plotters, through then Director of Military Intelligence, then Colonel Abdullai Mohammed, deliberately planted some of it.  But some of it also came from loyal sources. 


Some of the plotters were even held out as bait.  Both Colonels JN Garba and Anthony Ochefu, for example, were specifically mentioned in some reports.  When confronted, Garba reportedly denied the reports.  Ochefu simply made himself unavailable when Gowon sent for him.  But at the same time Gowon’s mind was playing games with him – as the plotters intended.  He began to wonder why only the names of officers from his home state of Benue-Plateau were being fed to him.   Did the real plotters intend for him to redeploy these two insiders and pillars of his regime so that he could leave himself exposed?  Was it part of the same game of blackmail that had created so much trouble in his home state in August and September 1974?  To manipulate him some more, subsequent reports claimed that Ochefu was really not in the plot but that he was in the process of trying to contain it!  These reports claimed that JN Garba was the main actor  - which Gowon found hard to believe.  Meanwhile louder and louder grumbling from disenchanted officers and civilians generated plenty of ‘clatter’.   For example, Gowon’s Chief Security Officer at the time, Alhaji MD Yusuf recalls that:


“You know, Shehu (Yar’Adua) would talk to you for two hours, beating about the bush, going around, unless you know exactly what he is doing it is only after his departure, when you put it altogether, that you discover what he is trying to say. He never came out openly to say we are planning a coup and could you help us. No, only, this is going on, going round and round. And this is what all of them were saying. “


Hidden within the “chaff”, however, was the “wheat.” 


When, about two weeks before General Gowon left for the OAU summit in Kampala, MD Yusuf approached him again with very specific and credible information about Colonel JN Garba, Yusuf recalls that Gowon said,


'Look, have you joined this group of coup scares and all that?'


In the opinion of the veteran Special Branch officer, Gowon reacted in this manner,


“Because he obviously had heard this over and over again. And he believed that it was a coup story and that I had joined. I said 'No, it would have been alright for me but Garba, who is your real guard, is right in it. So that is why I am telling you.'


But MD Yusuf had good reason to be very concerned.  In addition to his civilian sources, one or more of the military planners had directly approached him to say that a coup was in the offing.  He did not know what to make of such a blatant leak, except to conclude that it may have been a sentinel warning to Gowon, for old time’s sake, to make what changes were necessary to avert the putsch.  The other possibility, ofcourse, is that one or more of the plotters was making contingency plans in case the coup failed.  In that scenario the plotter could always claim to have reported the plot.  Yusuf mentioned it to then Federal Commissioner for Works, then Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo, who, after an FEC meeting, apparently crosschecked with Gowon to see if he had heard the story.  According to Obasanjo, Gowon reassured him that he had the situation under control.


MD Yusuf did not stop at that.  Before Gowon left for Kampala he approached him again with a suggestion:


“I tried to get him to do something before he left. One of the complaints was lack of promotion. A lot of officers. And at that time they had already decided who to promote, to go ahead with the promotions. I went to him, I said I have heard you have promoted - release the list, at least it will buy you time, it will disrupt these coup plotters and lift those who are making it to gain promotion, will feel 'look I have got promotion now, should we really go along?' Just to buy time. But he said no, there was a procedure which we do. And that was it.”


MD Yusuf also volunteered to confront Colonel JN Garba personally about the plot, so as to convince Gowon to take action. But Gowon opted to do so himself. Hence, before leaving for Kampala on July 27th, he asked Garba about it directly and Garba, once again, denied. In response Gowon reportedly told him:


“If you are plotting, let it be on your conscience and let it be without bloodshed. I must go to Kampala anyway.”





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