1966 coup plotters planned to make Awolowo Head of State — Olufemi Olutoye

The Owa of Ido-Ani, Oba Olufemi Olutoye, is a retired Major-General in the Nigerian Army. In this interview with Punch, he shares his experiences as a soldier and his level of involvement in the 1966 military coup.

 Read excerpt from the below..



On his experience about the first coup (1966) in Nigeria.
I hope that I will have time to write more about that coup but I am doing something on it right now. The coup was led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. He was a Major in rank and of course, I was a Major then too but I was his senior. So I knew about that coup. I can say that now but I could not say that then because, in the army, the mere knowledge of a coup is a problem. We were together in India. So, he informed me about it in 1964 and I enquired more on how he hoped to carry out the plot. When he told me that it would involve killings,  I told him to count me out. I told him that I did not join the Nigerian Army to kill Nigerians.
Did he specifically tell you that the coup was going to be bloody ?
Yes, that was why I told him to count me out. When I joined the Nigerian Army it was called West Africa Frontier Force. We were part of the Colonial Army. I did not join to kill fellow Nigerians. So, I told him I would not be a party to any military exercise that would result to loss of lives of any Nigerian. So, that was why I did not participate in the coup.
The coup seemed to have been targeted at military officers from a particular part of Nigeria and it was also tagged, ‘Igbo Coup’.  Why?
It later turned out to be so, although all the six majors who plotted it  were Igbos except one — Major Adegboyega from Remo, Ogun State. I want to assure you that, that was not Nzeogwu’s intention. As I told you, the coup was planned as far back as 1964. Maybe between 1964 and end of 1965, he changed his mind. I can’t say why he did so but those that showed interest in the coup turned out to be Igbos. Even his utterances when the coup took place on January 15, 1966, showed that he didn’t mean it to be an Igbo affair but unfortunately, it turned out to be so that an Igbo man could also become the Head of State.
Did he tell you that he planned the coup to become the Head of State?
No. Infact what attracted me to Nzeogwu at the early stage when the coup was being planned was that I asked him if he was going to make himself the Head of State and he said no. He said he was going to bring a civilian who was more knowledgeable and who had what it took to make Nigeria great. I then asked him who that person was and he said the man was in Calabar prison. I said is it Chief Obafemi Awolowo? He said yes. That was why I gave him my support but when he told me it was going to involve killings, I said no I was not interested again.
If the coup had been successful, do you think Nigeria would still be where we are today?
Because I happened to have known the whole genesis of the coup, my answer to that question is, Nigeria would have become  a changed place now. Nigeria would have been one of the top countries in the world today. When he informed me about the plan when we were in India, I brought him to my room and asked many questions. I asked him why he wanted to do such a thing, what he hoped to achieve and he made some very good points. I then said let me help you write out some things. I wrote some of the papers for him because I was more knowledgeable than a some of them. Like I said earlier, he was my junior, though we wore the same rank. I was older and more educated than he was. Our plan for education then was superb, same thing for industrialisation and other good plans for the country. But immediately he told me it was going to involve the killing of people, I said sorry, I can’t be a party to it because when I got enlisted into the army, I did not sign to be killing Nigerians. He said there was no way he could carry out the coup without loss of lives and I told him if that was his plan, then he should count me out. Fortunately when we came back to Nigeria from India, he was posted to Kaduna and I was posted to Lagos. So, we were separated and lost contact. So, I thought I had convinced him enough not to carry out any coup, and if he must, he should make sure that no life was lost. So, on January 15, 1966, I just heard on the radio that a coup had taken place and I recognised the voice. So, I told myself that this boy eventually carried out this coup! That was how it started. Later, we got to know that all the ring leaders of the coup were Igbos . The only exception was Adegboyega, a Yoruba man.
What do you think was wrong with the then government that instigated Nzeogwu to plan the coup?
The first thing was the census. There was no doubt that we were fed with wrong figures; that was the major defect in the running of government then, Nzeogwu did not like it. Secondly, those who were in government then were not doing well enough. We had mismanagement of public funds, some of them were semi-illiterates. Although some of them meant well for the nation but not all of them. Since Nzeogwu grew up in the North he knew most of them. He could speak Hausa language fluently because he was born there and knew them very well. He didn’t want a change in government simply because he wanted to kill northerners, it was those who came and supported his effort that did that. Not only that, he ended up putting Ironsi, an Igbo man, as the Head of State. It then looked as if he killed the Hausa soldiers and put an Igbo man there. This was why Brigadier-General Ogundipe did not succeed Ironsi. It was a sergeant that told Ogundipe that they were not going to take orders from him, that they would rather take orders from a captain who was a northerner instead of Ogundipe.
Why did you have disobedience in the military then?
There was no military at that period; the whole thing had turned upside down. There was confusion everywhere in the military. Unfortunately many people outside the military did not know what was going on then. You see, coup was not being organised in the army, it was usually carried out by a few people and when they succeed, everybody will fall in line.
Few months after the first unsuccessful coup, General Ironsi was killed, what was going on in the military then?
Before Ironsi was killed, he brought about a lot of changes in the structure of the country. At that time, we had a federation of three regions. He cancelled the regional arrangement that we were practising and people saw this as the idea of Igbo domination of Nigeria and that it would be a question of time that the prediction of an Igbo leader would be actualised. Many top Yorubas were killed but majority of those killed were northerners. After this, an Igbo man was installed as the Head of State and this Igbo man surrounded himself with Igbo senior civil servants, who wrote most of the ideas for him, including the cancellation of the regional government, and adoption of the unitary government to the detriment of those people who thought otherwise.
In addition to that, there were many Igbo people in the North, and they were rejoicing. It would have been an easy thing if they had done that secretly. But for them, it was an occasion that the Sardauna was killed, they were telling the people in the North that ‘we have killed your leaders and now we are in charge.’ So it was annoying to the northerners. That type of thing did not happen in the West because not everybody supported Akintola. I am sure that if it was Awolowo that was killed, it would have been another story entirely in those days.
When Gowon became the Head of State, was he embraced in the military, considering the level of disobedience among the officers then?
At that time, we still had many Igbo officers in the army, it was part of this that led to the mass exodus of the Igbos. They left the West and North for the East so as not to be killed. Whenever a coup took place, it was not everybody that supported it. It is just like when you have a change of government, it is not everybody who will support the new government.

Can you compare the military during your time to what we have now?
Nowadays, we have more educated people in the military. Hardly can you see any senior officer now who is not a university graduate. Some of the senior ones that you see on the pages of newspapers have more than one degree in relevant disciplines. So, by any standard they are not illiterates. You cannot compare the military men that  we had then with the military men we have now in terms of knowledge and wisdom because our military now can compete with any military anywhere in the world. In the past, if they were given orders to go somewhere, they went without any questioning, but now they are more educated.
 Read the rest of the interview in PUNCH


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