Olusegun Adeniyi: Nigeria and the ghosts of 1966

Olusegun Adeniyi YNaija

by Olusegun Adeniyi

For a long time, I had held the notion that principal actors in the events that led to the collapse of the First Republic and its aftermath should document their accounts so that our generation and those after us can learn useful lessons. After reading “The First Regular Combatant: Brigadier General Zakariya Maimalari”, I am not so sure anymore. I am now inclined to believe that the scars may be too deep to engender dispassionate introspections and that Nigeria may be better off if the poison of that era is not passed to future generations by yesterday’s men of power.

However, the biggest lesson from the book, as far as I am concerned, is that whatever may be our challenges as a nation, and regardless of the upheavals we may currently experience, the military offers no solution. In fact, Nigeria is where we are today, essentially because we allowed the military to dabble into political affairs with disastrous consequences. Incidentally, both Generals Yakubu Gowon and Olusegun Obasanjo admitted as much on Tuesday. But many of the contributions and interpretations of the unfortunate events of January 1966, as contained in the book on Maimalari, also reveal that mutual ethnic suspicions still pervade the country.

For instance, former Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Salihu Ibrahim, who said the killing of Maimalari almost broke up the country, is still pointing fingers. “There are remnants still of the crisis we had in the beginning. If you observe, we still have some funny movements in the South-east. At the recently concluded national conference, they expressed demands that they should be paid several trillions of naira! It may sound funny, but actually they believe that they are expressing their genuine feelings. One side was responsible for that war, and of course, as with any war, consequences and repercussions must follow” said Ibrahim, easily regarded as one of the finest officers of his generation.

That military mind-set of “consequences and repercussions” carried to the political arena by politicians with garrison mentality is perhaps the reason for the current convulsion in our country today. But even that can be traced to the past. And that is where the book on Maimalari is very revealing in that it opened a new vista into the crisis of the First Republic and the role of the military in it. In fact, there is a way in which the coup of January 1966 and the counter-coup of July of the same year can be located in the appointment of the first Nigerian General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Army to succeed the last British man, Major General Christopher Welby-Everard.

According to Obasanjo, either Maimalari or Aguiyi Ironsi could have been picked as GOC of the Army by the Tafawa Balewa government but “the political leaders of the era did the wise thing by not rocking the boat of the subsisting Army seniority structure”. Yet, Obasanjo also added: “If those of us who were junior officers at the time Aguiyi Ironsi became the first Nigerian GOC of the Army were asked our opinion on the issue, I think our points of view might have differed. I have come to believe that junior officers are always better placed to assess their superiors”.

Another former Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Alani Akinrinade did not dissemble on an issue in which most of the retired Generals seem to have agreed: “If the selection was based on voting, Zakariya Maimalari would have been the first Nigerian to head the Army after Welby-Everard. His popularity was not in doubt. He related well with the officers and men and was well liked throughout the Army.” To Akinrinade, the coup of January 1966 killed spirit de corps in the Army. “I am sure till today, the scars of January 1966 is still in the Army. The officers of today were not participants in that event, but they are inheritors of that marred spirit of 15th January, 1966” he said.

Reading between the lines, it is evident in the book that there was rivalry between Aguiyi Ironsi and Maimalari. What is also not in doubt is that most of the officers at the time preferred Maimalari. According to the late Brigadier Sam Ogbemudia, “all the British officers who worked with Maimalari believed that he was the best and right person to command the Army. Unfortunately, the politicians of the day thought otherwise.”

In providing insights into how the first Nigerian GOC for the Army emerged, Alhaji Maitama Yusuf Sule who died on Monday, and was a member of the Balewa cabinet, justified the appointment of Ironsi. “Whereas Maimalari was deemed to be professionally more competent, Ironsi was appointed because he was the most senior officer in the Army at the time. The Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence at that time came from the Northern region. Maimalari himself also came from the north. If, therefore, the leadership of the Army had been given to Maimalari–in spite of his competence and universal popularity–it would have been interpreted as regionalism. The late Prime Minister, Sir Tafawa Balewa, was a man of justice and fair-play.”

Incidentally, Sule would say that Maimalari did not lobby for the job even when his recollection actually contradicted that position. Prior to the appointment of the GOC by Balewa, according to the late Sule, Maimalari had met him to say: “Now look, Welby-Everard, the last British GOC has left. You (the Federal Cabinet) are going to appoint somebody to take over command of the Army. Such appointments are political. You must consider not only seniority but also the loyalty of the officer to occupy the position”.

While I believe Balewa made the right call on Ironsi, I don’t think it was well received within the military. Such was the esteem in which Maimalari was held among the officers and men that Tony Eze, a retired colonel and Sandhurst trained officer who was commissioned into the Army in 1958 said “even if Aguiyi Ironsi as the GOC told me something that was different from what Maimalari said, I would go by what Maimalari told me”. This was perhaps because, as far as he and many of his colleagues were concerned, “Zakariya Maimalari was our Number One! Forget about the fact that a few were commissioned before him in the Army, like Wellington Bassey, Aguiyi Ironsi who became the first Nigerian GOC, Samuel Ademulegun, and so on. To us, Maimalari was the first Nigerian to attend a military academy and undergo the proper training of an Army officer. So, Zakariya Maimalari did not belong to that class of Other Ranks who were Sergeants or Sergeant-Majors but later attended three or four month short courses to become commissioned officers in the Army.”

From Eze’s insight, which can be glimpsed from that of others, the preference for Maimalari was based on class arrogance, or superiority complex, essentially because, unlike Aguiyi Ironsi who rose through the ranks, Maimalari was the first Regular Combatant and the most educated among the top echelon of the military at the time. He was therefore the one the new crop of officers looked up to. “We got to understand that at the time the last British GOC Commanding the Nigerian Army, Major General Welby-Everard, was formally leaving the country, he did not recommend Aguiyi-Ironsi as his successor. But Ironsi had the favour of the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa”, said Major General Paul Tarfa (rtd).

In a remark that suggests Tarfa may still be bitter, he admitted being part of the July 1966 counter-coup: “Ironsi was an accomplice in that coup of January 1966, so he wasn’t able to take any decision and try the officers who carried out the abortive coup. That was why we reacted in July of the same year. Maimalari was a father figure to us. Nobody would see his father slain at night and then just say ‘ok, we forgive it’…Maimalari never bothered about your ethnic or religious identity. That was why he liked Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna and drew him close to be his brigade major, only for Ifeajuna to turn round and kill him! Can you imagine?”

Like other retired officers from the North (and incidentally a few others from the South too), Tarfa believed the coup was sectional and Maimalari was a central target of the plotters and he gave his reasons. Ahmadu Ali, a medical doctor and retired Colonel–who has at different times been a Senator and PDP National Chairman–shares a similar view. “It was a one-sided coup and it looked to us that a particular group in the country wanted to hijack political power at all costs. And that coup of 15th January 1966 is what snowballed into the multiplicity of problems that Nigeria has been grappling with. Some of us have always said that any major event that does not carry along all the three major ethnic groups is bound to give us problem forever” Ali said in the book.

Captain Ben Gbulie, who was close to Maimalari and admitted being part of the January 1966 coup targeted at political leaders of the era, had harsh words for the most vilified character in the book, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the “Judas” who killed Maimalari before he was eventually upended by the late Biafran leader, Dim Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. But Gbulie was also critical of Maimalari to whom he was very close. “What I saw and thought of Zakariya Maimalari, when he was the second-in-command at NMTC Kaduna, was not the same thing when he rose to be a Brigadier commanding the 2nd Brigade in Apapa, Lagos. He started doing certain things which I thought he would never do, such as accelerating the promotions of some officers from a particular part of the country” said Gbulie.

Aside Gowon, Obasanjo and Generals Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar, other notable contributors to the book are retired Generals Joshua Dogonyaro, Alani Akinrinade, Mohammed Magoro, IBM Haruna, David Bamigboye, Mobolaji Johnson, Paul Tarfa, Garba Duba, Roland Ogbonna, Mohammed Magoro, Inuwa Wushishi, Abba Kyari, Ike Nwachukwu, Dantosho Mohammed, David Jemibewon, Martin Adamu, Salihu Ibrahim and Captain Ben Gbulie. Civilians like Ahmed Joda, Lawal Kaita, Tanko Yakassai, Aminu Alhassan Dantata, Sani Zangon Daura, Mrs Elizabeth Pam, Dan Iya Ado Sanusi and Liman Ciroma and Mamman Nasir also spoke on Maimalari and the events of January 1966.

Other contributors to the book which, according to the author, Haruna Yahaya Poloma, started in 1999, are Colonels Ahmadu Ali and Tony Eze while Generals like Samuel Ogbemudia, Joseph Garba, Adeyinka Adebayo and Emmanuel Abisoye shared their perspectives before they died.

As one would expect in a book of such nature, everybody spoke glowingly of Maimalari but it is very clear that beyond being charismatic, Maimalari was also an ambitious officer even though everybody was shy to point that out. Former Kaduna State Governor, Alhaji Lawal Kaita told a very revealing story in the book: “I was very close to the late Major General Hassan Usman Katsina, who was privy to top secret information surrounding the selection of the first General Officer to Command the Nigerian Army. He told me that Zakariya Maimalari was not appointed in place of Aguiyi Ironsi because of a prevailing fear; that if Zakariya Maimalari was appointed the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army after Welby-Everard, he would have staged a coup….Nobody could control Brigadier Maimalari in the Nigeria of his time.”

In fact, there can be no better testimony to Maimalari’s temperament than the one supplied by Akinrinade: “I remember an incident in 1964 when we were having an Army celebration in Ibadan, and Zakariya Maimalari as Brigade Commander of the 2nd brigade attended. There were senior army officers and top politicians present, including the Defence Minister, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu and the premier of the Western Region, Chief Ladoke Akintola. Midway into the party, Brigadier Maimalari called the Battalion Commander, and to everyone’s amazement, said to the Battalion Commander: ‘You know, if I had a chance, I will shoot all these politicians with their fat stomachs!’

“The party immediately broke up! All the top politicians made their excuses and quickly departed. So, in retrospect, many officers didn’t quite like the way politicians were handling the affairs of the country. There was anger but we had no experience of coups at the time. I am sure if things came to a head, Maimalari would have said to the officers: ‘Look, we’ve got to get rid of these people’. The officers would certainly have supported him. But I am also sure he would have had the courage to walk up to the politicians and tell them to get out of the way to allow for the election of a new government. He wouldn’t have participated in the type of bloody killing that took place on 15th January, 1966. Maimalari was that popular in the Army!”

Ordinarily, the subordination of the military hierarchy to the political authority ought to be the most fundamental requirement of a democracy but it was evident that Maimalari and other military officers saw themselves as superior to the First Republic politicians. Indeed, from the disparate reactions to his unfortunate death from a cross section of retired army officers who served in Maimalari’s time, it is clear that most of them differed from the political establishment in terms of succession to the leadership of the army. This indicates the beginning of a dangerous ideology of mutiny against political authorities in the country.

Therefore, it can be argued that both the military officers who opposed (directly or indirectly) the appointment of Aguiyi Ironsi as first GOC and the misguided and blood-thirsty coup makers who toppled the First Republic politicians were guilty of the same offences of indiscipline and insubordination. To that extent, the military as an institution must carry the burden of our national derailment. Even the latter day protestations and hypocritical preachments of key military actors cannot absolve them as individuals or indeed the institution of the sad heritage of that initial hubris.

More importantly, I find it interesting that the tradition of disrespect for civilian political leaders by military officers has continued from the First Republic till now. This arrogance and disrespect is at the root of all the coups that took place in Nigeria. On their part, our politicians, especially when they lose elections, have consistently embraced the military as their avatar. It is this quisling tendency that translates into the fear of political instability in the populace each time there is a simple constitutional problem.

Meanwhile, the current threats to our national survival–as a result of secession threats by some ‘Biafra’ fantasists and quit notices by some Arewa irredentists–remain potent and hinge majorly on the unhealed wounds of 1966 (the January coup, the July counter-coup and the civil war that broke shortly after). But with a nationalistic leadership, it is not too difficult to rally the whole country together and begin the urgent task of addressing the challenge of development without which any enduring peace will continue to be a mirage.

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