By Femi Fani-Kayode
On the night of January 15th 1966 a coup d’etat took place in Nigeria which resulted in the murder of a number of leading political figures and senior army officers. This was the first coup in the history of our country. From the political class those that were killed included the following: Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, who was abducted from his home and whose body was dumped somewhere along the Lagos-Abeokuta road.
Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the old Northern Region, who was killed in the sanctity of his own home together with his wife, his driver and his security assistant. Chief S.L. Akintola, the Premier of the old Western Region, who was gunned down in the presence of his family and Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, the Minister of Finance, who was brutalized, abducted from his home and whose body was later dumped in a bush.
From the ranks of the military those that were murdered included Brigadier Zakari Maimalari, who had held a cocktail party in his home a few hours earlier that evening which was attended by most of the young officers that participated in the coup. Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun who was shot to death in his matrimonial bed along with his eight-month pregnant wife. Others included Col. Ralph Shodeinde, Col. Kur Muhammed, Lt. Col. James Pam, PC Yohanna Garkawa, PC Haga Lai, Lance Corporal Musa Nimzo, Sgt. Daramola Oyegoke, PC Akpan Anduka and Ahmed Ben Musa.
The mutineers came to our house that night as well and they brutalized and abducted my father, Chief Remilekun Fani-Kayode, the Deputy Premier of the old Western Region. What I witnessed that night was traumatic and devastating for me and my family and, of course, what the nation witnessed that night was horrific. It was a night of blood, terror and sadness. The events of that night set in motion a series of events which changed our history. The consequences of the events of that night are still with us till this day. It was a sad and terrible night: one of blood and slaughter.
What I witnessed was as follows. In the middle of the night, my mother came into the room which I shared with my older brother, Rotimi and my sister Toyin. I was six at the time. The lights had been cut, so all we could see was lights from vehicles. At that time, my father was deputy premier of the South West so; the official residence had a very long drive.
We saw two headlights and heard the engines of two lorries drive up the drive-way. The occupants of the lorries stormed our home and my father went out to meet them after he had called us, prayed for us and explained to us that since it was him they wanted he must go out. He explained that he would rather go out to meet them than let them come into the house to shoot or harm us.
The minute he stepped out, they brutalised him. I witnessed this. They tied him up and threw him into the lorry. Interestingly, the first thing they said to him was “where are your thugs now?” My father’s response was “I don’t have thugs, only gentlemen.” I think this made them brutalise him even more. They threw him in the back of the lorry, tied him up and, then stormed the house.
When they got into the house, they ransacked every nook and cranny, shooting into the ceiling and wardrobes. They were very brutal and frightful and we were terrified. My mother was screaming from the balcony because all she could do was focus on her husband, who was downstairs.
“Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!!” she kept screaming at them. I can still visualise this and hear her voice pleading, screaming and crying. I didn’t know where my brother or sister was; the house was in total chaos. A six-year-old, I was standing there in the middle of the house, surrounded by uniformed men who were ransacking the house and terrorising my family.
Something extraordinary happened. All of a sudden, one of the soldiers came up to me, put his hand on my head and said: “Don’t worry, we won’t kill your father, stop crying.” He said this thrice. After he said it the third time, I stopped crying. I went rushing to my mum who was still on the balcony and told her to stop crying because the soldier had promised that they would not kill my father, that everything would be okay.
I held on to the words of that soldier. That night, I never cried again. They took him away and as the lorry drove away, my mother kept on wailing and so was everyone in the house.
From there, they went to the home of Chief S.L Akintola, a great leader and a very dear uncle. My mother had phoned Akintola to inform him of what was happening. Akintola had calmed her down, assuring that all will be well. When they got to Akintola’s house, he already knew of that they were coming so instead of coming out, the minute they got there, he stationed some of his policemen and they started shooting. A gun battle ensued and the plan was delayed. They thought they could pick my father, pick Akintola, take them to Lagos and go and kill them there.
Akintola and his policemen wounded two of the soldiers and, when his ammunition ran out from inside the house, he came out with a white handkerchief and surrendered. The minute he stepped out, they just slaughtered him, right in front of my father. After they killed him, they moved on with my father to Lagos. When they got there, they went to the Officer’s Mess at Dodan Barracks.
When they took my dad away, everyone thought he had been killed. We decided to not spend that night in the house. The next morning, the policemen came and took us to the house of my mother’s first cousin, Justice Fatai Williams, who was a judge of the Western Region at the time. He later became the Chief Judge of Nigeria. From there, we were taken to the home of Adelekan Ademola, another High Court judge at the time, who later became a judge of the Appeal Court.
There was so much confusion in the country and no one knew what was going on. We had heard lots of stories and did not know what to make of what anymore. There was chaos. It took some time for things to be figured out.
Two days later, my father called and told us that he was okay and, when we heard his voice, I kept telling my mother “I told you, I told you.” Justice Ademola was weeping, my mother was weeping, my brother and sister were weeping and I was just rejoicing, because I knew that he would not be killed.
I never got to know who that soldier was (that promised me that my father would not be killed), but I believe that God spoke through him that night. I also believe that he may well have been an officer because he spoke with confidence and authority.
These individuals who carried out this coup were not alone: they got some backing from elements in the political class who identified with them but that is a story for another day.
The truth is there has never been another night like that and the results of that night have been devastating and profound yet in my view not enough Nigerians appreciate that. Some people in our country can never forgive those who did that, understandably. Others who believe that those young men (they were all in their late 20′s) did the right thing still say that those killings were heroic, which is something I find unacceptable and appalling.
Of course, it affected the country in an equally profound manner, because the events of that night led to a counter-coup six months later. It was such a devastating response and, of course, it led to the pogroms in the North, after the counter-coup. This then led to the Civil War.
After the coup, a lot of people felt so bad and, six months later, about 300 Igbo officers were killed in one night, including the Head of State, who was of Igbo extraction. A few Yorubas, like Gen. Adekunle Fajuyi, were also killed. After that came the attacks on Igbos in the North, which was, again, a consequence of what happened six months before. Thousands of Igbos were slaughtered in the North and then, from there, came the Civil War, in which millions of people died, including children.
The truth is that if General Aguiyi-Ironsi had done the right thing and prosecuted Major Nzeogwu and the other young mutineers after the attempted January 15th coup was crushed, there would have been no northern revenge coup six months later. For some curious reason, he just locked Nzeogwu and co up and refused to prosecute them. This bred suspicion from the ranks of the northern officers who felt deeply aggrieved about the killing of their political leaders and that, together with Aguiyi-Ironsi’s insistence on promulgating the Unification Decree which abolished the federal system of government and sought to turn Nigeria into a unitary state, made the revenge coup of July 29th 1966 inevitable.
The revenge coup was planned and led by Major Murtala Mohammed (as he then was) and it was supported and executed by northern officers like Major T.Y. Danjuma(as he then was), Major Martins Adamu, Captain Shehu Musa Yar’adua (as he then was), Lt. Ibrahim Babangida (as he then was), Lt. Sani Abacha (as he then was) and many others. This is the coup that was to put Lt. Col. Gowon (as he then was) in power and when they struck it was a very bloody and brutal affair.
The response of the northern officers to the mutiny and terrible killings that took place on the night of January 15th 1966 and to General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s apparent procrastination and reluctance to ensure that justice was served to the mutineers was not only devastating but also frightful. Hundreds of army officers of mainly Igbo extraction who were perceived to be sympathetic to the January 15th mutineers were killed that night including the Head of State General Aguiyi-Ironsi and the Military Governor of the old Western Region who was hosting him, Colonel Fajuyi.
What happened on the night of January 15th 1966 was unacceptable and uncalled for. I completely disagree with those who think that there was anything good about that coup or any other coup which took place in Nigeria. This is because blood calls for blood: when you shed blood, other people want to shed your blood, as well.
The January 15th coup set off a cycle of events which had cataclysmic consequences for our country which we are still feeling today. Coups may have happened in other countries in Africa, but it did not mean that it had to happen here. In any case, the amount of blood that was shed that night, the number of innocent people who were killed was quite unacceptable. It arrested our development as a people, political evolution as a country and, I think, things would have been so different if so many people had not lost that their lives that night. Our history would have been very different. May we never see such a thing again.
I believe we should do all we can to put these matters behind us. I’ve always believed that if we allow ourselves to become prisoners of history, we can be victims of history, instead of being guided by it and moving on. We have to forgive, even if we do not forget, but, more importantly, we must first establish truth.
What happened that night traumatized the nation. None of us has been the same since. I identify with that, because I was a part of it, witnessed it and was a victim of it. But, by God’s grace and divine providence, my father was spared; not because he was special, but because of the grace of God. Every day I mourn and think about the families of those men who died and I tell myself: “were it not for divine providence, my father would have also died and I would not have been what I am today, because he was the one who educated me and did everything for me.” Better still I know there was a purpose for that.
So, when people talk about January 15, 1966 and try to, somehow, re-write history or, somehow, revise it, I always stand up to try to defend the truth. I have written many essays to that effect, as well, over the last 20 years. This is because I believe that it is important to tell the truth, because no matter how bitter the truth might be, we must not shy away from it.
We must resolve among ourselves that, never again, will people be attacked in their homes, dragged out and shot like dogs. Never again will women, wives and children be slaughtered. Never again! May the souls of all those that were murdered on January 16th 1966 continue to rest in peace.
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