You were among the group of officers that changed the political landscape of the country and initiated the first coup d’état in Nigeria, how do you feel 50 years after that incident?
I have not been feeling too great but I thank God that I am still alive. The only disappointment I have is that having done all we did to make Nigeria better and great, instead everyday it continues to slide. These are my regrets.
You lived with Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and then Major Olusegun Obasanjo in the same apartment in Kaduna. Can you describe the experience at that point in time?
It was great. At the time we did not have much worry and as young officers, we were single and thought that all the cares of the world were afar from us. We enjoyed our young lives; we enjoyed the Mess Life; we enjoyed the military camaraderie. And there was very little to choose between this person is from this part of Nigeria or from the other part of Nigeria. This was especially in the military.
Everything went on very well. I remember, now you have given me the opportunity to talk about Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and Major Olusegun Obasanjo. You know Obasanjo is now a General and former Head of State, we have continued to remain friends. At that particular time we lived in the same house – a three bedroom bungalow very close to
No. 1 Officer’s Mess in Counter Road, Kaduna. The three of us were at different units but at the end of the day’s work we all converged at the Officer’s Mess and then end up in the same house. Obasanjo was of the 1 Engineers Unit in Kakuri, Kaduna; I was of the 1 Field Battery, Artillery also in Kaduna and that time we were sharing Engineering Barracks with Obasanjo and Major Mike Okwuechime who was the Commander at the time.
Major Nzeogwu was the Commandant of the Nigeria Military Training College in Kaduna. All the officers would converge at the Officers Mess whether you were Infantry, Artillery, Engineers, Transport or whichever, we were one as a family.
Independence came in 1960, how did you feel at that very period and when did what made you and your colleagues decide to plot a coup start manifesting?
Nigeria got her Independence October 1, 1960. I remember that celebration, my set were at the Military Depot in Zaria at that time. Late Brigadier Mamman Rimawa was my course mate. May his soul rest in peace; he always remembered that day.
That was the first day he drank a bottle of beer and he still remembered it even when he started surpassing us; we had been drinking before him but when he started, he almost went overboard. We were all excited that this was a glorious day for Nigeria and that Nigeria was going to be great.
Of course different officers were in different areas. But things started changing; Nigeria instead of getting better what our politicians did was to replace the British colonialism with our own neocolonialism which eventually became worse and there is nothing as bad as your own person maltreating you.
When did this start showing, after Independence?
After Independence the euphoria was still there and everybody was basking in it and very happy. The British flag had just been pulled down and the Nigerian flag hoisted. Everything looked aright until they started jostling for power- the different political parties. And, I wouldn’t know which started first, they came at different times. There was the western campaign in western Nigeria.
In the west, there was really one major political party and that was the Action Group. This Action Group, their leader was Obafemi Awolowo and he held sway in the west at the time. He had some very good and able lieutenants. Then in the north, there was Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduana of Sokoto, who was the Premier of Northern Nigeria.
Then in the East, there was the NCNC headed by the late Dr. Nnandi Azikiwe, he was the Premier of Eastern Nigeria. That was how the stage was set. Then in the federal, the different political parties that were controlling their regions started struggling for power in the centre. And that was when this manoeuvring started.
You met him during your college years?
Yes, he was my senior in college. Then there was Chris Anuforo who later became a Major also and a whole lot of others. While in St. John’s College, you can imagine me coming to not only meet people who were interested in the army, but also schooling in a garrison town. Some of our lecturers, Nigerian lecturers like Mr. Ozie from Ogwashi Uku had some army friends; army officers who had already gotten commissioned into the Nigeria Army and they will come and visit him.
I remember one British Captain who used to come on an army motorcycle; he will ride into the compound and climb the farm ridges doing some stunts; that got us crazy.
Those were my formative years in the sense of interest and while we were there, of course if you graduated from there you could get into the army, which was an extra impetus to study hard but eventually we all did it.
Nzeogwu got in before us, Anuforo later joined him and of course you can imagine if I had failed then I would have been a real failure. It didn’t happen, Thank God. I kept in touch with them until I also joined them.
Some of the easons you plotted the coup were tribalism, corruption and the ills thatwere going on then and that it was Ifeajuna that kind of mooted the idea and sounded you off on it. I want to know if you discussed some of those issues in with your flatmates Nzeogwu and Obasanjo?
I tell you, we were all discussing them including Obasanjo but it was as far as the corruption went. But when it got to the stage of this thing is too much and we have to do something about it, the number became limited and I believe you understand what I mean. Obasanjo was not included among that number.
Why was he not included?
He was not included because, as much as Nzeogwu was his close friend, Nzeogwu could not go discussing outside the group.
What were the criteria for selecting officers that participated in that coup?
Ok. If I know you and I know you well enough, I know to discuss this subject with you, I know that this subject is a no go area because the common cliché is that some people are not the coup type of officers. I will give you a personal example, General Domkat Bali is my very good friend and I will discuss anything under the sun with him but there are a few things I will not discuss with him.
And I know that much as I trust him he was not happy when even as Minister of Defence he met me at Washington D.C when I was in exile after the war. He asked me a question and said Emma, I have been meaning to ask you this question and I said go ahead. He said I know we have been very good friends, he was my second in command in Abeokuta; that time I was commanding the Artillery and he was my 2ic. Then it was while we were in Abeokuta, though before coming there, that we crystallized that January 66 coup and moved from the same barracks where we were all staying to carry out the coup.
So Bali and co woke up in the morning, from what he told me in Washington. D.C, to hear everybody hailing the military for being so marvellous; they called the army their saviour. Bali said that they felt like women. He said that when they asked what was happening the people told them that they (the army) had taken away the corrupt government, Thank God that they could breathe then. Bali was only to learn later that his commander was not only part of the coup but spearheaded the western part of the job. And he did not see any reason why I did not tell him if I trusted him so much.
What did he ask you?
He asked why I did not tell him, that they woke up and heard the news like every other person. We were drinking beer when he brought the topic. I knew he meant it, he was serious and wanted to know if I had lost confidence in him but I told him no, Domkat, I have not lost confidence in you but instead it was because I trusted you so well that I did not tell him. I told him that if I went for that operation there was no guarantee that I was coming back and who else would be there to take over the unit and run it very well if not you.
That was why I did it. He thought about it. I said listen if I had lost confidence in you, if I hated you I would have taken care of you before I left for Ibadan. He said yeah, Emma I know you could be right. I told him I know I am right. We took up our glasses and cheered and continued drinking and the friendship continues.
Would you say that was the same reason Obasanjo wasn’t tapped for the operation?
Obasanjo not being part of the coup was in our own opinion, not Nzeogwu’s opinion because he had to seek our opinion before doing such a thing except if we were not around, Nzeogwu knew Obasanjo was his close friend, Obasanjo would protect him anytime and then Obasanjo would have been an asset to us for that type of operation but he was not selected.
Secondly, Obasanjo was due for a staff officer’s course in India but that was long after the planning of the coup had commenced though it is not the main excuse. I think there could be parallel reasons or similarities.
I am asking this question because there has been this long held belief that the major actors of the coup were from a certain part of the country which makes it an Igbo coup. Why should almost 80 per cent of the leaders of the coup come from the eastern part of the country?
Good, let me tell you. When you say 80 per cent then 20 per cent did not come from the Igbo speaking part, so what happens to the 20 per cent? We are talking about the ring leaders here? Wole Ademoyega was he not one of the ring leaders and wasn’t he from the west?
Ademoyega was the one who was in charge of the western operation because he was in the Lagos anyway but when it turned out that I was due to go on transfer to Abeokuta from Kaduna to build up another Artillery unit and I had a unit to myself which is different from his; he had to scramble units from here and there and you know that was the problem they had in Lagos, so we swung the responsibility and his task became mine.
And that was why I took off from Abeokuta with my unit and it was very dangerous to have gone to Ibadan where there was Col. Largeman who was in charge of the 4th Battalion and 4th Battalion was quite friendly with Ladoke Akintola’s regime.
Before then we knew they were training Akintola and some of his ministers on use of fire arms and they were training at their range; we had reports. What we did not know was that those weapons they trained with ended up at their homes; at least I will tell you this as I had first-hand knowledge that one light machine gun ended up in Akintola’s house because he attacked us with it. We were just lucky.
In carrying out the coup, was the plan to really eliminate the leaders because the coup is about the bloodiest of all coups that ever happened in Nigeria?
The decision was to arrest them but if you want to arrest somebody and he wants to kill you and he is at an advantage, you don’t want to die. So you deal with him first; that was the point. One point I just remembered when you asked this question saying that about 80 per cent were Igbos, that one per cent that would have made the leadership of Nigeria; if it’s one per cent, it is one person, that one per cent was Chief Obafemi Awolowo, was he not a Yoruba man?
The question is about the principal actors that carried out the coup and not who may have benefitted?
He wasn’t part of it but when you think about what you are going to do, the actors and the end result, we had that planned out.
It was your unit that arrested Akintola and from the accounts I have read he attacked you and was executed there. Also Fani- Kayode was also arrested by your unit, why was he spared?
I took Fani-Kayode in my vehicle to La-gos and put him in safe custody. In fact, I removed one second Lieutenant and took his room for the whole day. I put him there and put guards there. Fani-Kayode obeyed. Let me tell you the story, when Fani-Kayode saw us he became panicky and did not resist nor attack us. We arrested him and his wife was crying and I told her that nothing would happen to him. I put him in the back of a Land Rover.
We started driving from Ibadan to Lagos to join the Lagos group; I did not go back to Abeokuta, there was nothing for me to do there even though I threatened a nurse at the hospital that I would be back. It was while we were leaving from Abeokuta to Ibadan that I saw a pregnant woman and her husband and took them to the hospital.
There was just a nurse on duty. I asked for the doctor and told the nurse who was shaking because of the number of soldiers around that if anything happens to the woman or the baby that I would be back the next morning and woe betides them. I just wanted to instil fear in them. I knew I wasn’t coming back; if I survived Ibadan I knew my next port of call was Lagos and that was what I did. I took Fani-Kayode to Federal Guards Officers Mess and locked him there.
Fani-Kayode survived everything. Now in the process as we were going, Fani-Kayode became very talkative, how he couldn’t fight Akintola from outside the party so he joined the party to fight him from within. As he was saying this I wasn’t interested in what he was saying, I was thinking about Lagos and suddenly I heard somebody slap him and shouted ‘Shut up’ and Fani-Kayode answered ‘Yes Sir.’
I turned and asked what the matter was, it was one bombardier, a corporal in my unit, One Samuel and apparently he was a Yoruba boy and this boy lost one finger in Akintola’s house. We eventually dropped him in front of the military hospital because we did not have time.
This chap slapped him and when I asked what the matter was, the corporal said he was the one and I asked why, the chap said Fani-Kayode was talking a lot of rubbish. I told him you don’t do that because I don’t go for that type of indiscipline. We continued. I think he was saying it thinking that that would make the soldiers feel happy and not do anything to him. I wasn’t planning to do anything to him and we took him there. Fani- Power survived.
When the coup failed and negotiation started it was still Obasanjo and Nwawo that went as emissaries, how did you people feel when Nzeogwu came to Lagos and was arrested, were there feelings that Obasanjo betrayed Nzeogwu?
No and that will show you why I said they were both good friends. After the coup when there was pandemonium and Obasanjo surfaced, Nzeogwu was very happy to see him because there were some other officers there and they were having meetings on what to do next.
Nzeogwu had threatened to attack Ironsi down in Lagos because Ironsi was going to betray our cause so certain people started intervening telling him not to do it as there will be more loss of lives. Ironsi was there as the big boss; he was the GOC. That’s why it’s not good when you do such things don’t leave the Oga patapata. That was a mistake. It wasn’t a mistake in the planning; it was a mistake in the execution.
So people like Ironsi, Largeman, Maimalari were supposed to be eliminated?
So it was in the plan those military officers will go?
There were some that were marked for elimination. When you do a thing like that you don’t fear death. You try to preserve life but where it is in the way you get rid of it because if you don’t, they will get rid of you. So the unfortunate thing was that Obasanjo, when he came back from India through Lagos, Alexander Madiebo was nominated to go and discuss with Ironsi but Madiebo politely excused himself. Ordinarily that wouldn’t have been allowed.
Obasanjo volunteered to go and that was a relief that prevented us from haggling over the issue. And this was somebody Nzeogwu trusted. He went, the result of it was neither here nor there, because I cannot tell you whether he did that job or Ironsi made him believe that he accepted the conditions, but had an ace up his sleeve, according to Ben Gbulie’s account who was with him in the engineers and probably knew him better. But again Gbulie has his own way of judging people. Now the one I can say is that of Lieutenant-Col Conrad Nwawo from Onicha Olona next door to Okpanam; he was much older than all of us; Nzeogwu respected him so did we all.
He stammers. Nwawo was military attaché in London at the time and Ironsi called him back; I believe Ironsi was advised that he was one man that Nzeogwu would listen to. He called him back, briefed him and sent him to Kaduna to negotiate with Nzeogwu. Nzeogwu spoke with Nwawo and Nwawo gave him all the assurances but when Nzeogwu and his men got to Lagos, he was sent to Kirikiri. You know Nwawo fought with us on the Biafra side and this thing, I noticed personally, didn’t leave him.
It was either Nwawo knowingly betrayed us or that Ironsi used them and got them to believe that he was serious only to get Nzeogwu. When we were in Kirikiri, Nwawo will come and visit us once in a while; I told you he stammers and the reason I mentioned that is to tell you that that time his stammering became worse. When he talked you couldn’t make out anything . So we took it that it was a sign of guilt. But whether it was guilt out of the fact that he knew he did something wrong or he felt bad that he betrayed us, I would not know. We were together throughout the war.
When the July counter coup occurred you were in detention, how did you feel knowing that some of your colleagues like Don Okafor, Anuforo met gruesome deaths?
Actually we got information of their execution while still in Kirikiri; information was filtering in. Honestly we felt bad. We were still in Lagos then and we were quite vulnerable, the feeling wasn’t good at all. It is just like you and I staying here knowing that the enemies are around and can break in here, kill the warders and finish us.
You can’t feel good even with all your military training. In fact it is your military training that makes you feel very insecure because you want to be sure that wherever you are you can defend yourself even when you are barricaded, you have a chance of eliminating few people before they get you. There were some soldiers outside that were meant to be guarding us but then anything could happen; there were enemy soldiers so that was no protection.
What could have been the reason people in detention at Kirikiri survived the counter coup while detainees in other places did not fare well?
Most of us were taken to Kirikiri. Major Don Okafor, I remember we were told that his wife requested that he remained in Abeokuta because it was more convenient for her to visit him there. We did not hear about any special request about Chris Anuforo, but we were told he was in the West and there he was thrown into a grave and executed there. Some of our soldiers who were arrested in Kaduna and kept in Kaduna Prison were taken to Enugu eventually.
Kirikiri was the place most of us were kept. From Kirikiri, they moved Ifeajuna to Uyo Prison, Captain Oji was kept at Abakaliki. As at that time we were still corresponding; it was possible but it took time. The prison authority did censor some letters and at times you see a whole line blotted out. I was later sent to Owerri Prison.
This action resulted in the civil war which many reasons have been given; from the coup being Igbo-inspired to what General Gowon recently said was driven by Ojukwu’s ambition. Did Ojukwu ever exhibit signs of being ambitious while he was in the military?
It is difficult for me to say yes or no. Ojukwu I believe joined the army for a purpose; he wanted to be great or to be known.
Whether this Biafran situation gave him an opportunity for that, I cannot say for certain. Ojukwu was eccentric in a number of ways. He would not want to stay in a place and be ignored but whether he went into Biafra as a project to make himself great that I don’t know. What we all believed and what happened to all of us too was that we were pushed to the wall.
Biafra never for once attacked Nigeria; when I say never I mean we did not start the war, they brought the war to us starting with Hassan Katsina, the then Army Chief of Staff. He said it was a two-week police action that will liquidate Biafra, which went on and later transformed into all sorts of names.
Of course ,when the war started, at a stage when Biafra had to take a counter offensive and move through the Midwest heading for Lagos and it was sabotaged at Benin by Victor Banjo aided by Ifeajuna, otherwise we wanted to carry the war to them and you know the effect it had at the time.
Gowon had already started evacuating Lagos; they seized a BOAC flight that was meant to go back to London to take government officials back to Kaduna. Except for that and some other little offensive we launched, we never attacked them; they kept attacking us and brought the war to us.
So many associations and groups MASSOB, the latest being Nnamdi Kanu of Radio Biafra, are calling for the emergence of Biafra. Do you still believe Biafra can happen?
Let me tell you, Biafra can still happen but how it will happen I cannot tell you; I am not a soothsayer. If you tell me that Biafra is going to happen by force of arms I will say forget it. I know that from history people have been able to campaign for a course over time, organized themselves so well that it lingers on and on that, in fact, sometimes up to a stage that some will say forget about it while others will persevere. Thank God that today you have the United Nations which can organize and get something that will make Biafra a reality.
But not the way MASSOB is going about it. I hear about Nnamdi Kanu and I have listened to the radio a couple of times and I will say it is not the kind of news you will want to hear every day, no.
Looking at the crop of Igbo leaders we have today, people like you and some of your colleagues that went into this revolution at the time you did wanted to change what was happening. These days we don’t seem to have leaders that have these ideas, how do you feel about this development?
I know that as soon as Ojukwu died people started clamouring for the next Igbo leader. One thing about leadership is that you cannot get it by taking on some titles and raising your hand. It doesn’t happen that way.
People have to accept you. A leader emerges; you don’t force them on people. Sometimes a situation creates a leadership. The people we have today, I don’t want to make it look as if we are hopeless. I have learnt something when I was a cadet in the army, a Sergeant-Major used to teach us not to ever say that somebody is useless.
Because immediately you say it, that person becomes a demonstration of a useless person to someone who wants to see a useless person. It is humour but it shows something. The kind of leaders we have today, a lot of people are scrambling to survive and we have scrambled for too long since after the war and we still have not gotten there.
The types of leadership we have now are not selfless. I believe it will take a while. Don’t ask me why. Before we can get a leader or a situation that will ,, create a leader and everybody will say yes this is the man. Whether it will happen in my life time I don’t know.
I just thank God that we have done our bit but unfortunately not everybody appreciated it. I remember when we were planning the coup, it was only Emma Ifeajuna that was interested in a government position. Nzeogwu, Onwuatuegwu, myself, Chris Anuforo, in fact all the people we sat with, nobody wanted to leave the army, we all wanted to stay in the army and reinforce the government and make it strong.
And our dream was that since Obafemi Awolowo was able to transform the Western region, we wanted him to do that for the country because that time the West was the envy of everybody.
But out of envy and all that, they trumped up charges against him and sent him to prison. Then all these people came to devour. Awolowo was uppermost in our mind, to get him out and allow him lead the country. When Awolowo died Ojukwu made a public statement, as if we told him to go and say it, that Awolowo was the president Nigeria never had. Actually he modified it as president; he was supposed to be the Prime Minister. If we have had Awolowo I believe Nigeria would have felt a difference.
Looking at what is happening in Nigeria today, the spate of corruption, how do you feel?
Are you asking me how I feel? If I knew at that time or saw at that time what is happening now, we would have given Balewa, Sarduana, Akintola and the whole lot of them medals for good performance. Because that time they had limited resources, like 10 per cent and that was enough for them, but we thought it was too much and we felt there was too much high-handedness. But what you see today is a shame.
Do you have any regrets for being part of the coup?
How can I have regrets? I wanted to be in the army, I was in the army and I did what the army dictated for me. That I am still alive today is a bonus. I am happy.
What would you have done differently from what you did in your participation in the first coup in the country?
Let me tell you, if wishes were horses beggars would ride but unfortunately they are not. But on hindsight, if the scenario were to repeat itself, I know those who were not fit to be in the team.
The procedure would not have changed much if everything happened the way it was at that time. Don’t ask me who would have been on the team but I know who would not have been on the team. I think it was William Shakespeare that said there is no art to find man’s heart construction from his face. You saw people they pushed that they are Hitler but you later find out that they are pussy cats. For instance, Major John Obienu from Oba, I don’t know if you heard that name.
He was commanding the 2nd Raciest Squadron in Abeokuta; he was to bring his armoured vehicles into Lagos to help neutralize a lot of things including the 2nd Battalion at Ikeja Cantonment. John Obienu, he spoke very good English, instead absconded and did not give any indication that he will not take part.
At the end of it all when the coup collapsed, John Obienu was among the federal troops who arrested Nzeogwu and Onwuatugwu when they arrived Lagos from Kaduna. And you can imagine the disappointment when they saw Obienu looking proud and always dressed neatly.
Onwuatuegwu told him he will soon lose that green smile on his face. Onwuatuegwu knew that his own time had ended but this man had his coming and it happened during the July countercoup; he was killed in Abeokuta. There were certain lessons we learnt though there was no time for post mortem.
Lagos City Reporters