Around 4am on Friday, however, the telephone rang in my house. I picked it up. Alhaji Isa Kaita, the Minister for Education in the Northern Region was on the line; he wanted to let me know, he said, there had been a coup against the government. The Sardauna’s house had been attacked by soldiers and all important officials had gone into hiding. He had spoken with Major Hassan Katsina who explained that there was little he could do; he was actually at a meeting with the rebels at that time. Alhaji Isa Kaita concluded with the request that I should go to the Sardauna’s house and assessed the situation.

I got ready and said my dawn prayer, later I went out. I found the residence of the premier completely destroyed. It had been shelled and burnt, strings of smoke were still raising into the air from some sections. I looked for certain familiar scenes around but all were now a sorrowful sight. There was destruction everywhere. A few soldiers stood idly with weapons in their hands. All was quiet. I walked into the house silently and found the body of Sardauna lying on the ground the courtyard. He had been shot a number of times.

I arranged for the body to be taken to the house of the Sultan in Kaduna which was a short distance away. His wife, Hafsah, who was killed together with him, was also taken to the Sultan’s house. Details of the incidence soon got round and gradually a little crowd of senior government officials and other sympathisers assembled to prepare the bodies for burial. It was then announced that the Sardauna had requested before he died, that he should be taken to Wurno and buried beside the grave of Sultan Muhammad Bello, his great-grandfather.

But I explained that this wish could not be carried out. The Sardauna was a martyr who had been killed in the cause of the religion. In Islam, martyrs are always buried at the site of their death…..I felt that we should respect that honour in the case of the Sardauna. With all the preparation completed, we set the body in position for the burial prayers. The early morning sun was fairly high in the sky. I stood in front to lead the prayers while the rest of the people formed neat rows behind me. There are no ceremonies to observe during burials in Islam. The religion emphasizes that the dead should be put into grave with minimum delay after death. It was altogether a very solemn and touching occasion. For me, it was the end of an era which I could not possibly forget. I had been lucky to know the Sardauna and help influence a little of his life.

Reflections of this day and many others came back to me as I stood over the fresh earth marking the grave after the funeral. As a Muslim I knew that one died unless his time was due, so I was not bothered about whether the Sardauna could have been saved. I did not mourn his death as something he or anyone else could have helped to avoid. But I grieve for the ignorance and fear that plotted against him and what he represented; the greed and selfishness that killed him; and the prejudice and contempt that sought to disgrace his name after his death.

Sayyid Abu Bakr, a close companion to the Holy Prophet, had said to the public while announcing the death of the Prophet, ‘Muhammad is dead. But whoever worshipped God let him know that God is alive and does not die.’ I could have spoken to the people in similar vein if I had been responsible for announcing the killing of the Sardauna. But so bloody and horrifying had the events been that early morning that the public did not need further warning about the fate of the Premier.

As I drove back home after the funeral, I passed a long line of people standing solemnly on the streets. Some stood in small groups absorbed in mournful discussions while others sat quietly in front of their houses. No one seemed to know fully what was happening, so that the people’s sorrow was worsened by the fear of the final outcome. The extent of the killings, and what that meant in terms of communication had been cut between various parts of the country and there appear to be total confusion even among the soldiers themselves. I figured that it would be quite a while before the final picture emerged. Meanwhile, I could not really think of what to do other than to continue with my normal routine. I, therefore, got ready and went to my office.

I was in the office late in the morning when military van pulled up in the premises and some soldiers came down. They asked for me and were shown into my office by a staff. They greeted me curtly and explained that they had been sent to invite me for a meeting with the leader of that morning’s coup, Nzeogwu. I was to go in their van, they said, although I could ask someone to follow in my own car so that he would bring me back after the meeting. I got up and went with them as they requested while my driver drove behind us.

We arrived at the military barracks housing Nzeogwu’s soldiers which had by now turned into a beehive of activity. There were many soldiers on guard, their weapons held firmly in their hand. There were also trucks parked in front of the offices; a few others came in and went out. Except for the noise of the vehicles and occasional exchange among soldiers, all was quiet and business-like. No one spoke to us as we parked and walked into the building. Eventually, I was brought before Nzeogwu and he received me with no ceremony. I sat down on a chair and he slowly began to talk.

First of all, he wanted to know where we had hidden the weapons which we were said to have imported into the country. The question really surprised me and so did the tone in which it was asked. I had not met Nzeogwu before, and had never dealt with him in any capacity whatsoever. I had, therefore, no prior expectations with regard to his personality or the questions he would ask me.

Nevertheless, I had imagined that he would show a little concern about the sad events that had taken place earlier in the morning. I did not expect him to apologise for what he had done, because he in no way appeared to be unhappy about the new power and attention which he was receiving as a result of his present position. But I had expected that he would begin by justifying the killings somehow, and offering explanations as to how or why the dead leaders had to lose their lives. After all, no matter his feelings against them, they were statesmen who had once led the country and the people. Human decency and reason demanded that they should be treated with respect for their past services, especially because they had died holding their offices. One did not murder one’s national figures and dismiss the incident casually, whatever their fault.

Besides, I thought it was disappointing that the organizers of the military coup were only now trying to put together the reason for their action. I had never known anyone to have imported weapons into the country illegally, least of all the Sardauna. I therefore felt I had to seek further information from Nzeogwu himself before I could answer him. He explained that he heard we had bought many weapons from the Middle East, which we planned to use to wage Jihad against non-Muslims in Nigeria. That was why he now wanted to know where we kept them, he said.

In my prompt response, I told him about my ignorance in this regard. As far as I was aware, no such plans had ever been considered by any Islamic group in this country. I spoke with authority because I was the closest adviser to the Sardauna on religious matters, and at no time did he visit the Islamic countries in the Middle East without me since I became Grand Khadi. I had never known him to have discussed war in Nigeria, much less purchase weapons.

This prompted Nzeogwu to take me to task concerning my own appointment. He could not understand, he said, why there had to be a separate court for Muslims outside the country’s judicial system. After all, Muslims were also Nigerians, and must, therefore submit to the law of the land like everyone else. ‘As for Grand Khadi, of what use is he, since there is already the Chief Justice?’ he concluded.

Well,’ I answered, ‘Islam is not like Christianity or the other religions you know. In Islam, there are very specific laws in respect of all social matters which must be observed correctly. They include those concerning marriage, divorce, rights to offspring and inheritance. In this regard, only an Islamic court, with a judge versed in the science of the Quran and the Prophet’s traditions, could proper administer justice on a disputing Muslim couple or their inheritors. As for my position, it is only a natural complement to the Area Courts. The appeals that come to me cannot be handled by the Chief Justice because he has no knowledge of Islamic Law.

With this main subject of the short meeting seemed to have been settled. It became established that in the midnight attack on the Premier’s residence many others had been killed….During the week the Prime Minister (Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa) was found dead in the outskirts of Lagos…..others killed included Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, Col. Kur Muhammad, Lt-Colonel Abogo Largema, Lt-Colonel Yakubu Pam. Similarly, the Premier of the Western Nigeria, the Minister of Finance, the Commander of the 1s t Brigade, Kaduna all lost their lives.

Gradually, more details about the military coup became public and at the same time the real motives of the coup planners began to appear. It was immediately apparent that Igbo Christian officers were the leaders and all the killings followed a set pattern. Only the Muslims and those who were considered as their friends were assassinated. The Prime Minister (a Muslim) was killed, but the President (an Igbo Christian) was skillfully sent out of the country. His farewell words to the Prime Minister, as I heard later, were, “I see you on 15 January.”

Pictures of the dead Sardauna against the background of his burning house were immediately put on display, along with those of Nzeogwu giving the heroic account of how he broke into the house and shot him, amidst the wailings of the women and children. These pictures were used by many Igbo leaders and traders and elsewhere in the North to taunt the local people, as evidence that the Sardauna was dead and the North had been defeated. Suddenly, the massacres of the Muslim leaders and politicians was turned into a revolution, with the most glowing tributes being showered on the assassins. In the South in general there was outright jubilation in most urban centres, which echoed in their papers. Hardly any newspaper lamented the killings, in fact some saw it as progressive political move. Many editorials were unrepentant, as though the killings were most natural solution to whatever problems the country had.

-Sheikh Abubakar Mahmoud Gummi in his book; ‘Where I Stand’, (1992). Pg 112, 113, 114, 115,116,117,118.

Credit: Igho Hakeem Ohwojeheri


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