Sam Omatseye » The Nzeogwu mystique by Sam Omatseye

Every January we focus on the Army. Nothing has brought this more in focus than the President’s sweep of the top brass. We should swivel back to the man who invented January for the Army and the army for our politics: Major Kaduna Nzeogwu. Close to six decades after his act, his story still wraps itself in ambiguity. Some say he was good for our politics. Others say he deflowered the Army by bringing the hallowed institution to the forbidden porch of politics. Some say he brought tribal hubris that eventually led to the civil war and the suspicion that festers today between the Igbo brothers and the rest of us. His supporters said he did no such thing. He was as de-tribalised a Nigerian as you can ever be. So, who was Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu? In spite of the tomes on the man and testimonies by friends and relatives, the man who shot bullet into the agbada of politics still confounds pundits. Yet, the story of the man epitomises the narrative of our politics and the significance of its armed forces in our lives today. When he led the coup, he attracted universal praise across the country. But some say he never led the coup. Some accounts say the leader was Chris Anuforo, and Emma Okocha argues this in his updated book, Blood on the Niger. In his There was a Country, Chinua Achebe narrates that Nzeogwu was offended that Ifeajuna paraded himself as the leader. Yet, in virtually every narrative, Nzeogwu rumbles as the thunder of January 15, 1966. He was not to make the announcement but Major Ademoyega. But he seized the initiative. He led mainly Hausa-Fulani soldiers to kill the most iconic Hausa-Fulani in modern history, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the sardauna of Sokoto. Some say the soldiers could not have done otherwise. He was their commander. But they knew the target as the turbaned hero. Others explained that it was because of the ascetic temperament of Nzeogwu. He was more Kaduna than Chukwuma, never spoke Igbo, was fluent in Hausa. He also abhorred the poisons and prisons of character: women, alcohol, tobacco. He was a conservative radical. He wanted change but not of the libertine variety. He craved an upright society. He belonged to what you would call the right of politics. But he wanted integrity and we did not have it in government. Our politicians quaffed and baffed and looted the treasury and did not live up to the moral obligation of the vote. His moral fibre bristled against it. Some have therefore argued that Nzeogwu was too upright to indulge in petty loyalty to tribe. Yet, we have seen that when the coup unfolded, the killings were lopsided. Hausa-Fulani leaders were killed. Yoruba leader Samuel Akintola was killed. So what happened to the others in the East, and they were left untouched? Even the head of the army, Aguiyi Ironsi, was unhurt. Critics fault Nzeogwu. The others did not do their job. But they were Nzeogwu’s men. Another point of view introduces the Awolowo dimension. The coupists, it has been asserted, planned to hand over to the Yoruba sage. We have no definitive evidence, but the story has wafted permanently into the coup lore. So after a few days of the coup, and questions flew about its genuine purpose, praise diluted into doubt. And those who saw Nzeogwu and his men as true Nigerians cast them as tribalists. But how do we delineate the Ademoyega inclusion? Was he conned, naïve, or did his ethnicity prove the case that the coup’s intention was patriotic and some bad eggs failed and smeared the goodwill of the rest? Was he a quisling? In his book, Okocha quotes Lateef Jakande as being aware in jail of the higher purpose of the coupists after they struck. That remains vague and the former Lagos State governor will do well to shed light on this. But Awo never associated himself with Nzeogwu and his men till he died. That adds to the Nzeogwu mystique. Yet when Biafra was born, he fought on the side of the Igbo. In spite of his pedigree, he never commanded any force and Ojukwu treated him with suspicion. Circumstances of his death remain foggy. Some accounts say he never believed in Biafra and wanted the Nigerians and the Igbo reconciled without bloodshed. Yet he died in Biafran uniform. He was a Midwestern Igbo, and probably suffered the suspicion that other officers from that part of the country laboured under. Isichei, Nwawo, etc never had major commands in Biafra as General Alabi Isama shows in his book, The Tragedy of Victory, which is the best book yet on the civil war. They were not Igbo enough and not Nigerian enough. At the bottom of the Nzeogwu mystique is whether he was a good soldier or a good man, and whether the one embattled the other. Is it possible to be both in full or good measure? Charles de Gaulle was much older when he shot to limelight. He was too much of a good man to be the good soldier of the like of Petain and his Vichy collaborators. He was conservative in outlook, Catholic, lacked fluency of speech. But the good man in him preferred the patriot to the quisling even if it meant running away from his fatherland to fight from outside. Would a de Gaulle have donned a Biafran fatigue after killing an Hausa-Fulani icon and accused as an ethnic chauvinist? Not likely. Did Nzeogwu play the survival game and waited his time? Probably. We shall never know. The concept of a good soldier often comes with historical examples. Josip Broz Tito organised anti-Nazi militia during the Second World War as resistance against the conquest of the Slavs. In the colonial era, Charles Gordon, held on to faith in his Christian God and Pax Britannica, to hold Sudan during colonial times. Though out-manned and outgunned, he preferred to be beheaded by the Mahdi. His case problematises what is good soldier and good man. Ariel Sharon, who just died, had this personal battle. He began as a butcher of Palestinians and died a reformer. That is the mystique that surrounds Nzeogwu today. He wanted to save his country, but he died for another. His best friend was Yoruba – Olusegun Obasanjo – but he was accused as a tribalist. He was a loner, but the sins of others have tarred him. He was a conservative who wanted change. His life, with all its contradictions, is the history of Nigerian Army even today. While many acknowledge its messianic potential, nobody trusts it for redemption. It seized power to clean the Augean stable, but the officers became carpetbaggers.


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