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Banjo, the accidental Biafran By Dare Babarinsa (ECHOES OF 1967 CIVIL WAR YOU MUST READ)

The arrest and trial of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the outlawed IPOB, is going to dominate the news for many months to come. The trial promises to be a cause celebre, one of those rare cases in which politics, criminality and sensation are mixed with high drama. It is indeed a fitting irony that Kanu, despite his frenzied rhetoric, including referring to his country as a zoo, he was still sober enough to carry a Nigerian passport.

We look forward to many more sting operations that would bring to justice leaders of Boko Haram terrorist group and other outlaw organisations.

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Many of the young supporters of Kanu roaming the streets of Igboland, believe that they are campaigning for the rebirth of the ill-fated state of Biafra.

They think that the last Biafra War has ended. It has not. The last Biafran War cannot and would not be truly concluded until the leaders of the Igbos decide to return the body of Colonel Victor Banjo to Yorubaland. Banjo was an accidental Biafran. He died for Biafra.

Banjo was executed on September 22, 1967 at the end of a secret trial ordered by Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Head of State of Biafra. He was 37. Banjo’s dark end was the sorry denouement of a brilliant career in the Nigerian Army. Those executed with him were Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Phillip Alale and Sam Agbam.

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Banjo was at the centre of a web of events that climaxed in the Biafran invasion of then Mid-West State (formerly Mid-West Region and later known as Bendel State and now divided into Edo and Delta states).

Ojukwu, the Head of State of the Republic of Biafra, had asked Banjo to lead the invasion as the commander of the Biafran 101st Division. The invasion ended badly and that may have been what earned Banjo his death sentence.

By 1966, Banjo was one of the few Yoruba officers in the Nigerian Army, which was then dominated by soldiers from the North and officers from the East. After the first coup of January 15, 1966, Major-General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, became Nigerian first military Head of State and the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces. He decided to work with younger officers of the rank of lieutenant colonels whom he appointed as military governors. That action might have been due to the fact that all the senior officers of Northern Nigerian origin have been killed in the first coup.

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The lone survivor was Lt Colonel Yakubu Gowon whom Ironsi quickly appointed the Chief of Army, a position that was vacated by Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo who had now gone on an overseas course.

All the surviving colonels and senior Lieutenant Colonels were retained in the Defence Headquarters in Lagos to work with Ironsi. Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, the most senior officer, became Ironsi’s deputy. Colonel Shittu Alao moved to the fledgling air force. Banjo had earlier been appointed as the first Nigerian commander of the Engineering Corps of the Nigerian Army. That appointment was to be his passport to hell.

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On January 17, 1966, two days after Ironsi came to power, Banjo was invited to State House Marina, ostensibly, to meet the new ruler. There he was seized by soldiers, led by Lt. Colonel George Kurobo and Major P.A Anwuna and detained at the Army Officers Mess. He had told his wife and children that he was going to work. He never returned.

For some days, he was kept in the comfortable environment of the Army Officers Mess. Then he was transferred to the Kirikiri Maximum Security Prison, Apapa. Banjo felt he had been unfairly treated and he petitioned Ironsi. Ironsi ignored him. Then on July 29, 1966, Ironsi was in Ibadan for a meeting with traditional rulers across the country. After the meeting, Ironsi retired to the Government House, where his host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the young military Governor of the West, treated him to a lavish dinner. That night a group of coup makers, stormed the Government House and kidnapped both Ironsi and Fajuyi.

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For three days, Nigeria had no government. Then on August 1, 1966, Lt. Colonel Yakubu Jack Gowon, a lanky bachelor of 32, was announced as the new Head of State. Banjo was happy with the development. Gowon was his friend and old mate. He believed he would soon be out of prison. He was wrong. He petitioned Gowon for his freedom, but Gowon ignored him also. Instead, he was moved from Kirikiri Prison to a prison in Eastern Nigeria. When Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria as the independent Republic of Biafra, he ordered the release of Banjo and made him the General Officer Commanding a Biafran army division.

At the beginning of hostilities, the West and the Mid-West had tried to maintain some neutrality, not allowing troops to be deployed from their territory against Biafra.

However, Ojukwu ordered a blitzkrieg against the Mid-West and within 24 hours almost the entire region was occupied. The invasion was led by Colonel Banjo.

The mission of Banjo however was beyond Mid-West. He was to lead the Biafran invasion of the West and Lagos and proclaim the independence of Western Nigeria from the Federation. The success of that invasion was to cause serious rift between Ojukwu and his old friend Banjo. Banjo objected seriously to the appointment of an Igbo man, Lt. Colonel Albert Okonkwo, as the Military Governor of the new Republic of Benin. Banjo felt a soldier of Mid-West origin should have been appointed. Ojukwu disagreed.

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In his letter to Banjo, dated August 22, 1967, Ojukwu had made it clear that he intended to hold on to all the aces. Three points in the letter were especially disagreeable to Banjo:

1.You will have nothing to do with the Military Administrator of the Mid-West territory during your sojourn there prior to your move to the West.

2.During the period of Biafran’s troops presence in your territory, all political measures, statements or decrees, shall be subject to the approval, in writing by myself or on my authority.

3. Should our troops arrive and liberate Lagos, the government of the Republic of Biafra reserves the right to appoint a military administrator for the territory.

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Ojukwu promised that Banjo would be proclaimed the military governor of the new Republic of Western Nigeria. Banjo believed that such a governor should be a partner and not a subordinate to the Head of State of Biafra. Ojukwu disagreed. Of course, Banjo would not concur that Ojukwu should appoint a military administrator for Lagos. He regarded Lagos as part of the West.

The disagreement between the two men was protracted and ultimately costly. Ojukwu insisted on having his way and in the end Colonel Okonkwo was made the Head of State of the new Republic of Benin. The delay in Benin allowed Gowon to rally Federal troops and Colonel Murtala Muhammed led the Second Division to confront Biafran forces at Ore, Ondo State. They were joined by troops from the Ibadan Garrison Command (IGC), led by Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo. The Biafrans were routed and the new Republic of Benin was quickly buried.

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It is time for Igbo leaders to identify where Banjo was buried and return his body for proper burial in the land of his ancestors. Despite the travails and tragedies that befell him, Banjo stood for principles that only heroes could have espoused in the face of serious personal peril. No true lover of freedom would agree to all those conditions that Ojukwu tried to impose on Banjo.

Rather than the lion to carry the hunting bag of the tiger, let each hunter hunt alone.

First Published in The Guardian

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