(Any reader of my recent posts on this site may ask why I am stuck on Nigerian History, especially of a period most of us know nothing about or would rather not study. My answer is simple: we have no choice but to face the reality of our being as a country , as part of a state literally fighting for its breath. Also, I want to take History out of the fusty, acada-clogged cloisters of our gray-bearded profs. History can be hip without sacrificing the facts. Check out Max Sillioun’s history books; they rival anything Tom Clancy wrote.
God willing, I will be here with an eBook that wrestles with aspects of our history. For now read the brief bio of Emmanuel Ifeajuna, the hero or villain of January 15 1966 and see the forge in which he was forged)
Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna, to give him his full name, was one of the most colourful and controversial figures of the early years of Nigeria’s post-colonial history.
He burst onto national and international limelight when he won the gold medal for high jump at the 1954 British Empire Games (as the Commonwealth Games was then known) in Vancouver, Canada. For this feat which got Nigeria her first gold medal in any individual sporting event, he was nicknamed ‘Emma Vancouver’ in Nigeria.
On January 15 1966, along with a group of other army officers, Ifeajuna, now a Major, carried out Nigeria’s first coup, a bloody affair that ended the country’s first democratic experiment. That coup was the first in a chain of events that culminated in the Nigerian civil war following the secession of Ifeajuna’s home region, Eastern Nigeria, to form the Republic of Biafra. Ifeajuna joined the Biafran Army, participated actively in the failed Biafran invasion of the Mid-Western Region, and was shot for alleged sabotage and coup-making against Biafra on 25 September 1967. (Many accounts cite 22 September). He was in his thirties when he died.
So who was Ifeajuna?
THE BEGINNING OF THE JOURNEY
Ifeajuna came from Onitsha, the popular commercial town in present-day Anambra State in the heart of Igboland in Eastern Nigeria. Onitsha bestrides the eastern banks of the River Niger and was well known for commerce even in the pre-colonial period. The town is one of the few Igbo entities that boast of monarchies that were not created by the British colonial masters. Onitsha has historical and mythological links with the great Benin kingdom on the other side of the Niger; its mythical first Obi or king, Chima, is said to be a son of a Benin monarch who left to find a new kingdom after quarrelling with his father.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, Onitsha was a well planned town, not the crowded trading slum of the 1980s-date. Ifeajuna came from a middle-class Christian family. According to late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu who knew him well, Ifeajuna’s uncle was a nursing superintendent who was usually called upon to provide quick medical assistance to the Ojukwu family before more serious attention was sought.1. If we can recollect that Ojukwu’s father, Sir Louis Philippe, was one of Nigeria’s wealthiest and influential businessmen within this period, it will give us an idea of the type of circles the Ifeajuna household moved in.
Emmanuel Ifeajuna had his secondary education at Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, where he made his mark in much more than sports.
DMGS STARTED IT ALL.
Dennis Memorial Grammar School is one of the leading mission secondary schools in Eastern Nigeria. It was founded by the Anglican Church (Church Missionary Society) in 1925.2. Ifeajuna belonged to the 1947 set. At this secondary school Ifeajuna’s academic and sporting abilities were harnessed. His contemporaries at DMGS include Benedict Obumselu, one of Nigeria’s leading literary scholars who also became a close friend.
Ifeajuna was a competent student but his star was sports, especially athletics. He represented the school in almost every noteworthy competition within that period. Although he was not too tall he was loose-limbed and well-built. His fair complexion, boyishly handsome face and smile endeared him to many.
It was at DMGS that Ifeajuna began to manifest those aspects of his character that would lead him into ‘trouble’ in future. In the words of Olusegun Obasanjo:
Ifeajuna had a fairly good record of rebellion both at the Dennis
Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha, in 1951 and the University
College, Ibadan in 1957.3.
According to Obi Nwakamma, the author of the biography of the poet and Ifeajuna’s intimate friend, Christopher Okigbo, Ifeajuna led a revolt against the canning of students at DMGS in 1952/53. This quote from Ifeajuna’s unpublished manuscript, as quoted in Obasanjo’s biography of Nzeogwu, Ifeajuna’s co-plotter of the January 15 1966 coup, is worth noting:
‘It has been my fate to be personally entangled in some stormy, if significant events. At DMGS, Onitsha, I was involved in a student protest against authority. That was in 1951. It was the most serious incident ever in the history of the school. The senior class had been sent down in the hope that the students’ protest would stop. It fell on us next in line to take over command and see the action through to a worthy close. The school was shut down for one term, but we had made our point. From that event I learnt that if you are prepared to lead, others will follow you. Later my military training confirmed the lesson.’ 4.
This was DMGS’s first student protest and it initiated Ifeajuna into the world of rebellion.
IBADAN: THE FURNACE THAT COOKED THE REBEL
The 1950s was a heady time. The tide of European colonialism was being turned back on the African continent and elsewhere. The process for British-governed territories began with India’s independence in 1947. Quite a few colonies, notably French and Portuguese, were steeped in blood as young ideologues did battle with imperialists who did not realize that the sun had set on empires. Left-wing idealism was king and university students in the Third World soaked it up.
In his study of Nigeria’s first coup, the military historian, Max Siollun, outlines the intellectual and ideological forces that shaped the plotters, including Ifeajuna:
‘The ideological circle of the January coup seems to have consisted primarily of officers who had embarked upon military careers after completing university degrees….These graduates may have been exposed to the left wing political doctrine which was sweeping across much of Africa, Asia and South America at that time.’ 5.
A perusal of ‘Why We Struck,’ an account of the coup by a key participant and Ifeajuna’s friend, Adewale Ademoyega, also justifies this view.
Ifeajuna was admitted to the University College, Ibadan, to study for a bachelor’s degree in Science in 1954, the same year he shook the world with his high jump at Vancouver. The University College, established in 1948 as an affiliate of the University of London, was Nigeria’s premier high institution. Most of the country’s leading lights who had access to university education from 1948-1960 began their academic life at UCI which eventually became the full-fledged University of Ibadan in 1963/64. The rich pedigree within Ifeajuna’s years there included close friends like Benedict Obumselu, Christopher Okigbo, J.P. Clark, Wole Soyinka and Leslie Harriman. Some like Okigbo were his seniors; others like the novelist and soldier Elechi Amadi were his contemporary.
At Ibadan Ifeajuna became an active member of the Students Union, eventually becoming the Director of Information. He led protests against the visit of the Queen to the college in 1956 and the picketing of the federal parliament over the proposed Anglo-Nigerian Defence Pact. Although UCI was not a hotbed of radicalism, yet it had a radical student fringe who imbibed the ideas of the revolutionary Mathematician, Dr. Chike Obi, who led the opposition party, The Dynamic Party. Ifeajuna was one of those firebrands who were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the antics of the emerging Nigerian elite.
It was at Ibadan that Ifeajuna spearheaded protests that showed the blight in his character. The recollections of Uche Chukwumerije, a serving Nigerian Senator and Ifeajuna’s contemporary at Ibadan are note worthy:
‘Later on, when I (Ademoyega) was alone with Uche, he expressed some misgivings about Ifeajuna being already in the Army. He explained that, during a planned agitation in their days together at Ibadan, Ifeajuna deserted their group in the moment of action. He was therefore apprehensive that he (Ifeajuna) might do the same thing again, in the event of a planned military action.’ 6.
Obasanjo described Ifeajuna as a ‘courageous coward’ who escaped the responsibilities and consequences of protest leadership. 7.
This agitation in which Ifeajuna ‘jumped ship’ is worth examining.
From 1955 to 1957 his friend, Obumselu, was the president of the Students Union. He got into a passionate relationship with a fellow student and a failed abortion attempt on the young woman in his lodgings led to her death. Obumselu was put on trial for manslaughter. The affair compelled the university authorities to decide to fence off the students hostels. Enraged, the students protested. Ifeajuna spearheaded the protest but when it was showdown time he vanished. This account comes from J.P. Clark, poet and Ifeajuna’s friend. He should know; the dead girl’s friend, Christie Clinton, was Clark’s girlfriend on campus. Thus, Clark who accompanied Okigbo to Ghana to persuade Ifeajuna to come home after the coup, concluded that ‘he (Ifeajuna) was acting in character, running away after disrupting authority as he had done while a student at Ibadan.’ 8. Obumselu was acquitted.
In contrast, Ifeajuna’s recollection of this event in his unpublished manuscript, as published in Obasanjo’s book, depicts him heroically. 9.
As pointed out earlier, Ifeajuna was associated with the small but fervent Dynamic Party of Chike Obi. Along with like-minded friends like Okigbo, they campaigned for the party. It won five seats in the Eastern Region and Obi was elected in the Eastern House of Assembly from Onitsha in 1953/54. 10.
Ifeajuna became a teacher at the Ebenezer Anglican Grammar School, Abeokuta, when he graduated. 11.
WHY DID IFEAJUNA JOIN THE ARMY?
Our answer must be sought elsewhere since the subject is not alive to respond.
The ideological ferment that shaped him and his co-plotters have already being pointed out. Chapters 2 and 4 of Ademoyega’s book give more insight on their mindset.
Perhaps the most telling reason comes from the biography of Christopher Okigbo. When Okigbo was a teacher at Fiditi Secondary School, Ifeajuna was at Abeokuta and their interactions continued due to relative proximity. They were concerned about the nature of the newly emerging Nigeria. They wished Nigeria had experienced thunder and lightning in her bid to gain independence. They feared that Nigeria’s ‘platter of gold ‘decolonization process was leaving behind a troubled state. Alex Ajayi, a friend of both men, sums up the situation:
‘Some of us wanted to fight, to take our independence rather than be given. Endlessly at Fiditi, this was the talk whenever friends like Emma Ifeajuna came. Okigbo and Emma talked insurrection. Like many other intellectuals they thought the British were leaving behind a troubled state. There was a lot of cynicism. In fact, it was possible in Christopher’s home in Fiditi that Ifeajuna first decided to go and join the Army. He chose his destiny clearly; prodded and supported by Christopher…it was a revolutionary opinion.’ 12.
Ifeajuna joined the Army in 1960 (alternative account report 1961). He trained at Mons Officers Cadet School, Aldershot, Britain. Commissioned the same year, he had a series of Infantry postings and trainings. By January 15 1966 he was a Major by rank and the Brigade Major of the Second Brigade based at Apapa, Lagos, by appointment.
1 Interview with Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Newswatch Magazine Lagos, Nigeria, 28 September 1992, p.14
2 Obi Nwakanma, CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO: 1930-1967: THIRSTING FOR SUNLIGHT (HEBN Publishers PLC, Ibadan, Nigeria, 2010) p.32
3 Olusegun Obasanjo, NZEOGWU (Spectrum Publishers, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1987).p.79
4 Olusegun Obasanjo, NZEOGWU. p.80
5 Max Siollun, The Inside Story of Nigeria’s First Military Coup (Part 1) www.kwenu.com 2010
6 Adewale Ademoyega, WHY WE STRUCK (Evans Publishers, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1981) p.25
7 Olusegun Obasanjo, NZEOGWU. p.81
8 See ‘Kiagbodo,’ a chapter in Adewale Maja-Pearce’s book ‘ A PECULIAR TRAGEDY.’ and Obi Nwakanma
9 Olusegun Obasanjo NZEOGWU. pp.80-81
10 Obi Nwakanma. CHRISTOPHER OKIGBO. pp.87-88
11 Obi Nwakanma p.214
12 Obi Nwakanma, p.135