Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu was the first Nigerian to become an officer in Military Intelligence. Born in 1937, he was only 20 when he joined the Nigerian Army in March 1957.
From officer training in Teshie, Ghana, the young man was moved to the elite Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, United Kingdom where after two years of training he was commissioned Secon- Lieutenant in 1959.
In April 1967, Nzeogwu, in an interview with journalist, Denis Ejindu of ‘Africa and the World‘, dispelled fears of a looming war. He said:
“No, nobody wants to fight. The East which is best equipped and best prepared for war, does not want to attack anybody. The North cannot fight and Lagos cannot fight now. If they had attacked the East in August or September, they would have had a walk over. Today, I think they will be ill-advised to try.”
Chukwuma Nzeogwu was simply a man carried away by youthful exuberance. A soldier who wanted the best for his country, bold and brave, who did not understand that the problem with Nigeria was more than a band of young Majors could solve with the barrel of the gun.
Nzeogwu was smart and lucky. He was well loved by many of his fellow officers and subordinates. His superiors loathed him. The Major was seen as one who believed he knew it all. They therefore sent him to the Nigeria Military Training College (NMTC) Kaduna to train future officers. He was not to be trusted with a command position. And Nzeogwu was there as Chief Instructor.
The First Military Coup pioneered by Nzeogwu was therefore bound to fail because his three years as an Intelligent Officer did not teach him to embark on such grandiose dream with more grandiloquence and mere grandstanding. Yes, they achieved some of their aims which were to kill senior officers who occupied strategic positions.
The Commanding Officer, One Brigade, Kaduna, Brigadier Samuel Adesujo Ademulegun was killed with his pregnant wife, Latifat (Sisi Nurse) in their bedroom.
In Lagos, Brigadier Maimalari was executed; Adjutant General, Lt. Col. James Yakubu Pam, Quarter Master General, Lt. Col. Arthur Chinyelu Unegbe, Commanding Officer, Fourth Battalion Ibadan, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, Chief-of-Staff Army Headquarters , Col. Kur Mohammed were all killed in cold blood.
Prime Minister Tafawa-Balewa was not spared. Two Premiers , Sir Ahmadu Bello of the North and Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola of the West died as well as Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh.
In May 1967, just a month after Nzeogwu’s chat with Ejindu, a war came looming. Nzeogwu did not see it coming. And it consumed him. Here lies the irony. The war came simply because some parts of Nigeria felt the January coup led by Nzeogwu was a grand plan by the Igbo to take over Nigeria. Thus the North paid back with a counter coup on July 29, 1966.
Thousands of innocent Igbo soldiers and civilians were murdered. Millions were later to be killed during the war.
Now it is strange that Nigeria forgot that those who foiled the coup were Igbo senior officers. Major-General Johnson Aguiyi- Ironsi, Lt. Cols Emeka Ojukwu, Conrad Chukwujimje Dibia Nwawo, Alexander Attah Madiebo and Major Alphonso Keshi.
As Brigade Major, 2nd Brigade, Kaduna, Keshi informed Madiebo of the coup. Madiebo moved over to the Brigade Headquarters where Nzeogwu had taken over Ademulegun’s seat and worked on Nzeogwu. Ojukwu, Commanding Officer Fifth Battalion, Kano stood his ground strategically and all worked with Ironsi to fly in Nwawo, then Defence Attaché in London, and Nzeogwu’s teacher. Only then could the Major be softened.
Nzeogwu did not believe in Biafra. He was named Kaduna by his Northern friends and spoke Hausa more than Igbo. He wore Hausa attires than Igbo. Yet, he was killed by Nigerian soldiers of the 21st Battalion near Nsukka on July 29, 1967. The troops were under Captain Inua Mohammed Wushishi. The sector was led by Nzeogwu’s friend, Lt. Col. Folusho Sotomi. He was only 30.
Chukwuma Nzeogwu hailed from Okpanam, near Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria but he remain buried in an Army cemetery in Kaduna, his place of birth, in full military honours, with his body mutilated and eyes gorged out by unknown irate Nigerian soldiers.
Nigeria made Nzeogwu. Nigeria killed Nzeogwu. Nigeria buried Nzeogwu and gave him full military honours.
Nzeogwu, despite being a bachelor was never a womanizer nor a drunk. He believed in the country. But the Igbo and Okpanam people continue to suffer because of a bloody coup he was involved in and executed.
So, was the Major a hero or a villain? Only history will judge.
Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.