The first military Head of State, Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, and the first military Governor of the defunct Western State, Lt.-Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, were assassinated 53 years ago in the counter coup of July 29, 1966. Assistant Editor LEKE SALAUDEEN examines the circumstances that led to their demise and the implication of the Federal Government’s failure to honour Fajuyi, the gallant soldier who sacrificed his life for national unity.
It is exactly 53 years that the first military governor of Western State, Lt.–Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, was assassinated in a counter coup, led by northern officers. Fajuyi emerged as governor, following the coup of January 15, 1966 that threw up Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi as the first military Head of State. The regime was short lived. It didn’t last more than six months. Ironsi was assassinated along with Fajuyi by the revenge seeking coup plotters, led by Major Theophilus Danjuma at Ibadan.
On July 28, 1966, Ironsi had come to Ibadan to canvass for peace. He was through with the programme by evening and wanted to return to Lagos, the seat of the Federal Government. But, Fajuyi requested that he spent the night with him in Ibadan . Unknown to both of them, Major Danjuma and his men were lurking in the dark, ready to swoop on them.
The bloody overthrow of the civilian regime of Prime Minister , Sir Tafawa Balewa had taken place six months earlier in which the Prime Minister and other top government functionaries of northern extraction, were killed. Although Ironsi did not participate in the June 15, 1966 coup, the mantle of leadership fell on him as the most senior military officer at that time. This, however, was insignificant to the coup plotters
On that faithful day Fajuyi alerted Ironsi to a possible mutiny within the army. Ironsi desperately tried to contact his Army Chief of Staff, Yakubu Gowon, but he was unreachable .
In the moring, the Government House, Ibadan, was surrounded by soldiers, led by Danjuma . Fajuyi pleaded with Danjuma to spare his guest. Danjuma would have let Fajuyi alone, but he Fajuyi insisted that, if Danjuma must kill Ironsi, then, he had to kill him (Fajuyi) first as he would never allow the killing of Ironsi in his domain. Danjuma would not be persuaded or swayed by Fajuyi’s plea.
He arrested Aguiyi Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the coup, which saw the demise of Sardauna of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello and other northern politicians. He killed Fajuyi and mowed down Ironsi with bullets.
Analysts said Ironsi had no choice in the circumstance he found himself at the point of death, but for Fajuyi, it was out of choice, loyalty and heroism. Such was the heroism and loyalty demonstrated by Fajuyi to the point of death. He exemplified loyalty at the expense of his life.
Fajuyi occupies a unique place in Nigerian history. He is largely viewed as the gallant officer , who refused to stand aside as his Commander-in Chief Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi was being led to the slaughter . Instead, he opted to die in the hands of renegade soldiers. Although some of the coup plotters and participants who witnessed the events in Ibadan were of the view that Fajuyi and Ironsi had already been earmarked for death, the legacy of a soldier possessed of physical and moral courage remained essentially unimpaired in Fajuyi.
Civil rights activist Comrade Mashud Erubami said the gruesome killing of Fajuyi at Lalupon village along Ibadan-Iwo road still carry some lessons for his race and reminds the nation of the need to recognise gallantry, heroism and patriotism.
He said: “Reflecting over his assassination as the first military governor of Western State is remembering the death of a great son of the Yoruba race, who stood gallantly against the reprisal coup targetted at General Aguiyi-Ironsi for elimination during his visit to Ibadan to address traditional leaders in Ibadan, the capital of the Western Region”.
According to him, “Fajuyi’s death though painful, erased all misgivings that would have trailed the killing of General Aguiy-iIronsi an Igbo military officer who took over power after the unsuccessful first military Coup.
“By his death, Fajuyi exhibited unusual courage and displayed unsurpassed gallantry for the preservation of unity of his country. In him we lost one of our greatest leaders whose death was an incalculable loss to his race and Nigeria.
“The significance of his resolve to pay the supreme price along with his visitor on July 29, 1966 raised the bar of loyalty and integrity for emulation by all nationalities in Nigeria conforming with the belief that what is worth dying for is worth defending and celebrating as an annual event having made the greatest sacrifice that any Nigeria had ever made for peace, loyalty to leadership and Unity of the Country.
“Painfully, the annual remembrance of Col. Fajuyi had been initiated and facilitated only by the Yoruba race, whereas the narratives behind the death and sacrifices made by Fajuyi and lessons from is death are beyond his ethnic affil iation but this is yet to manifest as a national concern. Col Fajuyi deserves national celebration and awards for his bravery and patriotic selflessness.
“Till date, It remains a sad commentary, that successive governments have refused to see the importance of July 29 1996 as a day in which Col. Fajuyi laid down his life to preserve the unity of the country.
“A notable University should be named after him for daily mentioning and remembrance of the great sacrifice made by him.
“The bush part and the adjoining spaces on the Ibadan- Iwo town road, where Francis Adekunle FAJUYI- and General Johnson AguiyiIronsi were killed should be acquired by the Federal and State Government to build a “National Memorial Park” to be dedicated for remembering the courage, loyalty to leadership and united co- existence, embossed on a bronze status of Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi and Col. Francis Adekunle FAJUYI.
The January 1966 coup was tagged an Igbo coup because it was spearheaded by an Igbo soldier, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu. The coup led to the death of major northern personalities including the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Nigeria, Sir Ahmadu Bello, and Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first Prime Minister of Nigeria.
The fact that the then president, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (Igbo) and the Senate President, Nwafor Orizu (Igbo) were not killed laid credence to the claim that it was an Igbo coup carried out to wipe out, the northern leadership from the country. The consequence was disastrous.
Ironsi took over power on January 16, 1966. He was the General Officer Commanding, Nigerian Army. His emergence Head of State increased the assumption that his Igbo soldiers not only spared his life but also propelled him to the position. The northern soldiers didn’t take it lightly.
Although the coup planners were arrested, the fact that they were not punished for their action did not go down well with the North. They were still receiving salaries after the aborted coup. This led to tension between the north and the south. The suspicion heightened with the allegation that Ironsi was filling important positions with Igbo officers.
The introduction of the unitary system as against Federal system made Ironsi’s government unpopular in the North. He promulgated Decree Number 34 of 1966, which abrogated the federal system of government and turned Nigeria into a unitary state.
Although Ironsi’s move was to unite the country that had been torn along religious and ethnic divide, it worsened the division in the country. The North felt Ironsi was creating a Nigeria that would take powers away from the regions to the centre in order to execute his ethnic agenda.
An Igbo intellectual, Dr Law Mefor, said: “Ironsi suspended the subsisting 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”.
He said: “The introduction of the unitary system gave way to the anti-Igbo pogrom which began in May 1966. Igbo became target for massacres in the northern part of the country 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.
“The coup against Ironsi was fast becoming imminent and soon became a matter of when and where. This was carried out on July 29, 1966 by northern coup plotters led by Theophelius Danjuma and Murtala Muhammed. On that fateful day, Danjuma led soldiers to Government House, Ibadan and ordered the arrest of Ironsi. They berated his lacklustre attitude towards the death of the eminent northerners killed during the first coup.
“In an act of military valour, Fajuyi could not stand the arrest of his Igbo superior and commanding officer 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 and taken to a bush in the outskirt of Ibadan where they 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 the military governor of Eastern Region then, Col. odumegwu 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 Ogundipe 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.”
In the view of analysts “Ironsi inherited a Nigeria deeply fractured by its ethnic and religious cleavages. The fact that none of the high profile victims of the January 15, 1966 coup were of Igbo extraction, and also that the main beneficiaries of the coup were Igbo, led the northern part of the country to believe that it was an Igbo conspiracy. However, the first military Head of State was a victim of circumstances, because of the earlier coup he knew nothing about. Though he was given a posthumous national award during the country’s golden jubilee celebration in 210, he remains largely unsung.”