My role in the January 1966 coup —General Olutoye

Major General Olufemi Olutoye (retd.), who is now the traditional ruler of Ido Ani in Ondo State, is one of the first graduates to join the Nigerian Army. He was compulsorily retired in 1977 by the General Olusegun Obasanjo regime. The monarch shares the experience of the first coup in Nigeria with HAKEEM GBADAMOSI, his involvement, why the coup failed, among other issues. Excerpts:


How was your growing up period like before joining the military?

I was born in Ido Ani, but I spent the early part of my days, elementary days, in Benin City (now in Edo State), where my father was a headmaster in Saint James School and from there, I went to Government College, Ibadan. I went to Government College in 1945 and finished in 1949 and went to University College (now University of Ibadan) in 1950 for a degree and left in 1954. I went to Cambridge University in 1965 and came back to teach at Ijebu Ode known as Olu Iwa College then, now Adeola Odutola College, Ijebu Ode. I ran away from teaching to join the Army in 1957 till I retired in 1977.


What prompted you to join the army then because you said you were a teacher?

As a university graduate and with all my background, I reached the top of teaching, and nothing challenging to look forward to, though teaching is a little bit different now. Secondly, I wanted a bit of adventure. I taught in public school in England briefly and there was cadet corps, where young boys were given uniforms then. I said can’t we have this in any of our schools in Nigeria? I was interested anyway, and coupled with the fact that I had already reached the limit of teaching: I was principal of a school for a year. Maybe I would have continued, but circumstances made things impossible for me to continue. So, I had to abandon teaching. Not that I believe that my reward was in heaven. I didn’t share that view because my father was a teacher who taught for almost 40 years. That’s how I got into the army and retired in March 1977.


The first coup in Nigeria was in January 1966 and you were in the army then. What was your level of involvement in the coup?

I hope I will have time to write a little bit about this, and I believe it won’t be too long. I’m presently doing something about this. Because that coup was led by Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, who was a major then. I was also a major then. So, I knew about it. I knew about that coup. I can say that now, but I couldn’t say that then, because the mere knowledge was a big problem, then. Nzeogwu informed me about the coup.  When I inquired a little bit more of how Nzeogwu was going to carry out the coup, I told him to count me out because I did not join Nigerian Army to kill Nigerians. When I joined Nigerian Army, it was the West African Frontier Force that was part of the colonial army. I did not join to kill fellow Nigerian. So, I told him I would not be a party to any military exercises, that would result in the loss of lives of Nigerians. So, I was not involved in that coup. He informed me about the coup in 1964, but the coup was carried out in 1966, two years after. A few other things happened which we cannot say now until the time is ripe.

The coup was said to be targeted at cleansing some groups in the army. How true is this?

It turned out to be so, because the six majors are all Igbos except one, Adewale Ademoyega, who is from Remo division of Ogun State. But I want to assure you that that was not Nzeogwu’s intentions. As I told you earlier, the coup was planned as far back as 1964; but that was not his intention then. Maybe between 1964 and the end of 1965, he changed. But I don’t know because he recruited those who showed interest, but the entire people who participated turned out to be Igbo. Even his utterances at the early part when the coup took place in January 15, 1966, he didn’t mean it to be an Igbo affair, but it turned out to be so, unfortunately with an Igbo man replacing the Head of State, Alhaji Tafawa Balewa.


Do you see the coup carried out by these six majors changing the Nigerian narrative then?

It would have changed the country because I happened to have known the whole genesis of the coup. Nigeria would have been a changed place by now.  We would have been one of the top countries in the world because I asked Nzeogwu why he wanted to plan the coup and I even contribute if I may confess. I wrote some of the papers then, because I thought if you’d been to school the way I had been, you should let the country benefit from it. So, when this young man approached me in India in 1964, when the idea gripped him, I asked very many questions before asking him to give me some days to think over it. Later, I brought him into my room and asked questions because I was a little bit more knowledgeable than him then. He was junior to me though we were in the same rank. Then I was older, more educated, more exposed. Our plans for education then, industrialisation, economy and so many other things were superb, even our military would have been first class.

And when he told me that his plans involved the taking of lives, I said ‘sorry, I have no hand in this and will not be a party to it’ because when I was enlisted into the army, I did not do it with a view to being a party to the killing of any Nigerian. He said he didn’t see any way he could carry out the coup without loss of lives. That was where we parted ways and told him to count me out. Fortunately, when we came back to Nigeria at the end of the training in 1964, he was posted to Kaduna and I was posted to Lagos and we were separated. Unlike now that we can contact one another, there was no way to contact ourselves then and I believed I had convinced him not to carry out any coup and if he should, he must make sure there was no loss of lives.  So, in January 1966, I just heard over the radio ‘Fellow countrymen’ and I recognised the voice and that was all. That was how the first coup came in. Then newspapers revealed that all those who participated in that coup, the ring leaders, were Igbo, except Ademoyega


Can that coup be likened to the 1990 Gideon Okar coup?

No. Okar’s coup was against the North. It was against the Northern oligarchy, but the Nzeogwu coup was not just northerners because they killed a lot of Yoruba, junior Yoruba officers and even the northern officers were killed without any offence.


What do think was wrong with the government of that time that prompted the coup?

It started with the outcome of the census exercise. There was no doubt then that we were fed with wrong figures. Even up till now, what is the actual population of Nigeria? Nobody knows, but we keep guessing. It all started from then. You tell one lie and you required nine more to cover the lie. That was what happened. It was one major default and defect in the running of the government and Nzeogwu didn’t like it at all. Then those who were in government, according to him, were not doing well enough. They lacked the art of management, beautiful semi-Illiterates. Though some of them meant well, not all of them meant well, and he grew up in the North and knew many of them. He spoke Hausa language fluently because he was born there. So, he knew most of the people well, but that was not why he wanted to overthrow the government. He didn’t want to take over the government because he wanted to kill northerners. No.  It was those who came and supported his effort who did that and not only that, it ended up by strange fate putting Ironsi as the Head of State. So, it looked as if you killed all the Yoruba and all the Hausa/Fulani and you’re replacing them with an Igbo man. This was why Ogundipe did not succeed Ironsi, because it was a sergeant who told Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe that they were not going to take orders from him and that they would rather take orders from a captain who was a northerner.


But this is against the ethics of the military

Which military when the whole structure had collapsed? There was confusion all over.


What was the feeling of the army then and after Ironsi was killed?

The coup was organised by a few of the people, a handful of people and when they succeeded, everybody fell in line. Then, before Ironsi was killed, he brought about a lot of changes in the structure of the country. By that time, we had a federation of three regions. Ironsi cancelled the regions and this was made possible because of the events that followed and people saw this as bringing into fruition the idea that Igbo domination of Nigeria was a question of time, which one of the Igbo leaders had predicted some years before. Maybe he was in the state of inebriation or drunk at that time, but whether it was true or false, we don’t know. But this was what was read into it. So, the majority of those who were killed were northerners, though some top Yoruba officers were killed too. Then after killing all those people, they installed Ironsi who was an Igbo man and he surrounded himself with senior civil servants who were Igbo too, permanent secretaries, technocrats and so on, who wrote most of these things which became very annoying to a lot of people, up to the cancelling of the whole idea of regional government, pursuing a central government or unitary government, which is what is still being practised now to the detriment of those of us who think otherwise.

In addition to that, you know we have many Igbo in the North, particularly in Kaduna, Kano, and so on. They were rejoicing and it would have not been right if they had done that secretly. But they believed it was an occasion for rejoicing that Sardauna was killed. They even started jeering at the people in the North, that this was the way we killed your leaders, which was annoying. This type of thing did not happen in the West because not everybody supported Chief S.L Akintola. I am sure if it had happened to Awolowo, it would have been a different story. In fact, what attracted me to Nzeogwu at the very early stages of the planning of the coup was when I asked him if he’s hoping to make himself the head of state after the coup, he said ‘No’ that he’s going to bring somebody, a civilian who was knowledgeable and who had a lot to show by his performance, when he was given the opportunity to rule. I asked him who was the man, and he said the man was in Calabar Prisons. So, I said Chief Obafemi Awolowo and he said ‘Yes.’ So, I said if he’s going to bring somebody that’s knowledgeable, who is acclaimed to be more knowledgeable than those he’s removing, then it is alright. That was why I gave him my own support and blessing at the initial stage. But when he said it would involve killing, I said ‘No, thank you.’


When General Gowon came on board as the Head of State, was he generally accepted within the army?

Well, that time we still have quite a number of Igbo officers. It was part of this that led to the exodus of Igbo from the North to the East, where they felt they were more secure because they were afraid that the northerners could attack them. Some of them lost their lives in Kaduna Railway Station; quite a lot of them were killed while trying to catch available train to the East. When a coup takes place, not everybody supports. It’s not possible for everybody to support. It’s just like when you have a change of government now, not everybody will support.


Can you compare the military then to what we are having now?

The military now is more educated. It comprises more educated people. Hardly can you see any senior officer now who is not a university graduate. All the senior ones that you see on the pages of newspapers, some of them have two degrees in relevant disciplines. So, by any standard, they are not illiterates. You cannot compare then with the military now in terms of knowledge and wisdom because our military can compete with military anywhere in the world. In the past, if they ordered them to go, they would go without any question. But now, in terms of education, commitment and discipline, you cannot compare because when you’re 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 it. You can do that now but in those days, we didn’t do that and we didn’t have to do that. All the thinking was done for us, that was the training of a soldier. Again, we have more officers now than before, not just officers but officers and men. So, it was possible for a small clique to get together in those days. It’s 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 find some people who will argue that why must we use force to talk to them, they will ask questions that  can’t we call them for a roundtable talk or conference. These are the type of officers we have now, they can think for themselves and not having somebody sitting somewhere thinking for them. There’s a lot of difference now.


Did you have any relationship with Adekunle Fajuyi? As a military officer, how did you feel when you heard about his death?

Yes, even though he was my senior, we were friends, good friends. When I learnt 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 here was 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 who came, that there was no way they could take Ironsi away because he was his guest. He was reported to have said that much. I’m sure there are some people who would say he looked the other way when Ironsi was being taken away. You will find some Nigerians who would say that 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 bravest soldiers we have then. He displayed bravery and valour 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.


Why is coup not popular again, not only in civilised environment but also in Africa?

Generally across the globe, coup is seen to be old-fashioned and not only that the old school carry out coup and seize that opportunity to perpetuate themselves in office and very few coup plotters have done well, very few. The only one we can regard to have done very good and left a good mark is in Turkey. Is it Mobutu (Sese Seko) who is regarded as one of the richest men in the world? I know him very well. When I went to serve in Congo between 1960 and 1961, Mobutu was just a boy then.