Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975:
The coup against Gowon - Part 9
continued from http://www.dawodu.com/omoigui45.htm
Tuesday July 29, 1975
“Abinde mu ka jin soro, ya faru agida”
By time zone, Kampala in Uganda is two hours ahead
of Lagos in Nigeria. In other words, 0600 hours in Lagos on July 29, 1975 was
actually 0800 hours in Kampala. When at about 0400 hours Lagos time
conspirators in Dodan Barracks were putting final touches to the speech Colonel
Garba would deliver at dawn, it was already 0600 hours in Kampala. Gowon,
focused on his agenda for the day, was oblivious of what was about to happen.
He was unaware that his emissary to Lagos, Lt. Col. WG Walbe had been detained
and his executive aircraft seized the day before. Throughout the crucial hours
of July 28, as plotters put finishing touches to their plans and mobilized
openly, no one contacted the General. It was as if he had been living – and
ruling - on borrowed time.
Professor Elaigwu has provided, based on
interviews with General Gowon, a comprehensive and accurate documentation of
events in Kampala in his book “Gowon.” All the essential details have been
reconfirmed by a civil servant that was a member of the Nigerian delegation
whose account I was privy to in the days following the return of the delegation
At the Nile Hotel in Kampala, getting up early on
that second day of the OAU conference, General Gowon, a former Chairman of the
organization, prepared himself for the usual diplomatic push and pull of the
summit. During opening formalities the day before, he was the keynote
speaker. His speech, an inspiring one by all accounts, on behalf of Nigeria,
was titled “The Unity of Africa.”
On his way to the Nile Mansions conference hall, Zaire’s General Mobutu delayed him for about half an hour, discussing the Angolan situation. Thereafter, Gowon entered the hall. Mr. Mbow of UNESCO was delivering a speech at the time. Ugandan President Idi Amin then called Gowon to the high table and gave him a note, which contained the news that he had been deposed in a coup. Gowon reportedly read the note and, in response to an inquiry from Amin, said the situation would become clearer as the day wore on. Apparently, this initial note did not specify the identity of the radio announcer in Lagos. Privately, Gowon was still thinking Colonel Garba was on his side and that no coup would succeed without fierce resistance from the elite brigade of guards. He was wrong.
He returned to his seat (next to Alhaji Usman Faruk). Gowon then quietly told the Governor, in Hausa,
“Abinde mu ka jin soro, ya faru agida”
This means, in English,
“What we have been afraid of at home, has
He then consoled Faruk, who was shattered by the
“I have a clear conscience. There is nothing to
According to former Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku, as reported by his biographer, Phyllis Johnson, a presidential aide wearing agbada entered the conference center via a side-door, made his way to the General and whispered some information into his ears. It was at that point that Gowon got up, acknowledged the Chairman (Idi Amin), and departed from the conference room, straight for his hotel room. It was apparent by now that the officer who announced that he had been deposed was none other than Colonel JN Garba himself, Commander, Brigade of Guards, who repeated his pledge of loyalty just before Gowon left the country. Clearly, things were a lot more complicated than he had thought.
According to sources in the civil service of that era, when Gowon got back to his room, he was contemplative and inquisitive but dignified. Over the course of the day he wanted every little piece of information from and about Nigeria brought to his attention. One of those present says he asked if the announcement from Lagos was the only announcement from Nigeria.
“What about Kaduna?”
“What about Ibadan?”
“What about Jos?”
The answer was the same. No counter-announcement was heard from any of the headquarters (at that time) of the Army’s Infantry Divisions. There was no news of fighting.
At this point let us briefly return to Nigeria.
Radio signals coming in to the plotters in Lagos from various divisional headquarters in the country had all said the same thing. Night-Time operations had been accomplished without resistance and troops in support of the putsch were deployed at critical points.
From the 1st division HQ at Kaduna, Lt. Col. Muhammadu Dan Ma’ji Jega, Colonel General Staff, was monitoring the situation. Jega was Yar’Adua’s course-mate from their days at the NMTC back in 1962, served with him (and Jalo) in the 1st battalion at Enugu before the July 1966 coup as well as the 6th battalion during the Bonny landings of 1967. Jega took over command of the 6th Brigade of the 2nd Division at Onitsha when Yar’adua was wounded in 1968. The GOC 1st Division, Brigadier IBM Haruna, himself a former GOC of the wartime 2nd Division, did not react – having been co-opted by Brigadier Jalo (another wartime GOC of the 2nd Division).
From the 2nd Division HQ at Ibadan, Lt. Col. Abdullahi Shelleng, Colonel General Staff, was monitoring the situation. Shelleng was also Yar’Adua’s course-mate from their days at the NMTC back in 1962 before he went to Pakistan, along with Jega, for Regular Officer training – while Yar’Adua went to Sandhurst. Shelleng served in the 1st Division under Shuwa (and later Bissalla) during the war. According to a source, his boss, the GOC 2nd Division, Brigadier James Oluleye, was away from Ibadan on vacation in the remote riverine areas of present Ondo state.
From the 3rd Division HQ in Jos, the investment in time and effort made by Colonels JN Garba and Ibrahim Taiwo had paid off. The GOC, Brigadier TY Danjuma did exactly as he said he would do - absolutely nothing.
The word from Kano was also good. The Brigade Commander, Colonel Ejiga, had successfully moved into position and kept a large number of senior officers (including Deputy Chief of Staff, SHQ Maj. Gen. Hassan Katsina) under isolation and close surveillance. They could neither shoot nor move, nor could they communicate with anyone else who could shoot or move.
Confirmation was also obtained from Brigade Commanders at critical locations outside Lagos that had been privy to the coup. To give just one example, Colonel (later Major General) George Innih was a very close friend of Colonel (later Major General) JN Garba. They worshipped at the same Cathedral whenever postings made them serve together in Lagos. In fact when then Lt. Col. JN Garba first got married back in 1972, it was then Lt. Col. GA Innih that delivered an invitation to my family. Although senior to him, Innih also attended the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst during the same era as Lt. Col. SM Yar’Adua. On July 28/29, 1975, Innih was the Commander of the 5 Infantry Brigade at Onitsha. His task – which he was initially quite uncomfortable with - was to block any East-West movement across the Niger Bridge of hostile forces that might be mobilized against the putsch in Lagos in the event of all-out fighting. (Although the Brigade Commander in Enugu had been approached he did not give express consent to participate).
In the meantime, although all airports were closed, a commercial aircraft carrying Brigadier Murtala Mohammed back from London was allowed to land at the Kano International Airport.
Confident that the putsch had succeeded nationwide – and that no negative reaction was forthcoming from the Guards Brigade - Colonels Garba and Ochefu released Lt. Col Walbe from Dodan Barracks. They – along with other putschists - then turned their attention to the next phase of the operation – incorporating a wider swath of officers in the military and public servants in the unarmed segments of the bureaucracy. To do this, they sent signals declaring their intention to summon what can best be described as a “military convention” in Lagos at which the new leadership – supposedly excluding themselves – would presumably be chosen. They were careful – except in one case - not to betray prior arrangements with Brigadier Murtala Mohammed – or anyone else at that point. It was important to project political, ethnic and religious neutrality and hide behind institutional and national loyalty until all those that could cause trouble later were gathered in one place – under the control of the plotters. By so doing, units and commanders that had elected to take a “wait-and-see” attitude would be dissuaded from coming down on the side of the Gowon regime until the situation was clear – from their own standpoint.
At 0900 hours, therefore, an aircraft left Lagos
to bring senior officers (including service chiefs) to Lagos. It hopped from
airport to airport gathering officers all over the country. Meanwhile Garba
listened to himself on radio repeatedly and drove around Lagos inspecting points
of deployment. He returned to the Radio Station several times – at one point
engaging one of the young officers there in conversation about the officer’s
concern that there were too few soldiers on guard at the station. This officer,
then 2/Lt. Garba Ismaila, (who was not from the middle belt) having finally
realized what he had been “innocently” deployed to the radio station to do
became alarmed at the prospect of counter-attack. Colonel JN Garba, who had
more inside information about the big picture, was not too concerned – or did
not appear so in the adrenergic state he was in. Lt. Col. Ibrahim Babangida
had deployed additional Armoured vehicles from Ikeja to Dodan Barracks in
expectation of the arrival of senior officers. And Radio Nigeria was just across
Meanwhile, then Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo had lost his appetite. According to him,
“I sent for newspapers and I kept myself busy by
reading every print including the small advertisements.”
Obasanjo kept checking in with MD Yusuf about the
security situation in the country and was re-assured - repeatedly - that the
nationwide deployment of soldiers overnight had been peaceful. At 1500 hours
(3 pm), Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed and Lt. Col. Shehu Yar’Adua, two of the
original “three musketeers of July 1975”, (the third being Colonel Taiwo),
walked into Obasanjo’s house. They invited him for the planned meeting of
senior officers scheduled for 1600 hours (4 pm) at Dodan Barracks – but took
some time to sound him out on his views about the situation in the country.
Col. Abdullahi Mohammed made a slip of tongue and told Obasanjo to “help us put
some of these ideas into practice” which prompted Yar’Adua to interrupt him.
The plan had not been to betray any specifics about the proposed new
leadership. Such information in the wrong hands at the wrong time could spell
trouble. (Not even Brigadier Murtala Mohammed, who had been tapped in April as
the new leader was told of certain intended changes in the way the country was
to be run after the coup).
Nevertheless, Obasanjo, wearing mufti, drove
himself unarmed in his private vehicle to Dodan Barracks. According to him there
were some officers there before him and “Nobody asked the other any question on
what had happened but the atmosphere was jovial, cordial and tension-free.”
According to Garba, it proved to be quite a difficult task to round up senior officers from other parts of Nigeria because most were in a “summer holiday” mood attending to all sorts of non-military pursuits while others had traveled abroad. A speedboat, for example, had to be sent to the riverine area of present Ondo State to fetch Brigadier Oluleye. An additional factor in the difficulty of rounding up officers was the instinctive self-protective need to lie low after a coup is announced – particularly when the agenda of the putschists is unclear.
“It was not until about five in the afternoon that
a large number of them finally assembly in Dodan Barracks to hear what we, who
came to be known as the Junta, had to say. We kept everyone waiting in the
large council chamber, after plucking out our proposed ruling triumvirate of
Murtala Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo, and T.Y. Danjuma, to inform them of their
The three officers who jointly announced the identities and jobs of the proposed triumvirate in the coffee room at Dodan Barracks were Colonel JN Garba (the main spokesperson), Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed, and Lt. Col. SM Yar’Adua. These officers explained that although Brigadier Murtala Mohammed (from Kano in the core north) was militarily junior to Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo (from Abeokuta in the southwest), “real politik” made it necessary to offer the position of Head of State to Mohammed. Obasanjo quickly accepted to serve under his junior, Murtala Mohammed, as long as his new job – as Chief of Staff, SHQ - carried real power and responsibilities. Danjuma was offered the position of Chief of Staff (Army), which he later clarified was now to be called Chief of Army Staff – an important distinction.
The putschists nominated Air Force Colonel John Yisa Doko of the Military Airlift Command as the new Air Chief and Navy Commodore Michael Ayinde Adelanwa of the Western Naval Command as the new Chief of Naval Staff. Both men were civil war front-line combat veterans. They nominated MD Yusuf, (Gowon’s Chief Security Officer) as the new Inspector General of Police. This nomination met with resistance from Brigadier Mohammed but he eventually agreed to it in deference to the weight of opinion in the room. As far as most were concerned, MD Yusuf had “handled himself well” during the preceding 48 hours.
The putschists then demanded that Military Governors no longer be members of the Supreme Military Council. In response, Obasanjo suggested the creation of a new body to be known as the “National Council of States” to which the Governors should belong. Lastly, the putschists made it clear that what they wanted was power sharing, not one-man rule. They proposed that two-thirds majority of the SMC could overrule the Head of State. According to Garba and Obasanjo, Mohammed’s opposition to this demand was fiery.
‘When I finished my talk, Murtala burst out, “To
hell with all of you! I have said I don’t want to be anybody’s Head of State.
But if you’re inviting me to be one, I’m not going to allow you to tie my hands
behind my back. I must have executive authority and run the country as I see
best.” I tried to reason with him, but twenty minutes later he was still
With other senior officers – including Yar’Adua’s Boss, Brigadier Godwin Ally of the Lagos Garrison Organization - getting uncomfortable about the delay and wondering what was going on behind the closed doors, Garba asked Murtala Mohammed to step out of the coffee room. The leadership position was then offered, first to Obasanjo, and then to Danjuma but both declined, pleading with the younger officers to keep up the persuasion pressure on Mohammed. Garba invited Mohammed back into the room and asked him if he had reconsidered, to which Mohammed again said no. He wanted absolute power.
At this point Garba explains that he was very tired and getting angry. He had been awake for two straight days and nights under “inconsiderable pressure.” It is very plausible that he suffered many anxieties, misleading Gowon with a straight face, handling the airport departure of the General with external calm but internal eruption, and co-opting fellow Guards Brigade officers – who were sworn to defend the General - into the plot, for example. He also helped deal with emergencies such as when arrangements had to be made – through Taiwo and Ochefu - to recruit an Army accomplice in Kano to address the Hassan Katsina problem, and secure Danjuma’s cooperation – through Taiwo - rather than risk arresting or shooting him. But by far his greatest scare was the rumored return of General Gowon on July 28. When the executive jet was approaching the airport in Lagos it was not immediately apparent that Lt. Col. Walbe was the only passenger. Air Force officers alerted Garba that the plane was inbound. Alarmed, he desperately sought Yar’Adua to update him on the development and come up with a plan of action. Yar’Adua was playing a game of billiards (and chain smoking) when Garba charged into the mess, wired up. When Muktar Mohammed detained the aircraft it became apparent that Walbe was alone, considerably reducing tension. But then Garba later had to confront Walbe – an officer and former classmate at the NMS – who had been sent to assist him to put down a coup, which he was actually in the process of organizing. That done he had to be on the lookout for any last minute reactions from the Guards Brigade. Any one of the soldiers who was upset enough could have walked up to him and shot him. With all of this at the back of his mind, tearing at the foundations of his sense of integrity, he was in no mood for Mohammed’s theatrics.
At this point, Colonel Abdullahi Mohammed,
Director of Military Intelligence, took over. Based on Garba’s recollection he
made the following appeal to Mohammed:
“Brigadier Muhammed, when we were planning this
coup, we assessed all the senior officers in the Army, and we decided that you
were the best man to lead the country. We also agreed on some fundamental
changes in how our new government should work. Garba has explained this to you.
If you do not accept it, we cannot force you. But we happen to know that you
have a large following in the Army and in the country at large. If we appoint
someone else as Head of State instead of you, there are those who will wonder
why, and they may create problems for us. We can appoint another man if we have
to, but to pre-empt these your admirers, before doing so, we will first tell the
whole nation about this meeting, and pour conditions and the fact that you
refused them. Once more, I am going to explain to you what it is we are asking
Following Abdullahi Mohammed’s repeated explanation, Garba explains that Murtala Mohammed
“…..exploded, shouting, ‘This is blackmail! I am not going to have you blackmailing me…’”
But Garba astutely observed that,
“We could see behind this somewhat theatrical
outburst that he would give in, but not gracefully. Then, he said, but
protesting all the while, that all this should have been explained to him
before. He then accepted our terms. Thus we had a new Head of State.”
At this point, Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo, Danjuma, JN Garba, Abdullahi Mohammed, and SM Yar’Adua rejoined the officers waiting in the main conference room. Garba then announced the names of the main figures in the new regime. At that point, the now ex-Service Chiefs and pro-Gowon senior officers present were not in a position to do anything. They were unarmed, marooned inside Dodan Barracks, surrounded by Babangida’s Armoured Vehicles and Garba’s infantry – all heavily armed. They accepted the situation as a fait accompli and left quietly.
The new triumvirate then made arrangements to meet with core putschists later that evening at about 2200 hours (10 pm) in Brigadier Mohammed’s house to reach agreement on the detailed composition of the new regime at Federal and State level, as well as within the Army.
Meanwhile some of the putschists attended to housekeeping chores. According to sources, Colonels Garba and Babangida went over to the house of Alhaji MT Usman, then Federal Director of Public Works, and a relation of Yar’Adua to give message to Lt. Col. SM Yar’Adua’s family that all was well with the Colonel and that they could return home. As he left to carry out his part of the operation the day before Yar’Adua had dropped off his family at Usman’s house, informed him that a coup was about to occur and asked him to take care of his family if he did not return.
Let us now briefly return to Kampala.
After departing from the conference hall, Gowon
spent the rest of the day quietly. Cameroon’s President Ahidjo had sought his
audience to commiserate and get an update on the situation. Ahidjo – who was
reportedly shattered by the development - was particularly astonished by Garba’s
involvement. Other African leaders like Generals Jaffar Numeiri of Sudan, Idi
Amin of Uganda, and Mikael Andom of Ethiopia, also called on him to express
support. There is no record, however, that any of them offered specific
military assistance to beat back the coup.
Thereafter, Gowon, who was getting quite uncomfortable with the not so subtle alleged surveillance and containment activities of NAF Lt. Col. Mustapha Amin and Mr. Muhammadu Gambo of the Police Special Branch, reportedly gave them a piece of his mind. Then he retired to play a game of squash at the University.
Shortly after the Dodan Barracks “military convention”, the BBC monitored a broadcast from Lagos announcing that Brigadier Murtala ‘Rufai’ Mohammed had been chosen to lead the new regime. A day later, however, the middle name was corrected by the BBC to read “Ramat” and the last name re-spelled to read “Muhammed”.
By nightfall in Kampala, therefore, Gowon knew
that Murtala Muhammed and Joe Garba were definitely involved. Who were the
others, he wondered? When word came that Brigadier TY Danjuma, one of those he
had counted on for support, had been appointed Chief of the Army in the new
dispensation, Gowon was crushed. But most of the shock would come when the full
list of members of the SMC and new State Governors was released the next day.
Let us return again to Nigeria.
Later that night, at about 2200 hours Lagos local time (midnight in Kampala) there was a crucial meeting at the house of Brigadier Muhammed along 2nd Avenue in Ikoyi. The putschists – mainly represented by an inner circle junta comprising SM Yar’Adua, JN Garba, Abdullahi Mohammed, Muhammadu Buhari, and Ibrahim Taiwo, among others - had started out by saying they did not want to play any political role in the new government. Garba in particular was initially very concerned that given his relationship with Gowon, his role in the coup would come to be seen as opportunist and selfish if he emerged as part of the new political administration.
However, Obasanjo opposed the complete exclusion of the plotters from government, fearing – by his own account - a repeat of the scenario between General Mohammed Neguib and Colonel Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Nasser and the Free Officers movement staged a coup against King Farouk and placed Neguib in office on July 23, 1952. (Lt. Col. Anwar Sadat announced the coup.) Neguib became Commander-in-Chief, Prime Minister and President of the republic. But Nasser and his boys later eased Neguib out on November 17th 1954. Nasser became Prime Minister from 1954-56 and President of Egypt from 1956 until he died.
In citing this historical example as his reason for opposing the exclusion of the putschists of July 1975 from political office, Obasanjo misread history. Neguib did not exclude the Free Officers from political office. In fact, the 34-year-old Colonel Nasser became the Interior Minister (and deputy to Neguib) in 1952. Political infighting among the Free Officers resulted in the departure of Khaled Mohieddin and Youssef Siddiq from key positions in 1953. Nasser and the remaining Free Officers (like Anwar Sadat, Baghdadi and Kamaleddin Hussein, Sarwat Okasha, Abdel Hakim Amer, etc.) later pushed Neguib aside – allegedly because he was too moderate. The change was executed from within the regime in a palace coup.
On the other hand, making theoretical arguments about the need to avoid political office is easy when talking from the standpoint of idealistic opposition officers meeting in secrecy to overthrow a government. Once power is actually seized, however, it requires a whole new level of determination and forthrightness – and confidence in the leadership of those to whom you then entrust the government - not to yield to temptation. With the new situation on ground, the putschists did not strongly resist Obasanjo’s pragmatic (but historically inaccurate) argument. They gladly agreed to take political appointments in recognition no doubt of their “hard work”. Garba rationalized it by saying they “had found themselves unavoidably drawn into political jobs…”
In the meantime, to avoid denuding the Army of high quality officers, Brigadier Danjuma was giving priority in choosing his team first before political appointments were made. Colonel JN Garba – who had initially argued successfully to stay away from a political job - was first offered the position of Deputy Commandant of the NDA, which he turned down because “it involved too much administrative routine for my liking”. Although Garba says that the “junta” had decided that “hierarchy and seniority in the army must remain undisturbed, apart from the three top appointments” his comment about the posting to NDA betrays a subtle lack of institutional discipline and regimentation. Officers should not typically be able to lobby themselves out of military appointments because they do not “like the routine”. But Colonel Garba was a member of the junta that had just “appointed” Brigadier Danjuma – who did nothing to stop the coup - to his new job. Thus the Brigadier had many dynamics to contend with, at least at that stage of the game. This real-politick tolerance and accommodation of Garba’s rejection of a military posting is to be contrasted with what happened when Brigadier Oluleye – the GOC who chose not to resist the coup but was not an insider - rejected his own posting to the NDA as the Commandant. Mohammed and Obasanjo asked Oluleye, point-blank, to resign his commission. His career was, however, saved because – according to him - some of the putschists had served under him before and opposed his retirement. He was, therefore, compensated with a federal ministerial position. These events provide insight into some of the deep problems that were to consume the military in that and subsequent military regimes.
In the haggling for office that followed his rejection of a military posting to the NDA, Garba ended up being given a political position as Federal Commissioner for Transport which he only accepted when told that “…the Ministry also controlled the Nigerian Railways and Airways…”. Lt. Col. SM Yar’Adua was initially appointed Governor of Rivers State, and then moved to take the Foreign Ministry. Buhari, Taiwo and Abdullahi Mohammed bagged State Governorships. Other core putschists or collaborators also got these and other types of “good appointments” within and outside the Army. Several former Brigade Commanders became Governors.
Garba left the meeting at 0400 hours and returned home to brief his spouse. She reminded him of his promise – before the coup - not to accept any appointment. Therefore, he returned to Muhammed’s house after daybreak to decline the offer of Transport Commissioner, again citing his closeness to Gowon and the danger of being misunderstood. With Obasanjo’s support, Muhammed dropped Garba’s name from the cabinet. Yar’Adua was then moved to Transport because of the urgency of the Ports Decongestion issue and the request by the Permanent Secretary in that Ministry – Alhaji Yusuf Gobir - that whomever took the job must have strong leverage within the regime.
The External Affairs Ministry was, therefore,
vacant and massive lobbying for the job commenced – as is typical of Nigeria.
Indeed there would be no federal cabinet until a week later. Meanwhile, in the
late afternoon/early evening of July 30, the new Head of State proceeded to make
his maiden broadcast. In it he aimed at consolidating the authority and
legitimacy of the new government by exploiting the various controversial
political issues and undercurrents that alienated Gowon from key constituents
over the course of several years.
All the world 's a stage…..
Having reviewed the extent of the conspiracy, based on the astonishing list of names of those who now constituted the new regime, General Gowon chose not to fight the situation by making appeals to potential loyalists still hidden away in the background. He also wanted – he says - to make sure that those who might be considering resisting the new regime should not go down that path. It was a path that was fraught with danger of bloodshed, he thought. Wearing a white traditional Nigerian Agbada and cap to match, therefore, he called an International Press Conference.
He opened the conference with an off the cuff remark in which he quoted the first few lines from a section of William Shakespeare’s “As you like it”:
“All the world 's a stage,
He then delivered a prepared speech (with
“From all indications a new government has been
established in Nigeria. I wish to state that I on my part have also accepted the
change and pledge my full loyalty to my nation, my country and the new
government. Therefore, in the overall interest of the nation and our beloved
country, I appeal to all concerned to cooperate fully with the new government
and ensure the preservation of peace, unity and stability of our dear
As a Nigerian, I am prepared to serve my country in any capacity, which my country may consider appropriate. I am a professional soldier and I can do any duty that I am called upon to do.
May I take this opportunity to thank all the
people of Nigeria and friends of Nigeria for the support and cooperation that
you all gave me during my tenure of office and call upon all of you to give the
new government of our nation the same support and cooperation in the interest of
our beloved country.
Long live one united, happy and prosperous
Nigeria. Long live the Organization of African Unity. May God bless you all.”
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