Disgruntled Northern officers led by Murtala Mohammed, TY Danjuma,Martin Adamu and others spearheaded a rebellion within the army after the event of January. On one occasion, Murtala called Ironsi a “fool” in the presence of other officers and threatened to avenge the death of his Northern officer colleagues.
His position as the Inspector of Signals became quite veritable for the planning of the revenge coup nicknamed “Operation Araba”(Araba is Hausa word for let’s divide it). Murtala and his Northern colleagues had totally lost confidence in the Nigerian federation and their plan was to break Northern region from Nigeria.
Their politicians had earlier pulled out of the Federal Parliament in 1953 after the crisis that followed their rejection of Enahoro’s motion that Nigeria should become independent in 1956.They produced an eight-point demand which effectively wanted a confederal Nigeria as a precondition to return.
As their coup began on July 29, 1966, it was Murtala who coordinated the take-over of the International Airport in Lagos,an edifice to be named after him 10 years later.When he and his troops arrived the airport,they hijacked planes to ferry their families back to the North as a prelude to the exit of the region from Nigeria.
An Igbo officer(Captain Okoye) was captured by them and tied to an iron cross and beaten to death.In Military units across Lagos,Kaduna and Ibadan, Northern troops went gaga and murdered their Igbo colleagues in gruesome manner, eliminating hundreds of them.
The arrowhead of the whole operation was Murtala who had close links with NPC as his Uncle Inuwa Wada was the Defence Minister. When Danjuma and co arrived Ibadan they made for the Government House where there was a detachment of 106 Artillery commanded by William Walbe from Plateau State on guard.It later came to light that Walbe was part of the conspiracy. He later became ADC to Gowon.
By some act of naivety Fajuyi’s ADC was one Lt Adamu, while Ironsi had Lt Sani Bello. In an interview granted to an Hausa paper, Rariya in 2013, Jeremiah Useni who was a Lieutenant at the time of the coup said the following : “But while that was going on, words started going round about what the Igbo officers were saying: That they had killed the snake, but had failed to cut off the head. Which meant those of us left might make them suffer later, that there was therefore the need to finish us off. Instead of them to show remorse and apologise, they were planning another sinister attack.
We were together with Col. Remawa at the time, he was serving in Abeokuta, and we heard of a grand plot to kill our emirs. A meeting of all emirs was called in Ibadan, all our emirs gathered in Ibadan, that the head of state, Ironsi, would address them. So we said, are we going to let him come, address them and leave? Or should we just kill him or what? Our fear was that he was in the company of our emirs, and you know bullets do not select whom to hit. What do we do? We don’t want even a single emir to die.
“We also considered arresting him at his lodge before he goes to meet with them. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi was the governor of South West at the time, and the head of state, Ironsi, was staying in his house in Ibadan. So we don’t want a situation where they would say he conspired with us. So we decided the best thing to do was to open fire there even if Governor Fajuyi was also caught, so that they would just be buried together, and that was what happened.”
When the soldiers seized Ironsi, Fajuyi insisted on going with him as he considered it a betrayal of valour to abandon his guest at the most decisive hour.They pushed them into a Land Rover and drove them to Lalupon on Iwo Road where the duo were shot dead. When the killings were done with, senior Northern officers converged at the Ikeja Cantonment in Lagos. Brigadier Ogundipe who was the most senior surviving officer could not face them given their mood and had to send Chief of Staff(Army) Lt-Col Yakubu Gowon to mediate.
It was 28-year-old Murtala who was most recalcitrant as he insisted that Northern troops should destroy Lagos, pull out to the North and secede.When the Military Governor of the East, Lt-Colonel Ojukwu managed to reach Ogundipe,the latter told him that Northern troops had stated their conditions for a “ceasefire”: (1) the repatriation of Northerners and Southerners to their respective regions (2) the secession of Northern Region from Nigeria. Ojukwu’s response was “let them go if that is what they want”.
He later urged Ogundipe to take charge since Ironsi’s whereabouts was unknown and promised to make a broadcast 30 minutes after Ogundipe in his support. But Northern officers were no longer in the mood for a Southern rule. Ogundipe got it in clear terms when a Northern Sergeant told him: “I do not take orders from you until my (Northern) captain comes”.
A Northern Private equally refused to obey orders from the Military Governor of Lagos State, Major Mobolaji Johnson. When Gowon gauged the mood of his northern colleagues,he called the head of the Police Special Branch, Alhaji MD Yusuf and informed him that the Northern soldiers had drafted a speech declaring the secession of the Northern region from Nigeria.
He asked for a lawyer to look at the speech which was influenced by Murtala and Major Martin Adamu.A Northern judge,Mr Justice Bello who was in Lagos at the time told the soldiers that all the nation’s money was locked in the Central Bank of Nigeria in Lagos and asked them how they would pay their soldiers after secession without access to the CBN.Some of the soldiers quickly went to throw cordon around the CBN. The Northern officers were joined by the British and American ambassadors, Sir Francis Cumming-Bruce and Elbert Matthews, respectively.
Among other civilians with them were two Northern judges,head of Northern region’s civil service, Ahajji Ali Akilu,Muktar Tahir, Chief Justice Adetokunbo Ademola,Mr Justice Bello,the chairman of the Public Service Commission, Alhaji Sule Katagum. There were also permanent secretaries such as Alhaji Musa Daggash, Abdul Aziz Attah, Yusuf Gobir, Allison Ayida, Ibrahim Damcida, etc.
Police representatives included the Inspector -General of police, Alhaji Kam Salem and the head of the Special Branch,MD Yussuf From three days they argued ferociously over the soul of Nigeria with the civilians trying hard to convince the soldiers that the North had everything to lose if it should secede as it would be landlocked between the South and the sea.
It was a cul-de-sac as the coup was not planned with any objective for Nigeria as a whole but a mere revenge against the Igbo and to move the North out of Nigeria. After they failed to convince the meeting on secession and with the country without a government for three days, the Northern officers agreed to drop their plan to secede but only on the condition that the most senior officer among them Lt-Col Gowon be appointed the Head of State.
This was done for the 32-year-old in spite of the presence of more senior officers in the chain of command (all Southerners) like Brigadier Ogundipe,Commodore Wey, Col Robert Adebayo, Lt -Cols Nwaw, Imo Kurubo, Effiong,Njoku and several other Lt-Cols who were commissioned before Gowon.
The initial coup speech given by Gowon was poorly edited that it still dripped with the poisonous mindset of Murtala and his “Araba” colleagues. Hear him: “I have now come to the most difficult part, or the most important part, of this statement. I am doing it, conscious of the great disappointment and heartbreak it will cause all true and sincere lovers of Nigeria and of Nigerian unity both at home and abroad, especially our brothers in the Comm-onwealth.
“As a result of the recent events and the other previous similar ones, I have come to strongly believe that we cannot honestly and sincerely continue in this wise, as the basis of trust and confidence in our unitary system of government has not been able to stand the test of time. I have already remarked on the issues in question. Suffice to say that, putting all considerations to test-political, economic, as well as social-the base for unity is not there or is so badly rocked, not only once but several times.
I therefore feel that we should review the issue of our national standing and see if we can help stop the country from drifting away into utter destruction” (Yakubu Gowon, August1, 1966). The “difficult part” that was to cause “heartbreak” had been deleted from the speech of course and it was time to Go-On-With- One-Nigeria on their own terms.
When the same folks today tell us that the “unity of Nigeria is not negotiable”, they are definitely not talking about the unity they once questioned as narrated above. I think what they are saying is that “our conquest of Nigeria is not negotiable” Thank you Max Siollun!