Fifty years ago, Nigeria was on edge. Like the sky before a cloudburst, civil war hovered. But now it reads like a thriller.
Then, however, danger skulked. Soldiers hid under an inky night, bullets flew out of stealthy corners, officers intrigued as their men had their hands on the trigger, and politicians feared and retreated.
In Ibadan, where Awo tenanted his genius for democracy and as a model for governance, things were falling apart. There were two soldiers, one a host, the other his boss. They had a night together before they said their final goodnight. They were not, in the language of Poet Dylan Thomas, going “gentle into that goodnight.”
Aguiyi-Ironsi was the boss and head of state. He always dangled a live crocodile, mythicised as a counterfoil against the evil eye and enemy’s reptilian plot. Some said the little croc guaranteed his disappearance when intrigue darkened around him. His host, Adekunle Fajuyi, the governor of the Western Region, was playing host, ensuring that Ironsi had a good time with his cavalcade.
But a man known as Theophilus Danjuma had other plans. He crashed the party, and eventually, Nigeria’s. Not that things were squeaky clean in the country. Pogrom had sullied the northern landscape with the Igbo and southern minorities dying like flies from machetes, pickaxes, bonfires and guns of zealots. That night set us one major foot onto the bloody puddle of a 30-month civil war that claimed millions of lives.
That night, both host and boss were arrested by visitor Danjuma and his men. They had come to kill Ironsi and spare Fajuyi. But Fajuyi, a man of honour that he was, would not go gentle. He, too, had to die. If he were alive, the narrative would implicate him in Ironsi’s death as traitor and conspirator. Ironsi was executed and Fajuyi also killed. They could not, in Thomas’ words again, “rage, rage against the dying of the night.”
In spite of that foul night, Ironsi, also known as Ironside, has no memorial to his name. He has not been called hero even in most historical literature. You are not a hero because other soldiers killed you. You are a hero because of the values that oozed out of your pores as you expired. Some have therefore called him a villain.
I am not about to follow that path. Ironsi came on the scene because of the failure of the Nzeogwu-led coup of January, 1966. It was tagged an Igbo attempt to foist ethnic hegemony on the rest of the country. From being a popular effort, it turned out a tinderbox. Why did they kill non–Igbos like Balewa, Sardauna, Akintola, Omimi ejo and leave two Igbo premiers in the Midwest and Eastern regions untouched. Why did they leave out Ironsi unscathed? He was asked to try the coup plotters. He did not. If he did not, why did he promulgate Decree 34 that called for Unitarianism in a country of strict regional fidelity?
Some have said he was naïve, and he meant well. His kinsmen dominated the civil service. Of the major universities in the country, Ibadan, Lagos and Nsukka had Igbo vice chancellors. Balewa trusted key ministries with the Igbo. They had the railways, the employment power. If that was the case, why would Nzeogwu obstruct a free-flowing system for his kinsmen?
Some of the answers we may never have, especially since they had claimed they wanted to bring Awo out of jail to steer the nation’s affairs as the head of state. Moments like this make the call for the study of history to be restored in our educational system rather than the tentative way we have it today.
The brilliant writer and journalist, Chuks Iloegbunam, is an authority on Ironsi. His book, Ironside, tackles some of these issues. On my regular television show on TVC on Saturday morning called The Platform, he addressed why Ironsi did not try the coup plotters. He noted that the Supreme Military Council had it in its minutes. That document has not been made public, although Hassan Katsina, Northern Region governor and an instigator of northern hate, had reportedly said so. If such a document is made public, it will do well to exculpate Ironsi from some of the charges. We will yet want to know why he temporised and made no effort, in spite of the clamour of those days, to say it himself and in clear terms.
One irony of the day, though. Ironsi was slaughtered by Danjuma and his men for Decree 34. Yet, in the long shadow of military that lasted many years, Nigeria ran a military rule in the spirit of Decree 34 with Danjuma as a mainstay. So, were Danjuma and his fellow mutineers not hypocrites and vermin of the hegemony they accused Ironsi of? I say, yes indeed. They did not kill Ironsi because they wanted a federal system. They had an opportunity to install it. But they mounted a grey wall of hegemony. While it was wrong for Ironsi to upset the federal applecart began with the Richards Constitution, Danjuma and his cohorts only marched us to the bloodiest era of history with their night of infamy. If Ironsi was no hero, Danjuma was worse. Ambiguity clouds Ironsi’s story. T.Y. Danjuma’s stale was clear-eyed regionalist. He did not spin a patriotic yarn.
Yet, I should say that explains the swagger of the Kaduna Mafia for most of our history. Before its decline, they were deft handlers of power. Reviled and despised by the South, they showed a subtle hand. In their appointments, policies and symbolisms, we saw northern control with ‘respect’ for the rest of the country. Not like today, where Buhari has shown little subtlety. If the Igbo triggered the pogrom because of the mistake of a few of them, they compromised the flowering of the Igbo in the country in a time of peace. That was a lesson, I think, the Kaduna Mafia learned when they held unquestioned sway until IBB bungled June 12.
The greatest villains, though, were the January coup plotters who would not allow democracy stumble and learn. If they did not breach the system, we probably would have found a way out of the impasse. No doubt, it all began with the imbroglio of the Western Region. The NPC/NCNC alliance at the centre had choked the AG and a sense of unease had enveloped the country.
Before the coup, the political society was looking for ways out. If the most wronged region, the West, was not thinking of secession, perhaps the East was having a good time. Yet, Nzeogwu and co. popped our innocence and, in Achebe’s words in A Man of The People, “lit the tinder of unrest in the land.”
We cannot forget Fajuyi. Some have tried to dilute his heroics by saying he never wanted to die. I stick to his yarn of sacrifice. Professor Bolaji Akinyemi’s essay in this newspaper testifies to the man’s effacing sense of honour.
Given unanswered questions, Ironsi may not have a national monument, nor should as yet until the clouds clear. Fajuyi’s case was that of personal honour, not national unless he represented the Yoruba at that moment. Like Awo in personal honour and infectious vision and policies as premier, Fajuyi might have externalised the Yoruba as an exemplar of cooperative elan. We may never know. Such individual acts are engrafted on souls of others. Yet, the circumstances problematise his heroism.
At the bottom, we see how our soldiers ruined us, and how we lost our way and never returned.