British secret files on Nigeria’s first bloody coup, path to Biafra

Jun 12 2016 - 3:01pm
Samuel Ladoke Akintola: Personally engaged soldiers in gun duel

Samuel Ladoke Akintola: Personally engaged soldiers in gun duel

The 31-year-old Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna was the brain behind the Revolution. He studied zoology for 4 years at Ibadan University and graduated with a B.Sc before being commissioned into the army in 1961. At the age of 20, he brought glory to the nation when at the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, he won Nigeria’s first ever gold medal at any international games and set a new record in high jump. He refused to wear the athletes’ spiked boots or any shoe at all for the run-up competitions. At Vancouver, in front of the international cameras, he was persuaded to wear the boots. As a compromise, he wore a boot only on one leg and jumped the highest setting a new world record in high jump and in bizarre outfitting. Ifeajuna knew he was not born to be ordinary and so was addicted to breaking rules and setting new records. As a charismatic orator and Director of Information at University College Ibadan Students Union, he led the protest against the Queen’s visit to the University in 1956.

Ibadan City was born by dissident soldiers headed by Lagelu among seven hills as a refuge for immigrants fleeing wars in 1829. By 1960, Ibadan had become the most cosmopolitan city in Nigeria. Being an embodiment of the lure of consistent non-conformism, Ibadan like New York of that time, held an extraordinary collection of flame-headed intellectuals avid for novelty and whose creativity and distinguished activisms enriched the city and the country. There was nowhere in Africa that matched Ibadan’s assemblage of fire then. There was SG Ikoku who challenged and defeated his own famous father Alvan Ikoku at the Eastern Region Assembly elections of 1956 and then radicalised his new adopted father Chief Obafemi Awolowo into socialism. There was Anthony Enahoro, Chris Okigbo, John Pepper Clark, Chinua Achebe, Tayo Akpata, Benedict Obumselu, Chike Obi, Wole Soyinka, Sam Agbam, Akin Mabogunje, Bola Ige, Emeka Anyaoku, Elechi Amadi. Ifeajuna was a friend to most of them. He wrote in his manuscript:

“It was at Ibadan also I learnt my third lesson. One morning, workmen arrived in the campus with what looked like burglar grills. In a matter of days, they had sealed off each hall or residence from the outside and turned all into cages. Altogether, they gave the place the look of a zoo, so that students saw themselves as animals on show…Then the students took a decision – the cages would have to come down faster than they had been put up. But how to do it? Everybody knew what was wanted but they had not or did not know the means and the manner of effecting the change desired and demanded by all. Each waited for the other to act or simply waited in the hope that something would happen by way of providential intervention.

“At the appointed hour, I and two others met in a hidden rendezvous. We worked out the detailed plans and assembled hammers for the job. The events which took place a week or so later went according to plan. We called a Union meeting. There were speeches, moving speeches. Then one of my friends shouted: ‘Down with the cages.’ He led the way to the hammer dump. Before long the cages were down. At the end of it all a student friend reflecting on the incident made interesting comment that a collection of professors would still be a crowd: a group must have a leader or remain in chaos. The University College was closed for a term but we made our point. And the lesson that emerged for me from this incident was the need for careful planning before [undergoing] any operation; the chance of success can be said to be proportion to the work put into the planning.”

Ifeajuna informed Okigbo the discussed Revolution was in the works. According to Wole Soyinka, Okigbo informed Achebe and informed him also without going into details. Soyinka was then on trial for allegedly using a gun to persuade the state broadcaster that instead of Akintola’s tape announcing himself as the election winner, his own tape asking Akintola to pack and go was of better value to the people. He was later freed by Justice Kayode Eso on 12 December 1965.

Ifeajuna was pleased to hear about Okigbo’s friend subversive broadcast. He regarded it as theatre; they were plotting the real stunt. On the day of this stunt, more than anywhere else in the country, there was great euphoria of vindication in Ibadan as the people leapt around on the streets like compressed chests freed at last from the tyranny of pushdown bras. Ibadan claimed Ifeajuna as one of its very own and Okigbo distilled the joys of that day into his poem Hurray for the Path of Thunder. When Nzeogwu’s voice fountained out like a genie of the lamp amongst some Ibadan intellectuals clustered around their radio at Risikatu’s restaurant, Okigbo was reported to have called for patience, patience, patience. He confidently proclaimed that there was still another voice that would soon follow suit. He was referring to his friend and chief engineer of the Revolution, Major Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna born on 3rd March 1934, married to Rose on 16th June 1959 at Lagos Registry in Ikoyi and commissioned into the army on 6th December 1960.

Ben Gbulie: Obasanjo's deputy who ought to pick him at the airport

Ben Gbulie: Obasanjo’s deputy who ought to pick him at the airport

On the night of the coup, after Ifeajuna concluded his address to his fellow mutineers in his sitting room, he led the largest unit comprising 22 soldiers. Reaching Onikan roundabout, he divided them into three groups. One officer, 2/Lt. G. Ezedigbo and 8 NCOs would go to arrest the finance minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh who was then the most corrupt politician in the history of Nigeria. Just like the Downing Street model in London, the Prime Minister and Finance Minister lived side-by-side. But they had become respectively like church and state that did not mix. Another unit comprising 5 NCOs commanded by second warrant officer Onyeacha was left behind to watch over their vehicles and ensure that no other vehicle entered or exited the Onikan roundabout during the course of the operation. Ifeajuna himself commanded the remaining soldiers whose task was to arrest the Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa Abubakar, the novelist and teacher turned Prime Minister.

Abubakar was widely known to hardly surround himself with guards at home or even when commuting. He always cautioned his household against striving for the inessential and ostentatious materialism which expressed itself in need for elaborate security measures. Only Abubakar could have a disabled cripple called Inspector Kaftan Topolomiyo from Nangasu in Chad as his head of security. It was only in 1964 that he consented to a supplement ADC, Sgt Maxwell Orukpabo fondly called “the Igbo” in the household. In February 1963 during a police council meeting with the four regional premiers, the newly restored Western Premier, Akintola proposed a budget for armoured cars for themselves given the security situation in the country. Abubakar softly reprimanded him: “Mr Premier, if I ever thought I would need an armoured car to go anywhere in Nigeria, I would resign.” In the pornography of corruption called the Nigerian government, Abubakar was a monk. And so Ifeajuna knew his task would be very easy. The soldiers he took to abduct him were service soldiers drawn from Signal Squadron, Lagos Garrison Organisation and Camp. None were combat soldiers.

Around thirty minutes later, without a single shot fired, the cool and soft-spoken Prime Minister emerged from the front gate of his residence untied, gently rattling his prayer beads and was dressed in a white flowing jalabiya and a pair of sandals. A lifetime of emotional discipline had rendered his signature face docile and unconquerable by fear. The dead silence of the night lent a hallowed majesty to his steps as he advanced towards his Golgotha. Behind him was Ifeajuna and eight other non-combat soldiers with guns drawn. By the time the entourage reached the parked vehicles, Okotie-Eboh his NCNC Finance Minister had been arrested with his hands tied. Abubakar was assisted into the backseat of Ifeajuna’s luxurious red Mercedes Benz while Okotie Eboh was tossed like a sack of potatoes into the back of the 3 tonner. The convoy drove to report to Federal Guard’s Officer’s Mess.

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