As we draw close to the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Biafra, it important to understand the events that lead to the act, the move towards Biafra is rooted in history but the 1st coup represented the First Blood drawn triggering a series of bloodletting events leading to that declaration of Biafra.
The Enigma and Legacy of Major Nzeogwu; Nigeria’s First Coup leader
Described by General Gowon as a “principled but misguided officer” is perhaps the most apt and preferable description many would like to have and remember about the late Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.
Various accounts of historians, ethnic apologists, and nationalist present him as one of the most enigmatic characters to date in Nigerian history and many have gone to great length to explore his motivations and downplay the emotions and intentions that prompted him to take the historic action he took in leading Nigeria’s first coup.
To many who forget, He was the ring leader of the five majors who organized and struck with Nigeria’s first coup on January 15, 1966 which ended the first republic.
In its wake several lay dead, including;
1. Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa
2. Premier Ahmadu Bello
3. Premier Samuel Akintola
4. Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh
1. Brig. Samuel Ademulegun
2. Brig Zakariya Maimalari
3. Col. Kur Mohammed
4. Col. Ralph Shodeinde
5. Lt. Col. Abogo Largema
6. Lt. Col. James Pam
7. Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe
Due to poor planning, logistics and other factors beyond the control of the five majors, this coup which though leading to the collapse of the government was ultimately unsuccessful and ended up with mounting pressure against the remnants of Nzeogwu’s controlling but diminishing forces and his eventual arrest and detention.
The biggest issue with the fallout from his coup was the ethnic slant of these fatalities which saw, the most prominent politicians from the north, including the Prime minister and the all powerful Ahmadu Bello the premier of the North regional government who had nominated Balewa as Prime preferring to control the government from his stronghold in Kaduna the Northern regional capital, dead.
To make matters worse all of the other prominent politicians and military commanders (except one from the east) were all killed execution style in cold blood fueling accusations and suspicions of an Eastern plot to seize the government. It did not help matters that another Igbo man, Aguiyi Ironsi, became the prime beneficiary of the coup by becoming head of state even though he had no part in the planning or execution of the coup by the five majors.
Many historians and former comrades have expended a lot of energy trying to give a national coloration to his vision for Nigeria and have tried to blur the ethnicity of the victims of his coup, but all we have are the casualties from his coup to judge his intentions and legacy.
Of all the five majors, only one was Yoruba, the rest along with many of the non-commissioned and junior officers were ethnic Igbo; much has been made about the fact that Nzeogwu is from Asaba, but back in the 60’s that was considered Igbo or of eastern origin. His other positive advantage supporting perceptions of his nationalistic outlook was the fact that he was born in Kaduna, bore its name and spoke its language fluently with a preference for its traditional outfits as well.
During the planning of the coup no concern seemed to have been paid towards a peaceful takeover, it appeared to be a non issue, or an issue they were not equipped to handle and each of these Igbo majors had their personal ideas of how to handle the targets of their coup whom the were to arrest.
Except for the premier of the western region, Akintola who engaged soldiers in a shoot out before running out of ammunition and surrendering only to be executed, none of the captured officers or politicians put up any resistance but were driven away and or executed on the spot.
In the case of senior military officers they were executed by these Igbo direct subordinate coup plotters and while the Prime Minister was driven away to a bush and shot, tribal sentiments intrinsically came into play as the president Nnamdi Azikiwe was not a target andor seemed to be tipped off to leave the country before the coup and the GOC of the Army, Ironsi, was allowed to drive unscathed through a checkpoint after direct questioning by some of the same officers that killed the prime minister further strengthening conclusions that the plotters were ethnic in the application of their wrath.
In the case of the lead planner, Nzeogwu, whose base of operations was in Kaduna the headquarters of one division Nigerian army, the strongest in the country at the time, He personally stormed the official residence of the Premier and executed Ahmadu Bello in cold blood right in front of his wives and actually shot one who was trying to protect him instead of arresting him and taking him into detention.
Many historians have tried to explain this situation because at the time most of the security and governmental apparatus was northern dominated it still cannot blank out the fact that the eastern premier albeit far from control of the center was not equally executed, instead he was taken into detention.
In the end even if his coup had been successful, the bloodletting of prominent elected leaders from other parts of Nigeria had triggered and fanned the flames of seething ethnic hatred that found its outlets for release in the pogroms that followed the counter coup and civil war after his dastard killing spree.
In the end, the actions of Nzeogwu kicked open the floodgates of military adventurism into Nigerian politics and a legacy of military rule with its baggage of counter coups and legalization of lawlessness into the Nigerian system.
At 29 years old with a basic secondary education and subsequent rudimentary military training albeit from the Sandhurst Military Academy, Nzeogwu and his team lacked the legitimacy, intellectual or emotional depth to decide to take matters into their hands irrespective of their half baked theories of good governance and it is no surprise that the coup failed except that it affected Nigeria forever and millions paid for his and co-conspirators criminal conduct.
His actions highlighted the failure of the army to self police itself and protect the emerging democracy bequeathed Nigeria by colonialists and its inability to subvert itself to civilian control and at the same time control the impulse to use the new found power the raw peasant recruits of the army had from having control of guns.
In the end he is not an enigma or a hero, or a soldier to be celebrated, but just another coup plotter who illegally killed elected politicians and terminated Nigeria’s experiment with regional politics and democracy.
The tragedy and catastrophe from that event sent his life into a downward and uncontrollable spiral that saw him taking up arms for the successionist army that his actions engineered and eventual death at the hands of vengeful federal soldiers at the war front despite being deprived of his weapons unharmed after an ambush at the Nsukka Front.
He was buried with full military honors by his former comrades now the beneficiaries of his action for which he paid the ultimate price.
In summary every single successive military government and its appointees must view him as a hero because he opened the flood gates to fame, fortune and power to the military establishment while the victims of the war and pogroms and various aborted republics must view his legacy with suspicion and regret.
Therein explains the enigma and legacy to Nigeria of the late Major Nzeogwu and his cohorts.