Friday 29 July 2016

Operation Araba

Crest of the Nigerian Army

Fifty years ago today in cantonments, barracks, mess halls as well as at improvised roadblocks and public transport hubs the Nigerian Army exploded in an orgy of ambush killings, summary executions and extreme forms of torture. The Supreme Commander and head of state, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi was kidnapped by junior soldiers and later executed while on a visit to the city of Ibadan.

This second mutiny of 1966 was not ideologically motivated. It was about vengeance and naked tribalism. Codenamed 'Operation Araba' (*) -"Let Us Part" in the Hausa language- the intention of the mutineers led by Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Muhammad was to exact retribution on fellow soldiers from the then Eastern Region of the country, who were mainly of Igbo ethnicity, prior to withdrawing to the Northern Region from where most of the rebels originated.

They believed that the mutiny of January 1966, which had been led by Major Patrick Nzeogwu, bore heavy overtones of tribalism. The overwhelming majority of the politicians and soldiers who had been assassinated hailed from the Northern and Western Regions. Nzeogwu and most of his primary cohorts were Igbo. Moreover, they argued, the officer who acceded to the mantle of Nigerian ruler at the expense of the civilians in power, the aforementioned Ironsi, was himself an Igbo.

The idea of an 'Igbo plot' to establish a form of hegemony over the rest of the nation was further encouraged by what many Northern army officers believed to have been promotions favourable to Ironsi's kinsmen even though soldiers such as Murtala Muhammad had benefited. The leaders of the failed first mutiny had been put in jail but there appeared to be little signs that they would be punished. The event which crystallized this line of thinking had been Ironsi's decision in May of 1966 to promulgate a Unification Decree which altered Nigeria's federal framework to that of a unitary state.

The protests which followed in the Northern Region escalated into rioting and a pogrom against Igbos. It was a baleful prelude the events of July 29.

As events unfolded, Muhammad, whose men had hijacked a civilian airliner to repatriate the families of the mutineers back to the Northern Region was persuaded not to pursue the course of secession. After three days of tense negotiations with foreign powers including Britain and the United States and within the faction of the Army in control of Nigeria's capital city, Lagos, Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian from a minority group from Nigeria's Middle Belt, assumed the leadership of the army and the rest of the country apart, that is, from the Eastern Region. Lieutenant Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, the governor of that region refused to accept Gowon's authority and the course was set for a confrontation which would lead to the birth of the rebel Republic of Biafra and a civil war which would endure until the beginning of 1970.

July 29 1966 was a day of tragedy on so many levels. It represented the unleashing of a naked blood lust which consumed the lives of many soldiers. It extended the stage for the playing out of inter-tribal rivalries from the political arena into the ostensibly neutral institution of the army. The involvement of Western powers in the negotiations aimed at keeping the country together exposed the fragile sense of nationhood as well as the country's vulnerability to foreign manipulation.

It is a day on which Nigerians can reflect not only on the severe consequences that disunity can reap, but also as a reminder of the rock bottom alternative to choosing a peaceful means of transitioning into separate sovereign nations if that is the collective will of the people.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2016)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England

(*) The coup was actually codenamed "Operation Aure" (Hausa for "Marriage"), but over the course of time has come to be referred to as "Araba", given that the aim of the coupists was to secede from Nigeria. Chants of "Araba" accompanied the demonstrations and rioting in the North after Ironsi's Unification Decree.


  1. More light needs to be shed on the role of the UK embassy and its intelligence officers in mentoring the 'revenge coupists'

  2. If we keep quiet to articles like in this face of overwhelming information and enormous evidence , it will make the promulgation of such lies and distortion of facts and history be a norm. Setting the facts straight. Mr makinde, your biasness in writing this article is truly amazing going by how you termed a coup aimed a rescuing nigerians an igbo coup. To set the records straight. It was NOT only military soldiers of eastern nigerian extraction that participated in the coup d'tat of 1967 led by major kaduna nzeogwu. It is worthy of note to put it out here that the coup was masterminded by a fusion of officers from of the nigerian army who felt that the nigerian state is slipping into serious quagmire and thus, a quick rescue was badly needed to avoid plunging the nation into breakup. So we have people from the yoruba, midwestern region, eastern region and the north taking part in the coup. So I don't understand how a self-claimed journalist and writer like you would join the ignorant bandwagons to promote such cynical and baseless idea. Please this is totally unacceptable.

  3. “Mcjona”, if you bothered to read my succinct piece properly, you would be able to discern that I did NOT label the January 1966 coup an “Igbo coup”.

    I specifically referred to the perceptions of the non-Igbo actors who led the so-called “revenge coup” of July 1966. My words were “They believed that…” and “The idea of an ‘Igbo Plot’…”

    It makes me seriously doubt whether you are able to understand the utility of using inverted commas in text.

    Your comment that there is “overwhelming information and enormous evidence” is a grandiose one to which you failed to give much evidence to back up. If you feel so strongly about this issue (on which you have misconstrued my words) why do you not go to the trouble of recounting such evidence? This is a public site read by hundreds of thousands, so there is every reason that you should be motivated to educate the readership by setting out your points.

    The other point is the tone of your post. Although it postures as one based on reason and civility, you cannot help but betray your lack of civility by your attempt at condescension. “Self-acclaimed journalist”? Joining “the ignorant bandwagons”?

    I had to laugh on reading that.

    This is why the general level of discourse is so pathetically low among Nigerians and the animus between people magnified, when persons such as yourself resort to abuse and denigration.

    Nonetheless, I will try to expand on this critical part of Nigerian history for the benefit of visitors to this blog.

  4. 1. The January coup of 1966 was not ethnically motivated (i.e. it was not an “Igbo Plot”).

    First a correction or part of your comment which reads “the coup d'tat of 1967 led by major kaduna nzeogwu.” You of course mean (January) 1966. And the designation of Nzeogwu as the leader would be disputed by many who have researched much of the background of the mutiny, although it is safe to say that because he was able to make a broadcast and that he for a time controlled important parts of the Northern Region while the mutiny failed elsewhere, he has become the figurehead of the coup.

    A. Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a key leader of the coup, was an Nkrumaist whose philosophy was one of pan-Africanism and socialism. He sought to remove from power a government which was universally acknowledged to be a corrupt one. (Ifeajuna’s actions before and during the coup however lend credence to the view that the coup had a tribal undertone).

    B. The coup was met with much public support in Nigeria. Many hoped that it would be the dawn of a new era in which the military government would tackle the issue of national corruption. Ironically, an editorial in the Nigerian Daily Times in the aftermath of the abortive coup of February 1976 asserted that the bloodless anti-Gowon coup of July 1975 was met with as much popular approval as the January 1966 coup. The assassinated Murtala Muhammed of course was the leader of the Northern anti-Igbo coup of July 1966.

    C. The troops under the command of Major Nzeogwu during the January coup were mainly Northern and among the participants was Major Hassan Katsina, a Fulani. Major Adewale Ademoyega, a Yoruba, was one of the key plotters and Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, another Yoruba, is claimed to have given the plotters advice although he was unable to be a participant because he was posted. It is alleged that he blocked several attempts to get the Supreme Military Council to put the January 1966 mutineers on trial.

    D. Major Nzeogwu stated that those mutineers in the south failed to execute the coup properly. He was referring to the failure to neutralise the premiers of the Eastern and Mid-West Region as well as the failure neutralise the army chief Ironsi.

  5. 2. The January coup of 1966 was ethnically motivated i.e it was an “Igbo Plot”

    There is an opposing, alternative narrative which posits the January coup as an Igbo coup. While this does not condone the murder of innocent Igbos in the massacres of May and September/October 1966 the facts mean that you are wrong to claim that there is “overwhelming information and enormous evidence” that the January coup was not a plot to establish Igbo hegemony in Nigeria.

    In fact, those who label it an “Igbo Plot” do so not only because of what happened prior to and during the coup, but also afterwards, when Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi established his military government.

    A. The murder of Political and Military leaders of the North & West by Igbo soldiers while no Igbo political figures and just one ethnic Igbo soldier died in the coup was an occurence which an objective observer would assert bore the marks of an ethnic agenda. Micahel Opara the premier of the Eastern Region was not targeted on the spurious grounds that he had a visitor, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus. And the other ethnic Igbo premier Dennis Osadebey of the Mid-West was also spared. It is important to note that Ifeajuna visited Opara before he fled Nigeria.

    B. The decision by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the president of the federation, to leave the country in late 1966 for health reasons after which he embarked on a cruise of the Caribbean and had a stay in England is correctly treated with great suspicion. He is believed to have been tipped off by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a kinsman from Onitsha. Azikiwe appeared to be in very good health when been interviewed a few days after the January coup when he was staying at a hotel in Dorking, Surrey, England. His physician, Dr. Idehen abandoned the ‘health trip’ when he tired of the whole thing. Zik was frankly well enough to have hosted the Commonwealth conference which took place immediately prior to the coup.

    C. The failure of Ironsi to put the mutineers on trial for their lives while Adaka Boro was apprehended and tried at a later period, adds to the picture of bias.

    D. Colonel Hillary Njoku stated in his memoir that Ironsi, on hearing of the murders committed by the January coupists, said in a startled manner “I thought they said they weren’t going to kill anyone?” That showed foreknowledge on his part. The failure of Major Okafor and other participants to arrest Ironsi on the day of the coup is also rather suspicious.

    E. The failure of Senate President Nwafor Orizu, an ethnic Igbo, to swear in Zana Bukar Dipcharima, a Northerner, who was already acting in Balewa’s place is also treated with great suspicion (Inuwa Wada was abroad). Orizu claimed that he was constitutionally not able to do this, yet he was able to hand over power to a military man, Ironsi.

    F. The recollections of Richard Akinjide and Shehu Shagari make clear that the politicians wanted Dipcharima to be formally sworn in as Balewa’s replacement (Acting Prime Minister) but Ironsi was insistent that they either handed over power to him “voluntarily” or he would take power by force.

    G. The actions of the advisers who surrounded Ironsi did little to dispel the impression that his government was promoting a “pro-Igbo” agenda. Neither did the actions of those Igbos in the North who produced flyers depicting Nzeogwu as St. George slaying the serpent in the form of the Sardauna or those who sang songs denigrating Northerners.

  6. H. It is important to note that all the coup participants were not at one in their ultimate objectives. Nzeogwu’s expectation that all the politicians should be eliminated was obviously not followed by those of his preponderantly Igbo co-plotters. With hindsight most appreciate that coups were not the way forward, and killing politicians extra-judicially was wrong - even if there was ‘ethnic balance’ in such killings.

    I. The other point to note is that there is evidence that the January coup was instigated by Igbo politicians for what they believed was a good reason: to preempt a coup by the North. In other words, January 15 may have been a preemptive coup aimed at frustrating the installation of "a Right-wing Fulani Islamic dictatorship" led by the Sardauna of Sokoto. This was the view of Patrick Keatley, an English journalist for the British Guardian newspaper who wrote a three-part series of articles after the coup in 1966.

    The thesis of this was that the Sardauna was behind the fake census results, the turmoil in the Middle Belt and the installation of Akintola in the Western region against the wishes of the majority of the people in that region through election rigging. Awolowo, Enahoro and others had been framed and convicted, and he sought to cause havoc in the Eastern region by encouraging Isaac Boro to rebel and in the turmoil, a state of emergency would be declared in the Eastern region.

    It is also important to note that Stanley Gray, the managing director of Shell-BP Nigeria was asked to finance an anti-Balewa by persons from the East. A book entitled “The Biafran War: The Struggle for Modern Nigeria” by Dr Michael Gould (London: I.B. Tauris, 2013) reproduced a document from the British National Archives which went as follows:

    “A secret approach had been made by Ibos to see if Shell-BP would finance a coup to overturn the Abubakar government.” Mr Gray made it absolutely clear that in no circumstances was Shell prepared to play politics....." The source is FCO Doc. 221/45, National Archives.

    Who made the approach? It appears to have been the political leaders in the eastern region, most likely Dr. Opara and his associates.

  7. So “Mcjona”, if you wish to dispute anything that I have written here, make sure that you do so by furnishing verifiable material, write courteously and preferably use your full name as I do and not hide behind a pseudonym.

    Nigeria’s history has its complexities, so I would caution you to be wary about writing about “overwhelming information and enormous evidence”. The issue of tribalism has everything to do with each development in Nigeria. The challenge is to review and scrutinise the historical data with honest objectivity and leave to one those tribal agendas that seek to exculpate certain parties or alternately to whitewash them.

    The partisan actions and the criminal actions of groups of politicians, businessmen and military men should not be made to demonise, marginalise or persecute a group of people. But the issue related to “tribe” needs to be addressed, but done so in the correct manner.

    I am not bothered as to whether “Mcjona” responds or not, but I expect anyone making comments on my blog do so with the aim of sharing and expanding knowledge for the benefit of all.