When soldiers touched the tail of the tiger
By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
THE military exercise was codenamed Exercise Damisa, a word drawn from the Hausa word for tiger, the largest animal in the cat family. The leader of the operation in the north was Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu whose middle name means crocodile, the aquatic foe of many tigers.
Remarkably, when Exercise Damisa fully unfolded into its real intentions in the wee hours of January 15, 1966, it left in its trail the flow of blood that can be imagined when a hungry crocodile grasps the tail of the tiger.
Exercise Damisa was the cover in the North for the first military coup staged in Nigeria. While the coup in the north with epicentre in Kaduna was largely successful despite the aversions of one Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Ojukwu who held sway as commanding officer of the brigade in Kano, the operation failed in the rest of the country.
The instigators were ideologically minded army officers who were fuelled by a revolutionary zeal to upturn what they saw as the social and political malaise in the land.
Foreshadowing the January 15, 1966 coup were crises in some sections of the country, particularly in the Southwest and the Middle-Belt sections of the country. Though essentially localised, the political alliances between the active players in those crisis-ridden sections of the country and the men at the federal level inevitably translated the crisis into a national crisis. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, one of the nation’s founding fathers who had seemingly lost out in the political battle with his erstwhile deputy in the Action Group, Chief Samuel Akintola was as at January 15, 1966, under incarceration in Calabar Prison serving out a sentence for alleged treasonable felony. Some of his lieutenants were either in other prisons under the same yoke or had simply relocated from the country.
Dictating the pace and pattern of political policy was Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region who held sway in Kaduna as leader of the Northern Peoples Congress, NPC, the party that with its allies formed the largest bloc in the federal parliament.
Sir Bello, was also the Sardauna of Sokoto and a great-great-grandson of the conquering Fulani warrior, Sheikh Othman Dan Fodio who founded the Fulani hegemony over most of Northern Nigeria.
Though the economy was throttling at a relatively modest pace, economic prospects at the time of the coup were already becoming clouded by the political shenanigans of the period. In the North, opposition elements were being denied economic access and licences to state-controlled economic facilities.
In the West, political disciples of Awolowo who were not in prison were forced to keep a low profile. Indeed, in the whole country, the malady of corruption was assuming what was at that time described as monstrous proportions with government business being facilitated by the ten percent factor.
It was under this cloud that the idealistic army officers that led the January 15 uprising surfaced. The officers were by several accounts influenced by the university graduates in the army who at that time were less than ten. The most idealistic of them was the fiery Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a Commonwealth Games medallist and one of the first graduates to have enrolled into the army.
By several accounts, the plan for the operation commenced sometime in 1965 with Majors Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna, Wale Ademoyega, himself a graduate of history among the ring leaders.
The operation turned bloody in Kaduna and Lagos with the heads of the regional governments in the North and Western regions, Bello and Chief SLA Akintola eliminated. Also eliminated were the prime minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa and the minister of finance, the flamboyant industrialist turned politician, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh.
That the coup was propelled by revolutionary instincts was underscored by the fact that Nzeogwu was followed by many northern soldiers in the killing of the North’s premier, Sir Bello. However, the casualties of the coup with the notable exception of one, Colonel Arthur Unegbe were all non Igbo. That was against the fact that the majority of the coup planners were also Igbo.
In days, the political permutations increasingly changed bringing sectional hues to the coup.
Fifty years on, the flacks from that coup attempt and the fractures generated from it continue to haunt the nation.