Kofoworola Ayodeji: Lessons from Nigeria’s First Coup

Fifty years ago, on January 15, 1966, things fell apart in Nigeria. The five-year old nation embarked on a journey of no return— Nigeria’s first military coup took place.

Nigeria gained independence from colonial rule in 1960, became a republic in 1963, and was dubbed “a superpower in the making”. But 55 years on, Nigeria is yet to become a superpower. Why? The events of Jan 15, 1966 could suggest some answers.

Greed, tribal sentiments and fight for supremacy among the political class of the first republic gave birth to a series of events that culminated in the violence which erupted after the controversial 1965 federal elections. Dissatisfied with the turn of events, five young Army Majors led by Kaduna Nzeogwu decided to seize power and bring sanity to Nigeria.

Majors Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna, Anuforo, Okafor, and Ademoyega therefore plotted the country’s first military coup. According to them: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places, that seek bribes and demand 10%; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs…

Many notable pre- and post-independence politicians—Ahmadu Bello (Premier of Northern region), Tafawa Balewa (Nigeria’s prime minister), Ladoke Akintola (Premier of Western Region), Festus Okotie-Eboh (federal minister of finance)—lost their lives in the coup. And that started many ugly incidents whose effects still haunt Nigeria till date.

Unfortunately, Nzeogwu’s coup was hijacked and the 42-year old General Agunyi Ironsi took over as the military Head of State. That led to a bloody counter-coup on July 29 of the same year, just a little over six months after the first and Agunyi Ironsi was then murdered in cold blood. At that point, tribal sentiments had taken the centre stage. Ironsi was killed by some northern officers because they perceived the Nzeogwu coup as an “Igbo coup”, one that was meant to ensure the dominance of the Igbo tribe.

The 31-year old Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon took over as the new head of military government amidst serious tribal tension. Not long after, the civil war broke out and over a million innocent Biafrans lost their lives, mostly children. After a failed secession bid by the Easterners, this 30-month long “no victor, no vanquished” war ended. Since then, Nigeria and Nigerians have not been the same—it’s been from one crisis to another.

But, have we learnt from past mistakes?

The main reason for which the first coup was staged— Corruption — is still the greatest problem facing the country today, fifty years after. In fact, it has become pervasive and a way of life. In 1966, corrupt politicians were accused of taking 10% bribes. In 2016, they are not only accused of taking bribes but also squandering the funds that were meant to equip the military. What offence could be more disheartening!

Knowledge of the fact that it was the events of 1966 coups that distorted Nigeria’s history should make every Nigerian more passionate and determined to ensure that the wrongs of the past are corrected, so history doesn’t repeat itself. This would mean a more active participation of Nigerians in the process of governance, increased tolerance for each other, and concerted efforts to fight corruption and other social vices.

If we do not want our children’s children to lament the damages done by corruption, tribalism, religious intolerance, terrorism in about fifty years to come, then we have to fight them now. For instance, every Nigerian should see corruption as evil and therefore treat it as such. With this, no citizen will drum support for “elder statesmen” who are caught in the act of looting our commonwealth.

Nigerians should stop having soft spot for their “kinsmen” who are engaged in nefarious and unpatriotic acts.  Nigeria is bigger than any tribe, religion or political party. As a society, we must learn to condemn what is wrong and commend what is right collectively.

We will keep talking about the numerous problems created by Nzeogwu’s coup without appreciable triumph over them, even in years to come, if we do not learn from our past so as to shape the future. Rome was not built in a day, they say. So also Nigeria cannot be built in a day, but we must begin somewhere at least. And a good place to start is by being a more responsible citizens and holding the government accountable, no matter what. God bless the Armed Forces.  God bless Nigeria!

Kofoworola Ayodeji is a Nigerian writer and transformational speaker who is passionately involved in nation-building.


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