Operation ‘Aure’: The Northern Military Counter-Rebellion of July 1966

Mar 17 2017 - 9:23am

L-R: Fajuyi and Ironsi

By Nowa Omoigui

Ironsi and Fajuyi are Kidnapped

When the group got downstairs, Danjuma instructed the 4th battalion adjutant, Lt. Garba Dada (“Paiko”), to arrange for both Fajuyi and Ironsi to be taken to the guest house on the cattle ranch at Mokwa “pending date of full inquiry.” Lt. “Paiko”, however, informed Danjuma that he was not a party to the commitment he made to Fajuyi (or Gowon) about their safety and a fierce emotional argument erupted between Danjuma and the others. At this point a northern soldier tapped Danjuma on the shoulder with a loaded rifle and, speaking in Hausa, said:

“These foolish young boys. That is the kind of leadership you have given us and messing us up. They killed all your elders and you are still fooling around here. The man you are fooling around here with will disappear before you know it.”

The other soldiers agreed with this soldier and pounced on both Ironsi and Fajuyi, wrestling them to restrain any movement. Danjuma, faced with one command crisis after another all night, had finally lost control.

Fajuyi turned to Danjuma and said: “You gave us the assurance.”

Danjuma replied: “Yes, Sir. I am sure you will be all right.”

He was wrong.

Two Land Rovers took the captives away while Danjuma hitch-hiked back to the barracks.

Both Ironsi and Fajuyi were squeezed into the front seat of one vehicle while Ironsi’s ADCs, Lts. Bello and Nwankwo were behind. Two officers, Lts. Walbe and Dada, accompanied the group with one joining the driver of the lead vehicle. The command vehicle led another vehicle full of armed troops. Among those soldiers said to have been present include the 4th battalion unit RSM Useni Fagge, Sergeant Tijjani (from Maiduguri), Warrant Officer Bako, and other soldiers including Dabang, Wali, and Rabo. Some of those involved were later to come to prominence during the unsuccessful Dimka coup of 1976. (Although Colonel Yohana Madaki (rtd) was at that time an NCO in the 4th battalion, there is no evidence that he accompanied the soldiers that took Ironsi away).

Omogui

They drove to Mile 8 on Iwo road, where the group dismounted and went into the bush, crossing a small stream. Ironsi and Fajuyi were subjected to beatings and interrogation. General Ironsi acted a soldier as he was questioned, refused to be intimidated and remained silent, refusing to confess any role in the January 15 coup. Indeed, according to Elaigwu, “It was reliably learnt from an officer and a soldier on the spot that it was Ironsi’s muteness amidst a barrage of questions that led to his being shot by an angry Northern soldier.” Other sources suggest that the “angry northern soldier” may have been Sergeant Tijjani. Details are murky.

Fajuyi was also shot. Although the western region publication “Fajuyi the Great” published by the Ministry of Information in 1967 after his official burial said he had offered to die rather than “abandon his guest,” those involved in his arrest and assassination insist that he was an even more critical target than Ironsi and made no such offer to die with Ironsi. Lt. Col. William Walbe (rtd) said:

“…We arrested him as we arrested Ironsi. We suspected him of being party to the January coup. You remember the Battle Group Course which was held at Abeokuta…Fajuyi was the Commander of the Battle Group Course…All those who took part in the January coup were those who had taken part in that course. It gave us the impression that the Battle Course was arranged for the January coup, so he had to suffer it too. I am sorry about that but that is the nature of the life of a military man….”

General Danjuma confirms this opinion. He says that at another training camp in Kachia commanded by Lt. Col. Fajuyi, Major Nzeogwu rehearsed the assault on Sardauna’s house in the presence of some northern mortar officers who did not appreciate the significance of the exercise until after the coup. In Danjuma’s words, “The chaps could not stomach Fajuyi such that if there was anybody who should die first, as far as they were concerned, it was Fajuyi, not even Ironsi.”

How true are these claims about Fajuyi’s role in the January coup? I found an answer in the book “Why we Struck” by Major Adewale Ademoyega, one of the January mutineers and a Yoruba officer like Fajuyi. Ademoyega states that Fajuyi supported the first coup, knew of it and made suggestions to plotters on how it could be best carried out. According to Ademoyega, that he did not actively participate was only as a result of his posting at the time the coup was launched. However, Ademoyega eulogizes the late Colonel for opposing all efforts in the Supreme Military Council to bring the January 15 coupists to trial.

Ironsi’s ADC’s Escape

Major General Ironsi had two ADCs, Army Lt. Sani Bello and Air Force Lt. Andrew Nwankwo. Speaking Hausa, Bello, whose ethnic origin is Kontagora, appealed to ‘Lt. Paiko’, who was an acquaintance from the same Niger province in the North, to let him and his Igbo colleague off the hook since they were not the targets of the soldiers and were only performing official functions as ADCs.

According to Madiebo:

“While Ironsi was being shot, Nwankwo said he ran into the bush and escaped. He emphasized that his escape was not due to his cleverness, but because his colleague, the Hausa ADC who was also present, wanted him to escape.

Nwankwo explained that during the month of June, 1966, he and his Northern colleague had discussed the possibility of another coup. The Northern officer was emphatic the Ibos were going to do it again, but Nwankwo swore it was going to be done by Northerners. According to him, at the end of a long but heated argument, they came to an agreement that whichever side did it, the man on the winning side should save the other’s life. Based on this agreement, the Northern ADC whispered to Nwankwo to escape while Ironsi was being shot, and also discouraged the soldiers from chasing after him. Nwankwo said he later made his way to Lagos and contacted this Northern officer again, who not only hid him for a couple of days, but eventually took him out of Lagos in the boot of a car.”

Back at the 4th Battalion

Later that morning, on Friday July 29, back in the barracks, T/Lt. Col Joe Akahan, Commander of the 4th battalion, who had essentially been ignored all night by junior officers, tried to reassert control. He (or someone acting in his name) apparently called a meeting of all officers at 10am which Akahan did not attend. By this time, Lt. Pam Nwadkon’s Ferret group had arrived from Abeokuta bringing more inciting news about how Igbo soldiers there had been hunted down and killed. At this meeting surviving Igbo soldiers were allegedly rounded up by NCOs and later killed, some say by being packed like sardines into a tailor’s shop and then blown up with grenades. The intelligence officer of the battalion, Lt. Jasper, from the delta part of the Midwest, was killed based on an allegation that he had been an informant for senior Igbo officers in Lagos. NNDP detainees at the Ibadan prison were released.

Later in the afternoon around 4pm, weary from negotiations with rebels at Ikeja, Gowon called from Lagos and spoke to Akahan, seeking to establish the status of the Supreme Commander. Akahan passed the question on to Danjuma who then informed Gowon that Ironsi had been snatched from him by officers of the 4th battalion. When Danjuma confronted the Battalion adjutant with the same question, he says the adjutant “told me one story after the other. But I saw the officers in twos and threes whispering to each other and it was running to about 7pm.”

At this point let me address a pertinent question. Is there is any independent corroboration for Danjuma’s story that he arrested Ironsi but did not order or partake in his torture and execution? Yes, at least two. In the book “Power with Civility”, Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu says: “In fairness to Danjuma, his mission was to arrest the Head of State in a bloodless coup, but having accomplished it successfully, he was shoved aside by a mob who had reserved a fatal fate for their captive.” General Gowon (rtd) also confirmed in an interview with Elaigwu that then Major Danjuma was very sad when he later learnt about the deaths of both Ironsi and Fajuyi, having given his word that no harm would come to them.

On Saturday, July 30, T/Lt. Col. Akahan finally came to grips with the situation, albeit temporarily, ordering all soldiers to be disarmed in response to direct orders from Lagos.

But the 4th battalion, incidentally the direct descendant of “Glover’s Hausas,” was not done yet. In time it would acquire a reputation as the most unruly battalion in Nigerian history. On August 16, a detachment of the unit staged a raid on the Benin Prison, followed by an all out battalion-wide riot in Ibadan. Later that month when a decision was made to transfer the battalion en bloc, now under Major Danjuma’s command, to Kaduna, NCOs and junior officers again went berserk. Using tactics reminiscent of the Japanese in Burma, they went to hospitals all over Kaduna to look for sick Igbo officers, one of whom was killed. Another officer, then Major Alabi (later renamed Alabi-Isama) of the NMTC, who had actually served with the 4th battalion before the January coup narrowly escaped back to the Midwest. He was smuggled out of Kaduna by a team of officers led by the Military Governor, Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina.

Detachments of the 4th battalion deployed to other northern towns continued their acts of lawlessness everywhere they went. Soldiers in the infantry company deployed to Makurdi (under S/Captain Adeniran who replaced T/Major Daramola of the 3rd battalion) were instrumental to the outbreak of systematic killing in September of Igbos fleeing from other parts of the North. It is not for nothing that the vehicle and railway bridge over the River Benue at Makurdi was nick-named the “Red Bridge.” In a pattern established by the preceding unit, easterners (particularly those with low Military or Police style crew hair cut) were allegedly screened out at the Train station, or hunted down in joint Army-Police-Militia house to house searches, then taken to an open field in Makurdi North where they were allegedly executed. All of these alleged activities could not have escaped the attention of the local Police Special Branch officer, then ASP Shettima, but it is unclear what steps were taken by authorities to bring the situation under control, assuming they were even aware of what was going on. Those easterners who escaped the Makurdi railway bottleneck had to contend with molestation and looting by rural opportunists along the Makurdi-Otukpo road, if they thought going by road was safer. If they escaped that, they had to survive a final checkpoint at Otukpo, allegedly manned by one Lt. Obeya.

In addition to hair style, all sorts of criteria were used to screen out those marked for execution. Soldiers or Policemen who were multilingual would speak English or vernacular to the “suspect” and then listen for tell-tale accents in the way certain words were pronounced. Another popular screening method was one’s tribal marks. Yorubas with large tribal marks would often be jokingly referred to as “Akintola” and let go. Not to have obvious identifiable tribal marks, however, was an invitation to trouble, which is how many got killed, whether they were Igbo or not – including some local Idoma and Tiv people, merely on account of their physical features. It used to be quite effective for some time for southerners without prominent tribal marks to escape by claiming they were from “Benin” in the Midwest, until the soldiers began demanding that the alleged “Benin people” speak or sing in the Edo language. But there were other ways one could get into difficulty. For example, not even the Benue Provincial Police Officer, Mr. Agbajor, an Itsekiri from the Midwest, was safe. He barely escaped ambush at the Makurdi club after attracting attention to himself by driving around in a car with license plate number EW 1, which stood for ‘East, Owerri, 1’. Agbajor was to come to public attention again, when, in August/September 1967 he agreed to serve the short-lived Biafran administration in the Midwest as Chief of Police. His career in the Nigerian Police ended shortly thereafter.

About 5 days after their deaths, the corpses of Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt. Col. Fajuyi were retrieved by the Police Special Branch (including CSP J. D. Gomwalk) from a makeshift grave near the town of Lalupon outside Ibadan and transferred to the Military cemetery where they were specially marked for future identification. It was not until after the Aburi conference in January 1967 that their deaths were announced (by Lt. Col Ojukwu), following a pattern that had originally been established by General Ironsi. Ironsi refused to announce the deaths of or allow official funerals for most of the victims of the January coup (including his military colleagues) throughout his six month long regime.

After yet another exhumation, however, General Ironsi was finally reburied with full military honors at Umuahia on January 20, 1967 while a few days later Lt. Col Fajuyi was reburied at Ado-Ekiti.

–The politico.com.ng

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