NIGERIA: January 15, 1966 To General Abacha

Chukwuma Nzeogwu


As rural dwellers, marooned in our village in Benue Province, we rejoiced over the news that soldiers had terminated the first republic. The reason was simple; six years of independence brought no peace to Benue.

In 1960, just before independence, the Tiv Division of the Province erupted in violence in what has become known in history as the 1st Tiv Riots. The gravity of that 1st riot can be gleaned from the words of Sir Bryan Sherwood Smith who observed in his book “But always as friends” that more police men were killed in that one single riot than were killed in all the years of colonial rule in Nigeria. Bryan Sherwood was not an ordinary writer; he was the Governor General of Northern Nigeria who rounded up colonial rule in that region – 1954 to 1957.

Then in 1964, the same Division erupted in another round of violence. This time when it became clear that the police could not handle the situation, the federal government of Tafawa Balewa immediately invited the army. Thus for the first time after independence, the Nigerian Army was drafted into solving an internal security situation which ought to have been the responsibility of the police. Unlike the police whom they fought fiercely, the rioters welcomed the military as impartial peace makers.

There were still military men out there in the countryside of Tiv Division when the government was overthrown on January 15 1966. The joy on the faces of many in Tiv Division on that day is therefore quite understandable.

But it was short lived. Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu who murdered Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of the Northern Region and proceeded to abolish his government said he was acting on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Revolution of the Nigerian Armed Forces. But there was nothing revolutionary and or rational in their actions.

It soon became clear to Nigerians that those who carried out the murders were not revolutionaries but revisionists and they did not represent the Nigerian Army but a tiny fraction of an ethnic/regional group of the national army. What their action did was to extend the crack lines in the civil society into the armed forces. In an emergent third world country where institutions are very weak, nothing could be more disintegrative than throwing these crack lines to men in arms.

To add fuel to injury, supporters of the revolutionaries threw caution to the wind. Provocative literature, pictures were produced en masse and musical records were waxed taunting the group that had suffered most of the casualties in the killing spree of January 15th.

The violent reaction on the part of those who felt their political and military were targeted in the selected killings was a logical development. Massive demonstrations and attacks against Ibo ethnic men whose officers in the military played a dominant role in the coup became targets. Many were wounded/ killed and their property destroyed. At the end of the day, the killings penetrated the barracks when there were more killings of men and officers. The assassination of the head of the first Military Government in Nigeria, Major General Aguyi Ironsi and the fall of his government was only a question of time. It happened on 29th July 1966.

Lt Col Yakubu Gowon took over from him. He was Head of State but his leadership was challenged by another Lt. Col, Odumegwu Ojukwu who led the Eastern Region – where he was appointed as military Governor by General Ironsi – in a rebellion to form a breakaway republic they called Biafra. Thus it was the military that led us to our civil war in which over a million people died.

After nine years in office, Yakubu Gowon, now a General was overthrown in a coup on 29th July 1975. Then succession by coup became the norm. He was lucky to have left office with his life. Others like his immediate successor, General Murtala Mohammed were not. In fact by the time General Obasanjo handed over power to Shehu Shagari in 1979, we had five heads of states, three out them left the State House in coffins. It was like killing our Heads of States was our national hobby.

After the exit of Obasanjo, the military took a short break and allowed civilians four years to rule to the end of 1983. General Muhammadu Buhari led another contingent of military men to boot out President Shehu Shagari on 31st December 1983. From then on, a succession of Generals took their turns to overthrow governments and run the country.

The last of them was General Sani Abacha who overthrew the Interim government that was headed by Ernest Shonekan an unelected civil Head of State who was appointed by General Babangida to create some space for him to step aside after the June 12 stalemate. Tragically, General Sani Abacha also left the State House in a coffin. We got the democracy we practice today from the military hands of General Abdulsalami Abubakar who took over from Abacha and implemented a business like transition program.

When Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeagwu shot himself to power, he complained about “ten per centers, nepotists and tribalists”. Unfortunately, his coup directly led to a civil war. His military coup also led to prolonged military rule which led to unprecedented corruption. At the time Abacha died in terrible circumstances of moral debauchery, corruption had reached a stage that nobody was talking of ten percent. In fact the whole process of tendering and awarding contracts was an inconvenience.

Nigeria was looted and re-looted.