Nigeria: The Men of Sandhurst
(January, 15 1966 as reported by Time magazine)
Friday, Jan. 28, 1966
Outside the federal parliament building in Lagos, troops with fixed bayonets warned a swarm of curious small boys to “Go ‘way, go ‘way, this is no place for children today.” In the lobby of the Ikoyi Hotel, scrubwomen used Dettol antiseptic to scour bloodstains off the marble floor. Throughout the capital city, telephones were mysteriously out of order.
Alerting Nigeria to stay tuned for an important announcement, the government radio station canceled its regular programs, filled the time with music, 15 minutes of talking drums, a taped travelogue and a well-worn recorded sermon. The needle got stuck on the words “Charity envieth not charity envieth not charity envieth not . . .”
Finally came the announcement the nation had been waiting for. An exuberant voice proclaimed: “I, J.T.U. Aguiyi Ironsi, general officer commanding the Nigerian army, have formally been invested with authority as head of the Nigerian armed forces.” So saying, Major General Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi (pronounced Agwee-yee Ironsee) abolished the constitution of Africa’s most populous nation, eliminated the offices of President and Prime Minister, fired the Premiers of Nigeria’s four semi-autonomous regions, and announced that military governors would take their places. Democracy, for the time being at least, was dead in Nigeria.
Its death was swift and violent. In a single night, a conspiracy led by five young Sandhurst-trained officers killed or neutralized their superiors and grabbed control of big units of the army. Then, in simultaneous strikes throughout the nation, they killed or kidnaped Nigeria’s most powerful feudal lord, the Sardauna of Sokoto; its two most corrupt politicians, Finance Minister Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh and Western Region Premier Chief Samuel Akintola; and its most prestigious international figure, Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.
The raids were brilliantly planned, precisely executed (murmured one resident Englishman: “Sandhurst training certainly leaves its mark”). In the dusty northern capital of Kaduna, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, 29, had been holding night maneuvers for six straight weeks, once even led his troops through a mock invasion of the sprawling white palace of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna (Emir) of Sokoto, religious leader of 12.5 million Nigerian Moslems, boss of the nation’s ruling political party, and the real power behind the Balewa government.
So accustomed had the city become to the sound of night gunfire during the maneuvers that not even the police bothered to investigate when Nzeogwu threw a hand grenade through the palace’s front door, then, with his men, shot it out with the palace guards, dragged the Sardauna outside, propped him against a wall and shot him.
Handcuffs & Dash.
A similar scene was occurring at the same time in Ibadan, capital of the Western Region, where the Sardauna’s political ally, Regional Premier Chief Samuel Akintola, was shot and his house burned down.
In the exclusive lagoon-front district of Lagos, the commander of the presidential guard led a handful of troops to the homes of Prime Minister Balewa and his Finance Minister. Sir Abubakar, summoned from prayers, told his servant that “this means there is trouble,” but submitted with dignity. He appeared fully dressed, arms above his head, wrists together, ready for handcuffs.
Not so Okotie-Eboh, known throughout Nigeria as the king of “dash”—the word used throughout West Africa for the ever-present bribery. Producing a thick wad of bills, he tried to buy off his captors, then, dressed in pajamas, ran outside, screaming “Don’t kill me!” until two soldiers knocked him down and jumped on him. His body was found three days later in a ditch 30 miles from Lagos. Not far away lay Sir Abubakar, also dead.
All in all, it was the bloodiest military coup any black African nation has yet suffered. At least 40 civilians and 24 army officers were killed, and throughout the week bullet-stitched bodies kept turning up in such unlikely places as the 13th tee of a Lagos golf course. It was all the more shocking because Nigeria in its five years of independence has been held up as a showcase of stable African democracy. Unfortunately, the showcase was badly cracked long before the coup that shattered it.
Shoes & Paychecks.
Like most African nations that inherited their boundaries from their former colonialist masters, Nigeria is not really one country at all. It has 250 tribes speaking 250 languages. Its vast Northern Region, in which live more than half its 55 million people, is predominantly Moslem; its three southern regions are Christian or pagan. Because of its size, the north has been able to dominate national politics from the start, a fact that the more advanced south actively resents.
The result in recent months has been organized anarchy. Corruption of all kinds was rampant on all levels of government. Congressmen saw their mandates as springboards to instant wealth. Ministers wheeled and dealed: Okotie Eboh almost openly accepted dash from large corporations in return for favored treatment, and used his position as Finance Minister to drive through prohibitive tariffs to protect his own private shoe factory. In the Western Region, all but one of the government party’s 54 regional assemblymen drew fat extra paychecks for doubling as Ministers or parliamentary officials—a feat that President Nnamdi Azikiwe (who sat out the revolt in England, recuperating from a recent illness) once described in disgust as “a world record.”
Sir Abubakar himself was widely respected as a man who sought to bring the feuding regions together. He was also one of the continent’s leading moderate statesmen, opposed equally to colonialism and to Kwame Nkrumah’s brash brand of African nationalism. But many of the men in his government, especially the northerners, ran roughshod. The government was widely suspected of tampering with the 1963 census figures to ensure northern control in the federal parliament. In 1962, it jailed Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the anti-north Premier of the Western Region, and installed its own man, Chief Akintola, in his place. So blatantly did it rig the 1964 national elections that the leading Western Region party boycotted them and the Eastern Region threatened to secede.
What brought things to a head were elections last October in the Western Region. Chief Akintola had labels switched on ballot boxes, prevented opposition candidates from running, even reversed local vote counts to give his party a lopsided victory despite a hostile electorate. A wave of violence immediately broke out, and the wave became a flood. Political riots and assassinations have taken more than 150 lives in the past three months. Gunmen of the opposition Action Group ranged the roads, stopping cars and trucks and demanding money for the party. Police, unable to control them, warned motorists to stay off the roads, and truck drivers demanded hazard pay.
Fortnight ago, Akintola and the Sardauna of Sokoto met secretly in Ibadan, decided to call in the army to crush the growing rebellion. As far as the junior officers were concerned, that was the last straw. They launched their long-planned coup. “Our enemies,” said Nzeogwu, “are the political profiteers, the men that seek bribes, those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so they can remain in office as Ministers, tribalists and nepotists, those that have corrupted our society and put the political calendar back.”
Coffin & Banner.
It is probable that the conspirators, who believe with Nzeogwu that “only in the army do you get true Nigerianism,” intended to follow the coup with a Nasser-style revolution based on a permanent military regime. But they quickly lost their control of the army to the remaining senior officers under Army Commander Aguiyi Ironsi. A tough and respected soldier who served as commander of the United Nations forces in the Congo, “Johnny Ironsides,” as Ironsi is known, had other ideas. He recalled Nzeogwu from the north, replaced him with a moderate northern officer, appointed other moderates as regional military governors, and announced that his military regime would step down eventually —whenever a new constitution can be drawn up and approved. “Our only purpose is to maintain law and order,” he told his countrymen.
Not surprisingly, Nigerians fell in immediately behind their new regime. Businessmen and labor unions cheered, university students paraded through the streets of Lagos bearing a coffin and a banner proclaiming “Tyranny Has Died.” All political parties—including the deposed Northern People’s Congress—swore their allegiance. Editorialized the West African Pilot: “This great country has every reason to be proud of the military, which has taken over the fumbling feudal and neocolonialist regime. Today, independence is really won.”
That still remained to be seen. For while the joy was obviously genuine in the south, it was just as obviously mixed in the north. Any new constitutional convention is almost bound to slice up the north into several regions to cut it down to size. And the assassination of the Sardauna of Sokoto raised a possibility that southerners have long feared: a Moslem holy war of reprisal. Besides, it was far from clear that the power struggle within the army itself had been fully resolved.