In 1966, a military revolution was conceived in Nigeria by a group of Army officers led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna. Even before then, Major Ifeajuna was a distinguished fellow in international circles, a graduate of the University of Ibadan and the first African sportsman to win a gold medal at a global sports event, namely the Commonwealth Games of Vancouver in 1956.
There was no question that the reasons the officers put forward for the coup had the tacit approval of the majority of Nigerians. The political leaders were a notoriously avaricious, rapacious and irredeemably corrupt lot with scant social vision to speak of but instead a mammoth inclination to national self-destruction. However, one single element of the execution of the coup turned the entire affair on its head. The officers detailed to carry out the operation in the Ibo East failed woefully to do so, whether by accident or design is still debated till this day, whereas it all went seamlessly well in the Hausa-Fulani North and the Yoruba West. Major Nzeogwu, spearheading the Northern effort, effected the executions of key Northern leaders, most notably the supremely iconic Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto. On the Western front, it was all but quiet as the rambunctious Premier, Akintola was killed in a hail of bullets. In the capital city of Lagos, Ifeajuna himself took charge and saw to the demise of key leading elements, most notably the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa. Conspicuously, however, the execution of key Ibo leaders such as Azikiwe, Okpara, Ibiam and Ironsi never took place. Consequently, bad blood sprouted as Northerners regarded the lopsided killings with good reason as an Ibo coup that had as its sole purpose the enthronement of Ibo hegemony over Nigeria. How that one unfortunate factor changed the entire face, destiny and direction of the Nigerian nation such as it is. The vituperation that arose from that issue culminated in the Ibo near-holocaust in the North, secession by the Ibos in the East and a bitter civil war that took a toll on the nation that will never totally go away.
No one regretted that unfortunate turn of events more than Ifeajuna himself. I am aware of that as a fact because he said so to my hearing. Just before the civil war broke out in 1967, he paid a courtesy call on my father. Being both from the same town, Onitsha, he freely expressed his sentiments to him in our living room, while I sat innocuously in an arm-chair, an inconsequential but nonetheless attentive ten-year old. In forging the coup of 1966, his dream had been of a strong, vibrant and united Nigeria, while secession was the farthest thing from his mind. On hindsight, he wished he had taken personal charge of affairs in the East during the coup, though he thought at the time that Lagos would provide the toughest challenge, where his attention would be most needed. How wrong he turned out to be, much to his chagrin. Would he have taken out the Ibo leaders by himself, my father put forward to him? Without hesitation, he answered promptly, stressing that it was nothing personal but a national necessity. I remember my father giving him a fleeting, sidelong and, I must say, frightened look. Many years later, now a grown man following the exploits of Jerry Rawlings as he wiped out a generation of Ghanaian leaders in one swipe, I remembered that day. I recalled Ifeajuna’s dispassionate, nationalistic reasoning and it all came home to me. And see how Ghana has transformed since then!
Ifeajuna did not favor the secession of the East, as I earlier said and he did not really appear to hide it, which ultimately was not so smart on his part. He actually wanted to effect a coup in Biafra, overthrow Ojukwu and return the Ibos to the Nigerian family. By then however, Ojukwu was too far gone down the road of the calling in life he had devised. He was the African Castro, champion of a downtrodden people, complete with the beard, fatigues, rhetoric and all and there was no going back for him. He promptly had Ifeajuna executed by firing squad one bleak day in Enugu.
Many times, the real heroes are unsung. The public is invariably riveted to actors with grand posturing and bombastic semantics. Ifeajuna’s was a classic case. His vision was unambiguous. He wanted a united Nigeria from start to finish and stuck to those dreams and paid for it. He was the brain behind the revolution, not Nzeogwu, who is now regarded as such in folklore. Ojukwu himself had been approached by the coup planners but he balked only to later ride the waves of the circumstances and become the people’s general.
Why is Ifeajuna so unsung, even by his own people of Onitsha, he, the real revolutionary of Nigeria, an international sports champion and a true nationalist? Even Nzeogwu, who killed the Sardauna, was given a hero’s burial at the military cemetery in Kaduna by Nigerian officers of Hausa-Fulani extraction, who might have been forgiven for quartering his corpse in retaliation for that killing. Ojukwu, who led the Ibos to near-extinction, driven perhaps more by obfuscated visions of a place in history than by lucid military calculations is now immortal. He was accorded the funeral of an emperor even by natives of Onitsha, Ifeajuna’s own kinsmen, who should rightly have been offended by his execution and enduring vilification. No funeral has been given him to this day. His great status in world sports is not only not remembered but, I suspect, actively swept under the carpet. Among his own people of Onitsha, there is no rehabilitation or commemoration of his name and all the while, I keep hearing that charity begins at home.