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

When FBC arrived at the High Commission at Kajola House, 62-64 Campbell Street, his First Secretary, Mr P.C. McIntyre who only took down minutes at Cabinet meeting then voiced his opinion. He advised his boss to be careful about the Ministers’ request for security assistance. He said from what they knew so far, the coup seemed to be an insurrection against the North. Britain sending troops would be used to reinforce the false narrative out there that Britain was “backing up the North.” FBC saw merit in the analysis. By noon the following day, he went to see Dipcharima at his Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi residence to withdraw his promise of cooperation. They also jointly agreed that should they be asked by the press, they would deny such a security request was ever made.


The privacy of the tête-à-tête with FBC gave Dipcharima the confidence to speak his mind. He told FBC that the GOC’s loyalty remains a major question mark. He said his behaviour in various respects had been very odd and that his guess was that he had been associated with the mutineers at some stage. He said the GOC told him at the end of the meeting the previous day that he was prepared to participate in some form of civilian-military regime to give the appearance that the army is helping to clean up the administration. FBC only listened. He was careful not to voice his thinking or give hints of the intelligence assessment the High Commission’s military adviser, Col Tom Hunt was conducting.


Meanwhile as FBC left the Council of Ministers meeting the previous day, the Ministers started a disagreement over whom should be taken to the Senate President to be sworn in as the Acting Prime Minister to fulfil the British condition. Dipcharima was already acting being the most NPC politician in the Cabinet. But the NCNC ministers challenged this basis saying Dr Ozumba Mbadiwe, the Minister of Trade and the NCNC parliamentary leader should be sworn in instead because he was the most senior minister in the Cabinet.


This was true. Mbadiwe joined the Council of Ministers after Azikiwe resigned from being leader of Opposition in Western House and went to take over the leadership of the Eastern House in 1953. New elections were held and Mbadiwe left for the central legislature in Lagos. The party that won the federal elections in each of the three regions was supposed to nominate three ministers to the federal council of ministers for the next five years. As the country’s independence was being negotiated, the office of Prime Minister was created in September 1957 and the Governor General Sir James Robertson asked the twelve cabinet ministers to nominate one person out of themselves to be the experimental Prime Minister. Abubakar nominated himself and never backed down. Mbadiwe explained that he was supposed to be the PM afterall NPC had only 4 ministers and the NCNC had 8 ministers – 4 each from Eastern and Western regions.


Awolowo had insisted that as from 1 April 1953 capitation tax would increase to 10 shillings and 6 pence in the whole of Western Region except in Lagos where due to their lower economic status, the new rate will be 10 shillings and 3 pence. It was to fund the radically new and uplifting but widely unpopular free education, free healthcare and other public development schemes that would be rolled out in the Western Region in January 1955.


NCNC the party in opposition in the West, seized the public dissatisfaction and deployed Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kola Balogun, Ozumba Mbadiwe, Dennis Osadebey and Adegoke Adelabu to campaign that Free Education was a scam; free healthcare was a trick to punish people with more taxes; that the AG was interested only in causing pain to the people unlike the NCNC. Resoundingly, the AG lost the Federal elections and the four AG’s Federal ministers, Bode Thomas (Transport), Arthur Prest (Communication) and Samuel Akintola(Labour) and Oba Adesoji Aderemi(no portfolio), who were hailed national heroes for resigning their posts on 31st March 1953 to debate Anthony Enahoro’s Self-Government-Now bill, were cleared from their posts to make way for the four extra NCNC Federal Ministers. If it boiled down to a vote among the council members, Mbadiwe would have become Nigeria’s first PM as a result of Awolowo’s loss of Cabinet influence. However, by willing to forego this influence, defy public opinion, flout pressures from his own ministers, invite election defeat for the sake of free and compulsory education for all children living in the West, Awolowo willed himself into a god. His programmes later placed the West beyond the reach of other regions and he in turn became the best politician ever in the history of Nigeria.

Obafemi Awolowo

Obafemi Awolowo

The additional four NCNC ministers did not deter Abubakar from standing his ground as the right nominee for the PM. According to Mbadiwe, he did not press the case because he did not want to give the British an excuse to delay or derail Nigeria’s unstoppable march towards Independence and so the post slipped away from his clutch like a breeze between his fingers.


When the post of Deputy Prime Minister was mooted, it was offered to Awolowo who promptly rejected it. Again that opportunity slipped Mbadiwe like a dream on wings. These previous near-misses strengthened Mbadiwe and the NCNC ministers’ resolve to ensure that on the day of the coup, the post never eluded his grasp. However, the NCNC ministers pushing his candidacy were so careless to the optics of their cause and the combustive boxes they were ticking: Azikiwe, the head of government, Igbo. Tick. Mbadiwe, the proposed interim PM, Igbo. Tick. Nwafor, the existing senate president, Igbo. Tick. Nzeribe, the deputy speaker of the parliament, Igbo. Tick. Then the coup plotters who were mostly Igbo complained of corruption overdose in government only to end up killing some non-Igbos in government while leaving corrupt Igbos unkilled. Tick. This was one of the seductive narratives of Igbo domination that the dispossessed Northern politicians and the coalition of the offended succeeded in impressing on consciousness of the distracted nation in the following three months. The result? An organised mass slaughter, the like of which Nigerians only read in foreign news and in the final pages of the New Testament.

Meanwhile, the meeting at the conference room at the Police Headquarters was rancorous. Teslim Elias, the Attorney General with no party affiliation was called upon to interpret the law in such a circumstance. He knew Abubakar was not coming back so he said: the absence of Abubakar did not mean the end of his government. It was the NPC and NNDP alliance that won the election and they were the ones President Azikiwe called upon (albeit forced) to form the government. Abubakar always believed that Nigeria was not ripe for oppositional politics and that Nigerian democracy should be an ethnic commonwealth that gave each constituent tribe a fair place under its umbrella even if they had lost at the polls. Mbadiwe, Okotie-Eboh, Wachuku, Adeniran Ogunsanya and 10 other NCNC ministers were invited to join the cabinet as a form of government of national unity. They lost at the polls.


Elias concluded that NPC-NNDP held the mandate not the NCNC and so the most senior NPC politician should fill the post of the Prime Minister. The NCNC ministers disagreed arguing that it should be the most senior minister in the cabinet, not merely in the party, and with Mbadiwe as the acting PM, the government was still that of the missing Abubakar. Then the rancour resumed. Ironsi sat there watching and listening not like a sphinx in Egypt guarding the pyramids but like a terrible judgement that would soon find its word.


Meanwhile earlier that morning, around 8:30 am, at the Parliament buildings at Onikan, the legislators converged in the open air. Out of 312 parliamentarians, only 33 were present. Few knew a coup was on going. One of them was R.N. Okafor. He was only appointed the Minister of State for Trade the previous day by Abubakar after months of lobbying by Mbadiwe the senior minister. Okafor was the chairman of ceremonies planning whose efforts culminated in a 3-day extravaganza to commission Mbadiwe’s Palace of the People at Arondizuogu in Orlu three weeks earlier. He was also with Mbadiwe on 3-4th January at the secret meeting the NCNC parliamentary leadership had with Dauda Adegbenro, their UPGA partner and AG’s acting Leader at Dr Okpara’s residence in Enugu. In the absence of the Speaker, the Deputy speaker, Benjamin Nzeribe observed there was no quorum – only 33 mostly NCNC of 312 members of the House were present – Okafor then moved for the adjournment of the House “in view of the incidents of the last few hours”. The parliament was adjourned and would remain adjourned for the next 13years. The whole pre-determined proceedings took less than 15 minutes. They then moved to Mbadiwe’s residence in Ikoyi where they were told that there was going to be an emergency Cabinet meeting at the Force HQ.

After the rancorous emergency meeting ended with the NPC and NNDP ministers vowing to kick start the process of swearing in Dipcharima, Ironsi called Njoku and asked him to summon Gowon and all other senior officers to the Force HQ which had become the Joint Operations Centre through the efforts of the British expatriates of the Police at the HQ: Leslie Alfred Marsden, the acting Inspector General of Police, George Duckett, Assistant Superintendent of Police, and Arthur Stacey Barham, Assistant Commissioner of Police. They were all included in the Queen’s Birthday honours later in June for their effort in keeping Nigeria united and containing the bloodshed. However, a month later the full-scale massacres started. Meanwhile, at exactly 5:45am, Marsden, went to the British Deputy High Commissioner D.F. Hawley’s Bourdillon Road residence to alert him that a coup was going on. He went again at 10:45am after flying to Ikeja to procure Ironsi and Njoku. He said the hierarchy of the Police Force was loyal but they were not sure of the loyalty of the Armed Forces. And so to harmonise loyalties, it was best, argued Marsden, Duckett and Barham to establish a Joint Operations Centre at the Force HQ where there was no fear renegade soldiers would burst in to abduct or shoot anyone. FBC endorsed the place by agreeing to meet Dipcharima only at the Force HQ. Dipcharima had no choice but to move the council of ministers’ meeting there.


Marsden again later went to inform the British diplomats that Ironsi and his officers were planning to take over the government and he and Barham were asked to write the takeover speech and Ironsi’s provisional statement of policy. According to the report FBC later wrote to London, Barham who was an assistant superintendent of police in Palestine used a Palestine precedent and Ironsi’s speech ended up resembling the one Nzeogwu gave the previous day without the fatwas on homosexuality, bribery, rumour mongering etc etc. In the middle of the night of Ironsi’s takeover, Marsden again went to advice FBC that to have an edge for British interests, he should be the first to pay Ironsi a symbolic visit in the morning. This FBC promptly did to confirm they were not backing up the North but any one in power.


The Inspector General of Police, the 54-year-old Louis Orok Edet was on holiday at his native home in Calabar. Edet joined the police force as a mere clerk in 1932 and rose through the ranks after helping the colonial police track down ritualists who beheaded human beings for cultural sacrifices. Edet was roundly criticised by his villagers for joining “the enslavers,” “imperialists,” “colonial exploiters,” the destroyers of native cultures.” His villagers never saw anything wrong or inhuman in the beheadings; it was the generational preservation of their ancestral culture that mattered. When he was appointed as the first indigenous IG in 1964, given his background, he was sceptical of the call for rapid Nigerianisation of Police. He refused to terminate the contract of the several colonial officers still within the top hierarchy of the police force.


With the politicians gone after their rancorous Cabinet meeting, Ironsi summoned all the senior officers alive in Lagos for an emergency meeting. Commodore Wey, the head of the Navy, Lt Colonels Victor Banjo, the head of NAMAE in Yaba, Lt Colonel Francis Fajuyi, head of the Abeokuta Garrison, Lieutenant Colonels Gowon and Njoku were all there. Ironsi narrated the coup as he knew it and Gowon narrated his effort to rally the army under him, find the abducted politicians and officers. Excepting Gowon who kept on maintaining that the army should avoid political leadership, the consensus was that this was the army’s opportunity and Ironsi as the head of the army should not waste it. As Njoku later wrote of that day in his book Tragedy Without Heroes, he told Ironsi during the earlier tête-à-tête at Ikeja to take over the affairs of the state; that the younger officers may actually be doing the nation a favour. Njoku knew that in Chinese language, crisis and opportunity meant the same thing. That confirmed earlier Gowon’s suspicion that Ironsi and Njoku showed zero zeal to liquidate the mutiny. They sat down faraway safely in Ikeja until the British expatriates came to pick them up by helicopter.


To Banjo, the young officers had apparently provided the boots on the ground for the takeover, it was totally unfair that only senior officers should enjoy the seats at the table. He then went further to suggest that Nzeogwu who with his broadcast had emerged as the face of the coup must be invited to join the proposed Supreme Military Council. Ironsi said the Ministers were on their way to the Ikoyi Crescent home of the Senate President to arrange the swearing in. They must be stopped.


On Sunday 16 January around noon, Shehu Shagari, Richard Akinjide and some other NPC-NNDP ministers waited in Senate President’s sitting room. At the other side of Ikoyi, Dipcharima was at his Bourdillon Road residence awaiting the outcome. Then came FBC, the British High Commissioner who withdrew the promise of transmitting the request for British security to the Commonwealth office in Downing Street and had a gentleman’s pact with Dipcharima to deny such a request was ever made. The Ministers still sat there with the Senate President not knowing that the need for the office of the Acting Prime Minister had been voided. Had the request not been made, it was not likely that Ironsi would have been motivated to seize power then. The Senate President who also was the acting President and Head of Government continued to work the phones upstairs away from the ministers. He was struggling to get in touch with Azikiwe who was recuperating in the UK after contracting a lung infection during his holidays.

But something mysterious was happening.

Late on Saturday, 15th January, at his Surrey hotel, Azikiwe heard the news of the disappearance of the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and the death of two premiers on the BBC. The details of who did what were yet to emerge. The coup plotters had shut down the telephone exchange and all external communications facilities. In fact, at the private meeting between Ironsi and FBC on 17th January, Ironsi narrated how he was lucky to escape death because Pam phoned him around 3:00am that a mutiny was ongoing. FBC later wrote that he doubted if a phone call was possible at the time because some of their diplomats living in Ikoyi heard gunshots and the menacing troop movements. They tried to contact their High Commission for security assurance but the phones were down. Unlike Ibadan telephone exchange that was fully automatic, Lagos telephone exchange was partially automatic and when Major Ademoyega’s unit arrived to relieve the manual connectors of their posts, the automatic exchange to which all officers’ lines emanated was still connecting calls for 20 minutes in the basement before Ademoyega’s men finally reached it and shut it down. That 20 minutes window gave Pam the opportunity to warn Maimalari and Ironsi. If not for Pam, Ironsi and Maimalari – two high value targets – would have been slaughtered in their respective residences. The rebels would have consolidated their HQ at the Federal Guards officer’s mess and commenced the second phase. Pam’s quick call was instrumental to the failure of the Revolution.

Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe

Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe

Betty Emery, Azikiwe’s private secretary arrived at the Nigerian High Commission in London from “Suite of the President of Nigeria, Burford Bridge hotel, Box Hill in Dorking, Surrey” where Azikiwe was recuperating on public finance. She brought a letter stamped Top Secret that Azikiwe wanted transmitted to Lagos. His usual hotel phones and cablegram facilities were avoiding Lagos and so he sent Miss Emery to the Nigerian High Commission in London. But the High Commission too was having problems connecting to Lagos so in company of Mr Dosunmu, the Acting high commissioner and Brigadier Ogundipe his military attaché, Emery proceeded to the Commonwealth Relations Office(CRO) in Downing Street to connect with the British High Commission in Lagos. They arrived there at around 4pm. British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson who left Nigeria three days before the Revolution had given Arthur Bottomley the CRO’s secretary of state up to 8pm to submit a report of what happened in Nigeria, how they were caught unawares and what could be done to locate their friend and ally Sir Tafawa Balewa Abubakar. FBC had already forwarded a long preliminary report of what they knew so far and whom was currently steering the affairs of the nation. The DI 4(a), Defence Intelligence under the Ministry of Defence and Col Hunt the military adviser had been tasked to find how an operation of such scale eluded British spies. Nigeria had been extra vetted for security in order that the Queen’s cousin, Prince William of Gloucester could serve at the High Commission there. Nigeria held Britain’s fourth largest diplomatic outpost in the world.

St John Chadwick an Assistant Under-Secretary at the CRO was the first to notice to whom Azikiwe’s letter was addressed. He gently corrected Emery/Azikiwe’s ignorance saying when next they wanted to send a letter to the person running the country, they should address it to Zanar Dicharima, c/o Council of Ministers and not to Major General Aguiyi Ironsi. But Azikiwe knew something they did not know.

The letter read:

Dear Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi,

The news is now wide-spread about the unfortunate events which have occurred in the last two days in our dear country. I am very much perturbed to learn that all lines of communication between Nigeria and the outside world have been temporarily disconnected, so I am obliged to use the good services of a friendly medium because I understand that you are now actively engaged in restoring order in the capital and other parts of the country.

Since this is a Herculean task which must be undertaken by all of us who are interested in the peace and stability of our Federal Republic, I now inform you of my desire to return home immediately in order to be in position to discharge any duty, Constitutional or otherwise, in which my services may be required.

As you appear to be the only means of communication to my Government, I hope that you will be kind enough to give me your considered advice, at you earliest convenience, through the bearer of this letter.

Sincerely yours,



President of the

Federal Republic

of Nigeria.


The letter was striking more for what it did not contain. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister and some top officers were missing; Akintola and Sardauna had been confirmed dead. Azikiwe offered no word about how the abducted would be found or commiseration with the family of the deceased. He only asked Ironsi to clue him into any decision, “Constitutional or otherwise” and expressed his wish to come home immediately. The CRO diplomats advised him not go. He would later arrive the country on 12 February 1966, two days before Ifeajuna and proceeded straight to Nsukka after the takeover of his State House Mansion by Ironsi on 26th January. At a dinner party held for Sir Kerr Bovell the outgoing Inspector of Police in 1962, Abubakar told Bovell sitting next to him that: “When there is trouble you can always tell it because Zik will not be there – he will be in England, or America, or somewhere. He always thinks he is going to be assassinated, but he won’t be.” He then told Azikiwe seated on the other side: “Your Excellency, I am Muslim, and if it is the will of God for me to be shot, I’ll be shot.” Abubakar was so much like Shaihu Umar the hero of his eponymous novella.


Orizu had been using all excuses to deny the ministers their request to swear Dipcharima in. First he told the ministers that he would not be able to oblige their request because the absence of NCNC ministers implied their lack of consent. When eventually some NCNC ministers were produced, Orizu buried himself in a side room and was trying to call Azikiwe on a phone line that was not working. Ironsi then turned up in the sitting room with his menace-looking armed bodyguards. He requested to have a word with Orizu in his side room and for 40 minutes the ministers were patiently waiting for them. The presence of the soldiers terrified them. Was it not their colleagues that had wrecked lives and wreaked havoc on the nation? The fear of being next to be killed or abducted loomed large over them. Ironsi emerged and left without saying a word to the ministers. Afterwards the Senate President emerged to tell them he would not be able to oblige their request; there was a new development. Without going into details, he dismissed the ministers and said they should await further instructions. The ministers were shocked; it was fishy that for six hours, Orizu dragged his feet but the secret meeting with the GOC portended something very, very ominous.

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