January 1966 Coup: What I Saw On That Day – Fani-Kayode


Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, son of the former deputy premier of the South West Region, the late Chief Fani Kayode, though a child at the time, was a witness to the arrest of his father on the night of January 15, 1966, when the first coup was witnessed in Nigeria. He recounts the events of that night to Catherine Agbo, in this interview

Flashback to the night of January 15, 1966, what did you witness?

What I witnessed that night was traumatic and devastating for me and my family and, of course, what the nation witnessed that night was horrific. It was a night of blood, terror and sadness. The events of that night set in motion a series of events which changed our history. The consequences of the events of that night are still with us till this day. So, it was not a good night; it was a sad and terrible night; one of blood and slaughter.

What I saw, what I witnessed was this; in the middle of the night, my mother came into the room which I shared with my older brother, Rotimi and my sister Toyin. I was six at the time. The lights had been cut, so all we could see was lights from vehicles. At that time, my father was deputy premier of the South West so; the official residence had a very long drive. We saw two headlights and heard the engines of two lorries drive up the drive-way. The occupants of the lorries stormed our home and my father went out to meet them, after he had called us and explained that he would explain their coming later. He explained that he would rather go out to meet them than let them come into the house.

The minute he stepped out, they brutalised him. I witnessed this. They tied him up and threw him into the lorry. Interestingly, the first thing they said to him was “where are your thugs now?” My father’s response was “I don’t have thugs, only gentlemen.” I think this made them brutalise him even more. They threw him in the back of the lorry, tied him up and, then stormed the house.

When they got into the house, they ransacked every nook and cranny, shooting into the ceiling and wardrobes. They were very brutal and frightful and we were terrified. My mother was screaming from the balcony because all she could do was focus on her husband, who was downstairs.

“Don’t kill him, don’t kill him!!” she kept screaming at them. I can still visualise this and hear her voice pleading, screaming and crying. I didn’t know where my brother or sister was; the house was in total chaos. A six-year-old, I was standing there in the middle of the house, surrounded by uniformed men who were ransacking the house and terrorising my family.

Something extraordinary happened. All of a sudden, one of the soldiers came up to me, put his hand on my head and said: “Don’t worry, we won’t kill your father, stop crying.” He said this thrice. After he said it the third time, I stopped crying. I went rushing to my mum who was still on the balcony and told her to stop crying because the soldier had promised that they would not kill my father, that everything would be okay.

I held on to the words of that soldier. That night, I never cried again. They took him away and as the lorry drove away, my mother kept on wailing and so was everyone in the house.

From there, they went to the home of Chief S.L Akintola, who was the premier. When they got there, unfortunately, my mother had phoned Akintola to inform him of what was happening. Akintola had calmed her, assuring that all will be well. When they got to Akintola’s house, he already knew of their coming so instead of coming out, the minute they got there, he called out some of his boys and they came firing with their guns. A gun battle ensued and the plan was delayed. They thought they could pick my father, pick Akintola and go kill them were they deemed fit.

Akintola wounded two of the soldiers who came and, when his ammunition ran out from inside the house, he came out with a white handkerchief and surrendered. The minute he stepped out, they just slaughtered him, right in front of my father. After they killed him, they moved on with my father to Lagos. When they got there, they went to the Officer’s Mess at Dodan Barracks.

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Akintola was one of the greatest Yoruba leaders, great orator, a nice man and dear uncle, just like Ademulegun was to me.

When they took my dad away, everyone thought he had been killed. We decided to not spend that night in the house. The next morning, the policemen came and took us to the house of my mother’s first cousin, Justice Fatai Williams, who was a judge of the Western Region at the time. He later became the Chief Judge of Nigeria. From there, we were taken to the home of Adelekan Ademola, another High Court judge at the time, who later became a judge of the Appeal Court.

There was so much confusion in the country and no one knew what was going on. We had heard lots of stories and did not know what to make of what anymore. There was chaos. It took some time for things to be figured out.

Two days later, my father called and told us that he was okay and, when we heard his voice, I kept telling my mother “I told you, I told you.” Justice Ademola was weeping, my mother was weeping, my brother and sister were weeping and I was just rejoicing, because I knew that he would not be killed.

I never got to know who that soldier was (that promised me that my father would not be killed), but I believe that God spoke through him that night.

These fellows who carried out this coup were not alone; they got some backing from the political class who identified with them, but that is a story for another day.

The truth is, there has never been another night like that and the results of that night have been very profound and not enough Nigerians appreciate that. Some people in our country can never forgive those who did that, understandably. Others who believe that those young fellows did the right thing still say that those killings were heroic, which is something I find unacceptable and appalling.

As a child growing up then, how did the events of that night affect your psyche from then on?

From that night on, it affected me in a remarkable way. I only ever wanted to join the army after that. We moved to the UK a short while later. Then, I was about 7 and, for a long while after then, all I loved drawing were pictures of soldiers and, at some point, my parents became worried about my behaviour. I was fascinated by violence and would always carry a wooden gun around the house. I saw what happened and I resolved in my mind that I would rather die fighting than condone anyone who brought such to me and my family again.

My mind-set became one of self-defense. When I was through with my schooling in the United Kingdom, I wanted to go to an officers’ training college in Sandhurst, UK, but my father refused point-blank, that he hadn’t invested in my education for me to go join the army. He insisted that I go to the university. I wanted to be a soldier, primarily, because of what I witnessed that night. That was how it affected me.

Of course, it affected the country in an equally profound manner, because the events of that night led to a counter-coup six months later. It was such a devastating response and, of course, it led to the pogroms in the North, after the counter-coup. This then led to the Civil War.

After the coup, a lot of people felt so bad and, six months later, about 300 Igbo officers were killed in one night, including the Head of State, who was of Igbo extraction. A few Yorubas, like Gen Fajuyi Adekunle, was killed. After that came the attacks on Igbos in the North, which was, again, a consequence of what happened six months before. Thousands of Igbos were slaughtered in the North and then, from there, came the Civil War, in which millions of people died, including children.

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In spite of this, the killing of any Nigerian saddens me; whether it was in the first, second or third coup.

It is, therefore, time for us to ask God for forgiveness for what we have done to one another in this country, to come to ourselves and agree that we hurt one another badly and, then, try to put it behind us and move on.

The truth is that if General Aguiyi-Ironsi had done the right thing and prosecuted Major Nzeogwu and the other young mutineers after the attempted January 15th coup was crushed, there would have been no northern revenge coup six months later. For some curious reason, he just locked Nzeogwu and co up and refused to prosecute them. This bred suspicion from the ranks of the northern officers who felt deeply aggrieved about the killing of their political leaders and that, together with Aguiyi-Ironsi’s insistence on promulgating the Unification Decree which abolished the federal system of government and sought to turn Nigeria into a unitary state, made the revenge coup of July 29th 1966 inevitable.

The revenge coup was planned and led by Major Murtala Mohammed (as he then was) and it was supported and executed by northern officers like Major T.Y. Danjuma(as he then was), Major Martins Adamu, Captain Shehu Musa Yar’adua (as he then was), Lt. Ibrahim Babangida (as he then was), Lt. Sani Abacha (as he then was) and many others. This is the coup that was to put Lt. Col. Gowon (as he then was) in power and when they struck it was a very bloody and brutal affair. The response of the northern officers to the mutiny and terrible killings that took place on the night of January 15th 1966 and to General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s apparent procrastination and reluctance to ensure that justice was served to the mutineers was not only devastating but also frightful. Hundreds of army officers of mainly Igbo extraction who were perceived to be sympathetic to the January 15th mutineers were killed that night including the Head of State General Aguiyi-Ironsi and the Military Governor of the old Western Region who was hosting him, Colonel Fajuyi.

A few people who witnessed the coup are of the opinion that the coup was unnecessary and that those who carried it out only did so because it was the in-thing in the continent back then. You don’t seem to think so…

What happened that night was uncalled for, yes, but it brought the military into governance in our country. It had never happened before in Nigeria, but, after it did, it continued to happen. I completely disagree with those who think that there must have been anything good about the coups which took place in Nigeria. Blood calls for blood’ when you shed blood, other people want to shed your blood, as well.

So, it set off a cycle of events which had cataclysmic consequences for our country which we are still feeling today. Coups may have happened in other countries in Africa, but it did not mean that it had to happen here. In any case, the amount of blood that was shed that night, the number of innocent people who were killed was quite unacceptable. It arrested our development as a people, political evolution as a country and, I think, things would have been so different if so many people had not lost that their lives that night. Our history would have been very different. May we never see such a thing again.

It’s been over 50 years since that night, but, looking at the things going in the country currently, healing has not taken place. Where is the best place to begin this healing and what can our leaders do?

I believe we should do all we can to put these matters behind us. I’ve always believed that if we allow ourselves to become prisoners of history, we can be victims of history, instead of being guided by it and moving on. We have to forgive, even if we do not forget, but, more importantly, we must first establish truth.

What really happened?

There is just too much emotion when Africans and Nigerians talk about history. Nobody wants to know the truth; we all want to tell it from our perspectives, but, if truth must be told, we all made mistakes. All of us from all over the country made mistakes at one point or the other.

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The way things are going presently, if we do not talk to one another and try to heal the wounds of the past in an honest and wholesome manner, you may find that it does not serve the purpose of national unity. National unity is not just talking about cohesion; we have to work towards it as consciously as we can and make every Nigerian feel as a Nigerian.

The calls for secession from the East and other portions of the country, rather than be dismissed, should be looked at under a microscope. We must endeavour to know why they are making these demands at this time and do all we can to meet their needs, while assimilating and bringing them in. At the same time, those who are using violence to effect their purpose should be condemned by us all. Even if you believe in a course of action, violence should never be a part of it. There is too much violent language going on. I think we need far more cohesion and understanding amongst one another than we have at the moment. But this cannot happen until we go back to the beginning and see where we all went wrong. One thing we can do is to properly address the issues and understand what happened on that night of January 15, 1966.

What happened that night traumatised the nation. None of us has been the same since. I identify with that, because I was a part of it, witnessed it and was a victim of it. But, by God’s grace and divine providence, my father was spared; not because he was special, but because of the grace of God. Every day I mourn and think about the families of those men who died and I tell myself: “were it not for divine providence, my father would have also died and I would not have been what I am today, because he was the one who educated me and did everything for me.” Better yet, I know there was a purpose for that.

So, when people talk about January 15, 1966 and try to, somehow, re-write history or, somehow, revise it, I always stand up to try to defend the truth. I have written many essays to that effect, as well, over the last 10 years. This is because I believe that it is important to tell the truth, because no matter how bitter the truth might be, we must not shy away from it.

There was a man I respected, who died some months ago. His name was Baban Kowa. He was a police officer from Kano State. He was the one who found the bodies of Tafawa Balewa and Okotie-Eboh in the bush. He was a great man and he kept on speaking the truth about what he found, even when others came out to say it was not like that and that Tafawa Balewa was not shot by soldiers, that it was something else that killed him, Baban Kowa stood by his story and it was true. I saw him a month before his death, but throughout the years, I always interacted with him, because he told that story over and over again.

Alhaji Maitama Sule, who is still alive in Kano today, was also close to Tafawa Balewa. He was a young minister in the government then and, I guess, he was aware then and can very much tell the story today. I’m glad a few of them are around and can tell their story. Akinjide, Shehu Shagari and a number of others can tell these stories as witnesses to what happened. Above all, it is important we do not forget the path history took, point out the grievous mistakes we made and learn from them sincerely. Also, we must resolve amongst ourselves that, never again, will people be attacked in their homes, dragged out and shot like dogs. Never again will women, wives and children be slaughtered. Never again!

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