Aguiyi-Ironsi/Fajuyi: Old memories linger 35 years after
By Chuks Ugwoke, Vanguard
MARTYRS, they say, never die. They endure in the innermost recesses of their people or admirers. Their personalities and accomplishments outlast every other mortal creature.
Thirty-five years after, this is true of distinguished Nigerians in Major-Gen. Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe (J.T.U) Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi. Both were assassinated by the revenge-seeking coupists on July 29, 1966 at Lalupon, Ibadan.
A bloody overthrow of the civilian regime of Tafawa Balewa’s government had taken place six months earlier in which the Prime Minister and other top government functionaries especially of Northern extraction were killed.
Ironically, Aguiyi-Ironsi who did not participate in the violent bloodletting inherited the pieces of a shattered Republic by virtue of his seniority in the Armed Forces. Yet, he was a victim of the counter-coup that claimed his life alongside his courageous host, Fajuyi.
Ironsi, the Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces had arrived Ibadan on July 28, 1966 to address a conference of natural rulers of Western Nigeria in Ibadan. By dusk, he was through with the assignment and prepared to head back to Lagos. But his guest, Fajuyi, the governor of Western Nigeria impressed on him to spend the night with him. The boss obliged.
Few hours later on July 29, tragedy stared the two friends in the face. Chuks Iloegbunam captures the scene vividly in Ironside, a well-researched 250-page biography on Ironsi. Iloegbunam dramatised the beginning of the end for the twosome. "July 29, 1966. Government House, Ibadan. 0030 hours," he wrote.
"The telephone rang. Lt. Andrew Nwankwo, the Supreme Commander’s (Ironsi’s) Air Force ADC, picked up the receiver instantly. Bad news. He tautened his physique. The voice at the other end of the line belonged to Police Superintendent Joseph Adeola. His message was that the much-feared and much-rumoured counter-coup had indeed started..."
In quick, heart-piercing succession, unfolding events cast evident gloom of an impending doom. Soon, desperation set in. "One by one," continues the book, "the Head of State and Colonel Fajuyi started to send out their aides to approach the gates (that had been surrounded by enemy soldiers) and determine the position of things..."
It was a season of betrayal and conspiracies. Unknown to the duo, some of their aides were either moles or had switched loyalty. But between the Head of State and the governor, there was the obvious necessity to reassure each other that none had a hand in the fate loosely hanging over their heads.
This picture was aptly painted in Fajuyi: The martyred soldeir, the slain officer’s biographer by Sanmi Ajiki.
Fajuyi told his guest: "I make bold to declare to you that... I am with you soul, spirit and body. And mark my words, whatever happens to you today, happens to me. I am your true friend, dear J.U.T like the dove to the pigeon, and by the grace of our good God, so will I humbly yet proudly remain till the very end."
To this, Ironsi replied; "Yes! Francis, I retain my absolute confidence in you. I have never for once doubted your integrity."
And so it was for the host and his guest. Fajuyi did not treasure his personal safety over that of his C-in-C and intimate friend. When the hour came, both were physically battered by the coupists on their way to the serene, sleepy and desolate area called Lalupon at the outskirts of Ibadan. There, they were finally killed and buried in a shallow grave.
For their families, there was deep but subdued mourning since the nation would not readily admit that the two fallen heroes had died in the retaliatory coup. It took seven months before an official announcement confirmed what had been widely known: that Ironsi and Fajuyi were dead!
But the dirty job of telling Nigerians, at least officially, what had happened, fell on Col. Emeka Ojukwu, the then Governor of Eastern Nigeria. "Beloved countrymen and women, the Supreme Commander is dead," he said to a shocked nation, espcially the Igbos.This was January 14, 1967.
He continued the broadcast. "It is with extreme sorrow and and profound regret that I bring you the sad news of what we have for so long feared." Palpable grief enveloped the East, especially among those who had believed that Ironsi, indeed, was alive.
In the entire Igboland, the people could not conceal their hurt emotions. The news served as a sad reminder of the suffering that the people had experienced. Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President of the country captured the feelings of his kith and kin in a condolence message to Mrs. Aguiyi-Ironsi.
"See how many years we have laboured all these years to build one united country," he wrote. "See how we made many compromises in order that all of us may be one. Yet, our good faith and best intentions were suspected and all sorts of improper motives imputed in order to justify the most barbarous acts of genocide they perpetrated against thousands of fellow Nigerians in the inglorious history of man in Nigeria."
For the Fajuyis, the emotions of bereavement were absolute and consuming. Sympathisers thronged their family house in Ado-Ekiti to offer words that were intended to lessen the pains. The bereaved were hardly comforted.
Finally, the bodies of Ironsi and Fajuyi were exhumed from the Ibadan cemetery for decent re-burial. The corpse of the late Head of State was brought to the Lagos airport on January 20, 1967 where Ojukwu and Victoria, his widow stepped forward to receive it. In yet another emotional show of love and respect, the widow took some steps, dressed in an all-black attire, lowered her frame and kissed the coffin that housed the lifeless body of her slain husband while muttering some inaudible words that simply exposed her exasperation.
From Lagos to Enugu and on to Umuahia amid 21-gun salute in each of these cities, the mournful crowd that comprised Ojukwu, Commodore Wey, Col. (then) David Ejoor bade the "gentleman soldier" the final farewell.
Few days after, the same scene was being played out between Ibadan and Ado-Ekiti for Fajuyi. Both the low and the mighty gathered at the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan to pay their last respect. In contrast, the pain-filled Ado-Ekiti indigenes could still not muster the toughness to come to terms with the tragedy as the transition train moved St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.
Like Sanmi Ajiki noted in Fajuyi’s biography, "by the grave-side, profuse, bitter tears were shed. Multitudes of wreaths of natural and artificial flowers in assorted shapes and sizes were laid." That was the exit of a man of courage, of a hero who sacrificed his life so that Nigeria can be one.
On Monday, July 30, 2001 in Ibadan, important Yoruba and Igbo dignitaries gathered for the 35th memorial lecture of Fajuyi and a book launch in his honour. Eunice, his wife, showed that the bitterness of those tragic passages would not even be consoled by the long years that had gone by. Emotions betrayed her during a drama presentation of his husband’s last hours on earth with Ironsi, his guest.
No doubt, it was a day of old memories, especially as the two women widowed by that bloody event met after a long time. Mrs. Eunice Fajuyi and Mrs. Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi captured everyone’s attention as they walked towards each other.
Both hugged themselves, almost inseparably for no less than five minutes as the crowd roared in ecstasy and appreciation. Many in the jam-packd hall were on their feet in ovation as Adedayo, Fajuyi’s son was clapping just like others. When they emerged from such warm embrace of an emotional reunion, there were not a few red eyes.
The seven governors (from South-West and South-East) and other prominent persons from the two ethnic groups who graced the Ibadan lecture and book launch, eulogised Fajuyi as a "selfless, detribalised and loyal military officer" who made the ultimate sacrifice.
According to Senator Abraham Adesanya, the Afenifere leader who was also in Ibadan, "the various nationalities in Nigeria could pick a lesson or two from the selflessness of heroes like Fajuyi by putting the common good of all above narrow, parochial and selfish interests.
"The bond between Fajuyi and Ironsi has shown and taught us that no matter our cultural differences, we can establish and nurture beneficial, purposeful and lasting union between ourselves and among our peoples."
True enough, there is the everlasting cord between the two families especially, and everyone seems to identify with the role, which the late Governor played in solidarity with his guest on that ill-fated day.
Chief Emeka Ojukwu said this much during the 20th anniversary celebration of Ironsi on July 29, 1996 that was graced by Dr. Alex Ekwueme, Gen. Ike Nwachukwu, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu among others. The former warlord delivered the tribute. "...No tribute to the late General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi," he told the audience, "will be complete without mention of the late Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi.
"Both were the finest of their age, both served their country with absolute devotion and both died side by side victims of a country they loved and both will be remembered throughout history for selfless devotion to duty."
Honours for the heroes
Mrs. Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi, Monday, received a post-humous plaque in remembrance of her husband from the organisers of the Fajuyi lecture in Ibadan. She was overwhelmed with joy. She took the prize, admired it with smiles and thanked all for the recognition. "I am very happy and appreciative of what is happening here today (Monday)," noted the widow. "This shows that my husband and his sacrifice for this national have not been forgotten and I thank the Yoruba for honouring my late husband."
But was this award a reciprocation of what the Igbos did on May 12, 2001 in Enugu?
On that day, the Igbo National Council, an emerging socio-political organisation organised a reception for worthy Igbo sons and daughters as well as friends of Ndigbo. Fajuyi was to be so honoured as ezigbo enyi Ndigbo (worthy friend of the Igbo people).
Chief Adedayo Fajuyi, the son of the awardee and a current chairman of Ado-Ekiti Local Government Area had stormed Enugu with lorry loads of friends and associates. Before setting foot at the Premier Garden of Hotel Presidential, Enugu, Dayo took time off to visit familiar places in the Coal City, even if to refreshen his memory of the good old days when his late father was domiciled in the city.
And down to the venue at last, he confessed to being tuched by the kind sentiments expressed about his father by the select speakers. It was Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu who first recreated those memories of yore depicting the comradeship which Lt. Col. Fajuyi demonstrated. "Your father," Kanu said, turning to Adedayo, "represents the epitome of sacrifice to a true friend. Our appreciation of your father’s selflessness is not measured by the prize you receive today (May 12, 2001). It is not measured by the great number that you find here.
"It must, instead, be appreciated that this honour being bestowed on your late father is an expression of the Igbo gratitude, the respect and the oneness which must always exist between our people and your family. It is the spirit that must count. For coming to Enugu in grand style, be rest assured that part of Igboland is your home and do extend same position, same appreciation to other members of Lt. Col. Fajuyi’s family."
Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife, the former Anambra State governor and current Special Assistant to President Olusegun Obasanjo on Political Matters presented the plaque to Adedayo. "This event is historic in many regards," said Ezeife. "But more importantly, it symbolises true inter-ethnic solidarity. It is the essence of the handshake across the Niger that we have been clamouring for.
"Your father was and remains an exceptional patriot, a genuine friend of Igbos. This bond will outlive all of us here. It is everlasting and we urge you to take the message home to your family, your state and the entire Yoruba race that our people will never forget what your father did for our son in those trying moments."
While the encomiums poured in, the joy lingered for Chief Emeka Ugwu-oju and Sir George Ekeh, the two powers before the INC and the event that also brought Mrs. Margaret Ekpo, an octogenarian political activist to Enugu.
When it was time to react, Adedayo Fajuyi heaved a deep sigh, looked at the cheering crowd and let go his emotions. "It is an under-statement to say that I’m happy. This is a day that I’ll not forget in my life. I’m a very proud person today as are all members of my father’s family.
"I must also make one confession: I’ve never met any Igbo man or woman who has not shown great respect and love for my father. It gladdens our hearts that the people recognise the sacrifice that our father made. It can only encourage the rest of us to see the entire country as our constituency and to see every Nigerian, every being created by God as our brother or sister.
"There’s no regret whatsoever over my father’s role when his friend and Commander-in-Chief, General Ironsi visited him. We will forever be glad that our father did not treasure his own life above that of his guest.
"What I know for a fact is that the Igbos are very appreciative people. We went round the city of Enugu to see things for ourselves. It brought back some old memories. I feel fulfilled by this award that will occupy a special place in our home and in our hearts. The Igbos and Yorubas have a lot in common. So, we must always cooperate and collaborate. As for this great honour, we (Yorubas) will reciprocate."
Today, nobody bothers whether the Ibadan honour for Ironsi was the promised reciprocation. What mattered to the rich assemblage was the spirit, the bond and the undying love between the two families. As Mrs. Ironsi told Weekend Vanguard during the 20th anniversary of her husband’s death, "The Fajuyis occupy a special, indelible spot in our hearts. Whenever we pray for the soul of my late husband, we pray for the repose of Fajuyi’s soul in equal measure. We have a bond that will survive humanity."
Precisely 35 years after, Nigerians have continued to wonder if the country is not prepared to immortalise the fallen heroes in a way deserving of their status and the lesson they depict. According to Ojukwu during that 1996 anniversary tribute, Aguiyi-Ironsi had "been grossly misrepresented, painfully by sycophants and cowards."
But must this continue? Gen. Ibrahim Babangida named an Army barrack after the former Head of State and awarded him the Great Commander of the Federal Republic on the same day that he "stepped aside." Elsewhere in Lagos, Ibadan, Ado-Ekiti and few other cities, there are streets named after Fajuyi. But is that all that the nation can do for the two men who died for the sake of Nigeria’s unity?
"There is nothing that Nigeria does for Ironsi and Fajuyi that will not be worth the sacrifice that they made for our continued existence as a country," opined Ugwu-Oju. "If we really recognise what they did, we should, as a nation, be willing to go the extra mile to accord them respect.
"If we knew what the two widows went through to bring up their children and to give them good education, we must be ready to immortalise them."
For others, they would specifically "want the Federal Government or even their home state governments to name higher institutions or airports after them. That is the only way to wipe away the fresh worries of their relations that the country may have forgotten that the two died so that Nigeria can exist as one."
For Ironsi, popular among his peers then as Ironside and Fajuyi, a man of honour, it is 35 years after; yet, their feats remain deathless. That is the stuff that heroes are made of.
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