1966 was the year for military coups, in both French and English-speaking West and Equatorial Africa. The most serious by far for us was that in Nigeria
Nigeria has changed for ever. It has got a military regime which the great mass of the population has accepted – in the South and among intellectuals, with acclaim. As pointed out by the magazine West Africa, to which we must pay a tribute for its consistent accuracy and charitable understanding, a return to the former system of a political federation is now highly unlikely. Not only is the cost of the four regional structures a disproportionate burden, but the economic planning that Nigeria needs will be much easier if Nigeria becomes a unitary political state, with a rationalised economic federal system – in other words, a decentralised administration with central direction. It is significant that the least tribalist and regionalist organisations in Nigeria over the last few years have been the ones most purely federal – the army and the police. And these are now the arbiters of policy.
But there are equally important changes which seem to have stemmed directly from the military coup(s):
1) Shocking as the political assassinations have been, the coup was remarkably bloodless. More remarkable, the running civil violence which was the successor to the Western Region election, and the precursor to the coup, had died down. It is undeniable that the thuggery was largely inspired by political parties. The reduction of the parties (and the probable permanent elimination of the NNDP as a force of any sort) seems to have halted the violence. If it begins again it will be straightforward banditry, and will be dealt with by the army and police as such.
2) The civil service is carrying on with its job, with every sign of support for what has happened. Many permanent secretaries were openly critical of the difficulties placed in their way by their ministers in the past – nepotism, corruption and refusal to make policy judgements. While it may be an occupational hazard for civil servants in all democracies that they would like to run their ministries themselves without the inconvenience of politicians, civil service support will for the moment lead to greater efficiency and will clear away many cobwebs.
But the civil service involvement goes further. We learn that General Ironsi's major broadcast speech of last Friday was written by a committee of senior civil servants. Ironsi is not of the calibre, in civil as opposed to military matters, to run this vast country. The full support of the senior civil servants and his readiness to accept their briefing are the most encouraging factors in the situation.
In addition, the law courts are carrying on. Chief Justice Ademola continues in office with an unblemished legal reputation (although he had personal connections in Yoruba politics, which may be held against him). And Dr. Elias, the brilliant Attorney-General (also a Yoruba), is rumoured to be the man on whom the Military Council will call during the constitutional revision which will eventually be undertaken.
The military structure
Meanwhile it is still the military command which provides most of the unanswered questions. General Ironsi has carefully demonstrated by some of his appointments that the charge of tribalism must not be included in those applied against the military takeover:
Each region has a Military Governor of appropriate origin:
The North has Hassan Katsina (just promoted to Acting Lieutenant Colonel). He is one of the sons of the Emir of Katsina (another is in the police). This seems a deliberate attempt to reassure the traditional Northern rulers that their position is not threatened. Hassan was commissioned in 1959 from Sandhurst, where he distinguished himself by becoming an Under Officer, and has had staff experience mainly in the North. A keen polo player, like his father, he is not in the image of the young radical.
The West has Lt. Col Fajuyi, a Yoruba. He (predictably) is removing a number of Akintola's civil servants, including Chief Ejiwunmi, the late Premier's Secretary. The apparatus of NNDP patronage and pressure, including that for civil service appointments, has been immediately disbanded.
The Mid-West has Lt. Col. Ejoor, who is a Mid-Westerner.
The East has Lt. Col. Ojukwu, son of a prominent businessman, Sir Louis Ojukwu. He was educated mainly in Britain, including a time at Oxford, and returned to Nigeria as an Assistant District Officer before joining the army. He is known to have political interests, and perhaps ambitions. During the coup he was commander of the battalion stationed in Kano – potentially an explosive spot. He retained control of the city and, during the confusion as to who were 'rebel' officers and who were 'supporting the government', his position was not (or did not need to be) clear.
The Air Force was commanded during its formative period by a West German. Now, however, a Nigerian commander has been appointed by Ironsi. He is Lt. Col. George Kurobo. He is an Ibo and was sent to Sandhurst.
Significantly enough, staff members of the Air Force training centre and the Officer Cadet School at Kaduna are reported to have played a role in the coup. Possibly some of the trainers were also involved.
The dead officers
Before the coup, the Nigerian army had one Major General (Ironsi); four Brigadiers; one full Colonel; and about ten Lieutenant Colonels.
(i) It was reliably reported that there was a plan just before the coup to promote Gen. Ironsi upstairs to be chief of Defence Staff. Brig. Ademolegun, a Yoruba, would have become Commander of the Army. Ademolegun was shot at Kaduna.
(ii) Brig. Maimalari was to be in charge of the military operation to restore order in the Western Region, as Commander of the Southern Brigade which is based on Abeokuta. Maimalari, who was a Kanuri, was shot in Lagos.
(iii) A third recently appointed Brigadier was also shot, so only Brig. Ogundipe (a Yoruba) is still alive – he had recently, after experience in the Congo, been appointed Military Attaché at the High Commission in London. The full Colonel, a Yoruba, was in England at the time.
(iv) Among the half-colonels, one, from Katsina province in the North, was killed in the Ikoyi Hotel. Lt. Col Pam, who commanded the Nigerian contingent in Tanganyika so effectively, was also shot. Three of the others are now Military Governors.
Was there a pattern?
It is impossible to find a pattern out of the assassination of certain officers – although those connected with the possible military repression in the Western Region seem to have suffered especially. There certainly was also a promotion blockage of a sort for middle-rank officers, after their very rapid rise in rank with Africanisation of the officer corps.
But any suggestion that there was a full conspiracy based on some common factor like membership of the Ibo tribe must be resisted at this stage. There is evidence that Gen. Ironsi himself might have been shot on the Saturday night of the coup. His house was surrounded (as we reported in our last issue). But we now learn that he left the house before the troops arrived and drove to police headquarters (where he has now established his own headquarters). It seems likely that he may have been warned by another officer on the telephone, perhaps by Lt. Col. Pam.
As we pointed out in our last issue, the predominance of Ibos among the middle and upper ranks of the army came from the early days of officer recruitment in the Nigerian army, before there was an attempt at achieving a regional recruitment balance. Yet it is still true that Yoruba and Northern officers bore the brunt of the rebel assault. There may have been inability by the conspirators to distinguish friend from foe – certainly not all of the dead Yoruba officers were supporters of Akintola and the NNDP. Many educated Yorubas shared the concern for the development of a Nigerian, as opposed to regional, nationalism. But in the mix-up of the coup, it is likely that there was little attempt to make subtle political distinctions.
Major Nzeogwu, who played the key conspiratorial role in Kaduna, is now in an enigmatic position, and may have started to fade from the scene. It would not be a surprise to find him 'in hospital'. However, he represents, as far as can be seen, the genuine side of the sentiments behind the coup – the distrust of the politicians and conviction of their corruption, as well as a desire for Nigerian nationalism. He is a Mid-West Ibo by family, and speaks Onitsha. But he was born in Kaduna (which is his middle name), and also speaks Hausa. In this sense, he represents a cross-regional background.
The other ranks
One of the great surprises of the coup is the way in which the other rankers followed the orders of their officers without respect to region. For instance, the action against the Sardauna of Sokoto, which would be deeply shocking to any Nigerian, involved some Northerners. This proves the point that the belief, mentioned in our last issue, that tribal balance on army political aspirations was fallacious. In the event, no political will of their own was shown by the other ranks – a tribute to military discipline if not to democracy.
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