In the last article (you can read it here), I highlighted the reasons why Gowon was overthrown. In this second and concluding part, I shall relay the event of the overthrow.
When about two weeks before General Gowon left for the OAU summit in Kampala on July 27, 1975, his Chief Security Officer, Muhammadu Dikko Yusuf approached him with very specific and credible information about Colonel J.N Garba.
But in the opinion of the veteran Special Branch officer, Gowon reacted in this manner,
“Because he obviously had heard this over and over again. And he believed that it was a coup story and that I had joined. I said ‘No, it would have been alright for me but Garba, who is your real guard, is right in it. So that is why I am telling you.”
But M.D Yusuf had good reason to be very concerned. In addition to his civilian sources, one or more of the military planners had directly approached him to say that a coup was in the offing. He did not know what to make of such a blatant leak, except to conclude that it may have been a sentinel warning to Gowon, for old time’s sake, to make what changes were necessary to avert the overthrow.
Yusuf also volunteered to confront Garba personally about the plot, so as to convince Gowon to take action. But Gowon opted to do so himself. Hence, before leaving for Kampala on July 27th, he asked Garba about it directly and Garba, once again, denied. In response Gowon reportedly told him:
“If you are plotting, let it be on your conscience and let it be without bloodshed. I must go to Kampala anyway.”
Military regimes are, as the saying goes, inherently unstable. It would appear that General Gowon “trusted” the word of then Colonel J.N Garba as an officer and gentleman, but did not “verify.”
Departures from the Capital
On July 25th, the First Lady, Mrs. Victoria Gowon left Nigeria for London. Her husband had not wanted her to leave until he returned from Kampala but she insisted, fearing that she might miss the summer sales at upscale London stores.
Before Mrs. Gowon left, Chief of Staff (Army) Major-General David Akpode Ejoor, also left the country on vacation, as did a few military Governors, including Brigadier Samuel Ogbemudia of the Midwest who cited medical reasons.
Gowon’s official delegation to Kampala comprised a mix of Federal Commissioners, State Governors, Military and Police Officers, and Civil servants.
Following departure ceremonies, General Gowon’s executive aircraft taxied to take a position for take-off. He had no idea that it would be very many years before he would return to his homeland. He had believed Garba’s denials but still felt there was something to the coup rumor and privately considered options for a quick return from Kampala to crush any attempt.
Nevertheless, because Gowon did not share his internal anxieties with others, key elements of his regime were not forewarned to be in a coup-busting mood. He did not contact GOCs in other parts of the country to confine soldiers to the barracks, nor did he give clear-cut instructions about what various officers and formations should do in the event of a coup attempt.
Anyway, with Gowon’s plane off the ground and airborne, the coup plotters swung into action to execute the final 48 hours of the plot. They quarantined the airport and increased surveillance of key personnel of the Gowon regime. Fortunately, they resisted the temptation to grab Gowon at the airport in what could have triggered a messy shoot-out.
After the confirmation of the physical presence of General Gowon in Kampala, and the location of other key government personalities, the execution phase of the plot began.
Garba confided in some civilians, including his spouse, that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the government that night. He told selected officers in the Guards Brigade of his involvement and assured them that he was not doing it for personal aggrandizement.
According to him, should the coup succeed, the middle-ranking officers, who were carrying out the plot, had no intention of taking any positions in the new government. This was all about patriotism. They would risk their necks to stage a coup and hand over power to a responsible troika.
Other officers in operational units in the Lagos area (and other parts of the country) that would be used that night were also alerted to get their men ready – without specific disclosure of what their missions would be.
In the meantime, at about 10 pm, the final “Operations” Group meeting took place at the Lagos Garrison Organization, then at 3, Kofo Abayomi Road, Victoria Island.
Colonel Ochefu (from Benue-Plateau) reportedly chaired it, but Lieutenant-Colonel Shehu Musa Yar’Adua (from Katsina) issued the operational orders.
Among the officers present at that meeting were Colonels Joseph N. Garba, Ibrahim Taiwo, Ibrahim Babangida, Abdullahi Mohammed, Paul Tarfa, Lieutenant-Colonels Alfred Aduloju, Muhammadu Buhari, Muktar Mohammed, Sani Bello, and a few others.
Targets and tasks were divided in standard fashion. In order of priority, the most sensitive were Dodan Barracks (office and residence of General Gowon), Ministry of Defence, Army, Nigeria Air Force, and Nigeria Navy Headquarters on Marina, and the Police Headquarters on Moloney Street.
Others included Radio Nigeria, Nigerian Television Service (Channel 10), Ikeja airport, along with a few key road junctions (like Ikeja) and bridges to Lagos and Victoria Islands. The Telephone Exchange and symbolic Public Buildings followed these in priority. Plans for the neutralization of some radio and TV stations in major centers outside Lagos were made and the latest intelligence reviewed about the location and movement of key personalities.
The C-in-C was away in Uganda. The Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters, Vice Admiral Joseph Edet Akinwale Wey, was no threat, because he was a Naval Officer with no troops and had never had the appetite to fight for power.
The Chief of Army Staff, Major-General Ejoor was outside the country. The Chiefs of Air and Naval Staffs would be politely informed of the change of government. Same was to go for the Inspector General of Police, Alhaji Kam Salem.
By nightfall in Kampala, therefore, Gowon knew that Murtala Muhammed and Joe Garba were definitely involved. Who were the others, he wondered? When word came that Brigadier Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, one of those he had counted on for support, had been appointed Chief of the Army in the new dispensation, Gowon was crushed. But most of the shock would come when the full list of members of the SMC and new State Governors was released the next day.
Since Radio Nigeria was typically guarded by officers from the Guards Brigade, penetration – by a combined team comprising Colonel Garba, Lt. Colonel Yar’Adua and Colonel Ochefu – would be a walk-over. The same consideration went for Dodan Barracks.
At about 4 am, therefore, the pre-agreed outline of a coup announcement was fine-tuned and Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba went over to Radio Nigeria to deliver it.
Immediately after the announcement came on air at 6 am, time-cycled with martial music, Colonel Garba returned to Dodan Barracks (across the road) to gauge reactions among the troops. Many were confused, paralyzed and excited all at the same time, realizing that they were in the center of the action.
Unable to fully comprehend what had just transpired, some Angas soldiers – trained to defend General Gowon to the death – even hailed Garba.
By time zone, Kampala in Uganda is two hours ahead of Lagos in Nigeria. In other words, 6 am in Lagos on July 29, 1975, was actually be 8 am in Kampala. When at about 4 am Lagos time that conspirators in Dodan Barracks were putting final touches to the speech Colonel Garba would deliver at dawn, it was already 6 am in Kampala.
Gowon, focused on his agenda for the day, was oblivious of what was about to happen. Throughout the crucial hours of July 28, as plotters put finishing touches to their plans and mobilized openly, no one contacted the General. It was as if he had been living – and ruling – on borrowed time.
At the Nile Hotel in Kampala, getting up early on that second day of the OAU conference, General Gowon, a former Chairman of the organisation, prepared himself for the usual diplomatic push and pull of the summit. During opening formalities the day before, he was the keynote speaker. His speech, an inspiring one by all accounts, on behalf of Nigeria, was titled ‘The Unity of Africa’.
On his way to the Nile Mansions conference hall, Zaire’s General Mobutu Sese Seko delayed him for about half an hour, discussing the Angolan situation. Thereafter, Gowon entered the hall. Mr. Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the Director-General of UNESCO was delivering a speech at the time. Ugandan President Idi Amin then called Gowon to the high table and gave him a note, which contained the news that he had been deposed in a coup. Gowon reportedly read the note and, in response to an inquiry from Amin, said the situation would become clearer as the day wore on.
Apparently, this initial note did not specify the identity of the radio announcer in Lagos. Privately, Gowon was still thinking Garba was on his side and that no coup would succeed without fierce resistance from the elite brigade of guards. He was wrong.
After departing from the conference hall, Gowon spent the rest of the day quietly. Cameroon’s President Ahmadou Ahidjo had sought his audience to commiserate and get an update on the situation. Ahidjo – who was reportedly shattered by the development – was particularly astonished by Garba’s involvement.
Other African leaders like Generals Jaafar an-Nimeiry of Sudan, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Tafari Benti of Ethiopia, also called on him to express support. Thereafter, Gowon, who was getting quite uncomfortable, then retired to play a game of squash.
By nightfall in Kampala, therefore, Gowon knew that Murtala Mohammed and Joe Garba were definitely involved. Who were the others, he wondered? When word came that Brigadier Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma, one of those he had counted on for support, had been appointed Chief of the Army in the new dispensation, Gowon was crushed. But most of the shock would come when the full list of members of the SMC and new State Governors was released the next day.
A Farewell to Service
Nevertheless, General Gowon, far away in Kampala, had friends. Many offers of residence came to him in Kampala from various African countries. He notified the new regime in Lagos that he would leave Kampala for Lome in Togo.
Since he was financially broke, teary-eyed members of the Nigerian delegation along with staffers at the Nigerian High Commission in Kampala donated £3000 to enable him to begin a new life. He was flown to Lome – via Garoua in Cameroon – aboard President Idi Amin’s executive jet.
Part of the flight passed through Nigerian airspace and Gowon took the opportunity to transmit a radio message reaffirming loyalty to and support for Brigadier Muhammed’s new regime.
Although offered permanent domicile in Togo he chose to join his family in the United Kingdom. He received an additional £10,000 pounds sterling donation from General Gnassingbé Eyadéma of Togo.
On the question of leadership, there is no one leadership style for all seasons. What some called Gowon’s ‘prevarication’ and ‘forgiving nature’ is precisely the kind of cautious approach to vexatious issues in a complex country that is sometimes required. But there is also a season for decisiveness and even aggression – as he showed at key junctures when the corporate integrity of the country was threatened.
Nevertheless, as far as personal honesty, decency and integrity are concerned, one must emphasize that General Gowon was second to none as a military officer and Nigerian leader. He may have equals but certainly no superiors on this score. And that counts for a lot, considering just how easily he could have become a multimillionaire if he had wanted to be one – and just how wealthy some of those subsequently entrusted with the leadership of the country at one time or the other have become.
In the nine years Gowon had been Nigeria’s ruler, he had not built himself a single house, inside or outside the country, nor did he expropriate one kobo of government money.
Unlike some of those who served under him, his total savings throughout his service years, as well as his years as Nigeria’s leader, was ₦75, 000 – all of which was inside Nigeria. In time to come, this would stand in stark contrast to the conduct of and personal fortunes of most of those who conspired to remove him from office – or benefited from it.
Omoigui N. (2003). Military Rebellion of July 29, 1975: The coup against Gowon.
General Yakubu Gowon speaks at the end of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War, January 1970. In this interview, he speaks about the roles of the Nigerian soldiers after the War, the government’s plan to reintegrate the Igbos and the “cowardly” flight of Biafra’s warlord, General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu.
Unbowed! Unbent! Unbroken!
A Perfect Gentleman…