Demonstration in Zaria after 1st Nigerian coup (1966
Over the past months, we have published the British Secret Files account of events leading to Nigeria’s first military coup of 1996 and the counter-coup that followed after six months. This week, we are publishing a different account of the historical developments in the autobiography of Alhaji Ahmadu Kurfi, the Maradin Katsina and District Head of Kurfi. Alhaji Ahmadu Kurfi’s position as the deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence at the time, gave him a rare advantage to give a firsthand account of the sordid events. We are, therefore, reproducing the chapter of the 2004 autobiography, titled ‘My Life and Times’, dealing with the coup for the benefit of our readers.
When the army struck in January, 1966, I was the deputy permanent secretary in the Nigerian Ministry of Defence, and thus the second most senior civilian official after the permanent secretary in the ministry.
Many accounts, some admirable, some lurid or sensational, others full of inaccuracies abound about the happenings during the days of the first military coup d’etat. Of these, the extract of the alleged Nigerian Police Special Branch Report of Events of the 15th of January, 1966 quoted in pp. 115-124 of Vol. 1 of ARM Kirk-Green, Crisis and Conflict in Nigeria, appears to me to be an excellent summary of what actually happened in Lagos on the night of 16th January, 1966. It is a veritable multum in parvo. According to this document, it has been established that sometime in August 1965, a small group of army officers, dissatisfied with political developments within the federation, began to plot in collaboration with some civilians, the overthrow of what was then the government of the federation of Nigeria. The plan which actually emerged from their deliberations was that on a date not yet fixed at that time, the following actions would be taken by troops from units, led by the ringleaders of the plot:
(1) the arrest of leading politicians at Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna, Enugu and Benin. The plan stipulated that whenever resistance was encountered the individuals concerned were to be killed;
(2) the occupation of key points such as radio and television stations, telephone exchange, other public utilities, police headquarters etc, by carefully selected troops;
(3) the movement of troops and armoured fighting vehicles to Jebba and Makurdi to hold the Benue and Niger Bridges with a view preventing the movement of any troops, opposed to the plotters aims, to and from the North;
(4) the assassination of all senior army officers known to be in a position to foil successfully the conspirators efforts to topple the government of the federation;
(5) the eventual take-over of the machinery of government by the rebels.
Although the original plan stipulated that the action intended by plotters should take place simultaneously in all the regional capitals, no arrangements were made to implement these intentions in Benin and Enugu. The date on which the plot was to be put into execution was decided by several factors. These include the return of the Premier Northern Nigeria from Mecca and the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference held at Lagos between the 11th and 13th January 1966. An additional factor was the possibility that details of the plotters intentions might have leaked out, necessitating early implementation of the plot. In this manner, the night of 14th – 15th January was finally selected. action, which was well-planned and conducted like a military opera was in its first stages, efficiently carried out.
(6) Amongst the civilian VIPs (Very Important People) scheduled for arrest were the prime minister of the federation, federal finance minister, the premiers of the Northern and Western, Mid-Western and Eastern Region. Additional personalities scheduled to be arrested in Lagos were K.O. Mbadiwe, Jaja Wachuku, Inuwa Wada, Shehu Shagari, T.O. Elias, Ayo Rosiji, M.A. Majekodunrni, Matthew Mbu R.A.O. Akinjide and Waziri Ibrahim. Other ranking politicians to be placed in house arrest pending a decision as to their disposal and eventual fate.
(7) The conspirators further decided that the following senior officers represented a threat to their plans and must be killed during the first hours of rebellion:
(i) Brigadier Z. Maimalari-Lagos
(ii) Brigadier S. Ademulegun – Kaduna
(iii) Col. Kur Mohammed – Lagos
(iv) Col. RA. Shodeinde – Kaduna
(v) Lt. Col. Abogo Largema – Ibadan
(vi) Lt. Col. Arthur Unegbe – Lagos
(vii) Lt. Col. Yakubu Pam – Lagos
For the actual execution of the plan, three commanders were nominated, namely:
Northern Nigeria – Major C.K. Nzeogwu
Lagos Area – Major E.A. Ifeajuna
Western Nigeria – A Certain Captain
The execution of the plan was to take place in three areas only, i.e. Kaduna, Ibadan and Lagos although many of the participants believed the insurrection to be nationwide. It is a matter of established fact that no violent action took place in either Benin City or Enugu. It has been suggested that these areas were spared because the plotters found it impossible to recruit reliable co-conspirators in these regions. None of the plotters indicated under interrogation that any efforts to recruit collaborators in either Benin or Enugu were made.
The execution of the plan commenced by the calling of a meeting late on 15th January, 1966, of the Lagos members of the inner circle and, for the first time of other officers previously selected to take active part. A number of those officers had attended a cocktail party that evening in the house of Brigadier Maimalari in Ikoyi. The following among others, attended the meeting Major E.A. Ifeajuna, Major Anuforo, Major D. Okafor, Major Ademoyega, Major Chukwuka, two captains and six subalterns. At the end of the meeting, tasks and targets were issued as follows:
(1) Abduction of the prime minister and federal finance minister – Major E.A. Ifeajuna and two 2nd Lt.
(2) Killing of Colonel Kur Mohammed and Lt. Col. Unegbe – Major Anuforo and a 2nd Lt.
(3) Killing of Brigadier Maimalari – Major D. Okafor, one captain and one 2ndLt.
(4) Killing of Lt. Col. Pam – Major Chukwuka and a 2nd Lt.
(5) Occupation of key points – various lieutenants and second lieutenants.
The Federal Guard Officers’ Mess at Ikoyi was named as the meeting point for all teams on completion of their tasks.
The report then narrated the abduction and assassination of among others, the federal prime minister, Brigadier Maimalari, Cols. Muhammed and Unegbe, Lt. Cols. Pam and Largema etc.
The report stated that: Major Ifeajuna and a few of his men then approached the back entrance of the prime minister’s residence having secured the police orderly and the guards under arrest and broke into the lounge and thence to the prime minister’s bedroom. A voice from inside asked who was there. The major replied by kicking the door open, entering the room and pointing his gun at the prime minister and thereafter led out the prime minister wearing a white robe with trousers and slippers. The prime minister was then led away by Major Ifeajuna along Awolowo Road when: lfeajuna parked his car adjacent to, the Onikarl swimming pool. The convoy led by lfeajuna having abducted the federal finance minister, moved off to the Federal Guard Officers’ Mess, stopping en route at a point in Ikoyi where Major Ifeajuna and another officer encountered and killed Brigadier Maimalari.
At a point in a golf course adjacent to a petrol station, Brigadier Maimalari was walking toward Dodan Barracks when he saw Major Ifeajuna’s car. The brigadier recognised his brigade major, Ifeajuna shouted and beckoned to stop. Then Ifeajuna stopped the car and accompanied by another officer went towards Maimalari and killed him.
Though not initially allotted to Major Ifeajuna as a target for assassination, Major Ifeajuna proceeded to Ikoyi Hotel to kill Lt. Col. Largema. He ordered the receptionist to lead him to the room at which Lt. Col. Largema was staying, warning the receptionist on the way that he would be shot if he refused to comply with whatever he might be asked to do. On arrival on the first floor, Major Ifeajuna accompanied by another officer instructed the hotel receptionist to knock on the door of the room of Col. Largema. Col. Largema responded and came out dressed in pyjamas slightly dazed by sleep. At this moment both soldiers stationed near the lift (elevator) opened fire with their submachine guns. Lt. Col. Largema fell down and died. The cadaver was carried down to Ifeajuna’s car and the party drove off.
Major Ifeajuna returned to the Federal Officers’ Mess where he learnt that the G.O.C. (General officer commanding the Nigerian army) was in town and was organising the 2nd Battalion at Ikeja to attack the rebels.
The time then was about 4.00 hours. Major Ifeajuna drove away along Abeokuta Road. On the way, they stopped and Major Ifeajuna asked the prime minister out of the car whence he shot and killed him. When he and Okafor became certain that the PM. was dead, they left the body in the bush at a point beyond Otta on the Lagos to Abeokuta Road. They then opened the boot of the car and dropped the body of Lt. Col. Largema near that of the PM. They then drove on to Abeokuta. On the way to Abeokuta the other soldiers in the car were dropped and told to find their way back to Lagos. Major Ifeajuna and Okafor proceeded to Enugu. They arrived Enugu at 14.15 hours and proceeded to the premier’s lodge where they held discussion with Dr. M.I. Opara, then Premier of Eastern Region after which they separated and went into hiding. Ifeajuna eventually escaped to Ghana where he was received by the former President, Kwame Nkrumah, who sent him to Winneba.
I was the deputy permanent secretary in the Nigerian Ministry of Defence, and the second most senior civilian official after the permanent secretary, in the ministry, not counting the ministers who were the political heads of the department. These included the minister of defence, the ministers of state for the army, navy, and of the fledgling air force. The minister of defence was the real political boss with the others assisting him to supervise the affairs of the ministry. On that fateful day of January 15th, the minister of defence and the permanent secretary were out of the country on official duty. What an appropriate time to stage a coup d’etat! I was left, literally alone, to handle such momentous events in the history of our country. What follows is my recollection of the course of events from 15th to 16th January, 1966.
At about 3a.m. on January 15th, 1966, I was awakened from sleep by the then commissioner of police, Lagos Federal Territory, Malam Hamman Maiduguri (now deceased) who was accompanied by the Acting Inspector General of Police (I.G.P.), Alhaji Kam Salem (deceased), (The substantive IGP, Mr. Louis Edet, was on vacation). The duo advised me that information had reached them that some soldiers had entered the prime minister’s house and kidnapped him (the minister) at gunpoint. When I enquired about the source of information, the commissioner said one of the little children of the prime minister (who was sleeping in his father’s bedroom) telephoned the information to the commissioner’s wife, who was a friend of the prime minister’s family. The information was relayed to the I.G.P. and after making the normal security checks the veracity of the information was confirmed. The police chief further informed me that the Lagos telephone exchange was apparently tampered with by the coup makers as the ordinary telephone could not be used to make contacts. I checked my telephone there and then and found it dead! What were we to do next, with the prime minister kidnapped, the president of the republic away on a health cruise, the defence minister and the permanent secretary, also outside the country? There was no civilian authority in a position to give command to the loyal security forces to act. The two police chiefs looked up to me to do something, which I did. I decided, (rather foolhardily in retrospect) to visit the houses of some senior army officers who happened to reside in Ikoyi. I advised that all three of us should call on Brigadier Maimalari who had hosted a cocktail party the previous evening in honour of his newly wedded wife. In view of the uncertainties of the situation, we took the precaution to travel in different vehicles, the two police chiefs in their car and I in my wife’s car to avoid identification as if the coup plotters were naive enough, not to discover such a futile trick. So off we went, taking separate routes, as a further precaution.
I reached Brigadier Maimalari’s house in a few minutes expecting to find the coloured electric lights specially installed for last night’s party still on. To my astonishment, they were not and an eerie atmosphere pervaded the house which was dark and still. The gates were locked and there were no military guards or sentries as was usually the case. Instead, I noticed what looked like a dead body lying in front of the gate. Needless to say, I did not stop, but rather foolishly or, as if overcome by Dutch courage, I proceeded to visit another military officer’s house, Lt. Col. Yakubu Pam, who, like Maimalari was my schoolmate at the famous Barewa College in Zaria, Northern Nigeria. Again the house, situated at Ikoyi Crescent, was in darkness and there was no sign of life. Instinctively, I started the car to return to my house or to continue my nocturnal odyssey in an attempt to find out what was happening. As I was doing so, Colonel Pam’s wife, Elizabeth, spotted the car and shouted my name, “Malam Ahmadu! Malam Ahmadu!!” in a very agitated voice. I switched off the engine of the car, came out and spoke to Mrs. Pam who was still standing on the terrace and weeping hysterically.
She told me that an army major, whom she named, came with others and led away her husband who was in his pyjamas. She pleaded with the army officers, especially the major, who used to come to dine and wine with her husband, not to do any harm to her husband. She pleaded tearfully on behalf of herself and the small children to spare the life of their breadwinner. She was not heeded and the husband was taken away, although they allowed him to bring his coat along in case he might require it. Before leaving the house the soldiers punctured all the tyres of Lt. Col. Pam’s car which was parked in front of the house by shooting at them. The idea was to prevent communicating the incident to other persons or to the authorities who might counteract. This was quite plausible with the telephone systems disrupted, the car provided the quickest means of communication. Incidentally, before the system was neutralised, Mrs Pam told me that her husband was able to telephone his General Officer Commanding (GOC), Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi and reported the intrusion of soldiers at his house. Ironsi was unable or could not offer any assistance to his subordinate officer at this critical hour, but he simply mumbled some inaudible words. Perhaps the telephone call from Col. Pam and possibly other loyal officers who found themselves in similar predicament, alerted the GOC for it was said that he disappeared from his house and was not seen by the authorities until about 1.00pm the following day by which time those of us in the Police Force Headquarters Security Operation Room had been furnished with the names of the important personalities (military and civilian) killed by the rebels. Ironsi informed us that two soldiers visited his house but he told them not to do any foolish thing.
They went away and he too drove away in his personal car and visited the Lion Building, Lagos Federal Territory Police Headquarters, at about 3. 30a. m. and ordered a few soldiers who were guarding the place to go back to their barracks which they did.
The GOC must have been damn lucky to escape the assassin’s bullet or he must have mesmerised the soldiers or played some juju on them which rendered them incapable of taking a lethal action against him. The cynics would have said the stories told by Ironsi were too true to be good or too good to be true. However, the plain fact was that as pointed out in the alleged Police Special Branch Report on the coup, Ironsi was not on the list of senior army officers to be killed by the conspirators. To them, Ironsi, unlike his peers in the top echelon of the Nigerian Army, did not represent any threat’ to their plans. This was to say the least ironical considering Ironsi’s position as the overall commander of the army, who, more than any other military officer, possessed the wherewithal to frustrate the plotters’ plans. This he eventually did and seized control of the federal government.
What I heard and saw at both Brigadier Maimalari’s and Col. Pam’s houses, as well as the reported kidnapping of the prime minister seemed to indicate that the coup was directed against a section of the country. This suspicion should have made me to go into hiding, but I did not. Instead, I proceeded to Ikoyi Hotel and got there at about 4.00 a.m. to find out the fate of another schoolmate, in fact, classmate, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, who was staying there. My fear was confirmed. The officer was shot by the rebels in the corridor of his hotel room, the body dragged down and dumped in an army truck. From the hotel I went straight to my house to find my wife Lami and brother Isyaku, who was staying with us, agitated and almost broken down, thinking that I too was captured and disposed of by the military boys. This might have been my lot, had I not been delayed at Lt. Col. Pam’s house, for the shooting of Col. .Largema occurred a few minutes before my arrival at Ikoyi Hotel. The perpetrators of this evil deed knew me personally and would not have spared my life if they saw me. Indeed, I learnt from very reliable sources that the army officer who captured the prime minister was to finish me off either that night in Lagos or on the following day if the coup became completely successful a-la Kaduna. My escape from death was simply miraculous, the work of providence or as we Muslims say, it was the wish of Allah that I should live.
I stayed in my house for a few minutes to’ change my clothes and then started off again. This time my adventure took me to the house of the minister of state for the army, Alhaji Tako Galadima (deceased), which was barricaded by troops in battle dress from the Federal Guard stationed at Dodan Barracks, Obalende, who turned me away at gunpoint despite my persistent plea to see the minister. It turned out that these troops were loyal to the minister, sent out by somebody or came on their own to protect him. From the minister’s house, I proceeded to see some other ministers who might be induced to take charge of affairs and issue directives to crush the rebellion.
Demonstration in Zaria after 1st Nigerian coup (1966