Reuben Abati On The Day Of January 15 In Nigerian History

Reuben Abati On The Day Of January 15 In Nigerian History

Editor's note: In a throwback contribution to, devoted to the January 15 Nigerian Armed Forces Remembrance Day, Reuben Abati, the special adviser to the former president on media and publicity and guest author, reconsiders Nigeria's past, particularly the period of time when the country's unity appeared at threat on January 15, 1966, and was later restored on January 15, 1970, the day marking the capitulation of the separatists and the end of the three-year Nigerian Civil War. Will Nigeria be able to overcome its past and move on?

Two sides of the same day

January 15 is the Nigerian Armed Forces Remembrance Day: wreaths are laid, statements are made, soldiers, government officials and the Nigerian Legion attend parades, pigeons symbolizing peace are released, dinners are organized for widows of the fallen soldiers, and there is so much talk about death and dying for one’s country, all in honour of the Nigerian soldiers who have had to die so that Nigeria may live. In terms of the context, however, what is also celebrated is the surrender of the secessionist Biafran forces to the Nigerian government on January 15, 1970, a throwback to the country’s three years of civil war.

The first putsch in Nigeria

This is being downplayed, just as the government similarly conveniently ignores the fact that January 15 is also the date of the first coup d’etat in Nigeria. It has been 50 years today since that incident, and it is most unlikely that the federal government will devote much attention to that particular aspect of our history. But even if they do not, the families of those who fell to the bullet on January 15, 1966 will certainly remember. It is the day that should be specially remembered by all Nigerians and history students because that was when things finally fell apart, and rains began to beat our roofs. On this day in 1966 four Igbo and one Yoruba majors led by 29-year-old Major Kaduna Nzeogwu struck in Kaduna, Lagos and Ibadan seeking to take over Nigeria by revolutionary means in a bloody coup d’etat.

Nzeogwu told his compatriots: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10%; those that keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers, or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society, and put the Nigerian calendar back by their words and deeds. Like good soldiers, we are not promising anything miraculous or spectacular.

“But what we do promise every law-abiding citizen is freedom from fear and all forms of oppression, freedom from general inefficiency, and freedom to live and strive in every field of human endeavor, both nationally and internationally. We promise that you will no more be ashamed to say that you are a Nigerian...”

Opinions are radically divided, North and South, as to whether the January 15 putschists were heroes or villains. What can be said is that Nzeogwu’s revolutionary statement was a pointed summary of widespread discontent with the post-independence realities in the First Republic. When Nigeria became independent on October 1, 1960, there was so much optimism about the future. On November 16, 1960, when Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe assumed office as the governor general of the federation, he proclaimed: “The past is gone, with all its bitterness and rancor and recriminations.” But the past did not go anywhere. Instead, it caught up with the present and ruined the future, with all “its bitterness and rancor and recriminations”.

Has unity ever been not a mere word in Nigeria?

 At no time did the British colonialists make any effort to run Nigeria as a single nation, if anything, they sowed the seeds of discord as had been admitted by a colonial officer Harold Smith, who confessed that Nigeria was deliberately rigged to fail as an independent country. This had been evident during the years and events leading up to independence, particularly the constitutional conferences between 1950 and 1958, and the elections between 1951 and 1959. The political parties of the time – the AG, the NPC, the NCNC, the NNDP, the NEPU, the UMBC and even the smaller parties were all ethnic-based, promoting either sectarian or sectional interests.

The political elite were all ethnic gladiators motivated by prejudices. They fought not for Nigeria, but for power and their kinsmen’s interests. In effect, the people of the South did not feel comfortable with the people of the North, whom they considered feudalistic and backward. The northerners in return did not trust anybody from the South. They resented the growing presence of the easterners in their region and the attempt by the southerners to dominate the Northern Public Service. The regional competition was fierce, and when any region felt uncomfortable, there were threats of secession. In 1953, in fact, the West threatened to secede from Nigeria. The same year a clash between the Igbo and the Hausa/Fulani in the North left over 30 people dead. Sir Ahmadu Bello boasted that by 1958 the North would have dominated the entire Nigeria. The minorities also began to express their concerns about being suppressed by the majorities, and they actively set up platforms to give themselves a voice in the Nigerian federation.

When things went wrong

This was the setting at independence in 1960. The country’s leaders posed for photographs, but the recent past was fully embedded in their consciousness. It did not take long before the past caught up with the present. The British who used to mediate and act as a stabilizing lever began to disengage. The field was left open for all the recriminations of the past to take the centre stage, and they did. Everything in the First Republic became a problem. The new leaders could not organize themselves politically without rancor and violence, or the resort to ethnic prejudices. They fought over derivation formula, census, elections, positions in the government at the federal and regional levels. In 1962 the western region practically slipped into crisis resulting in the declaration of a state of emergency by the Balewa government.

The victims were the Nigerian people. They watched how the new political elite were becoming richer, how they gave positions to their kith and kin, how the government became a centre of corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and mediocrity. Whatever traces of integration and trust that may have existed began to disappear. This was the Nigeria of Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease and A Man of the People. The people expected independence to bring the quality change, but it left them worse off than they had been under the British.


Arising resistance

This, of course, inspired youth radicalism with the groups like the Dynamic Party led by Dr Chike Obi, the NCNC Youth Association led by Mokwugo Okoye, the Nigerian Youth Congress led by Dr Tunji Otegbeye, and the National Union of Nigerian Students beginning to query the country’s democratic prospects. Concerns were expressed about the usefulness of the Westminster parliamentary democracy, and whether it would have been better for the country to adopt socialism, a masses-oriented system. It was the age of Pan-Africanism. It was also around this period that African intellectuals began to ponder the possibility of having benevolent dictatorship to give a post-colonial Africa the stability it needed.     


But the idea of dictatorship did not quite gain grounds in Nigeria. When there were coups in Sudan in 1958 and in Togo in 1963, the reaction in Nigeria on both occasions was that it would never happen here. But it did happen, 50 years ago. By the time the coup had failed and ended, what was left, fairly or unfairly, was its ethnic colouration and bias. The key plotters except one were all Igbos. The people who were targeted in the main theatres of operation - Kaduna, Lagos and Ibadan - were all non-Igbos. Only one Igbo life was reportedly lost: Col Arthur Unegbe, and that was because he could not be trusted. The received impression is that the coup failed on the platforms of irredentism, its selectiveness and one-sidedness, even if some other ranks under Nzeogwu’s command in Kaduna were actually northerners and other Nigerians.  

Senior officers like Brigadier Zakari Maimalari and Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun were killed by younger officers, who were well-known to them. Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa’s body was dumped somewhere along the Lagos-Abeokuta road. The premier of the northern region, Sir Ahmadu Bello, was killed along with his wife, driver, and security assistant. Chief SLA Akintola, the premier of the western region, was gunned down in his bedroom. The minister of finance, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, also lost his life.

Others included Col Ralph Shodeinde, Col Kur Mohammed, Lt Col Abogo Lagerma, Lt Col James Pam, PC Yohanna Garkawa, PC Haga Lai, Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo, Sgt Daramola Oyegoke, PC Akpan Anduka and Ahmed Ben Musa. When it was all over, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was conveniently, and most suspiciously, away on a cruise in the Caribbean. An Igbo man, Nwafor Orizu, the then acting president, handed the power over to another Igbo man, General Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi.

Although a highly qualified officer, Ironsi did not stand a chance. He was instrumental of making the coup to fail, and tried to promote the Northern officers after the January coup, but he was, all the same, accused of treating the coup plotters with kid gloves, and of trying to impose the Igbo hegemony on Nigeria. The January 15 coup brought all extant suspicions to the fore; by May there had been reports of Igbos being killed by the northerners and cries of the likely secession of the North.  

A counter-coup

On July 29, 1966 the young Northern military officers staged a counter-coup in response to the widespread anti-Igbo sentiments in their region over the January coup and objections to Ironsi’s Unification Decree. Led by Lt Col Murtala Muhammad, they had a few south-westerners and minorities among them. They removed the Ironsi government from office, killed him and Brigadier Adekunle Fajuyi, his host, and thereafter took over the power. This rise of the North will last for decades in one form or the other as many of those young officers have remained at the centre of the Nigerian politics ever since.

But the significant point is that the inherited “bitterness and rancor and recriminations” have not gone away. They caused the civil war between 1967 and 1970. They are also the reason why 50 years later Igbos still feel alienated, and the minorities claim they are assaulted by the majority. All the cleavages of old have remained active, made worse by religious conflict, greed and heightened elite incompetence.

“There was once a country,” Achebe said. But unfortunately, there is still no nation, no freedom from fear, oppression, erosion of democratic norms of fair play, distrust of the political elite, rising expectations, corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, vengeance and blood-letting. Maybe economic prosperity and justice for all are the answer. But when will that happen? Nigeria’s story is a story of ifs and wherefores: after more than 10 coups since January 15, 1966 and so many endless recriminations, we can only hope that the sustained democratic rule will in the long run provide us with the necessary opportunities to make amends.

This article expresses the author’s opinion only. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent those of or its editors.

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