Opinion: An interrogation of the British Intelligence records on the January 15 1966 coup

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

The three-part series on the revelations from the British intelligence reports on the January 15 1966 coup that ran in ‘The NEWS’ magazine from June to August 2016 is illuminating. Damola Awoyokun who anchored the series focused the searchlight of history on that heart-wrenching act in the drama which is Nigeria’s history. He must be commended for trying to untangle the knots of Nigeria’s cloudy history in a manner that will appeal to both the old and young.

But ever since 2013 when this writer began to join Awoyokun on his historical journeys through the years Nigeria stopped turning (1966-1970), first on the basis of American secret files, now British espionage records, he has been struck by Awoyokun’s bid for revisionism. To be fair, revisionism of history is not a crime. Like in other fields, new facts tend to overthrow age-old ideas and conclusions. But what is vital is that historical revisionism must be based on facts that are factual; facts that are not standing on one leg, so to speak. The credibility of sources in historical writing (and journalism has been described as history in a hurry) matters; their objectivity; in-depth knowledge of the subject being presented.

Given the roles of the British in the history of Nigeria, especially within the period of Awoyokun’s research, can their information on the January coup; its antecedents and aftermath be trusted? In his email to Awoyokun which was published in the August edition of The NEWS this writer stated that the events of the period being reviewed still have a life-and-death impact on contemporary Nigeria. If this is the case, the British sources should not be read as gospel.

Awoyokun’s quest for the truth is based on descriptions not unlike those of visually challenged men recounting their encounter with an elephant. This writer refuses to question his motives and accepts his statement published in page 9 of the ‘Backstage’ section of the August edition of The NEWS. But as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said around 1150: ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ Out there are some people who may take hold of Awoyokun’s good intentions to skewer history and probably resort to unwholesome measures against the ‘scourge’ of Nigeria, the Igbo nation. Even if they don’t, records just have to be set straight.

This essay identifies aspects of Awoyokun’s work that are inaccurate and presents alternative sources. Let the reader decide.

In page 28 of the August edition, Awoyokun wrote: ‘…Sardauna was the first to appoint non-Northerners to the Northern Regional Assembly. He appointed Felix Okonkwo an Igbo Easterner, as special interests representative of Kano and Solomon Oke a Yoruba Westerner resident in Kaduna. Awolowo reciprocated the gesture by appointing Alhaji Mukthar, Seriki of Sabo in Ibadan. There were already Easterners in the Western House. The Eastern Regional Assembly never reciprocated the gesture by appointing any Northerner or Westerner. Other regions opened up to embrace non-natives in their governments. Except the East. It was true then; it is true today. The myth of Northern domination then was an organized distraction from something else.’

But the historically verifiable fact is that Umoru Altine, a Fulani Muslim from Sokoto was elected to the Enugu Municipal Council twice in 1954 and 1956. He went on to become Enugu’s first Mayor in 1956 by election, having contested and won on the platform of the NCNC. He was re-elected in 1958, this time defeating the candidate supported by Nnamdi Azikiwe, the NCNC leader. Altine’s first victory in 1954 was against an Easterner called D.T. Inyang. He got 117 votes against Inyang’s 53. This information is available in the National Archives at Enugu. Dr. Bala Usman, the late radical Northern historian, recorded this information which is also available in the March 22 2013 edition of ‘Daily Trust’ newspaper. All accounts show that both Igbo and non-Igbo supported Altine. He won his second tenure bid with the support of non-Enugu Igbo who rallied with non-Igbo against Mr. Ezechi, Azikiwe’s candidate. Chief C.C. Onoh, the former governor of old Anambra State and father of Lady Bianca, Ojukwu’s last wife, ardently backed Altine, though a ‘WAWA’ (indigenous son of Enugu). He led an intra-party lobby group called the Association of One Nigeria to galvanize support against Ezechi, an indigene.

Before his death the brilliant Yoruba economist, Professor Samuel Aluko, gave a newspaper interview in which he made startling revelations about his relations with Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Aluko was the head of the Economics department of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, before the civil war. The aspect of the interview which is relevant here is that the Yoruba Professor became the effective power house of Ojukwu’s regime as the governor of the Eastern region. He revealed that Ojukwu relied almost totally on his inputs to constitute his cabinet. Till the outbreak of hostilities in 1967, Aluko was a significant factor in Ojukwu’s government as a trusted adviser, mediator and powerbroker. He put forward the non-Igbo agenda. Though it was in a military dispensation, Aluko was a good example of a non-Eastern presence in an Eastern government. The interview is in pages 13-15 of the December 3 2011 edition of ‘Saturday Sun’ newspaper.

Awoyokun’s account in the same August edition states that the Eastern Region did not give scholarships to non-Easterners. The inference is that the Region was a closed shop: only its citizens benefitted from its largesse; only Easterners could aspire to positions in endeavours within its region though the West and North opened her doors to them in the pan-Nigerian spirit. If this is true, what does Awoyokun make of the verifiable fact that Yoruba and Edo intellectuals were members of staff in UNN (University of Nigeria, Nsukka), a federal university in the Igbo heartland? True, they were well qualified for their posts. But nothing stopped the authorities from adopting the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, formula in its early years. The whites ruled the roost there. This is not surprising given the Northenization policy that stipulated that whites be employed in preference to Southern Nigerians. It made no difference that Ahmadu Bello University was supposed to be a federal university. The Yoruba Professor of Education, Babatunde Fafunwa, rose to the rank of acting vice-chancellor of UNN before the war. Interestingly, Fafunwa’s educational quest in the USA was facilitated by Dr. Nwafor Orizu, the Senate President Awoyokun described as a crook. He may wish to read the October 26 2010 edition of ‘Vanguard’ newspaper to see Fafunwa’s acknowledgement of his debt to the ‘thief.’ It will be belabouring the point giving Awoyokun figures of non-Easterners in the employ of the Eastern Regional government from 1950-1967.

The Awolowo dimension to the January coup has been addressed in emails by this author to Awoyokun and would not have been raised here if not that in the same August edition of The NEWS, Awoyokun, in a bid to justify the Northern Armageddon against the East for the January coup brought up the Awolowo factor. He believes the plotters’ claim to hand over power to Awolowo was fiction because it never featured in Major Nzeogwu’s coup speech.

It is necessary to ask: why would the Yoruba participants in the coup put their lives on the line and kill their kinsmen like Akintola, Ademulegun and Shodeinde? To install an Igbo government? As for Nzeogwu not revealing their plans for Awolowo in his speech, these factors must be taken into account:

One: Ifeajuna, not Nzeogwu, was the coup leader. The coup speech should have come from Lagos, not Kaduna. Ademoyega would have broadcast it. Nzeogwu’s broadcast was to give a voice to the coup after Ironsi seized the tide in Lagos and the South. Given the dicey situation, and the fact that Awolowo’s intended release by the plotters which should have emanated from the Southern end of the coup had not gotten off ground before Ironsi and his men gained ascendancy, it would have been unstrategic of Nzeogwu to go on air making policy statements.

Two: in the July 2 1967 edition of the ‘Nigerian Tribune’ newspaper Nzeogwu reportedly said: ‘Neither myself nor any of the other lads was in the least interested in governing the country. We were soldiers and not politicians….We were going to make civilians of proven honesty and efficiency who would be thoroughly handpicked to do all the governing.’

Whether Awolowo would have acceded to the plotters is debatable. Ifeajuna’s manuscript records that if persuasion failed, they would put Awolowo under lock and key and issue decrees in his name. That it was an intended dictatorship, even if benevolent, is indisputable. But Awo was so highly regarded by the radicals and intelligentsia in that dispensation that the January plotters needed him as a face of their regime.

In his last reply to this writer’s email, Awoyokun asked why no Northern officer was recruited for the coup. He said this writer was trying ‘to argue that the assassinations were an equal opportunities act.’

That statement is a misrepresentation of this writer’s disposition towards the January coup killings and the coup itself. Every life is equally important. The murders of Pam, Maimalarim Ademulegun and Shodeinde were just as harrowing and gruesome as the killing of Unegbe. If the coup had not taken place they would not have died. But if the politicians of the First Republic had gotten their acts right there PROBABLY would have been no basis for the Majors to strike.

There were Northern military officers who participated in the coup. There were Northern military officers who openly supported the coup nearly two decades after it occurred. However it must be noted that coups are not rainbow coalition events. Plotters seek out co-conspirators with whom they share similar ideologies and can rely on.

In an interview published with the ‘New Nigerian’ newspaper, published three days after the coup, Nzeogwu gave an insight into the troops who followed him into action on the night ‘Exercise Damisa’ changed from a military attack simulation exercise to a coup. He said: ‘Any man had the chance to drop out. More than that, they had bullets. …If they disagreed they could have shot me…Most of the other ranks were Northerners but they followed.’

The late John Atom Kpera who became a military governor in Buhari’s military regime actively participated in the coup as a second lieutenant serving under Captain Ben Gbulie. He was a Tiv. Captain John Swanton, another Middle Belt officer, was to spearhead offensive operations against Ironsi’s forces at the behest of Nzeogwu.

In 1986 Colonel Yohanna Madaki caused an uproar in Northern Nigerian establishment circles when, in an interview with ‘New Nigerian’ he declared his support for the January coup and said he would have participated if Nzeogwu, whom he knew well, had asked him. This statement cost the onetime military governor his career.

Many of the Northern participants in the coup were from the Middle Belt and belonged to the minority ethnic groups in Northern Nigeria., as opposed to the dominant Hausa-Fulani who ruled the region via the NPC, a party seen as oppressive by many of the minorities. Against this background, their support of the coup makes sense. The Special Branch report on the coup identifies these Northern participants and their names are mentioned on page 226 of ‘Oil, Politics and Violence,’ a study of coups in Nigeria from 1966 to 1976 by the respected Nigerian military historian, Max Siollun.

It can be argued that these soldiers were acting under orders, having been called out for internal security operations or night time training exercises. But the fact is that when the actions of that day went beyond the requirements of a lawful internal security operation they did not hesitate in carrying out their orders.

Awoyokun’s series does not credit Lieutenant-Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu with any role in ending the January coup. In fact it highlights Ojukwu’s role as a pioneer coup plotter in Nigeria. According to the first part of Awoyokun’s work in the June edition of The NEWS, Ojukwu conceived a coup in 1965 and tried to bring in Colonels Gowon and Ejoor. He also contacted Major Ademoyega.

Awoyokun’s research on Ojukwu revises ascertainable facts. But aspersions and doubts should be cast on the intelligence records that emanate from sources which, despite Ojukwu’s death and Biafra’s defeat, still remain bent on portraying a record of the events of 1966 to 1970 in a less than objective manner.

Ojukwu did not hide his views about how Nigeria was being governed. He was politically conscious and active by his own admission. He was probably the kind of soldier Ironsi described as ‘politicians dressed in uniform.’ In an extensive interview published in September and October 1992 editions of ‘Newswatch’ magazine where the issue of Ojukwu’s alleged ambition to alter the political constellation of power in Nigeria by the means of the army one day was analyzed, Ojukwu said: ‘When we are talking about truth, the fact is that I have never been part of any planned coup. Even if somebody said Ojukwu said this, Ojukwu said that, make no mistake about it, I was very politically aware; I discussed a number of things intellectually and so on. What I am saying to you is that I knew the country was in a pretty bad shape but from the knowledge to planning militarily, that’s a big gulf. And I know I don’t do such a thing.’

Against this background, was Ojukwu involved in a coup plot in 1964 to install Azikiwe as head of a provisional government following the flawed 1964 elections? There are many accounts that seemingly support this position: Azikiwe’s; Gowon’s; which are accessible to any interested reader. But the posers raised by this author in his emails on the subject to Awoyokun and published in the August edition of The NEWS are germane. Interestingly, Ademoyega never wrote of such a contact from Ojukwu in his book ‘Why We Struck’ or elsewhere. This author will be glad if Awoyokun or anyone else provides evidence. But in page 51 of the same book, Ademoyega wrote that they (the January plotters) reached out to Ojukwu and Colonel Njoku but both men hesitated and declared: ‘if you boys succeed we shall go along with you.’

By January 1966 Ojukwu was the commander of the Fifth Battalion, Kano. In his book ‘Because I Am Involved’ Ojukwu confessed that he was a radical like the plotters but the responsibility of being a battalion commander tempered him.

This is a précis of the events of that coup in Kano. They are verifiable from a plethora of sources. Late Alhaji Ado Bayero, the immediate past Emir of Kano and Ojukwu’s friend, witnessed many of the episodes of that day:

Ojukwu got an order from Major Nzeogwu who was using the slain Brigadier Ademulegun’s code ‘Sunray’ on the morning of the coup: arrest all members of the political establishment in your area. A second one came commanding Ojukwu to kill them.

Ojukwu took precautionary measures such as taking charge of Kano airport and disarming his men. He reached out to the Emir for help in keeping the peace.

He disobeyed Nzeogwu by giving safe custody to the politicians who came in from Lagos from the banquet that rounded off the Commonwealth summit in Lagos.

The charged and confused situation caused by the coup generated cleavages and mistrust among the military class. Ojukwu got in touch with Majors Alexander Madiebo and Hassan Katsina in Kaduna. Both officers were loyalists but had to be cautious as they were under Nzeogwu’s beck and call. When Ojukwu phoned Ironsi, the beleaguered GOC was blunt. In Ojukwu’s words: ‘The first question Ironsi asked me was: Emeka, what side are you on? He was used to the brash way. I said, I am on your side. Which side are you on? Tell me. And then he narrated what had happened and so on. In fact, it was he who told me that Victor Banjo had been arrested (for allegedly making an unauthorized entry into Ironsi’s office with a gun during this tense period). And that was how we finally got a number of things in order. And I suppose that was one of the reasons he appointed me governor of the East.’

Nzeogwu was understandably furious at Ojukwu’s non-cooperation. Records of their heated telephone exchanges are well documented by Forsyth, Ademoyega and Ojukwu himself in ‘Because I Am Involved.’ Nzeogwu had sent an officer of his, one Captain Ude, to Ojukwu. His mission to Kano is a source of controversy. While Madiebo wrote Ude went to Ojukwu to secure his cooperation to avail the resources of the Central Bank Branch there for payment of troops, Forsyth and Obasanjo record he went to liquidate the battalion commander. Whatever may be his mission, Ude was arrested by Ojukwu. Interestingly, Nzeogwu had earlier picked out Madiebo as his emissary to Kano but the crafty Major tactfully recommended Ude. Nzeogwu now sent out a crack force under Major Onwuatuegwu’s command to do battle in Kano. But Madiebo, whom Nzeogwu unwittingly trusted, persuaded him to stand down the force. He promised o use peaceful means to secure Ude’s release and Ojukwu’s support. Of course, he never did. By the time Nzeogwu fully realized the coup was only partially successful, he now phoned Ojukwu for advice and the battalion commander who lauded him for having the courage to effect a change none of his superiors would dare advised him to give in to Lagos.

With its airport, battalion and Central Bank branch, Kano was a strategic objective of the plotters. Controlling it would have solidified Nzeogwu’s reign in the North. Ojukwu’s denial of access significantly contributed to the collapse of the coup in the North.


Awoyokun’s narrative in the August edition of ‘The NEWS’ postulates that the January coup was an Igbo affair. He stated that it was the Igbo who initially glorified in the coup, claiming it as their bid to save Nigeria. Since he is knowledgeable about the national rejoicing over the coup, this line of reasoning is questionable.

Coups are not rainbow coalition events. Plotters go for accomplices they can trust. It may be ideological, ethnic, religious or even military links that bind them. A good example is the April 22 1990 coup attempt that nearly unseated General Babangida’s regime. An overwhelming number of the plotters were from the Niger Delta (Edo, Delta, Rivers and Bayelsa states). But the coup’s public face was Major Gideon Orkar, a Tiv from Benue State and an armoured corps commander. Although he was neither the coup leader nor initiator, Orkar was recruited in the plot and given prominence because of his vital post and shared animosity against Babangida. Like Nzeogwu’s speech, Orkar’s broadcast defined the April 1990 coup in the minds of Nigerians.

Major Olusegun Obasanjo, Nzeogwu’s friend, returned from an intensive seven-month course at the Indian Staff College on the eve of the coup. It would not have made sense to co-opt him at that late hour. In contrast, Captain Ben Gbulie, Obasanjo’s deputy at the 1 Field Squadron (Army Engineers) had been deeply involved in the plot as far back as 1965. He was effectively in command of the unit in Obasanjo’s absence.

Obasanjo recounted Nzeogwu’s disposition to keeping him out of the coup. In his (Obasanjo)’s words: ‘In our discussions before he left for Lagos Chukwuma apologised and explained to me that the decision not to inform me about the coup was one of the most difficult decisions of his life. He considered that my return to the country some thirty-six hours before the coup was launched put him in a difficult position. If he told me about their plans and I indicated support, it was too late to cut out a role for me; if on the other hand I failed to support, it was too late to stop him and their plan could be endangered by widening the circle of participants. He chose to treat the case as if I had not returned from abroad and keep the coup plans secret from me.’

Calling the January coup an Igbo plot is inaccurate. Non-Igbo were actively involved at ALL levels, from conception to execution. Ademoyega openly said he and Nzeogwu conceived the coup’s principles. Names like Adeleke, Olafimihan, Oyewole, Kpera, Swanton, Eghaha, etc. are well known to scholars of the coup. Awoyokun’s account in the July edition of ‘The NEWS’ can convince any but the most rabidly prejudiced person that the coup was intended for the East and if not for the swift response of the loyalists, Igbo politicians like Okpara, Osadebey and Francis Ibiam would have been wasted.

Major Sam Ogbemudia was Nzeogwu’s colleague and friend at the Nigerian Military Training College, Kaduna. Awoyokun interviewed him in LONDON IN 2013 AND THAT INTERVIEW GIVES INSIGHT INTO NZEOGWU’S REASON FOR EXCLUDING HIM FROM THE COUP. Nzeogwu set up a roster for officers of the College to go on leave days before the coup. Ogbemudia got the first slot. Before the coup, civilians disgruntled with the government pressured Nzeogwu and his colleagues to carry out a coup, even giving them a book on Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in Egypt to influence them. What was Ogbemudia’s response? These are his words as published in Awoyokun’s interview:

‘With the benefit of hindsight, I have seen that most of the problems we are having today as a nation came out of that coup. I DIDN’T SUPPORT SOLDIERS TAKING OVER GOVERNMENT AND I LET NZEOGWU KNOW THAT WHEN THAT MAN GAVE US THE NASSER BOOK TO READ. I think that was probably the reason he sent me on leave.’

If this account is accurate why should Ogbemudia be jealous that he was excluded from history in the making?


In his bid to attribute the root of Nigeria’s political decay to the ascension of leaders with questionable character and criminal tendencies, Awoyokun extensively dissected some icons of Nigeria as little more than clean-cut crooks. Top on his list were Nwafor Orizu and Herbert Macaulay.

This writer holds no brief for these men or indeed any other politician within the period leading to the January coup. The antecedents of many of them laid the foundation for Nigeria’s near death barely six years after independence and originated contemporary national value misplacement.

It was Usman Dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, who declared that conscience is an open wound and only truth can heal it. If we must seek for true national values from Nigeria’s unpalatable history, the quest should be rooted in truth.

So where is the truth in Awoyokun’s account of the certificate forgery drama in which Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani, then pro-chancellor of the University of Ibadan in 1961 was the leading character? The account in page 26 of the August edition of ‘The NEWS’ came against a background to portray Nnamdi Azikiwe, the First Republic president, in a negative light in relation to the January coup and Ironsi’s controversial take-over. To Awoyokun’s credit he does not join the bandwagon of writers who assert that Azikiwe was tipped off by Ifeajuna simply because both men are from Onitsha. Such writers conveniently forget or do not know that Ifeajuna openly despised Zik as a leader and made no bones about it in his manuscript.

Awoyokun cites Ikejiani as an example of how Nigeria went wrong because of wonky values by leaders. To quote him: ‘if anyone is interested in why Nigeria became a pit latrine of implacable corruption where intelligence cannot assert itself in the conduct of public affairs, the Orizu and Ikejiani affairs is where to begin. Azikiwe put into disorder all considerations based on value.’

According to Awoyokun, Ikejiani cooked up a fake Doctor of Science degree to his name from the University of Toronto, Canada; a scandal uncovered by a visiting scholar from the university. Ikejiani supposedly did this while studying for his undergraduate medical degree at the same university. How? By seducing a secretary in the Vice-Chancellor’s office and she became so enamoured of her lover that she gave in to his demand and manufactured the doctorate for him. But while she lost her job when the scandal occurred, Zik gave Ikejiani solace with a number of appointments and a national honour. Zik justified his position with the argument that non-Igbo politicians and academics were incensed that he was appointing another Igbo as pro-chancellor in a federal university in a non-Igbo territory so soon after appointing another Igbo in the same post in another non-Igbo university.

While this writer deliberately refuses to deliberate the politics of inter-ethnic rivalry over academic appointments in Nigeria at that trying time, the question remains: did Ikejiani forge a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Toronto?

The sources of the answers to this poser are: the University of Toronto, Canada, faculty of medicine, living history site and the archives of the same faculty’s records of graduands. The first site is called www.livinghistory.med. utoronto.ca/people/okehukwu- ikejiani. The second is archive.org/stream/ torontonensis48univ.

The summary of his biography in the first site is reproduced here word for word:

‘Dr. Okechukwu Ikejiani (M.D. 1948, U of T) has led a long and prestigious career. Born in Awka District of Anambra State of Nigeria, he came to North America to study in New Brunswick in 1938, graduating with a B.Sc (honours) in 1942. He then attended the University of Chicago with a graduate fellowship where he obtained an MSc in 1943. Next, with another graduate fellowship, he worked on his PhD with Professor Reuben Kahn at the University of Michigan on the Kahn verification text that established the optimum temperature for detecting antibodies to syphilis and tropical diseases such as yaws.
‘In 1945 Ikejiani was appointed a demonstrator in the department of Microbiology and Pathology at the Banting Institute where he continued his research on trypanosomiasis and tumours. He then completed his M.D. in 1948 and a licentiate of the Medical Council of Canada.’

The second site details the graduating class of the University of Toronto faculty of Medicine in 1948. Ikejiani is number 48 on the list which shows each graduate’s photograph and academic background. Ikejiani’s doctorate is mentioned in his record.

From these accessible records, Ikejiani never studied for a doctorate at Toronto. He studied for it at the University of Michigan and the professor he studied with and his research are mentioned. Undoubtedly, it is easy to find out from the University of Michigan if Ikejiani studied there as his biography states.

The end product of historical writing should be truth.

LAST LINE: There are many other issues raised by Awoyokun’s series that are contestable. But this essay should be a wake-up call for scholars and others interested in Nigeria’s sad past to focus on what actually happened between 1966 and 1970. May the souls of all killed within those grim years rest in peace and may all Nigerians learn to live, love and forgive. ‘Ozoemena’ (Igbo for: may another never occur again).

Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija

Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a Lagos-based historian and writer. Email: [email protected]

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