On this day, a group of young mutinous, idealistic, UK-trained army Majors, led by Major Kaduna Chukwuma Nzeogwu, staged the country’s first coup d’etat, leading to the assassination of key Nigerian leaders, senior officers in the army, and the abduction of three others. It was the day whose events set off the collapse of the First Republic, led to the Nigerian civil war, and ushered in years of military interventions in Nigeria politics from which the country is yet to fully recover.
The ostentatious lifestyle of government officials and politicians had shown that a violent conflict was inevitable. Despairing at the lack of political of a political horizon, many openly began to call for the army to intervene to break the political deadlock.
The response was a deadly. A group of radical army officers had decided that the only means of breaking the political logjam in the country was to execute a coup d’etat to overthrow the government.
Amazingly, this coup plot was led by young five majors: Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Brigade Major: 1st Brigade – Lagos, Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu (Chief Instructor, Nigerian Military Training College: Kaduna, Major Tim Onwuategwu (Instructor, Nigerian Military Training College: Kaduna), Major Don Okafor (CO – Federal Guard), Major Chris Anuforo (Reconnaissance Squadron), Major Humphrey Chukwuka (Infantry), Major Adewale Ademoyega (Infantry), Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi (Artillery), Captain Ben Gbulie (Army engineers) and Captain Oji (Infantry). The execution was to take place simultaneously in the regions and federal capital with Nzeogwu as the general coordinator.
In Kaduna, Nzeogwu had conscripted young soldiers from the Nigerian Military Training College to carry out the coup in Kaduna. Nzeogwu often took his men on a night-time “training exercise” known as “Exercise Damisa”. Exercise DAMISSA terminated at approximately 1.30 am on January 15. Around that time all officers engaged in the exercise, were called by Major Nzeogwu to attend an “O” Group in the bush at which, they believed, the success or otherwise of the exercise was to be discussed. Some of these officers were Major C.K. Nzeogwu, Major T. Onwatuegwu, Captain G. Ude, 2/Lt. S. R. Omeruah, 2/Lt. D.K. Waribor, Capt. B. Gbulie, 2/Lt. Ileabachi, 2/Lt. Kpera, 2/Lt. P. OgoegbunamIbik, Lieut. E. Okafor, 2/Lt. Ezedima and 2/Lt. H.O.D. Eghagha. It was after they had assembled that Major Nzeogwu addressed them on the subject of the rapidly deteriorating political and security situation in the Federation. He claimed that a stage had been reached at which the politicians should be told to quit. To accomplish this, he announced, the army had decided to take over power by force of arms.
Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region, was killed in the sanctity of his home together with his wife, his driver and his senior security assistant. Nzeogwu led a group of soldiers into a bush adjacent to the Premier’s lodge. Once there Nzeogwu informed the men of their real mission: they were to attack the Premier’s lodge. Nzeogwu and his men blew open the gates to the Sardauna’s lodge and Nzeogwu personally conducted a search of the residence – hunting for Ahmadu Bello. After losing his temper at his initial failure to locate him, Nzeogwu found Bello hiding with his wives. Bello was shot by Nzeogwu. Bello’s faithful bodyguard who came to defend him with a bow and arrows was also shot, as well as one of his wives who tried to shield him with her body.
Major Tim Onwuategwu led a detachment of soldier to Brigadier Ademulegun’s house. After L/Cpl. Lawrence Akuma and three sappers of 2 Field Squadron NAE who were guarding the house had been disarmed, Onwuategwu was led to Ademulegun’s bedroom where he was shot dead in his bed, along with his eight month pregnant wife who was lying beside him.
Waribor was ordered to effect the arrest of Makaman Bida. On arrival, he deployed his men around the house and called in a loud voice upon the Minister to surrender. This brought no reaction so he forced open the door with the intention of searching the house. At this moment Major Nzeogwu arrived. The Major ordered Waribor to search the ground floor whilst he, accompanied by a number of men from 3rd Brigade NA went upstairs. Waribor’s search downstairs proved fruitless. He collected about 3 house servants and questioned them as to the whereabouts of their master. They claimed that the Minister had traveled to Bida and was returning in the morning. While searching the compound, Ahmadu Pategi, a Government driver attached to the Minister was shot and killed by Waribor, who mistook him for the minister.
When Major Nzeogwu arrived Shodeinde’s house, the Colonel was fast asleep. His wife, on hearing the sound of vehicles and identifying Nzeogwu’s voice, left her bed and switched on the lights. As she did so, the men outside started to shoot at the doors and windows of the house and she was immediately wounded in the left hand. The door then flew open and about ten soldiers rushed into the room, including Major Nzeogwu. By this time her husband had woken up and sitting up in bed. Nzeogwu assured her that they had not come to kill her but her husband the Colonel. When she continued shouting, the other soldiers shot at her legs, wounding her several times. Then, Major Nzeogwu and the others started firing at her husband, who fell down dead.
After the killing of Ademulegun, Major Onwatuegwu ordered his men to re-enter their vehicles and drove straight to the Sir Kashim Ibrahim, Northern Governor’s residence. The Governor was arrested after the police guarding the house had been overpowered while one was killed. He was brought out and made to enter the 3-Tonner they came with and was driven to HQ 1 Brigade.
The Lagos branch of the coup was led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna. As well as being a degree holder before his military career, Ifeajuna had been an international athlete who held the commonwealth high jumping record. The key officers assisting Ifeajuna in Lagos were Majors Wale Ademoyega, Don Okafor, Chris Anuforo and Humphrey Chukwuka.
Report had it that at around 2am, Ifeajuna and some lieutenants left the 2nd Brigade HQ and made their way to Prime Minister Abubakar Tafewa Balewa’s residence. They overpowered the police officers standing guard there, and Ifeajuna kicked down the door of the Prime Minister’s bedroom. The Prime Minister, was abducted from his home and his body dumped somewhere along Lagos-Abeokuta road.
Many of the army’s senior officers were attending a party in honour of the Lagos based first Brigade’s commander, Brigadier Maimalari.
Maimalari managed to escape from the first attempt to arrest him by Major Don Okafor by jumping over a wall behind his house, but as he was escaping on foot, he came across the car of Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Maimalari did not realise that Ifeajuna was part of the coup plot. Erroneously, Maimalari waved down the car, and was promptly shot dead by Ifeajuna.
The commanding officer of the Ibadan based 4th battalion, Lt-Col Abogo Largema, was a guest at the Ikoyi hotel on the night of the coup. Ifeajuna arrived at the hotel and forced the desk clerk at gunpoint, to inform Largema that he had a “phone call”. When Largema emerged from his room to take the bogus “phone call”, Major Ifeajuna and a subaltern emerged from their hiding place in the corridor and shot Largema dead.
The army’s GOC Major-General Ironsi was tipped off about the coup by a telephone call from the Army’s Adjutant-General, Lt-Col James Pam. Shortly after ending the telephone call with Ironsi, Pam was abducted from his house and shot dead by Major Chris Anuforo.
It was Anuforo, who also shot dead Unegbe, the Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army at Army Headquarters in Lagos, Colonel Kur Mohammed and the Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh. Balewa, Kur Mohammed and Okotie-Eboh were initially kidnapped, but killed later when it became clear that the coup was not going to succeed.
In Ibadan at the residence of the Premier of the western region, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the mutineers were resisted by Chief Akintola. He already knew they were coming and was prepared for them. His deputy Chief Fani-Kayode was first arrested by the coupists. After his arrest, Kayode’s wife informed Akintola of what had happened. Instead of coming out to meet them, the premier had stationed some of his policemen and they started shooting. A gun battle ensued and consequently the mutineers were delayed by at least one hour. His policemen ended up injuring two of the soldiers that came to his house. One of the soldiers, whose name was James, had his fingers blown off and the other had his ear blown off. After some time Chief Akintola’s policemen’s ammunition ran out and the shooting stopped. His policemen stood down and surrendered. He came out, waving a white handkerchief, and the minute he stepped out of his house they opened fire on him and shot him dead.
In the First Battalion in Enugu, only Major Chude-Sokei threw in his lot with them. His operational briefs were Enugu and Benin since Benin had no army formation then. Unfortunately, Chude-Sokei was posted to India for a course so the plotters had to hastily recruit Lieutenant Oguchi.
Oguchi, on arrival in Enugu from a course in Lagos, in the early hours of the 15th, sent a small detachment to the Eastern Nigerian Broadcasting Service (ENBS). This detachment seized the station, stopped the normal programme and ordered the broadcasters to play only military music while awaiting latest news from Lagos. At the same time, Oguchi himself made for Dr. Okpara, the Eastern Premier’s lodge. On getting there, he met Archbishop Makarios, the president of Cyprus who, after the conclusion of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in Lagos on January 12, was on a visit to the Premier. Oguchi could not carry out his plan until some hours later when the visitor left. He thereafter, placed Dr. Okpara under house arrest, deploying his troops to guard the lodge, while he himself went to the ENBS and made a tentative announcement that the Army had taken over power. He stopped at that while he awaited more news from Lagos.
The commotion caused by the murders of other officers alerted Maj-Gen Ironsi to the coup and he was able to rally troops who helped him to put down the Majors’ coup. Except Major Ifeajuna who fled to Ghana, the coup leaders were placed under arrest.
By 10 am, there were signs that all was not well. At a quick press conference Nzeogwu had called to announce that he was authorizing Ali Akilu to take charge of the civil service, an information officer pointed out to Nzeogwu that there had been no radio broadcast announcing the coup or its objectives on Radio Nigeria. The chance tip from the civilian, taking together with absence of any communication from Majors Ifeajuna or Ademoyega in Lagos, is what initially prompted Nzeogwu to head for Radio Kaduna to make his now well known “Extraordinary Order of the Day” speech at noon in which he declared martial law over the Northern provinces.
Later that afternoon, separate phone calls came in to Kaduna from Lagos by Lt. Colonels Patrick Anwuna and Victor Banjo confirming the failure of operations in the federal capital and seeking information about events in Kaduna. At about 4 pm Lagos time, Radio Nigeria finally broadcast an announcement that there had been a mutiny the night before in which key functionaries had been kidnapped, and that efforts were being made to crush it.
Just before midnight of January 16, following a complex series of events, General Ironsi, preceded by a short statement by acting President Nwafor Orizu, announced that he was taking over the country following an “invitation” from the Council of Ministers. He subsequently named military governors for the regions.