Someone in Nigeria’s Army Officers’ Corp dissembled innocence and went away with a page of history. And now, with the truth of evidence which history means lost, sheer cant fills the gap.
Publicly, no Nigerian Army Officer is known to have walked back or sought to un-cover what actually happened. In effect, Nigerians have but garden-variety gossip to make do with as scrap knowledge.
The still mystifying event happened early in the morning of the first working day – Monday the 17th of January, 1966, as Nigerians reeled from the shocks of sub-machine guns fired by mutinous soldiers in Lagos, Ibadan and Kaduna - beginning 2.00am, two days earlier.
Exact casualties from those shootings were yet unclear, but Nigeria was loosed adrift by the hatreds the scrappy details of the killings stoked, and, the badly shaken country risked floundering on ethnic shoals.
Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, at the time Nigeria’s President, had in late 1965 left for the Caribbean, announced, but for medical check-up (which turned out to include a cruise) along with his physician, Dr. Humphrey Idemudia Idehen.
Dr. Azikiwe strangely did not come back in December, 1965, as scheduled, and gave no reasons.
When he eventually returned, much later in February 1966, he was received as a private citizen, because his post as Nigeria’s President had been abolished in his absence.
His inexplicable and un-explained failure to return home as host of the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Africa, holding in Lagos, Nigeria, beginning January 10th 1966, heightened suspicion that he knew more than he was letting on regarding the soldiers’ revolutionary mutiny of 15th January, 1966.
By early morning Sunday, January 16th 1966 - with President Azikiwe still away on his Caribbean cruise, and, with the country’s Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa declared missing – Nigeria became vulnerable.
Amid the gathering clouds, a certain 35-year-old bandy-legged and sometimes chatty but cuttingly frank Nigerian graduate military officer volunteered to put himself at the centre of what would become the missing page in Nigeria’s history.
He obliged fate – but a cruel one which would see him interned in six prison cells - detained on land and sea - a terrible fate that would later render his wife, Taiwo Joyce, an exiled widow in Sierra Leone.
Paradoxically, the fate’s first course was as tempting as dire, but the choice was ultimately his.
For on that bloody Saturday, 15th January, 1966, he could well have opted to join either side of a divided army amid the on-going mutiny, but chose to squelch Major Ifeajuna-led rebellion in Lagos. He would later share the same deathly fate with Major Ifeajuna in a worst irony of history.
But before that, and as the mutiny gathered under the darkness of Lagos - where he was quartered as Director of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering of the Nigerian Army – the 35 year old bandy-legged military officer chose to set his face against the rebels and squelch their mutiny.
By that same night, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu hadn’t announced the coup. He later did so at mid-day on Radio Kaduna. But under the darkness of the night of January 15th military operations, Major Nzeogwu’s triage was to liquidate the Premier of Northern Nigeria; disarm the Commanding Officer -Major Hassan Katsina - and prevent counter-attacks from southern Nigeria through Jebba and Makurdi bridges where he reportedly deployed army units.
Back in Lagos, the bow-legged officer, who was obliging fate, readied to counter the Lagos end of Major Nzeogwu’s coup, but it was bound to be a dicey military operation, because the actual master-mind of the coup, Major Ifeajuna, was the one executing the Lagos’ revolutionary coup; at first from his Apapa quarter - from where he’d infiltrated both the 2nd Brigade Headquarters and the Federal Guards garrison in Lagos.
He was operationally backed by a phalanx of military officers; including Major Ademoyega, Major Anuforo, Major Okafor (detailed to arrest Major General Ironsi) and, Major Chukwuka.
But having resolved to defeat Major Nzeogwu’s revolution in Lagos, the bow-legged officer of fate knew he’d have to put aside his early years’ training as a 1950s sermonizing college teacher in Ilaro and instead brace for his army hat as a 1954 Royal Military Academy Sandhurst graduate, since coup is bloody business, and the phalanx of opposing officers was as tough as rawhide.
At once, he summoned a junior officer to work with him at military communications, to undermine Major Nzeogwu’s revolution then spreading bloodily in Lagos. The officer he summoned that dangerous night was Major Anwuna – who would later play the role of seeing off the bandy-legged officer on a journey to eventual death 48 hours later.
Meantime and as the night darkened, and as shots rang around Lagos Island, the bow-legged officer of fate must have known there were no easy options; with Major Ifeajuna having taken control of the 2nd Brigade headquarters in Lagos from where he issued ammunitions to his foot soldiers, and his having also secured the Federal Guards Mess - where he was to rendezvous with other military officers after completing targeted killings of Nigeria’s topmost military officers, as well as Nigeria’s Prime Minister and Finance Minister.
So, the bandy-legged officer of fate firstly sought out and linked up with the Supreme Commander of the Army - Major-General Ironsi - who by then was patrolling Lagos in the night and securing all army units and the Police Headquarters.
Under Major General Ironsi’s command and control, some order was finely established on Lagos military barracks, backed by Lt. Colonel Jack Gowon, who resumed duty two days earlier as Lagos garrison Commander, on 14th January, 1966.
That done, and still in the confusion of that night, the bow-legged officer of fate contacted the Commanding Officer in Kaduna - Major Hassan Katsina – but he got no assurance of a planned counter there, perhaps because Major Nzeogwu was in control and reportedly set to dispatch military units to secure or blow up both Jebba and Makurdi bridges.
But back in Lagos, with the Lagos garrison Commander, Lt. Colonel Jack Gowon on side, and with the Army’s Supreme Commander Major-General Ironsi in control of Lagos army barracks and the Police Headquarters, the revolutionary soldiers in Lagos knew the game was up.
Major Ademoyega and Major Ifeajuna – the two leading lights of the Lagos revolution - did a quick military appreciation and sped out of Lagos, leaving behind several dead bodies of Nigeria’s topmost politicians and military officers.
With the Lagos mutiny later suppressed at dawn, but with the revolution almost wholly successful in the Northern region under Major Nzeogwu, Nigeria virtually split into two countries under different army command.
Over against that spectre of a divided country, Major-General Ironsi rushed to summon all army officers in Lagos for an emergency meeting next day, Sunday, January 16th, 1966.
“I was the first to speak,” said Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo, the bandy-legged officer whom fate teased unto death. “I rose and urged Major-General Ironsi to take over control of Nigeria and set up a National Military Government,” he further said, but did not say if his suggestion was countered by any military officer present at the Sunday emergency meeting or by Major General Ironsi himself.
At the time Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo was exhorting General Ironsi to launch a formal coup d’état, the Cabinet Ministers in Nigeria’s ruling coalition of Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) and the eastern-based National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons / National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) were holding meetings to preserve civil rule.
The crux was to appoint an interim Prime Minister, since Prime Minister’s Tafawa Balewa’s whereabouts were at the time unknown to Cabinet Ministers. But despite caucusing throughout the day, a certain dishonesty crept in.
NCNC Ministers meeting secretly at Dr. Nwafor Orizu’s residence, penciled Mr. K.O Mbadiwe (NCNC member) as the interim Prime Minister, despite that NCNC was the coalition’s junior partner with far fewer seats in the federal Parliament.
They coaxed Nigeria’s Acting President, Nwafor Orizu, also a member of NCNC – who had the constitutional right to accept or refuse a nominee as Prime Minister - to finesse the interim appointment for K.O Mbadiwe. The NPC Ministers, meantime, were themselves meeting separately and were agreed on a Kanuri man, Alhaji Dipcharima, as Acting Prime Minister.
But in the end, there was sheer impasse, as neither political party in the coalition agreed a common choice.
And so, no acting Prime Minister was ever sworn in - thus making it possible for the U.K government in London to reject Nigeria’s rump Cabinet’s oral invitation to fly in British soldiers and smother Major Nzeogwu’s revolution still flaming by then in both the northern and western regions of Nigeria.
That Ministerial impasse eased the way for General Ironsi, who had apparently taken Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo’s advice, but without saying so, when he summoned all Ministers in the NPC and NCNC coalition to the Cabinet Office for an evening meeting on even date; Sunday, January, 16th, 1966.
At that evening meeting, Nigeria’s Cabinet Ministers were sitting ducks. Without having agreed an acting Prime Minister beforehand they had no constitutional aces to play. They could not plausibly claim that that a constitutional order was in place.
So it was left to Alhaji Abdulrazak, the NPC Minister, reputed as the first lawyer in northern Nigeria, to oblige General Ironsi’s demand for army rule as the next best option, to take a piece of paper on which he wrote assigning the government of the federal republic of Nigeria to the Nigerian Army.
Alhaji Abdulrazak then handed over that political conveyance, as written, to Major General Ironsi. There wasn’t much else to discuss after that. The meeting ended on that note as the federal Cabinet self-dissolved.
Previous Acting President Nwafor Orizu left the meeting and headed for the radio station to broadcast the federal cabinet’s deed to all Nigerians. His task was finished.
But up until that Sunday evening when Major General Ironsi received governmental power as Nigeria’s new head of state, simply for the asking, Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo was en route to becoming a military hero for having stood behind the army’s chain of command.
Helas, he wasn’t to be garlanded for it, rather, by the next day, Monday, 17th January, 1966, Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo was on the way to prison, never to return to Lagos alive.
In a passionate letter he wrote to Major General Ironsi six months afterwards, as a detainee in the Federal Prisons at Ikot Ekpene, Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo recounted the Monday, January 17th incident as follows: “On the morning of Monday 17th January 1966 I was arrested by Lt. Colonel G. T. Kurubo and Major P. A. Anwuna in the anteroom of the Inspector General of Police’ Office for no ostensible reason while I was waiting to see you.”
The irony self-revealed at that point, for it was the same Major Anwuna - an Igbo army Officer, whom Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo had summoned in the night to assist him work at military communications to suppress Major Nzeogwu’s coup two days earlier.
But the richer irony of being handcuffed 48 hours later by a presumed ally aside, Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo’s letter casts doubt on the apocryphal story the stalwarts of General Ironsi spun, by saying Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo had a service pistol on him at the time he was arrested.
But if having a service pistol was Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo’s offence, he could have been charged under service regulations for any offence forbidding bearing a service pistol by a senior officer at all places. But he wasn’t. He was just bundled, beaten up by junior officers and other rank soldiers, before being dumped - first in a ward at the Federal Guards Mess and later on, at a detention cell on a ship at a naval base, with no questions asked, no investigation done and no offence charged.
The apocryphal story had said that both Lt. Colonel Kurubo and Major Anwuna who arrested Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo, saw Lt. Colonel Banjo openly wear his service pistol, but if that were true, only a concealed weapon would be consistent with treason, not an openly displayed service pistol.
Besides, Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo came into General Ironsi’s ante-room alone. His military escort of five (5) soldiers was left behind in the land-rover that brought him at the parking lot, along with the driver, altogether making six soldiers.
Whereas, according to Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo, after his arrest, “to move me, alone and unarmed from Federal Guards, Ikoyi to 2nd Battalion in Ikeja took 3 land Rovers, one heavy Anti-Tank Gun, three medium machine guns, 25 rifles, 3 sub – machine guns, all loaded; one captain, one lieutenant and 30 soldiers. I must have been really dangerous, unarmed as I was!”
So, was there a coup on Monday, January 17th, 1966, in Nigeria – with just five soldiers in the parking lot, and with Lt. Colonel Victor Banjo denying bearing his service pistol, which even if he had - according to General Ironsi’s spin doctors – he’d openly displayed it at the Police Headquarters for Lt. Colonel Kurubo and Major Anwuna and all else to see?
...Seyi Olu Awofeso is a Legal Practitioner in Abuja