50 years after, Oba Olutoye, participant in Nigerian Civil War tells the world that Nzeogwu coup was meant to install Awolowo
1966 coup plotters planned to make Awolowo Head of State — Olutoye
The Owa of Ido-Ani, Oba Olufemi Olutoye, is a retired Major-General in the Nigerian Army. In this interview with PETER DADA, he shares his experiences as a soldier and his level of involvement in the 1966 military coup
Can you share your background with us?
My name is Olufemi Olutoye. I was born in Ido Ani town, Ose Local Government Area of Ondo State. I spent the early part of my childhood days in Benin City, Edo State, when my father was the headmaster at St. James’ Primary School, Benin City. From there, I went to Government College Ibadan in 1945. I completed my secondary school education in 1949. I then gained admission to the University of Ibadan in 1950 and I graduated in June 1954. I also went to Cambridge University and concluded my course there in 1955. When I returned to Nigeria, I started teaching at the Olu-Iwa College, Ijebu Ode, (now Adeola Odutola College). Later, I left teaching to join the Nigerian Army in 1957 and I retired in 1977.
What informed your decision to join the army, when you were a university graduate?
I believed then that I had attained the height of the teaching profession because teaching then was different from what we have now. I worked in a private school and I believed I had already reached the limit and that there was nothing to look forward to again. Secondly, I wanted adventure. I taught briefly in a public school in England where there was a Cadet Corps, where young boys were given uniforms. I asked myself then that why couldn’t we have such kind of school in Nigeria? I was the acting principal for a year, so I had to leave after that. That was when I got to the army where I rose through the ranks to become Major General before I eventually retired in 1977.
You were in the army when the first coup happened in Nigeria. Can you tell us about your experience?
I hope that I will have time to write more about that coup but I am doing something on it right now. The coup was led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. He was a Major in rank and of course, I was a Major then too but I was his senior. So I knew about that coup. I can say that now but I could not say that then because, in the army, the mere knowledge of a coup is a problem. We were together in India. So, he informed me about it and I enquired more about how he hoped to carry out the plot. When he told me that it would involve killings, I told him to count me out. I told him that I did not join the Nigerian Army to kill Nigerians.
Was he the one that personally approached you to inform you about the plan?
Yes, he personally came to inform me about it in 1964 when we were in India and the coup was carried out in 1966. Few other things happened which we cannot say now until the time is ripe.
Did he specifically tell you that the coup was going to be bloody?
Yes, that was why I told him to count me out. When I joined the Nigerian Army it was called West Africa Frontier Force. We were part of the Colonial Army. I did not join to kill fellow Nigerians. So, I told him I would not be a party to any military exercise that would result in the loss of lives of any Nigerian. So, that was why I did not participate in the coup.
The coup seemed to have been targeted at military officers from a particular part of Nigeria and it was also tagged, ‘Igbo Coup’. Why?
It later turned out to be so, although all the six majors who plotted it were Igbos except one — Major Adegboyega from Remo, Ogun State. I want to assure you that that was not Nzeogwu’s intention. As I told you, the coup was planned as far back as 1964. Maybe between 1964 and the end of 1965, he changed his mind. I can’t say why he did so but those that showed interest in the coup turned out to be Igbos. Even his utterances when the coup took place on January 15, 1966, showed that he didn’t mean it to be an Igbo affair but unfortunately, it turned out to be so that an Igbo man could also become the Head of State.
Did he tell you that he planned the coup to become the Head of State?
No. Infact what attracted me to Nzeogwu at the early stage when the coup was being planned was that I asked him if he was going to make himself the Head of State and he said no. He said he was going to bring a civilian who was more knowledgeable and who had what it took to make Nigeria great. I then asked him who that person was and he said the man was in Calabar prison. I said is it, Chief Obafemi Awolowo? He said yes. That was why I gave him my support but when he told me it was going to involve killings, I said no I was not interested again.
If the coup had been successful, do you think Nigeria would still be where we are today?
Because I happened to have known the whole genesis of the coup, my answer to that question is, Nigeria would have become a changed place now. Nigeria would have been one of the top countries in the world today. When he informed me about the plan when we were in India, I brought him to my room and asked many questions. I asked him why he wanted to do such a thing, what he hoped to achieve and he made some very good points. I then said let me help you write out some things. I wrote some of the papers for him because I was more knowledgeable than some of them. Like I said earlier, he was my junior, though we wore the same rank. I was older and more educated than he was. Our education plan then was superb, the same thing for industrialization and other good plans for the country. But immediately he told me it was going to involve the killing of people, I said sorry, I can’t be a party to it because when I got enlisted into the army, I did not sign to be killing Nigerians. He said there was no way he could carry out the coup without loss of lives and I told him if that was his plan, then he should count me out. Fortunately, when we came back to Nigeria from India, he was posted to Kaduna and I was posted to Lagos. So, we were separated and lost contact. So, I thought I had convinced him enough not to carry out any coup, and if he must, he should make sure that no life was lost. So, on January 15, 1966, I just heard on the radio that a coup had taken place and I recognized the voice. So, I told myself that this boy eventually carried out this coup! That was how it started. Later, we got to know that all the ring leaders of the coup were Igbos. The only exception was Adegboyega, a Yoruba man.
What do you think was wrong with the then government that instigated Nzeogwu to plan the coup?
The first thing was the census. There was no doubt that we were fed with wrong figures; that was the major defect in the running of government then, Nzeogwu did not like it. Secondly, those who were in government then were not doing well enough. We had mismanagement of public funds, some of them were semi-illiterates. Although some of them meant well for the nation but not all of them. Since Nzeogwu grew up in the North he knew most of them. He could speak the Hausa language fluently because he was born there and knew them very well. He didn’t want a change in government simply because he wanted to kill northerners, it was those who came and supported his effort that did that. Not only that, but he also ended up putting Ironsi, an Igbo man, as the Head of State. It then looked as if he killed the Hausa soldiers and put an Igbo man there. This was why Brigadier-General Ogundipe did not succeed in Ironsi. It was a sergeant that told Ogundipe that they were not going to take orders from him, that they would rather take orders from a captain who was a northerner instead of Ogundipe.
Why did you have disobedience in the military then?
There was no military at that period; the whole thing had turned upside down. There was confusion everywhere in the military. Unfortunately, many people outside the military did not know what was going on then. You see, the coup was not being organized in the army, it was usually carried out by a few people and when they succeed, everybody will fall in line.
Few months after the first unsuccessful coup, General Ironsi was killed, what was going on in the military then?
Before Ironsi was killed, he brought about a lot of changes in the structure of the country. At that time, we had a federation of three regions. He canceled the regional arrangement that we were practicing and people saw this as the idea of Igbo domination of Nigeria and that it would be a question of time that the prediction of an Igbo leader would be actualized. Many top Yorubas were killed but the majority of those killed were northerners. After this, an Igbo man was installed as the Head of State and this Igbo man surrounded himself with Igbo senior civil servants, who wrote most of the ideas for him, including the cancellation of the regional government, and adoption of the unitary government to the detriment of those people who thought otherwise.
In addition to that, there were many Igbo people in the North, and they were rejoicing. It would have been an easy thing if they had done that secretly. But for them, it was an occasion that the Sardauna was killed, they were telling the people in the North that ‘we have killed your leaders and now we are in charge.’ So it was annoying to the northerners. That type of thing did not happen in the West because not everybody supported Akintola. I am sure that if it was Awolowo that was killed, it would have been another story entirely in those days.
When Gowon became the Head of State, was he embraced in the military, considering the level of disobedience among the officers then?
At that time, we still had many Igbo officers in the army; it was part of this that led to the mass exodus of the Igbos. They left the West and North for the East so as not to be killed. Whenever a coup took place, it was not everybody that supported it. It is just like when you have a change of government; it is not everybody who will support the new government.
Can you compare the military during your time to what we have now?
Nowadays, we have more educated people in the military. Hardly can you see any senior officer now who is not a university graduate. Some of the senior ones that you see on the pages of newspapers have more than one degree in relevant disciplines. So, by any standard, they are not illiterates. You cannot compare the military men that we had then with the military men we have now in terms of knowledge and wisdom because our military now can compete with any military anywhere in the world. In the past, if they were given orders to go somewhere, they went without any questioning, but now they are more educated.
What about in the area of discipline and commitment?
You still cannot compare the military that we have today to what we had in our time because when you are educated, your mind is open to other ideas, even when somebody tells you to go, in your own personal estimation, you put whoever tells you to go on the scale and weigh him. You can do that now but in those days we can’t do that; all the thinking was done for us. That was the training of a soldier. Again, we have more officers now than then, not just officers but officers and men. So, a small clique could get together in those days, it is not possible now, the situation must be nationwide and you can’t have a good number of soldiers coming together. Reasoning together to do something together to bring a change by force, because we still have some people who will argue that why must we use force to talk to them, they will ask questions. They would ask why they were not invited first for a round-table talk or conference. These are the type of officers we have now. They can think for themselves and not have somebody sitting somewhere thinking for them. There is a lot of difference now.
It is 50 years now that a former Military Governor of old Western Region, Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, was killed. Did you have a relationship with him in the military?
Yes. he was my senior but we were friends, good friends.
How did you feel when you heard about his death as a military officer then?
When I learned about his death, I felt very bad and sad as a military officer. I felt bad that a colleague of mine shouldn’t have been treated or killed that way. As a Yoruba man, I felt proud that we had somebody who gave his life in an attempt to save his guest because that was what happened. He told those boys who came, the northern soldiers, that there was no way they could take Ironsi away because he was his guest. He was reported to have said that much. I am sure some people would look the other way when Ironsi was being taken away. You will find some Nigerians who would say that a Yoruba man looked the other way but he was not that type of person at all. He was brave, there’s no doubt about that, he was one of the very brave soldiers we had then. He displayed bravery and valor in Congo and that was the reason he was awarded the Military Cross for his exceptional bravery in the face of enemies’ fire. He was the first Nigerian to get a Military Cross.