Once upon a July morning
In my father’s household, the Nigerian Civil War was a daily presence. This was because my eldest brother, Adeyinka, was at the war front. He had joined the army in 1960 after he left Okemesi Grammar School, Okemesi-Ekiti. He served in the Congo in the first United Nations Peace Keeping Operation involving Nigerian troops under the leadership of Brigadier Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi. When the Civil War broke out in 1967, he was one of the first solders at the war front. One night at about 10 p.m., the soldiers were ordered to the parade ground at the Cantonment in Ikeja, Lagos, kitted and drafted to war.
My grandmother, Oserin, sensed her grandson was in danger. Regularly at dawn, she would stand on her husband orori, (the burial place) invoking the panegyrics of our ancestors, asking Babarinsa, the son of Awowemimo, not to rest in the land of the dead but to come quickly and lead his grandson back home. One day in late 1967, Adeyinka’s shadow darkened the doorway and the household exploded in celebration. He wore his officer’s uniform proudly, with the 2nd lieutenant pips. There was a deep gash on his handsome face. He had been shot in the head at the thick of battle.
In 1969 when I entered secondary school, I stayed with my brother at his apartment at 131 Battalion, Iwo Road, Ibadan. (The battalion was later moved to Osogbo). Our world, we the barracks boys, was crowded with soldiers and news of war, of heroism and of death. When we heard the trumpet blowing the last post, we knew some bodies have been brought from the war front and the barracks will be shrouded with the somber blanket of mourning. Some of the soldiers would go to the mummy market and get themselves drunk into forgetfulness not knowing whose body would be carried home next.
There were many officers at the Ibadan command headquarters. It was originally called Ibadan Garrison Organisation, IGO, and later, 2nd Rear Division under the command of Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo and later Colonel Oluwole Rotimi and Colonel James Oluleye. We knew many of those officers; Akinrinade, Elegbede, Makanjuola, Titcombe, Sam Silla, Fagbure, Adebowale, Jemibewon, Ayo-Ariyo, Olutoye, Oni, Laoye, Ejoor, Bajowa and many others. They were then mostly captains, majors and lieutenant colonels.
Occasionally, I still run into some of these old soldiers, my brother’s colleagues, many of them in their seventies or early eighties, struggling to stand erect as if ready to take the next salute. They were the veterans of the Civil War and their sacrifices saved Nigeria from joining the league of dead nations.
Adeyinka believed that the Civil War actually started in Ibadan when Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the Supreme Commander and his host, Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the Governor of Western Region, were killed July 29, 1966. We used to go to the Army Officers Mess, Bodija, Ibadan, the last place where Fajuyi and Ironsi had their last public outing. On July 28, 1966, Ironsi had met with traditional rulers, including Oba Adesoji Aderemi, then the Ooni of Ife and Alhaji Abubakar Siddiq, the Sultan of Sokoto, to discuss the state of the nation and the spasm of violence in the North especially against members of the Igbo ethnic group.
That night, the Supreme Commander had retreated to the Governor’s Lodge, a walking distance from the Officers Mess, to spend the night. At about 2 a.m. Ironsi was woken up by his aide de camp, bringing bad news. Agents of death were at the Government House. Ironsi and Fajuyi were brought downstairs and they confronted a group of rough soldiers led by a young captain and a few other officers. The premises were surrounded by soldiers from the Abeokuta cantonment and Mokola Barracks, Ibadan, and the presidential guards have been disarmed and replaced. Fajuyi was given the option of staying away, but he declined. Attempts by Ironsi to bluff his way were fruitless and the soldiers descended on the two senior officers, beating them severely. They were then taken into the back of a Land Rover Jeep, driven roughly into the jungle and shot close to a river at Lalupon.
The killing of Ironsi and Fajuyi 50 years ago was the climax of the Revenge Coup that brought General Yakubu Gowon to power. About seven months earlier, January 15, 1966, a group of mutinous soldiers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, staged Nigeria’s first ever coup. In the aftermath of the coup, four of the country’s top political leaders were killed: Prime-Minister Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the North, Ladoke Akintola, the Premier of the West and Festus Okotie-Eboh, the Minister of Finance. The Premier of the East, Michael Okpara and the Premier of the Mid-West, Dennis Osadebey, were spared by the mutineers.
The mutineers also descended on many of their superiors in the army: Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun who was killed along with his wife, Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, Kur Muhammed, Colonel Ralph Shodehinde, Colonel Kur Mohammed, and Colonel Abago Largema and some others. Ironsi escaped the mutineers and when he assumed power he made Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon, the most senior surviving Northern officer, the Chief of Staff, Army, above more senior officers like Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo and Colonel George Kurobo. That night when Ironsi was in distress Ibadan, it was Gowon he tried to reach on the phone but all to no avail. The following day, a stunned nation was told that the Head of State was missing along with the Governor of the West.
Many weeks later, grim faced military men brought Adekunle Fajuyi home to Ado-Ekiti for burial. The team included Colonel Adebayo, who was named as military governor of Western State by the new military ruler, Rear Admiral Akinwale Wey, Commodore Sorro, Alhaji Kam Salem, the Inspector-General of Police, his deputy, Chief Theophillous Fagbola and many others. Fajuyi parents were alive to witness the greatest tragedy of their lives. In the almanac in our house at Okemesi-Ekiti, they look seriously grim. A similar team took the body of General Ironsi to Umuahia where he was given a state burial.
Some months after the burial, Ojukwu’s agents hijacked a Nigerian Airways plane flying from Benin and diverted it to Enugu. In response, the Nigerian military constituted a secret squad to follow every flight. My brother, Adeyinka, was a member of that squad. No other hijacking took place. On May 30, 1967, the Nigerian Civil War began in earnest.
The Civil War was fought with uncivil ferocity. Thirty months later and with one million lives lost, most of them women and children, Ojukwu fled into exile in 1970. Ademola Oyinlola, my colleague in TELL, met him at his Villaska Lodge, Ikoyi, Lagos around 1995 after the exile years had become old story. Bianca, his young wife, was with him. Ojukwu was in a voluble mood, but when the talk touched the Biafran Story, especially his flight, he said curtly: “Wait for my book.”
We wanted to know what happened to the money in the Biafran Central Bank and the foreign reserves of the ill-fated republic. Ojukwu was tight-lipped. Charles Ugoh, the governor of the Central Bank of Biafra, has never made any pronouncement on this. Ojukwu is dead now and we are still waiting for his memoir to be published.
We fought the war obviously because the sacrifice of Ironsi and Fajuyi that July morning was not enough to appease the god of vengeance. Many more soldiers and civilians were to die in subsequent coups and social upheavals. Even now we are yet to learn about the futility of violence and some youths, reared in the headiness of the post-war era are still ensnared by the eloquence of violence. We have to learn how to talk to ourselves instead of shouting at each other.
We need to evaluate and appreciate the meaning of sacrifices like those of Ironsi and Fajuyi. I don’t know what has been happening to the mausoleum of Ironsi. In Ado-Ekiti, however, Fajuyi is treated as a national treasure, a hero of biblical stature who sacrificed his life to save the Yoruba nation from odium, especially from Ironsi’s Igbo kinsmen by insisting that if Ironsi must die, then he was ready to die with him. Today the Fajuyi Cenotaph is a busy place where beer sellers, peddlers of goods of dubious usage and enterprising Igbo youths selling rags from Europe and South-East Asia and pirated CDs from China have found a good haven. The Ekiti State government is building a new multi-billion naira flyover to over look the place. Imagine the Lincoln Mausoleum in Washington DC, in the United States being overhung with a concrete fly over. For the Americans, that would be the ultimate desecration. But this is Ekiti of 2016. Once upon a time, Ekiti was the Fountain of Knowledge and the intellectual power-house of the Yoruba nation. Today desecration is now the rule.
When Fajuyi was young, Osun, the river goddess, was worshipped in Ekiti as a deity for fertility. So also was the goddess of the Oba River at Iwo where she is still worshipped today as the goddess of fertility. It was at Iwo that the two rivers, Osun and Oba, joined in their eternal movement to the sea. That was where the government of Chief Ladoke Akintola was building a giant dam to supply water for the people of Ibadan. It was called Asejire (Two have become friends) Dam. Few days before he received his Supreme Commander in Ibadan, Fajuyi travelled to Iwo to commission the new Asejire Dam. The irony was lost on him that like the two rivers, Osun and Oba, he and Ironsi would soon embark on an eternal journey from which they can never be separated.