A little while before morning on Sunday, April 22, 1990, a certain junior officer in the Nigerian Army, Major Gideon Orkar made the following broadcast over the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), popularly known as Radio Nigeria in Lagos:
“Fellow Nigerian Citizens,
On behalf of the patriotic and well-meaning peoples of the Middle Belt and the southern parts of this country, I , Major Gideon Orkar, wish to happily inform you of the successful ousting of the dictatorial, corrupt, drug baronish, evil man, deceitful, homo-sexually-centered, prodigalistic, unpatriotic administration of General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida.
“We have equally commenced their trials for unabated corruption, mismanagement of national economy, the murders of Dele Giwa, Major-General Mamman Vatsa, with other officers as there was no attempted coup but mere intentions that were yet to materialise and other human rights violations.”
As Orkar continued his nearly 1,700-word speech, more unrest was to come until the coup was suppressed and eventually crushed around evening.
But how did this “popular” coup fail? Who was Major Gideon Orkar? Who were his co-conspirators? Was it really a Gideon Orkar coup? We shall find out in the course of the article.
Who was Gideon Orkar?
Born Gideon Gwaza Orkar to the family of Levi Orkar Chi on October 4, 1952, Orkar was 9th child of his father who was a teacher of Tiv heritage in Apir village of Gwer Local Government in Benue State. He had his primary education at the village of Apir and Wadata.
For his secondary education, Gideon Orkar attended Boys Secondary School, Gindiri, present-day Plateau State and joined the Nigerian Army in 1972 as cadet no 682 while he was taking his Higher School Certificate classes.
Gideon Orkar started his officer cadet training at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna with the 12th Regular Combatant Course and was commissioned in December 1974 in the rank of Second Lieutenant where he was subsequently posted to the Nigerian Army Armoured Corps School in Ibadan.
Orkar was a member of the Directing Staff of the Command and Staff College, Jaji, Kaduna State as of the time of the April 22, 1990, coup d’état.
What caused the Gideon Orkar Coup?
According to Major Gideon Orkar in his speech, persistent corruption, maladministration of Nigeria’s economy, the assassination of Dele Giwa, the execution of Major-General Mamman Vatsa, and other officers on an attempted coup and other violations of human rights led to the April 22, 1990, coup.
Orkar went further to call the coup not just another coup but a well-conceived, planned, and executed revolution for the marginalised, oppressed, and enslaved peoples of the Middle Belt and the South with a view to freeing ourselves and children yet unborn from eternal slavery and colonisation by a clique of this country.
However, Orkar listed three primary objectives on why they decided to, according to him, oust the satanic Babangida administration.
- To deter Ibrahim Babangida from installing himself as life president of Nigeria at all costs which will retard the progress of the country forever.
- To stop the domination and internal colonisation of Nigeria by some privileged few.
- To lay a virile democratic foundation for the real Nigerian federalism.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel Anthony Nyiam, the most senior officer involved in the rebellion, in a newspaper interview ten years after the failed coup, said it was the alleged incompetency and atrocities of the military Head-of-State, General Ibrahim Babangida that was the main factor of the coup.
Nyiam also added that the marginalisation of the South, especially in the Nigerian National Petroleum Commission (NNPC) and a plethora of other unworthy events, like the admission of Nigeria into the Organisation of Islamic Council (OIC) and the letter-bomb assassination of an investigative journalist, Dele Giwa led to the failed rebellion.
What were the aims of the Gideon Orkar Coup?
The aim of the rebels was to have a temporary government that would conduct a proper national census, a proper election, and then set up a framework for a national conference.
Still quoting Nyiam, the former officer said they didn’t plan to govern anybody but to restore power to the people through democracy. How would they do that? Well, he said there was to be a caretaker committee which will be superintended by a former cabinet minister under President Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari.
How the Gideon Orkar Coup happened
At about 12:30 am on Sunday, April 22, 1990, the famed Gideon Orkar coup began after the rebels had met for a final briefing at a civilian warehouse in Ikorodu, Lagos State, which was owned by one Great Ogboru.
The briefing was directed by Major Saliba Mukoro, a Military Police officer with a doctorate in Law. Mukoro was at the time the Military Assistant to the Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans (DASP), a position that was second only to the Chief of Army Staff at the Army Headquarters.
After the briefing, they trooped out to their various destinations in civilian transportation. They didn’t rely on the normal military transportation. Their first task was to secure weapons and they were able to do this by taking control of the military police barracks at Apapa.
They then arrested Colonels Ajiborisha and Odaro who were transported to the Ojo cantonment where they were detained.
Afterward, a subgroup headed for the FRCN radio station, some to Bonny camp, and the others to Dodan Barracks (formerly State House, Ribadu road) – the seat and home of the Head-of-State, Ikeja and Ojo cantonments basically to get additional heavy caliber weapons and active-duty soldiers in a bid to these locations.
Lieutenant Okekumatalo of 123 Infantry Battalion manned the Radio Station which proved to be a walkover, at first, for Mukoro, Nyiam, and Captain Empere, a Military police officer, who secured the use of one of the fully armed armored vehicles there.
At the beginning of the operation, Lieutenant S.O.S Echendu reportedly grabbed an armoured vehicle from the State House and drove to the radio station which must have alerted Babangida’s household.
When he arrived at the station, Mukoro then sent him back to attack the Dodan Barracks. This attack led to the death of the Babangida’s Aide-de-Camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Usman K. Bello.
The attack on the Dodan Barracks was in two stages.
First, most of the tanks deployed on the grounds were technically demobilised via the removal of the firing pins.
Second, the bombardment by Echendu on the main living quarters began.
Before the bombardment, Babangida’s ADC, Bello came out to check what was going on. However, without backup, he tried to climb into one of the disabled tanks and when he found out that the tank was in no use, he came out and tried walking alone, in mufti, toward the radio station where he was shot and killed in unclear circumstances.
Meanwhile, one Captain Kassim Omowa evacuated General Ibrahim Babangida through a secret channel to an undisclosed location in Lagos where he remained for some days. Other accounts say, he was smuggled via the Ribadu rear gate to the location where he made contact with Abacha and others.
However, in a 2014 interview with Sahara Reporters, Echendu said he saw Babangida escape in a Peugeot 504 vehicle but didn’t want to kill him.
“I had the opportunity to kill him. I knew how he escaped from Dodan Barracks. I saw him escaped in a Peugeot 504 but didn’t want to blow up the vehicle. I could have killed him,” Echendu said.
But why didn’t Echendu kill Babangida?
“I wanted him captured alive and tried. I wanted the nation to see him and read his crimes during his trial so that our citizens would see where we were coming from….I wanted to set a different standard from what used to obtain: Kill him and the case would be closed, but capture him and set him on trial, then the Nigerian people would be able to hear his crimes,” he added.
Defence House (Flag Staff House)
Defence House, which was known as the Flag Staff House as of the time of the Gideon Orkar coup, in Ikoyi, Lagos, had in custom always been the official residence of the General Officer Commanding, Nigerian Army, since the time of Major-General Johnson T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, and later the Chief of Army Staff.
However, when Lieutenant-General Sani Abacha added the title of Chairman, Joint Chief-of-Staff to his Army title, he stayed on at the residence.
It was in this position Abacha was that the rebels struck in the early hours of the morning of Sunday, April 22, 1990.
Now, Abacha rarely slept at night but would go to a nearby guest-house for recreational activities. Thus, when Lieutenant Henry Ogboru, a Military Police who was also at the time a Law student at the University of Benin, led the rebels to Abacha’s official residence he was not available.
They then did a follow-up check at the nearby guesthouse where they knew Abacha always lodged and proceeded to fire heavily at the guards and the building but failed to do a mop-up of the house by searching each room.
Their failure to conduct a room-to-room search was instrumental in saving the life of Sani Abacha, who was inside the guesthouse, well and alive. This failure would also save the life of the Babangida regime and would lead to the ultimate failure of the coup.
How the Coup failed
About 10 minutes after the rebels left, Abacha’s first son, Ibrahim reportedly drove in to find his father at the guesthouse.
Abacha then calmly got dressed in mufti and equipped himself with two Uzi submachine guns, handing one over to his son. He then ordered his son to drive the Peugeot 504 car while, he, Abacha, sat at the right-side front seat in addition to two security operatives who occupied the back seats.
First, they visited the Flag Staff House where Abacha gave strict orders to secure the area. Then he began making phone calls to other service chiefs as the rebels had not cut off telephone lines nor had they disrupted nationwide army signals networks.
After making calls to secure pledges of loyalty, Abacha then gave firm orders that the coup was to be resisted at all costs.
As the news came that Sani Abacha and Ibrahim Babangida were still alive, galvanised by Orkar’s speech on the strange and unusual “expulsion” of some ‘far’ northern states on the radio, confidence was restored and officers and units who would otherwise have been able to take a “wait and see” stance, or maybe even run away, tilted to the Babangida regime.
Once armoured vehicles at Ikeja were firmly under the control of the pro-Abacha elements, Brigadier Ishaya Bamaiyi retook the Ikeja cantonment and the push to regain control of all other major military barracks in the Lagos area.
The 126 Guard Infantry Battalion at Bonny Camp under Lieutenant-Colonel Ghandi Tola Zidon, the 9th infantry Brigade under Bamaiyi, and the Recce unit at Ikeja were instrumental in retaking Dodan Barracks and the radio station, while some of the dissidents were arrested and others escaped.
How Nyiam, Mukoro, et al escaped
With the coup definitely headed for failure, surrounded and isolated, Nyiam and Mukoro, the most senior officers involved, at first contemplated committing suicide. However, they escaped from the radio station and eventually left the country for exile to the United Kingdom and the United States respectively.
In an interview with Guardian 20 years ago, in the year 2000, Nyiam described their escape as a mystery. He said it was some people who lived around the newly constructed third mainland bridge that helped them in a ferry across the water.
The civilian-businessman who was also alleged to be a key co-factor in the coup, Great Ogboru also escaped to Europe, as also Echendu to the United States.
As a result of their escape, security agents detained and hounded those the families of the rebels who escaped.
In fact, Great Ogboru’s brother, Turner Ogboru who said he knew nothing about the coup was jailed until the Head of the Interim National Government, Chief Ernest Shonekan pardoned him for release. However, before he could be released Shonekan had “resigned” and General Abacha reversed the decision and refused to release him.
Why the Coup failed
Even though all the principal plotters were either based in the North (Jaji, near Kaduna, or Zaria), the April 22, 1990, plotters made no concrete plans and measures to neutralise units outside the federal capital of Lagos. Although, according to Nyiam, there was a leak and the coup process was escalated to avoid arrest.
They had thought that once Babangida and Abacha were eliminated and the Lagos units were neutralized, the regime would collapse.
Another major reason is that Captain Empere, who was a Military Police Officer, reportedly took one of the armoured vehicle his fellow rebels had secured from the radio station back to the Ikeja cantonment and used it to practically take over the cantonment. Empere allegedly shot at anything that moved until he ran out of fuel.
However, his main mission which was to secure control of and neutralise the main battle tanks failed and is purported to be the primary reason the coup eventually failed because Abacha would use those same battle tanks to fight them.
Aftermath of the Gideon Orkar Coup
Major Gideon Orkar was arrested along with about 300 other military personnel and more than thirty civilians. There were mass arrests and some journalists considered critical to the Babangida regime were also detained. Even newspapers were closed.
Subsequently, a Military Tribunal chaired by Major-General Ike Nwachukwu was instituted and Major Gideon Orkar with 41 others were convicted for treason and were all executed by firing squad on July 27, 1990. Some nine others were jailed while 31 soldiers were summarily acquitted.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the accused military men were not allowed to choose their own legal counsel and there was no judicial appeal.
However, as the convicts were about to be shot, they alleged that those acquitted by the first tribunal were fellow rebels discharged on ethnic grounds. Therefore, the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) then ordered the retrial of 31 of the acquitted by a new tribunal headed by Major-General Yohanna Yerima Kure and on September 13, 1990, 27 of the 31 were executed bringing the total number to 69. The highest number in Nigerian history which dwarfed the Dimka abortive coup of 1976 where 39 were executed after a trial.
The putschists were not remorseful about the coup. In fact, Captain N.H Empere was very bold and praised the late Major Isaac Adaka Boro as his mentor and hero.
Was it a Gideon Orkar Coup?
Although the April 1990 coup is still popularly called the Gideon Orkar coup, it was not led by the junior officer. He was only recruited into the plot just a few weeks before the coup. The planning and recruitment were done by Major Saliba Mukoro, a Military Police officer with a doctorate in Law.
Mukoro was at the time the Military Assistant to the Director of Army Staff Duties and Plans (DASP), a position that was second only to the Chief of Army Staff at the Army Headquarters.
So, why was it called the Gideon Orkar coup?
Well, as the spokesman for the rebels and the nation waking up to hear his voice over the radio enhancing his popularity, gave the coup its name. He was also the most senior officer to have been executed as the Nyiam and Mukoro, with nine others, escaped.
Effects of the Gideon Orkar Coup
The Gideon Orkar coup of April 22, 1990, led to certain reactive measures by the military against the services, units, or corps that were thought to have been deeply involved in it. Military Police Battalions were downsized.
The coup also shook the northern hegemony to its very foundation that led to its creation of diverse northern bodies, especially the Arewa Consultative Forum in 2000.
One major obvious effect of the coup was the speedy movement of the federal capital from Lagos to Abuja in 1991 by the Head of State, General Ibrahim Babangida which would disrupt the Abuja masterplan.
The coup, according to Echendu in his 2014 interview, stripped Babangida of his aura and he lost a considerable amount of self-confidence. Adversely, Babangida’s diminuendo would lead to Abacha’s crescendo who would go on to be, unarguably, Nigeria’s most brutal dictator.
During their trials, Major Gideon Orkar and his fellow conspirators reportedly told the military tribunal that their coup was in three steps. The last step was that unless all the junior officers were killed, there would be no hiding place for the Babangida regime. Two years later, over 150 middle-grade officers died in a C-130 plane crash in 1992.
That’s a story for another day.
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Omoigui N. The Orkar Coup of April 22, 1990. Accessed April 20, 2020.