Sunday, January 15, 2017 1:50 pm
To the political establishment in Enugu, the capital of Eastern Region, the first omen of the coup was at the airport. In the afternoon of 14th January, the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios arrived for a visit in the Prime Minister’s plane to great pomp and pageantry. He had come to Lagos to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference and intended to use the opportunity to visit all the regions in Nigeria. Enugu became his first and last point of call. All the ministers, state officials and heads of the American, British diplomatic outposts were present at the welcoming ceremony at the airport. Conspicuously missing was the military guard of honour. When President Julius Nyerere came visiting in 1965, the guard of honour was one of the spectacles he enjoyed most. He said he did not know Africans too could stiffen breathlessly for so long as he inspected the guards and savoured their regimental drumming with Dr Michael Okpara. Okpara was very proud that no one else but him provided that unique spectacle to the eminent Africanist. But this time around while awaiting the plane of the Archbishop Makarios, there was no guard of honour in place even though Okonweze was there representing Ejoor. Okpara was so angry that he summoned Okonweze and berated him publicly. “You say Lagos put a ban on guard of honour. What are they afraid of? That Enugu will be mistaken for the capital of Nigeria?” This was according to Charles James Treadwell, the Deputy British High Commissioner who witnessed the incident at the airport. Okonweze did not tell Okpara that he was keeping the troops ready for the confirmation of the H-hour.
Okpara then compensated for the humiliation at the airport with a sumptuous party in the evening the same time in Lagos, a cocktail party was starting at Brigadier Maimalari’s residence. Treadwell was there too. He wrote his report on 16th January a day after the mutiny:
“The gathering was the largest I ever witness at the Premier’s Lodge and included the Governor, Sir Francis Ibiam, most of the Ministers and Ministers of State, the senior civil servants and a host of political leaders summoned from all parts of the region. As a social occasion it was a grand affair. Just before dawn the next morning, – Saturday 15th January – after the first shot had been fired in Lagos, Kaduna, Ibadan, troops of the 1st battalion moved into Independence Layout, Enugu, and took up positions outside the imposing residencies of the Premier and his Ministers. A barricade was set up across the access road into the area. Other troops sealed off all the road connecting Enugu with the rest of the Region; others still closed down the transmitter of the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Service(ENBS) and a guard was mounted at the entrance to the studio building in one of the main streets of the town. In carrying out this operation, the Army achieved complete surprise.
“At seven o’clock, following a telephone call from Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria, Sir Louis Mbanefo – who apart from the Ministers is the only Nigerian living in Independence Layout – I was in his house discussing strange turn of events with him. Independence Layout was already teeming with troops, (the Chief Justice did not know it but there was even one soldier standing behind a bush in his own garden), and the barricade, past which I had readily been permitted to drive, was protected by a strong army contingent carrying automatic weapons. The Chief Justice was understandably puzzled. He had been told on telephone that the Army had seized power in Lagos and elsewhere in the country. He himself had been awakened at six o’clock by a rumbling of heavy lorries on the road outside and had seen troops spilling out into the Ministers’ houses. After we had spent some time in fruitless speculation, Sir Louis Mbanefo telephoned the premier and asked if he knew what was happening. No, answered the premier, it was all a mystery to him. He could see troops moving about his garden but he could not guess their purpose.
“The Chief Justice next telephoned the Governor and informed him that the army was moving against the government; despite the evidence Sir Francis Ibiam -the governor refused to credit the story. The army would never do such a thing, he said, and that was that. My route to the office took me past the studios of ENBS apart from the troops outside this building there was not a single soldier to be seen in town.
The departure of the archbishop had been arranged for ten o clock, and while waiting for him at the airport, I heard from a civil servant the first fragmentary reports (obtained by monitoring police wireless message sent from Ibadan and Kaduna to Lagos) from outside Enugu. There had been fighting in northern and western capitals. Chief Akintola was dead. Not much at the time, but enough to kill any hopes that the army would be able to clamber down the five pinnacles of power without spilling blood on the way. The Archbishop accompanied by the premier reached the airport more or less on time. News of military intervention had been successfully suppressed from the president(Archbishop), but things must have looked odd to him. Only six of us were there to see him off and of these – the premier and two ministers – were flanked by troops carrying sten guns. The Press were not represented. After inspecting the guard of honour mounted by the police and taking leave of his tongue-tied premier, the archbishop, smiling thinly, boarded his special aircraft and left Enugu.”
Seeing so many soldiers around the city, Treadwell and the American consul in Enugu Mr. R.J. Barnard decided to go the barracks to find out what was happening and if British and American citizens in the East needed to start getting worried. This was around 11 o’clock, 30 minutes before Ejoor arrived. Treadwell wrote:
“We were admitted without difficulty into the office of the acting commanding officer of the battalion, Major G. Okonweze, an Igbo from the mid-west, and spent a quarter of an hour with him and his adjutant, 2/Lt A.B. Umaru, a Hausa. In answer to our questions, Major Okonweze confessed that he was completely in the dark about the wider implications of the army move. He had received a single message during the night from Lagos instructing him to intensify internal security measures in the town and to restrict the movements of the ministers. The Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Service transmitter had been closed down and a guard had been placed at the entrance to the studio building. Everything was normal, however, he added somewhat uncertainly, other parts of the region were unaffected and British and American nationals living in Enugu could be told to go about their business in the usual way. The police had been ordered to stand by in case they were needed. He was meanwhile awaiting instructions from Lagos on the next step and would keep in touch with us. Outwardly, except some troops outside the broadcasting building it seemed just to be another day in Enugu and indeed many people at work in their offices were unaware for several hours that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. At noon a British business man had told me that his agent in Kaduna had telephoned to say that the Sardauna of Sokoto had been killed. All this was perplexing and worrying enough. In the early afternoon, however, events took a new twist, when the Chief Justice [Mbanefo] telephoned me with the news that all troops had been withdrawn from Independence Layout and sent back to the barracks.”
Ejoor had arrived and had taken charge. To annul the designs of the mutineers and to alleviate the anxieties of Enugu peoples, he ordered all soldiers back into the barracks.
“I telephoned Major Okonweze who confirmed this was true. He said the instruction he had received had been forged. They had been issued in the name of Brigadier Maimalari but he now knew that a group of mutineers had sent them. He had been fooled. Now that the picture was clear to him he was removing the army guards from the Independence Layout, lifting restrictions on the movement of politicians and arrange for the ENBS to resume transmission. Conditions in Enugu had entirely returned to normal he said. It was clear, however, despite calm in Enugu, that things were very far from normal elsewhere. Rumours were multiplying. Political leaders of NPC and NNDP persuasion had been assassinated in Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna. Northern army officers had been put to death in these places. It was an Igbo plot, people whispered, and innocent Igbos would pay for it with their lives. The absence of any reference to the events in news broadcasts from Lagos heightened anxieties. During the afternoon, the ENBS relayed a BBC announcement, still tentative, about the coup; this was the first radio report heard by medium-wave listeners in Enugu. Ministers had meanwhile panicked badly. Under restraints no longer, they poured out of their houses and headed for the countryside. Dr Okpara [abandoned his official limousine and] slid out of the town in a Volkswagen and went to Umuahia. He spent the next fortnight there moving from house to house each day in a bid to go to the ground completely. Chief J.U. Nwodo, the minister of local government, drove to his house at Ukehe, on Nsukka road, where he changed clothes with his gardener and made for the bush. Two or three Americans, chivalrous but unwise, drove ministers to their villages, using indirect routes, and boasted of their enterprise when they returned. When dusk came all ministers’ houses in Independence Layout were empty (apart from a child of one minister who was forgotten in the rush) and a similar exodus had taken place from the houses of ministers of state and senior civil servants in other parts of Enugu. The first news broadcast in the afternoon from Lagos did nothing to allay fears. When darkness fell, the street of Enugu were almost deserted.”
“During the evening, the Chief Justice telephoned me again and asked me to call. He and Lady Mbanefo were in a state of considerable anxiety. They believed that the Hausa officers in the first battalion outnumbered the Igbos and their sympathisers and feared that the former would break out from their barracks and massacre leading Igbo civilians to avenge the death of the Sardauna. Their fears had been heightened shortly before this when a friend telephoned them from Onitsha (Sir Louis Mbanefo’s home town) with the news that three lorries packed with troops had crossed the Niger Bridge from the Asaba end and were now heading towards Enugu.”
Indeed a company commanded by Captain Joseph Ihedigbo was heading towards Enugu. But they were the ones which Okonweze had dispatched to Benin to achieve the mutineers Midwest objectives. Since Ejoor had ordered their immediate return, they were travelling back to Apankwa barracks. But the top government functionaries mistakenly thought the feared reprisals from the barracks was about to begin. Treadwell’s report continued:
“They will come here and kill us,’ said the Chief Justice, trembling. Making vaguely reassuring noises, I left them soon afterwards but returned almost at once in response to another telephone request from the Chief Justice. He said the police had now advised him to leave Enugu for safety’s sake and they were accordingly moving to Onitsha until calm was restored. Towards the midnight, the acting commissioner of police, Mr J.W. Okocha, arrived at the house with two Land Rovers containing armed police and with this escort, Sir Louis and Lady Mbanefo left somewhat hurriedly….We next called on the commissioner of police. He was weary and anxious. He seemed certain of an explosion. ‘I am an Igbo,’ he said, ‘and I can tell you that if it had happened the other way round; if Hausa officers had killed Igbo officers, other Igbos would take revenge.”
The following day – Sunday 16th January – around 10am, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu called. He was surprised Gabriel Okonweze was not the one who answered the phone but David Ejoor. According to the coup script, at that time, hungry worms supposed to be convening over the decomposing carcass of Ejoor and feast as they were doing to the others dead. Nzeogwu then asked Ejoor to confirm whether he was loyal to the Revolution or against it. Ejoor answered he was loyal to Ironsi and the government of Nigeria. He then asked Ejoor if he wanted to go on air to that effect. Ejoor banged the phone on him. He did not feel the least answerable to a Major even as reports confirmed that they had killed Brigadier Ademulegun and his deputy Col Shodeinde, and Nzeogwu had become the de facto Brigadier and King of North. Ejoor then tried to update Ironsi in Lagos. It was Gowon the centripetal force behind stamping down the mutiny who came on line. The previous night, they were both at Maimalari’s cocktail party. And they had both escaped easy death by refusing the rooms Ifeajuna allocated to them. Gowon told him he had been in touch with Major Madiebo and other loyal but passive forces in Kaduna and they told him Nzeogwu was trying to mobilise other mutineers to attack the South and finish the job. Gowon then said he had ordered Major Nzefili the acting CO of 4th battalion in Ibadan to go and defend the Jebba Bridge which was the only link between North and South West. Gowon wanted Ejoor to also secure the East against Northern aggression. When Ejoor asked for more arms and ammunition, Gowon offered to send a plane load from the Army Ordnance Depot and Unegbe’s Armoury. Quick, Ejoor began troop and equipment mobilisation and defensive fortifications.
According to Ejoor, all the places he asked troops to be placed, his 2ice Okonweze negated them all. His suggestions were places that were strategically meaningless and tactically useless in defence against Nzeogwu’s aggression. It was then Ejoor said he concluded his 2ice was certainly with the mutineers. Okonweze even suggested that they disarm all the soldiers and publicly destroy the ammunition so that civilians would feel safe. There had been rumours that since the death of Sardauna was announced, that Northern soldiers in the barracks will break loose and avenge his death. But Ejoor frustrated all Okonweze’s efforts to aid the Revolution’s agenda while Okonweze kept on denying he had anything to do with them. To Okonweze, Ejoor had become eligible for fresh death. He was too much in the way.
And so as night fell, Ejoor received an urgent phone call from Mr J.W. Okocha the acting Police Commissioner of the Eastern Region asking him to come over for a crucial information. He was asked to come alone and unarmed so as not to arouse suspicion and panic. Ejoor wondered what kind of information that could be. He checked on the members of his family who had been admitted to hospital for gastric malaria. He decided not to go. He did not trust anyone. But he then considered that Okocha was the head of the region’s security infrastructure and his partner in providing assurance of safety to the people of the region. So he decided to go but armed and doubling his security entourage.
It turned out that Mrs Shirley Chude-Sokei the 29-year-old Jamaican wife of Major Chude-Sokei had gone to the police concerned about the safety of her husband. Ejoor was surprised to see her crying at the residence of the police chief when he arrived there. Her husband was in faraway India attending a course. So why the worry? Also being a solider and an officer, the police was not the place to seek help; there was him, his 2ice or the battalion adjutant to approach for an assurance of her husband’s safety. What Ejoor did not know until later was that Ifeajuna and Okafor were at her house. They arrived in Enugu the previous day around 2pm to rouse the battalion to finish the job in Lagos. They were not only surprised to see that Ejoor was alive but that he had reached Enugu before them to consolidate his command of the battalion. All the while Okonweze was thwarting the plans of Ejoor over troops deployment, he was under the influence of Ifeajuna and Okafor. To eliminate Ejoor without enhancing mutiny in the barracks, they had fed false news to Mrs Chude-Sokei about the whereabouts of her husband. They asked her to go to the police commissioner whom they had already connived with. The scam was similar to the one Ifeajuna used the previous day to end Largema by asking the receptionist to rap his hotel door and call him out to pick an urgent non-existent phone call. He had planned to murder Ejoor on the way had he come alone without armed escort. Ejoor returned to the barracks with his escort and did not visit Mrs Shirley Chude-Sokei. It was the second time that weekend that Ejoor refused to die.