The revenge coup: What led to Nigeria’s civil war (2)
This series, we discuss events following the January 1966 coup which saw the army take power six years into independence. Following the coup’s failure in Lagos, Nigeria’s then-capital, power landed in the hands of Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi as the country’s highest-ranking military officer. In his first months as Head of State, Ironsi couldn’t seem to decide what to do with Major Kaduna Nzeogwu and the other coup leaders. They were under detention but continued receiving army salaries. This fuelled rumours Ironsi wouldn’t touch them because they were (mostly) Igbos.
Inexperienced at governance, Ironsi came to rely on a small group of senior bureaucrats for guidance. These confidantes were Igbo. Grumblings started about an “Igbo clique” around the new Head of State. In April 1966, Ironsi promoted 21 majors to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel – 18 of who were Igbos. Rumours intensified he and his advisers wanted Igbos dominating the army. On May 24, Ironsi announced the abolition of federalism in Nigeria, meaning a switch to centralised government.
The response came five days later. It started as a protest by university students in Zaria. Under a regional system, these students were virtually guaranteed jobs on graduation. Fearing de-regionalisation would diminish their employment prospects by opening the north’s job market to southerners, they took to the streets, not against Igbos per se, but against Ironsi’s unification policy.
However, their protest provided an opportunity for others to lash out against a hated group. Many northerners considered Igbos economic exploiters of their region. “The Igbos desire to dominate everybody and monopolise everything wherever they go,” Ahmadu Bello once stated. With Ironsi now in power, northerners now perceived them as dominating the federal government as well. Finally, some northerners craved revenge for the killings of Bello and Balewa in the January “Igbo coup.” The student protest soon degenerated into an ethnic massacre in which hundreds of Igbos were killed.
The killings exposed Ironsi’s unpopularity in the north, emboldening northern officers opposed to his regime. They struck in July 1966. The “revenge coup” was not a classic coup in the sense of an organised plan to take control and install a specific individual as Head of State. Perhaps originally intended that way, in practise, it turned out to be more of a mutiny by rank-and-file northern soldiers supported by some northern officers.
On July 28, northern soldiers started killing Igbo officers in their garrisons. By the next day, Igbo soldiers were being massacred across Nigeria. Ironsi was arrested and killed. Following his death, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, Nigeria’s next highest-ranking officer, tried to take control of the situation. But northern soldiers refused to take orders from him. Major Murtala Muhammed eventually emerged as the spokesperson of the northern soldiers who were reportedly prepared to withdraw “back home” and secede from Nigeria. They were eventually persuaded otherwise by some key government officials as well as Britain and America’s ambassadors to Nigeria.
The killings exposed Ironsi’s unpopularity in the north, emboldening northern officers opposed to his regime. They struck in July 1966. The revenge coup was not a classic coup in the sense of an organised plan to take control and install a specific individual as Head of State
Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon was appointed head of state. Neither Hausa-Fulani nor Muslim, Gowon was presented as a unifier in a period of massive ethnic tension. He immediately repealed Decree 34, reverting Nigeria back to federalism. He also released Obafemi Awolowo from prison in a goodwill gesture to the Yorubas, appointing him Federal Commissioner for Finance.
However, Emeka Ojukwu, the military governor of the eastern region since the January coup, never accepted Gowon’s leadership. Meanwhile, between May 1966 when Ironsi abolished federalism and September 1966, tens of thousands of Igbos were killed in the north. In revenge, northerners were killed in the east. The safety of Igbos outside eastern Nigeria became a key issue with Ojukwu questioning the ability and willingness of Gowon’s government to protect them.
The atmosphere was perhaps best summed up in a candid memorandum submitted by the northern delegation to the Ad Hoc Constitutional Conference which met in Lagos in September 1966 in an effort to resolve the crisis:
“We have pretended for too long that there are no differences between the peoples of Nigeria. The hard fact which we must honestly accept as of paramount importance is that we are different peoples brought together by recent accidents of history. To pretend otherwise will be folly. We all have our fears of one another. Some fear that opportunities in their own areas are limited and they would therefore wish to expand, and venture unhampered in other parts. Some fear the sheer weight of numbers of other parts which they feel could be used to the detriment of their own interest. Some fear the sheer weight of skills and the aggressive drive of other groups which they feel has to be regulated if they are not to be left as the economic, social and possibly political underdogs in their own areas of origin. These fears may be real or imagined; they may be reasonable or petty. Whether they are genuine or not, they have to be taken account of because they influence to a considerable degree the actions of the groups towards one another, and more important perhaps, the daily actions of the individual in each group towards individuals from other groups.”
The key takeaway from this memorandum is fear and mistrust of the other. The Igbos feared not being able to live safely outside the east. The Yorubas feared domination by the numerically-superior northerners while the latter feared being left behind in an open-competition scenario.
Gowon’s decision in May 1967 to divide Nigeria into 12 states was another crucial moment in the lead-up to the war. It was interpreted by Ojukwu and the people around him as a move intended to divide and weaken the east. After last-ditch negotiations between him and Gowon failed, Ojukwu declared the secession of Biafra, thus triggering the Nigerian civil war.
Aside the obviously crucial issue of ethnically-targeted massacres, one cannot credibly point to any single isolated event that caused the war. Rather, it was the accumulated effect of political decisions, tragic events and psychological anxieties dating back to the colonial era. In practise, Nigeria’s regional form of federalism never led to the key objective of a federal system: that the whole be as strong as the sum of its parts. Instead, the whole was as weak as the strength of its regional parts could ensure.
In many ways, this resulted from the political logic of the system. To matter at the centre, you needed to be dominant in your region. Hence, leaders like Awo, Zik and Bello were more or less compelled to focus their energies on securing their regional power bases rather than on thinking in national terms.
However, political realism aside, another factor played a major role in Nigeria’s descent into civil war: identity. Perceptions of who constituted a genuine “we.” Throughout the 1950s, the country’s political class had debated over what Nigeria was and who Nigerians were. They reached no conclusive consensus on this before independence. Nor has such a consensus been reached today. It is high time this happens, for the answer to whether Nigeria is a multi-ethnic nation or a multinational state is necessary foundational information for its effective organisation. Next series, we shall discuss the answer to this question and its implications.