Today (July 29, 2021) is the 55th anniversary of the assassination of the first military ruler of Nigeria, Major-General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi. He was killed in Ibadan by mutinous soldiers who kidnapped him along with the first military Governor of the defunct Western Region, Lieutenant Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi.
What I find still surprising till today was the ease with which the mutineers were able to reach their targets. Not a single shot was fired by those who were there to protect the Supreme Commander.
No one thought of resisting the breach of the battlement and in the end, the Supreme Commander and his host were taken away to their death.
Some years ago, I had participated in honouring Fajuyi and a memorial was erected for him and Ironsi in Lalupon, a village near Ibadan, where his body and that of Ironsi were found. I also contributed to a book, The Road to Lalupon, edited by Professor Akinyemi Onigbinde, then of the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye in Ogun State.
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Apparently, after the mutineers kidnapped Ironsi and Fajuyi, they took them into the bush many kilometres away from the Government House. They forced them to march through the bush until they got to the bank of a stream where the prisoners were shot. Villagers, hearing the report of the gunshots, came to verify and they saw two lifeless bodies, stripped to their torso.
For four days, Nigeria had no government. The mutineers, faced with the enormity of their crimes, wanted a break-up of Nigeria. The mutineers were mostly northern officers, aggrieved by the mindless killings of mostly northern senior officers during the first coup that brought General Ironsi to power. Now they were calling for Araba! They wanted the Northern Region to become an independent country! It was a truly trying period for Nigeria. The worst was yet to come, however.
By August 1, 1966, the mutineers were able to agree on the choice of Ironsi’s Chief of Staff, Army, (like the military secretary now, not the Chief of Army Staff), Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Jack Gowon, who was the most senior northerner to have survived the first coup, as the new Head of State. It was a controversial choice for there were many officers who were far senior to him. Lt. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Ironsi’s Military Governor for the Eastern Region, was to say later: “Militarily, Gowon is not my superior.”
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In the West, the assassination of Fajuyi came as a shock. His coming had brought peace to a ravaged region that was virtually experiencing a civil war before the coup of January 1966. Unlike in the North, the coup was popular with the generality of the people, except in some quarters where his supporters were sad over the assassination of the controversial premier, Chief Ladoke Akintola, the last Premier of the defunct Western Region.
Fajuyi had brought to the Supreme Military Council the letter of Chief Obafemi Awolowo asking for unconditional pardon for himself and his followers. Awolowo, leader of the Action Group, AG, was serving a term in prison along with some of his top lieutenants for treasonable felony. Fajuyi wanted these prisoners pardoned. Ironsi agreed, but he vacillated considering the advice of the then Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Louis Edet, who claimed that Awolowo may have known about the first coup that topples the First Republic.
With the kidnapping of Fajuyi, Yoruba elites in Lagos starting meeting in a house in Ikoyi. They said the Northerners were talking of Araba and that Yorubaland should not be left fallow. It was this meeting that invited Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo, who was Chief of Staff Army before, Gowon. He just returned then from an overseas military course. He was persuaded to go to Ibadan and take over there pending when the fate of Fajuyi will be certain. Adebayo made consultations with fellow Yoruba military officers and proceeded to Ibadan. When Gowon finally got the rein of power, he agreed that it was right for Adebayo to remain the Governor of the West.
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Adebayo was only one of two of Gowon’s 12 governors that were not directly appointed by him. The other was Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia. In 1967, the Biafran Army invaded the Mid-West Region and the then Military Governor, Colonel David Ejoor, escaped to Lagos. Federal troops, led by Colonel Murtala Muhammed, were able to sweep back the Biafran forces.
After the liberation of Benin, Colonel Muhammed appointed Ogbemudia as the acting Governor in place of Ejoor. Gowon later ratified the appointment and Ejoor was given another job at the Defence Headquarters.
When Gowon came to power, he and his team were thinking of military rule ending in 1969 or latest by 1970. He believed his government was temporary, to hold the fort until the nation can settle down for another experiment in democracy. We are still waiting for the autobiography of General Yakubu Gowon to explain some of the convoluted events of those days when Nigeria drifted into a Civil War. General Adebayo, in series of encounters I had with him, believed that the Civil War was not inevitable and that the war came about because of reckless bluffing and needless brinkmanship. Now our country is facing a different kind of crisis. There is no Civil War yet; only an absence of peace.
Those who made easy picking of General Ironsi learnt their lessons from his mistakes. When Gowon became Head of State, he did not live in the salubrious official residence once occupied by President Nnamdi Azikiwe and later Ironsi. He decided to live in Doddan Barracks, the old official residence of the Minister of Defence. It was a well-appointed battlement suitable for the head of a military government at war. And when he moves out in his frequent trip to the airport, he travels like Napoleon. The convoys were always long and intimidating.
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Therefore, when the military decided it was time for Gowon to go, the veteran of the second coup knew he would not be an easy picking. The entire Brigade of Guards under the command of Brigadier Joseph Naven Garba, was dedicated entirely to the protection of the Head of State. The only way to avert bloodshed was to make Garba part of the plot. They did and Gowon fell in a bloodless coup on July 29, 1975.
When Gowon fell, he became the first Nigerian ruler to leave his office alive. Before him, that office had demanded human sacrifice from its tenant. Therefore, Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa was killed. His successor was killed but Gowon escaped a similar fate. However, he did not end the jinx of that office.
His successor, General Murtala Muhammed was also to die in office when he was assassinated during the abortive coup of February 13, 1976. The man who broke the jinx was General Olusegun Obasanjo who succeeded Muhammed and survived to hand over power to elected President Shehu Shagari in 1979.
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Lets hope that our leaders would be willing to interrogate our history and be conscious of the enormous sacrifices the leaders of the past have made. Ironsi and Fajuyi were victims of our convoluted history. People are ready to construct any lies against leaders and when the lies take on lives of their own, they become vengeful spirits claiming lives.
It is good that the vengeful spirit has been kept at bay since Muhammed was killed in 1976. Since then, all leaders who have left, have departed in peace. This generation of leaders is luckier than those of the past, but we should not take our luck for granted.
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