“Wake up Chudi!”
"Chudi", the short form of the traditional name I was given at birth, Chukwudi.
I stirred a bit and looked at the face of my cousin, Nkechi. Her expression was a mixture of a lot of fear, with some hint of excitement.
“There has been a coup!”
I jumped out of bed and ran to the living room where my father and mother sat pensively listening to the martial music on the radio. Everyone was awake. My mother opened her arms to me and I ran into her hug.
This was my first government take over… My first coup. I was 10 years old.
My mother and father had told me stories of Nigerian coups. There had been 2 in our history at the time. Both extremely violent, I would later discover, but they hid those details from us. Just telling us of how martial band music was played on the one radio station and everyone stayed home to hear instruction on who was going to be the new Head Of State. And now, it was happening. I was going to experience my first coup…
General Yakubu Gowan had been the military head of state. He became Head of State after his own successful coup in 1966. He had been out of the country on a conference and his government was overthrown by a coup led by General Murutala Muahammed. And unlike Gowan’s own coup, which was extremely violent, and was the precursor to the Nigerian civil war, General Murutala was bloodless. They had taken over control of the country without killing anyone.
I remember listening to the marital music playing on the radio. A strange bland band music that I had never heard before. I didn’t recognize anything being played. I vaguely remember a recording of the Nigerian national anthem would play every now and then. Like some strange interlude or commercial break.
I remember how my whole family gathered in the living room waiting for the periodic announcements. I can’t remember the actual words spoken, but a stern military voice would interrupt the music to explain:
- There has been a coup.
- The present government has been overthrown,
- All airport and borders are closed
- And there will be a dusk to dawn curfew imposed across the whole of Nigeria.
My father sat in the living room, in our house in Surulere Lagos, smoking his pipe and listening intently. I remember bombarding him with questions and he tried to explain what was happening.
Will we have a new head of state? - Yes.
Will they arrest Gowan when he comes back. - Yes. But he won’t come back
Will “Yakubu Gowan Way” get changed back to “Broad Street”?
My father looked at me quizzically. I had learned in school, that the major street in the heart of Lagos City, used to be called Broad Street, but was renamed Yakubu Gowan Way, after Gowan had seized power. So my question was now that he is no longer Head Of State, will they change the name of the street. This final question exasperated my dad,
“Chudi… I don’t know”….
We waited in silence after that.
The day dragged on, and I found some semblance of normalcy by playing soccer in the front yard with my friends. The streets were absolutely deserted. We could see our neighbors on their balconies, listening to hand held radios. The martial music played in stereo throughout the whole neighborhood. I’ll never forget how strange it was to hear this music everywhere.
Slowly newscasters started coming on. Telling us normal services will soon resume. That all is safe and a government is in control. I don’t remember how I learned who the new head of state was, but in one or two days, life returned to normal. Although it was not the same…. Everything changed.
And yes, “Yakubu Gowan Way”, was renamed back to “Broad Street” and remains so till today.
This was just one of the 5 coups I experienced while living in Nigeria. However there were 2 others that I never forgot.
The next one that is seared in my memory actually happened a mere 6 months later. And it was nothing like the first.
I was attending a prestigious private elementary school called Corona School Ikoyi. Many of my classmates were children of high military officers and government officials. The school itself was less than 3 miles from Dodan Barracks, where the Head Of State lived.
Even though our middle class neighborhood of Surulere was only a mere 9 miles away, Lagos traffic was historically bad. If embarked at the wrong time, that commute could be anywhere from 2 to 3 hours. This is not an exaggeration.
So to combat this, my parents would send us to school, with the driver, as early as 6 or 7 am. Sometimes we would get to school as the sun rose. The driver would drop us off then then head back to take my father to work.
This day started out no differently. We were there early. We were usually there with other children, whose parents also dropped them off early to avoid traffic. We would play soccer and run around until the teacher came to open up the classrooms.
By mid morning, we noticed some activity outside our school gate. Since there was no air conditioning, the classrooms had very large windows. So from my class on the 3rd floor, we could see the front gate of the school clearly. And sometimes before class started, we would sit by the window and wave as our classmates arrived.
Then we started seeing cars driving and screeching to a halt at the front gate. A driver, and sometimes with some military officers, running into the school. And then less than 3-5 mins later leave with some children, carrying their school bags. They would be ushered hurriedly in the car and then driven off.
We noticed this started happening frequently, then it happened to someone in my class. Two military personnel came to our class with the principal. My friend Niyi and his cousin Sumbo, were asked to follow the men. They got up and left. We watch as they walked briskly to the front gate, when Niyi turned around and shouted
“There’s been a coup!”
This caused the the men to push him quicker to the front gate and into the car, which sped off.
Parents, drivers all people started coming for their children. I went to look for my younger brother, as all children was ushered to the assembly to wait to be picked up. We were scared and afraid. We had no idea what was happening. Frightened looking adults milling around whispering did not help. I had no clue how my parents were going to get us.
Luckily a close family friend, who lived a few blocks from us, and who we used to carpool with, sent their driver. We all piled into the car, as they took me and my brother with the rest of the kids into the car and sped off.
As the driver dodged and weaved, ignoring all traffic rules he told us what happened. There was a coup and General Murutala Muhammed had been assassinated. He had been in his limo driving not to far from Dodan Barracks when he was ambushed in a hail of machine gun fire.
It took us over 5 hours to get home. We actually walked the last mile or so, as the traffic had ground to a halt and there was absolute gridlock. When we got home my mother sobbed and sobbed. She had been so afraid for our safety. They had sent the driver for us and he had not returned. They had no idea what had happened to him. He could not make it back before curfew. He found a place to park and slept in the car, and came back the next day.
On the radio we heard the voice of Lieutenant Colonel Buka Suka Dimka. Telling us there had been a coup and the usual border closings and curfew. But this coup was different. There was tension in his voice. There was a sense of foreboding that seemed not to be there in the coup 6 months ago. That one had been bloodless. Dimka’s voice was more ominous, more threatening, because today, blood had already been shed.
After some hours, we stopped hearing Dimka’s voice. Different voices were beginning to be heard on the radio. The coup was not successful. The current government had thwarted the coup. The coup plotters were on the run. While relief spread throughout our neighbors, there was still a sense of fear of the unknown.
The details of the death of General Murutala’s death were gruesome. Dimka and several others, riddled his car with bullets, just 3 miles from my school. Killing him and his Aide-de-camp, Akintunde Akinsehinwa. He had only been Head Of State for 6 months and was soon lionized for his tenure. He had made many strides in righting Nigeria and was hailed for his efforts, even though they were cut short. He face is on Nigerian currency and the current international airport in Lagos is named after him.
Dinka was later found and executed with 38 other conspirators by firing squad. The pictures of the dead, tied to poles, with their bloodied bodies slumped over, were in the newspapers for days. Former Head Of State Gowan was implicated in the plot, to return him to power. He took up exile in the UK for many years until he was pardoned and returned to Nigeria.
I later went to school with the son of one of the executed plotters. He became one of my closest and dearest friend to this day. And he maintained his father was innocent.
I don’t know all the facts, but what I do know is that a coup conspiracy is a “damned if you do”, “damned if you don’t” proposition. If you are told, by the plotters, that one is being planned, and you don’t support, you could be dead right there. If you keep quiet and it fails, you are lumped in with the others. And in the frenzy to find the perpetrators many innocent are included, sometimes by accident, on purpose. Rounding up coup plotter can be used as a cover to eliminate one's enemies
It was a terrible time in Nigeria then and it took many years for the country to heal.
However this past US election awoken echoes for me of one particular coup in Dec 1983.
After years of military rule, Nigeria finally had a democratically elected government. The 2nd republic, had just completed its first 4 years and the incumbent, President Shehu Shagari, was reelected in a landslide. We lived in Northern Nigeria in a town called Bauchi. My mother, long since divorced from my father, worked in the new formed Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) station, as a producer.
Nigeria was being hailed for its new democracy. A beacon in Africa. A leader. I remember having our new democracy discussed at my prep school in New Hampshire. We were no longer some banana republic. We were a democracy. A giant of Africa.
On the night of Dec 31st 1983, she asked me to come with her to the station as she needed to get some tapes there before New Year struck at 12 midnight. As we got there, there was a solemn mood in the station. The workers there were rushing around hurriedly. Someone grabbed my mother and pulled her aside. As he spoke rapid Hausa to her, I waited off the to the side.
My mother walked over to me and all the blood had drained out of her face.
“There has been a coup”
I was shocked! What? Is that even possible? All the coups I have ever heard were military on military. Can the military overthrow a democracy? My head was spinning. I barely heard someone rushing by me and saying “Happy New Year”.
I walked around to a quiet corner of the station and started violently punching the air. What have they done? We had just started on the right track! Now they have taken us backwards.
President Shagari was being over thrown by Major General Muhammadu Buhari. Sounds familiar to those abreast of Nigerian politics. He is the current president of Nigeria.
He wasn’t in power as a military Head Of State long. He too was overthrown in 2 years later by another military coup. And after that, there was at least 3 more attempted and successful coups.
Years later Buhari, as a civilian, during our 3rd try at democracy, he won the presidential election by beating the incumbent president, Goodluck Johnathan. That was the first time, in the history of Nigeria, a civilian handed over power to another civilian.. A milestone.
However I remember Buhari’s first tenure that came via a coup. The usual reason for a coup were given. The corrupt former regime needed to be removed, etc, etc. And it was uncovered that Shagari’s right hand man, Umuru Dikko, amongst others, had indeed stolen a lot of money.
I remember the helplessness so clearly with this coup. We had a democracy. Was it great? No. Did it have problems? Yes, but it was steps in the right direction. Returning to the military felt like going backwards. I remember the country being so divided on this coup. Many people were for it. They hated the corrupt civilian government. Others like me, thought was had set ourselves back.
We were both right.
There was massive corruption, that we uncovered, but we did set ourselves back. The corruption continued. The coup just replaced the people, as the systems remained the same. So the change people thought they were getting with the coup, was actually the same old, same old.
On Nov 9th 2016, here in the US, I couldn’t help but feel the same sinking feeling as I did on Dec 31st 1983 in Nigeria.
This time it was a political and cultural coup d’etat that was voted in…
- Chet Bashari Anekwe -