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January 15, 1966, coup

This date was a turning point in Nigeria’s history because it terminated the First Republic and initiated the crisis that culminated in the disastrous civil…

This date was a turning point in Nigeria’s history because it terminated the First Republic and initiated the crisis that culminated in the disastrous civil war from 1967 to 1970. Some analysts argue that Nigeria was plunged into crisis prior to this sad day because it was an artificial creation or “mere geographical expression”. Others even claim that the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914 was the root of all crises. 

First, all nations are artificially based on myths forged by propaganda as clearly demonstrated by Peter Furtado (editor (2013) History of Nations: How their Identities Were Forged). Secondly, both Northern and Southern Protectorates were artificial creations of the British. They never existed as political entities in the pre-colonial era.

The British later decided to create three regions: East, North, and West. They made them the federating units. They were not equal in size. They were all multi-ethnic entities. None of the three major ethnic groups: Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba had an ethnic nation-state in the pre-colonial period. But the Richards Constitution 1947, which created the regions, gave them the impetus for dominance and the false feeling of “nations” within the country. The Richards Constitution was the most undemocratic Constitution ever. All subsequent Constitutions up to 1963 were Richards Constitution as amended and therefore have the same strong regional features. 

The First Republic was bedeviled by acrimony because the constitution created powerful political divisions that made compromises difficult. The Prime Minister tried as much as he could. Chief Anthony Enahoro acknowledged this effort: “one of the cementing factors (and I say it with all sincerity) has been the person of the prime minister. If we had someone else -one of our friends across the floor – in that position, it is doubtful if the federation would have been one today” (Clark, Trevor (1991) Right Honorable Gentleman p. 634). Hence another writer noted: “How right he was can be seen from the fact that not quite two years after he left the scene, the nation drifted speedily into war, and for thirty months tore itself apart by a civil war which nearly resulted in the disintegration of the country as a single political entity” (Augustus Adebayo (1986) Power in Politics p. 48).

The politicians were not patient enough and they wanted to take power by all means and those with the power wanted to retain it by all means. In an attempt to retain power the Northern Peoples Congress (NPC)-National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) coalition Federal Government flexed its muscles against the Action Group (AG) by involvement in the Western Regional crisis. The Southern parties: AG and NCNC realized that the only way to seize power from the NPC was to attack its “basis of power by whatever means necessary”, which was the northern population that gave it more seats at the Federal House of Representatives. And the census of 1962 offered the opportunity. “Southern governments realized that, if they could manipulate the census numbers in 1962, they could reverse the northern population majority and gain more seats for the southern regions in the federal assembly”.

The Eastern and Western regions had an increase of seventy percent when the census figures were released while the Northern region had only a thirty percent increase since the last census of 1953. The figures “were no doubt grossly inaccurate”. They were cancelled and another census was conducted and released in November 1963. The result of which showed that “the Northern Region had grown at a pace commensurate with the East and West: some 8 million new northern figures had been discovered” (quotations from Falola, T., and Heaton, M. M., 2008 A History of Nigeria Cambridge University Press, Cambridge United Kingdom). It has also been earlier observed that: “Obviously southern Nigerians were determined to wrest power from the Hausa-Fulani by manipulating the results” (Ostheimer, John (1973) Nigerian Politics p. 54).

When this failed the opposition politicians decided to support military termination of civilian rule. Chief SG Ikoku (of AG) confirmed this when he stated that: “I don’t want to embarrass anybody so I won’t give names, but we had about three or four senior officers in the army with whom were discussing political prospects” (SG Ikoku ‘Discussion’ in Inside Nigerian History 1950-1970: Events, Issues and Sources edited by Yusufu Bala Usman and George Amale Kwanashie p. 59). The soldiers mostly of Igbo origin struck on January 15, 1966, and they killed Abubakar Tafawa Balewa the Prime Minister of the Federal Republic, Ahmadu Bello, Premier, SL Akintola his ally Premier of Western Region, and many senior military officers of Northern origin. The coup was interpreted as an ethnically targeted violent solution to the federal crisis.

The Majors led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzegwu who masterminded the first violent coup in Nigeria’s history on January 15, 1966, apparently had no idea of how to govern the country apart from eliminating the politicians and other military officers they hated. Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi used the opportunity and take over the power. He has also been accused of complicity in the murder of Brigadier Zakari Maimalari one of Nigeria’s finest professional soldiers. General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s solution to the failures of the 1947-1963 Constitution was the termination of federalism and introduction of a unitary system by Military Decree. Most of his advisers in this unitary experiment were from his ethnic group. Also, he refused to put trial the military coup plotters of January 15, 1966, who assassinated politicians and other military officers. There was widespread unrest before northern military officers led by Majors: Murtala Mohammed, Theophilus Danjuma, and Martins Adamu terminated his regime and assassinated him. 

Chinua Achebe the erudite novelist tried to change the narrative of the January 15, 1966 Coup in his book There Was A Country to portray his ethnic group as the victim, but this has been debunked: “Igbo in the North were widely taunting their hosts on the loss of their leaders. Celestine Ukwu, a popular Igbo musician, released songs titled Ewu Ne Ba Akwa (Goats Are Crying) and others celebrating “Igbo power”, the “January Victory.” Posters, stickers, postcards, cartoons displaying the murdered Sardauna begging Major Nzeogwu at the gates of heaven or Balewa burning outright in pits of hell or Nzeogwu standing St. George-like on Sardauna, the defeated dragon, began to show up across Northern towns and cities. These provocations were so pervasive that they warranted the promulgation of Decree 44 of 1966 banning them”. Even Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe noted these atrocities in his The Origins of the Civil War: “Some Ibo elements, who were domiciled in Northern Nigeria taunted northerners by defaming their leaders through means of records or songs or pictures. They also published pamphlets and postcards, which displayed a peculiar representation of certain northerners, living or dead, in a manner likely to provoke disaffection.” These images and songs eventually led to the so-called pogroms/ethnic-cleansing/genocide, not the coup” as Achebe claimed. In fact, “the coup was in January, the pogroms started late in May and the provocations were in-between” (quotations from Demola Awoyokun, ‘Biafra: The Facts, the Fiction’ PM News March 5, 2013).

Colonel Gowon’s regime that took over from General Aguiyi-Ironsi decided to create states to appease the minorities in the Northern and Eastern Regions. The disastrous civil war was fought from 1967-1970 as a result of the attempt of Colonel Odemegwu-Ojukwu-led Biafran secession. Five years after the war, General Gowon was removed in a bloodless coup. General Murtala Mohammed took over. This regime decided that Nigeria should return to democracy under a Presidential System. A committee headed by Chief Rotimi Williams drafted a new constitution. All subsequent constitutions from 1979 were the 1979 Constitution as amended. This constitution made the whole country the constituency of the president, unlike the previous parliamentary constitution. It was also accepted by the founding fathers of Nigeria who were alive at that time and contested elections under its power: Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Mallam Aminu Kano, and Joseph Tarka contrary to the false claims of ethnocentric hate mongers. It adopted the principle of federal character. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was the first politician to advocate “federal character” for power-sharing and he also proposed between 30 and forty states to resolve the minority question, which the Willinks Commission could not resolve (see Michael Maduagwu 2019 Federal Character and Affirmative Action: History and Diversities Policies in the United States and Nigeria for Chief Awolowo’s position on page 101). 

Nigeria is now at crossroads just as in the First Republic when politicians failed to take power democratically, they mobilized the populace along ethnic and regional lines. Ethnic champions are now campaigning for the destruction of the federation if it is not restructured in such a manner as to allow them to take power. In their frustration they want the country to revert to the 1963 Constitution, an amended version of the 1947 Richards Constitution. They claim that the military had drafted the 1999 Constitution, but they never say that the 1963 Constitution is the 1947 Constitution as amended. The colonialists drafted the 1947 Constitution, which gave birth to the 1963 Constitution. The desperation of politicians led to January 15, 1966 Coup, now they are also desperate but hopefully, Nigerians will not allow them to plunge the country into another crisis.

By Ibrahim Ado-Kurawa who is the Editor, Nigeria Year Book and Who is Who.

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