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Igbo Coup? The need for reconciliation

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By Jonathan Asikason

For Ndigbo, January 15 remains a date to be reckoned with. In the wee hours of that fateful day in 1966, a group of Nigerian soldiers, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, struck a chord that threw down the political and economic fortune of Ndigbo in the Nigerian state.

Four years to the month, almost to the day, in 1970 (January 12, 1970), Ndigbo and other ethnic nationalities within Biafra, gave up the sovereignty of their beloved country – Biafra, dubbed The Land of the Rising Sun.  Having fought for 30 months in defence of the territorial integrity of the defunct Republic of Biafra, the people of the Eastern region couldn’t easily accept the fact that, after paying such a huge price with their lives, they would be forced to surrender to Nigeria, cap in hand, begging for reintegration.

Morale, they said, was high but wars are never fought on empty stomach or with bare hands. So, to resist what would have amounted to the total extermination of their people, especially the Igbo race, Major-General Philip Effiong, Ojukwu’s next in command, had no option than to surrender.

The logs of hate, anger, and angst that stoked the fire for the civil war started with the wide but ignorant perception of the January 15 military insurrection as “Igbo coup.” This, according to Madiebo (1980), was nurtured by the northern elite and academics in the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

They took cursory note of the casualties of the coup and branded it “Igbo coup.”  They even went as far as rewriting the story of Arthur Unegbe, then quartermaster supreme headquarters, who lost his life on the verge of revenging the killing of his friend – Brigadier Zak Maimalari by the putschists.

Was it really an Igbo coup? Many narratives from the North had it that it was a well-hatched ploy by Igbo people to hijack the government of Nigeria. That this logic still persists in many quarters remain so appalling. Come to think of it, the government that was toppled was led by the NPC-NCNC coalition. Nnamdi Azikiwe was the titular head and many Igbo folks held cabinet positions. So why will Igbo people overthrow their own government?

Arthur Nwankwo in his masterpiece “Igbo Leadership and Future of Nigeria” outlined the societal strata Igbo people occupied before the khaki guys struck.  It was an epical fall from grace.

According to Nwankwo, “They [Igbo people] were prominent in the government, the media, the professions, the civil service, and the armed forces in the post-independent Nigeria. Their influence was felt in all aspects of our national life. On 15th January 1966, one young idealistic Igbo Major in the Nigerian Army struck a blow that changed our national history and unknowingly set in motion a tragic chain of events that left his people desolate and disillusioned (Nwankwo:1985).

Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu who hatched the putsch was blunt on the motivation: “We seized power to stamp out tribalism, nepotism, and regionalism.” 

He went on to say: “There were five of us in the inner circle and we planned the details. On Saturday morning, the officers and men thought they were going out only for a night exercise. It was not until they were out in the bush that they were told the full details of the plan. They had bullets they had been issued with their weapons but I was unarmed. If they disagreed, they could have shot.”

In his interview with Nigerian Tribune of July 2, 1967, Nzeogwu clarified further: 

“Neither myself nor any of the other lads were in the least interested in governing the country. We were soldiers and not politicians. We had earmarked from the list known to every soldier in this operation who would be what. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was, for example, to be released from jail immediately and to be made the executive provisional president of Nigeria. We were going to make civilians of proven honesty and efficiency who would be thoroughly handpicked to do all the governing.” 

This view was later buttressed by Major Adewale Ademoyega, in his book “Why We Struck:” 

“Contrary to the loads of wicked propaganda that had since been heaped upon us, there was no decision at our meeting to single out any particular ethnic group for elimination or destruction. Our intentions were honourable, our views were national and our goals were idealistic.”

Even the personal secretary to Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Odia Ofeimun, was privy to the plot. In his interview with The Guardian as published on May 6, 2007, he observed:

“People were told that it was an Igbo coup but that it is not correct. It is a very interesting part of the Nigerian story. In the first place, there have been many serious lies that have been told by our leaders. Our leaders have not been bold enough to tell us the truth. But the point is that the average Yoruba man could never really believe that some Igbo would plan a coup and hand over to Awolowo because that is not the way Nigerian is seen.”

So, 55 years – and still counting – since the coup, Ndigbo, like Germans during the green years of Adolf Hitler, have been paying dearly for the idealism of Nzeogwu and his men. 

From the series of pogroms after the January coup, up to the “return match” of July 29, 1966, through the civil war and the post-war economic policies to today’s “no big post for the losers of war ” rule of thumb, Ndigbo, as late Balarabe Musa put it, “have been unfairly treated.”

Therefore, the time’s come for it to be stated clearly and unequivocally that what happened in the wee hours of January 15, 1966 was, perhaps, a failed project by a group of Nigerian soldiers and not an Igbo coup. 

This explains why we need a truth and reconciliation commission in this country.  A forum in which all the national and subnational grievances will be placed on a table, considered, and permanently resolved. 

Nigeria is not alone in the list of countries that have suffered violence.

Between April 7 and July 15, 1994, there was genocide in Rwanda which recorded up to 600,000 Tutsi deaths. Between 1940 and 1994, apartheid, a system of institutionalised racial segregation existed in South Africa and South West Africa (Namibia). 

Today, these countries are back on their feet. Through truth and reconciliation commission, the truth of what happened was established, forgiveness was obtained and full reintegration occurred. 

For Nigeria to stand again on its feet and as well fire from all cylinders in the areas of national development, all sections of the country, particularly Ndigbo, ought to be given a sense of belonging. They should, as well, be made to have faith in the country.

By so doing, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu will have nothing to agitate about. That many people of South East extraction are subscribing to the struggle for the actualisation of Biafra is simply because they are treated as second-class citizens in a country that they have contributed a lot to. 

However, 2023 presents a time for true reconciliation and rehabilitation. Many public affairs analysts have argued that this can only happen when all major political parties in the country zone their presidential tickets to the South East. Will they be given power a la carte? Only time will tell.

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