The failed April 22, 1990 coup carried out by a group of young army officers led by Major Gideon Orkar shook the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Orkar and his co-plotters attacked Dodan Barracks, Lagos, the military headquarters and residence of the former military president. But Babangida escaped from being hit by the bullets fired by the coup plotters.
Major Orkar, in his broadcast to the nation, said the coup was meant to oust Babangida from power because his regime was dictatorial, corrupt and deceitful, among others. Orkar branded the coup as ‘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 them and their children from eternal slavery and colonisation by a clique in the country.’ Before the coup was executed, Orkar had enlisted the support of a senior Army officer, Col. Anthony Nyiam, to ensure the success of the forceful takeover of Babangida’s government.
But after the coup was aborted by troops loyal to Babangida, Orkar and 41 other coup planners were convicted of treason and executed by firing squad on July 27 1990, while Nyiam managed to escape, hence he was not killed.
In this interview with Fisayo Falodi and Tunde Ajaja, Nyiam, the most senior among the coup plotters, explains how he escaped and that the issues that prompted the plotters to carry out arms against Babangida have yet to be addressed
You were one of those who staged the 1990 coup against the government of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Why did you stage that coup?
Let me begin by making some corrections. It was not a military coup in the sense that it was not a coup against an elected government. What we did was a pro-democracy uprising. We did not rise up or attempt to take over government from an elected government. Instead, we saw that there was going to be a perpetuation of politicians-in-military-uniform occupying offices and acting in their own interests, not even in the corporate interest of the military. We rose up against them because we wanted power restored back to civilian authorities. And if you read the text of our message, alongside the regime change we wanted, it was actually to go beyond that to what had been our problem and is still our problem, which is going back to the foundational basis of governance, and that is true federalism. Some people also felt we didn’t involve Northerners, but we had people from the Middle Belt, who are also Northerners. So, it was not a coup, but an action by people of the Northern minority group alongside Southern officers, and the main reason for our action was to restore democracy and alongside restore federalism which we have moved away from. I’m not a fan of coups and I prefer Nigeria to have democratic rule.
Are you implying that you sole interest was to displace the military regime so the country could have democracy?
There were lots of attempts by Babangida to restore democracy in the country, but we were close to the dramatis personae involved and we knew that there was no intention to hand over power to the civilians. So, young officers were frustrated by this and that was why they identified me to be part of their plan. They identified and approached me in February, which was about two months to the action.
You were about the most senior officer in that coup and in the military, those junior officers must have been very courageous to convince a senior officer to join them for the uprising…
(Cuts in…) The young officers had been planning the uprising for over nine months before they approached me because they knew I was close to Gen. Babangida, a man of ideas and he liked me because I was ideas-oriented. Working as the secretary of the conference of the Chief of Army Staff and also going by the advice some of us used to give Babangida, we were clear that he was not ready for real transition to democracy. When there was need to experiment the kind of diarchy created in Egypt whereby the military will produce the head of state and the civilian will produce the prime minister, I was part of the team Babangida asked to go and understudy the system. Babangida started very well until some people from a part of the country pointed a gun at his head (indirectly) and forced him to dance to their tunes. That was when he started to lose focus. So, when the young officers approached me and I realised that what they were saying were correct, I did not have the conscience to report them. In the military, if you hear of such a plan, it is either you report it or join. But I thought that I would not be able to sleep throughout my life if I had gone to report those boys whose intention was very clear, even though they were not experienced enough because the act of coup, as you used the word earlier, is only carried out by crooks, but these boys were clean officers.
Does it mean you had to join them because of your own safety or that you believed in the cause the young officers were fighting for?
If I was thinking about my own safety, I would have gone to report them. We have lacked leadership that has vision since the days of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. So, our action was to restore Nigeria back to governance based on true federalism, the type Awolowo set in the West and Ahmadu Bello did in the North. The problem with Nigeria is that governance, since a long time, has been led by people who feel that they can be smart and they can be crafty. At best, they are what the military will call tacticians. We have never had a strategist ruling this country since Awolowo’s time and that was what we wanted to achieve. Having been well trained at the expense of the Nigerian government in the United Kingdom, likewise Saliba Mukoro, who was trained in the United States, we felt that we must return Nigeria back to what our founding fathers created. What we were aiming to correct then is still the same problem with the country now.
If the uprising, as you prefer to call it, was successful, how would you have effected the system change you spoke about?
If you read our text, you would discover that we had three things to do within 18 months. The first thing we would have done under the leadership of Saliba Mukoro, who initiated the action, was to convene a sovereign national conference and subject the outcome to plebiscite. The second thing was to organise a census with the help of some United Nations agencies and correct the injustice that previous census created. After the first two exercises, we would have conducted free and fair general elections. Both the census and the general elections would be conducted by the UN agencies.
Between the time you hatched the plot and the time you carried it out, how did you keep the meetings, conversations and other underground activities pertaining to the uprising from the prying eyes of Babangida’s intelligence team?
Like I said, I was not part of the plot initially, but I will say we kept everything from Babangida because we were very intelligent chaps. Secondly, we did not rely essentially on people in uniform as much as we relied on ex-soldiers and civilians for the action. I also took advantage of my position to ensure that Babangida did not get a wind of what we were doing and if possible, distract the attention of the authorities from what we were doing because I was very close to Babangida.
Some people would describe what you did as betrayal of the military and your boss, did you ever see that way?
You need to describe military to know if what we did was betrayal. A true military man, first and foremost, stands for the people. That was what happened in Egypt, when the military came out to defend the people. A true military man, like Jerry Rawlings, saw the corruption in Ghana and he came, told them to bring back the money or be killed. That was a military man. Secondly, a true military man respects the constitution, and he doesn’t suspend the constitution. So, who did I betray? I betrayed those who betrayed the military, in the real sense of it. I come from a tradition of those who started the military thinking. I mean Alexander the Great. He started the military concept. He was partly African and partly Greek. Why is he called the great? Because he was a great man, and one of the greatest generals. Most things we do in the military came from him. He was an African. People should make no mistake about that. The military he brought up was to defend the defenceless; stand by the people. Once you are a soldier who is loyal to a corrupt establishment, then you are not a true soldier. The problem was a struggle beyond Babangida and I. He was with a gun to his head, indirectly, protecting a system which I wanted changed. So, the issue of betrayal does not come in. I stand for the uprightness of the military.
You said ex-soldiers were recruited to partake in the uprising. How did you bring them in?
The cry for change had been there before now; not cry for regime change, but cry for the return to the path of social justice. I can’t remember how many of them we had, but we had more ex-service men than those still in service. We also had civilians. Those ex servicemen were soldiers who knew that the military government was not serving them right. Many of them had not been paid their pension. It was (former President) Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and others who started paying pensions. During the military regime, retired soldiers were hanging around in Abuja, dying. That was how they were treated when a fellow military man was in power. So, it was a set of disgruntled people who willingly joined us. We also tapped civilian criminals. They were people who were lured into crime for not having something to do. In every human being, there is some goodness. So, sometimes, it is the system that has turned some into criminals. That was why we wanted a system change. If we don’t change the structure of the system, we are just wasting our time.
Were the many bullets fired during that uprising that night meant to kill Babangida or to capture him alive?
The bullets were not fired to kill anybody, but to put aside those who were feasting on the corrupt system. What happened was that our plan leaked, so we carried out the action about two weeks before the time we should have acted. When the plot leaked, about 11 of us took pre-emptive action because we did not have enough manpower. We managed to get to one of the armoured tanks and turn the gun to fire the dormitory where soldiers guiding the president were sleeping. The shooting was not meant to necessarily hit them, but to destabilise and scare them. The firing of the gun at the dormitory gave the soldiers shell shock and destabilised them. That was what happened.
Who among you leaked the plan?
The person who leaked our plan was Col. Patrick Fortata, a one-time military aide to Gen. Mohammed Haladu, who was once a chairman of the Nigeria Ports Authority. He was the one the young officers used to reach me. And because of that betrayal, he has been poor like church rats since then. He’s still alive. And he leaked it earlier. When he did that, the first thing they did to compensate him was to give him his unit, which was the unit we were to use to do our rapid deployment force for the action. He was commanding the air-borne battalion brigade in Makurdi. He was to use the air-borne to carry the unit for us to do our operation, but he leaked the information. As compensation, they gave him a very plush appointment to lead ECOMOG in peace-keeping operation. That was a lucrative assignment at that time. Thereafter, he was involved in something and he was retired. I would say he is poorer than any of us living.
After the uprising was aborted by troops loyal to Babangida, many of the plotters were arrested, tried and executed, but you escaped. Why did you, the most senior officer among them, do that?
First of all, my escape was to the Glory of God. For now, any recalling will be tantamount to self-glorification. All I can say is that I give gratitude to God for being alive. God is my protector and so, for me to start talking about how I escaped will become an egoistic thing.
It won’t be egoistic. People would like to know how you managed to escape despite the heat and the manhunt for you and others. Could you tell us?
I had to change to civilian dressing while escaping. You see, why I have always been a lover of the poor is because it was the poor people who saved us that day. Before Dolphin Estate was built, the Ilaje people inhabiting that area then really helped us. The Baale of that community said, “These people are our officers, they cannot eat our food and drink our water.” So, he called one of his sons and asked him to quickly go and buy us bread and coke. What they did for us showed the generosity of poor people. When there was a curfew, they helped a lot of our people to cross over with boat to Ebute Metta. From the coast, they helped many of our people to cross over to the University of Lagos area through canoe. So, they helped us out of Lagos Mainland.
Where was your first point of call immediately you escaped from Lagos?
It was the boundary between Lagos and Badagry, where I spent a night before I continued the movement and I found my way to the United Kingdom.
Did you have a family then?
Yes, I had. I was then married to a British woman, and I went back to my family. Even when I was in UK, I could not stay in one place but to be moving from one place to another, until Margaret Thatcher had to give a warning to Babangida. I actually enjoyed the British intelligence protection when I was there. They were very good and they supported us against the military regime.
Immediately the uprising failed, Okar escaped but when he realised that his colleagues had been arrested, he came back to surrender himself. Why didn’t you also surrender in solidarity with them?
I’m not sure that would be exactly what happened, because if I want a system change, and I’ve not achieved my objective, why would I go and surrender? I was not there to ascertain that he truly surrendered, and this is all hypothetical and speculative. For me, I couldn’t have turned myself in, because I was fighting for a cause and we had not achieved the cause, I could not go and surrender myself to those people who were upholding the wrong system and perpetrating oppression against Nigerians. I wouldn’t have done that.
Babangida was the main target of the coup, but what was your plan for the then Chief of Army Staff, Lt.-Gen. Sani Abacha, who later told the nation in a broadcast that the action of the plotters was motivated by greed and selfish interest?
God is our witness and time is also our witness. Who is greedy now, Abacha or us? The plan was meant to essentially put aside those who were feasting on the corrupt system, including Abacha. Bagangida himself was a pawn, though a man of ideas. But what could he do when some people were indirectly pointing gun at his head?
Since you claim you were close to him, who were those who indirectly pointed gun at Babangida’s head?
They were people who were traditionally politicians in uniform; they were the people (late) Fela Anikulapo Kuti referred to as awon egbe (cabal). In those days, if they were not succeeding in politics, they called their military boys to take over government.
Then, Babangida was seen to be fully in charge and he was the number one citizen, does it mean that those you allege put gun at his head were his juniors?
You can be in office, but not be in power. In a relative sense, Gen. Yakubu Gowon was in office, but he was not in power. Gen. Hassan Katsina and Gen. Murtala Mohammed had the power. Gowon is a great Nigerian. Unfortunately for the country, when we have a great man in office, the power belongs to a group in the dark. That is why we pray that President Buhari does not experience this.
Who were the members of that?
It is a system thing. Of course, Abacha was one of them. They wanted to perpetuate oppressive system. People who felt that governance should always be for them alone. That was why Babangida could not do anything without Abacha’s approval.
Even though your team had a mix of armoured men, infantry men and ex-service men, but Babangida was still able to escape and ran to Abacha’s house. Are there other reasons why the coup failed?
First, there was a leakage. So, the action was pre-empted and carried out when it was not due. If the action had been carried out at the time it was to be executed, it would have been successful. Secondly, because we were very few officers, it meant we didn’t have arms. That very night, we had to plan one action to help the other action. We had to take over a military unit with pistols and from there we got the arms with which we carried out the main action. We were trained officers, so to use the arms was not an issue to us at all. Like I said, the plan got leaked and 11 officers, in less than 42 hours, had to muster the courage and prepare to continue to make sure that we were not arrested. So, it had its problems. Having said that, to the extent that we went, if we had captured Ikeja Cantonement where the reinforcement were kept, we would still have succeeded.
Was it not part of the plan to capture the cantonment?
It was part of the plan, but the person who should have led the action was the one who failed.
But you and Orkar had a disagreement over the wife of Babangida’s ADC, Col. U.K. Bello…
(Cuts in…)Myself and Mukoro, not Orkar, met Bello’s wife that night. She came out and we met her, that was just what happened.
It was said that that was the beginning of the failure of the uprising. Who killed Bello?
The person who killed Bello is well known and that has been said before. Certainly, I wasn’t the one who killed Bello. I have said that it was a mistake to have woken Bello up when there were officers we had captured earlier at Dodan Barracks, which means that pushing Bello to the action in Dodan Barracks dominated by Hausa forces was dangerous. Bello was not part of the plotters, he was my course-mate and good friend. When it comes to duty to the people, it does not matter whether the person is my brother or not, duty is duty. I am talking about nation state, which is a man construct; I am talking about duty to the people. So, it was unfortunate that U.K. Bello and I were on different sides of the battle that night. U. K. Bello came into the action with confidence and later realised that the uprising troops were dominating the ground. He came to fight against us and he was felled by bullets while he was already on an armoured tank and moving towards us, while the sergeant who was with him ran away. The aim of the uprising was not to waste lives, but to effect system change that would engender true federalism.
Another member of your team, Lt. SOS Echendu, said he saw Babangida when he was escaping in that Peugeot 504, but he didn’t kill him because you all wanted to capture him alive. Was that not painful that one of you sighted him but could not hold him?
Echendu was a very courageous officer and he singlehandedly created destabilisation in Dodan Barracks. He is a great guy and we are in touch, but I have not heard this statement from him. He remains a very courageous Nigerian and it was in the same fight to return Nigeria to its right course.
Nigeria would be 56 in a few days. Are you saying that with the plans you claim you had, Nigeria would have been better if the uprising had succeeded?
Yes, absolutely. The issues we wanted to correct are still there. Since Rawlings coup in Ghana, that country has progressed. All the coups that have succeeded in Nigeria had not been military coups and they have never served the corporate interest of the military. They were there to enrich themselves. Civilians treated soldiers better than the military. People, who after leaving office, own many farms. Did they share the farms to soldiers? Instead, people like Shagari, Umaru Yar ‘Adua, Goodluck Jonathan did a lot for the military, including the incumbent, President Muhammadu Buhari, unlike when military men were in power. They wouldn’t equip the military for the fear that they could be overthrown. So, they deprived the soldiers of everything. Those were not military coups; they were whom I call politicians-in-military-uniform. They were people who came into the army just for coup. They used the military. They did not develop the military when they were there.
Echendu also said the fact that he took over Dodan Barracks was what drove Babangida to Abuja to make it the seat of government. What do you think?
I was in exile, but from what I gathered, they had to rush to move the capital from Lagos to Abuja. There are other dividends of our action. Some states were created after our action and that allowed MKO to go as far as he went, because that action demystified the invisibility of certain persons and groups. When Babangida came, he tried to deal with the parasites in Kuramo Lodge. He wanted to clean the system, like the racketeering surrounding import licence, whereby someone would sit down and get an import licence and sell same to Igbo traders, but he, Babangida, was overwhelmed by the powers that be.
Looking at the outcome of the uprising, do you regret ever participating in it?
The only regret I have is that the action was seen to be against the Hausa-Fulani. The action was actually against the corrupt people or oligarchs who held Nigeria to ransom for years. They were the ones backing those elements who held Babangida hostage. But as to what those boys died for, I have no regret in the sense that as I speak now, we still need to return Nigeria to true federalism and governance established on the truth. We need system change.
You once said you didn’t fire a shot that night, how do you feel that there are still insinuations that you killed U. K. Bello that night?
I certainly did not shoot U.K. Bello. I was the commander and most commanders don’t fire shots. By the time it gets to a situation where a commander shoots, maybe he has been ambushed or he’s failing. Commanders give orders, they don’t shoot. It’s like a management structure. You don’t see the managing director doing the operations. He delegates authority and gives out the instructions. The irony of this is that most of those who did the shooting were strangers who were on duty in Dodan Barracks that night. They even told us well done. They thanked us, saying the system was not good to them and that their Ration Money Allowance was not being paid. And some of those soldiers were Hausa and Fulani soldiers. The mistake was when they started hearing the announcement that it was a coup against Hausa and that is my only regret.