Nigeria’s first coup, Biafra: British Secret files (Part Two)

Jun 19 2016 - 5:22am
Balewa: Killed in Lagos

Balewa: Killed in Lagos

As a teenager, Abubakar was never interested in politics. He wanted to be a teacher and a novelist. In 1933, at the age of 20, his novella Shaihu Umar written colloquially came third in a literary competition organised by the colonial education department in Zaria. The novella is a bildungsroman that parallels Shaihu Umar’s journey amongst an enslaver’s caravans across the Sahara Desert with a person’s journey through life from birth, wedding, child-nurturing to death. The sandstorm and other natural disasters experienced in the desert is contrasted with the inevitable hardships and mishaps one must suffer in life. It was useless looking for someone to blame including his wicked brother who contributed to some of his most brutal hardships. If Abubakar could be compared to his hero, Shaihu Umar, then his wicked brother was Emmanuel Ifeajuna and the enslaver’s caravan he travelled with in the desert was Okotie–Eboh, Mbadiwe and other government corruption fundamentalists who enslaved him to bad luck.

 

According to Ifeajuna, when they opened the door for him to get some fresh air, he surprised them: even though everywhere was pitch dark, Abubakar began to race into the bush. It was his white flowing jalabiya that gave him away. Quick, Ifeajuna grabbed his SMG from the car, cocked it and painfully set the darkness echoing before the dense forest could snatch his Abubakar away from him. He closed his eyes to unsee what he had done. But Abubakar was a rose that could grow out of mass concrete. It was love at last sight. The 54-year-old Prime Minister and a father of 18 children was not thinking straight; he, the 30-year-old Major and the father of 2 sons (Emmanuel and Bay), had to find a way to correct him. He could have been chased, captured and tied up. But Ifeajuna felt he was ripe for death anyway because he had become a liability to the Revolution and a pain to their free movement.

 

Ifeajuna reckoned that to outgun Ironsi and keep the dream of the Revolution alive, they needed more than the armoured, mechanised and artillery support that Obienu had to offer; they had to mobilise an additional company strong infantry at least. Going to 4th battalion in Ibadan was out of the question because they had no loyalist there. All their efforts to recruit Majors Nzefili and Ohanehi in December failed. Besides, the soldiers were extremely loyal to their commander Abogo Largema whose remains they had just tossed into the bush with Abubakar. The nearest military unit from which they could draw combat troops was 1st battalion in Apankwa Barracks in Enugu. Their commander, David Ejoor was supposed to be dragged out of the boot too and tossed into the bush like Largema, but he missed that fate by being unavailable in his allocated room in Ikoyi Hotel. They knew he was still in Lagos because he attended the Maimalari cocktail. Ifeajuna and Okafor decided to head back to Ikeja in order to proceed through Shagamu and race to Enugu to mobilise the battle ready troops. It was an impromptu journey that would have been inconceivable was Abubakar still with them.

 

In August 1962, the Federal Guards was formed and 150 of its initial 200 elite fighters were deployed from the Enugu battalion. It was the largest battalion in the country with 26 officers and 843 NCOs. Major Okonweze, Ejoor’s second-in-command in Enugu was part of the coup plot. He would not hesitate to grant Ifeajuna’s request for troops to Lagos. Using the privilege of their military uniforms, Ifeajuna and Okafor went through all the security roadblocks unobstructed. Combat fatigue and the post-traumatic stress disorder occasioned by his killing of two personalities with whom he had emotional connection – Maimalari and Abubakar – was already bossing him into making extremely individualistic decisions which prevented him from finding a way to inform Anuforo and Ademoyega of his new move.

 

Lagos – Ejoor

 

As the morning lights came and flushed away the stench of the night, Lagosians and Abeokutans woke up thinking the day was like any other day. It would take another 7 hours (at 2:30pm) for Radio Nigeria to announce the coup to the general public.   Vehicles coming from Abeokuta to Lagos overtook a column of slow-moving armoured vehicles which Ademoyega and Anuforo had mobilised. In Ikeja cantonment, rumours blazed around like wild fire that the mutineers had been seen coming en masse to attack Lagos. The cantonment was in a state of heightened security. Bullet-resistant fighting positions were constructed with sandbags at strategic positions. When Ejoor reached the cantonment gate, the sentry did not allow him out. He told Ejoor he was under strict instruction to refuse any soldier from going out or coming in without authorisation. Ejoor had to go back to fetch Igboba. Ejoor was a lieutenant colonel. Igboba was a Major. Circumstance had turned the chain of command unto its head like the grave condition that made crayfish to bend.

Yakubu Gowon: mobilised forces against the plotters in Lagos

Yakubu Gowon: mobilised forces against the plotters in Lagos

Something strange then happened. Major John Obienu, the cleavage extremist, turned up at the battalion’s gates wanting to enter. When Obienu woke up in the morning, he tried to find out if the Revolution proceeded without him and if he might still fit in the scheme of things. So he went to the Airport junction; there were no sign of his squadron. He then dashed to Ikeja cantonment. He saw none of his ferret or Saladin and was making enquiries. All of a sudden he was recognised by one of the sentries as the officer commanding the unit rumoured to be coming from Abeokuta to attack. Igboba who came to the gates to authorise Ejoor’s exit ordered guns trained on Obienu. He protested his innocence. He swore that he didn’t know about any mutiny nor that his Recce squadron was making their way from Abeokuta. He said that he went to Maimalari’s party, slept in a friend’s place in Shomolu and was here trying to go back to Abeokuta. Liar, Igboba screamed at him. How was it possible that your unit was bringing their firepower to come and fight in a pre-planned mutiny and you their commanding officer did not know? NCOs do not mobilise for actions if they were not instructed by their OC. Who authorised them? Obienu swore he did not know anything. Ejoor then intervened. He suggested Obienu went ahead on Abeokuta road to neutralise his renegade unit. Obienu replied without troops to back him up, it would be unwise to go out there to stop them. That sounded reasonable to Ejoor and confirmed that he actually wasn’t part of the mutiny. Had he been part of the rebels, he wouldn’t have hesitated to go out there to meet his unit, Ejoor said. Henceforth, Obienu switched loyalty and joined the loyal forces trying to neutralise the Revolution. Not wanting further delay to the airport, Ejoor left them. In his account of what happened that morning, Ejoor wrote:

“As we approached the junction of the road that led into the Ikeja GRA and the Airport Road, I saw three artillery trucks approaching us. I immediately sense that this was what Major Igboba had talked about. I felt cornered as I had no way of knowing how these troops would react to me; whether they would take me as a foe or a friend. I did some quick thinking and decided to put the troop at some psychological disadvantage. Accordingly, I stood in the middle of the road and help up my hand indicating to them to stop. As the lead vehicle got close and stopped, I snapped at the troops, asking why they took so long to arrive, thereby slowing down our operations. The trick worked. They straightaway went on the defensive, explaining that they had some problems with tyres and fuel. I accepted their explanations and warned them that they were to be no more delays. “Go straight to Ikeja Cantonment and get your next orders,” I said and proceeded to lead them to the barracks as the traffic cleared for the military trucks. When we got to the battalion headquarters, I gave orders that all the troops escorted there be immediately disarmed and arrested. While this was being done, I resumed my journey to the Airport. Thus, by sheer accident, I was involved with the first major arrest of those involved in the coup of 15th January 1966.”

 

In a widely read article Head With Creative Thinking, in the influential Army journal The Nigerian Magazine, Ejoor lamented the absence of active creativity in the Army. He wrote: “Creativity is necessarily the lifeblood of a successful business concern. This is because competition in civilian life is so severe that a heavy premium is placed on ideas of all kinds. In the military world in peace time, we have not the same spur of competition, and yet if we cannot instil a creative atmosphere within the Armed Services, we are in the danger of failing both in peace and war. I believe the classical example of an Army which failed because it was in a rut and lacking in ideas was the French at the beginning of World War II.” Creativity inspired Ejoor to distance himself from Ironsi and Njoku. It led him to single-handedly neutralise the rebel detachment from Abeokuta which Obeinu their commander could not even do. Creativity would also save him from another assassination plot by Ifeajuna awaiting him in the East.

 

Ejoor – Enugu

 

The sun was already up in the East staining the skies with fire. Ejoor landed in at 11:30am after the eighty minutes of flight. At the airport, he saw a platoon of soldiers sleeping around in different degrees of disorderliness. He snapped them to attention and asked them what they were doing there. The platoon commander replied that they were ordered there since 3:00am by the acting battalion commander Major Gabriel Okonweze to whom Ejoor handed the battalion before he proceeded to Lagos for the Brigade Training Conference. When Ejoor asked for his service car and a platoon of guards to come and pick him from the airport, Okonweze himself followed them to confirm it was true Ejoor was truly back. Okonweze couldn’t contain his surprise. When Ejoor asked why he had deployed troops all over town, Okonweze said he received a signal from Brigadier Maimalari ordering the troop deployments.

As of early December, Major Chude-Okei the battalion’s second in command was the head of the Revolution in the East. But he went for a course in India and the coup command was handed to Okonweze. Ifeajuna used Lieutenant Jerome Ogbuchi who was in Lagos for a course to transmit a written instruction for troops mobilisation to Okonweze once he was certain that Ejoor was already in Lagos. Captain Joseph Iledigbo was to take his company across the Niger River and arrest the Premier of the Midwest, Chief Dennis Osadebey and his ministers. Captain Agbogu was to take his company to arrest the Eastern Premier, Dr Michael Okpara and his ministers. Captain Gibson Jalo was to seize the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (ENBC) studio buildings. Major Okonweze and Chude-Sokei were to command the Joint Operations Centre.   Unlike the operations in other parts of the country, none of the politicians were to be moved to any rallying point or shot, they were simply placed under house arrest pending further instructions from Lagos.

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