When Best Friends become Strangers: The IBB-Vatsa Conspiracy

IBB

Paranoia was always an issue among top military leaders across Africa. They always felt someone within ranks was gunning for their position. For this reason, they always tried to stay ahead and keep themselves updated on what their colleagues and subordinates were up to. One person that had the skills and the manpower to do this was General Ibrahim Babangida (IBB).

Before becoming the President of Nigeria, he was involved in plotting every successful coup in the country since July 1966. As an instructor at the NDA, he also won the hearts of so many young officers in the army with his charisma. They admired him and looked up to him. Therefore, it was not strange that they were willing to fight for him, watch his back, and be on his good side. They also kept him updated on the rumours and conspiracies within the army. One conspiracy had his friend Gen. Mamman Vatsa as a major player. This led to what became known as the Vatsa coup.

Who was Mamman Vatsa?

General Mamman Vatsa was born in Niger state on December 3, 1940. He attended Government Secondary School, Bida, Niger State, with fellow Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalam Abubakar. He enlisted in the army in 1962 and trained at the Nigerian Military training college, and the India Military Academy. Gen. Vatsa commanded the 21 Battalion during the Nigerian civil war. He proceeded to become an instructor at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Kaduna. Vatsa also commanded the 30 infantry Brigade (Ogoja) until July 1975. He was also one of the first to go on radio to denounce the February 13th military coup plot which led to the death of Gen. Murtala Mohammed. He ended up being the secretary of the Obada panel.  Outside his military career, Gen. Vatsa was also a writer and a poet with different literary works to his name.

Vatsa’s History with Babangida

Both Vatsa and IBB were from Niger state. They attended the same secondary school and joined the military around the same time. At IBB’s wedding, Vatsa was the best man. They continued their careers together while their families became close. IBB however stated that he and Vatsa had always competed for things growing up and it was usually a healthy kind of competition that spurred them to do better. Therefore, since he had made it to the highest office in the land, he had every reason to believe that Vatsa would harbour some jealousy toward him. 

IBB
Gen. Mamman Vatsa

Vatsa’s wife (Late Sufiya) spoke of her husband’s relationship with IBB in a NewsWatch interview in 2006. “When we got married, I thought IBB and my husband were of the same family. The two wore the same size of dress and pair of shoes. IBB would drop his dirty wears in our house and put on my husband’s. When IBB travelled out, for further military training my husband took care of Mariam and her children. General Vatsa, also bought Babangida and Maryam’s first set of furniture from Leventis on hire purchase. She further said, “IBB was also my husband’s best man during our wedding. Whenever Maryam’s Mercedes car broke down, she used to drive my Peugeot 404. We were close.”

The Alleged Coup

When General Ibrahim Babangida assumed office, a lot of people welcomed him due to his charisma. He received a lot of goodwill from the Nigerian populace. Not long after his assumption to office in 1985, rumours began to swell of an impending coup in the works. These rumours finally gathered steam in December 1985. Over 100 officers across the Air force, Army and Navy were arrested and questioned in relation to the coup.

General Mamman Vatsa was listed as a major conspirator in the coup. He heard the rumours pointing to him and approached Babangida, his best friend to get more clarity. He asked Babangida, “So you heard I was planning a coup and you didn’t approach me to find out if it is true?” Babangida replied to him by asking “Are you planning a coup?” Which he denied doing. Things quieted for about a week. However, some days before the Christmas holiday, soldiers arrested Mamman Vatsa in his Ikoyi residence. They detained him for a while in an unknown location. His family was also denied from having contact with him.

Babangida asked the army to treat Vatsa with respect due to the fact that he was a general and his friend. They placed him under house arrest. However, while in protective custody something tricky happened. He tried to escape through the AC vault. After this, the military believed Vatsa was a major part of the conspiracy and they proceeded with the trial.

The Trial

The alleged coup had other major players such as Lt.-Cols. Musa Bitiyong, Christian A. Oche, Micheal A Iyorshe, M. Effiong; Majors D.I Bamidele, D.E. West, J.O Onyeke and Tobias G Akwashik. The tribunal accused them of holding two meetings. One in Lagos and the other in Makurdi. No one really knew the nature of these meetings. However, there were rumours that the meetings were in relation to the coup.

IBB and Vatsa in a picture with other military officers including Gen. Buhari

The military tribunal used two charges to place Vatsa at the centre of the conspiracy. His major crime was giving, Lt. Bitiyong the sum of 10,000 naira under the guise of a farm loan. The tribunal believed this money played a role in financing the coup. Furthermore, the tribunal accused him of issuing certificates of occupancy to various military officers in his capacity as the FCT Minister. They pointed out that the sudden speed by which the certificates of occupancy were issued was so that Vatsa could buy favour and loyalty from his fellow military men when he needed it most.

Vatsa’s Defence

In his defence, Vatsa explained that Bityoung approached him for a loan to develop his farm and that was the reason for giving him the sum of 10,000 naira. He also said that 10,000 naira was too small to finance a coup of that nature. On the issue of giving out certificates of occupancy to various senior and mid-level officers, he said there were a lot of pending certificates that needed to be issued. Therefore, he decided to do his job accurately by speeding up the process. It was also strange to accuse Vatsa of planning such a major coup because he did not control any major army unit. His capacity as Minister of FCT made him a civil servant.

Vatsa never attended any meeting with the other conspirators. Therefore, the tribunal decided to use the 10,000-naira loan given to Bityoung as evidence.  The tribunal painted him as the main financier of the coup. To buttress their point, they also alleged that Vatsa urged the previous head of state (Gen. Buhari) to remove Babangida as the Chief of Army staff because he couldn’t be trusted.

Execution

Vatsa along with 13 others were found guilty of the conspiracy to commit treason. The punishment for this under the military law is death. They were all transferred to the kirikiri maximum security prison to await execution. While they awaited their fate, fellow writers and poets, Wole Soyinka, J.P Clark and Chinua Achebe went to Dodan Barracks to plead with Babangida concerning Vatsa. Babangida agreed to handle it right and show mercy.

IBB
Fellow writers, J.P Clark, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka after meeting with Gen. Babangida concerning Vatsa

No one really knows what happened in the Armed Forces ruling council meeting that day and into the night but Vatsa along with 10 others were executed. General Domkat Bali, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs briefed the press on their execution the following afternoon.

Vatsa requested for his wristwatch and wedding ring to be given to his wife Sufiya before his execution. Unfortunately, she said when they brought the ring to her, it wasn’t the one belonging to her husband. 

Aftermath

The alleged coup plot by Mamman Vatsa and the other conspirators sent a major message across the military. Anyone who attempts to plot a coup whether successfully or unsuccessfully will be met with death.

There were also rumours that Babangida had the intention of sparing Vatsa. Unfortunately, he had a lot of scores to settle with a lot of officers, especially those from the Plateau region. General Vatsa was the secretary of the Obada panel that tried Colonel Dimka and other officers from the Plateau region for the assassination of General Murtala Mohammed. At that time, it seemed many of the officers who were executed for that coup were executed because they were from Plateau state. Most of these officers believed the present conspirators should receive the same treatment.

General Domkat Bali however pointed out many years later in an interview with The News Magazine, that Vatsa shouldn’t have been executed. He said that the evidence at that time wasn’t substantial enough to warrant his execution but his hands were tied and he couldn’t really speak up.

General Babangida on the other hand felt it was unfortunate that Vatsa died the way he did but he insists Vatsa must have been guilty. In a ThisDay interview on December 6, 2001, He claimed he wanted Vatsa on house arrest. So if he wasn’t guilty, why did he try to escape through the AC vault? He also said that General TY Danjuma had pointed out the similarities between him and Vatsa and how they always went after the same thing, right from their young military days. He, therefore, maintained that knowing who Vatsa is, he could’ve planned a coup even from prison. (Rawlings did it during that time)

Vatsa’s family never got his remains and were never able to pay their final respects to their father.

Last modified: June 9, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *