Prof Adeyemo Elebute is the biographer of Captain James Pinson Labulo Davies who like Ajayi Crowther and Aina Forbes Bonetta was one of Nigeria’s founding fathers. Elebute was also one of the founding members of LUTH. In an interview with this author, he confirmed he was one of the doctors who treated Nzeogwu’s neck injuries when he was brought to LUTH prior to his proposed absorption into the Ironsi government that was used to deceive him into coming over to Lagos. For months, burnt people including children partially turned into carbon were brought to LUTH everyday from Western Region’s Operation wetie. The hospital staff, bed spaces and medical resources had been overwhelmed many times over. Yet LUTH was only at the periphery of the Western crisis. UCH and other General hospitals all over the Region were completely swamped by the crisis. According to Elebute, it was the coup that provided the hospitals the much needed relieve. When eventually, Nzeogwu arrived at LUTH, he was feted like a rock star by the staff. The revolutionaries were seen as Igbo Beatles and Nzeogwu was their John Lennon. I Want to Hold Your Hand: The doctors, nurses and other health officials were ecstatically eager to catch a glimpse of him in his heavily guarded ward and shake his hands. To many, the general joy was comparable to the day the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea. But to deeper minds, it was comparable to the day Albert Einstein published the theory of general relativity (what was heinous murders to some can be called national liberation to others). Great intelligence specialises in heresies.
The first set of people to call the coup an Igbo coup were Igbos. According to M. Chidi and C. Usonos who were traders in Kano at that time, since the coup was popular and welcomed all over the country, it was a thing of joy and pride that their brothers had ‘saved’ Nigeria. When Ifeajuna won Gold in 1954 Commonwealth Olympics, because of its immense popularity, it was first regarded as a victory for the black race, then victory for Africa, then Nigeria. Eventually it was rightly and naturally claimed as a victory for Igbos just as Jesse Owen’s victory in the presence of Hitler in 1936 Olympics was a victory for all Americans and later narrowed down by black Americans as an exclusive victory for them.
Major Samuel Ogbemudia, a non-Igbo was an instructor at the NMTC; he shared the same office with Nzeogwu but did not know about the imminent Revolution. His other colleague Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu, an Igbo was co-opted as the deputy commandant of the Northern operations of the Revolution. Major Olusegun Obasanjo, another Hausa-speaking non-Igbo was Nzeogwu’s best friend. He was serving with 1 Field Squadron (Army Engineers). He arrived the country two days before the coup and slept in the same room with Nzeogwu in the bachelor’s quarters at No 13, Kanta Road barracks just as before he left the country. He was not told of the Revolution too but his deputy, Captain Ben Gbulie, an Igbo at the same 1 Field Squadron (Army engineers) was invited and was tasked with securing the Brigade HQ and other key points.
With the public adulation that hailed the execution of the Revolution, Ogbemudia and Obasanjo went to the brigade HQ the morning after and asked Nzeogwu, “Why didn’t you tell us?” They saw the Revolution as history in the making and they were jealous. According to Ogbemudia in an interview he had with this author, Nzeogwu’s response was, “We couldn’t tell everybody.” But what criteria did they use to determine who to invite, who to exclude, who to eliminate with extreme prejudice? Why did Nzeogwu after killing Sardauna hastened to the home of Major Hassan Katsina, the only Northerner heading a military unit in the North to demand at gunpoint if he supported the Revolution or not? Had Katsina said he was against it, he would have been shot in front of his wife and children. But why did Nzeogwu not perform the same stunt with Major Alexander Madiebo, another Igbo Easterner heading a combat unit (1st Field Battery(Artillery))? According to Madiebo in his book Nigerian Revolution and Biafra War (pg 16): “Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, for instance, invited me for lunch (on 12 January 1966), during which he expressed a view that an immediate coup was the only solution to the nation’s numerous political problems. In agreeing with him, I expressed doubts on the chances of the success of such an exercise in a country where tribal loyalties were much stronger than the national and ideological ones. He immediately changed the topic of conversation and never mentioned it again.” So Nzeogwu knew Madiebo who was already in Kaduna was not for the Revolution yet he never accompanied his gun with gra gra to Madiebo’s bedroom to give him the Katsina treatment. Madiebo rightly knew and said that the ethnic loyalties binding the coup plotters would be stronger than any national or ideological ones no matter how they choose to spin it to the contrary. He knew that instead of being hailed as national youth service corps, they would end up damned as ethnic youth service corps.
When the dust of euphoria that greeted the selective assassinations finally settled after 3 months, it became crystal clear to Igbos and non-Igbos alike that the list of those killed and those left un-killed can neither be a fluke nor a coincidence; that the lack of equal opportunity to the assassinations was the result of a lack of equal representation amongst the assassins; that it would be difficult to escape the conclusion that the Revolutionaries had removed a predatory domination of the country by North only to impose another predatory domination by the East.
With the promise of revenge, the Igbos who were proud to say our boys did it began to beat a frightened retreat: “It was not an Igbo coup, a Yoruba man was among… Nzeogwu is Igbo in name only he is actually a Northerner…No, no, the coup plotters wanted to hand over to Awolowo… (This never featured in Nzeogwu’s speech) …etc…etc…”
But in the North and all over the barracks, driven by the desire for vengeance and by the conviction that hell was not even half full yet, the first of the many revenge massacres of 1966 started on 29 May in Kaduna and Kano. A war followed the following year. All because of an ill-conceived Revolution.
In 2001, at the age of 65 years, Elizabeth Pam, a Northerner and the widow of James Pam went to see Humphrey Chukwuka in Enugu the former capital of Eastern Region. She was 30 years old in 1966 when Chukwuka took James away and never returned him to her as promised. Elizabeth did not call for justice as an alternative to the loss of her beloved husband neither was she avid for tribal accusations that was common to Chukwuka’s people. She just uttered those difficult words: “I forgive you.” She died soft on 10th of May 2011 surrounded by her children and her illustrious moral superiority. Amazing Grace.
*Damola Awoyokun, an engineer, is a writer and historian. This excerpt is from his forthcoming trilogy on Nigerian history from 1700 – 1970. He can be reached on twitter @osoronga or email email@example.com