Igbo soldiers plotted coup from independence day – Ejoor

In a three-part thriller that is sure to send historians about the Nigerian Civil War back to library shelves, the Military Governor of the... defunct Midwest Region, Major General David Akpode Ejoor, says military coups in Nigeria began right from independence in 1960. In this interview with BIMBO OGUNNAIKE and AZEEZ FOLURUNSHO, he shredded several claims and set-positions about the country's past and future.

Firing from the hips, like a war veteran that he is, and in a no-holds-barred interview, Ejoor maintains that the political and military leaders of Igbo extraction had nursed the ambition of upturning the Nigerian political space because their leading light, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, emerged only as a nominal Governor-General while power resided in another geo-political zone. The concluding parts of the rare interview will be served you, dear readers, next Saturday and the week after. Excerpts:

You appear to be more of an enigma to Nigerians, most of whom know very little about you despite being an open-book; one about whom so much has been said and written. Who, really, are you, sir?

A woman called Uvwerhero gave birth to me. I was born in 1932. She put me in school and when I finished my school, she sent me to the Government College, Ugheli. When I finished college, I didn’t have money to continue to do the HSC or to enter the university. My school principal gave me a letter to the Comptroller of Customs in Warri. I didn’t know what was in the letter and so when the Comptroller read it, he said your principal said I should give you a job. He asked me: “When are you starting?” I said now. He said: “All right, come tomorrow”. That was how I started work in the Customs.

What year was that?

In 1953. After the first six months, one of my colleagues came from the college to say that they were looking for the people to join the army. I told him that I was already working but he gave me the form. Out of interest, I filled the form and by September 1953, they replied me and said that I should come to Enugu for examination to join the army. I didn’t know that day, I didn’t know Enugu. To tell the Comptroller of Customs that he should excuse me to go to Enugu for exam, I couldn’t do it. I had to resign and go to look for money because at that time any money they gave to me at the end of the month, I gave it to my elder brother to keep for me. I did not keep the money. When I wanted to resign, I didn’t have any money. so, I had to rush to him in school and told him that he should give me money; that I wanted to resign. He said. ‘you are playing with your certificate.’ He gave me money and I wen to the treasury, paid and dropped my letter to the Comptroller of Customs and I didn’t allow him to read it before I left. I just ran away from him because I knew he would not let me go. The following day, I asked my mother to get me some money and three days after, I found my way to Enugu to do the exam there.

How many of you sat for the examination that day?

We were six, but at the end of the day, we were asked to come for an interview in Lagos. I was the only one who passed from Enugu. We did the interview in Lagos and only four of us passed. The four of us were then sent to Ghana to do our initial training at the Regular Officers Training School. After six months, those of us who passed, about four, were selected to go to England to do the Officers Cadet Training.

When we got to England, we went to another selection board and it happened that two of us passed -- that is I and Victor Banjo, who worked with Ojukwu. So, Banjo and I went to England to do first, the Short Service Commission Course which lasted for six months. At the end of the six months, we were asked to go to Sandhurst for interview. At Sandhurst, we did almost three years course. We were commissioned in 1956 by the Queen, the present Queen, and then we came back to Nigeria. Some of us later went back to England for other military trainings.

When you were about joining the army, what was your parents’ attitude?

The immediate brother by my mother was killed by some people in 1951. So, as far as Army was concerned at that time, people would say when you join the Army, you were going to die. So, I couldn’t tell my mother that I wanted to join the army because she would never agree. I did all these, went to Accra for the training and after the training I now told her that I was going to England but it would be training in the army and she couldn’t say no then because I was the only boy left and the other two sisters were the only three left out of seven children which she had before.

Do you share the view that Biafra was a tragic mistake in Nigeria’s history?

First of all, let me tell you this, when the British were here, we were the last Nigerian officers to be commanded by the British soldiers. (He called for a picture hung on the wall of his sitting room to be brought down to show the first set of Nigerian military officers at that period).The senior person to me in Nigeria was Bassey, the second was Aguiyi Ironsi. The Igbos wanted to rule. Why they wanted to rule was that (Nnamdi) Azikiwe was the then Governor-General and more or less Head of State. The constitution did not give any power to Azikiwe. So, this annoyed the Igbo people and they used to say: “How can we run a constitution in which the Head of State cannot advise the government, the government cannot contact the Head of State for any advice?” So, the answer was well to take over since they were already leading and yet they had no control over the government. That was why the Igbo soldiers decided to organise a coup. But at that time, there were four major leading officers which included me, Yakubu Gowon, Bassey and Ojukwu. Igbo people relied on Ojukwu for the coup and they were able to convince the Yoruba. Ojukwu and Banjo now contacted me and Gowon for a coup. But we refused.

How many of you refused to participate in the planned coup then?

Gowon and I refused and they went on their own. But we then reported to that European officer, General Foster. I and Gowon reported to him that some people were trying to plan a coup. He called all of us -- the Nigerian Army officers -- and advised us not to organise any military coup. When Ojukwu’s father heard about this, he put a memo into House of Assembly that all Europeans should leave the army. It was that year that all the Europeans in the army were sent back to their country. Then, Ironsi, who was Number Two, took over the command of the army. While he was there, Ojukwu still had the coup plot in his mind. He told Ironsi that he should not allow Ejoor and Gowon to be in Army Headquarters, saying as long they remained in Army headquarters, they would not be able to execute the coup. So, Ironsi sent Gowon on a course in the United Kingdom but he left me alone. When Igbos were worrying him that Ejoor was still there, he told them that:

“This man from that small state, minority state? You can handle him, he cannot do anything. Go away, and leave me.” So, he left me. By December when Gowon came back, it was like a small war in Ironsi’s office. Some army officers told Ironsi that: “We told you to send these two people away, now Gowon has come back. What can we do now? Ironsi was embarrassed and after Gowon came back on the 20th and on the 23rd of that month, Ironsi now sent me away from Army headquarters to Enugu, saying: “He should be hidden there.” I went there and then they tried again but the one they tried was in January 1966 after I had left the Army headquarters. But at that time, they said whatever happened, Ejoor and Gowon must die. They threatened the person who was to organise a coup on behalf of the Igbos in Lagos side.

Who was that person?

Emmanuel Ifeajuna. The one in Kaduna, Nzeogwu. I think you know that one. Ifeajuna was holding a very big post in the Brigade then. He was a Chief of Staff to Maimalari. He sent a message that we had this meeting which would last a week; that I should come to Lagos. He was the one who booked me into Ikoyi Hotel in Room 17 and my number in the army was 17. It was a lucky number for me. I got to Lagos for the meeting and then the meeting started on Monday. Then on Thursday, I can't recall what happened in my hotel room. I just complained that I didn't like the room. They couldn’t change it on Thursday. It was on Friday, the last day of the meeting that I came back to the hotel by 4.30 pm. When I got to the hotel, they had changed my room because they knew that the following day, I would leave. I said all right. Because of the cocktail party which Maimalari organised for us, we could not come back on time. I left the cocktail party at about 11 p.m when we should have left at 8.00 pm.There was no need for us to come on time. Although he called it a cocktail party, it was like a buffet dinner. So, I ate to my satisfaction and when I got to the hotel, I didn’t go to the dining room to eat again; I just went straight to my bed and slept off. It was at three o'clock that night that the coup plotters came. They killed my colleague, the one commanding the Western Region, and after putting his body in the booth of the car, they rushed to my room, to Room 17, to kill me thinking that I was there. According to their story, they didn’t want me to see them. So, when they kicked the door open, they just sprayed the bed with bullets and then round before they switched on the light. When they switched on the light, nobody was there and they started saying to themselves, “he is gone, he is gone” and I was snoring downstairs. That was how, at least, I can tell that God saved me from the coup. Now, for Gowon.

Gowon had just come back on the 20th of December and he was posted to take over a battalion in Ikeja. He had not moved to his official house. He was staying in one of the Officers Mess accommodation. On that night, he did not come back to where he was staying because he went to see his prospective in-law. He did not come back in time, so when the coup plotters went there, they did not see him. They were now saying it is me and Gowon that would counter their coup and on the following day the news was that there was a coup. The following day, I was told that my colleague was killed and I went to his room and all what I saw was just blood. His body was not in the room and so I went to the person who was in charge, Brigadier Pam to come and take the blood sample and check. But when I got to that place, his wife told me that his husband was taken away in the middle of the night around 3.00 a.m. to a rendezvous where he was killed. Then, I rushed to
Maimalari's house who was then our commander where we had the cocktail party. When we got there, his soldiers just told me that Maimalari was killed in Ikoyi, Awolowo Road by the petrol station that night. I now told myself, 'how can I just rush to Enugu when I have heard this bad news.' So, I went to Ironsi’s house whether he could tell me anything before I went to Enugu. But when I got there, his soldiers said he left his house at 4.00 o'clock in the morning. What do I do? The head of the army, we could not find him. So, I said to myself, let me go to the Army unit, maybe I would get more information from them. I rushed to Ikeja Battalion and it was there, luckily, I saw his car in a car park. I sent my guard to check his office if there was anybody, and to ask if I should come in. And then I heard them all shouting: “Tell him to come. Tell him to come.” So, I went in. He opened the door for me and when I got in, I saw Ironsi sitting opposite the door pointing a gun at me, saying: “ David, are you with me or against me?” It was a surprise to him because he thought I was dead. So, I shouted back at him that “you are our father. Whatever it is, I am with you. What is it, anyway?” He said: “All right, sit down.” So, I sat down and he told me how the Prime Minister contacted him to say that he was being attacked with Okotie- Eboh and all that. He promised me he was going to get some help, but he couldn’t raise any help and that was why I had to go to the battalion itself, to get some soldiers under his command. He told me that he had to send Gowon out with soldiers to trace the coup plotters. I couldn’t see Gowon at that time. After I had told him the story, then he said he was going to the Police headquarters for a meeting where he was appointed Head of State. I told him I was going to Enugu to join my troops and also to join my wife and children. He just turned round to me and
said, “David, I cannot order you to Enugu now.” He did not want me to go to Enugu.

Why did he not want you to go to Enugu?

Probably, in their plan, I was to have been killed. I was not in their team. He said I should not go to Enugu and he left. I now concluded that Ironsi was part of the coup and that I could no longer rely on him because he was part of the coup plotters. I said to myself that my loyalty is to my country and I would not take any instruction from any officer anymore. I said if I went to Enugu by road, I would not arrive there. So, I went to the airport for an aircraft to take to Enugu. When I got to Enugu, everybody was shaking. The officer, my Second in Command, Major Gabriel Okonweze, told me that he was not expecting me. I asked him why he was not expecting me. He said he was given instruction to take over the command of the battalion, that I was not coming back. I said how did you get this information? Is it by radio, telephone or what? He said no and put his hand in his pocket and brought out a letter saying he should take over the command of the battalion. When I put the letter inside my pocket, he said no, that it was his letter and I said, “but I am still the commander.” I left the battalion and went to see Dr. Opara, the governor of Eastern Region, came back to the battalion and ordered that all soldiers that were deployed outside the battalion should be brought back to the barrack. I assembled them by 4.00 o'clock and addressed them. My second-in-command was telling me, “don’t tell them that anybody is dead. Don’t tell them anything?” I said I would tell them; these people were taken to unknown destinations, I will not say I saw any dead body, I saw blood. Yes, I cannot say so but if I do not mention it that way, when they get to know, you and I would be the first victim of Hausa soldiers. I told them what I knew and then we ran the battalion with peace. Then on the third day when Ironsi was made the Head of State, he withdrew me from Enugu and called me back to Lagos .

Why do you think he removed you from Enugu?

He removed me from Enugu because since I was still not dead, he could not trust me in Enugu. When I got to Lagos, he now said that I should be the Governor of the Mid- West.

Did he do that to compensate you?

More or less. But, you know that he had to behave in a way to show that he still liked me. Having removed me from Enugu, he brought me to Benin and that time, most of the officers in the Mid-West were from Anioma area, predominantly Igbo, because as it was, we were nine Lieutenant-Colonels in the Mid-West. I was the only Urhobo and the remaining eight were Anioma. Now that the person they wanted to kill was the governor, how was I to rule that place with satisfaction? I worked with them. I did not know that they were against me. I worked with them in the day time, but in the night, they worked against me. It wasn’t easy. God just preserved me because they did all sorts of things to see whether I could die.

When General Ironsi came on a visit to your region, 24 hours after he left your zone, he was kidnapped by some sections of the army along with the Governor of the Western Region where they were killed. What was in your mind when you heard the news?

The fact was this. He visited Western Region after leaving my place. The idea was that he did not want my killing to take place while he was there

Your own killing?

Yes. When he got to Ibadan , the counter-coup people, Brigadier Danjuma, waylaid him. It was there they waylaid him and killed him in Ibadan. When he was with Fajuyi, Fajuyi did not want them to take Ironsi away just like that. That was why they killed Fajuyi with Ironsi, not that they had anything against Fajuyi at that time. That was how I escaped death for the second time. As I am talking to you, I have looked at death, where there was nothing I could do, I was just waiting for death to come, for seven times. How many people have gone through that? Looking at death, not that I was told. The other ones that happened when I did not know is different, but the ones I saw, I know.

Are you saying the lack of trust and the in-fighting among the top generals at that time led to Nigeria’s civil war?

The civil war was straightforward. the Igbo wanted to take over the ruling of Nigeria. When all these cunny-cunny actions that people who were preventing them from organising a coup had not been killed, that is Gowon and I, the only thing left was to have a civil war. That was why there was a civil war and in the civil war, the first place Ojukwu attacked was the Mid-West. Now, I do not know that he was already in league with all the officers from Anioma area. When the Federal Government was suspecting them, most of them ran away to the East and joined Ojukwu in the Biafran army. At that time, Banjo himself, being a friend to Ojukwu because they joined the army the same day and commissioned, was suspected to be organising a coup. Ironsi had sent him, well not to prison but more or less arrested but sent to the East where he was detained in one of the prisons there. But being a friend to Ojukwu, Ojukwu released him and made him the Commander of the
Biafran troops. And he was the one who commanded the Biafran soldiers to come and attack Mid- West before moving to Lagos. The Igbo tried to rule Nigeria by force, what they cannot do through the ballot box; they tried it through coup. They tried the coup, it failed and now decided to do a civil war. It was a contract. That is the basic thing.

During this war, you said Ojukwu was coming from the East through your zone to Lagos. What were the things you put in place to checkmate him at that time?

As I told you, I did not know. It was just that morning that I heard firing in the State House where I was told that the Biafran Army was in the Mid- West. I could not believe that Banjo would be the person to kill me because he was the nearest person to me in the army. What happened was that when they got to Ikpoba Hills in Benin, the person that was sent by Ojukwu to kill me was ordered to take me dead or alive to Enugu was different because Banjo did not know about this. When they got to Ikpoba Hill, this officer from the Mid West, from Anioma, told Banjo he should give him time; let him go and find out where I was in Benin and take me to Enugu, dead or alive. The firing started at about 7.00 o'clock. I just managed to get the radio to tell Gowon that I was being attacked by the Biafran army. I took the weapon of the operator and ran down to the gate to join the soldiers who were firing and we started firing together. But after sometime, we ran out of
ammunition. What do we do? I knew that if they came in, they were coming for me to kill me. These soldiers who were defending me, why should I allow them to die? And then if I leave this place they would be killed, including my wife and children. Why should I allow any of these people to be killed? I said they had to kill me first so that other people would survive. I jumped down from where I was and walked towards where they were firing. I thought that that was the end. I didn’t know what was happening and then I found myself in a veranda in one of the houses not far from the State House. I decided to move my leg but I couldn’t move any part of my body. I looked up and I saw somebody holding my leg and my hand. He was kneeling down when I was thinking about other things. I did not know that somebody was holding me. I now asked him who are you? He said he was Chief Asemota. I thanked him and said I had to go now. He sad “no, you can’t go, they
are everywhere.” When he got up and started dragging me in, I asked him have you not seen any of the Biafran soldiers here? He answered that they were two in this veranda. It wasn’t long when they left that you came.These are the ones that would have killed you. I said: “My time has come; those who sent me here want me dead. My time has come. Let me go so that you or any of your family members will not die.” He said no. I argued and argued but he did not agree. So, I got up annoyed, to walk out. But before I could get to the door, he ran past me, he locked the door and threw the key out through the window. So, what do I do now? I could not break the door like that. Then I persuaded him that he should go and look for an Urhobo person around the area who could take me away from Benin. I waited for him and he found somebody from Urhobo who said he was coming. In the afternoon, in the night, we did not see him. So, I said he was not interested. The
following morning, around 7.00 o'clock, I heard a woman shouting: “There is war; you are going there if they kill you now, who will bury me?” That was what he was saying in Urhobo. I peeped through the window and I saw the woman running after the son, and returning into the compound I recognized him as one of the people with whom we grew up together.

What is the name of that person, sir?

John Ebuche. So, I opened the door and told him, “look, take your mother home,” and turned. He took his mother home.

A Generals’General

That Major General David Akpode Ejoor (rtd) parades an intimidating profile is an understatement. Commissioned in 1953 in the United Kingdom, he is a Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger (GCON) and an Officer of the Federal Republic (OFR). Ejoor also holds the prestigious Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS), UK; a Pass Staff College (PSC) and a honorary Doctor of Letters (LL. D), of the University of Benin (UNIBEN).

He was a member of the Supreme Military Council from 1966 to 1975, the first Military Governor of Mid-Western State between 1966 and 1967; Chief of Army Staff, from 1972 to 1975, when he retired.

His medals include the Congo, Independence, Republic, Defence Service, General Service and National Service. He is a Grand Commander of the Republic of Togo, and has received the Order of the two Niles-Ist Class Sudan, the Grand Officer O.N. Du Lion Senegal and Kt. Order of the Crown, Belgium. His chieftaincy titles include the Olorogun Oloho of Olomu, Okakuro-Egbe of Agbon, Okakuro of Ovu, Onotuku of Ebor and Orhuerakpo Ru Ughelli.

The first speech by Military Governor Lt. Col. David Ejoor after the death of Maj. Gen. J.T.U Aguiyi- Ironsi and the emergence of Lt. Col Yakubu Gowon as Head of State:

Barely one week ago, the people of the Mid-Western Group of Provinces had the honour and privilege to receive Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi as Head of the National Military Government and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The reception accorded him was such that he felt reassured of unflinching support for the National Military Government.

I was shocked to hear that within 24 hours of his departure from the Mid-West for a conference of traditional rulers at Ibadan, he and his host, Lt. Col. F.A. Fajuyi, Military Governor of the Western Group of Provinces, were kidnapped by a section of the Army and taken to an unknown destination.

It is gratifying however, that, despite these unfortunate and gruesome incidents, the people of the Mid-Western Group of Provinces have remained calm and have refrained from violent reactions. This is no doubt because they are noted to be generally peaceful and law abiding, especially in times of crisis. I trust that these qualities will be maintained, whatever the situation, and that law and order will continue to be preserved in this area. I personally intend to do everything in my power to see that the balance is maintained.

Although I am deeply touched by the events of the last few days, I am resolved not to allow what has happened to becloud my sense of responsibility to the Republic as a whole and to the people of the Mid-West in particular. A new Military Government, led by Lt. Col. Gowon, has been announced and we should do our utmost to co-operate with it.

I am convinced, however, that it is idle and unpatriotic to pretend that all is now well with the nation. Frankly, the position, as I see it, is still tense and all true lovers of the country, especially those in positions of trust and authority, must take all necessary measures firmly to arrest the situation. Time may well be against us . . . .

It seems that most Mid-Westerners are giving serious thought to the following questions:

Are we to have a unitary state with powers centralized at the national capital?

A federal state with strong Central Government and relatively weak regional or provincial Government?

A loose Federation with strong Regional (or provincial) Government and a relatively weak Government at the centre responsible only for limited common services? Or Should the country be broken up into several new and independent states?

The questions posed above raise fundamental issues to which the right answer must be found without delay, not by bullets but by mutualand friendly discussion.

This is a challenge from which we must not flinch.

I hope that the Head of the new National Military Government will accept it and arrange in the next few days for a conference to be attended by representatives of all parts of the Republic and at which serious and objective attempt would be made to help determine the future of the country.

Note: This is absolutely rubbish but I have to post it here anyway for the records -- Ambrose



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