The fifteenth of January means to Nigerians different things. Officially, it is the Armed Forces Remembrance Day, commemorating that day in 1970 when the Nigeria/Biafra war ended with the surrender of the rebel Biafrans to the Nigerians with the declaration by the then Head Of State, General Yakubu Gowon that there were NO VICTOR, NO VANQUISHED! The commemoration involves Islamic Prayers at the mosque on the Friday, and Church service on a Sunday within the week that will culminate in the laying of wreath at the statue of the Unknown Soldier on the 15th of January.
Away from the official is the many parts and interpretations to the day, which beyond what is visible, lies at the heart of how Nigerians relate with each other. To understand the unofficial and the more important aspect of this day, you have to look away from the whitewashing done by governments at all levels in programmes directed at widows and veterans (over the years and as now), as well as the nice speeches on nation building, to focus on the soundbites by opinion leaders of the various ethnic nationalities either in a personal capacity or as keynote speakers at fora organized to review matters arising in Nigeria as related to this date of great national importance.
Without discountenancing the importance of January 15th, 1970 as the day warring factions officially sheathed their swords, and agreed to remain within the geographical contraption called Nigeria, January 15th 1966 is the day considered by many as been more ominous as that which changed the path Nigeria was headed to another forever. The day broke to the news of a coup led by a Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu with the cooperation of four other majors. It was Nigeria’s first coup d’état and it was very bloody.
So, last week just as expected, the newspapers, a few serious radio and stations devoted some of their time to the issues around January 15th, in publishing write-ups by journalists and contributors alike, as well as covering events focussing on how that auspicious date has contributed to how Nigeria has turned out today. I feel it is very important that we keep talking about that date, especially in the first instance of 1966, over and above that of 1970, which the government would rather emphasize, especially when we know, that attempts to silence the issues associated with the former had done little to assuage the fears and suspicions, even stereotypes of Nigerians of one tribe and ethnic group for others, resulting in the awkward way Nigerians relate with each other officially and unofficially.
It is true that many things went wrong immediately after Nigeria’s independence, and in fact evidence abounds that right from the onset, Nigeria was set up by the British to fail, and unfortunately the so called founding fathers played into the hands of the British overlords and colonialists, such that in the years immediately after independence Nigeria remained under the tight grip of the immediate western colonialists and thereafter only at the mercy of the rest (western powers), as well as international finance corporations, even till now evident with the recent visit of IMF’s Christine Lagarde, culminating in a near one-eighty degrees turnaround of the governments’ economic agenda hours after she left, especially in the area of monetary policy, amongst others.
That first coup on January 15, 1966 was widely accepted and applauded nationwide, until it appeared like the executors were particularly from one region, i.e. Nigeria’s east. It even got more nauseating when it appeared that politicians and military officers from that part of Nigeria weren’t targeted, at a time the Governor-General, Nnamdi Azikiwe (popularly called “Zik of Africa”) also from the east was conveniently out of the country on holiday. There were missed opportunities here, besides the fact that the coupists failed to make their purge an all inclusive one (now this does not suggest that I favour the brutal killings that took place that fateful day). Zik, even if it meant speaking from exile, didn’t do much beyond condemning the actions of the coupists. I doubt that anyone could’ve harmed him had he returned home to stare at the plotters in the eye, and demand decent and state burials for those brutally murdered in the widely welcomed putsch.
Zik missed that opportunity, Nwafor Orizu who was head of senate also missed the opportunity in hurriedly acquiescing power to the military headed again by another Easterner, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (aka Ironside), who seemed rather aloof and unsure in his first press conference, like someone who wanted something so badly, got it and didn’t know the heck to do with it afterwards. When he announced the ill-conceived Unification Decree, the North which had all along been seething with anger couldn’t stomach it anymore at this point, especially as he also dilly-dallied on the fate of the coup plotters while keeping them in prisons in the east where they could possibly come to no harm, amongst “their” people, who saw them as “heroes”. All of this, coupled with the rumour (yes, I said it) about a song purportedly done by an Igbo highlife musician (whom till now, nobody has been able to give a name and face to) allegedly taunting the late premier of Northern Nigeria, amongst northerners, which contributed like other embers thrown into the fray, in the pogrom in the north, in which easterners and those who looked like them were massacred by the mob in the north whose sentiments had been whipped up by politicians and elites there, then much later the wiping out of the Igbo (easterners) officer corps and other ranks in the army, and assassination of “Ironside”, while on a country-wide tour to drum up support for his “Unification” policy in Ibadan, alongside his host, friend and military administrator in charge of the west, Lt. Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (a Yoruba from Nigeria’s west, icon for “a friend in deed”) in Ibadan on the 29th of July, 1966 by army officers, rank and file of northern origin, in what you could say was a “revenge” coup, except that in the former the Igbo, or easterners never had a “meeting” in which it was decided that Nigeria be rid of the Hausa-Fulani and by extension northerners at the hierarchy of government in those days.
It will however interest you to know that that anger hadn’t always been there. In fact, we now know that some of the soldiers that partook in the January 15th, 1966 coup in which the Prime Minister, a northerner and the Premier of the Northern region amongst other northern and western Nigerian politicians and military officers were killed were northerners, and northerners like other Nigerians rejoiced at their elimination, because like other Nigerians, they all suffered from the corruption, nepotism, tribalism and the many iniquities of the politicians of those days. It is why when Nigerians who should know better, either in government or out of it keep talking about virtues of the so called FOUNDING FATHERS I can only watch in amusement. The point at strides they accomplished in terms of infrastructure, but forget easily that they could actually have done more. The north that praises those leaders in glowing terms, especially how they died with no building or mind numbing wealth to their names, never mention how it is that the North continued to look like Africa of centuries past with development very sparse, even after years in which their sons ran this country as military head of states.
In fact, if anyone deserves praise, it is the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo (popularly known as Awo). He alone it was that had a clear direction of what he wanted for his people, and went and got it, even though he was seen by many as a tribalist, but the more nationalistic Zik, got his people nothing! You cannot grow a country without truth, and the truth lies in understanding why those young army officers did what they did on January 15th, 1966 and why they were widely applauded. Those men weren’t saints, and are nowhere near any of the accolades been heaped upon them today, while demonizing today’s politicians. Was it not the federal government’s refusal to accommodate opposition that led to the conflagration in western nigeria, even to the jailing of opposition leader Chief Obafemi Awolowo, and the installation of an unpopular leader which resulted in open revolt in what is popularly referred to as Nigeria’s “wild, wild west” at the time?
How could we demonize today’s polticians when as government in the centre, they want to impose their party to every nook and cranny of Nigeria, like the APC tried to do in tiny Bayelsa (with consequent loss of lives) recently, and continue to do with Taraba, Rivers and so on, that are currently in the hands of the opposition PDP, who were also not better off when they held power at the centre, with President Olusegun Obasanjo’s “Do or Die” politics of the early days of the third republic?
All I am saying is, like the late Chinua Achebe aptly reminds us, that the one who doesn’t know where the rains started to beat him, will not know where it stopped, and hence we cannot build a country as diverse as Nigeria into a nation without telling one another simple truths (like how we do not operate a federation in the true sense of the word, but a unitary state even though our nomen says “federal”), one of the myriad been what happened on January the 15th. It isn’t even taught in schools, and those bold enough to write about it, or movies made about those events are censored by the same censorship board that allows nudity and explicit language in our home movies and music videos without let. There should be no sugar coating especially about the roles politicians of yore played that made a coup, howbeit bloody inevitable and almost impossible to discountenance in 1966, because almost everybody was talking about it before it happened. Poets and musicians sang about it, even writers wrote about an impending doom and the coupists had to hurry, not to be beaten to it by others who might have been thinking the same thoughts. Aaaaaaarrrrrrghhhh, I just must stop here before I say things I might regret, but here’s my January 15th thought put out there for you, make of it what you will. This Nigerian will not continue to live the lie. *sips Al-Iksir*