Monday, 28 January 2019

Lieutenant-Colonel Fajuyi: Death and Legacy

Lt. Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, military governor of Nigeria’s Western Region, who was assassinated during the army mutiny of July 29th 1966.

Adekunle Fajuyi occupies a unique, almost mythical place in Nigerian history. He is largely viewed as the gallant officer who, in the midst of an episode of bloodletting among Nigeria’s soldiers, refused to stand aside as his commander-in-chief was being led to the slaughter, and, instead, opted to share the fate of a brutal death at the hands of renegade soldiers. And although some participants and witnesses to the events in Ibadan on July 29th 1966 adamantly expressed the view that Fajuyi like Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi had already been earmarked for death, the legacy of a soldier possessed of physical and moral courage remains essentially unimpaired.

The background to the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi was that of a country in turmoil. A mutiny by middle-ranking army officers on January 15th 1966 had led to the overthrow of the civilian government which had ruled Nigeria since it had formally become independent from British rule in October 1960. But the majors at the heart of the coup had not assumed power since they were opposed by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, to whom they eventually surrendered. Ironsi had had the mantle of national leader thrust on him when the civilian rulers had “voluntarily” transferred power to the military.

However, the narrative that Ironsi’s assumption of power had been the accidental culmination of a chain of events was one which came to be doubted by many in the country. True, the majors had terminated the rule of a government which had been plagued by accusations of incompetence and corruption, but the choices they had made in regard to the figures they had selected for elimination appeared to be grossly slanted. In short, most of the assassinated politicians came from the Northern region, while the coup was led by officers of mainly Igbo ethnicity, the dominant group of Nigeria’s Eastern region. And Ironsi, himself an Igbo, had been handed power by an acting Vice President, an Igbo, who was representing the Igbo president, Nnamdi Azikiwe who conveniently, critics assumed, had been abroad at the time of the mutiny.

The soldiers who surrounded Government House, Ibadan in the early hours of Friday, July 29th did so with a sense of vengeance. They hailed from the Northern region and felt aggrieved by the fact that several senior Northern army officers had been assassinated by the mutineers who had struck in January. The commanding officer of the Ibadan-based 4th battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Abogo Largema, had been murdered during that putsch.

Composed in the main of soldiers of Northern origin, they had refused to obey the orders of the officer appointed by Ironsi to replace him, because he was Igbo. This act of dissent was a harbinger of what would transpire on the day of the murder of Fajuyi and Ironsi. They seethed over the fact that Ironsi had failed to put the January conspirators on trial, and that while in custody, the likes of Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu were being paid their salaries and, supposedly, were enjoying a relatively comfortable existence.

Northern soldiers had also grumbled over certain promotions Ironsi had made which were construed as favouring officers from his ethnic group even though chief complainers such as Lieutenant-Colonel Murtala Muhammad, who would be among the leaders of the counter-coup of July, had been beneficiaries. There was a feeling that the North needed to strike in order to preempt another coup by Igbos aimed at consolidating their grip on power.

The dissatisfaction and suspicion in the army reflected the wider feeling of grievance among Northerners who reacted with fury at Ironsi’s decision to promulgate a decree in May which transformed the federal structure of Nigeria into a unitary one. It was interpreted as the completion of an elaborate plot designed to entrench Igbo hegemony. This, as they perceived it, had been achieved through the control of the army in which Igbos were preponderant in the officer class, as well as through the mechanism of a unified civil service in regard to which the less educated Northerners would be unable to compete with higher attaining Igbos.

Adekunle Fajuyi, an ethnic Yoruba, had been appointed by Ironsi as the governor of the Western Region. He had hosted a cocktail party on the evening of the 28th to mark the conclusion of Ironsi’s nationwide tour aimed at consulting with Nigeria’s traditional rulers about the situation in the country. The northern Muslim Emirs in particular sought reassurances about the direction that the country was heading.

Fajuyi like others in Government House that early morning were likely roused by the sound of gunfire outside the building. He sent messages to the guard house and to his aide-de-camp, one Lieutenant Umar, a northerner. Most of the staff were northerners and they were part of the coup which had already claimed the lives of Igbo soldiers at a garrison in the city of Abeokuta. Umar falsely reported back that all was well. Fajuyi met with Ironsi and it quickly became apparent that they were surrounded by troops with hostile intent. They had taken positions from all vantage points. Some were nestled in tree tops, while others lay around the grounds in combat posture. A 106mm gun, an anti-tank weapon, was positioned in support. The entrances and exits were blocked.

They intended for no one to escape.

Major Theophilus Danjuma who was coordinating the siege resisted calls from impatient non-commissioned officers to storm Government House, and was content with arresting those who intermittently emerged from the building on errands on behalf of the governor and the head of state. His aim, he would later claim, was to arrest Fajuyi and Ironsi. But when Lieutenant-Colonel Hilary Njoku, the Igbo commander of the 2nd Brigade in Lagos was sighted leaving, a burst of machine gun fire was aimed at him. He sustained a leg injury but managed to escape.

Frantic calls were placed to officers around the country to explain their dire predicament. An attempt to get a helicopter to rescue them came to nothing. Fajuyi was the first to make his way to the living room where he paced up and down in full uniform. He summoned Ironsi’s air force aide-de-camp, Captain Andrew Nwankwo and told him to go outside to find out what was happening. Nwankwo met Major Danjuma who told him that he wanted “to see Ironsi”. It was during this prolonged, tense conversation that Fajuyi came outside to find out why Nwankwo hadn’t returned.

Danjuma recounted the following conversation taking place between Fajuyi and himself:

Danjuma: Sir, you are under arrest. Raise your hands.

Fajuyi: What do you want?

Danjuma: I want the supreme commander.

Fajuyi: Promise me that no harm will come to him.

Danjuma agreed, but objections were raised by a number of NCOs who felt that Fajuyi ought to have been detained and not allowed back in. Danjuma noted this and produced a grenade informing Fajuyi that if he made a “false move” he would blow both of them up. So Danjuma, grenade in hand and walking behind Fajuyi, made his way to meet Ironsi in the company of a handful of NCOs. After disarming two police guards at the staircase, they made their way up to the living room which was situated on the first floor.

When they encountered Ironsi, Danjuma saluted him and an argument ensued between both men over Danjuma’s complaint that Ironsi had not kept his promise to court martial the mutineers of January. Fajuyi reportedly interjected with repeated reminders that Danjuma had assured Ironsi of his safety. Ironsi was then seized. He was relieved of his trademark crocodile swagger stick and his major-general’s pips and shirt were torn from him. Ironsi, Fajuyi and Ironsi’s military aides, Nwankwo and Lieutenant Sani Bello, had their hands tied behind their backs with telephone wire.

Danjuma, who had given Fajuyi assurances that there would be no bloodshed, then claimed to have instructed an adjutant of the 4th battalion to take Fajuyi and Ironsi to a guest house on a nearby cattle ranch. But, he recalled, an NCO impatiently tapped him on the shoulder with the butt of a rifle and took the prisoners from him. They were then spirited away in two of what formed a convoy of three vehicles. He was forced to hitch-hike back to the barracks. However another account has Danjuma entering one of the vehicles and being a part of the convoy until waving them on and heading for the barracks.

They entered Lalupon, a town on the outskirts of Ibadan, and disembarked at a location on the outskirts of a forest. Fajuyi led the way as he and the others, all now stripped of their shirts and repeatedly beaten, were marched along a narrow footpath. When he stumbled and fell as he attempted to cross a small stream, the response of some of his captors was to beat him. By now, both Fajuyi and Ironsi were so weakened by the beatings that they could hardly stand up. They were laid face down on the earth before each man was executed with a burst of sten gun.

It was a callous, gruesome end.

The bodies of both were left at the spot of their execution until the next day when a group of Northern soldiers buried them in the shallow graves discovered a few days later by a unit of the police Special Branch. They were disinterred and reburied at the military cemetery in Ibadan.

No official announcements of the death of either man was made by the succeeding government led by Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gowon, a Christian Northerner who had been Ironsi’s Chief of Staff. A second exhumation would occur at the beginning of 1967 after the meeting in Aburi between Gowon and members of Nigeria’s post-Ironsi government and Lieutenant-Colonel Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern Region who disputed the legitimacy of the regime which had succeeded that of Ironsi’s. Both Fajuyi and Ironsi were accorded state funerals with each being buried in his hometown: Fajuyi in Ado-Ekiti and Ironsi in Umuahia. A civil war would nonetheless ensue, and in many respects the counter-coup of July 1966 was only completed with the collapse of Biafra, the name given to the seceded Eastern Region, in January 1970.

With soldiers acting as death squads, lynch mobs and assassins, the episodes of violence unleashed within the Nigerian Army during the mutinies of 1966 were not of the sort which by any standards would confer glory on the protagonists. But in the personage of Fajuyi, one of the victims, a story began to evolve of courage and sacrifice.

The nutshell story is this: the coup of July was viewed by Northern soldiers as a revenge operation against their Igbo counterparts, and in this enterprise they bore no animus towards Yoruba soldiers. Thus, in the ensuing onslaught Yorubas were largely spared the fate that would befall their Igbo comrades. The modus operandi was to separate Yoruba soldiers and others of non-Igbo ethnicity from Igbo ones before exacting their brand of vengeance on Igbo victims. Of course, Yorubas such a Major Benjamin Adekunle who made efforts to enable Igbos to escape their executioners put themselves in danger of being killed, but provided they stepped aside, they would not be harmed. It is from this background that the widely related story that Fajuyi, who was not meant to die, had informed his captors that if they were going to kill the man who was his guest; they would have to do the same to him.

But this was not the story told in the immediate aftermath of his murder. Indeed there was little public discourse on the matter given the muteness of the central government which made no official announcement of his death. Many Nigerians were not aware that he and Ironsi had been killed. However, after his state funeral much attention began to be focused on Fajuyi’s conduct before his execution. Beginning with the book Fajuyi the Great, an official publication of the Information Division of the Western regional government in 1967, the narrative of Fajuyi choosing to die with Ironsi firmly entered the realm of public consciousness. Over the decades, it was consolidated by other works with titles such as A Great Hero and Tribute to Gallantry. In Fajuyi: The Martyred Soldier, which was published in 1996, the author, one Sanmi Ajiki, resorted to artistic licence when recreating the scene where Fajuyi was arrested with Ironsi with the following dialogue:

Fajuyi: 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.

Ironsi: Yes! Francis, I retain my absolute confidence in you. I have never for once doubted your integrity.

Such dialogue does not sound plausible given the tense and chaotic circumstances of the arrest of both men. None of those involved in Fajuyi’s arrest who went on the record have claimed that Fajuyi had been asked to stand aside while Ironsi was taken away. Indeed, according to William Walbe and Theophilus Danjuma, Fajuyi was specifically earmarked for death because he was believed by the mutineers to have had a hand in the planning of the first mutiny. They also heard that Fajuyi had acted to block any attempts to bring the January mutineers to trial.

According to William Walbe: “We arrested him as we arrested Ironsi. We suspected him of being party to the January coup. You remember the Battle Group Course which was held at Abeokuta. Fajuyi was the commander of the Battle Group Course. All those who took part in the January coup were those who had taken part in that course. It gave us the impression that the Battle Course was arranged for the January coup, so he had to suffer it too. I am sorry about that but that is the nature of the life of a military man.”

Danjuma also claimed that Fajuyi was in command of another training camp in the northern town of Kachia during which time Major Nzeogwu went through a mock assault on a house which Northern officers later took to be a rehearsal for the attack on the home of Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto, the most powerful politician in the north. “The chaps could not stomach Fajuyi”, Danjuma would say, “such that if there was anybody who should die first, as far as they were concerned, it was Fajuyi, not even Ironsi.”

Researchers have concluded that both Danjuma and Walbe’s accounts are ridden with inaccuracies. For instance, Fajuyi was not involved in the Kachia training camp which took place in mid-April 1966 when Nzeogwu was in detention. And while Danjuma may have mistaken the training camp for that of the Battle Group course held in September 1966, only one of the seven instructors (Major Wale Ademoyega) and one of the thirteen attendees (Captain Ben Gbulie) were participants in the January mutiny. Several of the attending officers were from the North. Nonetheless, in the atmosphere of seething distrust and rumour mongering as existed in the army in the build up to the counter-coup, factual information often took a back seat.

Still, evidence of Fajuyi’s involvement in the January mutiny came from one of the mutiny’s five leaders, Ademoyega. Ademoyega, a Yoruba and the only non-Igbo among the leaders, would write in his book Why We Struck that Fajuyi was aware of the coup and supported it by making suggestions to the plotters as to how it could be best carried out. He further claimed that the only reason Fajuyi had not been an active participant was because of a posting. Importantly, he confirms that Fajuyi did in fact strenuously oppose all efforts made by the Ironsi-led Supreme Military Council to bring the plotters to trial.

A more accurate rendition of Fajuyi’s conduct during the events of July 29th and the lead up the mutiny staged on that day arguably does not diminish the man. Pushing to one side the embellished story that he positively elected to face death with Ironsi rather than to abandon his host to death, it is clear that Fajuyi acted in a physically courageous way when he stepped outside of state house to confront the rebellious soldiers when attempting to ascertain what had happened to Captain Nwankwo, Ironsi’s ADC. It is also clear that he believed as a matter of honour that he was morally duty bound to do what he could to protect his guest General Ironsi, hence his repeated entreaties to Major Danjuma to assure him that no harm would come to Ironsi.

Like Ironsi, Fajuyi was a veteran of the UN peacekeeping operation in the Congo. He was the first Nigerian officer to be awarded an international military citation when as a major, he was the recipient of the Military Cross for leading his company in combat on November 27, 1960 and also for subsequently extricating it from an ambush during operations on January 3, 1961.

The story of Fajuyi gallantly electing to die was perhaps consciously developed as means of emphasising the virtue of gallantry in the midst of the savagery unleashed in the army. But if the preeminent function of the competent and objective documentarian is to clarify the past, then it is imperative that myths surrounding historical figures are laid to rest.

In the case of Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, that time is long overdue.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


Saturday, 26 January 2019

Ali and Elvis: An Anecdote by Ron Lipton

Ron Lipton and Muhammad Ali (CREDIT: Ron Lipton Collection)

This is probably my favourite of all Ron Lipton’s stories.

One Saturday afternoon back in the mid-2000s, I had returned home having just delivered a Black History Seminar entitled “Muhammad Ali and the Civil Rights Movement” and logged on to the message board of the CyberBoxingZone and noticed a thread about Ali and his declining health. Ron had made a contribution in which he uploaded a photograph of himself with a young and radiant Ali along with another of Ali with Ron’s daughter.

The pictures took me by surprise and thrilled quite a number of posters as did his reply to my post which gently ribbed his post-hippie dress sense and whiskers:

Thank you Ade,

The picture was from the early 70’s/late sixties, at my apt in Verona.

He had come out to visit me after he had given me a ride home in his Green Rolls Royce after several days together travelling.

I have a newspaper article on the Elvis incident and it was a pip. It was the time he came up to Deer Lake and it was after he gave Ali that great sequined robe, I believe for the Bugner fight. I will try to find and then post the Elvis article about us that day.

Ali brought him into the great dining room and I was eating with Lana Shahbazz and Jimmy Ellis. Ali had an old piano in the dining area and while everyone was flipping saying hello to Elvis (who was the nicest, most unassuming regular guy, polite and warm to every single last person there), Ali  started playing a boogie-woogie tune on the piano, very well, I might add.

Well, Ali gets the idea to blow a few minds down in the little town bar and we all jump around into several cars with Elvis and his guys. Ali who was loved and well known to all the locals, who were quite used to seeing him, brings Presley into the rear of a little gin mill. Then Ali comes in and says hello to the rednecks there who are loving every second of his company, but are half in the bag in the bar.

Ali yells out: “I want everyone to listen to me for a second. I have a buddy, he ain’t that good, but he does an Elvis Presley impression and I want you to give him a chance, cause he is my friend. Now he can’t really sing and he doesn’t really look a lot like Elvis but let’s give him a chance.”

He says this as serious as a heart attack.

Then they bring in Presley who starts his thing by saying “hello ladies and gentlemen” etc and starts to sing acapella.

First 10 seconds, no one says shit. The more he does this, it starts to hit them: Hmmmm, Ali is a celebrity, Ali knows everyone. Noooo, this can’t be real. Holy shit! Goddamn! It’s really him! And they flip out like you would not believe.

Drinks for everyone, (Ali and Elvis did not drink that night), autographs, laughing, minds sufficiently blown to amuse Ali.

I would give a million to have that on film, but I was lucky to have seen it live.

He was something, plus the best thing about it all, was to see Elvis laughing to fit to bust his sides. Ali and him together was magic itself come alive.

Ron.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He is the author of the books Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula. He is a contributor to the recently released Companion to Boxing published by Cambridge University Press.

Michel Legrand (1932-2019)

Cover of the 1979 album Le Jazz Grand

I love the creations of ‘old school’ film composers and Michel Legrand was one of the very best. His compositional talents ranged from the neo-Baroque soundtrack to a period film entitled The Go-Between (1971) to the orchestral Jazz infused soundtrack to Steve McQueen’s racing epic Le Mans from the same year.

He was an accomplished Jazz artist and his collaborations with Miles Davis attest to the high regard in which he was held.

He did have his setbacks. His score for the 1976 film Robin and Marian was rejected by the film’s producers who later assigned the task to John Barry.

Like Charles Aznavour, he was a Frenchman of Armenian descent, and very proud of this, once remarking: “Armenian music flows in my blood.”

He’ll perhaps best be known as the composer of the song “Windmills of Your Mind” which was part of the soundtrack that he composed for The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

I only discovered a few years ago that he sang “Les Moulins de Mon Coeur”, a version of the song made famous by Noel Harrison, in a balladic, chanson-style. I had no idea that this magnificent composer, arranger, conductor, and jazz pianist was also an accomplished chanteur.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


Tuesday, 15 January 2019

The Fall of Biafra

Flag of the secessionist state of Biafra

January 15th is a significant date in Nigerian history. On that day in 1966, a group of middle-ranking army officers staged a mutiny which overthrew the civilian government that had ruled Nigeria since it had been granted independence from Britain in October 1960. It began a concatenation of violence which led to a 30-month civil war that formally ended on January 15th 1970.

Tracing a line from 1966 to 1970 is clear enough: the mutiny which was led by officers drawn mainly from the Igbo ethnic group came to be viewed as an attempt to establish a form of ethnic hegemony over the rest of the country, a perspective which was consolidated by the Unification Decree announced by the Igbo Head of State, Major-General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi in May 1966. The decree abolished Nigeria’s federal structure and created a unitary system of governance. The reactions came in the form of anti-Igbo pogroms in the Northern Region in May and September, as well as a counter-coup in July 1966 which led to the murders of Igbo army officers and soldiers. The frustration of peace efforts, notably that of the meeting in Aburi of members of the Supreme Military Council and Lieutenant-Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military governor of the Igbo-dominated Eastern Region who disputed the legitimacy of the successors to Aguiyi-Ironsi, led to the secession of the Eastern Region and the creation of the Republic of Biafra in May 1967. This paved the way for the civil war which officially commenced on July 6th 1967.

But Nigeria’s drift towards regional and ethnic violence did not begin in 1966. A conglomerate state put together by imperial draughtsmen in the early part of the 20th century, the country was composed of over 250 ethnic groups who spoke over 500 different languages. The Northern Region was largely Islamic while the south, with its Western and Eastern regions (a Mid-West Region was carved out of the West), was largely Christianised. The south also led the north in terms of economic development and educational attainment. Thus, the stability of this artificially created multi-ethnic state was always certain to be tested.

The multiple elements of the Nigerian polity have often meant that a multiplicity of perspectives are in perpetual competition. For instance, the hegemony feared by sections of the country in the wake of the Igbo-dominated first coup was one effectively practised by the leaders of the Northern Region over the rest of the country. And violence related to the desire of the leaders of the North to ensure northern domination occurred in the Western Region as well as in the mainly Christian ‘Middle-Belt’ of the Northern Region. Corruption among the political elite, a fraudulent census, electoral fraud and trade union strikes created the requisite tinderbox which ultimately led to a bloody civil conflict.

Ojukwu’s declaration of independence was a measure undertaken with widespread support among the Igbos who dominated the Eastern Region. Most felt that they had been chased out of the federation and had been left with no alternative. The federal position enunciated by Gowon also resonated. If the Eastern Region was allowed to split from the rest of the federation, there was every reason to believe that Nigeria would chaotically splinter into smaller parts and that foreign powers would become involved in backing each of the warring entities.

The Biafran propaganda machinery driven by Mark Press, a Geneva-based public relations company, was skillful in setting out the grievances of the Igbos. The themes disseminated began by positing the rationale of the creation of Biafra as one that was predicated on the need for tribal emancipation. It also portrayed the Igbo cause as one based on a religious conflict between a feudal-minded Muslim leadership hell-bent on continuing the pre-colonial Sokoto Caliphate which intended to expand southwards, routing the animist and Christian peoples, until euphemistically, they would dip the Koran into the Atlantic Ocean. And as the war developed, Biafran propaganda utilised the images of starvation as a means of emphasising the claim that they were being purposefully subjected to a policy of genocide.

The evidence assembled appeared to back up the claims. The series of pogroms against Igbo civilians, the massacre of Igbo soldiers, the rise of northern Muslim soldiers to positions of military and political power, as well as the mass starvation symbolised by Kwashiorkor-afflicted children all offered strong corroborative evidence.

But this presented a one-sided and uncomplicated view.

Many of the minority groups within the Eastern Region, as well as in the Mid-West Region which was invaded by Biafran troops early in the war, did not want to live under what they perceived as Igbo domination. And many minority communities were subjected to brutal occupation by Biafran forces. The conflict was also not simply a case of Muslims waging a jihad against Christians. Many of the soldiers involved in the counter-coup of July 1966 were Christians from the Middle-Belt, and, indeed, the man who emerged as the Head of State after that coup, Gowon, was himself a Christian. Also the claim that the blockade mounted by the federal government was inflexible towards the idea of relief supplies being allowed into Biafran territory was not true. The federal side wanted such relief to pass through Nigeria while the Biafran government asserted their belief that such supplies would be tainted by poison deliberately introduced by the Nigerian side. 

As military and civilian casualties mounted dissent arose within Biafran ranks. Some saw what some in the international community saw: that the starving millions were being used as part of a high-stakes political game through which the Biafran leadership hoped foreign military aid or even intervention would materialise. The leadership of Ojukwu was also seen as having a malign affect on the interests of his people. As Ralph Uwechue put it:

In Biafra, two wars were fought simultaneously. The first was for the survival of the (Igbos) as a race. The second was for the survival of Ojukwu’s leadership. Ojukwu’s error, which proved fatal for millions of (Igbos), was that he put the latter first.

Divisions within the Biafran military led to the development of two factions: the ‘Port Harcourt Militia’ and the ‘National Militia’. Internal sabotage, one fruit of this division, severely undermined morale, as well as the effort of national self-defence. The early memoirs of the likes of Uwechue and N.U. Akpan, as well as later ones by Alexander Madiebo laid bare the divisions existing within Biafra: the civil servant against the intellectual, the soldier against the mercenary, the Igbo against minority groups, and the ‘Nnewi clique’ against the others; a dynamic based on the allegation that Ojukwu promoted nepotism in regard to his Nnewi kinsmen.

Added to this was the gap in knowledge between the elites and the masses, with the latter being manipulated by a highly efficient propaganda machinery and according to Uwechue possessing “neither the facts nor the liberty to form an independent opinion” about the option of seeking a negotiated peace with the federal side.

The skillful use of propaganda by the Biafrans, which included the organising of relief concerts, the use of Igbo celebrities such as the writer Chinua Achebe and Dick Tiger, the world boxing champion, was successful to a good degree in projecting Igbo pleas for self-determination to a global audience. But decisive help from the major world powers save for an infusion of a limited amount of French arms in the later stages of the war, eluded them. They had been subjected to a blockade and encircled early in the war. While Gowon continued to insist that Biafra had to surrender unconditionally, Ojukwu attempted to rouse his people whose ill-equipped army began to increasingly rely on what would be contemporarily termed child soldiers. After much delay, Nigeria began a final offensive on December 23rd 1969, using the Third Infantry Division.

The end was soon in coming.

At a meeting of his cabinet held in Owerri on January 8th 1970, Ojukwu presented what he would describe as the “grim hopelessness of continued formal military resistance.”  He left Biafra soon after, claiming that he was going in search of a peaceful settlement. His deputy, Philip Effiong, previously a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Nigerian army, took over the reins of leadership and sued for peace. The surrender was arranged on the ground with Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, the commander of the Third Infantry Division, and a formal ceremony of surrender took place before General Gowon at Dodan Barracks in Lagos. Dressed in civilian attire, Effiong made the following declaration:

I, Philip Effiong, do hereby declare: I give you not only my own personal assurances but also those of my fellow officers and colleagues and of the entire former Biafran people of our fullest cooperation and very sincere best wishes for the future.

It is my sincere hope the lessons of the bitter struggle have been well learned by everybody and I would like therefore to take this opportunity to say that I, Major-General Philip Effiong, officer administering the government of the Republic of Biafra, now wish to make the following declaration:

That we are firm, we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the federal military government of Nigeria.

That we accept the existing administrative and political structure of the Federation of Nigeria.

That any future constitutional arrangement will be worked out by representatives of the people of Nigeria.

That the Republic of Biafra hereby ceases to exist.

Ojukwu’s final statement as leader released through Mark Press to Reuters reiterated the claim that the there had been no alternative other than to have declared a Biafran state. He emphasised the valour of its people in fighting against tremendous odds while enduring enormous privations and criticised what he termed the “international conspiracy against the interest of the African”, which he felt had played the biggest part in Biafra’s demise.

That demise, it was feared in some quarters, would be accompanied by mass killings of Igbos. From the Vatican, the Pope was quick to call for concerted efforts to prevent “massacres of a defenceless population exhausted by hardship, hunger and the lack of everything.” Such fears, stoked by Biafran propaganda were repeatedly referred to by Ojukwu in his statement who wrote that the aim of the Nigerian government had been to “apply the final solution to the Biafran problem away from the glare of an inquisitive world”.

It did not happen.

Gowon’s post-war speech emphasised the need for national reconciliation via the rhetoric of “No Victor, No Vanquished”. It was a claim backed by the fact that no medals were awarded to federal soldiers. Some Igbo officers were reabsorbed into the Nigerian military as where civil servants. And Igbos gradually returned to the north and other parts of the country.

The reabsorption of Igbos has over the decades nonetheless been accompanied by claims of marginalisation. This has often centred on two main issues: the amount of money allocated for the development of states composed of Igbo majorities and the fact that no Igbo has been allowed to lead Nigeria in the period since the end of the war.

In recent times movements have been created that have called for the resurrection of a Biafran state, the most prominent being the now proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (Ipob) and the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (Massob). But protests organised by these groups have been violently put down and their leaders hunted down by Nigeria’s security forces.

In July 2017, a specially convened meeting of Igbo leaders consisting of state governors, legislators, traditional and religious leaders issued a statement giving their “full support” to a “united Nigeria”. It was a gesture aimed at diffusing mounting tensions, but their call for a restructuring of the country in order to achieve a “just and equitable society” underlined the sense of grievance many feel decades after the civil war.

Renewed agitation for separation has also served to reopen fears among minority groups of the former Eastern Region who alarmed at the inclusion of their territories in various versions of maps of a new Biafran state felt compelled to issue statements of their own. For instance in July 2017 the Efik Leadership Foundation (EFL), after impliedly disavowing their previous incorporation into a historical entity known as Biafra, accused the leaders of Ipob of attempting “to annex or conscript us surreptitiously or use our people, land and territory as (the) basis for bargaining” an exit out of the federation.

Aside from the persistent and widespread misgivings of neighbouring minority groups are doubts over the historical existence of a kingdom of Biafra for which no records, archaeological or other, can be offered as evidence. There is no oral chronology identifying who its rulers were, no accounts as to how it was formed or of its system of laws.

Today, there appears to be a generational divide on pressing for a separate Biafran entity with much of the rhetoric coming from younger people with little or no memory of the civil war. And with other parts of the federation implacable in their resolve to maintain the territorial unity of Nigeria, the catastrophic failure of the war commenced over fifty years ago must serve as a cautionary note for those intent on pursuing the path of secession.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


Saturday, 5 January 2019

“They wanted to die like William Holden”: An anecdote about the Nigerian Civil War


The Nigerian Civil War was a particularly violent and brutal conflict fought between the federal side and the secessionist state of Biafra from 1967 to 1970. It was prosecuted under the glare of intense Western media coverage which chronicled war crimes, mass starvation, the use of foreign mercenaries and a propaganda battle for the hearts and minds of the world. A great deal was documented but a few myths and fictions abound. For instance, it was once claimed that more bullets were expended in the conflict than during the whole of the Second World War. Another one claimed that the celebrity of the Brazilian footballer Pele was potent enough to cause a ceasefire between the warring sides. One story I had never heard of until recently was provided by Sam Peckinpah in a Life Magazine interview published in 1972. Peckinpah claimed that a viewing by Nigerian troops of The Wild Bunch had been enough to stimulate an indolent federal army into a homicidal frenzy. But the veracity of the story is highly questionable.

In an interview piece for Life Magazine which was published on August 11, 1972, the Hollywood film director Sam Peckinpah said the following:

During the civil war in Nigeria, the Nigerian troops had been sitting on their asses for weeks, not advancing against the Biafrans. Then they showed The Wild Bunch to the troops. The Nigerians went out of their minds. They shot their guns in the movie. The soldiers shot their guns at the movie. And the next day they went off to battle, shouting that they wanted to die like William Holden.

Peckinpah wasn’t being boastful. On the contrary, he was expressing doubts about the effect that his movies were having. Entitled “What Price Violence?”, the piece captured Peckinpah on the defensive about the notoriety he had gained from the levels of graphic violence in his films which included scenes depicting mass slaughter, suicide, rape and beatings. He came to be known as the ‘Picasso of Violence’.

His tone changed however when relating the story of the Nigerian Civil War which had been told to him by a foreign correspondent. “It turned my stomach,” Peckinpah claimed. “I vomited to think that I had made that film.”

But there are good reasons to be sceptical of this story. For one, none of the major accounts of the war whether reportages by correspondents who covered it or through the memoirs of its participants appear to have noted such an occurrence. And a search of contemporaneous records of the war provided by noted papers of record such as the New York Times as well as the film archives of Reuters yields nothing. The only source for this appears to have been Peckinpah’s Life interview.

There are problems with tracing the claimed original source. Peckinpah did not name the correspondent who purportedly gave him the information. The Nigerian Army, only a few years previously a small and compact one, had during the civil war grown to be a large one composed of many divisions and brigades. A mass screening of a film -and a notorious one at that- would have been noted by the world media. Alternatively, there is no mention of whether the incident was based on a showing to a smaller unit, such as a specific regiment, battalion or company.

Mapping out the context in which Peckinpah was speaking can provide a semblance of truth to the first portion of the story. The Wild Bunch was released during the summer of 1969 at a time when there were significant lulls in the fighting on the different fronts. Many analysts of the war would agree with Peckinpah’s earthy characterisation of the Nigerian Army as “sitting on their asses for weeks, not advancing against the Biafrans”.

This is of course not a unique phenomenon in the annals of military history. For instance, George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War remained infamously inert for a lengthy period while camped around the River Potomac despite the impatient requests from President Abraham Lincoln that he attack nearby confederate forces. In the Nigerian Civil War, the northern sector was prone to lengthy pauses. In fact, there was little advancing of forces in this area after the initial successes in the early period of the war. Much of the conquest of Biafran-held territory -around 70 per cent- was accomplished by the Third Infantry Division (renamed the “Third Marine Commando” by its leader Colonel Benjamin Adekunle), which attacked from the southern sector. While McLellan’s army had been paralysed by his personal tendency to indecision, several Nigerian battle commanders did not mind the lulls in action because the enemy had been encircled and had begun to be plagued by starvation and disease. They preferred to sit out a siege rather than to advance.

The long-planned ‘final offensive’ by the Nigerian Army, first announced in September 1968 and intermittently alluded to afterwards, did not get underway until December the following year. There is a great deal of literature available about the reasons for the delay and when it began, but there is not a scintilla of evidence suggestive of Peckinpah’s movie as having served as a motivational tool.

While no report confirming Peckinpah’s story is readily ascertainable from contemporaneous reports of the Nigerian Civil War, it is worth noting that it bore the hallmarks of the sort of invented falsehoods that were interspersed with factual reporting sent back to new agencies by some Western reporters. Lloyd Garrison, a long-time reporter with the New York Times, revealed how the paper promoted the practice among its reporters of framing Africa as a dark and primitive continent. This policy involved editing the dispatches of its correspondents to suit the agenda.

The history of war is of course replete with armies showing soldiers films for the purposes of entertainment and of education. Drugs have also been supplied to soldiers with the intention of lessening combat fatigue and increasing strength and awareness. A decree issued in April 1940 by the German High Command distributed millions of tablets of Pervitin and Isophan to the foot-soldiers serving in the Wehrmacht, while Allied soldiers were supplied with Benzedrine, an amphetamine.

The brief anecdote provided by Peckinpah does not specify whether the effect on the Nigerian Army of viewing of The Wild Bunch was the consequence of a bout of entertainment gone awry, or that it was a deliberately organised psychological exercise aimed at motivating cowardly or disinterested troops.

But given the lack of corroborative sources, it can safely be assumed that the Peckinpah story, like that relating to Pele’s tour, is a myth.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.


Tuesday, 1 January 2019

"Ithaka" by Kavafis

“Odysseus and Polyphemus”. Oil and tempera on panel by Arnold Brocklin (1896)

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon -don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon -you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you may come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things.
Mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
And may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reached the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

- K.P. Kavafis (1863-1933).