33 years after: How we executed the Orkar coup, By Victor Tolofari

One of the key actors of the attempted coup, Captain Tolofari, who escaped into exile after the coup failed, later put his thoughts together in a book titled “Exploitation and instability in Nigeria: The Orkar coup in perspective”, which was published in 2004, detailing the ideological pinning of the putsch and how it was executed. Here is a brief excerpt:

“…We had all the money we needed to buy our needs. This was by the courtesy of Great Ovedje Ogboru. Great Ogboru, a schoolmate of Mukoro’s and his personal friend, did not take part in the military preparations, he merely gave us the money and most of the officers did not know him. Our plan was not to use any military material. While Mukoro was still my CO at Ojo, we had written a report for the reorganisation of the security of the cantonment, the biggest in the country and at that time having about 37,000 residents – officers, soldiers and their families as well as civilian squatters. We asked for and were issued with new signal sets, but none of them was working. We found a company that dealt in such equipment to repair them for us. Still they did not work. During our preparations, I found the address of the company so that we could buy our own sets and this we did eventually. Great Ogboru already had a number of J5 buses and Peugeot 504 station wagons, all brand new, which he put at our disposal. Even our assembly area was his office and warehouse premises. Since we had obviated the need for military material, it drastically reduced the chances of discovery while we were making our plans, as snooping around for such military material in the units would have raised questions and jeopardised our security and secrecy.

During this period, Captain Empere and I travelled to Port Harcourt, to generally feel the pulse of the people and especially to meet the signatories of a certain document, a petition to the federal government concerning the rights and expectations of the Rivers people in relation to the conditions under which they had joined the creation of Nigeria at independence. These conditions were part of the agreements reached at the Lancaster House Conference of 1957.1 had received nebulous information about this petition and the organisation that was pursuing the matter from some soldiers of Rivers State origin who had come from home. Empere and I left Lagos at 1730 hours on March 5, travelling by road in my car. Unfortunately, well after we had passed Ijebu-Ode, we had an engine knock and had to be towed back to Itako village for repairs. The engine of the car was brought down and disassembled. It was already 2300 hours by the time this was accomplished and we had to spend the night in the mechanic’s workshop. The next morning, I went with one of the mechanics to Ijebu-Ode for spare parts. The job was completed at 1630 hours and driving at between 60 and 80 kilometres per hour, we arrived at Port Harcourt by 2300 hours.

When we met on Good Friday, for our coordinating conference, Mukoro and I insisted that we should strike during the Easter, but led by Lieutenant-Colonel Nyiam for the conveyance of ammunitions and arms. I think that it might have made some difference if we had struck then, in terms of the displacement of people, many of the senior officers might have routinely travelled out of Lagos. As it turned out eventually, we did not have much, if any, use for the armour crew that we eventually got.

All this while, a very important aspect of our military operations was going on regularly, namely, the conduct of reconnaissance. Empere who lived in Ikeja Cantonment and was likely to operate there, conducted nightly recce. For hours each day he would go round the units and duty posts. He spent a lot of time speaking with the soldiers on duty on different days, studying their routine. Col Nyiam, Majors Obahor and Mukoro, as well as the other junior officers, also conducted their own recce. I reconnoitred the Ojo Cantonment. I studied the routine at the main gate and various other gates with new and particular attention. On occasions, I deliberately kept late nights or utilised my late return from our discussions to recce at night. I studied the HQ armoury and magazine of the 149 Mechanised Infantry Battalion (149 Mech Inf. Bn), the only teeth-arm in that cantonment, sometimes waking up in the middle of the night to go and walk around and observe reactions.

Lt Henry Ogboru who had worked with me in the same unit until he left for the university to read Law, was one of the young officers tasked to arrest senior officers. I agreed to lend him my car to go to Lagos mainland and Victoria Island to conduct recce. On Tuesday, April 17, he went on his own to conduct daytime recce. The next day, I went with him to conduct night recce between 2130 hours and midnight.

It will cause some wonder that we planned a revolution on such a gigantic scale that would involve cutting away about one-third of the country of over one hundred million people, under a sadistic military regime, that we had gone so far in our plans, yet we had no arms and ammunition – not until the day we struck. We did not import any arms and ammunition as the government lied in its campaign after the putsch. Great Ogboru did not use his fishing trawlers to import arms into the country for us, “packed as fish”. We decided to take our weapons and ammunitions from a military base, the Signals Barracks at Mile II. Consequently, on Thursday April 5, Obahor, Mukoro and I reconnoitred the barracks at about 2000 hours. We studied the location of the combined armoury and magazine, the layout of the entire barrack, the location of the security posts and the habits of the soldiers on guard duty. On Saturday April 7, Obahor, Mukoro, Empere and I drove to the barracks after our discussions, for confirmatory recce at exactly the period we would eventually raid the armoury.

We stated and stressed over and over, that nobody should be shot, except where that person gave us effective resistance. Effective resistance would mean that degree of resistance that would cause death, grievous injury, or terminally incapacitate our personnel, or which would be capable of stopping us from achieving our objective in any given operational area. We knew that the soldiers who would be offering the resistance were not the people we had in mind to reach, we did not have any need to engage in battle with and waste the lives of men who were merely working for their pay.

My assigned mission was to take the Ojo Military Cantonment. That meant that I was to capture and dominate the cantonment.

During the week between the Easter and when we finally struck, we recruited one officer, Lieutenant S. O. S. Echendu. He and Lieutenant P. O. Obasi, were the only Igbo officers we used. His recruitment became necessary because we wanted to take Dodan Barracks, the seat of the government and residence of the President, and in doing so we wanted to breach the security and operate from the inside. It had been suggested in the earlier stages of the planning to siege it and ask the President to surrender to us. The suggestion was to use armoured vehicles that would have been taken from the Bonny Camp and the site of the Giwa Project in this siege until all other parts of Lagos had fallen to us. I strongly objected to this suggestion. Lt-Col Nyiam and Captain Empere also supported this objection.

As Captain Empere remarked, we were not fighting Roman wars. The idea was quickly discarded and there was general agreement that we should go in shooting. But since we did not have enough men to commit to this kind of frontal attack, the best thing to do was to find a way to operate from the inside, using sabotage. We studied the guard detail for the Dodan Barracks critically and recruited the officer in charge of the armour detail inside the place for the week we were to operate.

Lt Echendu was tasked to simply put his turret down and blow the place apart. Once he did that at H-Hour, more troops were going to move in to give him support and extricate him. It was a high-risk mission that would in any case put the officer under cross fire. The officer was very courageous. It was the same kind of plan that we had for the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria. Lt Emmanuel Okekumatalo was the officer on duty at the FRCN for the week ending on Easter Sunday. The officer was to take good control of the soldiers who would be working under his command and allow entry to the troops that would later come to take the place, led by Major Gideon Gwarzo Orkar. As well, we recruited the officer who was in charge of the security detail of the Chief of Army Staff, Lt-General Sani Abacha. He was 2’Lt Umukoro. We knew very well the routine of the COAS. He met with the President at Dodan Barracks between 2000 hours and midnight, then he went from there to his guest house/harem, where he slept with a number of women, including, as we found out during our preparations, a former beauty queen. The harem was off Alexander Road. He left for his marital home, the Flagstaff House, daily by 0500 hours. Again, the task of the officer was to give access to our troops and if there was any movement on the part of the COAS, to radio such movement and new location to us, since he would follow wherever the COAS went.

When D-Day was shifted from the night of Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday, it appeared as if we were going to lose those chances of operating from the inside. We took some quick action. It was arranged for the three officers, Lt SOS Echendu of the 201 CHC at Dodan Barracks, Lt Emman Okekumatalo at the FRCN and 2’Lt Umukoro with the Chief of Army Staff, to still maintain the same duties on the night of 21/22 April, 1990.

Major Mukoro, Capt. Dakolo, Capt. Empere, Lt Ahere and Lt Obasi were to take the 123 Guards Bn, 242 Recce Sqn, 201 CHC and the 9 Mech Inf Bde HQ, all based at the Ikeja Cantonment. It was a Herculean task for the number and standard of fitness and training of the men available to them, but it was not easier for any other group. They were to overpower all guards, seize all serviceable armoured vehicles and convert them to our use, or immobilise any that we could not use. It was Empere and I that contrived to invite Captain Dakolo to come and join us. He was stationed in Zaria, so Empere sent his batman with the transport fare, with the message that Dakolo should take home his wife and come to Lagos to join us. He came two weeks before the operation.

Capt. Idele was tasked to take the men to Dodan Barrack to support Echendu in overpowering the Presidential guards and give him cover to be able to extricate himself when he was through with his task. But he was first to take Bonny Camp.

Lt-Col Nyiam was to take the Giwa Project, move the armoured cars that were serviceable there along with the troops he would mobilise, to go and support both the FRCN and the Dodan Barracks.

Major Gideon Gwarzo Orkar was tasked to lead men to take over the FRCN and ensure that the mission statement was broadcast to the nation promptly at 0600 hours on April 22, 1990. The message had been recorded the previous Friday. Even though Orkar, a very intelligent and fearless officer, played this major role, he was not the kingpin in the planning of the putsch. In fact, we were not to invite officers of Benue State origin, for good reasons. Orkar, as it turned out, was the only one from the Middle Belt to join us. Major Orkar of the Armoured Corps was the commander of a tank battalion. Had he been with us for a longer period, he could have helped us get a proper armoured crew.

Major Obahor was to incapacitate the 2 Mech Inf. Div., with headquarters at Ibadan, by disrupting their radio communication with Lagos and other divisions. He was then to move to the Lagos/Ibadan tollgate and hold position there.

Four arrest squads were set up. As already stated, one of the principles we were working on was the elimination of command. The expression was not to imply killing the commanders. It meant separating the commanders from their troops, through arresting them and keeping them out of reach, incommunicado. The effect would have been to put the troops in disarray and make them inactive. Soldiers, especially Nigerian soldiers and in the circumstance of a coup, who know that their commander has been taken were not likely to put up much fight. This would have made it easier for us to take command of those troops and use them for our purposes. Subalterns led all these four groups: Lt H.A Ogboru (not related to Great Ogboru), Lt Gohe, Lt Odey and Lt Akogun.

At the final coordinating conference, at 2200 hours on Friday April 20, there were seventeen of us, including three civilians (Great Ogboru was not there) and two Senior Non-commissioned Officers (SNCOs) – a Staff Sergeant and a Sergeant. The eighteenth man only came down from upstairs to pray for us and went back to his room. That was all the role that he played. The SNCOs also were there only to be told their specific roles. They were soldiers who worked under Mukoro and I. In all, there were only twelve of us officers. Our troops were ex-service men mainly, numbering just over two hundred, in addition to a few serving troops that various officers brought along with them as they came to the assembly area on the final day.

Lt-Col Nyiam and Major Mukoro directed the conference. I sat to Nyiam’s immediate right. Empere sat to my right. Major Orkar sat two seats away from Empere and Capt. Idele sat at a desk in front of the bookshelves. We reviewed all the arrangements. We confirmed the H-Hr for 220200A apr 90, that is: 2.00a.m local time (one hour ahead of GMT) on April 22, 1990. The move to the assembly area (assy area or AA) was fixed for 2130 hours on April 21, 1990. Arrangement had already been made to move the troops from their various hotels all over Lagos where they had stayed for two weeks, to the assy area. Officers coming to the assy area and the soldiers they were taking with them were to come in mufti, taking their uniforms in bags. They were to move in small teams, using their cars and giving lifts to those who had no cars.

On Thursday April 20, Empere and I went to the Balogun market to buy canned food, tinned fish and biscuits. We aimed to feed the soldiers at their duty posts for the four to five days it would take for absolute calm to return, during which period it would be difficult for them to go home for meals. Variously, we had also shopped iron cutters, ladders, crowbars, torches, ropes, batteries and about every other thing we thought would be needed. We earmarked petrol stations from which we could get fuel and later pay their owners. We tested the communication sets we had bought. Then we read the mission statement and made some corrections.

The coordinating conference ended at about 0200 hours on Saturday. At the close of it, those officers who did not know the assy area (Great Ogboru’s business premises) were taken there and shown the place.

After all this, they had loaded their magazines and I made them stoop in a circle while I gave them a brief outline of my assault plan. I had sketches of the layout of the 149 Mech Inf. Bn area….”

On how he executed his own plan at Ojo cantonment, Tolofari narrated: ”… With the capture of the Duty Officer and the desertion of Capt. Oziegbe, my option for the arrest of the Cantonment Commander and CO of 149 Mech Inf. Bn changed. Taking four soldiers from among the ones I had mobilised, I marched the 2’Lt to the Colonel’s house. With this time lapse, it is attributable to the swiftness and stealth of the operation and a small sprinkling of luck that the CO had not been awakened from his slumber, because his wife who had arrived Lagos from their last posting only that week, happened to be in his bed chamber that night. Had he been roused and apprised of what was happening, he could have been able to reach his officers and also mustered at least forty soldiers from the various guard posts around the cantonment. Our situation would have then replicated with what happened at the Ikeja Cantonment.

The 2’Lt told the soldiers at the CO’s gate to open the gate and wake the Colonel so that he could lodge an urgent report. They obeyed. But when my soldiers tried to disarm them, one of them resisted. I raised my pistol to his head and one of his colleagues asked him, “Wetin you dey struggle, you be fool!” I left two soldiers with the disarmed and proceeded with the lieutenant and two other soldiers to the building. The lieutenant rang the bell, but it was a long time before the house girl spoke through the window that the Colonel was asleep and that she could not go to wake him because his wife was with him. As the officer insisted that he must see the Commandant, the wife overhead and came out. She was asked to go and wake her husband up. She asked what the matter was and was merely told again to wake her husband up. Eventually he came out. I knew he had a pistol at home. I expected him to come out armed with it, so I took the precaution of tactically placing the two soldiers and myself. In anticipation of his appearance, I had also dug the muzzle of my pistol into the back of the second lieutenant.

The Colonel asked the young officer what the disturbance was about and was informed that the battalion headquarters had been captured in an operation and that he, the Duty Officer himself, was a captive. The CO asked in an aggressive voice, “What are you telling me? You are my Duty Officer and you’re telling me that my battalion headquarters has been taken?” I cut him short and told him I was arresting him. He looked at me challengingly for a moment, and then opened his mouth to speak as I continued to hold his eyes. I nodded to the soldier behind me and he stepped forward with handcuffs. It dawned on the senior officer, I believe, that there was nothing he could do. He stretched his hands and was manacled. As an afterthought, he asked me if he could go and brush his mouth and change the rubber slippers he was wearing. In my mind I laughed. The oldest trick in the game!

As we passed by the Officers Mess, I asked two soldiers to take the CO and the three captive-soldiers to the Duty room. I added, “escort them to the Duty room, if anyone of them tries to escape, shoot him, don’t think about it.” I further instructed that the CO should be detained in the MP interrogation Room, but that the soldiers should be put in the guardroom. Even in the circumstance I had to respect his rank.

It was 0400 hrs then. Radio silence had been broken some thirty minutes earlier. Lt-Col Nyiam had opened the net and conducted radio-check and asked for situation reports. Major Gideon Orkar reported from the FRCN that he was in control; Lt Echendu at the Dodan Barracks also reported that the area had been taken; Captain Empere at the Ikeja Cantonment reported that they had encountered opposition; I reported that I had taken all the key points in the Ojo Cantonment and that I would soon go for the arrest of the Cantonment Commandant. As I made my movement towards the residence of the Cantonment Commandant, I heard on our radio that the ADC to the President, Lt-Col Bello, had died while he was escaping, probably shot by his own men. Indeed, the Radio House and Dodan Barracks, the seat of the presidency, were both taken within the first thirty minutes of the putsch. But for the fact that I still did not have the Commanding Officer in my kitty, I would have been in this league.

When I gave the order to the soldiers to escort the CO to the Duty room, I went with the 2’Lt to change into his own uniform. He had been wearing the uniform of a soldier, which I had commandeered for him, since his had been taken off him when he was arrested. I also went and arrested the adjutant of the battalion, who was my course-mate at the Defence Academy. While I was effecting the arrest, Lt-Col Nyiam called me again and asked for the SITREP (situation report). I replied, ‘Objective taken. One four nine HQ under command. Charlie-Oscar taken PW. Mobilisation in progress.’

I was indeed making a lot of progress with the mobilisation, more and more soldiers were coming out and being armed from the stock of weapons at the MP Duty room. I had not taken arms out of the AHQ Pro Bn armoury because I did not want to break it. At about 0500 hrs I took a car and went to the Officers Village to arrest the second-in-command of the 149 Bn, who lived only three houses away from me on the same street. In his own case, his daughter first peeped from the window, then his wife came out to ask what the matter was about, before he eventually came out. He too asked to be allowed to go back inside and change his clothes. I told his wife to go in and bring trousers and a shirt for him, as he was not dressed.

Not long after that, I was called again and asked when I thought it would be possible for me to send reinforcements to the FRCN. I said I did not have enough to send at the time, I was sure most of the soldiers were waiting to hear the announcement of the revolution on the radio before they would commit themselves. Indeed, some of them actually did say so. Captain Empere at the Ikeja Cantonment reported once more that they were still not in control; there was quite a skirmish there. Later in the morning I saw a soldier, with a bullet wound, who came from there. He confirmed that a real fight was going on there. He said that he needed to go to the clinic for treatment and needed some money, which I gave him.

Our mission statement was read promptly at 0600 hrs, April 22, on the network of the Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN).”

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