Fellow Countrymen: The Story of Coups D’etats in Nigeria By Richard Akinnola; Richkonsult, Abuja; Revised Edition 2013.
Military coups and Nigeria used to be Siamese twins. It is one of the wonders of the modern world that Nigeria has stayed all of 14 years without witnessing a coup. It is very obvious that the khaki boys have lost the plot. In the absence of new military coups, Richard Akinnola has done us the great duty of chronicling the history of coups in Nigeria in Fellow Countrymen, the catchphrase used to introduce every coup d’etat. Chief Richard Akinjide (SAN), a First and Second Republic Minister, sees Fellow Countrymen as a must-read book which he champions thus: “I have read this book from cover to cover. This is a fantastic book. It is a great and historic book. It looks like a horror film. I want us to find a way to ensure that as many Nigerians as possible read this book. I recommend this book to all universities and secondary schools so that they can know how we got to where we are now.”
Richard Akinnola has earned his pips as the conscience of his age, having worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, helping to found the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), and authoring some 15 books on Law, the Media, Human Rights and Politics. Akinnola’s courage is frightening as he takes on all comers no matter how evil especially as showcased in his book Murder of Dele Giwa – The Answered Question.
In Fellow Countrymen, Akinnola undertakes, in the words of Clem Richardson of New York Daily News, “A stirring, dramatic accounting of the men who almost ruined Nigeria.” The author deservedly dedicates the book “to all victims of military dictatorship,” praying very fervently that “their struggle would never be in vain.” The book was first published in year 2000 and had to be thoroughly revised in 2013, that is, the copy we are doing justice here. According to General Ibrahim Babangida whom Akinnola dubs as “the grandmaster of coups”, there is the cautionary tale about late Ibrahim Taiwo who was in the company of IBB in a plane when they saw a younger officer reading a book entitled How to Stage a Coup. Taiwo advised the young officer by opening up the chapter on the consequences of failure, saying: “By all means read this book but when you get to this chapter, cram it.”
General TY Danjuma had stirred the hornet’s nest when in an interview he averred that Chief Obafemi Awolowo planned the first coup in Nigeria. SG Ikoku who was a stalwart of Awo’s Action Group stressed too that they actually planned a coup. Given the controversial nature of Awo’s trial and jailing for treasonable felony, the jury is still out on the matter. Akinnola reveals that the first treasonable felony trial in Nigeria actually took place in 1961 when Joseph Tarka and four others were charged, discharged and acquitted in a Jos High Court.
The January 15, 1966 coup that ended the First Republic threw up the stirring words of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu: “Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand ten percent; those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big for nothing before international circle (sic); those that have corrupted our society and put the Nigerian calendar back by their words and deeds.”
With the pattern of killings against the North, given the murder of the Sardauna of Sokoto and Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa etc, the North revolted with a counter-coup on July 29 in the selfsame 1966 in which the Supreme Commander General Aguiyi-Ironsi was murdered in Ibadan with his host Lt-Col Adekunle Fajuyi by Danjuma and other Northern soldiers.
General Yakubu Gowon who took power over the body of Ironsi was himself ousted on July 29, 1975 in a coup made broadcast by his close ally Brig. Joe Garba, thus putting Murtala Mohammed in power. The military struck once more on February 13, 1976 in an abortive but bloody “dawn to dusk curfew” coup led by Lt-Col Buka Suka Dimka that ended the life of Gen. Murtala Mohammed on a Lagos street.
General Olusegun Obasanjo who got into power after Murtala’s death organized the 1979 elections that transferred power to the civilian regime of Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Civil rule only lasted four years with Gen. Muhammadu Buhari taking over on the last day of 1983. Then there was Gen. Babangida’s palce coup of August 27, 1985 that sent Buhari packing. Babangida then announced he had foiled a coup led by his bosom friend, the poet Gen. Mamman Vatsa, who was executed along with the other plotters even as Nigeria’s eminent writers Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and JP Clark had pleaded with Babangida to spare the military poet’s life.
Babangida also survived the April 22, 1990 revolution led by Major Gideon Orkar which culminated in Babangida moving house to the safer grounds of Aso Rock in Abuja.
The annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by Bashorun Moshood Abiola led to multiform crises that forced Babangida to quit power in disgrace. The lame-duck interim regime led by Chief Ernest Shonekan which Babangida put in power was overthrown on November 17, 1993 by the Gen. Sani Abacha “Child of Necessity” coup. Of course Gen. Abacha dealt with his opponents in the “phantom” coup and then the “set-up” coup before dying mysteriously, leading to the coming into power of Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar who organized the 1999 elections that brought Obasanjo from prison to the presidency.
Akinnola in Fellow Countrymen delves deep into the problematic aspects of the coups to tell a compelling human story. Mamman Vatsa’s lament is indeed heartrending: “By the time you finish with me, my children will forever be afraid of the system.” Captain Tolofari of the Orkar 1990 coup writes his mother Inyingi on the eve of the coup thus: “If you are reading this letter, it means I am dead…” Tolofari justifies the coup’s excision of some Northern states with a quote from the Bible (Matthew 5:30) about Christ’s advice that if your right hand should offend you, it should be cut off!
The torture of Lawan Gwadabe as arranged by Zakari Biu is horrendous. Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua met with horrible death in Abacha’s gaol while Obasanjo was somewhat saved from sure death. Gen. Oladipo Diya is alive today only but for the grace of God. What Akinnola’s book teaches is: never again should the country bow the knee to military rule. No matter the imperfections of democracy it still trumps against the cast of evil demons of military rule and coups as adroitly exposed by Richard Akinnola in Fellow Countrymen.