January 15 1966: 50 Years After
As young chaps living in the rustic and sleepy town of Ota, a major suburb of Lagos, we were woken up to a strange news of a military coup d’etat on the 15th of January, 1966, the implication of which fully dawned on us a couple of days later. In fact, the mutilated body of the Prime Minister was reportedly discovered later at Sango-Ota. It would be recalled that back in 1963, even at a much younger age, as children we had been a part of the political community of Ota that mounted a series of street protests against the Federal Government for the release of Chief Obafemi Awolowo who was standing trial for a phantom coup plot. It is important to note that only women and children partook in the protests unmolested, even though we were teargassed. Any able-bodied man found within the vicinity of the protests would be promptly arrested by the police.
It was the days when police respected women and protected children. We were made the cannon fodders because our parents knew quite well that, apart from slight inconveniences, harm would not come our way. The protests lasted days, and by the second day we had learnt to equip ourselves with kerosine-soaked handkerchiefs to minimise the effect of the tear gas on our eyes. Eventually, Awolowo was jailed, some of his lieutenants were freed, including a local politician and a good neighbour of ours, one Chief Akinsanya whose return was highly celebrated in our area. Till this day I still wonder why my father, a strict disciplinarian, who never allowed us to go and play in the adjourning compound would have released us to partake in such horrendous confrontation with state apparatus – a subtle radicalisation against injustice and government authoritarianism.
The January 15, 1966 calamitous event brought a chain of reactions that permanently changed the destiny of Nigeria. By benefit of hindsight, if the actions of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and his co-travellers were obtrusive and diversionary regardless of their claims to patriotism, the action of Major General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi was most reprehensible, unpatriotic and selfish. At times the greatest error might not even be from he that made an initial mistake but from he in whose hands lay the means of correction but failed woefully to do so.
The greatest singular mistake of 1966, precisely 50 years ago was not the failed coup by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and the other adventurous Majors that decimated a crop of Nigeria’s finest and foremost politicians, but the failure of J.T.U Aguiyi Ironsi, the then Army Chief of Staff who having rounded up the coup plotters failed to restore civilian authority instantly.
There was only one duty expected of him as the Chief of Army Staff, to hand over power back to the civilians through either Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, the President, who would have called on the NPC (Northern People’s Congress), the party in power to nominate another Prime Minister; or Chief Nwafor Orizu, the President of the Federal Parliament who would have called for a replacement of the slain Prime Minister by his party. But at the most critical point in the nation, Aguiyi-Ironsi failed woefully. He allowed the selfish desire, even though opportunistic, of becoming the nation’s Head of State becloud his sense of judgement and his sacred duty to the nation. Had he taken this honourable path, that singular action would have sent a clear, unambiguous signal to would-be coup plotters that the Army had no role in civil governance except the protection of the government itself and the territorial integrity of the nation. That would have been a clear sign-post that the Army was not designed for civil governance.
One other event of that era that must be laid in final and permanent resolution was the purported coup d’etat of Chief Obafemi Awolowo leading to his incarceration. This political intolerance among other manifest political delinquencies was one of the torrid events that eventually culminated in the excuse for the military strike of January 15, 1966. The Federal Government headed by Alhaji Tafawa Balewa was not comfortable with the sweeping popularity of Chief Obafemi Awolowo which was traceable to his people-oriented programmes (rather than the current crude and crass inductive “stomach infrastructure” of new millennium politicians). The only weapon the Balewa government could use to circumscribe and curtail Awolowo’s fledging political influence in the West, and in the nation was to frame him up for coup.
Has any one wondered why General Yakubu Gowon not only released Chief Obafemi Awolowo but made him a member of the Federal Executive Council, and indeed the Vice Chairman? It was because he and other northern military elements of those days knew that Chief Awolowo’s incarceration was purely politically motivated. It was a phantom coup, a coup that existed only in the imagination of those in power. Talking about the North of those days, it was the North that never forgot, that never forgave. If indeed Awolowo was scheming to remove one of their own (Tafawa Balewa) from power he would have been left to rot in gaol especially since he was lucky enough to have missed the coup plotters deadly hit list. Just like the phantom coup alleged by General Sani Abacha for which Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Shehu Musa Yar Adua were terminally incarcerated, the Awolowo coup, in truth and reality, never existed.
50 years down the lane, the time has come to unravel the mystery coup and bequeath truth to posterity.
In fact political intolerance was alluded to by the original coup plotters (the five Majors) as one of the causative factors of the military puscht of January 15, 1966. Nevertheless, Major General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi’s rash and irrational decision of forcing the remaining members of Balewa cabinet to resign was one of the three major decisional catastrophes in the Nigerian nation management policy that befell this nation, the other two were committed by the administrations of Murtala-Obasanjo and General Babangida. This would be treated in subsequent articles.
Indeed, had J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi taken the constitutional path of restoring democratic governance instantly, there would have been no civil war, and the current unproductive and unsustainable balkanization of the administrative components of the country. The situation of Nigeria today would have been totally different. That would have sealed the floodgate of subsequent coups and counter-coups. The politicians would have failed and learnt from their mistakes. They would have been replaced routinely by the electorate, and in five good decades we would have got a well-nurtured Westminster democracy, a stable polity and a fairly advanced nation. There would have been no need for the introduction of the fiscally expensive and financially haemorrhagic presidential system of government. There would have been no Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, the evil genius; there would have been no Sani Abacha, the devil personified. Today, January 15, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (Ironside) would have been gloriously remembered as the greatest Nigerian hero who defended democracy selflessly by putting national interest above personal interest.