Biography of The Man Who Killed Sardauna

Major Kaduna Nzeogwu

Written by Anita Ayibatari

September 8, 2020

Over the years, this name has come to play in the minds of many Nigerians – with some accusing him of starting the civil war or even of being a hero or a villain. In general, it is safe to say that he played an important role in Nigerian history. So, who then is this Major Kaduna Nzeogwu?

Nzeogwu’s Childhood

Patrick Nzeogwu Kaduna Nzeogwu; born on the 26th of February 1937 in Kaduna to Igbo parents: Elizabeth and James Nzeogwu from the Okpanam town near Asaba in the present-day Anioma local government area, Delta State. They were also known as the Bendel-Igbo. He was born into a staunch Catholic family. Although he had other siblings, they all died one after the other. Growing up, he spoke different languages including Pidgin, Igbo, English, and Hausa fluently. His never give up attitude was formed from childhood as he was known to get into fights with both his age mates and seniors alike. But one thing stood out, he never forgot his friends even as he began his education.

He first attended Saint Joseph’s Catholic Primary School Kaduna in Kakuri, Kaduna State. He was known as a very outspoken person as he asked endless questions with his teachers not being able to satisfy him with their answers. Nzeogwu was able to air his views wherever and whenever he was found. He mastered the art of writing and reading with so much ease.

In 1951, Nzeogwu’s father James could barely pay the eleven pounds which were needed for him to board in the school and so, he had to convince Hyacinth an 18-year-old teacher (one of the youngest teachers in the school) to accept Nzeogwu to stay with him.

Nzeogwu The Revolutionary

Nzeogwu started showing his revolutionary side when he persuaded Luke (Hyacinth’s younger brother) to write a letter of protest to their father stating how he was maltreated by his elder brother, Hyacinth. He barely had friends as his classmates thought of him as an eccentric. His only friend was Christian Anuforo. He also didn’t relate well with the opposite sex, he mainly hung out with the guys. During the holidays, he usually went to stay with his uncle (his father’s elder brother) Anthony in Abakpa. He was the leader of the Igbos in the community. Nzeogwu usually ran errands and went hunting for birds and game with his uncle around the present Nigerian Defense Academy (NDA), Kaduna.

His first-ever protest was held in Saint John’s College on the grounds of injustice. When the school started, it operated its syllabus on six years round before sitting for the certification exams. It was later changed to five years after finding out the set below Nzeogwu’s set was very intelligent. The principal then decided they should write the exam alongside Nzeogwu’s set but they refused seeing it as an insult that their juniors write the exams with them and so they protested. The protest led to the suspension of his entire class (which were in form six) but was told that if they apologized, they would be recalled. Nzeogwu vehemently refused to apologize and felt an ounce of betrayal when his colleagues apologized. He was eventually expelled from the school and then he started secretly studying for the army cadetship examination.

He eventually passed the examination and his parents only got to find out after they got a mail inviting him for an interview in the school. After the approval by his parents, he was then enlisted as a soldier-in-training in the Nigeria Regiment of the West African Frontiers Forces, in March 1957.

Army Calls

Kaduna Nzeogwu then started the six months preliminary training in Ghana then the Gold Coast and completed the training in October of 1957 and then went to the Military Academy, Sandhurst where he was commissioned as an infantry officer in 1959. Nzeogwu also went through courses in Hythe and Warminster. He was seen as a devout Catholic, non-smoker, and didn’t chase women even been as a bachelor. It was also sensed that he felt alone throughout the period as he barely made friends. When he returned to Nigeria in 1960, he was posted to the 1st Battalion in Enugu where Major Aguiyi-Ironsi was the second officer under a British officer.

He was later posted to the 5th Battalion in Kaduna where he became friends with Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. He was nicknamed Kaduna by his Hausa friends as he spoke and dressed more like them than the Igbos plus he was very acquainted with the area.

After serving in the Congo in 1961, he was assigned as a training officer at the Army Training Depot in Zaria for about six months before getting posted to Lagos to head up the military intelligence section at the Army Headquarters where he was the first Nigerian officer. He investigated the treasonable felony case against Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the action Group Leader. This was the major task he faced in the military intelligence sector. He was later sent on an attachment to the United Kingdom. He also attended the Indian Staff College in 1964 and on his return by the end of 1964, he was posted to the Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC), Kaduna where he became Chief Instructor.

From the onset, Nzeogwu had always seen Nigeria as a pawn in the hands of the British. He also felt the country was being led by corrupt leaders and so planned on removing them by a coup. And so in 1966, a group of educated young officers decided to take over power in the major capitals of Nigeria including Kaduna (Northern region), Ibadan (Western region), and Lagos (Federal territory). He led the revolution in the northern region starting with Operation Damisa, Operation Kura, Operation Zaki, and Operation Giwa which totaled to the murder of the northern establishment.

He started by organizing a two-day night exercise “Damisa” (Operation Tiger) claiming to train soldiers in new fighting techniques. The exercise was approved by the 1st Brigade Headquarters who was unaware of the main reasons behind the training. Brigade Major Alphonso Keshi had sent circulars telling others to contribute troops for the exercise; before he found out the real reason for the operation, it was too late.

The 15th January 1966 Coup

In the early hours of 15th January 1966, Kaduna Nzeogwu led a group of soldiers on a supposed military exercise taking them to attack the official residence of the premier to the north, Sir Ahmadu Bello in a bloody coup that led to the murder of the Premiers of the north and west. The bloody coupled to the death of the Premier Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto, the Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Belewa, a federal minister Festus Okotie-Eboh, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, and top army officials from the north and west. The Commanding Officer Brigadier Samuel Adesujo Ademulegun and his pregnant wife Latifat (Sisi Nurse) were killed also.

Meanwhile in Lagos, Chief-of-Staff Army Headquarters, Colonel Kur Mohammed; Lieutenant-Colonel James Yakubu Pam (Adjutant General), Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur Chinyelu Unegbe (Quarter Master General), and Lieutenant-Colonel Abogo Largema (Commanding Officer, Fourth Battalion Ibadan) were all killed in cold blood. The Premier of the east Michael Okpara, the Igbo President of the Nigerian federation Nnamdi Azikiwe and the Igbo Army Chief Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi were among the notable survivors.

Read: Shehu Yar’Adua: A consummate Bridge Builder

His operation in the north contributed to the success of the coup in the north. It is believed that Nzeogwu executed at least four armies and police personnel including a man on his team Sergeant Daramola Oyegoke. He also participated in the execution of Col. Ralph Shodeinde, his superior officer at the Nigerian Training Military College (NMTC), and is said to have shot aimlessly at dispersing women and children.

It is believed that after the coup, people started saying “Dan Abakpa” meaning he was from Abakpa. The insinuation was not taken kindly as the people stated that he wasn’t from their area but only came there to visit his uncle. The news was saddening to the people of Abakpa as the Sardauna was a lover of children and youths and accepted all who wanted to enlist into the army. He never discriminated against any region be it Igbo, Hausa, or Fulani. Kaduna Nzeogwu was also believed to visit the Sardauna when he was a military officer. The betrayal was sickening to Alhaji Ali Kwarbai, Sarkin Motan Sardauna who stayed over at the Sardauna’s house after informing him of an impending coup and dropping off the late Premier of the west, Chief Ladoke Akintola. He survived by hiding under the bed during the ordeal.

Unfortunately, the coup didn’t work in Lagos because of Katsina and Ojukwu who still paid allegiance to Aguiyi. At some point, he wanted to get rid of them but finally decided against it because he still had a bond of friendship between them. Nzeogwu decided to give Ojukwu a second chance by sending Madiebo to talk to him but it proved futile as Ironsi led stirred a resistance against the plan. Another reason for the failure of the coup in Lagos was because Colonel Unegbu (Quarter Master General) refused to release the keys of the armory and gave his life instead.

The aftermath of the Coup

Unknown to Nzeogwu, Madiebo was also working for Ironsi and Gowon at the time and had been told to bring Nzeogwu dead or alive but this planned failed because all the troops in Kaduna stood firm behind Nzeogwu. There was also a plan to sedate him by tending to his wounded neck but the plan also failed. Finally, Nzeogwu was talked into handing over power to Ironsi by Madiebo. But he did this with conditions attached. They include:

  1. Guarantee safety for himself and his men who took part in the coup
  2. A guarantee of freedom from any sort of legal prosecutions then or in the future for both his men and him
  3. The release of his men arrested in the south
  4. Compensation to be paid to the families of the men who lost their lives
  5. Assurance that those who were fought to be removed where not put back in the office.

These terms were agreed to by Ironsi but he didn’t plan on following through with any. Instead, he sent Lieutenant-Colonel Nwawo (Nigerian Military Attache) from London who was a very respected and good friend of Nzeogwu to speak to him and ensure that he fully handed overpower. Nzeogwu was welcomed with 84mm Carl Gustav anti-tank Recoilless rifle (the type he used to kill the Sardauna) was cocked and pointed at him.

Nzeogwu was dressed in a non-combat uniform and unarmed completely. He behaved and was not shot but was taken straight to the airport and sent to maximum security Kirikiri in Lagos before being transferred to Aba prison. He was arrested on the 18th of January 1966 as Ironsi took overpower contrary to the agreements reached between them. This brought an end to the revolution. He was later released in March 1967.

The End of an Era

The coup by Kaduna Nzeogwu later led to the Nigerian Civil War as the north decided to pay back by attacking with a counter-coup on July 29th, 1966. This led to the death of over 30,000 Igbo soldiers and civilians and many more millions were killed over the three years the war lasted. On May 30th, 1967, Biafra declared its independence from Nigeria due to the incessant killing of Igbos in the north and the refusal of General Yakubu Gowon (military head of state) to mobilize security to end the killings. By then, Nzeogwu had been promoted to the rank of a Biafran Lieutenant-Colonel.

How Did Major Kaduna Nzeogwu Died?

On 29th July 1967, Nzeogwu was trapped in an ambush in Nsukka during a night operation against the federal troops of the 21st battalion under Captain Mohammed Inuwa Wushishi. He was killed in action and his corpse was later identified and buried in the Commonwealth War-military cemetery located in Kashim Ibrahim road, grave number 9. He is buried with his full military regalia and honors.

There is also the claim by his sister Susan Uwechie that he wasn’t killed by the Nigerian soldiers but that he injected himself and threw a grenade after seeing that he was surrounded by them. According to her claims, after he found out that he had been betrayed by a close friend by the name Emmanuel Ifeajuna and reported to the Nigerian soldiers, he slipped away and decided to kill himself knowing that death by their hands would be very terrible. After injecting himself and throwing the grenade, all the soldiers that surrounded him died with him.

In summary, whether or not some see Kaduna Nzeogwu as a hero or villain, it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is his name will forever be placed in Nigerian history.

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