Sunday, February 10, 2019 10:15 pm
The former Military Governor of Mid-Western Region, Major General David Ejoor is dead. He was 87. A gentleman and loyal military officer, he played a key role in foiling the first coup of 1966, especially in Eastern Region where he was the Commander of 1st Battalion in Enugu
In that coup, a crop of First Republic politicians lost their lives: Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa; Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Region; Chief Ladoke Akintola, Premier, Western Region and others.
In 2016, TheNEWS magazine did a trilogy on the major role played by Ejoor, how he escaped death twice and foiled the coup in the East. The story was written that year by Damola Awoyokun, an engineer, a writer and historian. The story was actually an excerpt from his forthcoming trilogy on Nigerian history from 1700 – 1970. He can be reached on twitter @osoronga or email [email protected]
“Ifeajuna then went to fetch 2 NCOs to load Largema’s corpse into the boot of Mercedes Benz in the car park. The Prime Minister heard the gunshots, saw the corpse and lost his cool. There was another senior officer, David Ejoor the commander of 1st Battalion in Enugu who had come for the Ifeajuna-organised Brigade Training Conference and was in Room 17. He was at the cocktail hours earlier. They knocked and burst into many rooms but they could not find him. As it will be seen later, a modesty incident caused Ejoor to change rooms earlier hence missing his allocation of death…
On 9th of January, Lt Col Ejoor the commanding officer of the 1st battalion in Enugu received a signal in the name of Brigadier Maimalari that he was invited to a three day Brigade Training Conference on the 12th – 14th in Apapa, Lagos. The battalion was handed to him on 26th December by Lt Col Adekunle Fajuyi who was transferred to Abeokuta to head the Garrison there. He left for Lagos on 10th of January and was booked into room No 17 Ikoyi Hotel. (Lt Colonel Fajuyi confirmed later to Mr Bell, the British Deputy High commissioner in Ibadan on 22nd January that he too received the signal for the conference and was booked into Ikoyi hotel too. But he refused and chose to stay in the VIP chalets of the officers’ in Apapa. He was slated for assassination too). When Ejoor came back from the day’s proceeding on 13th January, the air conditioner was left on all day and so the room was extremely cold. He opened the windows and changed into his nightwear only to discover that a lady on the balcony of the block of flats nearby was staring directly into his sacred affairs.
The following morning, he asked at the reception for a change of room. After the conference, he went to Maimalari’s residence for the cocktail at 7:30pm. He and the driver of his staff car were travelling back to Enugu the following morning and he wanted his driver to get enough sleep for the 490km trip. Ejoor went to seek Maimalari’s permission to leave at 9pm. The Brigadier refused. Ejoor then went to appeal to Colonel Kur Mohammed whom the Brigadier usually handed the Brigade over to when he was absent from the country. Maimalari, like Catholic theology, consented after much saintly intercession. Ejoor left Abogo Largema at the party not knowing that was the last time they would see each other.
By 7am the following day, his driver who went to sleep at Camp in Apapa came banging on his door. He told him there had been terrible happenings the like of which he had not seen or heard before. He said there the Prime Minster and many other officers had been kidnapped. Ejoor stared not only with disbelief but with deep confusion. He was convinced that his driver was drunk early. Just then Largema’s driver too came and showed them shells he found in front of his master’s room. All the three went to the Largema’s room upstairs to find trails of blood which had hardened into a carapace on the corridor.
Ejoor wanted answers. The person who handled the death of soldiers in the army was the Adjutant General. So he left for James Pam’s residence. The 30-year-old Mrs Elizabeth Pam said around 3am they noticed soldiers were crawling as they approached their house, climbing the telecom pole and scaling their fence. They were trying to avoid the sentries which they later caught and arrested unawares. They shot at the two front tyres of the car and at the kitchen door. She said James and the children were so terrified that they knew it was an omen of something very bad. Then Major Chukwuka who was a family friend appeared. When other junior officers complained that they were left to fallow while Chukwuwa was sent on too many courses, Pam said he believed in Chukwuka’s potentials as a professional soldier. Chukwuka saluted Pam in the bedroom.
‘Sir, you are needed at the office.’ Chukwuka told him. Pam thought it was a case of mistaken identity.
‘Lieutenant Colonel Pam. Get your coat we have to leave now.’ Pam asked Chukwuka and the other three soldiers in his bedroom to step outside for him to change. Pam picked up the phone and dialled Maimalari and Ironsi. After 5 minutes, Chukuwa and his men barged right in and took him downstairs unchanged. Pam resigned for the worst. His wife and children were screaming. What emergency had happened that soldiers had to shoot their way into his house? Chukwuka then assured his crying wife and screaming children, he would be fine. Elizabeth was born to John Daniel, a Ghanaian Christian and Hajara Ayashe, a Fulani Muslim in Kano on July 9, 1935. They had been married for 9 years. His final words to his wife as he was being bundled into the Land Rover was to look after their four little children. He had a strong feeling he would not come back.
As she spoke, Ejoor did not inform her of the blood of Largema at the Ikoyi hotel. He promised her that her husband would be found and brought home safely. He then left for Maimalari’s residence, found the place deserted and left for Ironsi’s house. It was there Mrs Victoria Ironsi told him Gowon had been there and said her husband, the GOC was in Ikeja. Ejoor promptly headed there.
According to Ejoor’s account of that day, when he entered the battalion HQ office, he saluted the GOC. As Ironsi turned around and saw it was Ejoor, he quickly drew his service pistol. Ejoor was stunned at Ironsi’s response to his cordial salute.
“Ha, David, are you with me or against me?” the GOC said.
Ejoor replied, “You are my commanding officer, whatever it is, I am with you.”
Ironsi said with the event of the past 4 hours things had been confusing. He did not trust any officer. He then began to narrate the event as he saw it. He spoke of how Pam warned him of an ongoing mutiny on phone, how he dressed up, tried to rouse the Federal Guards barracks, how on the way to Ikeja he met Captain Ogbo Oji and some of the mutineers on Carter Bridge – one of the two bridges connecting Lagos Island to the mainland – and how he bluffed his way through and proceeded to Ikeja to rouse the battalion.
Oji was an officer and he was too high to be manning a roadblock in particular when there was a severe shortage of officers for the Revolution. What happened was Oji was the second in command to Major Okafor whose Federal Guards unit was detailed to eliminate Maimalari. At some minutes past 4 o’clock, after Ademoyega drove over to tell them at Maimalari residence that the Brigadier had been killed, Okafor ordered Oji and four NCOs to check situation in 2nd battalion and see if Obienu’s unit had arrived from Abeokuta. En route, he waited on Carter Bridge to get the situation report from the unit Ademoyega posted there to prevent enemy forces from disturbing their Revolution and to ensure key targets did not escape. Oji did not even know there had been a mutiny within a mutiny, that their operational base at Federal Guards Officer’s Mess had been compromised, and that the convoy of his fellow conspirators was 15 minutes behind him en-route to Ikeja too. Then Ironsi turned up at the roadblock on the bridge in his staff car accompanied by escorts.
The 41-year-old Ironsi told Ejoor and Njoku that morning, he courageously challenged them and brushed past them to arrive at Ikeja. Oji was courageous enough to become the first of the mutineers to shoot someone in Ikoyi when he referred fatal bullets to Maimalari’s obstinate Guard commander. Two hours later, he could not repeat the same fate for the GOC particularly when the success of their Revolution depended on how fast they turned Ironsi into a corpse. To Ejoor, the mutineers may have done something unprofessional and irresponsible but they were not cowards. For the GOC to say he charged at them at a roadblock and just brushed past them may fit diverse storylines except the truth.
Ejoor excused himself when the tea and biscuits that had been ordered for breakfast came. In his later account, Njoku wrote that when Ironsi turned up at Ikeja battalion at half five, his hand vibrated with fright as he struggled to write down the places that he wanted guarded with troops in Lagos and the junior officers he wanted arrested immediately. That was why he, Njoku, had to order tea to calm him down. These newly arrived tea and biscuits were for breakfast and small talk while Gowon was still with his crack force in Lagos willing to slug it out with the rebels. Ejoor did not want to be part of the grotesque. He told Ironsi:
“Sir, it appears I shall be of no use to you here. Perhaps if I can get to Enugu I may be able to bring some help.” He then asked the GOC, ‘have you heard from Enugu?”
‘Well, no, I cannot order you to go to Enugu now,’ was Ironsi’s reply.
But Ejoor was desperate to go. Military doctrine required that in time of crisis, a commander must connect with his unit and take charge. More so, the signal signed by Ironsi and circulated by Maimalari at the Brigade Training Conference the previous day stated that Commanders should tighten security when they get back to their units and to warn all their subordinates against disloyal acts. Had Ejoor joined Njoku and Ironsi in having breakfast and postponed going to Enugu, the coup would not have ended up as one night stand but would have dragged on and on taking with it many lives.
When the coup high command reached the airport junction, they could not wait there. Being a strategic junction, there was an unanticipated police check point there. They had to travel further outwards towards Abeokuta because they had corpses and the Finance Minister was on board so they did not want to risk police attention. Of the six vehicles that left Federal Guard’s Mess, Okafor’s private Peugeot 403, Ademoyega’s army Landrover, Anuforo’s private car and the 3 Tonner arrived. Ifeajuna’s car and Chukwuka Landrover did not turn up. Major Humphrey Chukwuka’s unit assisted by 2/Lt Godwin Onyefuru were detailed to go and do to Gowon what they had been doing to all other senior officers. Being the new commander, it was important he was dead so that the battalion made up of mostly Northern soldiers of Tiv origin will not be mobilised for the upcoming showdown during the second stage of the coup.
On reaching the cantonment gate, the sentries told Chukwuka they did not know where the new commander was. It was then that Ironsi and his escorts arrived and Chukwuka left for his block of flats at Ikeja. It was some minutes after five. When Major Nzegwu saw their building awash in the arriving Land Rover’s lights, he berated Chukwuka from his opened window:
“Humphrey, your wife has since being crying, where have you been?”
Nzegwu was Chukwuka’s next-door neighbour in the same block of flats. They were both staff officers at the Army HQ. While Chukwuka was the deputy Adjutant General under Pam, Nzegwu was a Staff Officer under Kur Mohammed. Nzegwu was the Army’s liaison officer with the Air force and with the airport commandant in case flights were needed to be booked or army’s visitors welcoming protocols needed to be prepared. He was the one Kur Mohammed had in mind to deploy hours earlier at Maimalari’s cocktail, when Ironsi asked Mohammed to bring the London Guardian’s correspondent Patrick Keatley to his office at 10am the next day for a discussion on the Smith rebellion in East Africa and to take him to the airport afterwards to catch his flight.
Nzegwu did not know that Chukwuka, his colleague and neighbour had just participated in an event that would lead to Nzegwu’s own death six months later. In other words, Nzegwu had just 6 months left to live without knowing it. Had he known, he would not have asked, “Humphrey, your wife has been crying, where have you been?” He would also have asked: “Humphrey, why have you done this to me?”
Shortly afterwards, the barrack alarm went off. Being a combat battalion, all soldiers had to report to their various company offices. According to Onyefuru’s account of that night, to obey the alarm, he had to leave the Chukwuka to join his company. Chukwuka later called his company office to ask for Lt Zacchaeus Idowu, the Quartermaster of the battalion. But on hearing Onyefuru’s voice in the background, he asked him to come on the intercom. Chukwuka then asked if anyone knew anything yet. Onyefuru replied that they were awaiting the GOC’s briefing. Chukwuka panicked, left his crying wife and fled to the East for refuge via Ijebu Ode road while Ademoyega, Anuforo and the rump of the coup plotters were still waiting for him on Abeokuta Road. The Revolution that looked so promising an hour earlier was no longer itself. Its drivers were staring into a deep well and seeing a trapped sky. It started to dawn on them that their stories may not become glories after all. But there was no going back.
At some minutes past 5 o’clock, Anuforo and Ademoyega decided to proceed to Abeokuta, mobilise Obienu and his firepower to keep the Revolution on track. There were nine corpses in the 3 tonner and it was not necessary to give them a lift to Abeokuta when they could easily dispose them right there in the bushes by the roadside. It was then that Anuforo noticed the drum-waisted Okotie-Eboh.
‘Who is the man?’ he asked.
When Anuforo was told he was the man who controlled the public wealth and the nation’s finances, Anuforo was angry and he became very horny to end him. After all, pulling trigger and watching blood splutter gave Anuforo high voltage hickies and monkey bites. He was already the busiest killer of the night with three officers’ lives under his belt. As the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal said: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Using his church mind, Anuforo helped the Finance Minister descend the steps of the 3 Tonner, and asked him to say his last prayers. He cocked his SMG and Okotie-Eboh’s corpse was dumped along all the corpses in the bush by the roadside. Then the convoy drove down to 2nd Recce Squadron in Abeokuta to activate the command there. They arrived at around half seven in the morning around the same time Ironsi’s tea and biscuits arrived at the battalion headquarters at Ikeja.
David Ejoor left Ironsi and Njoku and ordered Major Henry Igboba, Njoku’s 2ice to radio Joseph O’Neill who was the senior operations officer and the airport commandant to arrange a security flight for him to Enugu. Unknown to Ejoor, Ifeajuna and Donatus Okafor having missed Anuforo and Ademoyega were racing to Enugu to raise infantry troops to continue their Revolution.
According to the testimony Ifeajuna gave to his interlocutors after arriving from Ghana on 14 February 1966 in the company of Okigbo, when he and his fellow revolutionaries left the Federal Guard Mess en-route Ikeja, he had to shear from the convoy to deposit Lt Ezedigbo at Yaba Military Hospital. A bullet ricocheted and hit him during the assassination of Largema and he was losing so much blood. He then rushed to quickly re-join Ademoyega and others at the agreed rendezvous. But the problem was that there were so many roadblocks on the way manned by soldiers and police; they thought Ironsi ordered the roadblocks as part of his effort to subvert their Revolution. Ifeajuna was even criticising Okafor for not going to kill Ironsi first instead of Maimalari. Ironsi was an administrative general; he commanded no troops hence ranked low in their initial threat estimate. Unknown to them, the roadblocks were the initiative of the police high command to prevent the Western crisis from spreading to Lagos. Also the convoy comprised army Land Rovers and a 3 Tonner, and so they sailed unobstructed through all the roadblocks. But after leaving the hospital, Ifeajuna discovered that since they were no longer in a military convoy, they were susceptible to being stopped and searched at any roadblock. Moreover, he had guns, ammo, an easily recognisable Prime Minister in the car and Abogo Largema was in the boot pillowed by an extra tyre. According to his later testimony, they had to take side roads to reach Abeokuta Road. They arrived 10 miles away from their rendezvous.
He said Abubakar had become a mess of panic and had grown hysterical since the shooting of Maimalari. He was blabbering to himself, his jaws and limbs vibrating uncontrollably. In other words, the Prime Minister had become totally ordinary. And Ifeajuna did not like that. He did not plot a coup to possess the ordinary; he was interested in capturing the Absolute just like in Vancouver in 1954 where he conquered gravity and vaulted higher than any man in the history of the world. He was not interested in the gold medal; he was interested in the record. (In an interview Ifeajuna’s wife Rose gave, she said he did not even know where the gold medal was even before they married in 1959. It was the record that mattered to him.) Ifeajuna said he did not intend to harm or hurt Abubakar. And so they took him out of the car to see if fresh air would do him some good, rescue him from being common and ordinary so that Ifeajuna could enrich his record.
As a teenager, Abubakar was never interested in politics. He wanted to be a teacher and a novelist. In 1933, at the age of 20, his novella Shaihu Umar written colloquially came third in a literary competition organised by the colonial education department in Zaria. The novella is a bildungsroman that parallels Shaihu Umar’s journey amongst an enslaver’s caravans across the Sahara Desert with a person’s journey through life from birth, wedding, child-nurturing to death. The sandstorm and other natural disasters experienced in the desert is contrasted with the inevitable hardships and mishaps one must suffer in life. It was useless looking for someone to blame including his wicked brother who contributed to some of his most brutal hardships. If Abubakar could be compared to his hero, Shaihu Umar, then his wicked brother was Emmanuel Ifeajuna and the enslaver’s caravan he travelled with in the desert was Okotie–Eboh, Mbadiwe and other government corruption fundamentalists who enslaved him to bad luck.
According to Ifeajuna, when they opened the door for him to get some fresh air, he surprised them: even though everywhere was pitch dark, Abubakar began to race into the bush. It was his white flowing jalabiya that gave him away. Quick, Ifeajuna grabbed his SMG from the car, cocked it and painfully set the darkness echoing before the dense forest could snatch his Abubakar away from him. He closed his eyes to unsee what he had done. But Abubakar was a rose that could grow out of mass concrete. It was love at last sight. The 54-year-old Prime Minister and a father of 18 children was not thinking straight; he, the 30-year-old Major and the father of 2 sons (Emmanuel and Bay), had to find a way to correct him. He could have been chased, captured and tied up. But Ifeajuna felt he was ripe for death anyway because he had become a liability to the Revolution and a pain to their free movement.
Ifeajuna reckoned that to outgun Ironsi and keep the dream of the Revolution alive, they needed more than the armoured, mechanised and artillery support that Obienu had to offer; they had to mobilise an additional company strong infantry at least. Going to 4th battalion in Ibadan was out of the question because they had no loyalist there. All their efforts to recruit Majors Nzefili and Ohanehi in December failed. Besides, the soldiers were extremely loyal to their commander Abogo Largema whose remains they had just tossed into the bush with Abubakar. The nearest military unit from which they could draw combat troops was 1st battalion in Apankwa Barracks in Enugu. Their commander, David Ejoor was supposed to be dragged out of the boot too and tossed into the bush like Largema, but he missed that fate by being unavailable in his allocated room in Ikoyi Hotel. They knew he was still in Lagos because he attended the Maimalari cocktail. Ifeajuna and Okafor decided to head back to Ikeja in order to proceed through Shagamu and race to Enugu to mobilise the battle ready troops. It was an impromptu journey that would have been inconceivable was Abubakar still with them.
In August 1962, the Federal Guards was formed and 150 of its initial 200 elite fighters were deployed from the Enugu battalion. It was the largest battalion in the country with 26 officers and 843 NCOs. Major Okonweze, Ejoor’s second-in-command in Enugu was part of the coup plot. He would not hesitate to grant Ifeajuna’s request for troops to Lagos. Using the privilege of their military uniforms, Ifeajuna and Okafor went through all the security roadblocks unobstructed. Combat fatigue and the post-traumatic stress disorder occasioned by his killing of two personalities with whom he had emotional connection – Maimalari and Abubakar – was already bossing him into making extremely individualistic decisions which prevented him from finding a way to inform Anuforo and Ademoyega of his new move.
Lagos – Ejoor
As the morning lights came and flushed away the stench of the night, Lagosians and Abeokutans woke up thinking the day was like any other day. It would take another 7 hours (at 2:30pm) for Radio Nigeria to announce the coup to the general public. Vehicles coming from Abeokuta to Lagos overtook a column of slow-moving armoured vehicles which Ademoyega and Anuforo had mobilised. In Ikeja cantonment, rumours blazed around like wild fire that the mutineers had been seen coming en masse to attack Lagos. The cantonment was in a state of heightened security. Bullet-resistant fighting positions were constructed with sandbags at strategic positions. When Ejoor reached the cantonment gate, the sentry did not allow him out. He told Ejoor he was under strict instruction to refuse any soldier from going out or coming in without authorisation. Ejoor had to go back to fetch Igboba. Ejoor was a lieutenant colonel. Igboba was a Major. Circumstance had turned the chain of command unto its head like the grave condition that made crayfish to bend.
Something strange then happened. Major John Obienu, the cleavage extremist, turned up at the battalion’s gates wanting to enter. When Obienu woke up in the morning, he tried to find out if the Revolution proceeded without him and if he might still fit in the scheme of things. So he went to the Airport junction; there were no sign of his squadron. He then dashed to Ikeja cantonment. He saw none of his ferret or Saladin and was making enquiries. All of a sudden he was recognised by one of the sentries as the officer commanding the unit rumoured to be coming from Abeokuta to attack. Igboba who came to the gates to authorise Ejoor’s exit ordered guns trained on Obienu. He protested his innocence. He swore that he didn’t know about any mutiny nor that his Recce squadron was making their way from Abeokuta. He said that he went to Maimalari’s party, slept in a friend’s place in Shomolu and was here trying to go back to Abeokuta. Liar, Igboba screamed at him. How was it possible that your unit was bringing their firepower to come and fight in a pre-planned mutiny and you their commanding officer did not know? NCOs do not mobilise for actions if they were not instructed by their OC. Who authorised them? Obienu swore he did not know anything. Ejoor then intervened. He suggested Obienu went ahead on Abeokuta road to neutralise his renegade unit. Obienu replied without troops to back him up, it would be unwise to go out there to stop them. That sounded reasonable to Ejoor and confirmed that he actually wasn’t part of the mutiny. Had he been part of the rebels, he wouldn’t have hesitated to go out there to meet his unit, Ejoor said. Henceforth, Obienu switched loyalty and joined the loyal forces trying to neutralise the Revolution. Not wanting further delay to the airport, Ejoor left them. In his account of what happened that morning, Ejoor wrote:
“As we approached the junction of the road that led into the Ikeja GRA and the Airport Road, I saw three artillery trucks approaching us. I immediately sense that this was what Major Igboba had talked about. I felt cornered as I had no way of knowing how these troops would react to me; whether they would take me as a foe or a friend. I did some quick thinking and decided to put the troop at some psychological disadvantage. Accordingly, I stood in the middle of the road and help up my hand indicating to them to stop. As the lead vehicle got close and stopped, I snapped at the troops, asking why they took so long to arrive, thereby slowing down our operations. The trick worked. They straightaway went on the defensive, explaining that they had some problems with tyres and fuel. I accepted their explanations and warned them that they were to be no more delays. “Go straight to Ikeja Cantonment and get your next orders,” I said and proceeded to lead them to the barracks as the traffic cleared for the military trucks. When we got to the battalion headquarters, I gave orders that all the troops escorted there be immediately disarmed and arrested. While this was being done, I resumed my journey to the Airport. Thus, by sheer accident, I was involved with the first major arrest of those involved in the coup of 15th January 1966.”
In a widely read article Head With Creative Thinking, in the influential Army journal The Nigerian Magazine, Ejoor lamented the absence of active creativity in the Army. He wrote: “Creativity is necessarily the lifeblood of a successful business concern. This is because competition in civilian life is so severe that a heavy premium is placed on ideas of all kinds. In the military world in peace time, we have not the same spur of competition, and yet if we cannot instil a creative atmosphere within the Armed Services, we are in the danger of failing both in peace and war. I believe the classical example of an Army which failed because it was in a rut and lacking in ideas was the French at the beginning of World War II.” Creativity inspired Ejoor to distance himself from Ironsi and Njoku. It led him to single-handedly neutralise the rebel detachment from Abeokuta which Obeinu their commander could not even do. Creativity would also save him from another assassination plot by Ifeajuna awaiting him in the East.
Ejoor – Enugu
The sun was already up in the East staining the skies with fire. Ejoor landed in at 11:30am after the eighty minutes of flight. At the airport, he saw a platoon of soldiers sleeping around in different degrees of disorderliness. He snapped them to attention and asked them what they were doing there. The platoon commander replied that they were ordered there since 3:00am by the acting battalion commander Major Gabriel Okonweze to whom Ejoor handed the battalion before he proceeded to Lagos for the Brigade Training Conference. When Ejoor asked for his service car and a platoon of guards to come and pick him from the airport, Okonweze himself followed them to confirm it was true Ejoor was truly back. Okonweze couldn’t contain his surprise. When Ejoor asked why he had deployed troops all over town, Okonweze said he received a signal from Brigadier Maimalari ordering the troop deployments.
As of early December, Major Chude-Okei the battalion’s second in command was the head of the Revolution in the East. But he went for a course in India and the coup command was handed to Okonweze. Ifeajuna used Lieutenant Jerome Ogbuchi who was in Lagos for a course to transmit a written instruction for troops mobilisation to Okonweze once he was certain that Ejoor was already in Lagos. Captain Joseph Iledigbo was to take his company across the Niger River and arrest the Premier of the Midwest, Chief Dennis Osadebey and his ministers. Captain Agbogu was to take his company to arrest the Eastern Premier, Dr Michael Okpara and his ministers. Captain Gibson Jalo was to seize the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation (ENBC) studio buildings. Major Okonweze and Chude-Sokei were to command the Joint Operations Centre. Unlike the operations in other parts of the country, none of the politicians were to be moved to any rallying point or shot, they were simply placed under house arrest pending further instructions from Lagos.
To the political establishment in Enugu, the capital of Eastern Region, the first omen of the coup was at the airport. In the afternoon of 14th January, the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios arrived for a visit in the Prime Minister’s plane to great pomp and pageantry. He had come to Lagos to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference and intended to use the opportunity to visit all the regions in Nigeria. Enugu became his first and last point of call. All the ministers, state officials and heads of the American, British diplomatic outposts were present at the welcoming ceremony at the airport. Conspicuously missing was the military guard of honour. When President Julius Nyerere came visiting in 1965, the guard of honour was one of the spectacles he enjoyed most. He said he did not know Africans too could stiffen breathlessly for so long as he inspected the guards and savoured their regimental drumming with Dr Michael Okpara. Okpara was very proud that no one else but him provided that unique spectacle to the eminent Africanist. But this time around while awaiting the plane of the Archbishop Makarios, there was no guard of honour in place even though Okonweze was there representing Ejoor. Okpara was so angry that he summoned Okonweze and berated him publicly. “You say Lagos put a ban on guard of honour. What are they afraid of? That Enugu will be mistaken for the capital of Nigeria?” This was according to Charles James Treadwell, the Deputy British High Commissioner who witnessed the incident at the airport. Okonweze did not tell Okpara that he was keeping the troops ready for the confirmation of the H-hour.
Okpara then compensated for the humiliation at the airport with a sumptuous party in the evening the same time in Lagos, a cocktail party was starting at Brigadier Maimalari’s residence. Treadwell was there too. He wrote his report on 16th January a day after the mutiny:
“The gathering was the largest I ever witness at the Premier’s Lodge and included the Governor, Sir Francis Ibiam, most of the Ministers and Ministers of State, the senior civil servants and a host of political leaders summoned from all parts of the region. As a social occasion it was a grand affair. Just before dawn the next morning, – Saturday 15th January – after the first shot had been fired in Lagos, Kaduna, Ibadan, troops of the 1st battalion moved into Independence Layout, Enugu, and took up positions outside the imposing residencies of the Premier and his Ministers. A barricade was set up across the access road into the area. Other troops sealed off all the road connecting Enugu with the rest of the Region; others still closed down the transmitter of the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Service(ENBS) and a guard was mounted at the entrance to the studio building in one of the main streets of the town. In carrying out this operation, the Army achieved complete surprise.
“At seven o’clock, following a telephone call from Chief Justice of Eastern Nigeria, Sir Louis Mbanefo – who apart from the Ministers is the only Nigerian living in Independence Layout – I was in his house discussing strange turn of events with him. Independence Layout was already teeming with troops, (the Chief Justice did not know it but there was even one soldier standing behind a bush in his own garden), and the barricade, past which I had readily been permitted to drive, was protected by a strong army contingent carrying automatic weapons. The Chief Justice was understandably puzzled. He had been told on telephone that the Army had seized power in Lagos and elsewhere in the country. He himself had been awakened at six o’clock by a rumbling of heavy lorries on the road outside and had seen troops spilling out into the Ministers’ houses. After we had spent some time in fruitless speculation, Sir Louis Mbanefo telephoned the premier and asked if he knew what was happening. No, answered the premier, it was all a mystery to him. He could see troops moving about his garden but he could not guess their purpose.
“The Chief Justice next telephoned the Governor and informed him that the army was moving against the government; despite the evidence Sir Francis Ibiam -the governor refused to credit the story. The army would never do such a thing, he said, and that was that. My route to the office took me past the studios of ENBS apart from the troops outside this building there was not a single soldier to be seen in town.
The departure of the archbishop had been arranged for ten o clock, and while waiting for him at the airport, I heard from a civil servant the first fragmentary reports (obtained by monitoring police wireless message sent from Ibadan and Kaduna to Lagos) from outside Enugu. There had been fighting in northern and western capitals. Chief Akintola was dead. Not much at the time, but enough to kill any hopes that the army would be able to clamber down the five pinnacles of power without spilling blood on the way. The Archbishop accompanied by the premier reached the airport more or less on time. News of military intervention had been successfully suppressed from the president(Archbishop), but things must have looked odd to him. Only six of us were there to see him off and of these – the premier and two ministers – were flanked by troops carrying sten guns. The Press were not represented. After inspecting the guard of honour mounted by the police and taking leave of his tongue-tied premier, the archbishop, smiling thinly, boarded his special aircraft and left Enugu.”
Seeing so many soldiers around the city, Treadwell and the American consul in Enugu Mr. R.J. Barnard decided to go the barracks to find out what was happening and if British and American citizens in the East needed to start getting worried. This was around 11 o’clock, 30 minutes before Ejoor arrived. Treadwell wrote:
“We were admitted without difficulty into the office of the acting commanding officer of the battalion, Major G. Okonweze, an Igbo from the mid-west, and spent a quarter of an hour with him and his adjutant, 2/Lt A.B. Umaru, a Hausa. In answer to our questions, Major Okonweze confessed that he was completely in the dark about the wider implications of the army move. He had received a single message during the night from Lagos instructing him to intensify internal security measures in the town and to restrict the movements of the ministers. The Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Service transmitter had been closed down and a guard had been placed at the entrance to the studio building. Everything was normal, however, he added somewhat uncertainly, other parts of the region were unaffected and British and American nationals living in Enugu could be told to go about their business in the usual way. The police had been ordered to stand by in case they were needed. He was meanwhile awaiting instructions from Lagos on the next step and would keep in touch with us. Outwardly, except some troops outside the broadcasting building it seemed just to be another day in Enugu and indeed many people at work in their offices were unaware for several hours that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. At noon a British business man had told me that his agent in Kaduna had telephoned to say that the Sardauna of Sokoto had been killed. All this was perplexing and worrying enough. In the early afternoon, however, events took a new twist, when the Chief Justice [Mbanefo] telephoned me with the news that all troops had been withdrawn from Independence Layout and sent back to the barracks.”
Ejoor had arrived and had taken charge. To annul the designs of the mutineers and to alleviate the anxieties of Enugu peoples, he ordered all soldiers back into the barracks.
“I telephoned Major Okonweze who confirmed this was true. He said the instruction he had received had been forged. They had been issued in the name of Brigadier Maimalari but he now knew that a group of mutineers had sent them. He had been fooled. Now that the picture was clear to him he was removing the army guards from the Independence Layout, lifting restrictions on the movement of politicians and arrange for the ENBS to resume transmission. Conditions in Enugu had entirely returned to normal he said. It was clear, however, despite calm in Enugu, that things were very far from normal elsewhere. Rumours were multiplying. Political leaders of NPC and NNDP persuasion had been assassinated in Lagos, Ibadan, Kaduna. Northern army officers had been put to death in these places. It was an Igbo plot, people whispered, and innocent Igbos would pay for it with their lives. The absence of any reference to the events in news broadcasts from Lagos heightened anxieties. During the afternoon, the ENBS relayed a BBC announcement, still tentative, about the coup; this was the first radio report heard by medium-wave listeners in Enugu. Ministers had meanwhile panicked badly. Under restraints no longer, they poured out of their houses and headed for the countryside. Dr Okpara [abandoned his official limousine and] slid out of the town in a Volkswagen and went to Umuahia. He spent the next fortnight there moving from house to house each day in a bid to go to the ground completely. Chief J.U. Nwodo, the minister of local government, drove to his house at Ukehe, on Nsukka road, where he changed clothes with his gardener and made for the bush. Two or three Americans, chivalrous but unwise, drove ministers to their villages, using indirect routes, and boasted of their enterprise when they returned. When dusk came all ministers’ houses in Independence Layout were empty (apart from a child of one minister who was forgotten in the rush) and a similar exodus had taken place from the houses of ministers of state and senior civil servants in other parts of Enugu. The first news broadcast in the afternoon from Lagos did nothing to allay fears. When darkness fell, the street of Enugu were almost deserted.”
“During the evening, the Chief Justice telephoned me again and asked me to call. He and Lady Mbanefo were in a state of considerable anxiety. They believed that the Hausa officers in the first battalion outnumbered the Igbos and their sympathisers and feared that the former would break out from their barracks and massacre leading Igbo civilians to avenge the death of the Sardauna. Their fears had been heightened shortly before this when a friend telephoned them from Onitsha (Sir Louis Mbanefo’s home town) with the news that three lorries packed with troops had crossed the Niger Bridge from the Asaba end and were now heading towards Enugu.”
Indeed a company commanded by Captain Joseph Ihedigbo was heading towards Enugu. But they were the ones which Okonweze had dispatched to Benin to achieve the mutineers Midwest objectives. Since Ejoor had ordered their immediate return, they were travelling back to Apankwa barracks. But the top government functionaries mistakenly thought the feared reprisals from the barracks was about to begin. Treadwell’s report continued:
“They will come here and kill us,’ said the Chief Justice, trembling. Making vaguely reassuring noises, I left them soon afterwards but returned almost at once in response to another telephone request from the Chief Justice. He said the police had now advised him to leave Enugu for safety’s sake and they were accordingly moving to Onitsha until calm was restored. Towards the midnight, the acting commissioner of police, Mr J.W. Okocha, arrived at the house with two Land Rovers containing armed police and with this escort, Sir Louis and Lady Mbanefo left somewhat hurriedly….We next called on the commissioner of police. He was weary and anxious. He seemed certain of an explosion. ‘I am an Igbo,’ he said, ‘and I can tell you that if it had happened the other way round; if Hausa officers had killed Igbo officers, other Igbos would take revenge.”
The following day – Sunday 16th January – around 10am, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu called. He was surprised Gabriel Okonweze was not the one who answered the phone but David Ejoor. According to the coup script, at that time, hungry worms supposed to be convening over the decomposing carcass of Ejoor and feast as they were doing to the others dead. Nzeogwu then asked Ejoor to confirm whether he was loyal to the Revolution or against it. Ejoor answered he was loyal to Ironsi and the government of Nigeria. He then asked Ejoor if he wanted to go on air to that effect. Ejoor banged the phone on him. He did not feel the least answerable to a Major even as reports confirmed that they had killed Brigadier Ademulegun and his deputy Col Shodeinde, and Nzeogwu had become the de facto Brigadier and King of North. Ejoor then tried to update Ironsi in Lagos. It was Gowon the centripetal force behind stamping down the mutiny who came on line. The previous night, they were both at Maimalari’s cocktail party. And they had both escaped easy death by refusing the rooms Ifeajuna allocated to them. Gowon told him he had been in touch with Major Madiebo and other loyal but passive forces in Kaduna and they told him Nzeogwu was trying to mobilise other mutineers to attack the South and finish the job. Gowon then said he had ordered Major Nzefili the acting CO of 4th battalion in Ibadan to go and defend the Jebba Bridge which was the only link between North and South West. Gowon wanted Ejoor to also secure the East against Northern aggression. When Ejoor asked for more arms and ammunition, Gowon offered to send a plane load from the Army Ordnance Depot and Unegbe’s Armoury. Quick, Ejoor began troop and equipment mobilisation and defensive fortifications.
According to Ejoor, all the places he asked troops to be placed, his 2ice Okonweze negated them all. His suggestions were places that were strategically meaningless and tactically useless in defence against Nzeogwu’s aggression. It was then Ejoor said he concluded his 2ice was certainly with the mutineers. Okonweze even suggested that they disarm all the soldiers and publicly destroy the ammunition so that civilians would feel safe. There had been rumours that since the death of Sardauna was announced, that Northern soldiers in the barracks will break loose and avenge his death. But Ejoor frustrated all Okonweze’s efforts to aid the Revolution’s agenda while Okonweze kept on denying he had anything to do with them. To Okonweze, Ejoor had become eligible for fresh death. He was too much in the way.
And so as night fell, Ejoor received an urgent phone call from Mr J.W. Okocha the acting Police Commissioner of the Eastern Region asking him to come over for a crucial information. He was asked to come alone and unarmed so as not to arouse suspicion and panic. Ejoor wondered what kind of information that could be. He checked on the members of his family who had been admitted to hospital for gastric malaria. He decided not to go. He did not trust anyone. But he then considered that Okocha was the head of the region’s security infrastructure and his partner in providing assurance of safety to the people of the region. So he decided to go but armed and doubling his security entourage.
It turned out that Mrs Shirley Chude-Sokei the 29-year-old Jamaican wife of Major Chude-Sokei had gone to the police concerned about the safety of her husband. Ejoor was surprised to see her crying at the residence of the police chief when he arrived there. Her husband was in faraway India attending a course. So why the worry? Also being a solider and an officer, the police was not the place to seek help; there was him, his 2ice or the battalion adjutant to approach for an assurance of her husband’s safety. What Ejoor did not know until later was that Ifeajuna and Okafor were at her house. They arrived in Enugu the previous day around 2pm to rouse the battalion to finish the job in Lagos. They were not only surprised to see that Ejoor was alive but that he had reached Enugu before them to consolidate his command of the battalion. All the while Okonweze was thwarting the plans of Ejoor over troops deployment, he was under the influence of Ifeajuna and Okafor. To eliminate Ejoor without enhancing mutiny in the barracks, they had fed false news to Mrs Chude-Sokei about the whereabouts of her husband. They asked her to go to the police commissioner whom they had already connived with. The scam was similar to the one Ifeajuna used the previous day to end Largema by asking the receptionist to rap his hotel door and call him out to pick an urgent non-existent phone call. He had planned to murder Ejoor on the way had he come alone without armed escort. Ejoor returned to the barracks with his escort and did not visit Mrs Shirley Chude-Sokei. It was the second time that weekend that Ejoor refused to die.
Frustrated, Ifeajuna fled to see Okigbo in Ibadan and then Ghana to see Brigadier Hasan Ghana’s Director of Military Intelligence and Lt Col David Zanlerigu, commander of Nkrumah’s Soviet-trained-and-equipped presidential bodyguards. (He was Ghana’s equivalent to Major Donatus Okafor, Commander of Federal Guards). Ifeajuna was intent on raising a specialised expeditionary force of 100 troops to finish the job while Okafor remained in the East until his arrest by Ojukwu two weeks later and subsequently transferred to Kirikiri. Ifeajuna’s decision to go to Ghana was grotesque and enigmatic just as his decision to come over to Enugu without informing Anuforo and Ademoyega. It must not be ruled out that Ifeajuna was already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress disorder so his sanity was no longer steady. For instance, from January 14 – 18, he did not sleep at all. Even before that, being the chief engineer of the Revolution, he worked harder than anyone plotting the moves, recruiting and mobilising resources, planning cocktail, organising brigade conference and other cover-ups, yet still fulfilling his duties as Maimalari’s chief of staff to give the appearance that nothing unusual was going on. The accumulated stress must have prevented him from being normal and ensured he continued to make relentlessly irrational decisions.
Ifeajuna could have gone to team up with Nzeogwu in Kaduna where the Revolution was fruitful; he would not only have had a battalion to himself but the whole 1st Brigade which was the most powerful in the Army. But he and Nzeogwu had diverging egoistic agendas. The master plan was:
Phase 1: kill all senior military officers, abduct the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and the regional premiers;
Phase 2: the abducted would be forced to willingly sign and transfer power to the new highest ruling body in the country, Supreme Military Revolutionary Council which would then unite all the four regions under its dictatorship. Make a national broadcast to this effect and suspend the Parliament.
Phase 3: Free Obafemi Awolowo who had been unjustly stored in jail; manufacture their long-awaited Revolutionary Prime Minister out of him. Their ally S.G. Ikoku was there to persuade him if he disagreed.
But Nzeogwu went on air with a pre-recorded broadcast announcing his takeover of the Northern government and listed the public offences punishable by death (corruption, peddling rumours, homosexuality, etc). He appointed as the new Head of Government, Sardauna’s secretary Ali Akilu who he had earlier regarded as the face of corruption and almost shot had he not fled to the residence of a British diplomat seeking asylum. Nzeogwu made all other appointments while his Southern brethren were in disarray looking for strength and direction. The unbridled clash of egos compelled Ifeajuna to disdain seeking support from Nzeogwu whom he thought was flawed and blindsided by the zeal for glory. Ifeajuna absurdly chose to go to Ghana for help. Spending a day in Dahomey, he was picked up by David Zanlerigu and SG Ikoku one of Awolowo’s henchmen after being driven there by Okigbo dressed as a young and stressed lady. He quickly sat down to write a book as a ferocious critique of Nzeogwu who had gone on air and into the limelight to claim leadership of the North and the Revolution. (Achebe ignorant of the context later described the manuscript as self-serving; he did not know it was written against the self-almightyfication of Nzeogwu who was claiming what was not his. Only an ego roar could achieve that ferocious critique). The coup plotters wanted to manage Nigeria better than the politicians; they could not even manage themselves first.
Joan Mellors, a British expatriate in Eastern Region’s Ministry of Town Planning under Chief Nwoga had been living in Nigeria for five years. She summed up the people’s reaction at the university town of Nsukka in a report to the British Deputy High Commission Enugu:
“The reaction of the people was remarkable – without exception all with whom I spoke made comments that could be summarised in ‘Let us pray that they [coup plotters] have the strength and organisation to carry through what they had begun – something like this was bound to happen for things could not go on as they have been doing.’ The [Nzeogwu’s] broadcast from Kaduna radio, giving the reasons for the “mutiny” was hailed for all fortunate to hear it, and when after the broadcast, the National Anthem was played, lecturers at the University of Nigeria [Nsukka] confessed to me that was the first time they had stood for their Anthem because that was the first time it meant anything to them. Now they began to think, it might be possible to work for ONE Nigeria free of corruption, nepotism, tribalism and bribery – now maybe qualifications for jobs would be based on ability and not one’s place of origin and relationships.”
Nigeria was a mounting mess seeking a ceiling; it was overheating and in dire need of sorting out. What the coup plotters did not foresee was that by using the agency of selective murders to actualise their lofty ambition, they polluted their own vision and inevitably set the scene for the wide scale massacres to come.
Read the full story of the coup here: