Saturday, January 15, 1966 is arguably one of the days to remember in the history of Nigeria. It was the first military coup, and it took place barely six years after Nigeria gained independence from Britain.
Some senior military officers, including the then Chief Instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy in Kaduna, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, his co-conspirators, Major Timothy Onwuatuewgu, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Major Adewale Ademoyega and Major Chris Anuforo, among others, made attempts to overthrow the democratic government in place at the time, headed by Nnamdi Azikiwe as the President and Abubakar Balewa as the Prime Minister.
The President was away in the Caribbean on vacation, thus, the Prime Minister and other ministers were inadvertently the target of the coup.
These UK-trained military officers began plotting the coup in August 1965 because, according to them, the leaders at that time were corrupt and living in flamboyance at the expense of the citizens.
The violent coup began as a mere night-time training exercise for junior officers, known as ‘Exercise Damisa’ and it was held close to the premises of Ahmadu Bello, the then Premier of the Northern region, but it turned out to be one of Nigeria’s bloodiest coups, as many government officials and soldiers were killed.
On that Saturday, the coup plotters had spread themselves across their target areas: Kaduna, Lagos and Ibadan, where they murdered the likes of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Brig. Samuel Ademulegun, who was then the commander of the 2nd Brigade, Col. Ralph Shodeinde, Chief Samuel Akintola, Festus Okotie-Eboh, Brig. Zakariya Maimalari, and others.
Interestingly, Mrs. Solape Ademulegun-Agbi, the only daughter of Brig. Ademulegun, witnessed the gruesome killing of her father and mother by the mutinous soldiers.
Even though she was just six years and one month old at that time, now at 57, the mother of two, who is now a school proprietress, tells TUNDE AJAJA in this interview what happened that night
January 15, 1966 is a day to remember in your family. What are the memories you still have about that day?
It’s amazing you asked this question, because the memory of that day never went away. You would imagine that memories of the parties and the fun I have had in the past had all gone away, but memories of that day just didn’t go anywhere.
You were six years old at that time, what do you remember about that day?
We were living in Kaduna and my dad was the General Officer Commanding, 1st Division, Kaduna. The house was on Kashim Ibrahim Road in Kaduna, and from what I gather, the house is still there. It was a lovely day and there was nothing to suggest that anything was going to happen. My father travelled, I don’t recall where he went but he had just come back that day. I’m sure if he knew something like that was about to happen, he would have taken some precautions. He wasn’t aware. So, evening came and we all went to bed. I shared my parents’ bedroom that night because I had chicken pox and I had calamine lotion all over my face. My younger brother, Goke, was sleeping in a cot in the room while my elder brother, Kole, was in another room. We were all asleep. In the middle of the night, we heard noises, and as I opened my eyes, soldiers were already in our bedroom upstairs; they were familiar with the house anyway because they always came around. How they even came in through the guards, I don’t know. Of course, the guards were soldiers too. I recognised a few of them because some of them had come in the afternoon, maybe to survey the house and see how their plan would work in the night.
What did your father do when he saw them?
We were all in bed. My father was putting on white singlet and his underwear. He asked what they were doing in the house, and then, he tried to reach for his drawer, as a trained military officer. I cannot recall now whether it was Onwuatuegwu or Nzeogwu, but I recall asking the person ‘uncle what are you doing here?’ My mother also wanted to play the heroine, by asking what they were doing in our house – our bedroom. They dealt with her first. They shot her on the chest and she started bleeding. Then they took my father out. While they took him out, my mum was gasping, trying to talk. She was calling my elder brother, who was in another room, apparently to give her last instruction. I think Kole came out of his bedroom but the atmosphere was so hostile and there was so much shooting such that he couldn’t even step in to see her or hear what mum was trying to say. She also called our housemaid, Gbele, but no one would show up at that time. Two soldiers stayed in the room with us. For a long time, she kept trying to talk but she was losing strength. While that was on, they brought my father back into the room, dead. He wasn’t shot in bed like some people reported. They took him out, shot him and brought back his corpse. So, we don’t know what happened when they took him out, but they just laid him there on the floor. My mum didn’t die very quickly; she was still gasping but her speech had become very weak and slow because blood was gushing out of her body. I know that if she had got help, she probably wouldn’t have died. When they were done, they left, because she was as good as dead anyway. When they left, my brother led us out of the house to the boy’s quarters where we were for the rest of the night.
The fact that you asked what the “uncle” was doing in the bedroom implies some familiarity. Which of them; Nzeogwu or Onwuatuegwu, used to come to your house before then?
I think both of them. They used to come and eat pounded yam, because back then, going to your commander’s house was normal. The Army was one big family. Nzeogwu was the name in my head and I may not have known Nwaotuegwu by name because that was a long jaw-breaking name for a child. My father being from Ondo, pounded yam was our main meal. That was when I knew cow leg that Yorubas call bokoto. It used to have some little round bones in it. That, with pounded yam, were Nzeogwu’s favourite and he would come and eat with us. Nzeogwu used to carry me on his shoulders. Eventually when we moved on and I got to Army Children’s School, I met a young lady, called Femi Nzeogwu. I don’t know if she was his daughter or niece, but funny enough, we became pretty close, much as I said to myself that I wouldn’t have anything to do with anybody. So, Nzeogwu had a relationship with my dad and mum. But like I said, I don’t recall if he was there. But I recall seeing someone that I called uncle, which was a symbol of familiarity. I think one or two of the people who came that night were the same people who came during the day.
Who called your house during that attack?
The phone rang somewhere in between, and it was Mrs. Shodeinde. She called to warn my parents. I picked up the phone but it was late because the soldiers had divided themselves everywhere at the same time, because they also killed her husband. After they left, my brother took us to the boy’s quarters. Some people, especially the civilians found it very hilarious, especially describing the gunshots. That was a humour for them. They were laughing, while the others, especially the soldiers, genuinely sat back and wondered what was next for them. The soldiers knew it was a big problem, not just for them, but for the nation. So we were in the boy’s quarters till morning before the army sent someone to move us to Queen Amina Orphanage there in Kaduna, which was run by the white missionaries then. It was there they told me then that my parents had gone on a long journey. I don’t know if I believed them, having seen all the blood and how my mum was losing her breath. But, before we left the orphanage, one of the missionaries, a white young beautiful lady, took me to a burial ground in the area and explained what death meant to me. She told me if a person died, they would never come back and they had gone to be with God. I still didn’t understand. But I somehow knew that I wasn’t going to see my parents again.
What was in your mind when the shooting was going on?
What could be on the mind of a six-year-old? I was wondering ‘what is this? Uncle, what are you doing here? Who are these other men?’ I was used to having soldiers around the house but in that hostile manner, it was a different thing. On my mind, it was just a bad night; maybe a dream, maybe I was going to wake up the next day and everything would have gone away. But, that was the beginning of another life.
Did it cross your mind that they could kill you?
No, I wasn’t even scared. My brothers had always seen me as a tomboy, so I didn’t have such fears.
Do you remember yourself crying that night?
Oh yes, I did, because I was leaving without them. They were lying there while we were going to the boy’s quarters. My brother was dragging me and at a point, he carried me (He still looks out for me a lot, he still thinks I’m his baby), but I didn’t want to go because they were both there on the floor. I still wanted to talk to them, but they were not responding. I cried all the way to the boy’s quarters and even in the next morning when the army brought a Land Rover to take their bodies, I watched them take the bodies away. I wanted to go with them but I couldn’t. I have not stopped crying. Sometimes I see my friends whose parents are still alive and whose fathers were also in the army. When I see the relationship between them, I cry. It could be my silent, quiet tears, but I cry. When I listen to Michael Bolton’s ‘Fathers and Daughters Never Say Goodbye,’ I cry. Anytime I visit Ondo and I see his cenotaph, I cry. The tears from that day probably would never die until I’m no more in many years to come. And if it is true that the dead see one another, I’d see them again. Maybe all the love they couldn’t wait to give, we would have it then. Crying? I haven’t stopped crying.
Would you say you are happy you witnessed the incident or you wish you hadn’t slept with them that night?
That’s a very difficult question for me to answer. I’ve never stopped having my regret over that night. I still cry, even as a 57-year-old. You know why? I never got the chance to say goodbye (Crying). They too never got a chance to say goodbye. There is this song, ‘Fathers and Daughters Never Say Goodbye’, by Michael Bolton, I’m hooked to that song. A father promises his daughters so many things; I’ll be there for you when you grow up, when you get married, when you have children, when you have your first boyfriend; I’ll be there to tell you he’s the one or not. My dad wasn’t there for no fault of his and we never even got the chance to say goodbye. You would think that after 50 years, it would be a wound that has healed, no. I have my regret but I’m glad I witnessed it, because it would have been worse if I didn’t see them at all. I feel better. It would have been worse if all I have is the story, because we don’t even have a burial ground to visit. Where they were buried doesn’t even exist anymore. So, that’s enough memory for me, even though it’s painful. It’s painful but it’s okay. It would have been worse if I had nothing at all. I needed to have something and that’s the only goodbye I had. They couldn’t say it, I couldn’t say it, but at least I had that memory, that I saw them before they gave up the ghost. From what I gather, an expressway has gone over the place they were buried. So, we don’t even have a burial ground to go and put flowers. I’m glad that I saw it, but I wish I could have said goodbye.
Your mum who wasn’t a military officer was also killed. Was there ever a time she expressed her reservation about your dad being in the military?
I don’t think so; I think she actually liked it. She was a nurse, and I think at some point, she worked at 44 Nigerian Army Hospital in Kaduna. I think she was fine with his choice of work.
Was she truly pregnant at the time she was shot?
I think she was. With hindsight, I think she was. That would have been another younger brother or sister for me. I’m the only girl. Maybe I would have had another sister.
How was life after their death?
Immediately after the orphanage, they moved us to Lagos. We went by train whereas when our parents were alive, we went everywhere by air and at worst, by road with my father driving. So, we went by train from Kaduna to Lagos, while my brother stopped at Abeokuta to resume school. My father’s brother, Mr. Johnson Ademulegun, who is also late now, came for us. The military contacted him to take us in while they made arrangement for where we would stay. He was in the police force. Throughout the journey, I didn’t close my eyes. My younger brother and uncle slept off. My eyes were wide open. He lived somewhere in Obalende barracks while the Army was still deciding where to put us and who would raise us. It was the worst few weeks of our lives. All I managed to take out of the house was my duck (Pepeye in Yoruba). Later on, the army figured out where to place us, but it wasn’t the same. We moved from corn flakes to pap. It reminded me of the life that I was used to. My younger brother had difficulty living with it. He was four then. It took him a little longer to put it behind. We moved from place to place. Dr. Akinsete and his wife, Mrs. Omowumi Akinsete (May her soul rest in peace) tried for us as well. They were fantastic. He’s still my father; he’s still alive. However, the army did their bit; they settled us down.
The coup plotters were your father’s friends, would you know why he chose not to be a part of the coup?
My father was a very disciplined officer. He was strict and stern. I think he stood on the vows he made, that he would defend his nation and his fellow officers. So, he wasn’t one who would do such or be a part of such a thing.
Those who plotted the coup said the government was corrupt and that was why they made that move. Would you know if your father shared that same view or he wasn’t used to sharing his views at home?
I wouldn’t know; I was just six. Even if he were to share his views at home, it won’t be with me. My dad was close to the Sardauna of Sokoto and we used to go to his house. I didn’t see any flamboyance. What I saw was a good Muslim leader who cared for his people, because we used to see many people outside there being fed. The word, Almajiri, existed then more than it does now. So, what I saw was a man who fed his people. If they considered that as flamboyant lifestyle, I wonder what they would say now with so many beggars and unemployed people. Perhaps, if someone would still be doing that now, there would be less beggars on the street.
One of your siblings later joined the Air Force, which is an arm of the military. Was there any form of resistance from the other siblings, considering what happened to your parents?
It was my first brother who later died, late Group Captain Francis Ademulegun. He was in aeronautical school in Germany when it happened, so he wasn’t even around, and what you don’t see may not really hurt you as much. However, he joined the Air Force, not the Army. So, there was no resistance.
Would you still wish to know who did the killing between Nzeogwu and Onwuatuegwu?
I think we should just let sleeping dogs lie. Of what use will it be? What is done is done. It can’t be undone. Nigeria is here, we thank God. I see one united nation, even with our ups and downs.
Have you forgiven the person?
Forgive? I would be a fool after 50 years to say I haven’t forgiven. We were not alone in this. Other people lost their fathers, maybe not everybody lost their mothers, but we didn’t suffer. Nigerian Army paid our school fees but we still missed our parents. If they were alive today, they probably would be in their 90s, but I would know they are there. I miss the fact that all I have are pictures in frames. There is also that song that ‘All I have is your picture in the frame’. Other than that, I’m a grandmother now. If I don’t let the past go, if I hang on to the past, then, I’m going to be carrying too much baggage. So, forgiveness? That happened a long time ago, the army more than made up for it. They made sure we got our first degrees. They did their best. The less enmity we hold and the less grudges we carry, the better for us.
Did you ever visit that house again after the incident?
I still want to visit the house, but I haven’t been to Kaduna in a long time. Somebody told me that my mother’s blood still keeps dripping from one part of the wall. Of course, they keep painting, but once the paint starts fading out, there would be a red-brownish patch on one part of the wall near the bed, which they put as my mother’s blood. I’ll visit that place one day, if whoever is there would allow me to go up and see.
The coup eventually failed…
(…Cuts in) Well, so they say, but those who died had died.
One can imagine that the fact that those who killed your parents didn’t taste that power would be a consolation for people like you. Did you see it that way?
Happy? That’s a tough word. I would have preferred that my parents were alive, even if the coup worked. Life really changed for us. So, being happy or unhappy over that was not an option. That it worked, that it failed, that there was a counter-coup the following July, so be it, but some people had gone, if it was time for others to go, so be it. We moved on, we were placed with the Akinsete family, we spent holidays everywhere. We stayed with Gen. Olutoye, who is now an Oba, the next day could be with Gen. Oluleye. We were loved everywhere, so there was no time to look back. The important thing was everyone wanted us to succeed.
How much has the event of that night affected you?
A lot, because I find it very difficult to trust. Even friendship was hard. It’s still a bit hard, because trust is a little difficult for me, owing to that event. If people were coming to your home to eat and fraternise with you, and suddenly they go behind and make up that dubious plan and then they show up and the next thing is you are dead. For many years, I find it difficult to be friends with the people from Eastern part of Nigeria, with all due apologies. Once you said you were Igbo, I had issues taking it in, but I grew past it. One of my best friends in the university was an Igbo girl, and one of my closest allies now is Igbo. It took me years to overcome that. That event made death seem like nothing to me. If they were talking a minute ago and the next thing they were gone, then it’s okay. It doesn’t matter at what age. It wasn’t like they were old when they left. My mum was 38 and I think my dad was 42. So, basically, the problem I had was that of trust. If people try to get too close, I have a problem with that. A lot of people don’t understand because I wouldn’t know who to trust and I would rather just be myself and keep my memories. I don’t want anybody infiltrating my head. So, I made myself to be a workaholic. I enjoy working and being around children. To keep that memory, I have buildings in my school that I named after my parents. These have kept me going. I’m a very fulfilled mother and grandmother.