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It was 53 years ago on Tuesday, January 15th 1966  that the bloodiest coup in Nigeria happened. It affected all the angles of the country so much that the nation might have never really fully recovered from it. The January 15th coup sowed seeds of discord between major and minor ethnic groups and even further heightened ethnic suspicion till date.

There are also myriads of pointers which show that the Nigerian Civil War which lasted from 1967 to 1970 would not have happened if not for contributory factors from the January 15th coup, led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and the other junior military officers, who felt they could engineer a change in the deteriorating political circumstances enveloping the nation.

In the centre of the storm of the matters which culminated into the coup were civilian politicians such as Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Samuel Akintola and a few others to a lesser degree. The machinations of regional politics which began in a January 1962 Action Group (AG) party congress in Jos where Awolowo favoured regional autonomy whereas Akintola, the Premier Deputy to Awolowo, did not favour it, led to a breakdown in the relationship between the two parties and largely the peace in the Southwest.

Consequently, the intervention of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa in declaring a state of emergency in the western region when violence erupted in the Legislative House in Ibadan in May 1962, and particularly in other violent prone areas in the West, was seen as presumptuous and insulting by some zealous politicians. The political rhetoric linked to national and regional leaders such as Awolowo, Akintola, Bello and others also did not help matters as it heated up the nation and whipped up even more bias against Tafawa Balewa himself.

By November 1962, Awolowo was hastily tried and sentenced to 7 years in prison for treason because he engineered processes which could have led to the breakup of the country into regional elements so as to further his dream of a composite Yoruba nation. When the elections of 1964 became largely marred by electoral malpractices; the ruling party and leaders at the centre did not deem the signs worthy enough of attention, and so more suspicion of a Northern hegemony waxed stronger.

Government officials such as Finance Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, whose affluent lifestyle vilified him to be corrupted with enriching himself at the expense of taxpayers, also did not go down well with certain sections of the Nigerian society. Civilians were disgruntled with some actions of the National Government while some were happy that succour had come with Federal intervention.

Meanwhile, some young officers of the military, who are mostly majors, and comprising persons such as Kaduna Nzeogwu, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Timothy Onwuategwu, Chris Anuforo, Don Okafor, Adewale Ademoyega, and Humphrey Chukwuma, were watching all these happen and were silently plotting to spearhead an intervention in the polity. The officers began the strike on the night of January 14th 1966, murdering key politicians and military men across the country, and completed the operation which spanned Lagos, Ibadan and Kaduna on the 15th of January. Notable persons caught in the crossfire such as Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Brigadier Maimalari, Brigadier Ademulegun, Colonel Ralph Shodeinde, Sir Kashim Ibrahim, Major Hassan Katsina, Colonel Lagerma, Lt Col Pam, Col Kur Mohammed, and Col Unegbe, all lost their lives in the takedown.

Others such as Remi Fani-Kayode, the Deputy Premier to Chief Samuel Akintola, narrowly escaped being murdered; Obafemi Awolowo, who was originally said to have been on the assassination list was still in prison in Calabar, which might have influenced his being spared. Maj. Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi, Head of the Army and the top military officer was also said to have narrowly escaped by a tip-off from Lt. Col. Pam. The President, Chief Nnamdi Azikiwe, was reported to have been holidaying in the Caribbeans while the Premier of the Eastern region was left alone because he was hosting an Ambassador. Although it may not have been intentional that most of the victims of the coup were Northerners, there seem to be indications that Eastern personalities were smartly left out of the cleansing.

The assassinations were at least 95% successful but the coup itself failed as everything the majors planned did not go according to plan. The interventionist doctrine which these young officers believed would work better for Nigeria actually set it off more in worse flames.

Such is the tale of one of the many coups in the history of Nigeria and this is largely a reminder that a democracy is better left alone. No matter how long it takes, a democracy will correct and set itself on the right path again without the need for military intervention.

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This article was first published on 24th January 2019


Macaddy is mostly a farmer in the day who also dabbles into technology at night, in search of other cutting edge intersections. He's on Twitter @i_fix_you

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