Opinion: January 1966 coup and lessons for Benue youths

By Usha Anenga 

HISTORY
Some authors refer to Nigeria as a British experiment, others describe it as a country of many nations because the early colonialists, irrespective of the historical, cultural, political and ethnic differences that existed, pulled together the Northern and Southern Protectorates to create what we know today as Nigeria.

This arrangement was solely for their own administrative convenience but it also set the country up for the challenge to be united and work together right from day one. Thankfully, the synergistic effort of our founding fathers, the likes of Sir Herbert Macaulay, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Anthony Enahoro, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa resulted in the  independence of the country from the United Kingdom on 1 October 1960.

Despite the euphoria of this monumental feat, the country remained polarised along its ethnic, religious and political lines. The differences between the dominant ethnic groups – the Hausa (Northerners), Igbo (Easterners) and Yoruba (Westerners) was very palpable even though on the outside, things seemed to be running smoothly.

As at when Nigeria was established into a Federal Republic in 1963, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was Prime Minister with Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe as President. When elections were held in 1965, Chief Ladoke Akintola won and became the Premier of the Western region and along him were Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of the Northern region and Chief Michael Okpara, Premier of Eastern Nigeria. This was roughly how the government looked like before the coup of January 1966.

There arouse young army officers who were tired of the status quo. They alleged that the leaders of that time were corrupt and tribalistic, selfishly recycling themselves in power, while depriving the youths of meaningful involvement in leadership.

In their words, “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.”

It was later learned that these young officers started planning a coup as early as August 1965 but on 15 January 1966 (now 51 years ago), they struck with devastating effect. They had planned to captured and execute the Prime Minister, President, the three Premiers and other top government officials, then take over the ruins of power. This seemed like the perfect plan.

On that day, in the North, Prime Minister Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Premier Alhaji Ahmadu Bello were killed. The Premier of the western region, Chief Ladoke Akintola was also killed but Igbo officers from the East did not carry out the plan of assassination on the President, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Eastern Premier, Michael Okpara for reasons that were too good to be believed – that the President was out of the country.

Of all times, it was shortly before the coup that Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe miraculously left the country and escaped being killed? How about the Senate President, Chief Nwafor Orizu who was also an Igbo and in charge while the president was away? How about the eastern Premier? It was now evident that this was a clear case of sabotage. For whatever reasons,  Igbo officers spared the leaders from their region and that didn’t excite anyone.

The rest is history. Even though those Igbo officers took over power, there was a counter coup a few months later and they were all killed. The very next year, Nigeria went into civil war. Beyond that, the betrayal of those young officers who refused to kill their own further aggravated the already existing strive amongst the people in the country. It’s 51 years ago but the action or inaction of those officers have underlined the political bane of the Igbos even up to this day.

LESSONS FOR BENUE YOUTHS

Like or loathe, there is a political renaissance underway amongst the youth in Benue state. Daily, young people are increasingly interested in knowing what is happening in government and how they are being governed. They are becoming increasingly aware of what potential, rights and power they posses, and what options are at their disposal.

This is akin to the renaissance of the young army officers of 1966 who, in their eyes, were being ripped off by older politicians and denied a level playing field to decide their destinies. A declaration of freedom from those who keep us perpetually divided and busy fighting ourselves while they recycle themselves in power and pilfer away our commonwealth.

Whilst many youths have taken hold of the plough and not looking back, others are like the Igbo officers who refused to kill their own, refusing to pull the trigger for various selfish reasons. Very early yesterday morning, I received a call from someone who is notorious for attacking persons who speak up against oppression wherever it is. He explained, saying “you know that we know things are bad but I can’t say anything because of my personal relationship with him (whoever it is)”. Others can’t act because they belong to one political party or the other, therefore whatever the big-eaters in those parties do or say is right and has to be defended. They don’t want to hurt their own. Others because they come from the same areas as these tyrants, either from Sankera, Jecira, Jemgbagh, Kwande, MINDA, Idoma or Igede. We never lack reasons to sit on the fence. 

However, let it be known that safe-players, protectors and defenders of past and present rot… you jeopardise the efforts of your generation, ruining or delaying the emancipation of your various localities from the shackles of poverty, disease and underdevelopment. But just as the officers who sold their consciences away for short-term temporary ecstasy, a sad and sorry end awaits you. Posterity will remember and be hard on you. 

And you who wants to stand for the right or wants to run to make things right, be encouraged. Remember the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall.” Think of this – always.

“Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

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