With the 2023 elections drawing closer, I wonder what it was like to live in a time without democracy. In this article, a police officer who lived through the first military coup in 1966 shares the moments that led up to joining the force at 18 and the moment that reminded him there was more to life after 35 years of service.
The life of an Igbo police officer in the ‘90s, as told to Ortega
Life before the first military coup in 1966
I was a restless child born in 1937. I grew up as the only son of my father, and his brothers expected me to take up his role as our village’s chief priest. But my father wanted something more for me. He wanted me to go to school and live outside the cage tradition had built for our lineage as its custodians.
My father was convinced living together would make it easier for my uncles to persuade me. So he kept me away for as long as he could. When I was five years old, I had to live with different people in my village and depend on them to put me through school. They called me Nwali, son of the soil. It meant I belonged to everyone in my village but to no one at the same time. The villagers were in charge of taking care of me while my father kept my uncles at bay. Their generosity got me a secondary school education. But that was as far as I could go with the resources they had.
Everyone expected me to become a teacher, but I found the role quite stuffy and boring. I spent the two years after secondary school working odd jobs instead. I tapped palm trees and helped families build houses — I did anything I could get my hands on. I saw my father once in a while, but he expected me to figure things out on my own.
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At 17, I decided to leave my village in Delta for Benin. My cousin promised to teach me to drive and offered me work as one of his cab boys. The first three months were okay, but I couldn’t bear the long hours of driving just to have my cousin take most of the profit I made. I couldn’t tell him that because I had to be grateful to him for trying to help.
After another three months of yelling for passengers under the hot sun, I decided to take a break and go back to Delta. That’s when I found a bit of luck in my life.
On my way to the park, I met a friend who was coming in from Delta. We exchanged pleasantries and I explained why I was heading home. His response to my complaints of driving taxis for hours under the sun was an odd demand for me to follow him on an errand in Benin. He offered to cover the two pence it would cost to get a bus back to my village, so I decided to go with him. There was nothing to lose.
The errand turned out to be recruitment at the police college for new constables in 1955. Of course, I was surprised my friend wasn’t just upfront about it, but I was more interested in how to get in as well. So while he queued up, I rode a bicycle back home to get my documents. Hundreds of people were in the queue when I got back. Every young man wanted a chance to wear fancy uniforms and work with white men. I just needed money.
When it finally got to my turn, the constable took one look at my file and asked me to leave. Apparently, 18 was too young to serve. But then, luck was on my side. One of the senior officers asked him to consider me because I looked strong. And that’s how I got into the ranks.
There were only four police colleges in Nigeria at the time. Benin was just a point of recruitment, so I was moved to the one in Kaduna for a while before I was relocated with other southern officers to Lagos in 1956. I can’t remember how much I earned, but we were paid in pounds until 1973 when naira notes were introduced. What I loved about my job was the respect it gave me. No matter the rank, there was some kind of honour you felt putting on a police uniform in the ‘60s. There was also a lot more investment in the force. I attended the Police Colleges in Paris and Britain for short courses, and in a year, I rose to the rank of cadet.
I worked in Lagos until 1959. A senior officer decided it was best to experience other parts of the west. And in 1959, the country was still at a point when a mid-western Igbo (Igbos from the Bendel region) man transferred to Lagos or Abeokuta wasn’t odd. Nobody cared where I was from or that I refused to learn Yoruba. I felt it was easier to handle thieves who pleaded for mercy if I didn’t hear anything after “E jo”. I didn’t believe Yoruba people were open to learning my dialect. But it didn’t matter. No one bothered too deeply.
Abeokuta was a lot calmer than Lagos. I was stationed there to monitor the railway stations. We derailed passengers coming in from the north and monitored the day-to-day running. But after two years, I got bored. I liked the rush of Lagos more, where things like welcoming renowned leaders happened. For instance, in 1956, I got to see the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Working at the police station in Lagos let me meet people from different works of life. And that made my work interesting. Like the time I met a gambler who was brought in from Obalende back in 1956. He was charged as a thief, but he didn’t seem like one to me. I was in charge of the evidence desk, so I could probe a bit more when criminals came in.
When we spoke, he mentioned that he ran away from home and was trying to win bets to make more money. But the men who arrested him didn’t believe it. He confessed to stealing clothes the morning of his arrest, but that was it. For some reason, he seemed genuine, and I believed his story. I spoke to my colleagues and we got him off on a two-week sentence rather than a year for petty theft. Those were the moments that made me feel like my job mattered; even the bible says blessed are the peacemakers.
The year everything changed
It wasn’t until the first military coup in January 1966 that things slowly began to change. The attack happened the day I got married in the village. For the most part, civilians were safe. But because the attack was by southern soldiers, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and Emmanuel Ifeajuna, it looked like the Igbos were trying to disrupt peace. I knew better than to share my thoughts with colleagues; people were upset.
I was moved to Lagos to serve later that year. They began to look at me as a police officer who was Igbo rather than just a police officer.
As a corporal and the only breadwinner of my home, I knew better than to get involved in the messiness of politics. My main priority was keeping my family safe while my wife was expecting our first child.
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The second attempt at taking over the government took away the last shred of peace. It was in August 1966, and officers called it the revenge coup. Unlike the first coup, which was handled mainly by southern officers, this operation seemed like retaliation from northerners because it was led by Lt. Colonel Murtala Muhammed.
Unlike the first, this takeover was successful, and for the first time, we lived under military rule. It was a very difficult time depending on your tribe. For me, it suddenly meant something to be an Igbo man serving with the Lagos police force. Some superior officers checked our badges and their countenance changed when they found out I was from the south. But I wasn’t going to buckle under the sudden pressure.
Back home, people were being slaughtered. Trains were loaded with dead bodies in the east, and when Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu decided to push back in 1967, so did the ruling officers. It was a bloodbath, and I still don’t know how Lagos maintained some sense of sanity. Still, by 1968, I had to send my family back to Delta state from Lagos.
I’d become a sergeant by the end of 1966, and it was business as usual at the force, which meant always being away from home. But I’d had my second daughter and wasn’t comfortable with working all the time when things were so unsafe. I also couldn’t get any of my wife’s sisters to travel from Delta to Lagos because of their safety.
It was better to take my wife and kids to Delta dressed in my police uniform, which was the only thing keeping me from being harassed or outrightly killed. It was a hard decision, but keeping them away was for the best. Our village didn’t experience the attacks going on in the eastern towns.
Between 1967 and 1970, Nigeria was at war with itself. But I didn’t have the time to process what it meant at 30 years old. I had to focus on my task of training police officers, assisting to keep some level of sanity in Lagos.
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When we lost the war in 1970, Nigeria went into a long period of discrimination. Rising to the top of the force suddenly became difficult. I should’ve officially been promoted to sergeant, but the results for the exams I took weren’t released until after a year. Most people had theirs a few weeks after the exams. That’s when I knew a lot was about to change for me.
By 1975, I’d made a life for myself in the Ikeja barracks. My marriage was what you’d call successful because my wife and I had five children at that point. What hadn’t been so successful was my ability to support my family on my salary. I was earning less than ₦20k as a sergeant, and a family of seven wasn’t exactly cheap. But I wasn’t the only one experiencing the economic challenge.
Leaving behind the police force
With the political instability, getting goods was hard and prices went up. I could get Omo for less than ₦5 before the coup, but after, we were spending almost ₦20 per sachet. Rice was also a luxury because importing was difficult. My wife eventually had to open a store to sell drinks so she didn’t have to depend on my salary for foodstuff. But I didn’t care about the money. I wouldn’t have enjoyed any other job as much.
As the years went by, I began to feel like my work as an officer didn’t matter. My family joined me in Lagos again in 1971. The Civil War was over, and I missed seeing my family. I’d had my second child in 1968, and we only saw a few times a year because of the state of things. So I brought them to join me at my flat in Ikeja barracks.
I spent years leading up to the final coup in 1975 as a sergeant. I was in the office with a few personnel who talked about setting a village close to mine on fire. I’m sure they didn’t have a clue where I was from. But that’s how ruined we were as a country after 1965. At least, the failed 1966 coup was just a power struggle, but the rest were about personal dislikes amongst ourselves.
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As long as the ruling party preferred a certain ethnic group over mine, even as an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) in 1983, I dealt with unwarranted questioning and didn’t get the recognition I deserved. But I was convinced I needed to rise the ranks to be a commissioner because it would make a difference.
Then one of my friends, a fellow officer, died from high blood pressure, and I realised there was a lot more to life than chasing ranks. I was earning around ₦80k as an ACP in 1986. I decided to start putting money aside to build a home for my family in Delta. As the only son, my father left over 500 hectares of land to me. That was enough for a farm and properties to rent out over time.
Major General Babangida was still in power and the force was dominated by western and northern men. I could count the officers in my rank who were from the south on one hand. But I didn’t have the time to feel bitter. I put in my notice for retirement in 1989 and was approved for pension within six months. I left in 1990 at 53 without looking back.
It’s been 32 years since and my monthly pension hasn’t changed. Less than ₦80k per month is all I’ve gotten since 1990 while my retired colleagues from the army receive a minimum of ₦150k per month. I was one step away from the highest rank in the force, but I can’t get decent money for 35 years of work. That’s the biggest pain for me. It shows policemen aren’t as valued as we were in 1955.
But I don’t regret my time there. I’d do it all over again if I could because being on the police force gave me some of my greatest memories. Being an officer was a time I got to see the real side of human nature because of the amount of history I saw unfold. And now that I spend most of my time alone, it’s nice to remember what life was like when I was a young man.
Now that we know what life was like for a Nigerian police officer in the ‘60s, imagine what would’ve happened if Abacha Never Died.