My Father Warned The Prime Minister They Would all Be killed–Awosika, Festus Okotie-Eboh’s daughter
Recall he January 15, 1966 coup wiped out some of Nigeria’s finest military officers. But not only military officers were killed during the coup, masterminded by Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, Major Timothy Onwuatuewgu and several others, the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa and some heads of regional governments were also killed. Notably, only one serving Minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, was killed during the coup. He was the then Minister of Finance. Interestingly, he had an idea there would be a coup, and he even informed his boss, the Prime Minister, but they ended up being casualties of the same event.
Obviously, it’s been over 50 years since they were killed, but it appears the incident is still as fresh in the minds of people who lost their loved ones to the incident.
Punch reported an interview with TUNDE AJAJA, one of Okotie-Eboh’s children, Dr. Dere Awosika, reportedly shares her father’s last moment and why he was the only minister killed in the coup.
The day your dad was abducted was your 13th birthday and you got the news in the middle of the celebration, could you still recall all that happened that day?
It was my father’s usual practice to go home to celebrate Christmas holiday with family members in Sapele. So, we had left Lagos for Sapele. On January 10, my dad was recalled to Lagos by the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, because of the crisis in the South West then over an election, especially in Ibadan, under the premiership of Chief Ladoke Akintola. There was an election which people did not accept the result and the crisis had been on even before we travelled, but the crisis had escalated. People were killed and houses were set ablaze. It was obvious then that the crisis was spreading. So, he left the following day; January 11. He was preparing the Itsekiri dancers to go to England and perform for the Queen of England; she had always loved the Itsekiri dancers. He did that from time to time. So, he took some of the dancers along to practice and prepare them to go to London. Two of my cousins who were like our sister and brother, also went with him; while we, his children, remained in Sapele for the holiday. We had a brief singing practice the night before the day he left because he liked music and so we used to have practice with him in the house. He eventually left the following day; we never knew that was the last we would see of him.
He was very fond of you. Did you make efforts to go to Lagos with him?
I actually wanted to travel with him that morning. I remember running after him on the staircase and I remember clearly that he stood on the other side of the stairs, saying to my stepmother that perhaps they should get my things and I should come with him since he would be back in few days. But the preparation for my birthday was already ongoing. On January 15, my birthday, he called at about 12:03am to say happy birthday to me. I had not celebrated my birthday for a couple of years, and he told me he had asked my stepmother to organise a big birthday party for me and assured me that I would enjoy the day. My father was a very strict man, so I thanked him. Many children had been invited and so on that morning, we made use of the guest apartment in the compound for the party. There was music and everywhere was lively. Suddenly, a helicopter landed in our compound. As typical of children, on sighting a helicopter, children started running around, not knowing they came with the news that my father could not be found. I saw my stepmother hurrying somewhere with some people. Our house was very far away from the centre of the town; about three miles away, but people across the town had poured into our compound because they had got the news. The place went into a frenzy and some people were crying. They later told us they could not find my father. They said some soldiers whisked him away. I saw my stepmother driving out in company with some people, apparently to go and ensure that his mother didn’t hear about it. She lived in Orogun which is a bit far from Sapele. Anyway, we continued our party, and the image of him many people had was that he was a strong man. We felt he had something he used to vanish or disappear if he wanted, and so we felt that was what could have happened, and so we continued the party until it became very real to us around 3pm that it was not a joke. The party stopped, and our compound was filled with people, such that there was no space anywhere. In the evening, we began to cry, because we began to feel the reality of what was going on. It was a strange thing.
At what point did his mother know the truth about what happened?
To my knowledge, she was not informed for a long time. My dad was fond of going home to see her. But later, I’m sure she sensed something happened. They told her he travelled, but there was no way he would travel and he would never come back. I’m not very clear of that aspect, but I know she was not told for a long time. She died some years after, not immediately.
There are reasons to believe that your father had premonition of the coup, because he wrote a letter to the Prime Minister two days before the coup to declare a state of emergency. How true is that?
We found the letter in his file, and he probably wrote it when he came to Lagos. The content of the letter is in the book published in his honour. He wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, whom he had a very good relationship with. In fact, we lived next door to him. He wrote that he had looked at the entire situation and his personal opinion was that he (the Prime Minister) should not fail to declare a state of emergency in the South West, where the crisis was. He added in the letter that failure to do so would lead to their death; all of them. He was very specific, because Premier Akintola, as I understood, had gone to Sardauna, Sir Ahmadu Bello, in Kaduna to lobby to continue, but my father felt no. What had to be done should be done. My dad said they needed to declare a state of emergency, because he felt the country should be stable and so the PM needed to take a quick decision. The PM took the letter seriously and referred it to K. O. Mbadiwe, I think. He said they should advise him on the letter. But before the advice came, the coup happened and they were victims.
But was there a guarantee that the coup wouldn’t have taken place if the state of emergency had been declared?
It would have been difficult for the coup to happen if there was a state of emergency in place, because all democratic processes would have been suspended. There would have been police personnel and soldiers everywhere. So, it would have been very difficult. We were operating regional government then, so the state of emergency would have been for South West only so as to give room for examining the complaints of the people; give it an independent hearing and resolve it, but it was late.
Beyond the letter, one could assume Chief Okotie-Eboh was privy to some information for him to be sure they would all be killed unless a state of emergency was declared. Do you think he knew more?
The night before the coup, he was informed by the British envoy then. The envoy was in his house to tell him there was a likelihood of a coup and to take him out of the house. That was due to his relationship with envoys and diplomats. My father took his phone and called the Prime Minister but he did not reveal how he got the information or who told him. According to my cousin who was with them, the man stayed until 30 minutes before the coup plotters came, which means they (the British diplomats) had information to the letters. The envoy was there convincing him to leave, but my dad said he would not leave his house. He said if he died, he died for Nigeria. When he called the PM, he directed my dad to call the Chief of Army Staff, Aguiyi Ironsi, who said he wasn’t aware of anything like that. My dad called his political mentor, Zik, who was abroad then, to inform him. My dad did not sleep again because the envoy told him they (the coup plotters) were coming. So, he took a chair and sat on the corridor waiting for them. When they came, he asked the gateman to ask them if they were the coup plotters. He asked what they wanted, they said they wanted him. Then, they rushed in and broke the door. So, he walked down the stairs and followed them. They took him to the Prime Minister’s house. His orderly, Amadi, was very patriotic. According to him, they ran after the soldiers and when the soldiers got to Tafawa Balewa’s house, he said they should allow him to pray. He prayed and followed them. They were not cowards. They believed in Nigeria. When you believe in a thing you should be prepared to die for it. So they died for the course they believed in.
After he was kidnapped, what kind of support did you (his family) receive from his friends and the government?
His best friend, Alhaji Muhammadu Ribadu, was dead already. But my father was a very strong personality across many countries, so people from abroad came around to sympathise with us. For example, the Queen asked some lawyers to take care of his property, the King of Sweden made contact with us and we had many other contacts from outside the country. We had some support from them. When I was in the UK, the house I lived in was given to me by the former PM, through their office. They were friends. In Nigeria, we went into war and there were issues and it took time for the nation to recover from it. By the time Nigeria settled, Gowon came. At that time, we were dealing with another issue and that was to come back together in unity. That was when people said ‘Go On With One Nigeria’ (GOWON). Issues had developed to overshadow what happened, but because what happened had not been cleared, it continued to linger even after 50 years. That is why people say don’t sweep things under the carpet because the dust will always indicate that there is dirt under the carpet. So, I’m not surprised that after 50 years, we are still talking about this. And that is why our family decided to put it on record through a book. We need to set the records straight, write the history as it is, swallow the bitter pill (bitters are good for the body) and then get purified and move on. So, journalists and the Ministry of Information should put all these information together and document them. Let’s use the lessons from the past to mould the future. I believe if we do that we will be a stronger and united country.
After his abduction, his body wasn’t found until a year after. Were you hopeful of his return or you later gave up?
We were very hopeful because those who took over power kept on saying they were looking for them. We were also looking for him and we didn’t believe he was dead. The government did not accept he and others were dead, maybe to avoid counter-riot from the people. They didn’t release the corpses until a year after. We went everywhere, searching for them. We didn’t know his body was hidden in the morgue in Lagos University Teaching Hospital and Prof. Oritsejolomi Thomas, who was there at that time, must have been told not to disclose to anyone. However, he embalmed the body, and all that time, people were restless for several months, because nobody knew what was happening. So, we continued in a state of confusion for a very long time, until one early morning about a year after, his body was brought back, with retinue of guards, almost like a battalion, bringing his body for burial, with soldiers taking position, to ensure that there was no problem.
Is it true that some strange things happened that morning as he was brought back?
Something happened that morning that I would never forget. In the sitting room, they had already prepared where they would lay his body. They didn’t bring the body the previous day, until that day we were going to church. The morning turned to darkness, and that is the truth. Everybody was taken aback, and people thought it was going to rain, but that darkness was beyond rain. It was dark and nobody could explain it, other than something was happening in the heavens. When I became a Christian, I understood the import of what happened that day. It was visible and everybody felt it was going to rain, but there was no rain. As soon as the coffin was moved out of the house to the church, the sun rose again and it became very bright. That was a very strategic thing that brought fear to people. That remains in my memory. His death was painful.
Is it true that there was no gunshot on him but that his head was mangled?
I didn’t see the corpse, so I wouldn’t know. It was the elders who were called in to see it. In our place, it’s not usual to bring little children close to a corpse, because they wouldn’t want the picture to remain in their mind. So, they asked children and strangers to go out and only the elders in the family and close relatives were allowed to go in. They opened it for them only. Only those who saw it can tell the state it was.
One can imagine that he wouldn’t have suffered that same fate if he wasn’t a Minister, more so that he was already a rich man then.
Was he reluctant before taking the job offer?
My dad had been a politician since 1949. He became Minister as early as 1951. So, taking the job was his choice. But, at the time he went for re-election in 1964, he wanted to leave politics and go into business, but his political allies, such as Zik and Tafawa Balewa prevailed on him not to. He operated on his principles of life; to make life better for people. He was a gifted and bold individual who didn’t care about what anyone thought as long as he was convinced about his action. He would say his mind as long as he believed that would augur well for the people, whether he belonged to same party with the person or not. He knew what he wanted and he also believed he had nothing to lose if he was no longer a politician. So, he didn’t have any regret.
He was the only minister killed in that coup. In your view, what singled him out among others?
He was actually the only minister that was killed. That was the strange thing. Other people killed were heads of government. Tafawa Balewa was the head of government, Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir, Ahmadu Bello, was the head of the NPC, Akintola was head of his party but my dad was the only minister singled out. That letter requesting for the declaration of the state of emergency could have leaked, because when you write a letter and it’s acknowledged or acted upon elsewhere, it could leak. That could be a reason. But I think the other reason was that he was so internationally respected that he could have called for help from outside the country to stall the coup. That, I think, was a strong possibility. He had a strong personality. So, if they had spared him, he could have called for reinforcement from outside the country. There is a documentary that the British government did on Nigeria at 100. They talked about him as being groomed as the next Prime Minister. So, that could have leaked as well. It was shown on BBC recently. Maybe those people saw it coming and they got rid of him, thinking if the coup was stalled, they could install him as the PM. They said they believed him as the PM who could make a difference that Nigeria never had.
Till date, there is really no certainty as to who among the coup plotters abducted and killed him. Would you wish you know who did it or it doesn’t matter anymore?
I would love to know; not for my own sake but it’s good for history to be told, good or bad, so that we don’t carry wrong information in our mind. History is for the future and this is why Nigeria needs not to shy away from getting the facts right. I read in the papers about how Nzeogwu masterminded the coup, feeling that the country was being governed by people who ought not to rule, feeling that they were mismanaging Nigeria’s money and those kinds of things. So, the record has to be right. It is nice to also know that Nzeogwu didn’t just have the Igbo people behind him, he had other tribes. Religion and tribalism are some of the weaknesses of the Nigerian system. I worked in the Ministry of Defence as a civil servant for some time and one of the things I learnt from that ministry was that there is no tribe in the army. It is devoid of tribalism, and now that the record is being set in place, you can see that the coup was not an Igbo coup, like people have been made to believe. Let the historians get the history right, analyse the causes and prevent such in the future because it’s no use having setbacks from one government to the other. I hope Nigeria will continue to learn from it.
Is there anything about that incident that influences your actions till date?
God has helped me. For some years after his death, I was on my own; reserved, quiet and I found it a bit difficult to trust people, and that in itself pushed me to God. So, God helped me, it was like I had nobody, until I got born again in Form Three in secondary school. That was a year after he was buried. I began to see the church and God as my confidant. That helped me. Some of my other siblings were also bitter, especially as some of them didn’t get to grow up with him. So, that bitterness remained. He had trained a lot of people and so you hear people talking about his support.
Your father had so many friends in the international community, including the Queen of England and John Kennedy. Do you recall notable events?
My dad liked having parties for diplomats, and it was the culture in our house to have at least one evening party in one month, which diplomats attended. He was very close to many foreigners, but he remained African to the core. He was always in his native attire, he wore shoes made from his factory and anytime he travelled abroad, he would take our local food along. When he invited people to his home there, no matter how highly placed, he cooked Nigerian food, like Banga, pepper soup and he would instruct the cook not to put much pepper for the white people.
You have expressed your displeasure that nothing has been named after him despite his contributions. How do you feel when you remember his death?
I feel bad about that and I have aired it in writing to past presidents. I’ve not written to the incumbent president, but government is continuum. I hope when records are set straight, they will look at the record of his contribution to Nigeria. Those who think he made his wealth from government, they can now see that he used his personal money to take a loan to build the Eko bridge, even though he was not a Yoruba man. There are people alive who can testify to that. He had a shoe factory, rubber factory and plastic factory, he had schools, which some people from mid-West states went to, free of charge. But, he didn’t make a noise about it.
But looking at the reluctance of the government to immortalise him, how does that make you feel about Nigeria?
Thank God for helping me. It does not affect my will to serve. I served the government for 35 years and I put in my best. May God help us to do better than he did. What it tells me is that the minorities don’t have a voice in this country. Definitely, if my father came from a major tribe, like Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba, they would not treat him like that. He was from a very small tribe. I’m saying they should give minorities a voice because we are Nigerians as well