Flashback: British Intelligence Report: How David Ejoor Escaped Death, Foiled the 1st Coup in Eastern Region
The former Military Governor of Mid-Western Region, Major General David Ejoor is dead. He was 87. A gentleman and loyal military officer, he played a key role in foiling the first coup of 1966, especially in Eastern Region where he was the Commander of 1st Battalion in Enugu
In that coup, a crop of First Republic politicians lost their lives: Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa; Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Region; Chief Ladoke Akintola, Premier, Western Region and others.
In 2016, TheNEWS magazine did a trilogy on the major role played by Ejoor, how he escaped death twice and foiled the coup in the East. The story was written that year by Damola Awoyokun, an engineer, a writer and historian. The story was actually an excerpt from his forthcoming trilogy on Nigerian history from 1700 – 1970. He can be reached on twitter @osoronga or email osoronga@yahoo.
“Ifeajuna then went to fetch 2 NCOs to load Largema’s corpse into the boot of Mercedes Benz in the car park. The Prime Minister heard the gunshots, saw the corpse and lost his cool. There was another senior officer, David Ejoor the commander of 1st Battalion in Enugu who had come for the Ifeajuna-organised Brigade Training Conference and was in Room 17. He was at the cocktail hours earlier. They knocked and burst into many rooms but they could not find him. As it will be seen later, a modesty incident caused Ejoor to change rooms earlier hence missing his allocation of death…
On 9th of January, Lt Col Ejoor the commanding officer of the 1st battalion in Enugu received a signal in the name of Brigadier Maimalari that he was invited to a three day Brigade Training Conference on the 12th – 14th in Apapa, Lagos. The battalion was handed to him on 26th December by Lt Col Adekunle Fajuyi who was transferred to Abeokuta to head the Garrison there. He left for Lagos on 10th of January and was booked into room No 17 Ikoyi Hotel. (Lt Colonel Fajuyi confirmed later to Mr Bell, the British Deputy High commissioner in Ibadan on 22nd January that he too received the signal for the conference and was booked into Ikoyi hotel too. But he refused and chose to stay in the VIP chalets of the officers’ in Apapa. He was slated for assassination too). When Ejoor came back from the day’s proceeding on 13th January, the air conditioner was left on all day and so the room was extremely cold. He opened the windows and changed into his nightwear only to discover that a lady on the balcony of the block of flats nearby was staring directly into his sacred affairs.
The following morning, he asked at the reception for a change of room. After the conference, he went to Maimalari’s residence for the cocktail at 7:30pm. He and the driver of his staff car were travelling back to Enugu the following morning and he wanted his driver to get enough sleep for the 490km trip. Ejoor went to seek Maimalari’s permission to leave at 9pm. The Brigadier refused. Ejoor then went to appeal to Colonel Kur Mohammed whom the Brigadier usually handed the Brigade over to when he was absent from the country. Maimalari, like Catholic theology, consented after much saintly intercession. Ejoor left Abogo Largema at the party not knowing that was the last time they would see each other.
By 7am the following day, his driver who went to sleep at Camp in Apapa came banging on his door. He told him there had been terrible happenings the like of which he had not seen or heard before. He said there the Prime Minster and many other officers had been kidnapped. Ejoor stared not only with disbelief but with deep confusion. He was convinced that his driver was drunk early. Just then Largema’s driver too came and showed them shells he found in front of his master’s room. All the three went to the Largema’s room upstairs to find trails of blood which had hardened into a carapace on the corridor.
Ejoor wanted answers. The person who handled the death of soldiers in the army was the Adjutant General. So he left for James Pam’s residence. The 30-year-old Mrs Elizabeth Pam said around 3am they noticed soldiers were crawling as they approached their house, climbing the telecom pole and scaling their fence. They were trying to avoid the sentries which they later caught and arrested unawares. They shot at the two front tyres of the car and at the kitchen door. She said James and the children were so terrified that they knew it was an omen of something very bad. Then Major Chukwuka who was a family friend appeared. When other junior officers complained that they were left to fallow while Chukwuwa was sent on too many courses, Pam said he believed in Chukwuka’s potentials as a professional soldier. Chukwuka saluted Pam in the bedroom.
‘Sir, you are needed at the office.’ Chukwuka told him. Pam thought it was a case of mistaken identity.
‘Lieutenant Colonel Pam. Get your coat we have to leave now.’ Pam asked Chukwuka and the other three soldiers in his bedroom to step outside for him to change. Pam picked up the phone and dialled Maimalari and Ironsi. After 5 minutes, Chukuwa and his men barged right in and took him downstairs unchanged. Pam resigned for the worst. His wife and children were screaming. What emergency had happened that soldiers had to shoot their way into his house? Chukwuka then assured his crying wife and screaming children, he would be fine. Elizabeth was born to John Daniel, a Ghanaian Christian and Hajara Ayashe, a Fulani Muslim in Kano on July 9, 1935. They had been married for 9 years. His final words to his wife as he was being bundled into the Land Rover was to look after their four little children. He had a strong feeling he would not come back.
As she spoke, Ejoor did not inform her of the blood of Largema at the Ikoyi hotel. He promised her that her husband would be found and brought home safely. He then left for Maimalari’s residence, found the place deserted and left for Ironsi’s house. It was there Mrs Victoria Ironsi told him Gowon had been there and said her husband, the GOC was in Ikeja. Ejoor promptly headed there.
According to Ejoor’s account of that day, when he entered the battalion HQ office, he saluted the GOC. As Ironsi turned around and saw it was Ejoor, he quickly drew his service pistol. Ejoor was stunned at Ironsi’s response to his cordial salute.
“Ha, David, are you with me or against me?” the GOC said.
Ejoor replied, “You are my commanding officer, whatever it is, I am with you.”
Ironsi said with the event of the past 4 hours things had been confusing. He did not trust any officer. He then began to narrate the event as he saw it. He spoke of how Pam warned him of an ongoing mutiny on phone, how he dressed up, tried to rouse the Federal Guards barracks, how on the way to Ikeja he met Captain Ogbo Oji and some of the mutineers on Carter Bridge – one of the two bridges connecting Lagos Island to the mainland – and how he bluffed his way through and proceeded to Ikeja to rouse the battalion.
Oji was an officer and he was too high to be manning a roadblock in particular when there was a severe shortage of officers for the Revolution. What happened was Oji was the second in command to Major Okafor whose Federal Guards unit was detailed to eliminate Maimalari. At some minutes past 4 o’clock, after Ademoyega drove over to tell them at Maimalari residence that the Brigadier had been killed, Okafor ordered Oji and four NCOs to check situation in 2nd battalion and see if Obienu’s unit had arrived from Abeokuta. En route, he waited on Carter Bridge to get the situation report from the unit Ademoyega posted there to prevent enemy forces from disturbing their Revolution and to ensure key targets did not escape. Oji did not even know there had been a mutiny within a mutiny, that their operational base at Federal Guards Officer’s Mess had been compromised, and that the convoy of his fellow conspirators was 15 minutes behind him en-route to Ikeja too. Then Ironsi turned up at the roadblock on the bridge in his staff car accompanied by escorts.
The 41-year-old Ironsi told Ejoor and Njoku that morning, he courageously challenged them and brushed past them to arrive at Ikeja. Oji was courageous enough to become the first of the mutineers to shoot someone in Ikoyi when he referred fatal bullets to Maimalari’s obstinate Guard commander. Two hours later, he could not repeat the same fate for the GOC particularly when the success of their Revolution depended on how fast they turned Ironsi into a corpse. To Ejoor, the mutineers may have done something unprofessional and irresponsible but they were not cowards. For the GOC to say he charged at them at a roadblock and just brushed past them may fit diverse storylines except the truth.
Ejoor excused himself when the tea and biscuits that had been ordered for breakfast came. In his later account, Njoku wrote that when Ironsi turned up at Ikeja battalion at half five, his hand vibrated with fright as he struggled to write down the places that he wanted guarded with troops in Lagos and the junior officers he wanted arrested immediately. That was why he, Njoku, had to order tea to calm him down. These newly arrived tea and biscuits were for breakfast and small talk while Gowon was still with his crack force in Lagos willing to slug it out with the rebels. Ejoor did not want to be part of the grotesque. He told Ironsi:
“Sir, it appears I shall be of no use to you here. Perhaps if I can get to Enugu I may be able to bring some help.” He then asked the GOC, ‘have you heard from Enugu?”
‘Well, no, I cannot order you to go to Enugu now,’ was Ironsi’s reply.
But Ejoor was desperate to go. Military doctrine required that in time of crisis, a commander must connect with his unit and take charge. More so, the signal signed by Ironsi and circulated by Maimalari at the Brigade Training Conference the previous day stated that Commanders should tighten security when they get back to their units and to warn all their subordinates against disloyal acts. Had Ejoor joined Njoku and Ironsi in having breakfast and postponed going to Enugu, the coup would not have ended up as one night stand but would have dragged on and on taking with it many lives.
When the coup high command reached the airport junction, they could not wait there. Being a strategic junction, there was an unanticipated police check point there. They had to travel further outwards towards Abeokuta because they had corpses and the Finance Minister was on board so they did not want to risk police attention. Of the six vehicles that left Federal Guard’s Mess, Okafor’s private Peugeot 403, Ademoyega’s army Landrover, Anuforo’s private car and the 3 Tonner arrived. Ifeajuna’s car and Chukwuka Landrover did not turn up. Major Humphrey Chukwuka’s unit assisted by 2/Lt Godwin Onyefuru were detailed to go and do to Gowon what they had been doing to all other senior officers. Being the new commander, it was important he was dead so that the battalion made up of mostly Northern soldiers of Tiv origin will not be mobilised for the upcoming showdown during the second stage of the coup.
On reaching the cantonment gate, the sentries told Chukwuka they did not know where the new commander was. It was then that Ironsi and his escorts arrived and Chukwuka left for his block of flats at Ikeja. It was some minutes after five. When Major Nzegwu saw their building awash in the arriving Land Rover’s lights, he berated Chukwuka from his opened window:
“Humphrey, your wife has since being crying, where have you been?”
Nzegwu was Chukwuka’s next-door neighbour in the same block of flats. They were both staff officers at the Army HQ. While Chukwuka was the deputy Adjutant General under Pam, Nzegwu was a Staff Officer under Kur Mohammed. Nzegwu was the Army’s liaison officer with the Air force and with the airport commandant in case flights were needed to be booked or army’s visitors welcoming protocols needed to be prepared. He was the one Kur Mohammed had in mind to deploy hours earlier at Maimalari’s cocktail, when Ironsi asked Mohammed to bring the London Guardian’s correspondent Patrick Keatley to his office at 10am the next day for a discussion on the Smith rebellion in East Africa and to take him to the airport afterwards to catch his flight.
Nzegwu did not know that Chukwuka, his colleague and neighbour had just participated in an event that would lead to Nzegwu’s own death six months later. In other words, Nzegwu had just 6 months left to live without knowing it. Had he known, he would not have asked, “Humphrey, your wife has been crying, where have you been?” He would also have asked: “Humphrey, why have you done this to me?”
Shortly afterwards, the barrack alarm went off. Being a combat battalion, all soldiers had to report to their various company offices. According to Onyefuru’s account of that night, to obey the alarm, he had to leave the Chukwuka to join his company. Chukwuka later called his company office to ask for Lt Zacchaeus Idowu, the Quartermaster of the battalion. But on hearing Onyefuru’s voice in the background, he asked him to come on the intercom. Chukwuka then asked if anyone knew anything yet. Onyefuru replied that they were awaiting the GOC’s briefing. Chukwuka panicked, left his crying wife and fled to the East for refuge via Ijebu Ode road while Ademoyega, Anuforo and the rump of the coup plotters were still waiting for him on Abeokuta Road. The Revolution that looked so promising an hour earlier was no longer itself. Its drivers were staring into a deep well and seeing a trapped sky. It started to dawn on them that their stories may not become glories after all. But there was no going back.