MAJOR CHUKWUMA KADUNA NZEOGWU
On this day in 1966, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, along with other majors carried out Nigeria’s first coup.
Apart from a few mistakes which was to prove very costly in the short and long run, this was the only coup that was driven by patriotic fervour (it will also turn out to be the most misunderstood).
This coup was much expected and foretold, musicians sang about it, authors (like the late Chinualumogu Achebe, of the “Things Fall Apart” fame) wrote about it, Poets composed poems about the impending danger to Nigeria’s young democracy, and even Nigeria’s only Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka staged a play ominously warning of it.
Nigeria had finally gained independence in what appeared to many, on a platter of gold seeing that many African countries had to practically snatch theirs like meat off the Rottweiler’s jaws that was their colonizers, and the condition of South African Bantus simply degenerated from bad to worse.
Soon enough, most Northern leaders who initially opposed Nigeria’s independence didn’t mind to wear the toga of “Fighters for Independence” label once they had reached an agreement as to what should accrue to them in the “New Nigeria”, with the perfidious British.
The huge scheme upon which Nigeria’s foundation was laid on faulty grounds was set in motion by the pre-independence census (Nigeria has since then never accurately numbered her people, an observation that recently cost the erstwhile Chairman of the National Population Commission, NPC his job), which was intentionally skewed to favour an arid and spatial North with scant population scattered allover, over a dense and thickly populated South with very little space.
This played an important role in ensuring that if the “North” voted en-block it could easily form a majority and head a government, while the South made up of powerful but regional parties in the West and East
would require more than all their efforts pulled together to be close to forming government at the centre (in those days, the parliamentary system of government was been practiced).
So the North won majority seats in parliament following the pre-independence election with the party they promoted, The Northern People’s Congress, NPC led by Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto (he will go on to place his right hand man, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa as Prime Minister while retaining his position as Premier of the Northern region). However, they would require a coalition to keep an absolute majority. Driven by the desire to be in power at all cost, the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC led by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe (with Eastern Nigeria as it’s stronghold) smarting from his misadventure in the South West years back (where his party after winning majority seats in the Western Region house of assembly, saw his members decamp to the opposition party led by the “Son of The Soil”, Chief Obafemi Awolowo), thought it wise to form a coalition with the majority NPC, and then go on to form a government, while Chief Obafemi Awolowos’ Action Group, AG was left out in the cold of opposition party in a more or less, “winner takes all” political environment. Chief Awolowo almost suffered the indignity of missing out on the independence celebrations at what later became the Tafawa Balewa Square, when arrangements were not made to accommodate him and his wife at the event marking the handover of power from the British to Nigerians.
How it came to pass that Azikiwe would accept the position of a largely ceremonial position of Governor-General/Head of State at independence in 1960 still baffles me, considering all the sacrifices he put into securing Nigeria’s independence!
I still feel things would’ve turned out differently if he’d formed an alliance with Awolowo’s AG and splinter groups from the North to form majority in parliament, unfortunately distrust amongst the dramatis personae made the possibility of a camel passing through the eye of a needle easier.
Nigeria will soon be rid of direct political control by the British in becoming a republic in 1963, but remain behind the scene dictating the tune. Politicians began seeing themselves as demi-gods, much like elsewhere in other parts of post-independent Africa. Their names were no longer enough. Azikiwe became for example “Zik of Africa”, others took on names like “Emancipator”, “Lion” etc. Some African leaders of the independence struggle even gave up their English names for purely local names, adding one or the other divine titles to their names.
Government under these leaders was one for which cronyism became the order of the day. Corruption was rife, and sooner had the people been freed from the shackles of their colonial masters than they were enshackled by the neocolonialists, made up of their own people.
Dissatisfaction was in the air, especially because the flame lit in the West (in the infamous “wetie” saga) couldn’t be easily doused because of the political nature of the crisis, fanned by the party at the centre to strip Chief Awolowo of his grip on the region he was Premier over using one of his own. He was soon arrested and charged for treason in a case where the presiding judge proclaimed openly that his hands were tied.
The army, the only united entity at that point in time watched as politicians sought to tear Nigeria to shreds at it’s seams. It came as no surprise to many when they eventually struck midnight of the 15th of January, 1966.