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Nzeogwu—January 66 Coup, Corruption And The Price Of Tribalism – By Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu



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There has been an attempt in recent times to restrict corruption, its origins and menace to the Jonathan era. The propagandists have sold tales of former president’s Jonathan’s alleged massive corruption, its purported historic dimensions and how it ruined the nation. But the facts are different. Corruption in Nigeria dates back to the first republic and has since metamorphosed into a national pastime and to a large extent a national culture in which almost everyone to a larger or lesser extent is involved one way or the other. It is a vice that has enriched a few and pauperised the majority. In Nigeria— politicians as well as the Police, customs officials, artisans and even pastors are all involved in corruption. While for many Nigerians corruption means only looting of public funds, in reality looting is only just an aspect of corruption which is more broadly defined as the “misuse of public, private or entrusted power and generally dishonest and illegal behaviour for private gain which includes bribery, election rigging, nepotism, influence peddling, non respect for the rule of law or perversion of justice” amongst others.

With the widespread lack of development and poverty in the land, there is understandably an emotional and somewhat hypocritical outcry against corruption rightly or wrongly perceived to be the major culprit in the nation’s predicament. This is to the extent that many have proposed a Jerry Rawlings kind of coup in Nigeria, while some others for the same reasons are willing to support Buhari even as he disregards the constitution and the rule of law in his so called corruption war that has been largely discredited by its selectivity, double standards and lack of sincerity. Not many though, have bordered to ask how we got to a situation that according to transparency international put Nigeria on the map as the most corrupt country in the world between 1994 and 2003 and remained one of the most corrupt since then. How exactly did corruption and misrule progressively get so bad and why was nothing done to nip it in the bud earlier? Something indeed was done about corruption as early as the first republic, not in any way different from what Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings latter did in Ghana as young officers led by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu struck in the early hours of 15th January 1966 in what became Nigeria’s first and perhaps only anti-corruption revolutionary coup.

In his coup speech, Major Nzeogwu had declared that “the aim of the revolutionary council is to establish a strong, united and prosperous nation free from corruption and internal strife. 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 VIP’s at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.”  The putsch led to the demise of the prime minister, premier of the North amongst others and the collapse of the first republic.  Its immediate causes could be traced to the general misrule, creeping corruption and in particular the violent crisis in the Western region which erupted soon after Nigeria got independence. By 1962, disagreements between Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Ladoke Akintola had led to sustained violence and acts of lawlessness with law makers engaged in vicious physical combats in the Western regional parliament. Amongst serious injuries and other damages, the mace of office was broken. The federal government intervened to curb the lawlessness and violence by imposing a state of emergency. Dr Moses Majekodunmi was consequently appointed interim premier of the Western region on the 29th of June 1962.

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By 1963, the alliance between Akintola, Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello had been perfected. At the same time Chief Obafemi Awolowo was arrested for coup plotting/ treason. Following his trial he was alongside some accomplices convicted for treason and jailed for 10 years. By the time the federal elections became due in 1964, Chief Awolowo was conveniently out of the way and the election was massively rigged in the Western region sparking off sustained riots (wetie) and acts of thuggery, violence, arson, mass murders and general acts of lawlessness in the region. The violence and lawlessness in the Western region was to continue from 1964 until 1966. In addition to the Western region crisis was also the TIV riot, the frequent resort to bigotry and associated tribalism by regional and national leaders, the saga of rigged census results, bribery and the growing 10 percent corruption scandal etc. An accumulation of these ills and in particular the unending violence in the Western region led to the coup by young officers who were gravely saddened by the deteriorating situation which they saw as a betrayal of the hopes, aspirations and ideals for which the nation fought for independence.

Yet no sooner did the dust of the initially popular anti-corruption putsch settle down, the bogey of tribalism was introduced and the coup was primitively tagged an Igbo coup. Not minding that the coup was crushed by General Aguiyi Ironsi, himself an Igbo and that the coup was most importantly a response to the sustained bloody crisis in the Western region far away from the East. But meat had already been provided to the Wolves of tribalism and feast on it they did. All of a sudden, no one was interested in what little merits the coup had particularly its anti-corruption stance anymore. The baby was effectively thrown away with the bathwater and the only focus was now tribalism and invented conspiracies. Not ending there—it led to a violent counter-coup and pogroms that eventually culminated in the Nigeria-Biafra war. At the end of the war corruption had triumphed. The forces that disregarded and indeed were even offended by the fundamental revolt against corruption and misrule the January 1966 coup in spite of its imperfections represented had won and from that point corruption was only going to be largely legitimate shielded as it had become by the more powerful forces of tribalism.

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Since then, Nigeria has progressively become a republic of corruption and impunity. By the time Umaru Dikko and co, and the trio of Generals Babangida, Abacha and Abdulsalami Abubakar finished with Nigeria; corruption had not only been institutionalised and consolidated, Nigeria held the crown as the most corrupt country on planet earth. It is of course not an accident that all the principal characters that consolidated Nigeria’s corruption are the same actors that rebelled against the January 1966 coup and plunged the nation into a civil war. Worse still, these men strut the land like Peacocks, basking in the  tribal immunity that has made them untouchable.


The Price of Nigerian Tribalism:

In 1979 Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings organised a revolutionary coup very similar in its anti-corruption ideals to the January 1966 coup. In prosecuting the coup, three former heads of states, five generals and one colonel were executed. Three Supreme Court judges were also executed.  A further 155 officers were jailed. Interestingly none of those executed was from Jerry Rawlings Ewe tribe, but Ghanaians did not inject tribalism into the coup. They saw the larger picture and Jerry Rawlings succeeded in eradicating corruption, cleaning up the state, entrenching accountability and laying the foundation for the functional democracy and prosperity Ghana now enjoys.  Had tribalism been injected into the Jerry Rawlings coup as it was in Nigeria, the coup would have failed, the forces of corruption would have won and Ghana like Nigeria would since have become a failed state convulsed by massive looting and strife.

Like the Jerry Rawlings putsch, had the Nzeogwu coup and its aftermath been better managed in view of its overall aims to eradicate corruption, impunity, tribalism and misrule at that early stage, Nigeria would have been a far less corrupt and more functional state today and our leaders would not benefit from the “ethnic immunity and support” that has largely shielded them from prosecution. We are in effect paying a heavy price for the mainstreaming of tribalism into Nigerian politics with no end in sight.

Lawrence Chinedu Nwobu

Email: lawrencenwobu@gmail.com

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