January 15, 1966 coup: Public tragedy, private grief

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FIFTY years ago, last week, Nigeria harvested the tragedy of its first military coup. That coup remains one of the most controversial events of our history, and one that has continued to fundamentally define the contours of our country’s history.

The killing of leading politicians as well as top military officers, from the North and West, almost to the total exclusion of the Eastern region of Nigeria, opened a Pandora’s box of controversies that we are still nursing in Nigeria’s effort at building nationhood and requisite institutions.

For me personally, the killing of Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Northern Nigerian Premier, was the earliest initiation into the intrigues of national politics, in as confusing a manner as it possibly could have been, for a growing child.

I recall very clearly to this day, that those tragic events took place during Ramadan, as well as the shock in our homestead in Ilorin, when news broke of the Sardauna’s murder. It was the end of innocence; and the news was met with an outpouring of emotions as well as talk that our shield had been broken forever, with his death.

Tragic outcomes

It was going to be a different Nigeria into the future; and it turned out to be! A succession of tragic outcomes cascaded upon our country in the aftermath of the events of January 15th, 1966, it was almost a miracle that our dear country survived.

Survived it did, but only after it had lost about two million people in a civil war that climaxed the tragedy which January 15th had so shockingly initiated.
One of more understated narratives of the war, is the casualty figure on what was “our” side of the hostilities; it was almost as if the silence about those deaths, was part of the finale which proclaimed “No Victor, No Vanquished”, in order to assist a fast heal and reintegration of all sides into the post-war canvass of hope that was being painted for a new Nigeria.

Events as public tragedy: The events of January 15th, 1966, played out as public tragedy in our country. They exposed the tenuous nature of our early endeavours of building a post-colonial entity, with all its sharply defined and emergent contradictions.

The narrative of valour became central to the public appreciation of the supreme sacrifices made by the political leaders and also of the gallant military officers, who frankly had no business to have been so cruelly murdered!

What the country appreciated was the gallant sacrifices made by those officers and in a case, even of the spouse of the officer. But the public space can be dangerously deceptive, because it can so often mask or hide the personal content of tragedy.

These officers were afterall, husbands and fathers as well as sons and members of their nuclear and extended families.

Long after the public space has moved on to newer calls for national sacrifice, the private grief of members of the families of the deceased remains central to their existence: wives who have become widowed; children growing up without fathers and communities that have lost children in whom hopes had been invested.
This private grief is often unrecognised and the families learn the stoicism that alone, helps them to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, even when the void of death becomes for them, a chasm that can never be filled in their continuing existence. In almost all cases, even those that survive these heroes become forgotten, as the years roll by.

It was therefore remarkable that fifty years after January 15th, 1966, representatives of these families were afforded the public space by the media, to come to terms with the public tragedy of losing their parents and the half a century long grief they had nursed in their private spaces.

Last Sunday, PUNCH newspaper carried a moving interview with Mrs. Kaneng Daze, first daughter of Lt. Col. Yakubu Pam, Nigeria’s first artillery officer, who was killed on that tragic day in 1966.Kenang was eight years old when her father was killed but she had a vivid recollection of that night and the effect that it eventually had on the life of her family.

She recalled the strength of character that their mother, the late and most beloved, Mrs. Pam, would eventually deploy to keep the family together and to bring up the children, providing guidance till she died: “The words he left behind- ‘look after the children’- were what she held on to in her life and right up to the end.

She never remarried and because of that instruction he gave her, she took care of us and her life revolved around us”. But if the mother gave her all to keep faith with the husband, there were deeper issues that made the tragedy of death such a deeply felt pain, that fifty years could not have erased.

Tragedy of death

Kaneng asked: “Is there any fairness in this world?” And why won’t she ask? “We’ve never known where our father was buried till this day. We don’t know where he lies. Even my mum did not know until she died.

That is one question we all carried in our minds-all the six children”. It sounds incredible, but it is true and the weight of that on the minds of those remarkable children can only be imagined.

Emotional appeal: So fifty years down the line, Kaneng, on her siblings’ behalf, made a very emotional appeal to the Army authorities: “We plead (with the Army) to tell us where our father was buried.

That is the only way they can put to rest the pains that we all carried to this day…All we knew was that they were exhumed from where they were hastily buried and the corpse taken to Yaba Military Hospital.

The post-mortem result we had showed that his body was actually recovered….The report showed that he was shot repeatedly in the chest and jaws. That is all we knew. Up till now, we do not know where he was buried”.

This dignified demand came against the backdrop of related events from that coup: “If the civilians could be given proper burial, why not these officers? Even Nzeogwu…was re-buried with full military honours.

We don’t know why Gen. Ironsi did not deem it fit to accord his officers the respect and dignity they deserved. We are using this opportunity to say that we should be shown where our father was buried and he should be re-buried with full military honours as Nigeria’s first artillery officer and the adjutant general of the Nigerian Army. He did not plan the coup; he was a victim of the coup and so should be properly honoured…”

I read Kaneng’s very emotional interview suppressing a tear and at the same time admiring the dignity of the lady and her family, just as much as I was moved by the interview that was done with Brigadier Ademulegun’s son.

Nigeria still has a long way to go in the manner that it treats its heroes; but no country can earn enduring sense of sacrifice from its citizens when basic decencies are not accorded those who made the supreme sacrifices for the nation.

In the public tragedy of the killings of January 15th, 1966, the enduring private grief of the families of the dead has come to underline the gratitude which we all owe those families that were left to their own devices for half a century.

This is very much a moment of restitution that should be woven to the fabric of change that we have been promised in the new political order in our country. May Allah rest the souls of those heroes of the tragedy of January 15th, 1966; and may He continue to comfort their families. Amin.

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