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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Discourse 280 "Nzeogwu"

Discourse 280
Dr. Aliyu Tilde


Today is January 15. On a day like this in 1966, Major Chukwuma Kaduna
Nzeogwu staged the first coup in Nigerian history. It took over thirty years
before his best friend Obasanjo told the world what he knows about him in a
book titled Nzeogwu. I have reviewed below and reached three important
conclusions: 1) Youths who appear self-disciplined and daring should be
watched closely. This is further confirmed by the recent unfortunate story
of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab. 2) Though the January 15 coup did change the
history of the country, it did not change any of the fundamental flaws in
its composition or improved the quality of its administration. Nzeogwu's
maiden speech would perfectly suit the listeners of today if a coup were to
be staged. 3). Nzeogwu was simply a scapegoat. He was not alone. The
complicity of even some northern officers who might have been working in
tandem with some powerful figures in the region can clearly be discerned
from the
manner they spared and honoured the assassins.
I have since developed my doubts about the popular theories proffered to
explain the sad event. His story is akin to that of Murtala, who suffered
the same fate of betrayal of his principles. Incidentally, while Obasanjo
was the closest friend of Nzeogwu when the latter staged his coup in 1966,
he was as well the deputy of Murtala ten years later. And, as some said, he
went into hiding in far away Maiduguri after the 1966 Coup, he also
disappeared soon after Murtala was killed. Mhm.
I will be very glad if my readers would send me their well reasoned opinions
on January 15. I understand that it means different things to different
people. Though the atmosphere in the country remains the same if not more
desperate, it is incapable of producing another Nzeogwu. Happy reading.

Parents, elders and leaders throughout history have had cause to keep an eye
on a rare type of youth who has the capacity either to bring success or
attract disaster to his people. Such youth tends to have a largess of
candor, self-discipline, determination and other meritorious habits. If he
will attract disaster, however, some blameworthy ones, especially exuberance
and impatience, will escort these praiseworthy habits.
Nzeogwu, the biography of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, written by his
best-known friend, General Olusegun Obasanjo, makes an interesting reading
in this respect. There could be dozens of hypotheses on January 15, 1966
coup. Many commentators, like Kirk-Greene in Crisis and Conflict in Nigeria
I, said, “The truth will never be satisfactorily established”, given the
death of its chief actors. Many of those hypotheses were postulated not to
explain, but to conceal the truth for sheer mischief in some
intellectual-cum-political provinces. What cannot be disputed, however, was
the role played by Nzeogwu, its principal architect. His published biography
has given additional insights into the personal traits that led to the
unfortunate event.
We are bound to believe Obasanjo in his narration, given the fact that he
was the closest friend of Nzeogwu, and vice-versa. He gave us a picture of
this young man, growing away from his roots in the South-east, among his
parents in the new city of Kaduna. He attended a missionary school where he
portrayed hard work, zeal, rectitude, discipline and so on. A lovely chap,
in short. The same beautiful picture was painted to describe his carrier in
the army: still hard working, amiable and disciplined. Even when women,
cigarettes and beer were the habits of his colleagues, Nzeogwu exercised
restraint, paying attention to his carrier, books and music.
What would, however, be relevant to the psychologist is any information that
will give ‘clues’ to the emergence of a rebel, clues that will be cast
against the background of social factors that obtained in Nzeogwu’s
environment, within the army and the Nigerian society at large. Fortunately,
the book Nzeogwu has a lot to offer in this respect.
As a child, Obasanjo wrote, Nzeogwu “consistently showed his strong will and
determination. When he fought his playmates he was always determined and
never gave up, even against the bigger boys.” I would say this is typical of
most Igbo children. In his early school days, he was “very inquisitive and
precocious. He would ask his teachers endless questions.” Growing in
neighborhood of soldiers during the Second World War, he came into contact
with the army and became fascinated with them. “He began to gather his
little admirers together, and with a rough wooden stick, he would line them
up on parade and shout orders in a high pitched military fashion.”
Later at Saint John’s College, Kaduna, “he was nicknamed “major” for his
soldier-like behavior.” At this stage, the rebel in him started to manifest,
glaringly. Not surprising, he was certainly not the favorite of his
teachers. He protested against what he perceived as injustice. In the final
year he was rusticated for leading a student protest against what one would
consider a strictly official matter, an examination policy.
Another aspect was the contribution of the revolutionary literature he was
exposed to as a teen. “He was fond of giving lectures on Marshall Tito and
his guerilla activities in Yugoslavia during the Nazi era... Nzeogwu spent
long hours in the library, immersed in the stories of famous people…” Elders
and teachers are not usually impressed by such students, who fail to
concentrate on what is relevant at school, who are in a hurry to pull the
future nearer and faster than usual. I remember my father used to detest
this habit in me at the university. No wonder the teachers at Saint John’s
were not impressed by this behavior from an average student. His classmates
“thought him rather eccentric.”
An "eccentric" Nzegwu was to manifest again in his military carrier. We were
told how he refused to carry out an assignment as directed by his company
commander, the late Brig. Maimalari. When Maimalari warned against
disobedience without being specific, Nzeogwu confided in Obasanjo, saying,
“You know he was referring to me but I have finished the work the way I
believe it should be done and there is no need for change.” But the rancour
did run deeper. When Maimalari left them for Nigeria, Nzeogwu told his
friend: “I know that our being together might have cost me my career…”
Background and immaturity might have connived to accentuate detest in
Nzeogwu’s perception of his society. Unfortunately for Nigeria, other
members of his privileged group of army officers shared this shortcoming.
Thus, the country has for over three decades been held hostage by their
inexperience. In Leadership and Governance in Nigeria, Dr. Mahmud Tukur
said, “Reform, revolution and even rebellion have an aura of romance about
them. They evoke excitement and enthusiasm in many hearts and minds –
especially the youthful and the inexperienced. The unfolding events of 1966
to date (1993) have amply demonstrated this."
Without skills in politics, Nzeogwu must have swallowed the propaganda
of the media. Nowhere was this expressed than in his maiden address on
January 15. He announced that “our enemies are the political profiteers,
swindlers, the men in the high and low places that seek bribes and demand
ten per cent, those that seek to divide the country permanently so that they
can remain in office as ministers and VIPs of waste, the tribalists, the
nopotists…that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political
calendar back by their words and deeds.” Suffice it to say that in the
decades that followed, his former compatriots must have read his rhetoric as
immature. Let him rise from his grave and see in them the more profound
expression of the very habits he renounced.
His inexperience has made it difficult for him to differentiate between the
real and the fictitious. He thought, from his ‘revolutionary’ scholarship
and the few weapons at his disposal, that a revolution targeted at killing
some “key” personalities in the regime will pave way to the establishment of
a society that is “free from fear and other forms of oppression...”
It was unfortunate that Nzeogwu’s lessons in practical politics started with
this blunder and from the very day he made that speech. He must have been
surprised at how the whole mission was interpreted as a tribal affair,
emanating from the conduct of his comrades in the South, the group to which
Obasanjo and his friend always shifted the blame of failure.
Out of the despair evoked by his comrades in the South, Nzeogwu, the ever
self-confident young officer, started planning to invade the South. He was
soon surprised again to learn that it is not possible as even Ojukwu in Kano
refused to cooperate with him. The next four days, which saw him as a “local
Brig”, to use his own terminology, ended in surrender and retreat to safety
at Kiri-Kiri Prison. The tone of the surrender was definitely filled with
the characteristic smack of failure. He said: “We have pledged allegiance to
General Ironsi on behalf of all men who were for some unknown reasons,
referred to as ‘rebels’. We feel that it is absurd that men who risked their
lives to establish the new regime should be held prisoners. We wanted to
change the government for the benefit of everybody else...”
Nzeogwu, for some reasons, was spared the brunt of the law though he did
complain about the beatings meted on some of his comrades. He wrote
Obasanjo, grumbling, “Koboko & bayonet wounds all over the face & body! It
is terrible.”
Our Nzeogwu, guaranteed of survival, suddenly took a gentle slide off the
‘revolutionary’ track to become engrossed in the mundane, hoping to come out
soon to enjoy the very life he denied others, barely a week earlier. Hence,
he pleaded with Obasanjo saying, “Please look after my property & my car. At
a later stage, I may want the car disposed off if I can get enough to pay
off UDC & secure little profit.” It was a station of pity, undoubtedly.
In the Sardauna and his policies, the North, the media propaganda and the
craze for revolution sweeping across Africa then, there was enough impelling
force in the society to ignite what Obasanjo called the “impulsive” Nzeogwu.
This in turn resulted in the killings of innocent, mostly northern, senior
military officers in addition to Tafawa Balewa, who, as contained in a
condolence sent by Dr. Nkrumah, was “a life that might not have been
intended as part of the price.” For its sympathy, Nkrumah's condolence was
However, to me, the most surprising thing is how the assassins went
Scott-free, despite appeals for an enquiry from personalities like the
Sultan. (So, insensitivity of leaders is nothing new.) Nzeogwu and his
colleagues were never court-martialed. Instead, they remained on government
payroll and were set free after some few months of protective custody. They
were allowed to communicate with their families and friends. Nzeogwu had
even the chance to fight on the Biafran side until he was killed. What is
still more perplexing was that the Federal Government, then led by a
northerner, Gowon, returned his body to Kaduna and gave it the honour of a
military burial. This guy, I concluded, must have done something grossly
appreciating to both governments of Ironsi and Gowon! This act alone
suggests that Nzeogwu was simply a tool in the hands of superior officers,
including some northerners, who emerged as major beneficiaries of his
As a friend, Obasanjo refused to be critical in the biography. He tactfully
avoided any direct condemnation or explicit support for Nzeogwu or his
action, for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, three remarks would have been
avoided because they contradict the good picture of Nzeogwu that the author
laboriously attempted to paint in the concluding part of the book. In one
place, describing his shock to the massacre in Kaduna, January 15, Obasanjo
wrote: “I thought that even if thugs from Lagos and the West had invaded
Kaduna, they would not have committed such an act.” So, Mr. Obasanjo, was
your friend worse than a thug? In another, he slightly exposed the weak side
of his friend, saying, “of course, revolutions have a way of changing their
leaders. In an attempt to survive, he (Nzeogwu) may have turned to tribal
sentiments for succour and support.” So, Obasanjo, do we take it that
Nzeogwu died a tribalist? Lastly, as a last tribute, he said his friend
“had a dream of a country free of graft and greed...” Yet, this same friend
was “even thinking of one day building a hotel in Benin City!” So, in what
way was Nzeogwu a revolutionary?
Well, it is a pity that while the impatience of Nzeogwu did not allow him to
realize his petit-bourgeois dream, his colleagues in the army – Obasanjo and
co – were ‘patient’ enough to realize theirs. He only paved the way for
January 15, 1966 was undoubtedly the precursor of our unfortunate civil war.
It caused the death of a million Nigerians and meted untold hardship to
millions more, largely among our Igbo brothers. A stitch in time saves
nine. We should endeavor to check the excesses of our youths who appear to
be determined but “in a hurry.” When Brigadier Ademulegun got wind of the
coup, he promptly advised the Army Headquarters in Lagos. He described
Nzeogwu as a “young man in a hurry who should be closely watched”. It was
too late. That might have cost him his life. Perhaps he did not know that
the 29-year old was likely behaving with the approval of some of his seniors
in the army. By this advice alone, the nation would have been saved the
agony of the devastating civil war.
On 20 June 1966, Nzeogwu wrote Obasanjo requesting him to put a defence on
his behalf against some inaccuracies in the reporting of Jan 15 events in
Kaduna and his status in the army by the media. He said: “As you would
appreciate, I am not out there with you to defend myself & so I expect you
people to do so for me.” Well, it took decades for his best friend to muster
the courage to respond. But if its expectation was to improve the image of
its subject, the book must have achieved only very little. This is so
because public opinion on Nzeogwu has remained divided since January 15,
1966 without any significant cross-carpeting.

January 15, 2010

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