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The Dimka Coup

He admits that Dimka “took all the soldiers” in his command to exe­cute the coup. He blames his predecessor in office Major-General Joe Garba, for…

He admits that Dimka “took all the soldiers” in his command to exe­cute the coup. He blames his predecessor in office Major-General Joe Garba, for indirectly making that possible. The “worst thing Garba did for the Nigerian Army,” according to Sami, was that he picked all the soldiers guarding Dodan Barracks “from one particular part of the coun­try: Langtang, Shendam, all to defend Gowon.” Garba, now late, was from Langtang in Plateau State.

Sami said that when he took over the brigade, he “wanted to com­mand, not to be a figure head,” so, he decided to “re-shuffle the com­mand. I came up with a proposal dispersing all the senior NCOs from one particular tribe but later they said I should stay action. And Dimka was able to penetrate the system because most of the chaps were from his area.”
Sami is reluctant to let someone else take credit for aborting the Dim­ka coup. Some of his recollections, which were not corroborated by other actors, tend to cast Babangida in a subordinate role. Sami said his office was attacked by some of Dimka’s boys when Babangida was there. One of the two people who were never arrested for their part in the coup, Sgt Clement Yilda, according to Sami, “fired into my office. He wanted to kill us. Unfortunately, he couldn’t.”
Although Babangida said he instructed Ojokojo to use a bullhorn at the NBC, Sami claims it was he who used a megaphone “to tell Dimka to surrender or we were going to deal with him.” According to him, he and Babangida talked to Dimka over the fence. Dimka, according to Sami’ s account, told Babangida and Sami that if they were not careful with him, he was going to demolish Dodan Barracks. “So,” according to Sami, “it was because of that that we went quickly to mobilise armoured cars through Danjuma.”
He admits that Babangida tried “to persuade” Dimka to surrender. He credits him for “an act of courage because to go calmly and boldly to confront an enemy when you didn’t know the strength at his disposal” was a brave act. His recollection as to what point in the crisis Babangida went “calmly and boldly” to confront Dimka at the broadcasting house is unclear.
From what has been established, Babangida remained in Sami’s of­fice while his men were clearing the NBC of Dimka and his men. Evi­dence that his men had the upper hand soon came with the arrest of majors K.K. Gagara, Rabo and others. They were brought to Sami’s office and ordered to be locked up in the guardsroom. Shagaya and Ojokojo reported back to Babangida that Dimka had escaped.
There were some conflicting reports about this initially. His ADC, Lt. Garba, was shot and left to bleed to death at the NBC. But nothing was heard of Dimka. Initial reports said he had committed suicide by jumping into a pond behind the corporation. This later proved to be incorrect because attempts to fish him out were negative.
From what has been pieced together about his last hours in the broad­casting house, Dimka did not wait for Babangida’s return. After talking with him, he knew his game was up. If Babangida returned, it would be a bloody fight. He calmly walked out of the station. His own account at his trial showed he went back to his house before melting into thin air for several weeks. The police at a checkpoint somewhere in the East eventually arrested him. He was said to be escaping to the Republic of Came­roun.
v
The coup was quashed. The government was saved. But Murtala Mu­hammed was dead. He was waylaid, shot and killed with his ADC on his way to the office. Muhammed distanced himself from the rather imperial grandeur of the Gowon administration. He did not move into the official residence of the head of state in Dodan Barracks. He was casual about his own security. He preferred the anonymity of being lost in the Lagos traffic among the people to the noisy exhibition of power with the full panoply of out-riders. It was important to his administration to cultivate a new image of power – fewer exhibitions, more execution; a good public relations gimmick that went tragically awry on February 13, 1976.
Col Ibrahim Taiwo, military governor of Kwara State, was also killed in the failed coup. The federal military government at about 6.30pm that day made the formal announcement of the abortive coup. The govern­ment said an attempt by some dissident elements in the army to topple the Muhammed administration had been checkmated. Obasanjo, who succeeded Muhammed, formally announced Muhammed’s death in his first broadcast to the nation on February 14.
Babangida became the star in that brief, bloody drama. As far as the Nigerian public was concerned, everyone else played a supporting role to Babangida in it. He was the hero. He heard of Muhammed’s death much, much later. It made him “sad, very sad indeed.” An emergency meeting of the SMC was convened that afternoon at which the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Lt-General Olusegun Obasanjo, was confirmed head of state in succession to Muhammed. Lt-Col Musa Yar’Adua, the commissioner for transport, was promoted brigadier and appointed Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters. At the venue of the meeting, Major ­General Emmanuel Abisoye, GOC, 3 Division, Jos, commended Ba­bangida for his role in quashing the coup.
Abisoye: Look, I was told you saved the day. How did you do it?
Babangida: No sir, I didn’t save the day. God saved the day. Babangida remains modest about his role, insisting he did no more than his professional duty as a soldier to the nation. February 13, 1976, was the end for Gen. Murtala Ramat Muhammed. It was the stepping­stone to greater things for Col Ibrahim Babangida. His confrontation with Dimka, unarmed, remains the stuff of hero worship in the armed forces and the public. It cast the colonel in a Hollywood role – the brave, good guy against the bad guys who killed Murtala Muhammed.
A myth was bound to grow around him. It did. There was an outpour­ing of encomiums from his fellow officers. Magoro saw Babangida the day after the coup. The latter had gone to Ikeja Military Cantonment to find out exactly what was happening there.” There was no doubt that the news of Babangida’s role had preceded him in nearly all the military formations. Officers and men discussed him and the role he played. It is remarkable that after all these years the opinion of some of these officers about Babangida’s bravery has not changed. A sampler of such opinions:
Major-General Mohammed Magoro:
It was a display of courage. You can relate what he did at the NBC to what he did at the war front when he single-handedly evacuated Duba who was shot, under heavy enemy fire. But this was even a bigger risk because it was not a battlefield. This was a military coup. In a military coup, you don’t know who is where; you don’t know whether the chap you would be talking to is against you. What that meant was that anybody within the NBC could have opened fire on him. But for him to have summoned the courage not to remain inside the armoured car but to have gone out physically to speak to Dimka, yes, it was a display of courage and self-confidence.
Major-General Sunday Ifere:
He had done it before. Remember the capture of Umuahia? He was using his coolness and bravery to convince Dimka. Dimka too had confidence in him and he was willing to listen to him. Babangida did not have any other magic. If they had sent any other man to go and talk to Dimka under that tense situation, Dimka could have blown up the person. It was because he was calm and brave and popular that he was able to accomplish the feat.
Major-General Gado Nasko:
It was a brave action. He is brave and fearless. It takes a lot of courage for one to go and face people who are armed, more so for someone who was listed among those to be killed. Babangida was one of those listed to be killed in that coup. As a military secretary, I recommended that he and the late Major­General Mamman Vatsa be awarded a medal for their role in aborting the coup. Vatsa also played a major role because he was the first to make the an­nouncement that he was not supporting the coup.
Although the military authorities did not act on Nasko’s recommen­dation, Babangida and Vatsa got their reward. They were promoted brigadiers ahead of their mates.
Major-General Abdulsalami Abubakar, who, as Chief of Defence Staff, succeeded Abacha as head of state and moved up as a four star general in 1998:
It needs courage to go and face somebody with a gun when you are unarmed. Agreed, as a soldier you are taught to fight but it needs some extra courage.
I do what he did. Normally, an officer would try and go with his troops to dis-arm somebody who turned rebellious but to go unarmed needs more than ordi­nary training.
Brigadier John Mark Inienger:
Confronting Dimka! Yes, of course, it was just like facing a mad man. Here is a lunatic you have heard has been chopping people’s heads off and you say, okay, I am going to disarm him and you walk straight to him. The act of walk­ing straight to the man needs courage and conviction, call it spiritual convic­tion, call it whatever. So, there was this belief in Babangida, born out of his conviction, born out of his courage, that Dimka would never kill him. It was a risk. Very few people can take that risk but he did. It was an act of courage that needs to be commended.
The myth became the man. A star was born. Mohammed Haruna, editor-in-chief of the defunct Citizen newsmagazine and one of Babangida’s younger friends, captures the public perception of Babangida in these words:
There was this aura of an invincible person, somebody who went out there and confronted Dimka unarmed. I mean you saw him there at the airport and you could see that he was the star of the crowd sitting there and everybody sur­rounding him; you could see that everybody else was revolving around him.
For several days after the incident, Babangida felt uncomfortable with himself. How did the whole thing escape him? He was the government’s listening ear. More embarrassing for him was the fact that most of those who took part in the coup were his boys.
Babangida admits:
I had a relationship with virtually everyone that was involved in the Dimka coup. All of them were my boys at one stage or the other. I saved them from either financial or marital problems. These were boys who could walk into my house any time and eat whatever they found. I used to enjoy discussing military affairs with them. We would discuss some of the famous generals like Rommel and Montgomery. They were very interesting to be with but they were very vocal and very, very militant.
Major Clement Dabang was one of those fiery young Turks in the army. He suffered from stomach ulcer and could therefore not eat ‘normal’ food. His doctor placed him on a special diet. Mrs Maryam Ba­bangida often prepared this for him. Gagara also visited the Babangidas regularly. He had free use of their family vehicles. So did Major Joe Kassai.
One of those implicated in the coup, to Babangida’s great shock, was his friend, Col Wya. He and Babangida were together less than 24 hours before the coup. So, how come the latter never had an inkling of what was afoot?
One possible explanation is that there are still doubts about Wya’s involvement. He was most probably implicated on purely circumstantial evidence. Here is one account of how Wya found himself among the coup plotters. He visited Dimka in his house the night before the coup and found him drunk at what looked like a party going on in his house. He then left Dimka. On the basis of this visit, he was arrested along with Dabang and the others. He too was tried and convicted by the military tribunal. When his sentence came before the Supreme Military Council for confirmation, however, the council was split 50 per cent for and 50 per cent against his conviction. The head of state, General Obasanjo, allegedly cast the deciding vote that sealed Wya’s fate.
Babangida still does not believe that the coup plot was hatched by the man the world knew as its leader – Dimka – because “he did not have the intellectual capacity to sit down and plan a coup.” He thinks it was most probably the brainchild of the young Turks – Dabang, Gagara, Kassai and others. These officers, mainly majors, captains and lieutenants, apart from being very vocal and militant, were very politically aware. They had their own ideas about how the country should be run. They freely discussed politics and, like Nzeogwu and his group, their opinion of some of the senior officers was not high. They were in love with social­ism and thought aloud of a socialist revolution in the country.
It is not clear if this was their mission on February 13, 1976. Nor is there evidence that Dimka shared such fanciful ideals with them. In his famous broadcast of the attempted take-over, Dimka referred to those behind it as “the young revolutionaries.” The group did borrow a leaf from Major Nzeogwu.
Dimka, certainly, cut a poor image with his colleagues in the army.
Those who knew him well refuse to give him any credits for coherence in thoughts, words or deeds. Babangida believes his friend was a willing tool in the hands of “frustrated senior officers” like Tense, Wya and Major-General Iliya Bisalla, all of whom, among many others, were tried, convicted and executed for their alleged role in the coup.
Dogonyaro dismisses Dimka as a drunk who could only get “drunks like him” to support his coup against Muhammed. Dogonyaro was a member of the panel that investigated the abortive coup and those implicated in it. He saw Dimka during his trial and “I looked at him with very bitter eyes and (a) stem face and he said, ‘My brother, what have I done to you? Have I killed your son? Why are you looking at me like that?’ I said to him, you are a disgrace.” Dogonyaro, like Dimka, is from Plateau State. Most of those implicated in that coup were from that state.
The execution of the coup did little to burnish Dimka’s poor image among his colleagues. It even reinforced it. The coup started very late in the morning. There was no co-ordination among the plotters. The senior officers among them appeared to have left the execution in the hands of the junior officers.
Babangida said the Dimka coup was “an ego thing, a sort of ‘we too can do it.’” Dimka’s speech was more memorable for its gaffe and brevi­ty than for an articulation of their motive for change of government. Its brevity reflected lack of defined objectives; the gaffe, such as the imposi­tion of a dawn to dusk curfew, reflected haste in its writing. Dimka said:
“I bring you good tidings. Murtala Muhammed’s hypocrisy has been defeated. His government is now overthrown by the young revolutionar­ies.”
According to the Federal Military Government the coup plotters had two main grievances and two major objectives. Their first grievance was that the Murtala Muhammed administration was going communist. They wanted to stop this. The second was the promotion of brigadiers to gen­erals. Shortly after taking over, Muhammed, a brigadier, was promoted a four star general; Brigadiers Obasanjo and Danjuma moved up as lieu­tenant generals.
The government claimed the plotters were particularly piqued by Danjuma’s promotion and his appointment as Chief of Army Staff. This, according to a later government statement, was Bisalla’s personal grouse. Although he too was promoted a major general, the “leap” by his mates had left him behind. Their objectives, according to the government, were to restore Gowon and all the former military governors to power and reinstate all retired or dismissed public officers.6
The biggest drama centred on Gowon. Government alleged that he was aware and approved of the plot to return him to power. In the view of the government, the involvement of a good number of officers and men of Plateau State origin was proof that Gowon knew. Even Dimka’s link with Gowon through the marriage of the latter’s elder sister to the for­mer’s relation, Mr. S.K. Dimka, then Commissioner of Police in charge of Kwara State, was used by the government to reinforce its belief in Gowon’s alleged complicity. Police Commissioner Dimka was, of course, arrested, tried, convicted and jailed for his alleged involvement in his relation’s misadventure.
Gowon strongly protested his innocence. He wrote to Obasanjo to this effect. He pointed out that as soon as he heard of his own overthrow, he pledged his loyalty to the new administration. As a man who values honour and integrity, he was not about to soil that pledge freely given with perfidy. He was particularly worried that “I have been virtually condemned by my government without giving me, first, a chance to defend myself, my good name and honour and that of my family …. “ He admitted that he received Dimka and “a mixed group” of Nigerians who had called to see him in his house in London “on the night of December 21st, 1975 but pointed out that he was “experienced enough militarily and in the art of government not to engage in serious discussion of plan­ning a coup with (such) a mixed group” as visited him that day.?
The general fought and lost the battle to clear himself and his name.
Public sentiment was against him. Murtala Muhammed had been assassi­nated at the height of his popularity. The Federal Military Government was not unaware of this. It stripped Gowon of his four star rank and dismissed him from the Nigerian Army. He was declared a wanted man.
It was Gowon’s luck to live with the mud in his face for six long, agonising years. President Shehu Shagari washed off some of that mud in 1982. He granted Gowon state pardon. It was short of Gowon’s demand. He insisted he had committed no crime and, therefore, there could be no question of a pardon. Shagari’ s action was more an attempt to put “the tragic event of the civil war behind” than a reflection of his personal conviction of Gowon’s innocence because he also pardoned the former Biafran leader, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who had been in self-exile in Cote d’Ivoire since the end of the war in January 1970.
Shagari did not restore Gowon’s army rank. In effect, he remained a dismissed general. He held on to the half bread. In 1986, Babangida scrubbed the mud from the general’s face. The first indication of this came at the convocation of the University of Jos that year at which Gow­on was conferred with an honorary doctorate. In his speech at the occa­sion, Babangida referred to Gowon by his military title of general. It had taken ten years. But at last, someone had taken his protestation of inno­cence seriously. In God’s mysterious way, the man who vindicated the stand of the former head of state was one of those who sat in judgement over him at the SMC in the heat of passion of the abortive coup.
Actually, Babangida had never believed that Gowon was involved in the Dimka coup:
I knew and I believe very strongly that Gowon didn’t know about the plot. The mere mention of Gowon was an afterthought by Dimka. I would say anybody who knows General Gowon, and I think a lot of us who know him, know he will not be a party to things like this. I still maintain it. Dimka was looking for someone with a high degree of credibility. He must have been advised to do that because he knew he couldn’t just go and call himself head of state. No one would take him seriously.8
Did Babangida defend Gowon in the council? Apparently no. It was a wrong time for a levelheaded assessment of the possibility of Gowon’s involvement with Dimka. Babangida confirms that the circumstances simply made it difficult for anyone to express a rational view on the allegation against Gowon. He says Gowon “should understand the situa­tion in which we found ourselves. There was a coup, people were killed, people were mentioned. You felt bad you lost a good head of state. Naturally, there was people’s reaction. I think it was a natural consequence of what came out but I think once the dust settled down, people would reflect and start thinking and see that most of these things did not hap­pen.”9
VI
General Murtala Muhammed remains a folk hero. The spontaneous outpouring of public grief at his death remains poignant. On the first anniversary of his assassination, the Obasanjo administration, still hy­phenated as the Murtala-Obasanjo regime, issued a N20.00 note with his bust on it as the nation’s final rite of honour to him. The government went ahead with the execution of the political programme begun by him and returned the country to civil rule on October 1, 1979.
With the countdown to civil rule, Babangida faded more or less into the relative anonymity of the professional soldier. He became the first commander of the Armoured Corps in 1977 and moved to Bonny Camp headquarters of the corps. Dogonyaro remembers Babangida’s time in the corps as the height of its “development and progress. Armoured fighting vehicles were introduced by way of tanks. (The) T55 rolled in during that period.” Lt-General Alani Akinrinade, who succeeded Danjuma as Chief of Army Staff in October 1979, commissioned the tanks.
Babangida regards his chairmanship of the panel on the re­organisation of the Nigerian Army as one of his major professional as­signments. It was here, perhaps, inadvertently and perhaps because of his visibility after the Dimka coup, that he came under close watch by his superiors. There were rumours that he was ambitious and that he was planning the overthrow of the Obasanjo administration. A series of intel­ligence reports described him as “a dangerous person” who should be watched. Babangida got wind of these rumours and reports. They bothered him. He insists he had never nursed a political ambition, at least, not then.
He was never confronted with these rumours or reports. He did not volunteer to stanch them either. But he confided in some of his close friends the rumours bothered him. He told Madaki he suspected they were planning to arrest him. He vowed to resist any arrest. Luckily, it never came. Maybe his superiors could vouch for him. However, two incidents showed that not a few people were possibly jittery about his ‘ambition.’
When he presented his panel report on the re-organisations of the army, he recommended no changes in the armoured corps. He wanted it left intact. One senior officer noticed this and asked why he didn’t “plan how the corps was going to be.” According to Madaki who was a member of the panel, “they said they were not going to accept the re-organisation until the armour was planned.” He genuinely felt that there was no need to touch the corps. His action was misconstrued. “So,” Madaki recalls, “people then said he didn’t want to touch the armour because he wanted to use it.”

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