African nations continue to experience a resurgence of coups and the kind of political instability that characterized the 1960s-80s, it is important to draw lessons from the past. For the part he played in instigating one of Nigeria’s bloodiest coups, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu is mostly remembered in infamy. But was he a misunderstood revolutionary or a bloodthirsty opportunist?
In the early hours of January 15 1966, under the starless sky and biting cold of the harmattan morning, Major Chukwuma ‘Kaduna’ Nzeogwu addressed his troops. For weeks, they had been involved in what they were told was a training exercise around the perimeter of the fence of a senior government official. That day, they were made to understand that ‘Exercise Damissa’ was actually a drill for a coup d’état. The coup was intended to topple the leadership of the Nigerian government, beginning with the premier of the Northern Region, Sir Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, outside whose Kaduna residence they were presently stationed.
As Sardauna of Sokoto, Bello was not only the political leader of the Northern region but was also an important spiritual figurehead as leader of the Muslim community in Nigeria. Nzeogwu, surrounded by armed troops, many of whom were Northerners and could have resisted if they disagreed with his message, informed the troops of the true nature of their mission. He described the ineptitude, incompetence and corruption of Nigeria’s political leadership over the past few years, and impressed on the soldiers the duty they had to set Nigeria back on a course towards progress and prosperity.
Buoyed by their commanding officers’ charisma, conviction and courage, the troops steeled themselves for the task ahead. First, they shelled the Premier’s lodge, blowing off the roof and setting the entire compound ablaze. Then, they infiltrated the residence and searched room by room, until the Sardauna was found. He was shot by Nzeogwu himself, in the presence of his wives and children.
Nzeogwu’s attempted revolution of January 15, 1966, precipitated a countercoup six months later in July 1966, in which hundreds of Igbo soldiers and thousands of civilians were killed. By 1967 Nigeria was plunged into a civil war and subsequent military rule that would decimate democratic institutions and irrevocably alter Nigeria’s socio-political trajectory for decades to come.
Nigeria was not alone in this, several other African nations grappled with coups and political unrest in the first couple of decades after gaining independence, as they struggled to establish their postcolonial national identities. Africa accounts for 214 of the 486 attempted or successful military coups carried globally since 1950.Though the tide appeared to have turned in favour of uninterrupted democracy in the 2000s, history now appears to be repeating itself. Since 2020, there have been seven successful coups in countries belonging to the Western and Sahel regions of Africa (Gabon, Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Chad, Mali, Sudan) known in modern geopolitical neologism as Africa’s ‘Coup Belt’. Though the coups have been condemned by international and regional organizations, they have received a groundswell of support from the local populace within these nations, signalling a disenchantment between the people and their ‘elected’ leadership. In Gabon, for instance, hundreds took to the streets in the capital, Libreville, to celebrate news of the deposition and arrest of President Ali Bongo. As African nations appear to be regressing into the same ‘militocracy’ that characterized much of the 1960s-1980s, it is important to revisit the story of Nzeogwu, one of Africa’s first coup plotters, and to examine how the path he took towards addressing Nigeria’s political problems plunged not just Nigeria but the wider intercontinental and international community into deeper political quagmires.
AN ORIGIN STORY
In many ways, Nzeogwu embodied what it meant to be Nigerian during the independence era. He was born and raised in Northern Nigeria to parents of Eastern origin. He was so completely culturally assimilated to the North that his friends and colleagues called him ‘Kaduna’—after the city of his birth. He was considered Igbo in name alone. At that time, to be Nigerian meant the freedom to travel, live and work freely in any part of the country regardless of ethnicity.
Nzeogwu joined the Nigerian Army in March 1957. He attended his preliminary officer training course at Teshie, Ghana and then the elite Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in the United Kingdom, before being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1959. In 1962, he was posted to the Nigerian Army’s Field Security Section, becoming Nigeria’s first military intelligence officer. Within his first few years as a junior officer, some senior officers already noticed in him a streak of rebellion. It was for this reason that despite holding a lot of promise for his accomplishments in the field, he was made Chief Instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna—a posting where he would not have direct operational command of fighting troops.
THE ‘JANUARY 15’ BOYS
Early in January 1966, Majors Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna and Ademoyega set in motion their plans to incapacitate the federal government and seize power. During the initial stages of the January 1966 coup, Nzeogwu and his collaborators were hailed as national heroes. The Nigerian people had become disillusioned with the flamboyant, corrupt and selfish political class and welcomed the new social order the soldiers promised, which in Nzeogwu’s words, sought to ‘establish a strong united and prosperous nation, free from corruption and internal strife.’ However, it soon became clear that only Nzeogwu had been successful in his assignment. Major Ifeajuna, who was charged with capturing and securing the Western Region (the seat of Nigeria’s then capital, Lagos) faced stiff resistance from the leader of the army, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi, and eventually had to flee the country altogether.
Major Ademoyega also failed to secure the Eastern Region and was foiled by Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu. In any case, the initial ‘excitement’ the coup generated gave way to dismay as the scale of the casualties of the coup attempt was revealed days later. The pattern of the killings gave the appearance of being unfair, lopsided and ethnically motivated. Of the twelve senior government officials and army officers killed, two were Igbo. The rest were of northern or western origin. Notably, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s President, was suspiciously away from the country as the coup was being executed, and though Aguiyi-Ironsi escaped death through a stroke of luck (he was attending a party when the mutineers converged on his residence and was later tipped off about the plot), his survival only fuelled the rumours. Many northerners feared the coup was part of an Igbo conspiracy for ethnic domination. This fear continued even though, ironically, two Igbo officers, Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt. Colonel Ojukwu, were instrumental in resisting the putsch.
When it became clear that the coup was only successful in the North, Nzeogwu turned himself in after assurances of his personal safety and amnesty for his troops. He was flown to Lagos on 18 January 1966 where he was promptly arrested and imprisoned. In response to accusations that the coup was tribally motivated, Nzeogwu explained in a 1967 interview while still in detention:
We had a short list of people who were either undesirable for the future progress of the country or who by their positions at the time had to be sacrificed for peace and stability. Tribal considerations were completely out of our minds at this stage.
Nzeogwu was later transferred to Aba Prison in the Eastern Region where he remained until he was released in March 1967 by the governor of the Eastern Region and future president of Biafra, Lt. Colonel Ojukwu. Nzeogwu was then drafted to fight in the civil war which had broken out between the Republic of Biafra (formerly the Eastern Region) and the rest of Nigeria.
A RELUCTANT BIAFRAN
Much happened while Major Nzeogwu was in prison. The events he and his co-conspirators had set in motion could no longer be stymied. They had shown that power could be won by force of arms, and Nigeria would suffer the effects for the next three decades. Within six months of the first coup, there was a countercoup in which northern soldiers took ‘revenge’ for the murder of their leaders. This ‘revenge’ was unfortunately meted out not only on soldiers who had no hand in the original coup but also on civilians who were altogether removed from internal military strife. The head of state, General Ironsi was ‘arrested’ by Lt. Colonel TY Danjuma for refusing to ‘deal decisively’ with the ‘January 15 boys’. He was later murdered by the coup plotters and Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon was installed in his stead. The grudge between the Eastern Region (which suffered thousands of casualties in the countercoup) and the North (whose entire political and military elite was eliminated in the original coup) led to mutual distrust and animosity. In addition to this, there was personal tension between the recently installed Head of State, Lt. Colonel Gowon and the governor of the Eastern region, Lt. Colonel Ojukwu. All these factors resulted in the secession of the Eastern Region, and eventually a full-blown civil war.
The reality of military coups, no matter how well-intentioned, is that they set a dangerous precedent for assuming leadership. The illegitimacy of the process of seizing power by force of arms leads to internal strife, hinders state-building and creates a perpetually unstable polity. In addition, by centralizing power within a person/position instead of in institutions, military leadership insulates itself from public accountability and can do as it sees fit, regardless of the public will. This is why Ayo Sogunro, human rights advocate and legal consultant says that ‘…regardless of how dysfunctional a civilian regime may be, it is intrinsically better than military rule because, at least, it diffuses power.’
As a true believer in the unity of Nigeria, a country he loved and fought for, Nzeogwu was neither in favour of secession nor a civil war, but unfortunately, he was in no position to dictate the effects his coup would have on the nation. He insisted that the purpose of the revolution was ‘to change our country and make it a place we could be proud to call our home, not to wage war’. He also went on the record in 1967 to say ‘Personally, I don’t like secession and if this country disintegrates, I shall pack up my things and go.’
Naturally, when secession and war became a reality, his previously stated views created tension between him and Ojukwu, who, as Biafran head of state, was suspicious of his loyalty. His charisma and cult of personality was a source of great concern to Ojukwu, who found himself neither willing to trust Nzeogwu with troops nor to put Nzeogwu in prison again for fear of how troops loyal to him would react.
OPPORTUNISTS OR REVOLUTIONARIES?
Selfless though his intentions might have been, Nzeogwu and his co-conspirators set the unfortunate precedent of seizing political power by force of arms in Nigeria. A trend that would continue intermittently until 1999, when the military handed over power to a democratically elected government, ushering in the longest period of uninterrupted democracy in Nigeria. Since 1966, Nigeria has suffered eight coups. Yet, the first—Nzeogwu’s coup—remains one of the bloodiest in history. The question remains; was it truly necessary to the aims of the coup to murder so many people? Nzeogwu answers:
We wanted to get rid of rotten and corrupt ministers, political parties, trade unions and the whole clumsy apparatus of the federal system. We wanted to gun down all the bigwigs on our way. This was the only way. We could not afford to let them live if this was to work. We got some but not all… we were not ruthless enough.
At the same time, one is forced to wonder how differently Nigerian history might have remembered him if the coup was successful. Perhaps Nzeogwu and his counterparts would have been hailed as consummate revolutionaries after the order of Fidel Castro, or Ernesto Che Guevarra of the Cuban Revolution, who are loved by their people despite being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people considered antagonistic to their goals.
The coup Nzeogwu executed was supposed to rid Nigeria of tribalism and corruption. Unfortunately, his actions and those of his co-conspirators only exacerbated existing tribal and ethnic tensions. He was committed to his personal ideals, and yet, ironically for a coup plotter, lacked the personal ambition and desire for self-aggrandizement that is often needed to rise to political or military leadership. After all, having captured the North in 1966, Nzeogwu could quite simply have continued his resistance against federal troops and made a push for the capital city of Lagos. Instead, he gave himself up, proving that he was not interested in rebellion or leadership for its own sake but as a means to an end.
Nzeogwu was killed in action in July 1967 in the early stages of the civil war while carrying out reconnaissance operations in Nsukka. Even though his actions catalyzed the civil war and though he fought the Biafran side (albeit reluctantly), he was so admired even by his opponents that he was buried with full Nigerian military honours at the Kaduna military cemetery, on the orders of then Nigerian Head of State, General Gowon.
Presently in 2023, as a domino of coups continues to ravage African governments, we are forced to reckon with the reality of the trust deficit between African people and democratic institutions. Edward Israel-Ayinde, an International relations expert and PR Consultant based in Lagos, considers the resurgence of coups a direct reaction to broken promises of democracy in Africa. According to Israel-Ayinde ‘There is no incentive for African people to trust politicians of the old order anymore… Military takeovers have been welcomed because many Africans no longer believe in the power of the ballot to remove underperforming governments’.
Iniye Spiff, a risk and strategy advisory consultant, highlights stark elements of opportunism in the recent coup trends. In reference to the 26 July 2023 Coup in Mali, she writes ‘General Abdourahmane Tchiani, head of the Presidential Guard, led the rebellion, seizing control of the presidential palace, reportedly fearing that he would be dismissed by (President) Mohammed Bazoum. While coup plotters publicly claimed their actions were designed to address the deteriorating security situation and bad governance, they clearly acted to protect General Tchiani’s interests.’ Spiff told me that the coups have been a long time coming, and African leaders have simply failed to read the handwriting on the wall. According to her, ‘The coups have been triggered by a combination of socioeconomic decline, weak democratic institutions and awful foreign policy from former colonizer-nations (especially France). These conditions have created the perfect alibi for military takeovers.’
THE CONTRADICTIONS OF ‘KADUNA’ AND THE IRONY OF ALL COUPS
The contradictions of Nzeogwu’s life mirror the paradoxes of many coups in Africa. Though coups are often a reaction to socio-political and economic decay brought about by impunity and endemic corruption in government, the decimation of social accountability and democratic institutions that often follows coups only worsens the situation. Having had a taste of absolute power, most military leaders succumb to the temptation to arrogate to themselves exclusive knowledge of the problems and solutions to the issues besetting their nations. This is why in the scale of corruption and suppression of public will, many of these military leaders (including those who succeed themselves by exchanging military fatigues for civilian dress) become far worse than the governments they sacked. Worse of all, they make it clear that the power is most effectively won through force of arms, instead of through the will of the critical mass. It remains to be seen what lasting effects the coups will have on the individual nations involved as well as the continent as a whole. African leaders will do well to learn lessons from Nzeogwu’s coup, which set Nigeria’s development back by decades.
Even in death, Nzeogwu continues to divide opinion. Many see him as the main instigator of the worst armed conflict ever experienced in post-colonial Nigeria. His admirers, however, laud him as a true revolutionary who was trying to restore a nation that had veered dangerously off course. Though his actions remain a cautionary tale of the dangers of seeking military solutions to political problems, what is not in doubt is his gallantry and superlative abilities as a professional soldier. Late General Domkat Bali, who, as a regimental commander during the civil war fought against Nzeogwu, described him as ‘A nice, charismatic and disciplined officer, highly admired and respected by his colleagues.’ D. J. M. Muffet, an administrative staff in the office of the Prime Minister at the time of the coup, concedes that he was ‘an incorruptible idealist without ambitions of power…in many ways a man born before his time’. Former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, also a Nigerian civil war veteran and Nzeogwu’s former roommate perhaps summarized the paradox of Nzeogwu’s life most accurately;
He was a man full of life, and he obviously wanted to live a full life; but he saw no contradiction in denying others theirs, when according to him they stood in the way of national progress. That was the irony of Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu’.
Nzeogwu perhaps serves as a representation of the best and the worst of the army officers in Africa who have designs on power; brave to the point of recklessness, idealistic to the point of being fantastical, and resolved to the point of being murderous; consuming fires who are good as servants of the people, but disastrous as their ‘masters’⎈
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