You will often hear some commentators claim our problems started from the January 1966 coup. In making this claim, they seem to suggest that all was well until the military for no reason struck and burst into the scene. But nothing can be farther from the truth. Like everywhere else where the military had course to intervene, Nigeria was already in decline with corruption, violence, census/election rigging, tribalism and other such crisis owing directly and indirectly to the excesses of the then leadership which in turn unfortunately occasioned the incursion of the military into Nigeria’s politics. Had the political leaders of the time played by the rules, the military would ordinarily have no reason to intervene. In the Western region alone, it is estimated that more than 5000 people were killed in sustained riots following the massive rigging of elections there. The riots (wetie) which included arson, thuggery, murders and general acts of lawlessness was to continue from 1964 until 1966 when it stopped only after the military had intervened. In other words, it took the January 1966 coup to stop further carnage and the thousands of lives that would have been lost in the Western region if the military had not intervened.
The crisis in the Western region was only one among other needless crisis such as the Tiv riots and uproar against a rigged census amongst others that was purely and simply occasioned by a failure of leadership. In light of these tragedies—are those who claim the January 1966 created our problems disregarding the thousands of lives already lost and countless thousands that would have been lost in the Western region if the military had not struck? Are they saying that the lives of a few political and military leaders count more than the thousands of ordinary civilians that had been killed and that would have been killed had the military coup not stopped the riots? What kind of a society and people would place more premium on the lives of a few big men ahead of thousands of ordinary citizens? Is this warped mindset not symptomatic of the slave and slave master society Nigeria has since evolved into?
While I have problems with the overreaction of the young officers in the execution of the coup; weighted on a balance between the thousands of lives already lost and the thousands more sure to be lost in the ensuing riots in the Western region as against a few political leaders, in addition to the overall ideal of the coup to nip corruption in the bud, I would chose the corrective coup as imperfect as it was, if only for the thousands of civilian lives it saved in the Western region. Many countries have had corrective military regimes that set their country on the part of growth and accountability. In Ghana for example— the Flt Jerry Rawlings revolutionary coup eliminated the corrupt leaders and their enablers and set Ghana on the path of growth and development that Ghana still enjoys till today. For the records; Jerry Rawlings killed no one from his Ewe tribe but Ghanaians did not tribalise the coup as was done in Nigeria. The coup consequently succeeded in ridding Ghana of corruption and misrule which they continue to enjoy to date. If thus, there was any problem with the incursion of the military into politics in January 1966, it was not with the corrective anti-corruption coup itself, as imperfect as it was but with its mismanagement which amongst others led to the tribalisation of the coup, the pogrom and the Nigeria-Biafra war.
Indeed, if the incursion of the military into Nigeria’s politics is as much a problem as some commentators claim, how come that in a democratic dispensation Nigerians have ended up returning the same former military rulers to power from Obasanjo to Buhari? How come the military constituency considered Nigeria’s problems are ironically the only ones considered capable of leading out of a population of more than 150 million people? Is it not then plausible that if Major Kaduna Nzeogwu were to be alive, he might possibly have been drafted into Nigeria’s presidency given how the corruption he tried to rid Nigeria off has overwhelmed and destroyed the nation? More than anything else, the trajectory of returning ex-military officers through the ballot box puts a lie to the contrived propaganda that Kaduna Nzeogwu and his military ilk created Nigeria’s problems when they in reality only patriotically reacted to overwhelming misrule, violence and impunity by the Balewa government.
Another wrong narrative is the idea that the pogroms in the North came about wholly as a result of the perceived wrongs and or provocation of the January 1966 coup. While the coup which was primitively tribalised and tagged an Igbo coup was certainly an immediate trigger and factor in the pogrom, the pogrom was caused more by a long standing culture of violence and mass murders in the North which continues to manifest today and into the future with groups such as Boko Haram. It’s important to note that long before the January 1966 coup, ethno-religious riots/pogroms have been prevalent in the North from as far back as 1945. In 1953 when Anthony Enahoro moved a motion for independence in the federal parliament, anti-independence riots erupted in Kano that killed hundreds of Southerners and shortly after the civil war ended— ethno-religious riots resumed in the North—first with the Maitsatsine riots and subsequently to riots that all but became routine culminating in Fulani herdsmen massacres and Boko Haram that was in 2015 named the most murderous terrorist group in the world—far ahead of Al Qaeda and ISIS. Also notably, the North was not the only region that lost leaders in the January 1966 coup, but it was the only region that reacted with a pogrom. It is thus self evident that the Northern pogrom which led to the civil war was occasioned more by an already existing culture of violence, intolerance and mass murders than by the coup itself as vindicated by present day terrorist groups such as Boko Haram.
Finally, much has been said about the January 1966 coup—almost everyone has an opinion on it, but what has been missing is an analysis or appraisal of the scenarios prior to the coup and the likely consequence of what would have emerged had there been no coup. From the intrigues, plots and scheming prior to the coup certain things were already obvious. Firstly, with the rigging of the national census results in favour of the North in 1962 and rigging of elections in Tiv land, the Balewa/Ahmadu Bello administration was already on the way to achieve total domination of the North against both Northern minorities and the rest of Nigeria. Secondly, with the state of emergency declared in the Western region in 1962 and the alliance between Ladoke Akintola and Balewa, the stage was also set for the takeover of the Southwest and thus an extension of their national power. Thirdly, with the arrest and conviction of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1963 for treason, the massive rigging of elections in the Western region in 1964 and the consequent long running bloody riots that was ignored by the Balewa administration—it was obvious impunity/corruption had taken over the nation and Balewa/Ahmadu Bello were well on their way to creating a corrupt one party state.
As the saying goes, the handwriting was thus already on the wall owing to the unfolding scenarios. Had there been no coup, Nigeria would have emerged a corrupt one party state in the firm grip of Balewa/Ahmadu Bello who having succeeded in neutralising Chief Obafemi Awolowo through trumped up treason charges would most likely have also neutralised Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe possibly also through a trumped up treason charge that probably would have seen him and his recalcitrant supporters also clamped into jail or fleeing into exile. Without the coup, it is also possible that Chief Obafemi Awolowo and many of his supporters who were already serving a 10 year jail term for treason might not have survived the rigours of prison. Considering how the Balewa administration ignored the riots in the Western region from 1964 to 1966 even as hundreds were dying on a daily basis, many more lives would have been lost had the coupists not intervened. Therefore consequent upon a plague of bad leaders who were unwilling to play by the rules, Nigeria was already on a downward slope to a corrupt, dysfunctional, lawless, murderous, disharmonious and tyrannical one party state that would have left the nation prostrate possibly even worse than what presently obtains.
Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu