Jeremiah Useni, a former minister of the Federal Capital Territory, has revealed in a new interview his role in the ‘Northern revenge coup’ of 1967 and his direct involvement in the murder of General Aguiyi Ironsi.
In the interview granted to a Hausa language newspaper, Rariya, the retired lieutenant general of the Nigerian Army commonly called Jerry Useni revealed how he was prevented from taking over from the late General Sani Abacha, who died in office and how he circumvented the rules and joined the army at the age of 14.
Below are excerpts of the interview, translated to English by Premium Times.
You joined the Army as a fourteen year old, and you were posted to England for a Course at sixteen, how did you feel at the time?
Honestly, it was like a dream to me because I broke my left leg during a game of football, just one year after I joined the Army. As a young footballer, I had very strong shooting ability with my left leg. Anyone who was unfortunate to be hit with my shots really suffered no matter their size. I spent about four months at the hospital In Kaduna. Most of the hospital staffs at the time were Europeans, and they were very efficient. They joked a lot with their patients and they related with you as if you had known them for ages. One day, they decided to come and test all of us and see those who had made progress, so that they would be discharged. When they came to me, they asked; ‘can you stand up?’ And I said, ‘yes’. Then I was asked to stand up and walk. The white man said, ‘this one is ok now, he can be discharged’.
Later, they said there would be exams to select those who would go to England, and I had spent four years without studies or anything. However, there was a senior officer who was teaching me, and I went to write the exams, and I passed. I was not even sure we were really going to Europe until one day when they came to the dining room and called out our names, five of us; they asked us to go to a particular building, that our attention was needed there. On getting there, we saw that they had prepared omelet and other kinds of delicacies of the Europeans. At the time, we were used to eating Garri only, we either soak or prepare Eba with one green soup like that. We realised that we might really be going to Europe. That was how I went as a very young boy, and I thank God for that because before we left Nigeria, they were paying us one naira, in fact, we were first paid seventy kobo, until after one year, when they increased it to one naira.
When I went to England, under the Boys Company battalion, they started paying us four pounds after only two months. I wrote to my father to tell him that we were now receiving four pounds as pay, and I asked him to pay any tax he was asked to pay because I was also enjoying. I told him that just to show him how happy I was.
After your return from England, Sardauna , Tafawa Balewa and others were killed in 1966. Where were you at the time?
I was with 4th Battalion Ibadan. The coup came to us as a surprise, like a thief in the night. We just heard in the morning that Sardauna and the rest were killed. In fact, we did not get the news on time. Where was our C.O Lt. Col. Largema? And Brig. Maimalari and Col Kur Mohammed? We learnt they were all killed. And we asked, what type of coup was that? At the time, we were not concerned with where you came from or what your religion was. As long as you were from the north, we cherish each other so much.
So we organised ourselves and agreed that what happened was very dangerous. We also learnt later that a broad government was being formed. A northerner will be transferred to the South, while a Southerner will be transferred to the north. General Hassan katsina was the governor of the north at the time. People like Kashim Ibrahim were also gone. So those of us, Army officers from the north were very angry really.
What was your rank at the time?
I was a Second Lieutenant then, my mates were Ibrahim Babangida, Garba Duba, Mamman Magoro, and the rest. I was together with Yelwa in 4th Battalion, while Duba was in Kaduna. There was another officer from Niger state, I have forgotten his name, and he was even a Senator recently. We realised that Igbos were behind all the killings, and were angered the more because they were not even arrested. Although, they were later arrested and taken to jail, but information came to us that they were just enjoying themselves there. Even their ranks were returned to them and they were wearing their uniforms inside the jail.
We started meeting to find a way out. Our Brigade Commander, Maimalari was killed, Col. Pam, Tafawa Balewa and the rest were all killed. We continued to meet in secret and strategising on how to take revenge.
But while that was going on, words started going round about what the Igbo officers were saying: that they had killed the snake, but had failed to cut off the head. Which meant those of us left might make them suffer later, that there was therefore the need to finish us off. Instead of them to show remorse and apologise, they were planning another sinister attacks. We were together with Col. Remawa at the time, he was serving in Abeokuta, and we heard of a grand plot to kill our emirs. A meeting of all emirs was called in Ibadan, all our emirs gathered in Ibadan, that the head of state, Ironsi, would address them. So we said, are we going to let him come, address them and leave? Or should we just kill him or what? Our fear was that he was in the company of our emirs, and you know bullets do not select whom to hit. What do we do? We don’t want even a single emir to die.
We also considered arresting him at his lodge before he goes to meet with them. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi was the governor of South West at the time, and the head of state, Ironsi, was staying in his house in Ibadan. So we don’t want a situation where they would say he conspired with us. So we decided the best thing to do was to open fire there even if Governor Fajuyi was also caught, so that they would just be buried together, and that was what happened.
Before that time, a party was organised for officers, they brought all sort of drinks for us there. In fact, since joining the Army, I had never seen so many assorted drinks like the one they brought for us that day. The plan was to get us all drunk, so that they would just come and open fire on us and kill us all. That was what they planned for us at the 4th Battalion Ibadan because we were the most feared, because we were the ones who lost a brigade Commander, Lagerma. When Murtala returned from Lagos empty handed, everyone was just crying because Lagerma was a very nice man. After the Coup, Gowon was made the Head of state.
When Ironsi was arrested, T.Y. Danjuma was said to be in Ibadan, and there were reports that you, Duba and Remawa were the ones who arrested him?
It was Garba Dada, the guy from Niger state, the one I was telling you was a Senator recently. He was the Adjutant General at the time, and he was our co-ordinator. We did not stay in one place to meet. We used to drive up to beyond Ijebu-Ode meeting inside the car and then turn back.
Was Domkat Bali also in Ibadan at the time?
No. He was at Abeokuta. In fact they were the ones who started shooting before us. We said, if we just kept quiet, they would have arrested our Boys there.
Why was Gowon selected after the coup?
He was the most senior officer at the time. But there was another reason too. There were people like T.Y. Danjuma and Murtala. But Murtala was a bit less than Gowon in rank, and was too close to us.
After Ironsi was killed, the country was plunged into a civil war. You were heading the logistics and in charge of most war equipment. What were the challenges you faced during the war?
At times, it is good to be in the forefront in battle, instead of nominating someone. Facing the enemy is a difficult task that requires effective strategy. You need to put in place how to effectively block the supply of enough ammunitions and back up to them. If you do that, it will not be difficult to finish them off. That is the role I played, I ensured that our troops get enough ammunitions and logistic support all the time.
We started with General Danjuma, he was the C.O. and then Mamman Shuwa, who was later transferred to Kaduna as the GOC. So also was Martins Adamu. Adamu was leading Ogoja troop, Danjuma was in Nsukka, and I was in Abakaliki.
What do you think were the reasons Gowon was removed?
People began to feel he was distancing himself from them. He was unreachable. The top officers of the time felt he was building a wall between them, and so they felt there was need for change. But he was not killed, they waited until he was out of the country to Kampala, Uganda before they toppled him, and asked him not to return. Murtala was then made his successor.
How was your relationship with Murtala?
He was a gentleman. I could remember when it happened, we just returned to Jos with my troop. We moved all our military hardware on our vehicles and train and we even had to hire more vehicles. When we arrived Jos, we went round the town with our entourage up to the Government House just to show the people we have come, only to learn the following morning that Gowon had been toppled. I was a Major at the time.
When Murtala was killed, it was observed that most of the perpetrators were from Plateau, such as Dimka and Bisalla; how did you feel?
Honestly, I was really surprised. We were honest and cordial with each other, not knowing that some people had sinister motive. When we did our own, it was revenge against the Igbos, but people we don’t understand did this one. But we thank God that they were identified after investigations. It was Dimka and his people that were planning to return Gowon to power. But Bisalla, was saying ‘I am here, why should you go looking for someone outside’? This country is lucky to have people like General T.Y. Danjuma. When Obasanjo became the Head of State, he was supposed to be the second in command, but Danjuma said no, there was no need for Murtala to be killed, and an Obasanjo was made the head of State, with a T.Y. Danjuma second in command. Then Shehu Yar’adua was brought in when he was a Lieutenant Colonel but he was doubly promoted to a Brigadier General and made the second in command to Obasanjo. Yar’adua was a gentleman, and that decision was taken to promote peace in the land.
You may read the full interview HERE.