In this retro series, Naij.com looks at the historical circumstances 50 years ago that led to the death of Lt Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, the military governor of the western region in 1966.
The idea of Biafra did not begin with a declaration of an independent state by Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu on May 30, 1967, but started shortly after Nigeria’s first coup of January 15, 1966 and Fajuyi became of its first uncelebrated heroes.
The January 1966 coup was tagged an Igbo coup because it was spearheaded by an Igbo soldier, Kaduna Nzeogwu and resulted in the death of jajor northern personalities including the Sardauna of Sokoto who was also the premier of northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello and notably the assassination of Sir Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria.
The fact that the then president of the country, Nnamdi Azikiwe (Igbo) and the Senate president who was serving as acting president, Nwafor Orizu (igbo) were not killed further cemented the claim that it was an Igbo coup carried out to wipe out northern leadership from the country. The consequence was disastrous.
Major General Aguiyi Ironsi took over power on January 16 and even though he was the general officer commanding, Nigerian army, his rise to the position of the head of state increased the assumption that his Igbo heritage not only spared his life but also propelled him to the position of head of state.
Northern soldiers did not find it amusing.
Although the perpetrators of the coup had been arrested, the fact that they had not faced serious punishment for their action did not go down well with the north. It was even reported that they were still receiving payment from the military. This led to growing tension between the north and the south and the head of state, Ironsi was doing a bad job in keeping the country as one coupled with the fact that he was allegedly filling important positions with Igbo officers
Reports started to emerge that Ironsi was on a mission to elevate the Ibos at the expense of the rest of the country. Although he had appointed Lt Colonels Ojukwu, Fajuyi, David Ejoor and Hassan Katsina as military governors of Eastern, Western, Mid-western and Northern regions respectively, he still faced criticism for other appointments which were largely considered to be dominated by military officers from the east.
The introduction of the unitary system of government further made Ironsi an unpopular figure as it abolished the federal/regional system of government in place. The Decree Number 34 of 1966, which abrogated the federal system of government and substituted with a unitary one, was suspected to be a means of killing the northern sentimental perception of viewing Nigeria. Although his move was expected to unify a country torn along religious and tribal divide, it caused more problems because the north felt Ironsi was creating a Nigeria that had taken away power from the region to the central whi he himself dominated.
According to Law Mefor, “Ironsi suspended the subsisting 1963 Republican Constitution and replaced it with series of decrees, most notable being the Unification Decree, which proclaimed Nigeria a unitary state, changed her name from Federal Republic of Nigeria, to Republic of Nigeria, reversed fiscal federalism, unified the Civil Service, the Police and several other aspects of federalism were taken over by the central government.” This marked the end of true federalism in Nigeria and made the central richer, more powerful and the hub of vital decision making.
The introduction of the unitary system gave way to the anti-Igbo pogrom which began in May 1966. Igbos became target for massacres in the northern part of the county as a manner of revenge against the January 1966 coup. Thousands of Igbos lost their lives while many in the north began an exodus to the south in a move that signalled the beginning of Biafra. Igbos were perceived as the enemies of the country and to them, they were the target of the rest of Nigeria. Biafra was more of a call to survival away from the carnage happening against them perpetuated by the rest of the country.
The coup against Ironsi was fast becoming imminent and soon became a matter of when and where. This was carried out in July 29 1966 by northern coup plotters led by Theopjilus Danjuma and Murtala Muhammed.
On that fateful day, Fajuyi was playing host to the head of state who was on a tour of the country and had come to address traditional rulers at the government house in Ibadan. Danjuma led soldiers to the house of the governor of the south west and ordered the arrest of Ironsi. They berated his lackluster attitutude towards the death of the eminent northerners killed during the first coup.
In an act of military valour, Fajuyi although Yoruba could not stand the arrest of his Igbo superior and said he would not sit back as a host while his guest was being led away. The duo was rounded up and led into a land Rover. Although the details after the arrests were sketchy, it was reported that they drove to Iwo road and stopped by a bush by the side of the road where the two were eventually shot to death.
The decision by Fajuyi to die with Ironsi at a time when Igbos were viewed with resentment made an impact on Ojukwu who later asked Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe (Yoruba) who was the then chief of staff to take charge of the country and even assured him that he would make a broadcast 30 minutes after to show his support but he was unable to do this as the northern dominated military refused to take order from a southern Christian soldier even though he was the most senior officer. Ogundipe was forced to accept Yakubu Gowon who was his junior as the head of state.
Although Fajuyi was long gone before the declaration of Biafra a year after, his decision to stand by an Igbo soldier and die with him at a time they were targeted in the country earned him utmost respect from Ojukwu and the rest of Igbo people.
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