I have previously supplied several anecdotes about my Father’s military career in relation to his interactions with the likes of Vice Admiral J.E.A. Wey, General Yakubu Gowon, Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu and General Ibrahim Babangida. But what of my Mother, the military spouse who was not Nigerian but lived through many of Nigeria’s early political events and observed at close quarters several of the military officers who came to rule the country?
Well, for me the starting point would be her recollections of the fateful day of July 29 1966, approximately one month before my birth. She woke up early that morning at the bungalow in which she lived on Child Avenue in the Apapa district of Lagos to find the servants quarters deserted. Many, if not all, of the occupants who served the “Married Quarters” section of a residential neighbourhood dominated by military officials, had fled.
News had spread of the violent uprising being orchestrated by officers and men of the army and the air force who were mainly from the Northern Region. They were targeting their counterparts from the Eastern Region as a reprisal for what they perceived to have been an ethnically motivated operation in January 1966 which had claimed the lives of prominent Northern personages in the sphere of politics and the military, an action in relation to which the perpetrators had not been punished.
The bungalow on Child Avenue was close to the 1st Signal Squadron, a location at which one of the coup leaders, Lt. Colonel Murtala Muhammed, the Inspector of Army Signals, had previously served as Officer-Commanding.
My Mother, heavily pregnant with me, was in a conundrum. She needed to do her shopping for the week, but there was no available home help or driver to carry out this task. My Father, at the time a sub-lieutenant, was in England on a naval course. Six months earlier as the Flag Lieutenant to Commodore J.E.A. Wey, the Chief of the Naval Staff, he had stood behind Wey and Major General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi at the heavily guarded Parliament Building when Ironsi gave his first press conference following his assumption of power.
She decided to go to the market herself on that Friday morning. First, she made sure that my three siblings who were on school holiday, were securely ensconced in a bedroom in the house with food and drink, as well as toys and reading materials to occupy them. They were under firm instructions not to leave the house which had its doors locked and windows shut.
She then embarked on her shopping expedition to Ajegunle Market. There was, she told me, a heavy presence of soldiers at all points of her journey. They patrolled the streets and were placed at each vantage point including the intersections where there were roadblocks. Soldiers were also present on either side of the canal which she had to cross to and from the market.
They were jittery and taking no chances. The soldiers told her they were under orders to search the contents of all bags including those which she was taking back home after her shopping was complete. It was a strain, but she thankfully got home safely to her children.
The ramifications of the military uprising which overthrew Major General Ironsi would present another potential obstacle for my Mother. This was to do with the circumstances of my birth. When she went into labour, she was taken to Myohaung Barracks in the Yaba district of Lagos, at which a military hospital was located. Many of the medical staff at the hospital, doctors, nurses, and technicians, were indigenes of the Eastern Region to which they had now fled as the political crisis in Nigeria intensified. The hospital was thus under-staffed, but my birth was, thankfully, an uncomplicated one.
My Mother was familiar with one of our officer neighbours on Child Avenue. Theophilus Danjuma was a slenderly-built, quiet and amiable young army captain who lived in a billet at the “Bachelors' Quarters” behind our home on Child Avenue. Danjuma, now a major, had been a key participant in the July coup. He had journeyed to the city of Ibadan where he had been tasked with the job of arresting Major General Ironsi at Government House in Ibadan. He had laid siege at Government House before finally entering the building and arresting both Ironsi and Lt. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the military governor of the Western Region who had been hosting Ironsi. Danjuma claimed to have “lost control” to subordinates who were waiting outside. Both Ironsi and Fajuyi were then kidnapped and later murdered on the outskirts of the city.
My Mother told me that she did not remember Danjuma coming back to his home but recalled that a van arrived to collect his things. A side note to Danjuma was provided by my older brother who recalled that after Danjuma was sent to the war front after the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War, he and a gang of friends who were still infants broke into Danjuma’s home where they found a sub-machine gun mounted on a table. They took the magazines of bullets lying around and later had fun tossing bullets into a bonfire.
Danjuma later rose to the position of Chief of Army Staff.
One of the privileges that my Mother enjoyed as the wife of a serving military officer was booking a chalet reserved for naval officers at Tarkwa Bay, a resort bordering Lagos harbour. She often did this during half-term holidays and the long holidays too. Our journey to the delights of the beach began on a boat at the Naval Base in Apapa. Tarkwa Bay was a relatively exclusive destination during the 1960s and provided a more sedate environment than that offered by the busier Bar Beach on Victoria Island.
She also played hostess to a litany of military guests at our homes in Lagos and London when my Father was posted to Britain to serve as the Deputy Defence Adviser to the Nigerian High Commission. Among those who visited our home in Hendon during the 1970s were Vice Admiral Wey, (then) Commander Albert Ajanaku and Air Force Major Uga, one of three military attaches posted to the High Commission. In London, she attended functions at the Nigerian High Commission and saw the Trooping the Colour, the parade marking the official birthday of the British Sovereign, from an area reserved for the diplomatic corps.
My Mother, who was born in Carriacou, a part of the Grenadine Islands in what in old parlance was referred to as the West Indies, was a foreigner in Nigeria. But she adapted well. Nonetheless, she was mortified by the events that followed the coups which had taken place during the year of my birth. She was particularly sympathetic to the suffering of ethnic Igbos who absorbed a succession of pogroms in 1966 and starvation during the war that followed.
On one occasion in Lagos, she took it upon herself to reprimand a group of conversing people who were making fun of Igbos who at the height of the killings in the Northern Region, had been caught by mobs while unsuccessfully trying to preserve their lives by passing themselves off as non-Igbos, either through a change in attire or speaking in a language from the Northern or Western regions.
While temporarily living in London for 18 months with her children during the civil war, she made repeated donations to humanitarian groups seeking relief for the starving in the short-lived Biafran Republic and encouraged her friends and members of her family to do so.
It was a humanitarian rather than a political statement, albeit a sensitive one given that my Father was a serving federal officer. He had consented to my Mother taking us to live in London for a period between 1967 and 1968 because he was travelling to many destinations with (then) Rear Admiral Wey who was serving as the Acting Foreign Minister, as well as the personal representative of Major General Yakubu Gowon, the military Head of State who had emerged after the overthrow of Ironsi. My Father did not want her to be in the position she had been at the time of the coup of July 1966 when he was abroad.
It is these early years which coincided with Nigeria’s turbulent history and the emergence of military rule which stand out during the period that my Mother was a “Military Wife”.
My Mother Grace Makinde died in September 2021.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2021)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.