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Sunday, 7 August 2016

British secret files on Nigeria’s first bloody coup, path to Biafra

British secret files on Nigeria’s first bloody coup, path to Biafra
Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa | Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu | Sir Ahmadu Bello
About the same time that Nigeria is marking the 50th anniversary of its first bloody military coup d’état of January 1966, which claimed the lives of prominent political and military leaders from the northern part of the country and set the stage for a gory counter-coup in July and three years of civil war, there have been growing calls to arms and separation by a section of the country. Those seeking to return the nation to those dark, unforgettable days by rekindling the fires of disunity have clearly not learnt any lessons from the horrors of the past. Daily Trust on Sunday has decided to publish an independent account of the historical events that were extracted from “hitherto hidden dispatches from British diplomats and intelligence officers,” with the hope that those calling for war can see reasons why it must be avoided. The files were first published in a serialized form by TheNews magazine in its June and July 2016 editions. We are reproducing it with the permission of TheNews, beginning from this week.
It was a soundless morning, dark, pulsating, starless. The harmattan spiked the 2am air with prickly cold and fog. With his finger to the trigger, the 28-year-old Major Patrick Chukwuma Nzeogwu addressed the soldiers from Charlie Company of the 3rd Infantry Battalion and some Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC) personnel. They were armed with fury, submachine guns, knives, grenades, torchlights, rocket launchers. Nzeogwu reeled about how the politicians had dragged the country to the cliff of fall and kicked it down into a worst-case scenario. He reeled about nepotism, large scale looting of public wealth, persistent poverty of the people, the yearnings of millions hollowed out by afflictions, the epidemic of insecurities, the Tiv riots, the Western Region’s daily bloodletting, the country’s tireless race to the bottom instead of high up to the plane of regard.
He pointed to Sardauna’s residence right behind him as the ultimate symbol of the filth Nigeria had become. His fellow soldiers were stunned. They did not know they had been turned into reluctant rebels. They thought this was supposed to be another night’s training exercise the brigade high command had approved for them which they started two weeks previously. Nzeogwu then asked the soldiers to concentrate on how to be necessary and to feel proud that they were the ones called upon to rescue the nation, to show the way, to be the new founding fathers of a better Nigeria. In other words, like Homer’s Illiad, he was asking them not to see the epic bloodbath that was about to start as an outbreak of evil, but their generous contribution to the redemption and welfare of the nation.
They Charged Forward
Four hours earlier around 10 o’clock, the last lights in the Sardauna’s household had gone out. They were expected to wake by 4am to eat suhur, the predawn meal to begin the fast. Ramadan started on 23rd December 1965. A week earlier, the Prime Minister Mallam Tafawa Balewa Abubakar met the Queen and the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He had invited all the Commonwealth Prime Ministers for a special meeting in Lagos from 11- 12 January to resolve Rhodesian crises. It was the first of its kind outside London. On 19 December, he went to the small village of Arondizuogu in Orlu for the commissioning of his trade minister, Dr Ozumba Mbadiwe’s Palace of the People. Built by Italian contractors, it was a three-storey affair resplendent with blue terrazzo walls, swimming pool and a fountain, grand conference halls and event rooms, red carpet and gilt chairs. All these in a village where most houses were still born of mud and thatched roofs.
Since the first tarred roads were constructed in 1890s in Lagos, and the first dual carriage way in Nigeria - Queen Elizabeth Road - appeared in 1956 in Ibadan, no road in Arondizuogu or in Orlu had ever been graced with bitumen before. Yet Mbadiwe situated the grand palace there as a source of pride for his people. At the commissioning ceremony, the Eastern Premier, Dr Okpara never saw the project as a white elephant planted by megalomania and watered by corruption, rather he hailed the project as “a great achievement for one of the priests of pragmatic socialism to have been so clever to accommodate this building within the context of pragmatic African socialism.” The press placed the value of the house at least half a million pounds. Mbadiwe said it was “at most £40,000.” After the commissioning, Abubakar then proceeded to his farm in Bauchi for his annual leave. On Tuesday 4th of January, he joined the retinue of well-wishers in Kaduna airport to bid farewell to his in-law and godfather, the Sardauna, who was going to Saudi Arabia to perform Umra, a lesser hajj, in the company of 184 other state-sponsored pilgrims. The cost of the one-week pilgrimage to the government was around £17,000.
unprecedentedly scathing editorial laying the blame for the region’s financial woes and lack of development on Sardauna inefficiencies and ineptitude and asked him to “put his house in order.” When Nzeogwu read the editorial, he went straight to the paper’s newsroom and demanded to see the writer. He was in his uniform and his eyes were red. No one knew him nor had seen his face before. The staff did not know what to make of his demand. The expatriate managing editor Charles Sharp then stepped forward. Nzeogwu shook his hands and said the content and tone of the editorial reflected their thinking in the army and they had resolved to put that house in order. The newsroom did not understand what he meant until the morning of the January 15. The paper was the first to publish for the world the picture of Sardauna’s house still smouldering in the flames of Nzeogwu.
Meanwhile, the premier of the Western Region, Samuel Ladoke Akintola received a tip from his NNDP ministers in the federal cabinet that after the Commonwealth special meeting, the Prime Minister planned to impose a state of emergency on the Western Region, drop him as an ally and appoint a federal caretaker just as he did in 1962. Market women staging protests against skyrocketing costs of foodstuffs, burnout cars, shot and charred corpses, politicians and civil servants’ houses set on fire, intellectuals’ houses emptied onto the street were weekly occurrences in the West. Ever since the rift between Awolowo the Action Group leader and Akintola his deputy, the Western Region that was an Africans-can-do-it model of governance and jaw-dropping development was turned into a landscape of sorrow, blood and tears. With fund from the public treasury and under the command of Fani-Kayode the deputy premier, Akintola’s well-armed hooligans held the upper hand while AG’s bully-boys sponsored by Dr Michael Okpara and the NCNC leadership were on the defensive. After the elections of 11 October 1965, Akintola used the state broadcasting services to announce false counts while the Okpara-sent Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Service team secretly camped in Awolowo’s house declared the correct results ward by ward. On the night of 15th October, when Akintola was to announce himself the winner, Wole Soyinka, with a generous assistance from his pistol, forced the Western Broadcasting Service to air his own subservice tape asking Akintola to resign and go. Akintola and his supporters went berserk. The police declared Soyinka wanted and he fled to Okpara in the East for temporary refuge until his arrest on 27th October 1965.
On Thursday, 13th January when Sardauna arrived from Mecca, Akintola flew to Kaduna to meet him to dissuade Abubakar from imposing a state of emergency on the West or replace him with an Administrator. Akintola had recently buried his daughter and staunchest ally Mrs Modele Odunjo who on 26th October died allegedly of overdose of sleeping pills. She was married to Soji Odunjo, who was a staunch enemy of her father and he was also the son of the Alawiye’s Chief J.F. Odunjo whom Akintola also sacked as the Chairman of Western Region Development Corporation for being pro-Awolowo. Akintola had also sent his son, Tokunbo (who died in 1973) faraway to Eton College in England. He had imported the first ever bulletproof car into Nigeria: an £8000 Mercedes Benz. As the 13th Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland, he felt unchained and fired up for a total fight. With more men and firepower, he told the Sardauna, he would crush all disturbances from AG’s supporters and their Eastern sponsors. The Sardauna promised to discuss his request with the Prime Minister. Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu, a 27-year-old instructor at the NMTC who was detailed to track Sardauna’s daily movements reported this surprise meeting with Akintola to the Revolution’s high command. From his No 13, Kanta Road residence, Nzeogwu promptly dashed to the Kaduna airport where Sardauna had already gone to see off Akintola. Nzeogwu went to the VIP lounge saluted the Sardauna and wished Akintola safe journey back home convinced that in 48 hours at most, both VIPs would be counted among the dead.
That evening, Nzeogwu went back to the airport to pick up his best friend Major Olusegun Obasanjo the Officer Commanding the Field Engineers who had just finished his course in India and flew in via London. Obasanjo’s deputy Captain Ben Gbuile was supposed to pick him up at the airport but he was busy mobilising for the Revolution. And so he telephoned Nzeogwu who promptly came to the airport. Though they slept together in the same room, Nzeogwu never told him of the death awaiting certain personalities.
The following day, 14th January, Bernard Floud a British MP and director of Granada TV (now ITV) which partly owned the Northern Region Television Station was staying at the plush Hamdala Hotel in Kaduna. He had met with the Sardauna briefly to discuss funding and expansion of the television reach. They were supposed to meet the following day Saturday 15th January to continue the business talk. But there would be no tomorrow.
For Nzeogwu and his soldiers had cut through the Premier’s Lodge fence by the side and at the entrance rounded up three policemen (Police Constables Yohanna Garkawa, Akpan Anduka, Hagai Lai) and a soldier (Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo) rubbing their hands together between their knees to resist the harsh harmattan. Nzeogwu asked them to face the wall and coldly pulled the trigger on them. He was trying to man up his fellow soldiers who were still acting like reluctant rebels and give them a taste of where the night was heading. He then posted two new sentries by the entrance while he and other soldiers conducted a room-to-room search in the main house for the Sardauna. Routine police patrol that sighted the mutineers converging menacingly in front of the Premier’s Lodge radioed the British Police officer on duty in the Kaduna Police Operations room. He in turn phoned Mallam Ahmed T. Ben-Musa Sardauna’s Senior Assistant Secretary (Security). He immediately sprang up and went to the Lodge. He was shot on arrival by the sentries who were motivated by Nzeogwu’s earlier example. They had accepted the transformation from reluctant rebels to motivated mutineers.
The general alarm had woken Sardauna. He was not in the main house but upstairs in the rear annex with his senior wife Habsatu, the daughter of Mallam Abbas, the Waziri of Sokoto, his second wife Goggon Kano, the third, Jabbo Birnin Kebbi and Sallama, a house retainer. They listened and rattled prayer beads in fear for an hour as Nzeogwu and his motivated mutineers booted down doors, pumped bullets into guards mounting resistance and shouted to others, “Ina Sardauna? Take us to the Sardauna.” It was dark, Sardauna and his wives went downstairs and into the courtyard connecting the annex and the main house. They were trying to escape. On finding them, Nzeogwu shot the Sardauna and his senior wife who was trying to protect him. He then blew a whistle which was the agreed signal for all soldiers to converge at the rallying point at the front gate for the final onslaught on their symbol of national decay. The rocket-launching party then began shelling the house. Boom! Boom! The ground shuddered like the cannon fire which the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky laced into his 1812 overture. Nzeogwu was a lover of jazz and classical music.
Their beauty heightened his sensitivity to the decay which Nigeria was. He even mentored Captain Theophilus Danjuma to become a classical connoisseur. With the huge flame before him overpowering the harmattan and the night with abundance of light and heat, Nzeogwu was satisfied his own unit’s assignment was a success. He felt like a single note from an oboe, hanging high up there unwavering, avid for glory, above pulses from bassoons and basset horns till a drag from a clarinet took over and sweetened the note into a phrase of such delight, such unfulfillable longing making the coup’s failure unlikely with every passing bar. Nzeogwu then left for the brigade headquarters to await news from other units confident as ever like that high oboe note from Mozart’s Serenade for the Winds in B Flat that the news would be good news.
The mutineers had divided themselves into three groups. Nzeogwu headed the group that looked after the Sardauna, Captain Gbuile was to seize the 1st Brigade Headquarters, the TV and radio stations and Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu headed the group to delete the existence of Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun and his Deputy, Col Raphael Shodeinde. Ademulegun was startled when Onwuatuegwu entered his bedroom just after 2am. He was reported to have asked, how did you get in here? As the commander of the 1st Brigade of the Nigerian Army, he was the most protected personality in the whole of the Northern Region. While police personnel guarded the Premier and the Governor, Sir Kashim Ibrahim, his own guards were drawn from the 3rd infantry battalion. They guarded not only inside and outside his compound but around his main house too. But the guards had been compromised and they led Onwuatuegwu straight into the Brigadier’s bedroom. Had Ademulegun survived the assassination, he would have ordered all the guards, the guard commander and their officer commanding to face firing squad because as guards, they were supposed to die first before anything happened to him.
But he was not scheduled to survive. Onwuatuegwu asked the Brigadier, “Get dressed and come with us sir. Those are my instructions; to bring you to the headquarters.” It sounded like nonsense to him. As the head of that headquarters since 17 February 1964, he was the only person that could give such an order. His wife Latifah, 8 months pregnant, planted herself fearlessly between her husband and the pointed guns knowing full well that if she remained glued to the comfort of their bed those weapons would not be diverted away from her husband. The Sardauna’s senior wife did exactly that at that moment somewhere else. (Any other Nigerian woman would have done the same. Contrary to what the New Feminists led themselves to believe, Nigerian women were never born to be weak. In the top bedside drawer was a service pistol. As a Brigadier, Ademulegun knew a pistol was no match for 6 soldiers armed with SMGs. But he would rather fight and die gallantly than degrade the honour of his office by surrendering to subordinates.
As he made a dash for a quick draw, Onwuatuegwu opened fire on the Brigadier, his wife and the unborn. Cruelty resulted when anything stood in the way of the indefinite expansion of the will to power. Without Ademulegun dead, Nzeogwu could not preside over the biggest Brigade of the Nigerian Army. Ademulegun’s children Solape and Kole were in the next room. They heard all the clash and they were the first to see their lifeless parents surrounded by a pond of blood. Onwuatuegwu and his mutineers then strolled out across the street unchallenged by the guards to the home of Colonel Shodeinde, Deputy Commandant of Nigerian Defence Academy whom Ademulegun usually handed over the Brigade too when he was not around. They killed him too in cold blood with an angry grenade. They then left for the Brigade Headquarters satisfied their mission was a success. That was what Nzeogwu meant when he asked his fellow mutineers not to see the epic bloodbath that was about to start as an outbreak of evil but their unique and generous contribution to the development and welfare of the nation. Anything that benefitted their Revolution cannot be injurious to morals. That was their driving belief. And it freed them to be terrible.

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