Last Sunday, July 29, 2018, was the 52nd anniversary of the "counter-coup" of 1966, and the 43rd anniversary of the coup that toppled General Yakubu Gowon - two anniversaries that went unnoticed. In our seemingly selective amnesia, our eyes are fixed on 2019, not on 1966. But the two anniversaries provide a rich banquet of food for thought, an occasion to tell a story that many Nigerians of my generation do not know. We were little children when the first two coups took place. I was just in nursery school.
On July 29, 1966, General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi, Nigeria's first military ruler - an easterner, was as assassinated alongside his friend and host, Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, first military governor of the old Western Region - a westerner. They were killed in cold blood by young mutinous military officers of northern origin in Ibadan. It is praiseworthy that the Oyo State government has made the spot on Iwo-Ibadan road where they were shot into a memorial park. Theirs was the culmination of killing of easterners living in the north, which began after the coup of January 15, 1966, and the mutiny that began at the military barracks in Abeokuta the previous night. Unconscionable killing of easterners continued long after the coup of July 1966 and into the 1967-70 war.
The January coup was one whose principal activists were army officers of eastern origin, while most of those killed were politicians and military officers of northern origin. The July coup was one whose principal activists were army officers of northern origin, while most of those killed were military officers of eastern origin. General Ironsi did not support the coup of January 15. He in fact rallied the troops to foil it, and, upon foiling it, took over the reins of power.
The July 29, 1966 coup was not just intended to topple the military government led by Ironsi. The intention of the young northern officers was to take the northern region out of Nigeria, hence the code name, "Operation Araba". It took the intervention of the American Ambassador, the British High Commissioner, and some civil servants to dissuade the northern army officers. For four days, Nigeria had no ruler until Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon, then Chief of Army Staff, was announced as new military ruler. The young northern officers had agreed to remain in Nigeria on the condition that the new Supreme Commander of the military would be an officer of northern origin. That was how Gowon became the greatest beneficiary of the so-called counter coup.
Historians seem to be unanimous in pointing out that the July 1966 coup was led by 28-year old Major Murtala Muhammed, assisted by even younger military officers like Theophilus Danjuma, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, Ibrahim Bako, to mention but these. Ibrahim Bako was killed during the coup of December 31, 1983 while trying to arrest President Shehu Shagari in Abuja.
On July 29, 1975, the 9th anniversary of the coup that saw the cold-blooded murder of Ironsi, Fajuyi and others, Yakubu Gowon was toppled in a bloodless coup while attending a summit of the Organization of African Unity, today's African Union, in Kampala, Uganda. Gowon left Kampala to live in exile in the United Kingdom. There he enrolled in Warrick University to study political science obtaining his bachelor's master's and doctorate degrees. The coup that toppled Gowon was planned and executed by Colonels Joseph Garba, Jeremiah Useni and Shehu Musa Yar'Adua. Garba, who announced the coup on radio, was commandant of the Brigade of Guards, the elite unit whose job was to protect Gowon. These three colonels, decided to give power to three brigadiers upon staging the coup. The three brigadiers were Murtala Muhammed, Olusegun Obasanjo and Theophilus Danjuma. That was how the leader of the July 29, 1966 coup became the greatest beneficiary of the third military coup in the history of Nigeria. He was killed in Colonel Dimka's abortive coup of February 13, 1976, and was succeeded by his deputy, Olusegun Obasanjo.
There are a number of observations to be made and lessons to be learnt here. First, a coup d'état is an unlawful means of taking over a government. But an unlawful act was even made awful by the selective bloodshed and ethnic cleansing that accompanied the first two coups. The killings of January 15, 1966, of the days and weeks that followed, on July 29, 1966 and in the war that followed, were completely avoidable. Nigeria would have been better off without military intervention. In Nigeria's post-independent military, officers in possession of guns but lacking in practical wisdom plunged Nigeria into a war in which innocent men, women and children were either killed, starved or maimed. Members of the two classes of coup plotters of 1966, and members of subsequent classes of coup plotters were simply too young and immature to see the more violent consequences of their violent intervention.
Secondly, it is necessary to state these facts so that we can learn to abhor and avoid all unconstitutional means of taking over government, as well as unconstitutional use of lawfully constituted organs of government. By unconstitutional means, I mean not just a coup d'état, but also rigging of elections, and the use of institutions of state to fight political opponents, and even to rig elections. To be included on the list of unconstitutional means of taking over government is a so-called "government of national unity" or a "benevolent dictatorship" that some Nigerians call for from time to time. A government without constitutional basis, such as a military government or a government of national unity would lack legitimacy, a government lacking in legitimacy will violate our hard-won civil liberties, and when liberty is taken away development is jeopardized.
Thirdly, speeches made on coup days propose a "benevolent dictatorship". I have heard many Nigerians of my generation say what we need in Nigeria is a benevolent dictatorship. But a benevolent dictatorship would be a contradiction in terms. Who is a benevolent dictator other than one who presents himself or is presented to us a dictator who imposes his good intentions? But in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Nigeria, how will such a dictator emerge? A benevolent dictator would be someone who believes whatever he wills is good, and who imposes that good will on the polity. He would justify his tyranny by referring to his presumed good will. How can a country so diverse have a dictator whose benevolence is recognized across ethnic and religious boundaries? The history of Nigeria clearly points to the grave danger that this proposition represents. Moreover, God whose will is goodness itself does not impose his will on us. He does not force us to be good.
Fourthly, the January 1966 class, the July 1966 class, and indeed successive classes of coup plotters we have had in Nigeria saw themselves as benevolent dictators and corrective regimes. In their benevolent dictatorship, they led us to war in 1967, took over our schools, universities and newspapers-institutions that are critical when it comes to shaping public opinion. Nigerian intellectuals were either coopted, intimidated, humiliated, or hounded into exile. That was the beginning of the fall of Nigerian tertiary education. The July 1966 class of benevolent dictators imposed the 1979 and 1999 constitutions on us, two constitutions that bear their fingerprint on every page. These two "federal" constitutions set Nigeria up as a country where government is more powerful than the citizen, where institutions of state like the Army or Police are not loyal to the people but to their principals, a country where the powers of local governments are weakened by state governments, a country where the government at the centre takes over functions that belong to state governments, all that in a polity that pretends to be truly federated.
Lastly, looking at the list of participants in the coup of July 29, 1966, it is instructive, indeed highly instructive, to note that, with the virtual exception of President Goodluck Jonathan, every head of state we have had in Nigeria since July 29, 1966 to date has been directly or indirectly involved in the coup of July 29, 1966. In concrete terms, the federal government controls the oil, and remnants of the class of July 29, 1966 control the federal government as kings and or as kingmakers. Does anyone still wonder why our elections are fought the way they are fought?