After the briefing, Ironsi ordered an immediate platoon headed by Lt Walbe to be formed for a reconnaissance while the companies prepare for action. He then asked the platoon when they would be ready. He was told given the nature of the requirements, two and a half hours’ time at the minimum. To conclude, Ironsi asked for questions. Gowon was shocked. In his later account of the night he wrote that he asked: “When was this trouble first reported, sir”
“ About 3am”
“What time is it now?”
“These people have already had over two-and-a-half hours’ advantage. Must we give them the same again to enable them to consolidate?”
Gowon then faced the platoon commanders, ‘I give everyone 20 minutes to get ready.’ That was the first order he gave as the incoming commander of the battalion. Unlike Njoku the outgoing commander and the GOC who contented themselves with issuing orders from the safety of the battalion headquarters while the mutineers went on killing, Gowon a lieutenant colonel, decided to lead the quick reaction force. Success laid in being bold. And that made all the difference. Spruced up in full combat kit, Gowon grabbed a helmet, his service pistol, sten gun and readied himself for action. He gazed at his lover, Edith, fresh, sweet-looking, innocently-dozing and wondered whether he would see her again. To him, the call of duty and the requirements of its success superseded the indulgences of an irresistible bed. After all, the Revolution collapsed partly because Major John Obienu preferred the cock-teasing allure of a bed in Shomolu and its two cushion of pins to the call of revolutionary duty. The sense of the true is always a kind of conquest but first it is an opportunity.
Lt Muhammadu Buhari was in charge of the Land Rovers and three tonners that roared out of the Motor Transport Section of the battalion ready to take on the mutineers. The A Rifle company began to mount like commandos with their ammos doubled up to war quantities. Off, they charged out from the gates of the battalion. The first place Gowon led the force to was the Prime Minister’s residence. It was six o’clock. Gowon met the Minister of State for Defence, Tanko Galadima who told him some armed soldiers had kidnapped the Prime Minister. Gowon then conducted a thorough search of the Residence. He found no mutineer and no clues. He then led the soldiers to the parliament buildings where the office of the Prime Minister was, again no clues. Then he went to the Federal Guards that held responsibility for the safety of service officers and government officials. Gowon praised Tarfa and the RSM Tayo for safeguarding discipline and was told all Igbo officers including the OC were missing.
At around six o clock, Captain Nwobosi and his men too arrived the Federal Guard’s Mess from Ibadan. They wondered whether they were reporting early or too late since other units were nowhere to be found. During the planning for the coup, a decision was made against the use of walkie-talkies because their communications would easily be picked up by the Special Branch of the Police Operations Command and Army Signals. Once Gowon was told of the presence of unaccountable soldiers and vehicles next door to the barracks, he rounded up the Mess and overruled Tarfa who preferred lobbing grenades before attacking. Tarfa was a lieutenant. Gowon was a lieutenant colonel. The difference showed. Gowon’s fear was that the Prime Minister was there with them and he may be killed during the process. Instead they called out to the mutineers to be aware they had been surrounded. Nwobosi surrendered and showed Gowon the signal from Maimalari authorising their action. Gowon handed Remi Fani Kayode to Tarfa the de facto commander of the Federal Guards for safekeeping. (Victor Banjo came later to take possession of Fani Kayode of his own accord.) With his crack force, Gowon went to the senior officers’ residences in Ikoyi. At the GOC’s residence, he met his wife Victoria and their six children who told him what happen in the middle of the night with the phone calls they had received. Gowon assured her his husband was safe in Ikeja issuing orders.
With Ikoyi clean of the rebels and placed in hands of loyal troops, he proceeded to Apapa military installations and placed loyal officers he could absolutely trust in charge. They were all Northern officers.
The first person to conceive a coup as an antidote to politicians’ recklessness destroying the country was Lt Col Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu in 1965. At an off-the-record meeting at the State House facilitated by his friend Bamidele Azikiwe who was the president’s first son, Ojukwu asked the President, Nnamdi Azikiwe to bless his plans to use a section of the army to put Azikiwe in actual power instead of the phony powers he enjoyed as Head of Government like the Queen of England. (Azikiwe leaked this secret meeting in an interview with Peter Enahoro published in the Sunday Times of 2nd of June 1968 when he had fallen out with Ojukwu during the Biafra war). Ojukwu thought thoroughly about the consequences of him an Igbo using the army to take over a central government controlled by a Northern party.
So that the coup could have equal representation and be valid as a national youth service, Ojukwu, an Easterner went to recruit some other senior officers, Victor Banjo (a Westerner), David Ejoor (a Mid-Westerner) and Yakubu Gowon (a Northerner). But Ejoor and Gowon refused to participate citing ethical imperatives and military code of conduct. Ojukwu and Banjo did not want to do it alone because they knew that given the state of the country, the consequences of their coup being seen as a tribal calculation would outweigh any progressive agenda they set out to achieve. That unexecuted coup became the most secret non-secret in the army.
To Ifeajuna and Nzeogwu, their own coup would not have been necessary had Ojukwu not gone to ‘invite everybody.’ And so to avoid becoming lions anyone could chase away with mere sticks, they conveniently avoided the wisdom of Federal character in their own planning. That later opened the door to the massacres that kept tears in the tap for Igbos once the coup failed. Ojukwu was right. He later eliminated Ifeajuna and Nzeogwu with extreme prejudice. And Banjo too.