By Femi Fani-Kayode
On the night of January 15, 1966, a coup d’etat took place in Nigeria which resulted in the murder of a number of leading political figures and senior army officers in Lagos, Kaduna and Ibadan. This was the first coup in the history of our country and 98 per cent of the officers that planned and led it were Igbo. From the political class those that were killed included the following: Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, who was abducted from his home, murdered and whose body was dumped somewhere along Lagos-Abeokuta Road; Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the old Northern Region, who was killed in the sanctity of his own home together with his wife and his security assistant; Chief S.L. Akintola, the Premier of the old Western Region, who was gunned down in the presence of his family and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the Minister of Finance, who was abducted from his home, brutalised, murdered and dumped in a bush.
From the ranks of the military, those that were murdered included Brigadier Zakari Maimalari, who had held a cocktail party in his home a few hours earlier that evening which was attended by most of the young officers that participated in the coup.; said Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun, who was shot to death in his matrimonial bed along with his eight-month pregnant wife.
Also killed were Col. Ralph Shodeinde, Col. Kur Muhammed, Lt. Col. James Pam, Lt. Col. Abogi Largema, Lt. Col. Aurthur Unegbe, PC Yohanna Garkawa, PC Haga Lai, Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo, Sgt. Daramola Oyegoke, PC Akpan Anduka and Ahmed Ben Musa.
Sadly, the mutineers came to our home in Ibadan that night as well and they brutalized and abducted my father, Chief Remilekun Fani-Kayode, the Deputy Premier of the old Western Region. What I witnessed that night was traumatic and devastating for me and my family and, of course, what the nation witnessed that night was horrific. It was a night of carnage, barbarity and terror. The events of that night set in motion a series of events which changed our history. The consequences of the events of that night are still with us till this day. It was a sad and terrible night: one of blood and slaughter.
‘ Where are your thugs now? ‘
What I witnessed was as follows: In the middle of the night, my mother came into the room which I shared with my older brother, Rotimi, and my younger sister, Toyin. I was six years old at the time. The lights had been cut, so, initially, we were in darkness and all we could see were lights from three large vehicles. The official residence had a very long drive so it took the vehicles a while to reach us.
We saw three sets of headlights and heard the engines of three lorries drive up the drive-way. The occupants of the lorries, who were uniformed men and who carried torches, positioned themselves and prepared to storm our home whilst calling my father’ s name and ordering him to come out. My father went out to meet them after he had gathered us together, prayed for us and explained to us that, since it was him they wanted, he must go out there. He explained that he would rather go out to meet them than let them come into the house to shoot or harm us.
The minute he stepped out they brutalised him. I witnessed this. They tied him up and threw him into one of the the lorries. Interestingly, the first thing they said to him was,”Where are your thugs now?” My father’s response was,”I don’t have thugs, only gentlemen.” I think this made them brutalise him even more. They tied him up, threw him in the back of one of their houses and then stormed the house.
When they got into the house, they ransacked every nook and cranny, shooting into the ceiling and wardrobes. They were very brutal and frightful and we were terrified. My mother, Chief Mrs. Adia Adunni Fani-Kayode, was screaming and crying from the balcony because all she could do was focus on her husband who was downstairs.
‘ Don’t kill him’
“Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!!”, she kept screaming at them. I can still visualise this and hear her voice pleading, screaming and crying. I didn’t know where my brother or sister was at this point because the house was in total chaos. I was just six years old and I was standing there in the middle of the house, surrounded by uniformed men who were ransacking the whole place and terrorising my family.
Then out of the blue something extraordinary happened. One of the soldiers came up to me, put his hand on my head and said: “Don’t worry, we won’t kill your father, stop crying.” He said this thrice. After he said it the third time, I stopped crying. This was because he gave me hope and he spoke with compassion. With new-found confidence, I went rushing to my mother who was still screaming on the balcony and told her to stop crying because the soldier had promised that they would not kill my father and that everything would be okay.
I held on to the words of that soldier and that night, despite all that was going on around me, I never cried again. They took my father away and as the lorry drove off, my mother kept on wailing and crying and so was everyone else in the house except me.
From there, they went to the home of Chief S.L. Akintola, the Premier of the Western Region, a great statesman and nationalist and a very dear uncle of mine. My mother had phoned Akintola to inform him of what had happened in our home. She was sceaming down the phone asking where her husband had been taken and by this time she was quite hysterical. Chief Akintola tried to calm her down assuring her that all would be well.
Gun battle in Akintola’s home
When they got to Akintola’s house, he already knew that they were coming and he was well prepared for them. Instead of coming out to meet them, he had stationed some of his policemen and they started shooting. A gun battle ensued and consequently the mutineers were delayed by at least one hour. According to the Special Branch reports and the official statements of the mutineers that survived that night and that were involved in the Ibadan operation, their plan had been to pick up my father and Chief Akintola from their homes, take them to Lagos, gather them all together at Dodan Barracks with the other political leaders that had been abducted and then execute them all together.
The difficulty they had was that Akintola resisted them and he and his policemen ended up wounding two of the soldiers that came to his home. One of the soldiers, whose name was apparently James, had his fingers blown off and the other, whose name was not recorded, had his ear blown off. After some time, Chief Akintola’s ammunition ran out and the shooting stopped. His policemen stood down and they surrendered. He came out waving a white handkerchief and the minute he stepped out, they shot him to pieces and slaughtered him.
My father witnessed Akintola’s cold-blooded murder in utter shock and horror because he was tied up in the back of the lorry from where he could see everything that transpired. The soldiers were apparently enraged by the fact that two of their men had been wounded and that Akintola resisted and delayed them. After they killed him, they moved on to Lagos with my father. When they got there, they took him to the Officers Mess at Dodan Barracks. He was rescued, after a dramatic gun battle, by loyalist troops led by Capt. S.G. Tokida, who were under the command of Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon.
When the mutineers took my dad away, everyone in our home, except me, thought he had been killed. The next morning, a handful of policemen came and took us to the house of my mother’s first cousin, Justice Atanda Fatai-Williams, who was a judge of the Western Region at the time. He later became the Chief Justice of Nigeria. From there, we were taken to the home of Justice Adenekan Ademola, another High Court judge of the Western Region at the time, who was a very close friend of my father and who later became a Judge of the Court of Appeal.
At this point, the whole country had been thrown into confusion and no one knew what was going on. We heard lots of stories and did not know what to make of what anymore. There was chaos and confusion and the entire nation was gripped by fear.
Two days later, my father finally called us on the telephone and he told us that he was fine. When we heard his voice, I kept telling my mother, “I told you, I told you.” Justice Ademola and his dear wife, Auntie Frances, were weeping, my mother was weeping, my brother and sister were weeping and I was just rejoicing because I knew that he would not be killed and I had told them.
I never got to know who that soldier was (that promised me that my father would not be killed) but I believe that God spoke through him that night. I also believe that he may well have been an officer because he spoke with confidence and authority.
These individuals who carried out this coup were not alone: they had the backing from certain elements in the political class who identified with their cause. Some have said that it was an Igbo coup whilst others have said that it was an UPGA (referring to the political alliance between the Action Group and the NCNC) coup but that is a story for another day.
Whatever anyone calls it or believes, two things are clear: the consequences of the action that those young officers took that night were far-reaching and the way in which they killed their victims was deplorable and barbaric. Such savagery had never been witnessed in our shores. There has never been another night like that and the results of the events of that night were devastating and profound.
In my view not enough Nigerians appreciate this fact. Some in our country cannot forgive those who participated in the mutiny and, though I do not share that sentiment or disposition, this is understandable. Others believe that those young men (they were all in their 20’s) did the right thing and they say that those killings were necessary and heroic. This is a sentiment which I not only despise but which I also find unacceptable and appalling. There is nothing heroic about rebellion and the murder and carnage of innocent and defenseless men and women .
The Ironsi misstep
The coup affected the country in a profound manner because the events of that night led to a counter-coup six months later. This counter-coup, which is commonly reffered, to as the “revenge coup”, was a devastating and disproportionate response. Yet it did not stop there. Sadly after that came the horrendous pogroms and slaughter of no less than 30,000 Igbo civilians in the North. This led to the civil war in which millions of people died, including innocent children. This was also horrendous and deplorable.
Yet, the bitter truth is that if the new Head of State, General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, had done the right thing and actually prosecuted the ringleaders of the coup, who were Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, Major Anufuro, Major Ademoyega, Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu, Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi, Captain Okafor, Captain Ben Gbulie, and all the other young officers that planned and executed the coup of January 15, after it was crushed, there would have been no northern revenge coup six months later.
I have not added Major Emmanuel Ifejuana (who was actually the leader of the coup) to the list because he could not have been locked up or prosecuted by General Aguiyi-Ironsi simply because he ran away to Ghana immediately after the mutiny in Lagos failed and after he and his co-mutineers were routed by Lt. Col. Yakubu Jack Gowon.
For some curious reason after the coup was successfully crushed, General Aguiyi-Ironsi just locked these young mutineers up and he refused to prosecute them. This bred suspicion from the ranks of the northern officers given the fact that Aguiyi-Ironsi himself was an Igbo. The suspicion was that he had some level of sympathy for the mutineers and the fact that they did not execute him during the course of the mutiny only fueled that suspicion.
The northern officers also felt deeply aggrieved about the wholesale slaughter of their military colleagues and key political figures that night. In my view, that, together with Aguiyi-Ironsi’s insistence on promulgating the Unification Decree which abolished the federal system of government and sought to turn Nigeria into a unitary state, made the revenge coup of July 29t, 1966 inevitable.
The revenge coup was planned and led by Major Murtala Muhammed (as he then was) and it was supported and executed by other young northern officers like Major T.Y. Danjuma (as he then was), Major Martins Adamu and many others. This is the coup that was to put Lt. Col. Yakubu Jack Gowon (as he then was) in power and, when they struck, it was a very bloody and brutal affair.
The response of the northern officers to the mutiny and terrible killings that took place on the night of January 15, 1966 and to General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s apparent procrastination and reluctance to ensure that justice was served to the mutineers was not only devastating but also frightful. Hundreds of army officers of mainly Igbo extraction who were perceived to be sympathetic to the January 15 mutineers, were killed that night including the Head of State, General Aguiyi-Ironsi and the Military Governor of the old Western Region, who was hosting him, the courageous Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi. This was very sad and unfortunate.
What happened on the night of January 15, 1966 was unacceptable and uncalled for. I completely disagree with those who think that there was anything good about that coup, the counter-coup of July 29, 1966 or indeed any other coup which took place in the history of our country. This is because blood calls for blood: when you shed blood other people want to shed your blood too. The minute that the shedding of blood in the quest to get power becomes the norm we are all diminished and dehumanised: and this applies to both the perpetrators and the victims.
Cycle of events
The January 15 coup set off a cycle of events which had cataclysmic consequences for our country and which we are still feeling till today. Coups may have occured in other countries in Africa but that did not mean that any had to happen here. In any case, the amount of blood that was shed that night and the number of innocent people that were killed was unacceptable. It arrested our development as a people and our political evolution as a country. Had it not happened, our history would have been very different. May we never see such a thing again.
Yet regardless of the pain of the past, I believe that we should do all we can to put these matters behind us. We must not allow ourselves to become prisoners of history. Rather than being propelled by pain and bitterness and becoming victims of history, we must learn from it and be guided by it. We must move on. We must learn to forgive even if we do not forget and, equally importantly, we must establish and accept the truth about those ugly events and understand what actually transpired.
What happened that night traumatized the nation. None of us has been the same since. I identify with that because I was a part of it, I witnessed it and I was a victim of it. Yet, by God’s grace and divine providence, my father’s life was spared: not because he was special but simply by the grace of God. Every day I think about those that were killed that night and I remember their families. We share a common bond and we are all partakers of an ugly and frightful history. I tell myself: “Were it not for divine providence, my father would have also died and I would not have been what I am today because he was the one who educated me and did everything for me.” If nothing else, I know there was a purpose for that.
We must resolve among ourselves that never again will people be attacked in their homes, dragged out, abducted and shot like dogs in the middle of the night. Never again will women, wives and children be slaughtered and terrorised in this way. Never again shall we witness such barbarity and wickedness in our quest for power. Never again must any Nigerian suffer such indignity, brutality and callousness. May the souls of all those that were murdered on January 15, 1966 continue to rest in peace.
*Fani-Kayode was Minister of Aviation under the Obasanjo administration.