Lt. SOS Echendu is no more a soldier. He has been living in the United States, North Carolina, with his beautiful wife and family for about two decades. Echendu is an investor and a Nuclear medicine scientist, but he also has an incredible past.
A journalist, Azuka Jebose, found and interviewed the former officer 24 years after he had masterminded the siege on Dodan Barracks, the base of Federal Military Government of Nigeria. The detailed story published by SaharaReporters reveals more details on Nigeria’s last coup (the Orkar Coup), dated April 22, 1990, which attempted to depose General Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, the then president.
Lt Echendu was on the run for about seven years of his life because of the failed coup attempt and the heavy bounty on his head placed by IBB. The man, who was described as “a very brilliant and courageous officer” by a colleague, Capt. Tolofori, does not regret about anything, describes it is a sacrifice for his country.
In April 1990 a group of officers, mainly Army Majors and Lieutenants, initiated an uprising against General Babangida and his administration. The rebels were led by Major Gideon Orkar.
One of the key figures in their plan was Lt Echendu, an Armored Vehicles officer expert at Dodan Barracks. His mission was to implode the base, dislocate all the armored vehicles, and, finally, to secure the perimeter of Dodan Barracks. Upon accomplishing, the infantry would have entered and the president should have been captured and / or executed. The plotters believed in Echendu, as he knew the place perfectly, had clear vision of the logistics and tactical aspects of the environment.
In the first ever confession since his escape from Nigeria, the former Lieutenant speaks about his involvement in the events and why he spared Babangida’s life despite having him on sight.
How did it all start?
“I got involved with the coup thus: The country was being administered the wrong way. There were sufferings and Nigerians were being abused and marginalized by Babangida’s administration. Nigerians were being dehumanized economically and socially. My unit had sent me on a course to Bauchi. Actually, I was not supposed to be in that Course. Lt. Pat Obasi was supposed to attend that course. But when due to other exigencies he was not able to attend, Brigadier General M.Y Ibrahim, current acting General Officer Commanding (GOC) of one of Nigeria’s military divisions was sent from my unit. Both Obasi and M.Y Ibrahim belonged to the 33rd Regular Combatant Course of the Nigerian Defence Academy. I was a member of the 35th Course. After M.Y Ibrahim had spent roughly three weeks at the Nigerian Army Armour School Bauchi, an opening for a foreign course became available. M.Y Ibrahim was drafted for the course. He was therefore withdrawn from the platoon commander’s course in Bauchi. My unit then was required to fill its allotted spot. An officer needed to be drafted, that was how I was drafted to represent my unit. Officers of the 34th course in my unit, who were militarily my seniors, were by-passed because my unit needed to field an officer who would excel. I got to Bauchi on a Sunday, the following day, Monday, was the final examination day for “Communications” – the first of four phases of the entire course. Expectedly, I didn’t do well on the communications phase. I was, I think, 23 out 28 officers, and I didn’t like that. But at the end of the entire course, I was third overall, which meant I busted my behind in the remaining three phases of the entire course. Then Lt. Col. Umar Abubakar was the Commandant of the Armoured School at that time. I went to him to bitterly complain about the injustice of withdrawing an officer from a course locally to send him to a foreign course. In my mind, irrespective of ethnicity, every officer was supposed to be treated equally. But in this case, equality was thrown to the winds.
“While I was attending this course, I got a call from my friend who passed a coded message to me. After I decoded the message, I knew what he meant. This was early 1990; I was attending the Platoon Commanders course. I quickly signed onto the plan. I didn’t think about it because I knew it was the right thing to do.
“As a young man fresh from secondary school, I desired to be in the service and served my country. I wanted to be a soldier. I visited the Nigerian Defence Academy to enlist A former Commander of the Signal Corps gave me the forms that I used to apply to NDA. I took the NDA admissions entrance examination and succeeded. I was invited to Kaduna for interview. Then Brigadier Sanni Abacha was the Board Selection Interview Chairman. He conducted the selection process with other officers. One unique thing Gen. Sanni Abacha did was to announce the results at the Nigerian Defence Academy. This approach of his prevented the removal and replacement of successful candidates with the names of sons of well-connected Nigerians. I was enlisted as a member of the 35th Regular Combatant Course and three years later, I graduated. After graduation, I was posted to the 201 Corps Headquarters Company of the Nigerian Army Armoured Corps, the admin unit of the entire Armoured Corps. We provided security to President Babangida who was also an armoured officer. I knew about the strategies, logistics and workings of Dodan Barracks, including the electronics, communication and security operations. I lived intermittently inside Dodan Baracks between 1986 until the coup.
“Three Igbo officers took part in the revolution. We got involved for the love of our country and fellow citizens. We were attempting to change the sad direction the country was heading with the Babangida’s military administration. You had me, Late Lt. C Y Ozoalor and Lt. P C Obasi as the only Igbo military officers who were involved… Jebose, Injustice should not be tribalised and sectionalized. What was going on, then, in our beloved nation state wasn’t good. It was atrocious in the Nigerian army where the elite ruling class was marginalizing certain ethnic groups. For instance, to become an adjutant or admin officer in a unit, you had to be related to a Northerner or somehow be connected to the oligarchy. It wasn’t nationalistic. So what we did, in a way, was to try to correct some of the unpatriotic things that were going on, including but not limited to, god-fatherism culture in the Army. To advance in the army, you had to be connected, know a retired or senior serving army officer, a chief, Alhaji or a businessman who had money… That wasn’t bringing out the best in our army officers and Nigerians. We knew something was wrong. And we knew something had to be done; but then, did we the people, had the courage to deal with it? That was our problem. I was glad that within the army, I was connected to officers who had the courage to pay the ultimate prize in making sure we got it right.
“We were completely and highly prepared to die for our country. I joined the revolutionaries because I wanted to bring about the best possible change for Nigeria. I live in the US now and have been working here for a long time. If the founders did not pay the ultimate prize and made the costliest sacrifice, may be America would not be as great as it is today. Sometimes in the life of a great nation, few people would have to pay the ultimate prize for the benefit of future generations. That was what my colleagues and I did. We sacrificed for a better future for our children, a better Nigeria: most of the officers were single, but we wanted to make eternal sacrifices, and we did.
“The coup may seem sectional in outlook. In any organization, when a decision is made and if you are a team player, you either opt out; betray the course or you go with the decision. I did not see or read late Major Oka’s speech that was broadcast to the nation on that day… But since my group had been credited with that speech, I stand 100% behind it. However, if I were the one who wrote the speech, would I carve out some states in the speech? You bet I wouldn’t. Were things going wrong? Yes. Things were really, really bad, but then, if I had to write that speech, to carve out any portion out of the core nation of Nigeria, the answer would be NO. We were in it to save Nigeria and our people from the corrupt, reckless and indisciplined direction of General Babangida’s administration.
“But do I stand behind the speech? Absolutely yes. Remember General Collin Powell did not believe Late Iraqi President, Sadam Hussein, had weapons of mass destruction, but he had to go to the United Nations to defend that position. A good soldier doesn’t have to believe in everything, but you have to be able to be a team player. I never had doubts about our mission. If I were writing the speech, I would have worded it differently but I don’t regret our actions. I don’t regret the speech as broadcast that day by Major Oka. Absolutely, no regrets.”
Was the coup a real failure?
“I remind you that I was in control of Dodan Barracks. You can’t be everywhere at the same time. If you think the coup failed, well, we did not take over the government, but did it really fail? Jebose, that’s debatable… THE COUP DID NOT FAIL!
“Though we did not take over the government, however, some corrective measures we enumerated that we didn’t have the opportunity to institutionalize were embraced in spirit both by Gen. Babangida and subsequent administrations. Some people benefitted and are still benefitting from the actions of the coup. General Babangida, my fellow armoured Corps officer was not stripped of his presidential powers as a result of our actions. Ask Gen. Babangida, if he was ready to leave Lagos when he did? His answer would be NO. Did he go to Abuja as a result of what we did, he would say YES, because he was no longer safe in Lagos. He arrested the family of Prof. (Maj.) Mukoro and when they were rescued, IBB, our General, ran from Lagos to Abuja because he knew he was no longer safe. We castrated IBB. We made him impotent. We stripped him of the aura that surrounded him. He was no longer that invincible man, the untouchable oracle. We made him human and the Nigerian people saw that. He abandoned Dodan Barracks to me. I was in control of Nigeria’s seat of government. I was in charge of Dodan Barracks for that brief period. He ran away. Go ask him where he was. As at the time I was in control of Dodan Barracks, he was not there. For that brief period, you could technically say, there was a presidential power vacuum.”
Why I didn’t kill IBB?
“Part of my responsibilities that day was to secure Dodan Barracks for the infantry to hold the ground. I disabled it that period, but did you visit Dodan Barracks the next day, after the coup when President Babangida did a media tour of the place?… Jebose,if we had succeeded, Nigeria wouldn’t be as decayed today as citizens feel. For the sake of decency, it’s not up to me to say what I did but history would vindicate the just. I am alive today because my time hadn’t come in 1990.
“Gen. IBB was an armoured officer just like me. But I was more current and he was far removed from the dynamics of the latest technologies of armoured vehicles and weaponry then. Late UK Bello, my former colleague, had also been removed from the dynamics of armoured vehicles operations. I delivered seminars on armoured vehicle weaponry. If late Major Omar, a Goodman, had been the one commanding 201 Corps Company then, it would have been more difficult for me to take part. He was a detribalized Nigerian, believed in your abilities and not tribes. We had Shaibu too… So, if Omar was the Commanding Officer, in April 1990, it would have been very difficult for me. The way you command your Unit as a military leader, sometimes would be a testament of good leadership or an indictment of your leadership. Jebose, you are asking how I was able to dislodge a military President, viewed as invincible and untouchable, the almighty and powerful? Well, my friend, to God be the glory!”
The interviewer and the ex officer. Photo: Jebose via SaharaReporters
“Why I didn’t kill General Ibrahim Babangida during the coup attempt, especially when I had him within the perimeters of the environment at Dodan Barrackss? First, this raised another question within the rank and file of the military community. There has been this innuendo that I killed Babangida’s Aid De Camp, U.K Bello. I did not Kill Lt. Col. UK Bello. And General Babangida knows that I did not kill UK Bello. But for propaganda purposes, a few misguided and stupid folks have been insinuating that I killed Bello. No. SOS did not kill UK Bello. The security agencies know that.
“I have a lot of respect for General Ibrahim Badamosi Babngida. It’s not easy for you to rise to the peak and pinnacle of your career. Don’t forget he was the Chief of the Army Staff, the Commander of the Armoured Corps. He is an accomplished human being. We disagreed on how he managed the country. We looked at the direction of the country and that was when we decided to make changes. In that circumstance, a military person administering the country in the wrong direction could only be changed through a coup detat, by poison or any other means beside the electoral process. You do not go to the ballot booths. It’s by bullets. We didn’t have the option of ballots but bullets. We couldn’t vote him out, so we decided to use the only available option to us. But then, did I want to kill him? NO! Did I have the option to kill him? YES. Jebose, did I have the bullets to kill him? YES! Did I have the armoured rounds to shoot him? Did I come in direct contact with him? YES! Did I see him escape in the 504 Peugeot vehicle? YES… Was I in a position to blow up the vehicle as he escaped? YES. But did I want to kill him? NO! Jebose, why did I not kill him? I was in my 20s, I was intellectually advanced. I wanted him captured alive and tried. I wanted the nation to see him and read his crimes during his trial so that our citizens would see where we were coming from… I wanted to set a different standard from what used to obtain: kill him and the case would be closed, but capture him and set him on trial, then the Nigerian people would be able to hear his crimes. Trying him and allowing him to defend himself would allow the public to understand why he did the things he did and why we decided to do the things we did. I had the opportunity to kill him. I knew how he escaped from Dodan Barracks. I saw him escaped in a Peugeot 504 but didn’t want to blow up the vehicle. I could have killed him. I don’t regret letting him escape. It wasn’t in my operational area to arrest him. We didn’t have infantry men. We were armoured men; I had my crew, but didn’t have the luxury of infantry to hold the ground. There were lots of operational failures. I didn’t have any communication because of security concerns. We didn’t want to compromise our intelligence by using unsecured walkie-talkies to communicate… I was incommunicado with the hope of other battalions realizing the sensitivity of where I was. There was no way to call then… No cell phones then… I did not have walkie-talkies because we didn’t want our communications intercepted. IBB had the Mossad security team working for him even though we did not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
I was very young then and was able to do what I did, despite all the security elements within Dodan Barracks. If you asked Gen Babangida, he would still be wondering how the coup happened. From my angle, I was good to my soldiers.”
Post coup or payback time
“One of my regrets is seeing some of the innocent soldiers executed or sent to prison for a long time. They knew what was going to happen but opted out early. They suffered injustice. The Nigerian system has always been unjust. I escaped rather than being subjected to the injustice they were subjected to… Our cause was just and we had good reasons to change the direction of the country. I do not think any of my soldiers would say it would be good for me to be executed and my remains poured acid in a mass grave.
“Maj. Orkar refused to leave. He had opportunity to leave. The 42 soldiers that were executed were inhumanly buried. They poured acid on their bodies and buried all of them in a mass grave. Orkar was not dismissed. Ozalor and other colleagues of ours were not dismissed. They were tried, found guilty and executed. Their families and children are entitled to their benefits. These are some of the unresolved issues and I would hope President Goodluck Jonathan would consider a reasonable resolution to this. You cannot deny the children of slained military officers’ benefits. They were actively engaged in the military when they were executed. Conviction of treason does not mean benefits should stop. The earlier we started resolving these, the better. Those of us who volunteered without coercion, fought for fairness and served our country, deserve to be given the same treatment(s) as any other military officer with similar circumstance(s). That principle of fairness is not being respected. You cannot pardon a few and deny others their pardon as well. The benefits of Gen. Diya, Brig, Gen. Gwadabe, Col. Bello Fadile have been restored. Their offenses were similar to those of the 1990 officers. The standards must be the same across the board for all.
“I am disappointed at every military change of government in general because you are supposed to be working with a colleague, but it’s agonizing to take up arms against your colleague. I am disappointed because we aimed at reaching the top of our careers in the military. But I have no regrets whatsoever. The Nigerian government under IBB, declared me wanted. When you are declared wanted without opportunity for a fair trial, it’s unfair for any brave minded human being to say you went AWOL. There is a difference between a court appointed legal system trial and a Military tribunal trial that was monitored and controlled by the man you attempted to remove from power. Those who were not supposed to be executed were executed without fair trial and legal representations. We knew if we failed, we would pay the ultimate prize. And I was prepared for that. I was willing to serve up my time. I was also clamouring for the country to take a different direction. I was willing to die for Nigeria. A coup is a coup. Nigerian civil war started because of a counter coup. If you are giving those coup plotters benefit of doubt through pardon, same should be extended to everyone. There shouldn’t be a discriminatory pardon. I have been pardoned but my pardon has not been gazetted. My pardon has not been gazetted while that of Lt. Col. Inyiam has been gazetted. My question to the service chiefs, my former colleagues, the NSA, all our legislators, ministers and all rational Nigerians is; how fair is it that my colleague Lt. Col. Nyiam’s pardon has been gazetted, but I, Maj. Obahor, Lt. Obasi, Lt. Okekumatalor, Lt. Okhiafoh, Maj. Edoja, Capt. Tolofari, Maj. Saliba Mukoro, and Lt. Henry Ogboru’s names have not been gazetted? Would it not be dragging Nigeria’s name to the mud should we collectively take the Nigerian government to World Court seeking clarification? Should we be allowed to do this when this can be easily settled and resolved by the present administration?”