51 Years of Nigeria’s 1st coup: What British Intelligence officials wrote about it

51 Years of Nigeria’s 1st coup: What British Intelligence officials wrote about it

Sunday, January 15, 2017 1:50 pm

After Ifeajuna left with the Prime Minister, his ADC, Kaftan Topolomiyo went to inform Hamman Maiduguri, the Lagos commissioner of police and Tanko Galadima, the Minister of state for Defence. Both were Northerners. Northern politicians passed the news to Northern politicians and Eastern politicians informed Eastern politicians. Obsession with seeking ethnic advantage otherwise called tribalism was an obstinate pattern that organised Nigerians’ tastes and decisions even when they were not conscious of its influence. Tribalism preceded the facts that supposed to call forth or justify its own existence. The first politician to cross the tribal barrier was Shehu Shagari who quickly informed his next door neighbour Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, the NCNC Minister of Housing. He then left to alert Zanna Bukur Dipcharima, who was the Minister of Transport and the most senior NPC minister in the cabinet. By 7am, most of the NPC ministers including Maitama Sule, the Minister of Mines and Power, Tanko Galadima, the Minister of Defence had converged at the home of Dipcharima on Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi. They were more confused than shaken. Who could have abducted Mallam Abubakar and Okotie-Eboh? It was later information came in that Akintola was dead, his body found, that even Sardauna, the most powerful politician in the history of the country had been gunned down and his house burned to the ground that fear, real fear squashed their minds and almost choked their breath. More so, it was reported that the coup plotters were mobilising from the North to kill them too. Dipcharima hastened to his neighbour Donald F. Hawley, the British Deputy High Commissioner and asked him to summon his boss Francis Bruce-Cummings (FBC) for an urgent meeting.


Yakubu Gowon

Yakubu Gowon

Gowon had met Galadima at the Prime Minister’s residence and he had told him that not the whole army but a renegade section was responsible and that the GOC was in Ikeja issuing orders. When Galadima availed the gathering of this information, Dipcharima ordered the Police to bring in Ironsi for a review and way-forward meeting. At Ikeja, just before Ejoor left Ironsi and Njoku to proceed to the Airport for a security flight to Enugu, a helicopter hovered over the 2nd battalion prompting the B Company to quickly put themselves in firing positions as the helicopter landed close to the parade ground. Out came L.A. Marsden, the Acting Deputy Inspector General of police and Duckett, the Assistant Superintendent of Police. Ironsi and Njoku who did not travel with Gowon on Land Rovers to confront the coup plotters promptly joined the British expatriates on a flight back to Lagos for the meeting. Francis Cumming-Bruce (FBC) wrote of the meeting in a despatch to London on 16th January 1966:

“Dipcharima was in the chair with Minister of External Affairs, Acting Minister of Defence and Attorney General with Cabinet Secretary in attendance. Dipcharima said that an approach was being made to me on behalf of those members of the Cabinet that had been able to assemble at his house. He was under considerable strain but coolheaded. When Elias (the Attorney General), who had heard nothing until he joined the meeting wept at news of assassination and expressed his fears for Abubakar’s life, Dipcharima rebuked him for showing emotion; need was for firm action. He gave me summary of situation as understood by Government. Acting Inspector General of police and G.O.C. were then called in and asked to give summary statements of situation.”


The previous night, Taslim Elias transmitted to the Prime Minister an urgent message from Dr Busia, the head of opposition to Nkrumah’s government in Ghana warning that a coup in an advanced state was about to break out. For four years since the commencement of the Western Region crisis, he had been receiving secret messages of bloodletting and impending doom on his person on a constant basis even from high places. Just on that very day, he had received two warnings. First, Shagari had received warning from a man who came to his house and described himself as “NPC intelligence man.” He said that the custom officers who had been in industrial dispute with the Federal Government some time had made the borders porous; that weapons of military grade were being smuggled in easily from the borders. That the keg of gunpowder which the country and in particular, the West was sitting on was about to explode.

Shehu Shagari: he later became president of Nigeria

Shehu Shagari: he later became president of Nigeria

But the message from the Attorney General was the most specific yet, stating who and who would be terminated and the night the terminations would take place. But Abubakar characteristically did not allow his heart to skip a beat as Elias delivered the message. He was a simple and humble man who refused to live in a fortress or have a fortress mentality. And so when Elias was told at the special cabinet meeting that a mutiny had taken place and the PM was missing, more than the others, he knew straight away the PM was dead. He burst into tears.


Dipcharima on behalf of the cabinet wanted FBC to transmit an urgent request for British military assistance to stabilise the situation. The main fear was that the army would dissolve and law and order would break down completely with loyal troops willing to shoot down mutineers and the battalions becoming warring bands. The ministers thought that a show of force from an external power would deter Nzeogwu and the rebels who had promise to march down on the South. FBC went to the meeting with his First Secretary Mr P.D. McEntree who took down minutes. The high commissioner responded that since this was a country-to-country request, it had to be written down and signed by the appropriate authority. The ministers looked round at themselves. But who was the appropriate authority in the absence of the Prime Minister when there was no deputy prime minister?


After the 1959 Federal elections to usher in a government for the soon-to-be independent Nigeria, there was no clear winner between the three main parties NPC, NCNC and AG. A coalition government had to be formed. Azikiwe and Okpara of the NCNC went to Kaduna to forge an alliance with Sardauna’s NPC simply to deny Awolowo and his Action Group the power to have a say in the affairs of the new nation. The moved shocked many. Southerners had spent the previous 15 years complaining that the colonial masters had imposed a powerful North on Nigeria to continue to dominate and hold back the progress of the rest country. And yet there came the opportunity to nullify once and for all the colonial design. Azikiwe refused partnership with AG and went up North to form a coalition government with Sardauna and the NPC. That was Nigeria’s original sin which Ifeajuna and his Ibadan progressive intellectuals wanted to undo with the coup. But a government without Awolowo was still a government about Awolowo.


Abubakar expressed his wish that Awolowo deserved to be part and parcel of the historic government not only for the recognition of his remarkable role during the colonial times, but that his brilliant ideas, his practical and sustainable policies which were there to see in the West were needed for the development of the young nation in general. Therefore, instead of offering NCNC’s parliamentary leader and coalition partner Dr Ozumba Mbadiwe the post of Deputy PM, Abubakar offered Awolowo. Awolowo refused, preferring to be positioned across the bench as the head of opposition. A democracy without a rigorous and robust opposition was like a ship without its sails. Since 1960, Abubakar left the post vacant even with the insistence of Azikiwe, the titular head and owner of the government.

In the absence of Abubakar, the minister of defence, Muhammadu Ribadu usually acted as the PM. Ribadu had been in Council of Ministers with Abubakar since it was formed on Thursday 24 January 1952 according to sections 162 -164 of the order in council. But he died in on 1 May 1965 and Inua Wada took over. On the coup day, Wada was in London en-route Zurich for an eye operation. The next on the power organogram was Dipcharima. He was initially a highly articulate NCNC politician and the former president of Zikist movement who with Azikiwe and four others went to London in 1947 to campaign for repealing of the four “obnoxious ordinances” of Arthur Richard’s government and to demand self-government for Nigeria. The delegation almost came to blows in their London hotel and they could not come to any agreement on what they were in the UK for and how to conduct themselves. Many students like Ayo Rosiji studying in the UK who went to watch them slug it out with the Secretary of colonies were ashamed to see them fighting themselves publicly instead of the colonial chiefs. The students had seen how the Nehru-led delegation comport themselves to argue and demand Independence for India but the Nigeria delegation led by Azikiwe were utter embarrassment. When the delegation arrived back home after 2 months, Daily Times editorial of 15 August 1947 berated them; Adeyemo Alakija and H.O. Davies of the rival Nigerian Youth Movement (NYM) used their columns in Daily Service to demand they accounted for the £13,500 crowd-sourced from all over the country to fund the trip. Azikiwe, who was the head of the delegation then shocked reason by stating that the barrage of criticisms were directed only at him because he was Igbo when, according to him, the Yoruba on the delegation, that is, Mrs. Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti, Prince Adeleke Adedoyin, Dr. A. B. Olorunnimbe were to blame for the “mismanagement” of money and failure of the trip. Then commenced an extended heated press war between Azikiwe’s column Political Reminiscences in West African Pilot and H.O. Davies’ Political Panorama in Daily Service with Igbos in Lagos rushing to buy machetes in self-defence thinking a tribal war was imminent. The colonial governor Arthur Richards and his General Secretary, Hugh Foot – whom ironically the delegation had gone to London to protest against – had to invite both Azikiwe and Davies to the Government House to call them to order. But Dipcharima being 29 years old and being the youngest on the delegation had grown disillusioned; he resigned from the NCNC and politics altogether and went to become a manager at John Holt in Bida. In 1954, he was invited back by Abubakar and was elected as a NPC Federal House Member representing Bornu province after defeating Ibrahim Imam. Since then he never lost an election. He was appointed as the parliamentary secretary for the minister of Transport in 1956. He was later made a minister without portfolio the following year and so by 1966 he became the most senior NPC politician in the Council of Ministers in the absence of Abubakar and Inua Wada.


Dipcharima was already chairing situation meetings, he was already coordinating with the Police and the Army to arrest the situation and find the abducted. The first official radio and television announcement of the coup and the press release to local and foreign media was signed by him. Then FBC, the British High commissioner gave a condition that for British security assistance to happen, a written request had to be made by someone in a constitutionally- approved position of authority. What did the Ministers do next? With the roaring pace of development in the fifties, Nigeria was called the Giant of Africa. In the early sixties, the country was called Sleeping Giant. What happened next laid the foundation for Nigeria to be called a Buried Giant.


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