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November 16, 2005

Chukwuma Nzeogwu: The Saint or Devil of January 15, 1966?

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama (Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria) --- I must begin this article by stating that any attempt to discuss the place of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu in Nigeria’s politics is a difficult one. Many factors are responsible for this. First, the coup of January 15, 1966 continues to reverberate among segments of Nigeria’s ruling elite till date, and is subject to various interpretations.

Then, subsequent developments, namely the spate of successive coups and the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970 are rightly or wrongly traced to that first coup. Finally, in this era of globalized liberalism when Western-style democracy is the accepted political dogma, Nzeogwu and his co-plotters may be seen as anachronisms that set back the clock of Nigeria’s democratic development. But is this a true representation of the facts?

Many works have been written in a bid to explain the motives and nature of Nigeria’s first coup. Each account usually ends up as a ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ January 15 work. A large number of them were written by principal actors, either as active plotters or ‘opposition’ e.g. ‘Why We Struck’ by Adewale Ademoyega, ‘Nigeria’s Five Majors’ by Ben Gbulie, ‘The Nigerian Revolution’ by Alexander Madiebo and ‘Let Truth be Told’ by D.J.M Muffet. They provide an insight into why the military class ate the forbidden fruit of power for the first time in Nigeria.

But no account, no matter how accurate, can totally decipher the workings of a man’s mind. Thus it is necessary to ask, why did Nzeogwu, who for all his radicalism, was widely acclaimed as an epitome of soldiering (this was an era when Nigerian army officers were trained in the best British military traditions at Sandhurst), spearhead a bloody coup? The political and military situation in Nigeria between 1960 and 1966 need not detain us here, but it was not Nzeogwu and company’s brief to set things right. But anyone who has read ‘Nzeogwu’, the slim biography of the coup leader by his bosom friend and fellow soldier, Olusegun Obasanjo, and the story of his life as penned by Peter Nzeogwu, his younger brother, would agree that the coup leader saw himself as a Nigerian Kemal Attaturk. Sadly, revolutions, despite their initial diet of idealism, thrive on hardheaded pragmatism and an understanding of reality. Perhaps Nzeogwu did not know this.

Till date Nzeogwu remains a demon to some Nigerians: an unrepentant Igbo apologist who sought to foist his tribe’s domination of national politics. To this group he remains a leading light of the secession of Eastern Nigeria in 1967, and his death on the battlefield on the Biafran side seems to justify this stance. Yet, ambivalence towards the man remains even in the hearts of his most ardent haters because historical facts stare them in the face.

Let the tapes play: it is true that many of Nzeogwu’s co-plotters were Igbo. But what of key insiders from other tribes? Major Adewale Ademoyega is Yoruba. Many other tribes contributed men and material to the coup, and Nigerians know them. Secondly, the coup’s sole overwhelming success was in Kaduna, capital of the North where Nzeogwu personally held sway. By all accounts he had enormous support. But it was by no means total: the overthrown ruling elite would not take things lying low. The British neocolonialists would not stand by and watch power snatched from their protégés. Then, Igbo officers, more than any other ethnic group, played an active role in dismantling the half-baked ‘revolution.’ Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, then a lieutenant colonel and commander of the Fifth Battalion, Kano and General Aguiyi-Ironsi, were the linchpins of the anti-Nzeogwu plot. While one may regard the pattern of the coup’s casualties as one-sided, it should be noted that particular ethnic units dominated the national hierarchy at that time, and no coup plotter is going to be too scrupulous in neutralizing his targets if they hinder his objective. It would be ahistorical to call Nzeogwu an Igbo jingoist. Perhaps if Ironsi had detained him outside the East, he would not have been in Biafra when she seceded. One only has to read the books mentioned in this article and consult website articles about the putschist to realize that Nzeogwu was greatly appreciated both within and outside the East; that Ojukwu unwillingly released him; that the Nigerian government was reluctant to accept him back despite his professions of faith in a national army, and that he openly opposed secession. Ojukwu refused to give him a command in the Biafran army and only bowed to pressure to bring Nzeogwu into the Nsukka sector. The coup leader’s burial by his ‘enemies’ in Kaduna spoke volumes about his stance on Nigeria.

These facts will not end the controversy about Nzeogwu. Indeed, more controversies continue to dog his heels. One is the possibility that he was a mere ‘leader’ of the coup but co-conspirator Emmanuel Ifeajuna actually engineered the plot. Another is the circumstance of his death.

But Nzeogwu and his colleagues, while resorting to force to unseat a civilian but increasingly unpopular government with doubtful legitimacy (remember the General Election of 1964 and the Western Region election of 1965), are not in the same boat as the rapacious juntas that have violated Nigeria since the civil war. Admitted, the coupists of January 15, even if unintentionally, gave them the impetus to see that power was accessible via a gun barrel. But one only has to compare their visionlessness, their greed, their bloodcurdling intrigue and ethnicity with the idealism, though misguided, of the original plotters. Nigerians can always argue that their democracy might have matured if Nzeogwu had not seen himself as a messiah, but then that development should be a sober lesson for the guardians of the country’s democracy, which was wrested from the military in 1999. They should not create an enabling environment for the breeding of radicals. I hope the president still takes out time to read his friend’s biography.

Henry Chukwuemeka Onyeama’s address:
Awka, Anambra State, Nigeria.

Posted by Administrator at November 16, 2005 11:30 AM


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