Posted by By KUNLE OWOLABI & PAUL ONYIA on
But for mother luck, General Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, the former Military Governor of Western Region, would have been swept aside by the high tide of the counter-coup that convulsed the country in July 1966.
But for mother luck, General Robert Adeyinka Adebayo, the former Military Governor of Western Region, would have been swept aside by the high tide of the counter-coup that convulsed the country in July 1966.
Night of long knives
Hours before the bedlam came to town, Nigerian Army Headquartres’s first Chief of Staff had just flown into the country from the Imperial College, London. Straight from the airport he checked into a guest house before dashing out to visit friends and a cousin of his. Realising that the night was spent, his cousin prevailed on him to spend the night with him.
While cocooned in his cousin’s house, a killer squad stormed the guest house in search of him. It is hard to guess what his fate would have been if the deadly squad allegedly dispatch by Gen. Theophilus Danjuma had met him. In this no-holds-bared interview, General Adebayo recalls the scary details of that night, and more. Excerpts
How I escaped the counter -coup
At the imperial College, the students were going on a world tour, which was normal. I phoned Ironsi and Ogundipe, who was the Chief of general Staff that I would want to come to Nigeria to find out what the foreign policy of Nigeria. I needed to be properly informed before the tour. Both of them agreed that I should come home.
So, I left London on the evening of 28 July aboard Nigeria Airways and got to Lagos in the morning of July 29. Ogundipe sent a cat to pick me at the airport and take me to the guest house where I would stay. I took my luggage to the guest house and went round town to meet friends I had left behind. I moved round until late in the night and ended up in my cousin’s house, Adeyemi (now late). I was with him discussing about Nigeria, Iyin Ekiti and other sundry matters until about 9.00pm when I was about leaving, he insisted I should pass the night with him.
I told him I was still putting on the dress I wore from London. He went in and brought me pyjamas. So, I stayed. We woke up the following morning and another coup had taken place! One, some of them knew I was coming home for consultation. The security at the airport knew I was in the country and there was security around the guest house. Luckily, I did not sleep at the guest house that night. Naturally, one or two people knew that I was coming into the country.
Funny enough, my cousin did not know anything about the coup and in any case, he was not a soldier. He was an Architect working for an engineering company at Ribadu Road in Ikoyi. I did not know about it either. If I had known about it, I wouldn’t have come to Nigeria. God saved me by asking him not to let me go to the guest house the previous night because the coup plotters I was later told, came to my room at the guest house. Tension grew. Ogundipe was next in rank to Ironsi. Under normal military situation, he was to take over as the Head of State.
But I think the people from the North had planned that they wouldn’t want anybody to take over except a Northerner. Gowon was the most senior Northern officer at that time. When we got the news that he was billed to take over, I later went to Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, who was then the Chief Justice of Nigeria and Chief S. L. Edu and some Yoruba elders and told them what happened. They were then looking for a Yoruba officer to take over in the West because the governor, Adekunle Fajuyi, was killed alongside Ironsi. They were taken away from the Government House to Ede Road and shot there. I was senior to Fajuyi by one rank.
The old men tried to persuade me to take over the governorship of the West. I said no because the Northerners wanted Gowon to take over. They said that no reasonable Yoruba officer would be appointed if I refuse to take over. Then, the West was tough. For three days, we were on this. Sir Adetokunbo Ademola had a good friend in Kaduna, Sir Kashim. Whether he was then Northern Region Governor, I wouldn’t know now. They started negotiating. At the end, I was convinced to go to Ibadan. On august 4, 1966, I moved to Ibadan. You will notice that for three or four days, there was no government. I tried to reconcile the people in Ibadan because they had had a lot of problems too. Chief Awolowo was till in prison. Because I wanted stability in the West, I convince Gowon and the Supreme Military Council to release Chief Awolowo. He was released and we made him the Vice Chairman of the Executive Council and the Commissioner for Finance.
January and July 1966 Coups
My course started around January 1966 and when I heard that a coup had taken place in Nigeria, I was shocked. There was no hint that junior officers were up to such a thing. Many military and political leaders were killed then.
Aguyi Ironsi, who had taken over as the GOC from General Welby Everald, became the Head of State. People however, thought Ironsi did not take any action against the officers, who staged the coup, or that perhaps he was slow in taking any action against the coupists. This accusation went round the nation and unfortunately, another coup took place in which Ironsi was killed. I personally feel he was slow in acting and that might have brought the second coup. A lot of the people killed in the first couple were from the North. Some people felt it was an Igbo coup. When the second coup took place and Ironsi and others were killed, some people also felt it was an Hausa coup.
He had visited the Western Region on 28 July, 1966. Danjuma was on the entourage of Ironsi to Mid-West and West where Ironsi was assassinated with Fajuyi.
One must not blame Victoria Ironsi for being hard on Danjuma. They assassinated her husband and left her to cater for eight children all alone. She did not believe what happened could happen because all of us (officers) were doing everything together when we were in Kaduna. I’m sure if the same thing happens to me my wife will go haywire. It is true that if you were on somebody’s entourage, it is your duty to protect him. If such an officer on the entourage of the Head of State is the most senior of the group, naturally, if he doesn’t personally use his gun to kill that senior officer, somebody from the group did the killing.
Let us be honest: who arranged the bringing down of Ironsi and Fajuyi? If Danjuma is the one that brought them down, that means that there was a gang-up to summon down officers like Ironsi. I think Danjuma is not being fair. His job on the entourage of the Head of State is beyond ordinary. He should be the one to be first hit if anything is aimed at the Head of State. At the same time, I can also sympathise with Danjuma for not saying he killed Ironsi. If I did it, I won’t say I kill somebody unless I was met during the process. The only people that were not really involved were the Yoruba, although we also had our internal problems. We did not partake in the first and the second coup and our men were killed. Some people talk about Wale Ademoyega, Ifeajuna’s friend. That one is a rascal. We know the people that are rascals. They were university boys, who wanted to get to the top before their forefathers.
The civil war
We were running the government when suddenly Ojukwu said he could not work under Gowon because they were contemporary at the Army Headquartres. That was when the problem with the East started. It led to civil war which lasted for 30 months.
Before the civil war, we negotiated with Ojukwu individually and collectively. We went to Aburi in Ghana to settle the impasse. Unfortunately, both parties could not agree on certain grey arrears. I now said let me make the last effort in talking with Ojukwu. I told Gowon and he obliged me to go and meet Ojukwu in Onitsha. I thought the governor of Mid-West, David Ejoor, would go with me, but he was unavailable.
So, I had to risk going alone. I discussed at length with Ojukwu. That was the day one of Chief Awolowo’s daughters was getting married and I was supposed to be at that wedding. But I felt I should first attend to an important national issue. That was why I went to meet Ojukwu. My wife, however, went to the wedding and I hoped I would meet them at the reception after the meeting with Ojukwu. And I did. Tension had mounted at the reception when they did not see me. People felt Ojukwu had taken or killed me in Onitsha. A big shout greeted my arrival later.
Ojukwu’s aim during the war was to capture Lagos. He had to move through Mid-west and the West to Lagos. When I knew they had approached us, I called my engineers at the Ministry of Works and asked them what to do to prevent the rebels from capturing the West. One of the, Engineer Akande (now late) informed me that there were some explosives we could use to blow all the bridges in West. He spotted all the bridges surrounding West and Mid-West. So, when the rebels got too close to us, I asked Akande to blow all the bridges. Because of the noise of the explosions, the Biafran people thought we’ve already got big guns to fight. Ojukwu knew the type of weapons we had when we were together anyway. That was how I saved the West and Lagos. Benjamin Adekunle was then commanding the Nigerian troops. When Adekunle was getting tired at the war front we taught he should be replaced for we did not want to lose the areas he had captured.
Olusegun Obasanjo was later appointed to take over from Adekunle. Luckily, for Obasanjo, he wrapped up the war. The war that was nearing completion and he got the credit on the platter of gold.
Things returned to normal but it appeared Gowon had overstayed. Another coup brought Muritala Muhammad. He too was assassinated in another coup attempt six months after. Obasanjo, again a lucky man, came to the seat. Another thing he did was to follow Murtala’s programme by handing over power to a civilian in 1979. He handed over to Shagari. Then, a chain of coup followed until 1999. That man spent only four years when Buhari overthrew him. Buhari himself was overthrown by Ibrahim Babangida, who left office disgruntledly. Sanni Abacha later kicked out the Interim Administration of Ernest Shonekan, which Babangida left. Abacha died in office after five years. Abdulsalami Abubakar was to later return the country to the civilian regime of Obasanjo.
Where we went wrong
The first and second coup. The first coup was labelled Igbo, the second, Hausa coup. That has caused trouble and distrust all over the country. We Yoruba don’t know our worth. We should be the beautiful bride of the country. We did not take part in any coup. The only problem we have is that Yorubas are not together. Everybody wants to be a leader. There are too many political parties and we don’t want to come together. If there had been togetherness in the Yoruba nation, we would be the beautiful bride of the country. People shout about Awolowo today because of the way Yoruba people believe in respecting their leaders both dead and alive. Regrettably, we missed that area since Awolowo left. Since Awolowo and Akintola quarrelled, our politicians have not been able to have one leader.
The nation is a bigger problem- more political parties, more division. About 70 per cent of the nation’s money meant for development is used for salaries and allowances of these office holders. The rest 30 per cent is siphoned away by corrupt public officers. So many projects have been abandoned.
Presidential system of government is too expensive
A lot people have been asking what type of government we are running, that this presidential system is too expensive. In the system, you have so many ministers and advisers. For instance, when I was in Western Region, I had only 12 commissioners – six from the Action Group, which were the owner of the West then, three from NCNC and three from NNDP. And we ruled the West comfortably and made a lot of progress. Why should we now have 50 people as ministers? Parliamentary system is better than presidential because the former is cheaper than the latter. That is why we are stagnant today. I personally support parliamentary system. On top of that, I feel that the state that formed the regions then should go back to their regional positions. By that, they would assume more responsibilities and develop at their own pace.
They will not rely on oil alone to progress. Again, I feel that there are certain things that the Federal Government should do and there are ones which the state and the local governments should handle. Personally, I feel that the local government should be for the traditional rulers, because they were the owners of the people then. They have the respect of their people and their people believe in them. If the traditional ruler would have any thing to do with the state or Federal Government, it should be on respectable manners. The traditional ruler should perform political and economics duties of their areas.
That is my own personal view. Some people will have different views. Federal Government ought to perform advisory functions on some of the jobs it is doing now. For example, I think primary schools are for the local government, secondary for the state and university for the Federal Government. And if states have enough money, they can still establish their own universities and technical colleges as well.
Another thing that bothers me and which I know will bother others is unemployment. There are graduates in town with no jobs. Crime is on the increase. Some robbers are highly educated but have no job to do. Another thing is security. There is no security at all. People are afraid whether you are on the road or at home. But government is trying. The security of the nation belongs to the police and not the army. The army is to defend the territorial integrity of the country.
Nigeria’s problem and political reform
Leaders and elders of the country must sit down and talk if we want the country as one. We must forget the past and talk about the future. If this generation- my generation- fails to solve the problem of this country, the next generation will not solve it. It would cause more trouble. Don’t forget that Obasanjo organised one political reform in which I participated. We discussed and agreed on so many things. One of two things we hotly debated and which we have not agreed on is the resource control. We were on this when Obasanjo suddenly cancelled the conference and drove all of us away, yet he spent a lot of money on the conference.
Obasanjo and third term
The North picked him when he was release from the prison. And you will recall that Yoruba people did not vote for him in his first term but he won the election. I held a meeting of Yoruba organisation in my house every Wednesday. We called it Egbe Ilosiwaju Yoruba (Yoruba Progressives). When Obasanjo was released from prison someone brought him here one day. He was so glad to see us and said the meeting was a mini government because of what we were discussing there. About a year before Obasanjo’s second term, we discussed at the Yoruba Council of Elders. We thought he was using Yoruba quota, hence we should talk to him.
We decided at our meeting that we should talk to Obasanjo and give him condition for which Yoruba will vote for him. He asked us to meet him at Ota. I did not go with them. I decide not to go because he probably would not say his mind, having known me as an ex-soldier like him and his boss before. Probably I would have been too frank with him. I told Abraham Adesanya to lead the team to Ota.
They discussed very well. Adesanya told him that Yoruba people were ready to vote for him this time around but on the condition that he would leave the South-West governors in their positions. Obasanjo agreed.
The team came back to tell me about the agreement. I asked them: “Did you sign any agreement with him?” They said “no.” Then, Segun Osoba said: ‘Don’t worry sir, I’m very close to him.’ I said no problem. Having gone underground to tell people to vote for Obasanjo, three weeks before elections, he and his party representatives started going round to tell people that the agreement he had with our team was that we should not kill ourselves or burn our properties, knowing full well that it was too late for us to get back to the people not to vote for him. That was how he got the second term without honouring the agreement.
Then, we had rumours that he wanted to do a third term. I phoned him to give me a date that I wanted to come and talk to him. He gave me a date and I went. We settled down and I said: “Oba, (that is what I call him) I heard and some other people heard too that you wanted to do a third term. Look, if I were you I wouldn’t do it. You are the luckiest man in this country, having been military head of State for three years and you are about to finish two terms of a civilian regime, which makes 11 years of your ruling the country. Those that brought independence for us did not have opportunity to rule the country more than four years.” He said he had not told anybody that he wanted third term but people were spreading the rumour. I told him that if he knew those people he should call them and told them to stop spreading rumour. I did not know that he had the agenda close to himself. Then, the thing blew into the open and it was taken to the Senate where it was killed.
Yar’Adua as a puppet
Naturally, because of the antecedent of the two families, people would tend to think that Umar Yar’Adua is Obasanjo’s puppet. And from Yar’Adua’s action now, one would think he is a puppet and an extension of Obasanjo’s third term. Quite reasonably, Obasanjo will try to use Yar’Adua but I don’t think the guy is playing along because he has reversed some of Obasanjo’s programmes. Naturally, he will have respect for him and expect some assistance to come from Obasanjo – honest assistance. Unfortunately, some psychopants are still surrounding Obasanjo. I doubt if these psychopants are not around Yar’Adua too. There, I think, some people around both of them, who discuss together. To say Yar’Adua is Obasanjo’s puppet is an unfair statement, because the boy is doing well – slowly so far. We have no reason to suspect him. Nigeria is a big country. He is educated and once a governor, so, he knows a lot about the country. And naturally again, he cannot drive Obasanjo away like that. He has to quietly disengage him.
Life at 80
Well, it has been very interesting one way or the other. On the other hand, I have gone through a lot of tribulations, especially from the first military coup until I retired from the army in 1975. But nevertheless, I enjoyed life from the time I was a young officer in the army and the time I retired. After my retirement, I saw a lot of things a civilian as a civilian. I found out the military life is completely different from civilian life, particularly on the rule of the country and the behaviour of individuals and group of people. In comparison, I think I had a very interesting military life. Initially, it was hard but thereafter, I had more responsibilities as I moved up. I got into the army and was commissioned in 1953.
In 1957, I became the Aide-de-Camp to the last British Governor-General, Sir James Robertson. That was the time I knew the political leaders of the country like Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Tafawa Balewa. Because of my job, I had to see them in and off the cabinet meetings everyday. The most interesting part of my military life was when I was appointed as the first Chief of Staff, Nigerian Army Headquartres under the then GOC of Nigerian Army, General Welby Everald during his second term, before he left Nigeria. That was when Gowon, Ojukwu and David Ejoor were officers working in various department under me as Chief of staff at the Ministry of Defence. I was later nominated to go on a course at the Imperial Defence College, London. I handed over as Chief-of –Staff, Army Headquartres to another officer, Colonel Kur Muhammed around 15 November 1965.
Message to the nation
My advice to the entire country is: one, we must trust ourselves. Two, we must believe in one country. Three, we must curb the rising wave of corrupting in the country. It is becoming too much and we are losing our respect abroad. Four, we must not ask where anybody comes from within the country before he is given a job or position. There is strength in unity. And lastly, if we collectively agree we should go back to parliamentary system where each state or geo-political zone will stand and develop at its own pace. That, I believe will bring peace to the country.
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