It is 25 years today (Wednesday) that a deadly onslaught by some middle-level officers against the regime of the then Commander-in-Chief, General Ibrahim Babangida, created a state of uncertainty for hours in the country. A group of coupists, led by Major Gideon Gwarzo Orkar, not satisfied with, according to them, the way the gap-toothed General was running the country, launched a dawn raid on the seat of power at Dodan Barracks, Lagos. GABRIEL AKINADEWO writes on the anniversary of the conspiracy which almost dismembered the most-populous black nation.
It happened on a Sunday, a day divinely ordained by God for Christians to keep holy and worship Him.
In many parts of the country, most Christians were already asleep. As usual, they would wake around 6 a.m. to prepare for Sunday service but exactly 25 years ago, an event which happened in Obalende, Ikoyi, Lagos made many of them to skip service that day.
To Obalende residents, they knew as early as 2 a.m. that there would be no Sunday service that particular day. They not only heard on the radio around 6 a.m., they saw, firsthand, the processes that led to the disruption of service in many churches.
In the wee hours of the fourth Sunday of that month, many of them were aroused by the ear-splitting sounds of gunfire. Earlier, some food vendors, who were in the habit of selling till around 5 a.m., scampered for cover and the trepidation woke some of the sleeping residents.
Then, they massed at their windows with curtains slightly drawn to behold a military convoy of fighting vehicles, tanks, Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC) and heavily-armed soldiers marching towards Dodan Barracks, the then seat of government to give back-up power to their colleagues who were already battling with the security men stationed there to take over the number one residence in the country.
Obviously, their target was the number one citizen who was then the eighth Commander-in-Chief of the most-populous black nation, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida.
Before then, Nigeria had witnessed seven coups – four successful, three botched – and Obalende residents didn’t need any crystal ball to know that another security breach was in the making.
What they did not know then was the identity of the ring leader. It was after the announcement on the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) that they knew that Gideon Gwarzo Orkar, a 38-year-old Tiv Major, was behind it.
For six years, he was Commanding Officer of Saki Armoured Barracks, Oyo State and he had just been posted to the Command and Staff College, Jaji, as Directing Staff Officer (DSO).
The execution of the plot on April 22, 1990 was symbolic. It was the first time five states, Kano, Sokoto, Katsina, Borno and Bauchi were excised from the country.
It was a day the invincibility of the Babangida regime was shredded.
It was the second time middle-level officers tried to take over the government. The first time was on January 15, 1966 during the first military coup led by the late Major Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu.
April 22, 1990 was a day Babangida took the decision to take the capital to Abuja which he eventually did on December 12, 1991.
Also, it was a day the then Minister of Defence and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, the late General Sani Abacha, proved his loyalty to Babangida. A day the Maradona should be grateful to the late Khalifa because if Abacha, who later removed Chief Ernest Shonekan on Novermber 17, 1993, had wanted to hijack the coup, he would have done it without any resistance.
For many hours, Babangida’s whereabout was unknown. It was rumoured that he was taken to the Defence House by some of his trusted bodyguards and later to the National Theatre.
In fact, in the early hours of the bloody Sunday, Dodan Barracks, the seat of government, was deserted and unmanned. Journalists, searching for news, walked in and out, unassisted, unchallenged, unmolested.
This led Nigerians to believe that the coup had been clinically accomplished without any resistance.
Orkar’s broadcast was being relayed to Nigerians intermittently, amidst martial music. He not only announced the overthrow of the Babangida administration but also the tinkering with the political geography of Nigeria, the excision of the five states, with conditions for their re-admission.
“We wish to emphasise that this is not just another coup, but well executed for the marginalised, oppressed and enslaved people of the Middle Belt and the South with a view to freeing ourselves and our children yet unborn from eternal slavery and colonisation by a clique of this country,” Orkar said.
In many parts of the country, people who considered themselves marginalised were jubilating with university students at the forefront.
In Lagos, students of the University of Lagos (UNILAG) staged a solidarity rally. From Akoka, they went to the premises of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Channel 7, Tejuosho in their hundreds. The soldiers guarding the television station even rejoiced with them.
Due to the fact of the unknown, many top military officers had already gone underground. The element of surprise that ringed the operation caught them unawares.
The late Admiral Augustus Aikhomu, who was Babangida’s second-in-command, was attending a boat party when Orkar and his men struck.
On hearing the news, the party came to an abrupt end. Security men quickly spirited Aikhomu away to a safer place.
When Orkar and his men came in the early hours, they went about their mission with clinical precision. They stormed the seat of government and since they were least expected, they took the guards by surprise, attacking from the Federal Secretariat end, after seizing the radio station. It was a day Dodan Barracks was heavily shelled.
Orkar’s men met a meek resistance because most of the presidential guards fled due to the superior fire power but a few of them, led by Babangida’s Aide-de-Camp (ADC), Lt. Colonel U.K Bello, stayed to ward off the coupists.
When Bello saw that the firepower was too much for him and his men, he quickly mounted one of the armoured tanks at Dodan Barracks to unleash a deadly blow.
His intention was to secure Dodan Barracks, go to the radio station and, if necessary, level the whole place to dislodge Orkar and his men. Unfortunately, one of the coupists had, a few days earlier, tampered with all the tanks when he came to service them, demobilising them.
One of the coupists was in Dodan Barracks on the eve of the coup to play with the guards. While playing draught with them, he had tactically asked if Babangida was going to spend the night there. The guards ignorantly gave him the answer he needed. So, by the time Bello realised that the tank with which he wanted to launch a counter attack was faulty, it was too late. He was killed instantly.
In other parts of the city, there were shootouts, especially at the Ikeja and Ojo Cantonments. In a bid to gain control of the armoury, many soldiers were killed. Although the then Army spokesman, Colonel Fred Chijuka, put the number of dead soldiers at Ikeja at eight, it was believed the number was higher.
Indeed, there were more ferocious shootings at the Ojo Cantonment and the killings were not contained until mid-morning.
The plotters, determined to turn Ojo into a foothold, had turned their guns on colleagues, killing and maiming, selectively.
In the process, some junior officers were co-opted into the rebellion.
But, to some discerning Nigerians, the coup was pregnant with failure. Though the radio continued to relay martial music and the announcement of the change of government by Orkar, it was believed that those who had jubilated did so prematurely.
The shootings at Ojo and Ikeja were seen as the determination of the plotters to gain control of the armoury, an action which should have been carried out a few hours before the announcement.
In major checkpoints, soldiers’ presence was nil. Surprisingly, telephone lines were working, The Murtala Muhammed Airport in Ikeja, Lagos and other strategic points were left unguarded.
It was later discovered that the plotters did not have enough men and they were only holding on to the radio station. That was when the proper crushing of the rebellion started.
By this time, Babangida had already been moved to Bonny Camp. That was done when a telephone call was placed to the camp by Babangida’s men and Colonel A. Kurubo, Commander of the Guards Battalion, told them that his men were loyal to the gap-toothed General.
They also got an assurance from the then Colonel Ishaya Bamaiyi of the 9 Mechanised Brigade, Ikeja. But the rallying point was Abacha who used the power of his office to cut off the plotters from the barracks in Lagos.
By this time, the Orkar team had almost exhausted their stock and they were on the edge of desperation.
It was then that Abacha ordered Kurubo to move in with his men to crush the rebellion. He was supported by soldiers from the Ikeja Cantonment.
For hours, the premises of the radio station were turned into a theatre of war aimed at dislodging Orkar and his men.
Similar efforts were made to jam Orkar’s voice out of the air through the facilities of the State Security Service (SSS).
This was finally done a few minutes before noon. By this time, all the commanders of army units nationwide had already pledged their loyalty to the Babangida regime.
With the removal of Orkar, Kurubo came on air to tell Nigerians that the “dissidents have been routed”, urging them to await further announcements.
A few minutes after noon, Bamaiyi also came on air to corroborate Kurubo. A few minutes later, Radio Nigeria went dead which was due to the heavy shelling which affected the equipment.
It was then the turn of Colonel Raji Rasaki, the military governor of Lagos State, to make available the state radio station, Radio Lagos.
He went on air to tell Nigerians to go about their daily activities. By this time, Abacha had already sent troops and tanks to all major points, including the Murtala Muhammed Airport, Ikeja, NITEL, seaports and the Lagos end of the Lagos/Ibadan Expressway to secure these strategic points and prevent the escape of the plotters.
Then, he came on air, describing them as “disloyal, misguided soldiers and national security nuisance.”
“Their broadcast was embarrassing and they are already isolated. Most of these disloyal elements have been arrested and are already undergoing interrogations,” Abacha said.
It was believed that one of the reasons given by the coupists for their action was the way most of the ring leaders were sidelined in military promotion. This was believed to be Orkar’s main grouse with Babangida.
A Tiv from Benue, some of his colleagues commissioned same day with him, who were from the core North, had a meteoric rise, becoming his superior officers. This was the same reason given by the plotters of February 13, 1976 when General Murtala Muhammed was killed.
Then, Illiya Bisalla, a Major-General, was a course mate of Muhammed and Lt. General Theophilus Danjuma was his junior officer, in fact one of his students.
When promotions were made in 1975, Murtala was made a full General and Head of State. Since they were course mates, Bisalla didn’t allow this to affect him so much but when Danjuma was promoted a Lt. General above him, he couldn’t stomach it.
Same applied to the late Col Bukar Sukar Dimka who announced the coup as some of his colleagues were promoted above him.
So, it was believed that this frustration led to the Orkar coup on April 22, 1990.
Two days after the botched coup, U.K. Bello was buried at Paiko, Niger State with full military honours.
Naturally, investigations into the plot were swift.
Many soldiers were arrested and no fewer than 16 officers declared wanted by the Federal Military Government.
Also declared wanted was a fish merchant, Great Ovedje Ogboru, who was believed to have bankrolled the plot and offered his warehouse at Ikorodu as operational base.
He was accused of buying J5 Peugeot buses used by the plotters in carrying arms and men. He was also accused of importing arms into Nigeria for the operation, using his fishing trawlers.
Also declared wanted were Lt. Col. G.A.A. Gwam of the Command and Staff College, Major D. Mukoro, a Ph. D holder in Chemistry, Major T.O. Edoja and others.
Later, a seven-officer military tribunal headed by the General Officer Commanding (G.O.C), 1 Mechanised Division, Kaduna, Major-General Ike Nwachukwu, was set up. Brigadier-General Abdulsalami Abubakar and Lt. Colonel Abdulmumuni Aminu were among members of the tribunal.
At the opening of the trial on May 21, 1990, Nwachukwu said: “The accused persons can be rest assured of speedy but fair hearing by the tribunal”.
He said the public would be kept abreast of the tribunal sittings but till the tribunal finished its work on July 18, 1990, nothing was open to the public.
Initially, 863 officers and civilians were arrested in connection with the coup attempt. They were investigated and tried by the tribunal and 751 of them were released for want of evidence with a few being compulsorily retired from service.
Some were eventually sentenced to death and others jailed.
According to Aikhomu, the aborted coup was led by “ a group of disgruntled, incoherent and ambitious officers and men of the Nigerian Army. After a thorough investigation, the following facts have been confirmed to be the outline plan of action of the dissidents;
(a) to overthrow the Federal Military Government by force,
(b) to summarily execute, in the process, the following principals of the government, Mr President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federation, all members of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), all military and civilian members of the National Council of Ministers, all military governors: senior military and police officers,
(c) to blow up the seat of government in Lagos and move the federal capital to another location to be decided after the successful execution of the coup plot:
(d) to excise five states out of the federation;
(e) to demolish major bridges across the River Niger and Benue to effectively dismember the country.
“Apart from the arrest and elimination of senior military, police and government officials, their plan included the arrest, summary trial and execution of prominent Nigerians to have been involved in the implementation of the Federal Government’s transition programme.
“This summary trial and subsequent execution were slated to have started all over the federation as from 4 p.m on April 22, 1990.”
Aikhomu also accused Ogboru of financing the plot with N10 million with about 400 ex-servicemen recruited by Major Mukoro “ and assisted by one Mr Alex Aigbe”.
After the Nwachukwu-led Special Military Tribunal had passed its judgement, another Military Investigation Panel (MIP) was set up to investigate the judgement of the tribunal and the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the appeals lodged by the appellants.
Then, the AFRC met at the State House on July 26, 1990 to consider the findings of the MIP. After three hours, it rose to continue the next day.
Due to the series of appeal made by some prominent Nigerians on behalf of the plotters, it was initially believed that the adjournment was meant to consider the appeals.
But that was not to be.
The second day, it was obvious that the condemned plotters had a date to keep with military tradition which makes treason an offence punishable by death.
On Friday, July 27, 1990, the area surrounding the Kirikiri Prisons was a beehive of military activities. Five armoured vehicles were drafted to the area and a combined team of military police and personnel, heavily armed, kept watch.
At 2 p.m, two military officers arrived in a jeep to monitor the situation. An hour later, 40 soldiers, dressed in military fatigue, arrived. Then came seven Black Maria vehicles with some of the condemned plotters.
They were brought out in handcuffs, tied to the stakes and shot. The remaining plotters were shot in other locations.
Aikhomu himself confirmed this in a 7p.m. broadcast.
On that day, 43 conspirators were executed, the largest execution of coup plotters in the country’s history. It was a bloody Friday.
Before then, the highest was 32, after the Dimka abortive coup of February 13, 1976.