1966 Coup: The last of the plotters dies
He was one of the five majors in the Nigerian Army who spearheaded the first military coup in the country on January 15, 1966. Codenamed “Operation Damisa,” “Operation Leopard,” Major Adewale Ademoyega, alongside other officers like Majors Don Okafor, Chris Anuforo and Humphrey Chukwuka were said to have assisted Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna who led the Lagos angle of the coup spearheaded by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. As it later turned out, the coup failed.
Ademoyega passed on last February 21 at the age of 74 during a brief illness. He hailed from Ode Remo in present day Ogun State. The late Ademoyega gained national prominence through his participation in that 1966 bloody coup and as such a look at the life and times of Ademoyega would not be complete without a mention of the 1966 coup. The coup triggered a counter coup that contributed its own to the country’s 30 months civil war. Ademoyega and his crop of 1966 coup plotters believed that by staging the coup they were on a nationalist mission. That belief remains as controversial today as it was 41 years ago. The coup took the lives of Nigeria’s first civilian president, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, former premier of Northern region and Saudauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello, and former premier of Western region, Chief Ladoke Akintola, among others. The military officers shot on the night of January 14, 1966 were Brigadier Ademulegun, Colonels Ralphs Shodeinde, Pam, Abogo Largema, Chris Unegbe and Zakari Maimalari.
In an interview sometimes ago, Ademoyega described the 1966 coup as a nationalist one motivated by idealism and a desire to tackle corruption and end the anarchy and mindless violence that was raging then. He dwelt more on the rationale for the coup in his memoir “Why We Struck.” There were however other accounts about the conception and execution of the coup which tended to deviate from the way and manner Ademoyega saw their 1966 coup. Some Nigerians were of the view that had the First Republic not been truncated with that coup, perhaps Nigeria’s democracy would have purged itself of its alleged bad features. Some others said the coup was racial; that it was an Igbo affair and that the only Yoruba officer involved, Ademoyega, was roped in.
President Olusegun Obasanjo is one person who would insist there was no rationale for the 1966 coup. The late Ademoyega himself said this much in his memoir. He recalled that he was greeted with the rudest shock of his life when he visited the then General Obasanjo at Dodan Barracks, Lagos in February 1976, after he took over as head of state following the death of General Murtala Muhammed in another military coup on February 13, 1976. According to Ademoyega, Obasanjo assembled all the staff in his office and parading him before them he lampooned him and lectured him on how their ‘unpatriotic act’ plunged Nigeria into civil war.
On his part, though Chief Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu who was senior in the military to the coupists at that time distanced himself from the coup, he however said the coup was not racial in any way. “Of all the stories that have festered these past years to discredit Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, few have been so oft-repeated as the notion that he was in some way involved in the coup of 1966,” Frederich Forsyth wrote in Ojukwu’s biography, “Emeka.” The former Biafran leader however disagreed that the coup was racial in intent and execution. According to him in the same book, “..The record shows just the opposite. Major Nzeogwu was a left-wing radical and a Marxist but he was no racialist. Far from hating the North; he loved it and the Northern soldiers he commanded. During his coup, three senior Northern soldiers were killed-Brig. Maimalari, Cols. Pam and Largema, two Yoruba senior officers were killed and two Igbo officers in infantry posts, Johnson Ironsi and Ojukwu were marked for death.”
Ademoyega was one of the earliest graduates in the Nigerian military. He graduated in history. He is survived by his wife and four children.