By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema*
Even if your heart is made of stone you will be moved if you read the interview with Mrs. Solape Ademulegun-Agbi published in ‘Saturday Punch’ of July 16 2016. pp.38-39. The interview is the basis of the newspaper’s ‘Time Travel’ column and was anchored by Tunde Ajaja.
Solape Ademulegun-Agbi, age fifty-seven, is an educationist and the only daughter of Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun, the commander of the Kaduna-based First Brigade of the Nigerian army. He was killed by the January 15 1966 coup plotters. Solape, then only six years old, witnessed the harrowing murder of her parents by the plotters who were very close to the family.
As I read and re-read the interview, I felt her unalloyed pain and deep sense of betrayal. In her poignant words: ‘The tears from that day probably would never die until I am no more in many years to come. And if it is true that the dead see one another, I’D SEE THEM AGAIN. Maybe all the love they couldn’t wait to give, we would have it then. Crying? I haven’t stopped crying.’
She painted a picture of brotherhood among Nigerian soldiers before the coup. This is a picture I have seen in some other accounts of that time, but the underlying time bomb was there, set by British recruitment policies and politicization of the military. ‘Nzeogwu used to carry me on his shoulders,’ she recalled. On that fateful night, she saw the officer who led the death squad and asked him, ‘Uncle, what are you doing here?’The passage of the years must have made it difficult for her to recall whether he was Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu or Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu. Many books on the coup give the ‘honour’ of killing the Brigadier to Onwuatuegwu, which seems likely since Nzeogwu was leading the onslaught against Sardauna Ahmadu Bello at the time Ademulegun was shot.
It matters little who did it if attention is paid to Solape’s response when asked which of the officers was a regular guest to their house: ‘I think both of them. They used to come and eat pounded yam because back then, going to your commander’s house was normal. The army was one big family. Nzeogwu was the name in my head and I may not have known Onwuatuegwu by name because that was a long jaw-breaking name for a child. My father, being from Ondo, pounded yam was our main meal. That was when I knew cow leg the Yoruba call bokoto. It used to have some little round bones in it. That, with pounded yam, were Nzeogwu’s favourite and he would come and eat with us.’
Whatever revolutionary principles that compelled these officers to turn their guns on their mentor and commander must have been strong. Whether they were justified is another matter. The fact is that this brutal and bloody breaking of soldierly brotherhood was not peculiar to Nzeogwu and Onwuatuegwu. On the same coup day, Major Emma Ifeajuna, the plot’s chieftain in Lagos, set up and eventually killed his commander and friend, Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari. Another plotter, Major Humphrey Chukwuka, arrested his colleague, Colonel Yakubu Pam. Sadly, this trend continued throughout Nigeria’s coup-riddled history. Perhaps the brotherhood was an illusion even before January 1966.
Different ideologies, loyalties, ideas and concepts that had little to do with soldiering and political involvement riddled the army like bullets for nearly ten years before the coup. For instance, going by the account in ‘Emeka’, the biography of Odumegwu-Ojukwu written by Frederick Forsyth, the book’s subject, then a lieutenant-colonel was accused by Colonel Yakubu Gowon to the British overlords of holding political meetings. Why? Ojukwu had summoned his colleagues in 1964 to ascertain what position they should take against the backdrop of the terrible clash of power and personality in the government. Since nobody knew the way out, they asked Ojukwu to find out from the then British General Officer Commanding, General Welby Everard. Gowon was at the meeting.
Solape’s perspective must be regarded for what it is: the portrait of a beloved father by his daughter. It would be wrong to write it off because she was a child of six at the time. We often underestimate the recollection and memory bands of little children to everyone’s peril and fail to comprehend the scars our adult actions leave on them. But for a deeply historical event like the January coup other perspectives are noteworthy. So what was Brigadier Ademulegun’s place in the chequered history of Nigeria at that time?
First, even the January plotters admit Ademulegun was a first-class soldier. (See Ben Gbulie’s ‘Nigeria’s Five Majors’). But his close association with Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and arguably Nigeria’s most powerful politician at that time did not go down well with a segment of the military class who rightly or wrongly saw Bello as an embodiment of the feudalistic and corrupt system they hated. Also, Ademulegun had been involved in the keen contest for the position of the GOC of the army following Everard’s retirement. That he lost out to the Igbo Major-General Ironsi left bad blood and division in its wake.
There are accounts that indicate that Ademulegun was not totally coup-free and devoid of anti-Establishment feelings. In a September 2010 interview published in ‘The Nation’ newspaper, late Chief Matthew Mbu, a Minister in the First Republic and Ademulegun’s friend, recollected that a few days before the coup, he went to Kaduna to open a military base. Ademulegun openly told him they (the army) were going to shoot members of the civilian ruling class for corruption. He reassured the frightened Mbu that the army was aware the Minister was an honest man so he would be spared. Mbu said Ademulegun was not the only officer mouthing such dark omens.
So how did Ademulegun end up a coup casualty instead of a coup participant? There are three possible answers. One: his position as Brigade Commander made him very dangerous to the January plotters so he had to go. Two: he was not in the group who struck or was not taken into confidence because of his loyalty to the authorities. Three: he belonged to the British-trained class of Nigerian military who saw coups as anathema. Whichever is the case, his death was a tragedy for he was an acclaimed leader.
Solape Ademulegun-Agbi concluded the coup was an Igbo plot; a quest by the Igbo for power which ultimately led to Biafra. Her basis is that the coup’s organizers were Igbo and their casualties’ non-Igbo. Inasmuch as I cannot look into the hearts of living men to assess their motives, let alone long dead ones like most of the January plotters, the facts can speak for themselves. Colonel Arthur Unegbe, an Igbo from Ozobulu in Anambra State and the Quarter-Master of the army, was killed by the plotters in Lagos in front of his wife. Many of the plotters were non-Igbo, of whom Major Adewale Ademoyega is the most well known. The plotters, including living ones like Captains Ben Gbulie and Emmanuel Nwobosi, have repeatedly declared that they intended to free the detained Yoruba opposition leader, Obafemi Awolowo, and make him Nigeria’s leader. Ironsi and Ojukwu played significant roles in quashing the coup.
By no means do these facts make the coup right. Shedding innocent blood is unjustifiable. Military intervention in politics is not the purpose of armies. I hope and pray successive Nigerian political elite can learn from the excesses of their predecessors that led to the January coup.
May the Almighty console and strengthen Solape and all other Nigerians who lost loved ones in Nigeria’s coup-cursed years. This woman is an epitome of strength, love and forgiveness.
*Henry C. Onyema is a historian, writer, teacher and the Chief Creative Officer of 2-4 henritz writing agency, Lagos. Email: email@example.com