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.