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Coups and counter-coups

The situation in the country was that of uncertainty as soldiers of northern extraction plotted what they called revenge coup, while there was the rumour…

The situation in the country was that of uncertainty as soldiers of northern extraction plotted what they called revenge coup, while there was the rumour that Igbo officers would strike again. Everyone waited for the inevitable retaliation.

 

BEN OCHEI APPOINTED NEW OFFICER COMMANDING FEDERAL GUARDS

Major Ochei was by no means a bad officer. In fact, he was an officer and a gentleman to the core. It did not take me long to know him. However, the Federal Guards as I have said earlier became a troubled unit soon after the coup. Their loyalty to any Igbo officer became shaky after the involvement of their commander in the January coup. It was a new phenomenon in the army. Soldiers in the army were never known to doubt the loyalty of their commanders before the coup. It happened four weeks after when Lt-Col. Yakubu Gowon drove into the barracks one afternoon with an officer called Ben Ochei. He told us on the parade that Ochei would be our new Officer Commanding in place of Okafor. He said he had worked with Ochei and that he was a trusted officer. That did not go down well with the soldiers even though Gowon said he was a trusted officer. Ochei was a good officer who needed no introduction to soldiers, and he was certainly qualified to command a unit like the Federal Guards. But the memory of what had just happened in January was fresh in our minds. Simply put, Ochei was an Igbo like Okafor, and sadly the blind loyalty which soldiers had for their commanders regardless of where they came from had evaporated. Things changed on 15 January 1966 when, for the first time, they became aware of which tribe they belonged: Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Kanuri, Tiv etc.

A very unfortunate development. We were uncomfortable to have him as a new Officer Commanding. The soldiers grumbled and many of them said they would prefer to be posted out of the unit. They said January 15 had shocked them and that Major Ochei could easily plan to kill them should anything like that happen again.

But Ochei said he was not Okafor. He asked us to trust him. Ochei had in his hand the bust of a woman beautifully carved on wood as a walking stick. He appeared restless when Gowon was presenting him, and kept fidgeting with the big stick. He kept saying,  “Oh poor me, I can assure you I am not Okafor”.

Because some of the soldiers could not understand what he meant by the words “I can assure you,” they thought he was saying” Aika Show Yu”, One curious soldier asked in Hausa, “Me nene aika show you din ne?” meaning, “What is this I can assure you?” After the long introduction, Gowon had his way and Major Ben Ochei became our new Officer Commanding, four weeks after the coup. When Ochei took over the command, the soldiers nicknamed him “Major Aika Show Yu.” Soon after that, we officers under him and the RSM adopted his type of walking stick as a fashion which later became formal for all officers in the Federal Guards to carry.

We adjusted to the order under Major Ochei within a short time, surprisingly. On his part, he tried everything to justify what Gowon said about him. He was extraordinarily accommodating and cautious. He wanted to earn the confidence of the soldiers and tried to lead by example. He organised durbars to talk to the men hoping to raise their morale and to make them forget what had happened. I gave him my loyalty because he was genuinely sincere in his words. His harshest words when a soldier committed an offence were: “I will flick you over to the Brigade. The army is no longer what it used to be.”

Captain Joe Garba who was out of the country during the period of the coup returned to the unit in March 1966 at the end of his service with the United Nations Observer Force in Kashmir. Garba was shaken on arrival and lamented the killings of the senior officers, particularly Brigadier Maimalari, his mentor. He wanted to know everything about what happened during his absence. He felt very disappointed that Major Donatus Okafor, our DC, whom we respected very much, let us down by the level of his involvement in the coup. He became second in command to Major Ochei by seniority.

 

THE COUNTER-COUP OF 29 JULY 1966

In my opinion, the death of Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari was the main recipe for all the crisis that trailed the 15 January 1966 coup. He was revered by his superiors and subordinates alike. Had he escaped that night, Nigeria would have been spared of all the coups and counter-coups that followed. The perpetrators and their supporters would have been rounded up and dealt with in a military precision. There would have been no military government and subsequent self- proclaimed messiahs in uniform. There was no one like him in the Nigerian Army.

 

Unlike the 15 January 1966 Coup, which took most of the army and the general public by surprise, the 29 July 1966 Counter-coup did not happen as a surprise to many people. Commonly referred to as revenge coup, there were several reasons why it took place. First and foremost was the one-sided nature of the 15 January 1966 Coup which focused mainly on officers and political leaders from one section of the country. Secondly, the failure of the Government of  General Ironsi to take concrete action against perpetrators of the 15 January 1966 coup. Thirdly, the Government’s tendency to operate in line with the dictate of the coup leaders. Fourthly, provocative and unguarded pronouncements by supporters of the coup against the feelings of people from the North in general. Statements  like, See this man? na him kill your papa,  holding up Nzeogwu’s portrait as a hero who killed Ahmadu Bello; or, Maimalari has gone to greet his mother but he would be back soon.

Such were the provocative pronouncements from supporters of the coup, which created hatred nationwide and pressure for quick retaliation. After several months had gone by without any positive action, the public started to be anxious and frustrated with the Government. Meanwhile, there was a very tense atmosphere, and repeated urges for retaliation were common on the lips of the common  people in the North. They openly condemned the northern officers and soldiers and called them cowards, urging them to revenge the murder of their military and political leaders. Soon it was no longer secret that northern troops were planning to revenge the January coup. However, even when tension was that high, the routines and general administrations including promotions of officers and other ranks were going on. On the 19 April 1966, for example, I was one of eight officers from our course who were promoted to the rank of substantive full Lieutenant.

The moves to carry out the coup were widely known to the authorities and the generality of Igbo officers even in the last few weeks but nothing could be done to stop it. There was strong rumour though, that the Igbo were planning to stage another coup to wipe out the remaining officers of northern origin. In the Federal Guards, we were made to believe that a popular dancer and entertainer from the North, who was living in Obalende, Lagos, popularly called T. A This Thing, would be hired to perform for the troops at night, during which time a grenade would be thrown into the crowd to kill or injure as many soldiers as possible. Elsewhere in other units in the army, the rumour that the Igbo were planning similar action persisted. Personally, I did not believe the rumour because they were no longer organised, neither did they have the troops to carry out such operation. The chances of surprise were no longer there. I thought the rumours were deliberately created – as a form of psychological operation (PsyOps) – to ginger up the northern elements for the planned counter-coup. It worked and heightened their resolve to strike. Even when close surveillance was kept on officers who were suspected to be behind the impending coup, it was not possible to deter their resolve to retaliate the January event. Blood beget blood and no one had the power to take innocent lives and be expected to get away with it.

After the January operations, the plotters tried to make the public believe that Nzeogwu had threatened to march troops down South to Ibadan and Lagos to crush any opposition that would stand against him. That was an empty statement because his authority over the troops which he deceitfully manoeuvred in after his exercise damisa, had been eroded totally by the afternoon of January 16 when the casualty list of the night killings in Lagos and Kaduna and Ibadan became known to the rest of the troops. There had never been a coup in Nigeria before, so the experience of hearing that many officers ‘were murdered by fellow officers was unprecedented and perplexing. That was the essence of the disquiet in Kaduna, Ibadan and Lagos.

An Igbo coursemate of mine from 1 Recce Squadron Kaduna told me his story many years after the civil war. According to him, on that fateful day of January 15, he was detailed in the morning to take a platoon to Mando Village on Kaduna – Lagos road to set up a roadblock. While carrying out the assignment, he heard the soldiers, mainly of northern origin, talking about the coup. He said what he heard frightened him. The soldiers were talking about the names of officers who were killed in the coup in Lagos and were wondering why all of them were Northerners. The young officer sensed the potential danger ahead from the way the soldiers were discussing the issue and saw it as a threat to his life as an Igbo man in that bush. He tactically melted away and disappeared for good. That typifies the atmosphere in the army soon after the coup. Nzeogwu lost grip and became vulnerable to reprisal by the same troops of the 3 Battalion and the support units which he used for the operations in Kaduna. Some close observers who watched him a few days after the operations described him as one who projected bravado but looked frightened and worried about his personal safety. From January until June, the situation in the country was that of uncertainty as everyone attuned to undercurrents waited for the inevitable retaliation.

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