FEATURE: What life was like in Lagos Airport on coup day, January 15, 1966 — American then based in Nigeria

Washington D.C. – Fifty years after the first coup d’etat in Nigeria, David Koren, an American Peace Corps Volunteer who flew in from New York that Saturday January 15, 1966, recalls the normalcy of life outside Lagos as the reins of government changed hands that day.

Mr. Koren, who first arrived Nigeria in 1964, was returning from holiday to his teaching post at Ohuhu Community in Amaogwugwu, a town in present day Abia State.

He first became aware of the coup d’tat when the Captain of the Nigeria Airways/Pan Am flight he was on announced that the plane had been denied permission to land at what was then known as Lagos International Airport. In his book; Far Away in the Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift, Mr. Koren quotes the Captain as saying “Nobody knows who is in charge down there. Nobody will make a decision about what to do with us.”

In a recent interview, Mr. Koren who was a youthful 24-year old back then, describes the same vacuity of authority when the plane, a Boeing 707, was finally allowed to land.

“I don’t recall seeing any officer around, I do remember the soldiers lining up along the path for us to walk into Customs”, he said.

The absence of any authority figure infused panic into what was already, for Nigeria’s expatriate community, a shocking turn of events, or, as Mr. Koren describes it, the “utter surprise that there would be a military coup”, in spite of their awareness of “political differences and problems and stuff like that” in the country.

International passengers who were scheduled to take connecting flights out of Lagos that day were stranded since there was no official on hand to authorize domestic flights.

When domestic flights resumed the next day, Mr. Koren had to forgo Enugu, his destination, because “Nigeria Airways found a pilot who would fly a DC-3 to Port Harcourt, but no one would risk going to Enugu.” He was however glad to be in Port Harcourt because there were no soldiers on the streets or other “overt signs of” the coup that he saw in Lagos.

Recalling his trip from Port Harcourt through Umuahia to Amaogwugwu, Mr. Koren said he was surprised to see that “people weren’t acting any differently, people were not jumping up and down the street, they were just going about their business as if nothing really happened.”

He said the normalcy of life in the East after that first coup surprised him because he was in “a very heightened state of” alertness after seeing the “line of soldiers in Lagos” and because he had never witnessed a coup before.

Mr. Koren, who left Amaogwugwu in December that year, said the normal pace of life he witnessed in Eastern Region after the January coup, disappeared completely after the July coup.

“I became wartime airlift worker because of my students

INTERVIEW:    On Saturday, January 15, 1966, David L. Koren was in a Nigeria Airways/Pan Am flight to Lagos. They were being prepped to land when the captain announced that there had been a coup and the plane was denied permission to land. A coup? In Nigeria? That happened all the time in South America. But not Nigeria. It was indeed true and it was the beginning of four year strife which Koren variously experienced as a secondary school teacher and as wartime airlift worker. In this interview, he talks about the immediate days after the 1966 coups, his initial departure from Nigeria before he returned as relief worker during the Civil War.  

On January 15, 1966, how many hours had the plane flown before you were informed that you can’t land in Lagos?

Well we were all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, we flew directly from New York to Lagos without stop, I would say that we were along the coast of Africa, maybe somewhere in the vicinity of Robertsfield, Monrovia, we were almost there before the captain’s announcement.

Do you remember the Captain’s name, the flight number?

No, I don’t. It was a combined Nigeria Airways/Pan American flight, the aircraft was a Boeing 707. We departed from Kennedy Airport.

I guess the captain must have been American

It sounds like it, I didn’t see him but I heard his voice, I recall that he was American.

When you were finally allowed to get out of the plane, can you recall, like, the highest ranking official, civilian or military who, maybe, interacted in anyway with all of you, anybody at all?

I don’t recall any officer around, I do remember the soldiers lining up along the path for us to walk into Customs. They were just standing there with their rifles pointed down, you know, with military discipline, they were not just lounging, they looked like regular military. And we walked in, I think I saw a couple of soldiers standing near each door, they were standing there a lot but nowhere along these procedure was anyone of them threatening, there were no threatening postures or the guns up or mean looks or anything like that.

So they were very professional?

Yes.

And when you got to Port Harcourt the next day, was it more or less the same thing?

Let me think, emh, I don’t have a specific memory of that, I don’t….

In your book, you said that a bus came to the terminal where the plane was and you guys got off the plane and on the bus …

Yeah, I think that was it but I don’t recall military standing by, that is what I am trying to think of. The coup happened in Lagos and other capital cities but I didn’t see overt signs of it in Port Harcourt, I guess that’s the impression I’m trying to get across.

It was more or less like a Lagos affair?

Yeah, it was something that was happening in Lagos and other capitals. Thinking back the way your question was worded, what was the attitude of people in the Eastern Region; you know, people weren’t acting any differently, people were not jumping up and down the street, they were just going about their business as if nothing really happened. I was a little surprised at that I think but emh …

Why were you surprised at that?

Well, you know to me, I had never been in a coup, it was not an ordinary thing, it was kind of, I was in a very heightened state of, I don’t know what you’d call it, curiousity or alertness or what not, walking along this line of soldiers going into the building (in Lagos) and, as I also described (in his book) later at night when the lights went out and we were in the dinning hall, not knowing what was going to happen. So to me, it was kind of a big event you know but compared to that feeling I had, I didn’t see anything of that sort when I went to Port Harcourt and later, on to Umuahia. I guess it was like a distant thing, it didn’t touch peoples’ lives directly, it didn’t calm anybody, they didn’t seem to be acting any differently. And you know one thing, if you go back to when I was in Lagos and going through Customs, someone tried to elicit a bribe from me …

I read that, yes …

… and I thought that was a really calming kind of thing just because it was so ordinary, even with the soldiers standing over there at the door, supposedly the coup was about changing corruption, you know the people in the Customs were not actually paying attention to that at all …

… the corruption thing was one of the big issues with the January Boys, you know Nigerians now call those soldiers the January Boys, it is the mixed feelings we have about them …

… the January Boys, I haven’t heard of that …

… I think it is one of the ways that we have tried to absorb it and get on with our lives in spite of the big change they wrought on us … corruption and ten percent (kickback) was one of their issues and to think that you had this experience on the day they struck …

… yeah.

Did you feel unsafe at any point, did you feel like your life was in danger? I know you talked about when the lights went out, did you feel at any point like that, this was a threat to your life?

No, what I felt was a powerful sense of uncertainty, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Like I said, I had never been in a situation like this, I was very far from home, everything was unfamiliar but there was no point, not one point at which anybody threatened me directly, made a threatening gesture or any kind of threatening statement. Everything throughout the whole process, me landing, walking through Customs, going through all that, it was all very calm. I could say that I was worried and I think the other people in the dinning hall shared looks of apprehension because of the uncertainty but we heard no sounds of gunfire, we didn’t see any people running around, everything would seem to be proceeding as normal, just the really massive uncertainty was kind of unsettling but no threatening thing happened directly to me or anybody else I saw.

If I may ask, if you don’t mind, how old were you then?

I was twenty-four, so I’m fifty years older now.

I take it you never communicated with your parents the details of your experience that day, because as a mum I would have said come home.

Actually, I wanted to get back to my station in Umuahia, that was my main concern, to get there and back to my school. After I was at the school, within the first week or so, I sent my parents a letter home, the airmail, there was no faster communication, there was no phone or internet or anything like that. And I have the letter, my mother saved all the letters that I wrote to her and she gave them to me in a bundle and she said you need to write this story. … I read the letter and I was able to get what I said back then and the tone of it. Basically I was saying, don’t worry, that things are peaceful around here, that most people are relaxed within a couple of weeks afterwards. We really didn’t hear an awful lot of news but there was enough coming through the local newspapers and radio that we can kind of get an idea of what that was all about. But locally, everything went on as it was going on, people were not in a state of anxiety.

You described in your book that before the coup, you use to see political thugs all over the place, how bad was that?

These thugs would come into town on the back of pick-up trucks, I presume they were high on indian hemp, they were there to intimidate voters I guess. I didn’t see them on a regular daily basis, they came out during election times, they would have been going out after opposition parties or supporters but I never personally saw anything like that in our neigbhourhood, our village, our school, that would have been bigger towns, in Umuahia but we all knew about them and we heard reports about how they would intimidate people but there was a lot inflammatory language and things going on in the media, very much like it is today in the United States of America, people saying shameful things … so yeah, that kind of intimidation was going on and that stopped after the coup and so people thought that was a positive thing.

The sense I’m getting is this; back in the village, everything was largely peaceful, people went about their daily lives …

… yes …

… in which case, what came after, the pogrom, must have been quite a shock.

Yes, that was a very different thing, the second coup and all the killing. Then people started to be fearful and to be angry, that was a way different experience but the first one wasn’t. In other parts of Nigeria, I suppose it played out differently but that’s the sense that I got from Eastern Region, two different experiences.

What you seem to be telling me now is that within months, the easy going, peaceful, homely life you knew in the village began to change …

Yeah, it began to change …

… even though the events were still, sort of, far away …

Yeah, yeah, I know that the kind of overall sense that those of us from the American Peace Corps felt over there – you know, one thing I have to say is that, there has been no Peace Corps in there since the war but we still have this organization called Friends of Nigeria …

… yes, I do know about it …

… you do? Okay and the thing is that we all still feel a strong common sense of, you know, that being like the greatest experience of our lives. We still meet over that, we talk about it and things like that. I guess what this goes back to is that the feeling we all had when we were over there, before the coup, before the war started, was very positive experience. We felt that there was a sense of vibrancy and enthusiasm about the people and the country being newly independent, growing and it was really uplifting time. In spite of the political differences and all that kind of stuff, the general feeling was really upbeat. In our school, the students were all very enthusiastic, they wanted to learn, I mean this was very important thing, for people to learn and get ahead and all that. I was interviewed by another journalist, Ndeayo Uko, and following up, he went back to my school, it is still there. And he said it was really disappointing. Although it was there and they were still holding classes but the enthusiasm was completely gone, it looked desolate and almost deserted. It was still functioning at some level but all sense of vibrancy was gone from it, that was really sad to hear.

Well, if it’s any consolation, I should say that experience is not limited to your school. … My next to final question to you is, did the embassy, I mean your embassy, at any point, give you a choice within the year, between the two coups, give you the choice to depart if you want to?

No, by the time I left in December ‘66 that had not come about. Later, it did after the Biafra declaration of independence and the looming war. This was right after I left, then the Embassy started contacting volunteers and talking to them about leaving and how they would do that. I didn’t experience that, I could see that things were getting very bad, scary and I talked to my students and the staff of the school about it, about the possibility of impending war and all these things. There was a palpable sense that things were getting bad. As I traveled with my load up to Enugu to get a flight out, there were military checkpoints on the road all over the place and people going through and soldiers looking for contraband, whatever they were looking for, I don’t know but it was getting very tense.

The village where you were, you said the school set up by one of the politicians, Michael Okpara, while all these was going on, Okpara didn’t show up to talk to the school, talk to even folks like you who came to help with the school effort, to sort of give any re-assurance?

After the first coup, he was in jail but later on he got released but he didn’t come to our school until the send-off party that they had for us. That was the first time I had seen him before the war. Although he was the head of the Ohuhu clan and that was Ohuhu school, he didn’t show up, I don’t recall seeing him.

Tell me a little bit about your students. I know you said they were eager to learn and you’ve talked about them, there is actually a list of their names in your book, and one or two you ran into when you were in prison during the war. What is it about them that inspired you so much that you came back to join the airlift?      

There are a lot of trouble spots around the world and today we have things like Syria and all that. I’m never motivated to go and do that kind of work, relief work, anywhere else. The only reason that I went and did that in Biafra was because, emh, these are people I know because I had such a powerful experience over the three years and I kind of felt really close to the people. That was the only reason why I went back and did that, it is not something that I naturally do in my life, you know. The students meant a great deal to me. I put a list of them in the book hoping that I might someday hear from them, to what happened to them. This past summer I got a call from one of them, he is in Toronto, Canada, working as an IT professional. He contacted me, that was an emotional time for both of us because he was just a little boy out of the bush back then. He told me he thought that most of the other people had passed away by now, a lot of them died during the war and other just from aging, I guess.

If you could sum up your experiences that of day, that January 15, in two sentences, how would you put it?

First of all the utter surprise that there would be a military coup, as I said in the beginning of the book, that was not something we expected at all, I certainly didn’t. We were aware of political differences and problems and stuff like that in the country but never imagined that it would result in a coup. The big surprise was first part of my day there. But by the end of the day, I think I summed it up when I said completely unable to form a sense of what the future would be, I had no idea what’s going to happen next and just went forth into whatever is going to come and tried to get back to my own village which was the source of familiarity and comfort and safety even. That was the place I knew, that was the place that I belonged I felt. I really wanted to get out of Lagos and get back to my school. Those were probably the two most powerful feeling I had during that time.

I can’t imagine, for you as an American, I cannot imagine anything like that happening, anything even close to that happening here and some official will not come out and say something to the people. Nobody from the police [came to reassure people], not even the soldiers who were supposedly in control, not even the old politicians, nobody. That’s why I asked, who is the highest ranking official, military or civilian [who spoke to the public that day], nobody, it seems, talked to anybody that day.

Yeah, you are right, it’s almost unimaginable. Certainly during that day, there was no official announcement, nothing over public address system, nobody came in uniform or in person, you know virtually no information at all. Then back in the village, we got information from the radio or newspaper but that was all indirect. I did not ever see someone come around and make a speech, say what is going on, what this is all about and be calm , you know that sort of thing, I didn’t see it. … In other places, people did come out and say something, it wasn’t in my experience but I couldn’t say that didn’t happen elsewhere.

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