INTRODUCTION: The violent death of Brigadier Zakari Maimalari was one of the factors that eventually triggered Nigeria’s bloodiest conflict, the civil war of 1967 to 1970. As at the time he was mercilessly murdered, he was the highest ranking Nigerian military officer of northern origin. Maimalari was Nigerian Army’s first regular combatant officer and this is his story.
FULL NAMES (alternate names): Brigadier Zakariya (Zakari) Abubakar Hassan Maimalari
BACKGROUND, BIRTH AND EARLY DAYS:
On the 17 th of January, 1930, he was born into the royal family of the Maimalaris in the Maimalari Village now located in Yobe State (but then it was under Borno Province administered by the British colonialists).
At the age of four, his parents enrolled him at the Nguru Elementary School, also located in what is now Yobe State. In April 1941, he finished his primary education at the Borno Middle School and thereafter proceeded to the famed Barewa College (later Government College) in Zaria. In December 1947, he obtained the Cambridge School Certificate from the college. While Maimalari was at the college, one of his principals sparked his interest in the army and made him consider having a career in the military. Upon finishing from the college, Maimalari was back in Maiduguri, where with the help of the late Mallam Ibrahim Imam, he was able make an inroad into the military.
With his childhood friend and schoolmate, Lawan Umar, Maimalari joined the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) in Zaria, Kaduna State on the 10 th of March, 1950. Some months later, the two friends were off to the West African School of Infantry in Teshie, Ghana from where they proceeded to the United Kingdom for further training first at Eaton Hall, Chester on the 9 th of January 1951 and later to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. Maimalari was in Burma Company, Course Intake 10 which ran from September 1951 to February 1953. On the 16 th of February, 1953 he was commissioned 2 nd Lieutenant (Subaltern) becoming the sixth Nigerian to be commissioned and the first Nigerian to be commissioned as a regular combatant officer into the army.
As a result, Zakariya Maimalari and his friend, Lawan Umar, both from the Borno Province, were the first four Africans (others where the late King Hassan II of Morocco and Charles Buah of Ghana) ever to attend and successfully complete their course at Sandhurst. But with time, Lawan Umar was forced out of the army and Zakariya became the first regular combatant Nigerian in the Officer Corps of the Nigerian Army unlike the other about 28 officers who were his contemporaries and also commissioned from the ranks. As an officer in the Nigerian Army, he attended the following professional courses:
Platoon Weapons Course, School of Infantry, Hythe, England.
Regimental Signal Instructor’s Course, School of Infantry Signal Wing, September 1956.
Platoon Commander’s Course, England, 14 th January – 24 th March 1957.
Company Commander’s Course, School of Infantry, England, 14 th June – 7 th August 1959.
Staff College, Quetta, Pakistan, 1961.
Royal College of Defence Studies, London, January – December 1964.
From 1957 to 1959, he was appointed Commander of the Officer Cadet Training Wing (aka Boys Company) in Zaria. In this position, he would groom those who will later become generals in the Nigerian Army. He was also the second-in-command and instructor at the Nigerian Military Training College (NMTC), Jaji, Kaduna and later became Commander of the Second Battalion of the Nigerian Army in Abeokuta from 1962 to 1963. Later, he became a Brigadier and Commander of the Second Brigade of the Nigerian Army in Apapa, Lagos.
LOVE, FAMILY AND MARRIAGE
Maimalari remarried when his first wife was shot dead in what was described as a strange accident involving a hunting rifle. On the night of 14 th January, 1966, he threw a party to celebrate his remarriage not knowing that was going to be his last night on earth.
INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT ZAKARI MAIMALARI
The killing of Maimalari in January 1966 by soldiers mainly from the eastern part of the country sparked intense ethnic discord. To worsen the case, the four most senior soldiers of northern extraction (Brigadier Maimalari, Colonel Kur Mohammed, Lieutenant Colonel Abogo Largema and Lieutenant Colonel James Pam) were all killed in the same event. Add this to the fact the the prime minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and his godfather Sir Ahmadu Bello were also killed in the most brutal circumstances, the anger that took over northern soldiers becomes more understandable. When southerners started jubilating as news of the coup spread, tension in the land increased. Pressure mounted on senior northern soldiers from all sides, from civilians, wives, children, junior officers, friends and families to exact revenge. Maimalari was described as fearless, charismatic and immensely popular and was seen as a folk hero of sort among the northern officers who respected him greatly and even took him as their role model. When military head of state Ironsi decided not to courtmartial the coup plotters of January to the chagrin of the northern soldiers, their anger reached a boiling point. They felt the overpowering need to avenge the death of one of theirs who was so savagely murdered in the holy month of Ramadan. It did not take long for the senior northern officers to launch a devastating countercoup on the 29 th July 1966 coordinated and ruthlessly executed by the fiery Inspector of Signals, Lieutenant Colonel Murtala Muhammed. Ironsi himself was wasted in that very tragic incident after which Yakubu Gowon was installed by the northern officers then a massacre of thousands of Nigerians from the east living in the north was carried out. The blood flow will be the precursor to the declaration of the sovereign nation of Biafra by the military governor of the Eastern Region, Colonel Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu prompting the Nigerian military government headed by Gowon to declare war in 1967. Thirty months later, millions of lives were wasted and the scars are still very much visible today.
Maimalari was known as a very strict soldier who took no nonsense or tolerated any act of insubordination. He was so tough that when the news broke that he was killed, many NCOs of northern extraction brushed the news aside believing that Maimalari would have definitely found a way to escape and remain alive. That was true to an extent as you will soon see.
Exactly a week after Maimalari was killed, on the 22 nd of January 1966, Murtala Muhammed’s wife gave birth to his first baby boy who he promptly named Zakari in honour of the fallen Maimalari. Murtala Muhammed respected Maimalari to the point of adoration.
HONOURS, AWARDS AND LEGACY
He was a recipient of the Campaign Stars Medal, Medal Forces Service Star, the United Nations Congo Medal and the Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Medal.
The Maimalari Barracks in Maiduguri, Borno State, was named in his honour. In May 2014 during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, the barrack pierced the consciousness of many Nigerians when the general officer commanding (GOC) was almost killed by his subordinates in an army mutiny.
A major street in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja was named after Maimalari.
Maimalari could speak five languages: English, Fulfulde, Hausa, Arabic and Kanuri.
His son, Colonel Abubakar Sadiq Zakari Maimalari was the last military governor of Jigawa State from 1998 to 1999. He is best known for spending the sum of N110 million on sinking boreholes in just eight days when he was military governor. See him below:
On the night of 14 th of January, 1966, Maimalari was having a big party in his house in Ikoyi. At the dinner, drinks flowed freely and senior army officers and other guests treated themselves to finest of meals. Unknown to Maimalari, those who were going to kill him in a few hours were some of his guests wining and dining with him. In the early hours of the 15 th of January, soldiers led by Major Don Okafor stormed Maimalari’s residence in a bid to arrest or capture him. Unknown to Maimalari, the coup executors had penciled him down for death because he was one of those senior officers they believed had the clout or influence to constitute a significant obstacle to the coup. And that was very true: Maimalari was the leader of the ‘southern army’ as he commanded the ‘Southern’ brigade and had under him all the fighting forces of the battalions. In an instant, Maimalari could mobilize the field artillery corps, armoured and even the mechanized squads. His power was so extensive that he was well-equipped to even face an external force of aggression attacking the country. That explained why the main coupists like Emmanuel Ifeajuna had to use forged orders in his name to advance their coup and get weapons or even transmit signals. Therefore, the coupists knew they had to neutralize him swiftly.
Thus, Major Donatus O Okafor who was the Officer Commanding of the elite Federal Guards (he was specifically given the task of assassinating Maimalari) and his 2-I-C, Captain Oji, were at HQ 2 Bde when the troops were being organized and given arms and ammunition. After this was done, the two officers entered Major Okafor’s personal car accompanied by Lance Corporals B Okotto and P Esekwe. Without wasting time, they drove to the Federal Guard Unit in Dodan Barracks in Ikoyi, where in the meantime, Lieutenant Ezedigbo and 2 nd Lieutenant Igweze had mobilized extra troops and made proper arrangements for the issuance of arms and ammunition. When Major Okafor and Captain Oji arrived the barracks and entered the Unit guardroom, the troops were already set for the assault. Okafor then ordered that they mount two Federal Guard Land Rovers prepared for the operation by Ezedigbo. Involved in this assault were the following personnel of the Federal Guard: Sergeant SA Umch, Sergeant N Ibundu, Lance Corporals N Noji, HH Okeke and P Nnah, Privates J Ogu, S Eke, I Onoja, JF Enunehe, J Abaye, CS Dede and S Adekunle. The two rovers they used were NA 773 driven by Private I Onoja and NA 957 driven by Lance Corporal N Noji. The small but heavily-armed convoy headed for the house of Brigadier Zakari Maimalari located on 11, Thompson Avenue in Ikoyi. It was a corner house located at the point where Brown Road enters Thompson Avenue. Upon arrival, the troops were dismounted and split into three sections each commanded by Captain Oji, 2 nd Lt. Igweze and Sergeant SA Umch (in reserve) respectively. The Umch unit was to mount a post in a dark place located opposite the house. The three officers accompanied by their men stormed the compound guarded by NCOs and men of the 2 Battalion NA.
Okafor ordered the Sentry to call the Guard Commander whom he told that the situation was horrible citing an emergency and that he had come to take over. He further instructed the Guard Commander to round up his men and return them to his unit. At that point, the Guard Commander flatly refused saying he could not obey Okafor’s order as he had no orders or instructions to that effect even though Okafor was his officer commanding, the Guard Commander suspected something was not right as the standard operating procedure stipulated that if there was any change or instruction, it was to come from the superior officer on duty under whom the Guard Commander was and not directly from Okafor himself. Therefore, what Okafor was doing was going against the well-established chain of command in the military hierarchy. Unworried, Okafor and Oji brushed aside the Guard Commander’s resistance and entered the compound by force .
Meanwhile, as Okafor and the Guard Commander were exchanging words, the telephone in the lounge downstairs in Maimalari’s house started to ring and the brigadier had woken up. According to some of those present, like Igweze, Maimalari came downstairs to answer the phone and he had barely picked the phone when an outburst of submachine gun fire exploded all over the place echoing in the compound. It was Pam who was telling Maimalari on phone that there was fire on the mountain that some soldiers had entered his bedroom by force and planned to arrest him, Maimalari did not even have time to reply Pam when he heard the hail of gunfire in his own compound. On the other end, Pam also heard the gunfire before the line went dead after which he called the GOC immediately to alert him of an ongoing mutiny. The burst of gunfire was from Captain Oji who released bullets at a member of the Brigadier’s Guard, the unlucky victim was a Lance Corporal of 2 Battalion and Maimalari’s Guard Commander for adamantly refusing them entry. He was killed and his corpse was dumped inside Okafor’s Land Rover. At the same time, a bullet, said to be a ricochet, hit Lance Corporal Paul Nwekwe of 2 Brigade Signal Troop who was in front of the main gate to the compound on guard. He was hit in the neck.
The sudden outburst of gunfire from Captain Oji sent a chilling signal to Maimalari that an invading force was in his compound. Maimalari’s nervous system went into an overdrive with a copious doze of adrenalin released into his bloodstream. The brigadier immediately dropped the phone and went upstairs to pick his teenage wife, Maimalari had gone downstairs to pick the phone so as not to disturb his wife, both scurried across the large garden where the cocktail party held five hours earlier, and ran into the boy’s quarters and he was spotted while doing so. But Maimalari did not waste time inside the boy’s quarters, he kept his wife there while he scaled the tall fence and bolted into the darkness. It was an unpleasant night and all the senior officers who escaped that night were wearing their pyjamas, no one had the time to wear any combat fatigues.
Escaping on foot, Maimalari made his way through the darkness and crossed to the road and was believed to have the intention of making it to the Federal Guard Barracks. When Major Okafor learnt that Maimalari had escaped, he flew into a fit of rage and intensely poured venom on the men of the Federal Guard for not shooting Maimalari when they saw him running towards the boy’s quarter. Fuelled with all the fury in the world, Okafor ordered instantly that Maimalari must be shot on sight and must not even be given the chance to surrender. He then jumped into the other Land Rover driven by L/Cpl Noji and told Igweze that he was on pursuit of ‘that man’ and that he should make arrangements for reinforcements to come over to Maimalari’s house. An enraged Okafor drove round the area for a while, combing Brown Street, Thompson Avenue all the way to Glover Road and Bourdillon Road but he could not sight Maimalari who had melted into the thin air like fine Kanuri cheese. As the crazed Okafor was driving up and down searching for him, Maimalari was hiding in the shrubs watching him.
Okafor knew that with Maimalari alive, they were doomed. Maimalari had to die if not they were finished. Ifeajuna would later note this when he wrote in his manuscript:
‘ We fully realized that to be caught planning, let alone acting, on our lines, was high treason. And the penalty for treason is death. ’
So for Okafor and the rest, it was either succeed or die trying. Okafor’s story and how he stole army funds and how Maimalari freed him from punishment bypassing standard army procedure after intense begging from Okafor and how the same Okafor later joined the coup to ‘free’ Nigeria from the shackles of corrupt politicians is for another day.
By the time Okafor returned to 11 Thompson Avenue, Major Adewale Ademoyega and Captain G Adeleke were already there in a Land Rover driven by L/Cpl D. Omeru. Major Ademoyega had already announced to Captain Oji that Captain Maimalari had been killed and that he saw his corpse at the Federal Guard. Afterwards, Captain Oji was overheard telling Okafor that ‘ the Jack had been killed. ’ The assumption is that Oji was referring to Maimalari. Major Okafor then announced to his troops that Brigadier Maimalari had been killed by men from another unit. Remember that all this was happening early in the morning and the time when Okafor was announcing to his troops that Maimalari had been killed was almost 4:00 am. Okafor then ordered Oji to move down to 2 nd Battalion in Ikeja to see the situation of things and Oji departed in Land Rover NA 773 followed by Sergeant H Irundu, L/Cpl H Okeke, Private S Adekunle and Private I Onoja.
On the other side, in the camp of Major Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna, a principal coup plotter, action was also going on. Ifeajuna and his convoy had abducted Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa and Finance Minister Festus Okotie-Eboh and they were driving towards the Federal Guards Officers Mess where he stopped briefly before moving towards Ikoyi Hotel with Balewa still inside the car. It was at this point in the Golf Course, opposite a petrol station that Brigadier Maimalari was walking in the darkness towards Federal Guards Barracks (which is just about 20 minutes away by walk and he had almost reached the Federal Guards Barracks) when he saw a car turning from Kingsway Road. He ducked inside the bush again fearing it might be Okafor again. But then he recognized the car of his world-famous Brigade Major Ifeajuna, a luxurious red Mercedes Benz which had bathed the environment with light and heaved a sigh of relief and could not see clearly that Ifeajuna was not wearing mufti but was fully decked in combat uniform. It was at that moment that Maimalari wearing nothing but his pyjamas, made the biggest mistake of his life.
Ifeajuna was Maimalari’s Brigade Major meaning Ifeajuna was responsible for Maimalari’s security. Feeling that he had finally found a safe haven, Maimalari shouted and beckoned upon Ifeajuna to stop, ostensibly to take him to safety. Maimalari had absolutely no idea that his own Brigade Major was one of the ring leaders of the coup that was unfolding. But Ifeajuna knew precisely what was going so he slammed on the brakes, accompanied by 2/Lt Ezedigbo, walked towards Maimalari, brought out his submachine gun and quickly sprayed his superior’s body. It all happened fast and Ifeajuna did it without a second thought.
For some reasons, Ezedigbo was said to have sustained some injuries in the process of killing Maimalari and Ifeajuna had to later drop him off at the Yaba Military Hospital to treat his wounds. Because of the nature and the violence of his death, it remains difficult to imagine what Maimalari must have been thinking in his last moments on earth but it is safe to assume that one of the last words on his mind was made up of eight letters: BETRAYAL. Why betrayal? Well, this part of the story will be fully discussed when I write on Emmanuel Ifeajuna but let me point out that Ifeajuna and Maimalari had a very cordial relationship. Ifeajuna was so deeply involved with the late brigadier that he was able to elaborately plot the coup right under his nose without him suspecting a thing. All the weapons Ifeajuna moved and all the battalion commanders he summoned to Lagos for easy assassination were all done in Maimalari’s name using forged documents mainly. When the commanders reached Lagos, Ifeajuna organized a 3-day Brigade Training Conference to camouflage their real intentions and to ensure that these commanders did not travel back to their stations, the conference was scheduled to end by 2pm on the 14 th of January after which Ifeajuna convinced Maimalari to hold a small party in his house for the brigade commanders. Maimalari agreed. Even the funds for the party were drawn out in his name. Maimalari was never aware of the fact that while he was dining with his subordinates, they had perfected the strategies to be used to eliminate him.
After Maimalari was killed, the Ifeajuna gang packed his corpse, loaded it into the 3-tonner and calmly drove to the Federal Guard Officers Mess as if nothing had happened. But what was to later follow was a bloodbath of apocalyptic proportions. At the Federal Guard Officers’Mess, the bloodstained corpses of Brigadier Zakari Maimalari, Colonel Kur Mohammed who was the Chief of Staff of the Nigerian Army (now called Chief of Army Staff), Lt. Colonel JT Pam who was the Adjutant-General of the Nigerian Army and Lt. Colonel Unegbe who was the Quartermaster-General of the Nigerian Army were all piled into a 3-tonner lorry. Inside that lorry was the finance minister, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, sitting in one corner, imagining the type of fate that had befallen him. Maimalari was survived by his wife, parents and three children. This is a page in a chapter of Nigerian history that many are not aware of. Those who do not pay attention to history are bound to repeat its worst mistakes.
NB: Ifeajuna himself would later be executed by the firing squad in Enugu on the 25 th of September 1967 in Enugu, the Biafran capital, alongside Victor Banjo, Phillip Alale and Sam Agbam by the head of state of the defunct Republic of Biafra, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu who accused them of treason and plotting to overthrow him. Two days after their execution, the rampaging forces of the Nigerian military government captured the city of Enugu.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
CREDITS AND REFERENCES:
1. Haruna Y. Poloma, Who Was Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari? Sahara Reporters, May 2014 http://saharareporters.com/2014/05/21/who-was-brigadier-zakariya-maimalari
2. Max Siollun, The Northern Counter-Coup of 1966: The Full Story http://www.nigeriansinamerica.com/the-northern-counter-coup-of-1966-the-full-story/
3. Hassan M. Hussein, Remembering Brigadier Zakaria Maimalari http://www.gamji.com/article10000/NEWS10300.htm
4. Special Branch Report: Military Rebellion of 15 th January 1966, Forwarded by Nowamagbe Omoigui
5. Abubakar Maimalari https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abubakar_Maimalari
6. British secret files on Nigeria’s first bloody coup,