By Femi Fani Kayode
May 30th, 2019 represents the 52nd anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra.
I have written the following contribution to help mark that day. I hope it goes a long way to show where and when the trouble and challenges all started.
I also hope that it widens and stimulates the debate about the plight of the Igbo in the Nigerian state and to enlighten those that may not know why it is that so many young Igbos feel strongly about the concept of Biafra.
Some of the events that I have written about here are painful and deeply personal but write we must in order to educate others, in order to establish the truth, in order to ensure that history does not repeeat itself and in order to usher in an era of true reconciliation, peace, love and forgiveness in our nation. Kindly fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the flight!
In the early hours of the morning of January 15th 1966, Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Major Chukwuemeka Kaduna Nzeogwu, Major Chris Anuforo, Major Adewale Ademoyega, Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu, Major Humphrey Chuwuka, Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi, Captain Ben Gbulie, Captain Donatus Okafor, 2nd Lt. G. Onyefuru and a handful of other junior army officers of the Nigerian Army, who happened to be predominantly from the Eastern Region, effected a violent rebellion and bloody mutiny.
During the course of that mutiny they murdered no less than 22 prominent and well-respected leaders, politicians and senior Army officers including Sir Tafawa Balewa, the Prime Minister, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Premier of the Northern Region and his wife Hafsat, Chief S.L. Akintola, the Premier of the Western Region, Chief Okotie-Eboh, the Minister of Finance, Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun, Commander of the 1st Brigade Kaduna and his wife Lateefat, Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, Commander of the 2nd Brigade Lagos, Lt. Colonel James Pam, Adjutant-General of the Army, Colonel Ralph Shodeinde, Head of the NMTC, Lt. Col. Abogo Largema, Commander of the 4th Battalion Ibadan, Colonel Kur Mohammed, Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Colonel Unegbe, Quarter-Master General and others.
This was the first time that a violent mutiny and a military coup d’etat had ever taken place in the history of our nation and the Nigerian people, and indeed the entire world, were shocked by the brutality of the entire exercise and the ruthless, cold-blooded and clinical precision with which it was effected.
My family and lovedc ones were not left out of the bitter events of that sanguine and frightful morning. The mutineers came to our official residence in Ibadan and almost killed my father, Chief Remi Fani-Kayode, the Deputy Premier of the Western Region as well.
As a matter of fact my father and Sir Khashim Imam, the Governor of the Northern Region, were the only two leaders whose homes were raided and who were arrested and abducted that morning by the mutineers that were not murdered.
By divine orchestration, sheer providence and the grace and power of the Living God Papa was delivered and saved by the Federal troops under the command of Lt. Colonel Jack Yakubu Gowon (as he then was) after a terrible gun battle at the Officers Mess in Dodan Barracks in Lagos.
It was indeed a terrible morning. I was 5 years old at the time and I still remember what happened vividly when, led by Captain Emmanuel Nwobosi, they came to our home, cloaked in the darkness of the early hours and took away my father.
He offered no resistance but instead opted to courageously go and meet them outside after which they brutalised him before my very eyes.
I watched the whole thing unfold from the balcony as my dear mother, Chief Mrs. Adia Adunni Fani-Kayode, crying and wailing with all her strength and passion, distraught with grief and witnessing what she believed were the final moments before the execution of her beloved husband and father of her four children suffer the pangs and utter the cries of utter horror and despair.
To make matters worse my father, being a typically proud Ife man with very strong Victorian values, was courageous and defiant and held his head up high. He refused to bow or cower before his traducers, accusers and would-be killers.
The minute he stepped outside all alone to meet no less than 100 soldiers in the forecourt of the house they asked him a question as they sneered at him: “where are your thugs now?”.
Rather than tremble and bow, he looked them in the eye defiantly and replied by saying, “I do not have thugs, I have gentlemen”. That is when they hit him with the butt of a gun, tied up his hands and legs and threw him into the back of the lorry.
After that at least 30 of them stormed the house and went from room to room ransacking the whole place and almost shooting yours truly, my older brother Rotimi and my junior sister Toyin.
Thankfully after some time they left. And when they did they took Papa with them. The only consolation that I had was that Nwobosi, who is still alive today, actually patted me on the head before leaving, asked me to stop crying and assured me that they would not kill my father. And he honored his word!
I have spent the last 52 years of my life trying to fathom and comprehend how a man that was caught up and enmeshed in so much violence and who went on to kill Chief S.L. Akintola before his whole family that same morning, found the decency and compassion to show such kindness to a 5 year old boy that was all alone in the passage amidst the confusion and madness and that was crying so loudly and desperately out of fear for the life of his father, his mother, his siblings and himself.
I must give credit to Nwobosi there. He gave me hope and strength and the minute he hugged me and patted me on the head the third time I stopped crying. Instead, as they took my father away, I kept attempting to comfort my mother assuring her that the officer had promised me that they would not kill Papa.
Yet sadly other families were not as lucky as ours was that morning. Ifeajuna, Nzeogwu and their co-conspirators murdered 22 that day: 22 prominent and important people who were deeply loved by their family and their people. Whatever their motivations were, this was painful, sad, unnecessary and condemnable and it cannot be defended or justified under ANY circumstances.
To kill defenceless men and women in their homes in the middle of the night or to take them from their families, subject them to the worst form of dehumanisation and torture and murder them in a bush, in my view, is not a heroic act: it is wickedness. They killed 22 people, including the wives and family members of some of their victims, in this way.
Yet if the actions of the mutineers can be legitimately described as vicious and heartless, the response of the north can only be described as utterly brutal and barbaric. On July 29th 1966, six months after the January 15th mutiny, the northern officers effected their “revenge coup” and murdered no less than 300 Igbo officers, including an Igbo Head of State (Major Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi) and a Yoruba Military Governor (Lt. Col. Francis Fajuyi), in one day! Sadly it didn’t stop there.
Northern mobs, with the tacit support of the northern military, slaughtered approximately 100,000 innocent Igbo civilians in 3 separate pogroms in the north within three months in 1966.
After that the northern-controlled Nigerian military and state stepped in and killed a further 3 million Igbo civilians, including 1 million Igbo children, in the civil war. They also butchered over 1000 defenceless young boys and old men in Asaba in the space of 20 minutes after luring them into the town square for a briefing.
What was done to the Igbo during the civil war was the greatest act of black on black violence and genocide that the Arfican continent has ever witnessed in history! Only King Leopold 11 of Belgium has ever killed more when he slaughtered 10 million Congolese Africans in the Belgian Congo within a few years!
May God forgive us for shedding so much innocent blood. And few would disagree with me when I say that the northern and indeed Nigerian response to the ugly events of Jan. 15th 1966 was hideous, uncanny, unprecedented and disproportionate? Have the Igbo not sufficiently paid the price for what happened on that frightful and horrific morning?
In any case did Ifeajuna, Nzeogwu and the others get their permission and mandate before killing all those people on that night? Were they acting on behalf of the Igbo nation or just themselves and, if they were, where and when did the Igbo people come together, sit down and ask them to commit those atrocities?
Again were Lt. Col. Ojukwu, Lt. Col. Hilary Njoku and Maj. General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi not Igbos as well? And if it really was an all-embracing, all-inclusive and massive Igbo conspiracy which involved ALL the Igbos how come they were not part of it and how come they played a key role in suppressing the mutiny?
In any case whether you believe it was an Igbo coup or not is hardly hardly the point. The question is, even if you believe that it was, can you justify attempting to wipe out a whole race because of the actions of a handful of junior Army officers who happen to mostly come from the east?
If anyone should have anything against those junior officers that mutinied and unleashed death, blood, destruction, havoc and carnage that night it should be me. They took my father before my very eyes and almost killed him.
They also took many of my fathers friends and colleagues both in the Government and the military and killed them in cold blood.
Yet despite their excesses I am constrained to conceed that much of what they opposed and sought to root out at that time is even more pronounced and obvious today than it was then.
In many ways they have been vindicated by the events of the last 52 years and, given that, in my view it is time to forgive them for their horrendous actions and move on. Whatever ones views are about that one thing is clear: the response of the north particularly and Nigeria generally to their mutiny and homicidal bloodfest was extreme, depraved and utterly reprehensible.
They killed 22 of ours in one night and in return we killed 300 of theirs in one day. Then we killed a further 100,000 of theirs in 3 months. Then we killed a further 3 million of theirs in 3 years! And sadly we have been killing them ever since! This is wicked. This is barbaric. This is evil. This is unacceptable.
For over three generations now the Igbo have been paying the price for what happened on Jan. 15th 1966 and for wanting to break out of the country and seceede when they were faced with nothing short of genocide. It is enough. It must stop.
And if they insist on a referendum today to determine whether or not they wish to stay in Nigeria, considering all they have been subjected to over the last 53 years, I believe we owe them that much.
The right to self-determination is entrenched in international law, is just and proper and is the foundation and bedrock of freedom and democracy. It cannot be easily wished away or legitimately denied.
To those that want the Igbo to forget the past and to stay in Nigeria despite their suffering, anguish, pain and sorrow I suggest that the best way of convincing them to do so is to stop the hate, the lies, the historical revisionism, the insensitivity, the bullying, the cheating, the ethnic cleansing, the mass murder, the genocide, the islamisation, the fulanisation, the callousness, the attempt to dehumanise and enslave and the deceit and instead to show them love, compassion and understanding.
Make them feel like equals with other Nigerians and prove to them that Nigeria has much more to offer them than the usual empty promises and vain hopes of a better tomorrow and the ephemeral and deceptive illusion of perhaps one day achieving the Presidency.
They are hard-working, proud, industrious and extraordinary human beings and not errand boys and slaves: they deserve far more and far better than lip service and the usual palliatives.
Fani Kayode was a former Minister of Aviation