Military Rebellion of July 29


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Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975:

The coup against Gowon - Part 5

continued from




Nowa Omoigui





As previously noted, although Gowon was not personally corrupt, some persons in his regime allegedly engaged in corrupt practices.   For example, by the time of the coup, the average commercial property holding of his Governors was estimated at about 8 houses each in the range of N49,000 – N120,000,  along with farming estates.  This was a big deal at that time, although, using standards of Nigerian corruption in subsequent regimes, Gowon’s Governors were, in retrospect, Boy Scouts, as far as stealing is concerned. 

Nevertheless, like many regimes that came after, he did make an initial and ongoing effort to be seen combating corruption, such as with the Investigation of Assets Decree No. 37 of 1968 and subsequent efforts to investigate and punish deep seated post-war corruption in the military. It was also, in 1973, during Gowon’s regime, that the Police (under Alhaji Kam Salem) established the “X-Squad”.  It was specifically designed to investigate fraud, both in the public and private sectors.    Interestingly, the X-Squad, in its early years, unmasked many scandals.   What I am unclear about is how many cases were successfully prosecuted. 

For example, using the technique of over-invoicing, construction materials were often bought outside the country by public servants and contractors at exorbitant prices.   The difference between the purchase price and true market value was then expropriated.   Even the practice of importing expired drugs was already well established.

In March 1974, an international hemp trafficking scandal occurred.  Ms. Iyabo Olorunkoya mentioned the names of Brigadiers Sotomi and Adekunle in court papers in the UK.  Although they claimed innocence and denied some salacious details, both Brigadiers were retired by Gowon from the Army after she was convicted – reportedly under pressure from their embarrassed military colleagues.

Even more important for Gowon’s image, however, was what took place in July 1974.  One Mr. Godwin Daboh – allegedly instigated by Paul Unongo and then Benue-Plateau State Governor Joseph Gomwalk - wrote open letters to Federal Communications Commissioner Joseph Tarka who, along with the others, was also from Gowon’s home state of Benue-Plateau. He followed the open letters with an affidavit in court alleging corruption.  Tarka – a political leader of the middle belt - was eventually hounded by the “Lagos-Ibadan” Press into resigning from office on August 1st, 1974.  In a subsequent Daily Times newspaper article, however, it was revealed that Tarka had initially resisted resigning because ‘If I resign, it will set off a chain of reactions of various events, the end of which nobody could foretell.’

A month later, on August 31st, a protégé of Tarka, one Mr. Aper Aku accused Benue-Plateau Governor Gomwalk of corruption in an affidavit filed at the Jos High Court.  Before that he had written several letters to Gomwalk and Gowon alleging corruption against Gomwalk.  After the affidavit, Aku was arrested for public incitement.  But Gomwalk was also called to Lagos to defend himself against the charges. 

All of this was occurring against a background of daily Press attacks and second-guessing, including public statements by Students Unions.  The disappointment felt in the West about the Census results – and Tarka’s public spat with Awolowo about it - played a role in some of the “Lagos-Ibadan” Press hype.  But there were also calls for Gowon to be just as aggressive with his “Benue-Plateau boys” as he had been with two senior Yoruba officers - Brigadiers “Black Scorpion” Adekunle (regarded as a wartime hero by some) and “Show Boy” Sotomi.  The difference, however, was that the case of Adekunle and Sotomi had been the subject of a legal process in a court of law in the UK, after which Ms. Olorunkoya was actually convicted.   The cases of Tarka and Gomwalk were, at this stage, still allegations.  In Gowon’s mind they deserved to be presumed innocent until proven guilty by due process. 

After his resignation, Tarka pointed out the dangers of “high-tech press and judicial lynching.”  In an interview with the Sunday Observer in early August 1974 he had warned that “any commissioner, governor, chief justice, judge, magistrate, military officer or civil servant must resign the moment he is unlucky to find anyone who can be instigated to accuse him.” 

With this in mind Gowon reviewed an elaborate explanation made in writing (and copied to Vice Admiral Wey and Major General Hassan Katsina) by then Governor Gomwalk.  As he was about to depart for China on a State visit, he publicly declared Gomwalk innocent of the allegations, explaining that he had looked into the allegations and cross-checked references and found no evidence of guilt.   He also asked Gomwalk to publish his defence publicly. 

Gowon – who, in 1970, had actually promised to set up Special Corruption Tribunals - may well have been well intentioned in trying to stave off what was now emerging as a pattern of blackmail against government functionaries. But he made a serious error of judgment in handling the matter personally.  Gomwalk’s “defence” ought to have been presented to an independent judicial panel (with Military and Police representation) and the process allowed to play out while Gomwalk temporarily relinquished office.  A “third party”, not Gowon, ought to have declared Gomwalk innocent (if in fact he was).  No sooner had Gowon “cleared” him of all charges than newspapers – totally ignoring the details of Gomwalk’s “defence” - began writing stories that it took Gowon ‘twenty four hours’ to decide the matter of his “home boy”! In truth it was more like one week. 

The public reaction was all orchestrated while Gowon was in China, considerably embarrassing him and his delegation, while at the same time denying the public at home a chance to focus, even if briefly, on the strategic benefits of the diplomatic opening to China.  Gowon began to suspect, rightly, that there were some sinister forces behind the campaign of “corruption affidavits.” A few years later, some military officers revealed that they had indeed assisted in encouraging individuals to swear affidavits of corruption in order to pressure Gowon to change his Governors.   But before their plans could mature in September (with additional affidavits against Governors Ukpabi Asika, Diette-Spiff and three others) the government reacted.  Dr. Taslim Elias, then Commissioner for Justice and Attorney General, announced that the Judicial Advisory Committee had decided that the judiciary should no longer accept such affidavits “unless such affidavits are in respect of any proceedings in court.”   Although technically “correct” from the standpoint of due process, the announcement by Elias had the effect of creating an impression that the regime was trying to protect its Governors and hide suspected indiscretions.  The Press (in general), Intelligentsia, Students and some military officers (eg Major General Ekpo and then Brigadier Abisoye) reacted in the same way.  There was an appearance of “cover-up”, they thought. 

When Gowon returned from China, he made a public statement that if the aim of the campaign of affidavits was to get  “at the man at the top” he was “ready to go to battle for the country’s survival.” He also ordered massive security precautions in Lagos on the day of his arrival.  The entire route from Ikeja airport through Ikorodu road all the way through Herbert Macaulay across Carter Bridge into Idumota and Ikoyi was closed.  Buried within the long convoy – including heavily armed troops and armoured cars - was a Green Mercedes Benz 600 with the license plate “NA 1” (ie Nigerian Army 1) surrounded by 24 outriders on “BMW” and “Triumph” motorbikes.  With Lagos traffic backed up and commuters frustrated by diversions occasioned by ongoing road and bridge construction, the elaborate “security show” supported by pomp and pageantry only served to alienate more people. Among them was an important fellow Benue Plateau indigene, Colonel JN Garba, the Guards Brigade Commander who – acting on orders - organized the security reception.  Gowon had lost credibility – in his view.   Naturally, he said nothing at the time.

Gowon and the Fourth Estate of the Realm – “What did Amakiri do?”

In 1828, the English historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, used the term “Fourth Estate of the Realm” to describe the gallery where reporters sat in the British Parliament.  He was writing (tongue in cheek) against the backdrop of estates (or classes) in pre-1789 France. These had – prior to the French Revolution - been comprised of the Clergy (as the First Estate), the Nobility (as the Second), and the Commoners (as the Third).    Following Macaulay’s lead, the term “Fourth Estate” continues - to this day - to be used to encapsulate the power and prestige of the Press as an institution (some say “watch-dog”) in its own right in the polity. 

In the preceding section I pointed out the increasingly tense relationship between the allegedly Yoruba-dominated “Lagos-Ibadan” Press and the Gowon regime after the census results were announced.  However, it must not be assumed that this was the only source of friction or that the so-called “Lagos-Ibadan” component of the Nigerian Press was the only section Gowon had problems with.  From time to time he also had to fight rearguard action with the New Nigerian, for example.  That newspaper was sometimes used as a mouthpiece for core northern views and editorials on the policies of the Gowon regime. 

Nevertheless, the most enthralling episode in the history of post-war Regime-Press relations was what became known as the “Amakiri” affair.  Although primarily a Rivers State issue, it set the entire national Press Corps against the military government and highlighted some of the abuses perpetrated by some of Gowon’s Governors.   

Minere Amakiri was one of the Rivers State based correspondents for the Nigerian Observer – a newspaper owned by the then Midwest (later Bendel) State government.    In 1973 he contributed a piece about an impending strike by teachers in the State.   Because the news item was published – through no fault of Amakiri’s - on the 31st birthday of the Rivers State Governor, Amakiri was accused of embarrassing him. Commodore Alfred Diete-Spiff then ordered his ADC to publicly shave Amakiri’s head bald and beat him with 24 lashes of a cane in the presence of his guests.

Independent elements within the National Press Corps rose to defend one of their own.  For weeks, many newspapers published a small solidarity quote at the top left-hand corner of their papers every day that read:

“What did Amakiri do?”

This press campaign coincided with one of the most fascinating anti-establishment court cases I have ever followed in Nigeria.  It was the Amakiri case of 1973/74 that first brought Lagos lawyer Gani Fawehinmi to national limelight – and my attention.  Even though I was still a young teenager at the time, I still vividly recall one of his great courtroom quotes as he tried to tie the Military Governor to the actions of his ADC in harming Amakiri:

“If A gives an order to B, and B carries out the order to the detriment of C, then A is prima facie liable and either A or A and B can be sued.”

After the Amakiri case, the Gowon regime as a whole became increasingly short-tempered with the Press and did temporarily close a few uncooperative newspapers.  Government irritation with the fourth estate (and vice versa) formed part of the backdrop to the broader political tensions of late 1974 and early 1975.  But as the Nigerian Press was to discover in time to come, the attitude of military regimes to the Press took on greater viciousness in subsequent military regimes. Some of these regimes were led by some of the officers that removed Gowon from office.

Revenue Allocation

The walk through memory lane would be incomplete without touching on this subject.  It will serve to place in context the relationship over time between Gowon and an increasingly important constituency – the Oil states.

Between January 1974 and July 1975 practically every major political issue addressed by the Gowon government either pleased or offended one powerful group or the other.  Revenue allocation was no different.  The growing importance of Oil as a huge source of funds made the discrepancies between States revenues more and more sensitive.   Beginning with the Phillipson Commission of 1946, revenue allocation, like census enumeration, has always been a hot button item in Nigeria.  In Gowon’s time, states that did not possess the potential to tap Oil rents and royalties wanted other criteria used for allocating revenue.  The Federal government, for its part, also wanted more of the pie.  Thus, the time-honored principle of derivation came under increasing attack.

After Phillipson, the colonial government empowered the Chicks-Phillipson, Chicks and Raisman Commissions of 1951, 1953 and 1958, respectively to look into the matter.  In 1953 the West threatened to secede because it was unhappy with the Chicks commission report. 

The first post-independence regime also asked the Binns Commission of 1964 to undertake the same task.  But the East threatened to secede because it considered some Binns commission recommendations unsatisfactory. Eventually things stabilized with 50 percent of the revenue from mineral resources going to the region from which the minerals were mined while 30 percent was allocated to the central distributable pool to be divided among all regions. The Federal Government appropriated the residual 20 percent.

Shortly after the creation of 12 states, Gowon promulgated Decree No. 15 of 1967.  However, the regional sharing arrangement was thought to be problematic, leading to the appointment of the Dina Interim Revenue Allocation committee of 1968 which recommended that states’ shares of Oil rents and royalties be reduced to 10%.  Nevertheless Gowon (under pressure from Oil producing States and aware of the sensitivity of the issue at the time of war) chose to keep the rate at 45% as part of an interim arrangement to keep the Oil states happy as coalition partners in the fight against Biafra.  At the same time he made some changes in the Distributable Pool Account to keep others happy.  But then, in 1969, he promulgated the Petroleum Decree (No 51) of 1969 that vested all the lands and the resources in, under or upon the Land in the Federal Military Government.  But even this compromise arrangement broke down when it became apparent in 1974 that the discrepancy between ‘Oil producing States’ and non-producers was increasing exponentially, in spite of the relatively smaller populations of the former.  States in the former ‘West’ and the former ‘North’, which enjoyed the fruits of derivation in the heydays of Cocoa and Groundnuts, lobbied against the huge amounts then Midwest and Rivers States were getting under the Oil derivation principle. In October 1974, after difficult negotiations in the SMC, Gowon announced a new formula, which came into effect in April 1975 and remained in effect until 1981.  This formula reduced the direct derivation percentage from 45% to 20% of onshore mining rents and royalties.  The remaining 80% of onshore mining rents and royalties were routed through the distributable pool to be shared by federal and state governments.  No direct derivation could be accrued from offshore rents and royalties.  All of it went to the central pool. 

According to then Military Governor Ogbemudia of the Midwest:

“It was possible to introduce the new revenue allocation formula, which was a major political issue, partly because the interests that would lose, the smaller states, from where the oil was produced, were convinced of the necessity for the change in the interest of national unity. In any case, they were helpless in the face of all odds had they felt otherwise.” (Italics mine)

Tremors in the Military – Countdown to July 1975  

Having outlined the political and economic substrate we can now return to the purely military aspects of the Military rebellion of 1975.

It should be noted, however, that the military coup that removed General Gowon was office was not the only plot against him. There was a civilian plot hatched by a Nigerian businessman to recruit mercenaries to invade the country.  However, the mercenaries, according to their account in the book “Firepower”, decided not to do the Nigerian job, because they were offered an easier contract to foment mischief in Rhodesia at about the same time.

As previously noted, the military coup that brought Gowon to power in 1966 was not without intrigue.  It unfolded in a manner that wasn’t planned by coup leader Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed who eventually had to concede the leadership of the country to Gowon.   His fellow musketeers, then Captain Martin Adamu and then Major Theophilus Danjuma became some of Gowon’s principal pillars.

Another personality whose would-be role in the July 1966 coup was undermined by events at the Abeokuta garrison on July 28, was then Lt. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua.  He was then adjutant of the 1st Battalion in Enugu.  Although relatively junior, Yar’Adua was actually the designated coup contact and coordinator for the Enugu/Eastern region zone.  However, he was unable to carry out his part of the operation because the Battalion Commander (Lt. Col. David Ogunewe) got wind of events in other parts of the country just in time to force a stand-down in the Officers Mess.  Then Military Governor Ojukwu quickly slipped out of town and then later surrounded himself and his family with a handpicked Mobile Police force.  After an appreciation, Yar’Adua and other ‘northern’ military officers involved figured that the risks of taking precipitate action outweighed the benefits.  This was in spite of exhortations by Murtala Mohammed, calling in from Ikeja Barracks in Lagos, that they should “do something.”  What transpired, however, was that Ogunewe used back channels to Gowon to arrange the wholesale departure of non-eastern soldiers of the battalion by train through Kaduna to Lagos. For his role in the saga, Gowon compensated him (Ogunewe) after the war. 

On its way to Lagos – under the command of then Major Benjamin Adekunle – the non-eastern detachment of the 1st battalion was involved in the controversial killing of some Igbo officers who had joined the Train at Kaduna.  Shehu Yar’Adua himself was later accused by Adekunle of using a bayonet to stab him when he tried to investigate.  Nevertheless, many years later, YarAdua had to live with some unfair back-stabbing and “Monday Quarterback” sniping from some ‘northern’ officers who felt that the “failure” of the coup in Enugu was what actually led to the civil war, since Ojukwu’s regional government survived.  Had Yar’Adua succeeded, they reasoned, Ojukwu would not have been in a position to refuse Gowon’s authority.  What this line of reasoning fails to take account of is that no one in Enugu expected Lt. Pam Mwadkon to launch the coup in Abeokuta when he did.  Like those in Lagos and elsewhere they had to “adjust to the situation” as best they could.

After July 29, 1966, Yar’Adua kept up his very close relationship with another brow beaten officer (Murtala Mohammed) and even served under him in the 2nd Division during the war after being transferred from Adekunle’s 3rd Marine Commando. Both men, incidentally from the ‘far north’, had very close links to the political leadership of the 1st republic.  Shehu’s father – Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua - was a one-time NPC Minister for Lagos. Mohammed’s Uncle – Alhaji Inua Wada - was a one time NPC Minister for Defence.  They came from a different slice of the “northern cake” unlike middle belt officers who may well have had links to the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) which was opposed to the NPC.

But Mohammed and Yar’Adua were not the only officers whose roles before and/or during the war would be the subject of second-guessing by their colleagues and rivals.   The Commander of the Brigade of Guards, Colonel JN Garba was often the butt of derisive jokes because he had never, even for one day, seen action in combat.  Envious colleagues viewed him as a pampered officer because of his perceived closeness to Gowon riding side by side at national parades and commanding honor guards at the airport for visiting dignitaries.  His image – in the eyes of some - was one of a ‘ceremonial officer’ since he had done little else since November 1964.  Nevertheless, he commanded a very vital unit without whose support the Gowon government would have had to be taken down by extreme force and bloodshed.   How Garba was recruited into the plot to overthrow Gowon (while being made to think he was in control and in the leadership) is a testimony to Yar’Adua’s strategic genius.  It is for good reason that General Danjuma (although in a different context) once referred to SM Yar’Adua as a “schemer.”  There is another school of thought that ascribes Garba’s participation in the coup (alongside real civil war veterans) to an effort to make up for lack of battle experience.  However, there were likely other factors, personal (such as ambition, his misunderstanding with Mrs. Gowon and his fear that he might be consumed by Gowon’s increasing unpopularity) and notions of patriotism. 

Later on in the essay, we will mention then Lt. Col. Sani Bello, one time Army ADC to Major General Ironsi, back in 1966.  He too did not come out of the events of July 1966 without some degree of embarrassment.  Then Lt. Bello was on the wrong end of the ‘guns of July 1966’ and was barely saved – by then Lt. Mohammed Magoro - from an uncertain fate along Iwo road.  Nine years later, however, Lt. Col. Bello was in on the right end of the “guns of July 1975.” 

There were other core July 1975 putschists – like Ibrahim Taiwo, Muhammadu Buhari, Muktar Mohammed, Anthony Ochefu, Ibrahim Babangida, Inua Wushishi, Mustafa Amin etc.  But let us first outline some of the key issues that raised the political temperature of the Army specifically, as a campaign of calumny in the larger society unfolded – some say orchestrated by the putschists or their allies. 

Unknown to the public, according to Brigadier SO Ogbemudia (rtd), Gowon’s decision not to conduct high profile “Nuremberg style” trials of ex-Biafran officers after the civil war was one of his early problems.  There were some at the time that would have preferred it otherwise – although one can’t get anyone to admit to this allegation at this time.  But Gowon’s prestige and stature prevailed – for a while.   When, however, he compromised with Doctors (during the Doctors’ Strike of 1975) after initially declaring that he would not, his Army critics spread the word that it was another sign of Gowon’s “weakness.”  They would have much preferred he handle the Doctors they way he dealt with University lecturers.   Other issues of interest included demands that he change his military Governors, do more to “look after” the Army (in spite of the huge defence budget) and extricate the Army from the image problem it had with the census of 1973.  Other demands included clarification of his political program, creation of states, looking into transferring the federal capital, and revisiting the revenue allocation matter.  All of these and more became the subject of continuing consultations and meetings not only with senior military officers but also non-commissioned officers.  The atmosphere had become politicized enough that those issues which would ordinarily be outside the purview of a meeting between the C-in-C and NCOs became ‘fair game.’ 

It is important to point out that military officers were not always forthright with Gowon.  For example, many officers encouraged him not to return power to civilians agreeing with the opinion that peace and stability was preferable to politics.  As long as he changed his Governors – and presumably appointed some of them who fought the war – he could stay in office. But Gowon knew that once he changed his Governors he would be opening up a Pandora’s box.  On the demobilization issue many officers flipped flopped over time.  Many agreed with Gowon’s basic instincts that soldiers ought not to be thrown out of the Army to an uncertain fate in the increasingly harsh economy at a time of increasing waves of armed robbery.    But there were some that were genuinely concerned about the long-term effects of the inability to house, train and equip such a huge force. 

One handicap Gowon had, not only in the SMC but also in the many so-called senior officers meetings was the regimental nature of the military and the deleterious effects of “command influence”.  If officers sense your policy tilt or preference as their C-in-C, they are highly unlikely to openly – in front of other soldiers - advocate a position that may run counter to yours.  Either they stay quiet or they sycophantically “agree” with you – even when they really do not agree. Unless there is a mechanism for private disagreements with the Commander, or enough familiarity (or confidence) to disagree ‘publicly’, or an internal military culture that encourages intellectual dissent, the C-in-C is very unlikely to hear the bitter truth until he is removed as C-in-C.  In spite of this, however, some bold senior officers did in fact tell him of their concerns and he reportedly always listened patiently.  But once such meetings were over those with access to him would whisper counterpoints into his ears.

Gowon also compounded his situation by gradually becoming distant from his constituency.  After September 1974 his increasingly frustrated Guards Brigade Commander, for example, had to book an appointment just to see him. Many other officers who could ‘drop in’ in the past or came to expect occasional ‘working dinners’ found access to him increasingly restricted by a small coterie of inner circle mandarins.

Another important factor – in the view of some - was the replacement of then Brigadier (later Major General) Hassan Katsina as Chief of Staff (Army) with Major General David Ejoor in late 1972.  Hassan (who was actually junior to Ejoor) moved up to become the Deputy Chief of Staff SHQ (to then Rear Admiral Wey) and Federal Commissioner for Establishments. Hassan was a very confident officer who could look Gowon in the eye and tell him what was going on in the Army.  He also had back channels to far north sentiments and Gowon may have thought – professional considerations aside – that he would be more useful as a political symbol at the Supreme Headquarters dominated by he and Wey who were both Christians.  But as Hassan became disconnected from the Army (by appointment and lack of interaction) and took more and more interest in playing Polo his military utility to Gowon declined proportionally.  I do recall, however, one very prominent newspaper headline that quoted Hassan, on his return to Lagos from a 1974 trip to Britain as saying “This country is sick, from top to bottom.”

Ejoor, according to some reports, preferred a more oblique, some say sycophantic and perhaps even slippery approach.  Some senior officers say they could never be certain that what they discussed at meetings with Ejoor would get back to Gowon accurately.  Then GOC, 2nd Division, then Brigadier (now Major General (rtd) Oluleye recalls how a very divisive and angry meeting of senior officers in May 1975 which took place in Kaduna was paradoxically reported to Gowon (by Ejoor) as “successful.”  It was at that meeting, Oluleye recalls that then Brigadier Danjuma who was a known Gowon stalwart, asked him if a coup was possible in Nigeria.  

Such misleading feedback to Gowon by Ejoor, if true, would have had the effect of disconnecting the C-in-C from reality – if one did not know better that Gowon had other sources.   But as if that was not enough, an atmosphere of suspicion enveloped the military, allegedly orchestrated, some say, from the office of the Chief of Staff (Army).  At a certain point in time, officers who were “suspected” of not being loyal enough began to have their mail opened and read by security services and their telephones tapped.  When a critical mass of highly professional officers with no intentions of doing the government any harm began to share such personal experiences with one another, it created another nidus of alienation, further isolating General Gowon. None of this was helped by the lingering doubt in the minds of some officers over Gowon’s decision to rehabilitate Ejoor, first as a Staff Officer in SHQ, and then, in January 1969, as Commandant of the NDA.  He emerged in Lagos on or about September 20, 1967 after Murtala Mohammed’s successful campaign to retake the Midwest. He had earlier escaped on a bicycle to his mother’s village when Biafran troops invaded the Midwest in August 1967 and has explained that he was monitoring the progress of the war from there. He too suffered from the “we versus they” mentality common among those who fought the war.  He was not considered as ‘one of them’ even though he was a key player in the political run-up to the conflict.



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