GUEST COLUMNIST By Kingsley Moghalu
Lt. Gen. Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma (Rtd) GCON, is one of those few mortals who have had the good fortune to rise not just beyond mere success to greatness, but also beyond greatness to the status of a legend. A colossus in Nigeria’s military, political, business and philanthropic landscape over the past six decades, Danjuma’s roles and actions in Nigeria’s history have been decisive and consequential. Certainly, as well, controversial. A man of few words, good-looking but also fierce-looking, you get the impression, on your first encounter with him, of still waters that run deep. A man who has seen and experienced much in a turbulent world, but is in no hurry to talk about what he knows and has seen. But if you were to have the opportunity of sharing the personal space of this very private man, you may be able to see a bit behind the veil.
Who is T.Y. Danjuma? Beyond his early life after his birth in Takum in today’s Taraba State in Northeastern Nigeria, the answer to this question has evolved even, one suspects, in the self-perception of the man himself. He joined the Nigerian Army in 1960. Danjuma subsequently served in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Congo in the early 60s, commanded the 1st Infantry Battalion of the Nigerian Army during the Nigerian civil war, and developed a strong reputation for professionalism, discipline, and courage. He commanded a huge amount of respect in the Armed Forces, rising to become the Chief of Army Staff in 1975 after the military coup that overthrew Gen. Yakubu Gowon as Head of State. He retired from the Army in 1979, aged 41, as the military returned to the barracks.
Danjuma’s high profile was established early in his life: he executed the most important assignment in the July 1966 counter-coup – the arrest of the Head of State Gen. Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi, who was on a visit to Ibadan at the time. Ironsi was with his host Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, Military Governor of Western Nigeria. Both were arrested by Danjuma, and later killed. Danjuma told a media interviewer in the Vanguard newspaper of February 17, 2008 that, contrary to popular belief, he did not order the death of Ironsi and Fajuyi. Instead, he recalled, events spun out of his control in the heat of the moment after the arrest of the two leaders. Soldiers locally based in Abeokuta disobeyed his command at a point, “batoned” him, and took Ironsi and Fajuyi away to their tragic deaths.
In a country in which sectarian ethnic loyalties run deep and have subverted the emergence of nationhood, the dominant narratives of the January and July 1966 coups have been those of “Igbo coup” and “Northern coup”. Understandably, then, the events of July 1966, in particular Aguiyi Ironsi’s death, have defined the perception of Danjuma in some quarters as “anti-Igbo”. The truth, I believe, and despite his role in that tragic episode that led to the death of Ironsi, is that the retired general is not guilty as charged.
History cannot absolve Danjuma of agency in the arrest of Ironsi and Fajuyi (that was obviously part of the coup plan and he was one of the coup plotters), but he was in reality also caught up in the vortex of the turbulent times. To paraphrase the uncanny expression by the poet W.B. Yeats, in 1966 the falcon could not hear the falconer; things fell apart, and the center could no longer hold. May the souls of Ironsi, Fajuyi, Ahmadu Bello, Tafawa Balewa, Ladoke Akintola and other leaders and military officers who fell at the bullets of coupists rest in peace. And may we someday have leaders in Nigeria who can help us learn the lessons of this sad history, using it to heal and not to divide.
The man T.Y. Danjuma has evidently undergone a complex metamorphosis in the intervening decades since these defining events. His worldview and sense of identity have shifted. While in the mid-1960s he saw himself as a “northerner” in former Northern Region Premier Sir Ahmadu Bello’s “one North” worldview that included Christians and ethnic northern minorities, Danjuma appears today to identify more directly as a Northern Christian and ethnic minority. He is unequivocal that the very existence of these groups he belongs to is now threatened by Islamist terrorists and violent killer-herdsmen. These marauders have repeatedly attacked his own Jukun and other ethnic minority communities in his native Taraba State. Danjuma believes that the goal of these violent attacks is to drive the communities from their ancestral lands in the pursuit of an expansionist agenda.
He has not hidden his disappointment with the Nigerian Army he once led. In a controversial speech at a university convocation in his home state capital Jalingo in 2018, Danjuma accused the Nigerian military of “collusion” with the terrorists. He has repeatedly charged his compatriots to arm themselves, by whatever means, and rise in self-defense, “or you will all die one by one”. The Theophilus Danjuma of 1966 and even up to the late 2000s, then, is not the TYD of today. Self-survival is the first law of nature. Some epiphany evidently occurred, and Saul became Paul. All politics, ultimately, is local.
Welcome to one of the supreme ironies of the Nigerian State. We have a security crisis that has metastasized into a crisis of the very identity of the State itself. We have arrived at a juncture in which one of the captains of the military “Class of 1966”, a ranking member of The Guardians of State that still hold sway in Nigeria but increasingly appear unable to agree on the country’s strategic direction as they used to, is “No Longer at Ease”. Apologies to the late Chinua Achebe, who himself angrily penned and titled his last book “There Was A Country” before he passed on a decade ago.
Whatever he believed in the past or believes today, Danjuma is no coward. His character and reputation for courage in moments he judges to be existential has not deserted him. And yet it is as if, having served as the “avenging angel” for the northern oligarchy in July 1966, he is ultimately untouchable as he speaks uncomfortable truths today. Nigeria is a country where a failure of leadership brushes difficult conversations about history, nationhood and nation-building under the carpet. We can safely assume that, given what he has seen, done and knows, Danjuma has in fact not yet spoken at all. Will he oblige us with a memoir, either as autobiography or biography? Danjuma owes Nigeria a debt: his full retelling of the history he made and was part of its making. His own equivalent of the late legendary journalist Peter Enahoro’s magisterial book Then Spoke The Thunder.
The great general has been a key player in important backroom political wheelings and dealings in his heyday, especially in the context of military transitions to democratic rule. The late elder statesman and First Republic Minister Mbazulike Amaechi, who was a political confidante of First Republic President Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, recalled in a newspaper interview that Danjuma (implicitly acting as point man for the military junta at the time) was favorably disposed to the Great Zik emerging as executive President of Nigeria in 1979. That masterstroke of national reconciliation, had it happened, was to have been on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), with Shehu Shagari as Zik’s Vice-President. Amaechi recalled a dinner at Shagari’s residence between himself, Shagari and Danjuma where this scenario was discussed and agreed as the transition to civilian rule loomed in the late 70s. But Zik ultimately balked – doubtless driven by a fear of a last minute betrayal inside the party. Instead of joining the “mainstream” NPN, the grand old maestro contested on the platform of the Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP). That choice yielded a different trajectory.
This aspect of Danjuma’s influence, which continued in subsequent electoral transitions, was also cemented by the great wealth he amassed in his post-military career. He made his billions in shipping and crude oil exploration, proving as astute in the boardroom as he was as a soldier. The retired general was the chief financial bundler for Olusegun Obasanjo’s 1999 presidential campaign, and served as Minister of Defense in the first term of Obasanjo’s presidency. In 2008 he established the T.Y. Danjuma Foundation, opening up yet another chapter in his eventful life. This formalized philanthropy has become his latter-day signature. Danjuma’s philanthropic support for human capital development in Nigeria, through education and healthcare in Nigerian tertiary institutions and beyond, has been game-changing for its recipients and second to none.
And the man at home? You cannot have a complete picture of Gen. Danjuma, especially in the past three decades, without reference to the strong support he has received from his beautiful wife, the Nigerian politician and former Senator Daisy Danjuma. Nothing captures this dimension of his life as clearly as his own words: on the occasion of Senator Danjuma’s recent 70th birthday, the old soldier movingly described his wife, in a written tribute, as “the crown jewel of my life”.
As Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma turns 84, his kindness and compassion and the many lives that trait has touched and empowered, and his courage to speak truth to power even at risk of his personal wealth and privilege, will be important aspects of his legacy. So too will be the unfortunate events of 1966, in which he burst into prominence as a young turk in the Nigerian Army. But anyone who understands the dynamics of history and the evolutions of nations knows that the stuff of greatness, nay legend, is often forged in fleeting snapshots in time.
Prof. Moghalu, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, is the President of the Institute for Governance and Economic Transformation (IGET), a public policy think tank.