Guest columnist by Bolaji Akinyemi
Now praise we great and famous men,
The fathers named in story;
And praise the Lord, Who now as then
Reveals in man His glory.
Praise we the glorious names we know,
And they whose names have perished,
Lost, in the haze of long ago,
In silent love be cherished.
In peace their sacred ashes rest,
Fulfilled their day’s endeavour;
They blessed the earth, and they are blessed
Of God and man forever.
Author: W. G. Tarrant
Since 1987, I had promised myself that I was going to write two tributes, one for Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, the first Military Governor of Western Nigeria, and the other for Captain Thomas Sankara on the anniversaries of their assassinations and for 49 years in the case of Colonel Fajuyi, and 29 years in the case of Captain Sankara, the Military Head of State of Burkina Faso (1983-1987). The anniversaries came and went without fulfilling the promise I made to myself. To be explicit, Colonel Fajuyi was killed on July 29, 1966, on the murderous and treacherous night that refused to give birth to a bright new day, while Captain Sankara was killed on October 15,1987.
This tribute is for Colonel Fajuyi, the Quintessential Omoluabi. God willing, I will pen the tribute for Captain Sankara on the anniversary of his death.
You may be wondering why I have finally been aroused to fulfil my vow on this anniversary of his death. Early this year, specifically on January 15, on the 50th anniversary of the January coup, the Nigerian press was awash with reminiscences and tributes from family members, political associates and friends of the victims of the coup. The reminiscences, in themselves, were very educative. But what was spectacularly startling were the contradictions in the narratives. It was obvious that facts, interpretation and falsehoods were muddling this aspect of Nigerian history. So this tribute is my own contribution to contain the violence being done to the truth in Nigerian history.
I met Colonel Fajuyi only once in 1961. I was then an upper six student at Christ School Ado-Ekiti and he came to address our class. He was on leave from the army. He was dressed simply in the Yoruba buba and sokoto attire. His presentation was jovial and simple to understand. We were very interested in how soldiers could understand commands on parade grounds. He made life in the army sound so much fun that if he had made the military equivalent of an altar call, I would have enthusiastically led the others in signing up. Whether my enthusiasm would have survived my first encounter with the drill Sergeant is another matter entirely.
On a lighter note, I once made reference in the presence of Generals Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha to the fact that if I had joined the army in 1960 after my secondary education at Igbobi College, Yaba, Lagos, I would be their senior and therefore a Field Marshall since they were both full Generals by then. General Babangida turned to General Abacha and said, “Did you hear that?” General Abacha simply said, “We would have shot him.” Presumably, it was all in jest. I hope. But many a true word is spoken in jest.
Back to Colonel Fajuyi. On that occasion of his lecture to us students in Ado-Ekiti, he never for once made any allusion to the fact that he had been honoured twice by the British for acts of courage. In 1954, as a Sergeant, he was awarded a British Empire Medal (BEM) for supressing a mutiny in his unit over food rations. He never made mention of the fact that he had been awarded the Military Cross (MC) by the British Government for showing exceptional bravery during the Congo operations. The MC is usually granted for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land.” The MC is not awarded lightly.
One of the recipients during World War II was a Captain Sam Manekshaw, Indian Army (who eventually rose to the rank of Field Marshal). Given the fact that I have not been able to come across anything recording that another Black African had won the Military Cross, I might not be completely off the mark if I assert that Fajuyi is the only Black African officer to have won the British Military Cross. (If I am wrong, I hope this article will give someone somewhere the opportunity to set the record straight and complete the record). Given the well known racism exhibited towards colonial troops, I have no doubt if Fajuyi’s heroism that led to the Military Cross had been done by a British officer, it would have been a Victoria Cross, the highest British military honour.
I once watched a film “LION OF THE DESSERT” on the Libyan resistance movement against Italian occupation in Libya during the Second World War. The head of the resistance, Sheik Omar Mukhtar, was captured, sentenced to death and executed on 16 September 1931. On the eve of his execution, he was visited by General Rodolfo Graziani who asked him if he had any last requests. He first said no. But as the General got to the door, the Sheik said: “Don’t lie that I begged for my life because I did not”. The General was later to say of Omar “he was the bravest and most honourable man that I ever met.”
Of all the conflicting accounts of the events of that murderous and treacherous night which gave birth to a dawn when the sun refused to shine, and there were and I suppose there will continue to be conflicting narratives, all the narratives agreed on one thing: Colonel Francis Fajuyi never begged for his life, never tried to escape, never hid under a bed or hid in a cupboard. “Faith of our father, holy faith, I will be true to thee till death”.
The narrative about Colonel Fajuyi’s behaviour that dawn soon became mired in the propaganda war between the Federal side and the Biafran side. The Federal side maintained that Fajuyi did not volunteer to die with Ironsi and that he was marked down for execution by the July coupists for being complicit in the January coup. The Biafran side insisted that Fajuyi volunteered to die with his guest and Supreme Commander. He was portrayed as a gallant officer, full of valour and honour. The Federal side dismissed the Biafran narrative as a ploy to secure Yoruba support during the war, while the Biafran side dismissed the Federal narrative as a disingenuous attempt to justify the brutal and unwarranted murder of a honourable officer.
Where is the truth? Fifty years after the event, and 47 years after the end of the civil war, Mrs Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi, the widow of General Ironsi, confirmed what her son, who was with the father in Ibadan that day, told her on July 30, 1966 that Fajuyi volunteered to go with his father—an act of bravery. The war had been long over and Mrs Ironsi had nothing to gain from parroting civil war propaganda. Secondly, the Police Special Branch (the predecessor of what is now the Department of State Security) wrote a report on the January 1966 coup (published in Kirk-Greene, CRISIS AND CONFLICT IN NIGERIA, pp. 115-124) and nowhere was Fajuyi’s name mentioned. The name also did not crop up in either Ruth First, or John de St. Jorre or any book for that matter that dealt with the January 1966 coup.
The other sore thumb on this narrative is the comment by Professor Isawa Elaigwu, in his biography of General Yakubu Gowon that “Fajuyi… was reported to have been very scared”. Colonel Fajuyi, an officer who won two British military medals for bravery all within 18 years of being in the military, the only officer in Nigerian military history to have been so honoured, to have been “very scared” is most unlikely.
This would be equivalent to declaring that General George Patton, the bravest General of the Second World War, was scared in a battle. It would fly in the face of facts and would not be regarded as credible.
I am not implying that Colonel Francis Fajuyi was the only brave officer that the Nigerian army has produced. On the contrary, Colonel Alabi-Isama’s civil war memoirs show General Benjamin Adekunle (the Black Scorpion) as an exceptionally brave officer.
Another exceptionally brave officer is General Ibrahim Babangida who as Colonel Babangida confronted Lt, Colonel Dimka during the 1976 attempted coup.
In a highly educative and illuminating article by Ben Lawrence who was an eyewitness to the encounter between Colonel Babangida and Colonel Dimka in the NBC headquarters, he wrote:
“A sprucely dressed officer was being brought into the presence of the coup-leader. I had no knowledge of who he was, but he was cool, man, —really cool. He stood about 30 yards away from Dimka, who had come out into the corridor, and spoke to him in Hausa. ‘I am coming directly to you,’ he said with all sincerity. ‘I bear no arms but only wish to talk with you. May I come on?’ Dimka was standing between two of his soldiers, one of whom was armed. He was the one who refused. However, Dimka was for the visitor to draw nearer, but the soldier got into an argument with him and Dimka had to disarm him forcibly. Then he asked his visitor to draw nearer.
The newcomer, who was a full colonel by the insignia of his uniform, kept asking for permission at each step as he drew nearer, and Dimka replied favourably. We, Ishola Folorunso and I, were the only ones in sight of the corridor, the only witnesses to the historic meeting. And then, the colonel began to plead with Dimka. ‘Leave this thing alone, you hear? What has got into you?’ ‘My life is totally involved now, and I can’t give it up,’ Dimka replied. Then he looked down the corridor and remembered that Hausa was a language we often communicated in on our drinking sprees, so he asked us to leave the corridor.
I quickly made to leave, but not so, my Director of Programmes. He said no one was going to order him around in his office. In vain I pleaded with him. I had known Isola, man and boy, then for over 30 years. Never had I seen him grow so obstinate over a point. And so, Dimka had both of us locked in Ishola’s office while they continued their conversation. After a while, we were let out. Dimka was accompanying the other officer down the corridor to one of the corporation’s car. As the door was held open for him to enter, the colonel took a step back and gave a very smart salute before departing.
We all then tried to settle down, but really could not. We were asking whom that brave officer was that dared to engage assassins still wet with the blood of their victim on their hands? And Dimka let him go just like that? … we learnt that the gallant colonel who came to save us was Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida. He went on to make more history later, but that is the story for another day. (Bisi Lawrence, Vanguard Feb 13, 2016).”
Fifty years after Fajuyi paid for his gallantry and honour with his life, we run the risk of the significance of that dawn being forgotten. Even the younger generation has probably never even heard of this episode, not to talk about drawing the right inferences from it.
I have spoken to every Oyo State governor since 1999 with the exception of the present governor about the need to acquire compulsorily the stretch of land along Iwo road where both Colonel Fajuyi and General Ironsi were killed. On that parcel of land should be constructed a National Memorial Park dedicated to courage, loyalty and unity and adorned by the twin bronze statues of General Thomas “Ironside” Aguiyi-Ironsi and Colonel Francis Adekunle “OMOLUABI” Fajuyi. And let the story of what happened that dawn be told over and over again to present and future generations. I even tried to sell the idea to Afenifere/AD when that contraption controlled the Western states. I received no listening ears then.
Maybe now, on the 50th anniversary of perhaps the noblest deed in Nigerian history, the powers that be in all the Western states will listen and reflect. Nigeria needs this memorial. But much more important, we, the Yoruba nation need this memorial. If truth be told, we are held in great contempt in Nigeria, being regarded as lazy, cowardly and enamoured of owanbe worldview. Of course, this perception is very far from the truth. Lazy people did not build cocoa plantations, which made the old Western Region the most developed state in Africa under Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Cowards did not man and lead the Third Marine Commando Division, which carried out the first successful sea to land military operations in Africa. This division led by first Benjamin Adekunle and later by Olusegun Obasanjo included Akinrinade, Alabi-Isama and other Yoruba officers. How can a race that produced Colonel Francis Adekunle, the only African to win the British Military Cross, for valour be called cowards? But then who needs facts when demonisation will do.
So let us build this national memorial park. Let us build the bronze statutes of Fajuyi and Ironsi; Let us tell the story of honour, valour and courage in a year and in a country more noted for treachery, betrayal, mayhem, murder and bestial behaviour.
Nothing I have written here nor the monuments if built can consecrate or sanctify the heroism of that night. The act and the penalty he paid have already consecrated and sanctify it (to borrow from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address). Our job as the living is to ensure that LT-COLONEL FRANCIS ADEKUNLE FAJUYI is not forgotten. Not for his sake but for our sake.
• Prof. Akinyemi was Nigeria’s Foreign Minister from 1985-1987