January the 15th, 1966 is no ordinary date in Nigeria’s history. On this fateful day, precisely fifty years ago, Nigeria socio-political and economic landscape was changed for good. It was the day a group of mutinous officers in the Nigerian Army, led by Major Kaduna Chukwuma Nzeogwu, staged the country’s first coup d’etat, leading to the assassination of key Nigerian leaders, senior officers in the army, and the abduction of three others. It was the day whose events set off the collapse of the First Republic, resulted in a counter-coup six months later, led to the Nigerian Civil War, and ushered in 30 years of military interventions in Nigerian politics from which the country is yet to fully recover,
Notably, five out six of the coup plotters were of Igbo extraction, while all those killed were of either northern or Yoruba extraction. The act of overthrowing a constitutionally elected government was compounded by the fact that one of the officers, Lieutenant Oguchi, dispatched to “take care” of the Premier of the Eastern Region, Dr. Michael Okpara, arrested him, while Mr. Nwafor Orizu, who was the Senate President and also the acting President of the country in the absence of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was out of the country on the day of the coup, capitulated by handing over the reins of government to the most senior person in the Armed Forces at the time, Major-Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, yet another Igbo man.
Although the coup plotters, who attacked the cities of Lagos, Kaduna and Ibadan while also blockading the Rivers Niger and Benue for two days, claimed that the civilian leadership at the helm of affairs of the First Republic were running the country aground through corruption, the killing of only northerners and Yorubas served to deepen the ethnic divide in the country and suspicion against the Igbo tribe which had already been branded by the late Sarduana as “domineering”. It was feared that the Igbo had set out to take control of the country and in the north of Nigeria the fear of Igbo dominance became intense.
On 29 July 1966, northern officers carried out a counter-coup in which, 240 southern officers and men, three-quarters of whom were Igbo, including Aguiyi-Ironsi as well as thousands of civilians of eastern origin living in the north were systematically killed. In the aftermath, Lt.-Col. Yakubu Gowon, a northerner assumed command of the military government.
It was within this context that increasing ethnic rivalries led to further massacres of mostly people of the Igbo ethnic group. The massacres were widely spread in the north and peaked on May 29, July 29 and September 29, 1966. The massacres were led by the army and replicated in various northern Nigerian cities. Although Colonel Gowon gave guarantees of safety to the Igbos living in the north, the intention was to extract revenge for the January 15 coup.
The pogroms in the north led Col. Chukuwemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, whom Gowon had made the military administrator of the defunct Eastern Region, to breakaway from Nigeria, creating the Republic of Biafra and the 30-month Nigerian Civil War that resulted in the death of over 2 million people in the east.
Since the events of January 15, 1966, Nigeria has never been the same. It lost its innocence and the lofty ideals, which the founding fathers of the republic who fought for Nigeria’s independence from the British colonial administration, were all abandoned. Today, Nigeria continues to totter from the effects of that coup. Corruption – one of the reasons given by the coup plotters for overthrowing the civilian government – is at its worst. Its development remains stunted and the ethnic and religious divide deeper than ever.
It’s like nothing has changed in the fifty years since the coup. Perhaps by remembering this day, Nigerians will pull themselves by the bootstraps and chart a new course for the country that will make January the 15th, 1966 a footnote in its checkered history.
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