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Victor Banjo, Gowon And Ojukwu: The Truth

October 14, 2012

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Sunday, May 04, 2008              

Victor Banjo, Gowon And Ojukwu: The Truth
By Tunde Akingbade

Why did you kill Victor Banjo, Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Alale and others? was one of the questions I put to Ikemba Nnewi, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, a former Lt. Colonel in the Nigerian Army over 20 years ago when he was being given the ‘Omega Man’ of the year at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife.

There was no doubt that Ojukwu was stupefied, furious and rattled at the audacity of the young reporter that day. Then, I was Senior Reporter with the Daily Sketch. I have now captured that encounter in my book Ilaro- Memories of Operation “Wet E” and the Civil War Years. Before he answered me, Emeka Ojukwu gave an indication that I may have been put on his trail or possibly flying the kite of those who did not like him. However, after I had given him my academic background as an Historian, he replied that the era of the civil war was an ’emergency period’ and whatever happened then was prompted by the ’emergency situation.’

The son of a multi-millionaire, and one of the richest Nigerians in the colonial era, Ojukwu had earlier stunned the audience when he called for Socialism as the form of government he liked to be introduced.

In case Ojukwu has forgotten, my story was the lead on the front page of the Sketch the following day.

Let me say at this juncture that I had always had sympathy for the Igbo cause and events that led to the “pogrom” because Nigeria should be for all, and not for a particular group or race. But I could not understand the killing of the best brains in politics or the Nigerian Army then, either by Nzeogwu and co, Danjuma/Murtala Muhammed and co – with the tacit connivance of Yakubu Gowon as you will read later on and Emeka Ojukwu himself in Biafra.

The new book by Lt. Col. Victor Banjo and his daughter, Yinka Omigbodun, has been a focus of media attention and the review by Dr. Rueben Abati last January as published in The Guardian as well as serialisation in The Punch raise fresh issues on the roles of certain figures in the desecration of Nigeria. The story of Banjo has unveiled some skeleton in the wardrobe of the characters, who were involved in the 1966 treachery and what happened in what Ken Saro-Wiwa called our dogs-eat- dog-society. The story of each of these killings would move the stone-hearted to tears. And when the opportunity came to ask what I had read as a kid in the newspapers and magazine and Fredrick Forsyth’s book – The Making of an African Legend, The Biafra Story – I asked Ojukwu: “Why did you kill Banjo and co?”

THAT year, Ojukwu promised to write what he called, The Book! about what really went on in those years. I have been waiting for The Book in the last 21 years! I hope the Biafran warlord will not publish when all those who can reply him are dead. However, new insight is being given about the person of Victor Banjo in the book, A Gift of Sequins – Letters to my Wife published by Mosuro Publishers, Ibadan. The book is a product of letters written by Victor Banjo himself while in detention under General Ironsi and Colonel Yakubu Gowon until Lt. Col. Ojukwu later shot him.

These letters were compiled and Co-authored by Olayinka Omigbodun, late Banjo’s daughter, who barely knew her father. The letters were written to her mother.

Before we go into the lessons of this book spanning 281 pages, with vivid photographs that show the faces of Banjo’s enemies, in “sheep’s clothing”, we need to go into a kind of flashback to some of the literature written on the coup de’tat in the mid 1960s, the justifications of some of the roles played by the survivors and the ones that touched on the personality of Banjo. It is pertinent to mention that Professor Adetowun Ogunsheye, Banjo’s elder sister, broke the long “silence” on the character and nature including the issues relating to Victor Banjo who some have characterized as a villain.

Whether Banjo was a villain or not was the reason that prompted me to demand from Ojukwu why Banjo was executed. The fact that serious-minded people and historians would want to know certain facts as regards the roles we as humans have played at one time or the other was very paramount in my mind.

FREDRICK Forsyth, the renowned author of The Day of the Jackal who was Ojukwu’s friend and ex-Reuters and BBC correspondent was described as someone noted for “the research, accuracy and courage he gave to his reports”. But on pages 120, 121 and 122 of the Biafran Story, Forsyth erroneously referred to Banjo as being a Major in the army before he was imprisoned by the authorities after January 15 Nzeogwu’s aborted coup de tat. Banjo was a Lt. Colonel at that time and was a friend to both Ojukwu and Yakubu Gowon -who were also Lt. Colonels. Forsyth had painted Banjo in a bad light and I doubt if he and Ojukwu knew one day we would have the opportunity to read this “Gift of Sequins.” N. J. Miners confirmed Banjo’s rank in Nigerian Army -1956-66 as contained in military archives.

In 1954, Banjo, Yakubu Gowon, Yakubu Pam, David Ejoor, Alex Madiebo, Mike Okwechime, Arthur Unegbu were cadets at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. There was also George Kurobo who was one of the officers that arrested Banjo in January 17, 1966 paving way to his gradual trip to “Golgotha “in the hands of Ojukwu.

It is instructive to note that Yakubu Gowon, who was his friend and Chief of Staff under Ironsi, was said to have led the soldiers who searched Banjo’s house and took valuables away for scrutiny by the army. Those things have not been returned till today! Let it be known that in the book, Emeka by Forsyth, Yakubu Gowon once reported Ojukwu to General Welby Everard, the British General Officer Commanding for ‘holding political meetings’ when Ojukwu called his Nigerian colleagues together to ask them some naughty questions on who the army should obey during the turbulent political days of the First Republic. When the British General called Emeka and requested to know what was happening, Ojukwu asked the General to call all the officers who were at the meeting. After he realised the true position of things, Everard then ’rounded up Gowon and ticked him off for spreading alarmist rumours’.

On page 48 of Emeka, the author notes ‘as they left the meeting Emeka asked Gowon why he had seen it fit to go running to the general with his tales. Gowon mumbled that he was sorry, but he had not understood what Emeka was talking about.’

So, one can see the intrigues and lies in the officers corps even before the British left. It is pertinent to mention that the same Gowon was one of the people who ran up and down to nail Banjo for allegedly plotting to kill Ironsi.

For Fredrick Forsyth in his book, Banjo made “confessions” that he met Ejoor when he led Biafran forces to Benin City and wanted Ejoor to be an intermediary between him and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. According to Forsyth, Banjo relayed a message of his intention to the British High Commission in Benin and his plot leaked to Ojukwu. Forsyth noted that;

“The plot was typical Yoruba in its complexity. And in conjunction with two other senior Biafra officers with political ambitions, he was to cause the ruin of Biafra by withdrawing the troops from the Midwest on a variety of pretexts, arrests, and assassinate Ojukwu and proclaim the “revolt”.

How much does Forsyth know about the Yoruba? Has he lived among them in Nigeria or in London to know them? Or was it Ojukwu that told him?

Forsyth said Banjo intended to later enter the “Western Region as a hero adding that Banjo also intended, as a second part of the plot to “rally the newly recruited Yoruba Army to his standard, and depose Gowon, leaving the Presidency of Nigeria for himself, and permitting Awolowo his long-desired premiership. It seems unlikely that the Gowon’s government was informed of this postscript”

Forsyth further claimed Ojukwu showed him Banjo’s “confessional statement.”

What really happened in Benin City when Victor Banjo led the Biafran army there? Olusegun Obasanjo in My Command, quoted Dr. Graham-Douglas, former Attorney-General in the East in his pamphlet, “Ojukwu’s Rebellion and World Opinion” to the effect that “The Army itself was divided. Even after Aburi, a number of high-ranking officers, determined as they undoubtedly were to fight back and redeem their honour sullied by their Northern counterparts in July 1966, were nevertheless wary about the military and political hazards implicit in an outright and ill-prepared secession. This group included the most senior surviving Ibo officer, Brigadier Hillary Njoku.

Reportedly sharing Brigadier Njoku’s view was major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu”. In her book, Weathering The Storm (reviewed by this writer in the 80s), Mrs. Njoku had highlighted what Hillary Njoku suffered the night Ironsi was killed, his “miraculous” escape to the East and trauma in the hands of Ojukwu, who later detained him. As in the case of Banjo, he paid the supreme prize. But these senior officers, about the same rank with Ojukwu would obviously be at loggerheads if they actually juxtapose political passion to break away from Nigeria and reason and reality of an invasion of the West. W hy Banjo possibly embarked on his mission to command the Biafran Army to Mid West may be found in the realm of human psychology, the feeling of being back-stabbed by colleagues and friends and determination in the last minute to change his mind from leaving the country as he told his wife. We should, however, delve into some other works to see if we may have an answer.

What really happened in Benin between Banjo and other officers?

First, we will rely on Obasanjo’s account in My Command and second on Wale Ademoyega’s account in, Why We Struck. Obasanjo recalled “a celebrated playwright who was acting on behalf of Victor Banjo (while he Banjo was in Benin ) at the night the rebels invaded Mid West telephoned him regularly that he “should not worry and remain steadfast, without indicating what was really happening”.

According to Obasanjo, the head of State (Gowon) and himself had “useful discussions on the event of the previous right and he (Gowon) gave me serious warning in respect of certain personalities in the West and their covert support for the rebels”.

Who were these personalities?

We may never know what was discussed until when the personalities are dead! Because some may be afraid to write or footdrag. Again, Obasanjo went on in the same page 31, relying on Fredrick Forsyth’s The Biafra Story that “Banjo passed a message to Chief Awolowo, probably through the same emissary (“the celebrated playwright”) for a grand design that would eliminate Ojukwu and depose Gowon leaving the leadership of Nigeria free for the picking!

Said Obasanjo on page 33: On 11 August, Banjo had met Lt. Col. David Ejoor secretly in the house of Father Rooney, where Ejoor was hiding in company of Lt.Col. Nwaje and another officer.

Banjo, he noted, “had briefed Ejoor on his mission and invited the deposed Governor (Ejoor) to come to Lagos with him that night. Despite all entreaties and persuasion, Ejoor was of course not convinced and he declined Banjo’s offer of a post in Banjo’s government” both in the Mid West and in Lagos . Banjo left at Ejoor’s stand but was sure that he himself would be in Lagos that night and Ejoor would later realize his folly!

With hindsight, shouldn’t one be inclined to believe that Banjo should have arrested or detained Ejoor after he (Ejoor) was deposed and used Ejoor as a “human shield” or bargaining power from Gowon!

However, Major Wale Ademoyega, who saw Banjo in Benin, wrote in Why We Struck, page 15 that there were many secret agents in Biafra working for Ojukwu and it was easy for revolutionary officers like Banjo and Alale to fall foul them and laid in Ojukwu’s net; especially Alale who spoke of revolution everywhere, everytime and to everybody.

Speaking his mind was the same thing that got Ojukwu into trouble with Gowon and Gowon reported him to the British General.

Ademoyega added, “Banjo was not talkative but he was brutally frank and did not conceal his criticism of Ojukwu at anytime I spoke to him quietly about this and I feared for him, but he would not change”.

On page 159, Ademoyega hinted further, ‘In Enugu , I found my way to the flat where Banjo was staying and I told him everything. I particularly warned him that if he would not come to Benin, I would also not return there. My reasons were two-fold. First, our hope of going further West was sinking fast and it did not seem as if our stay in the Mid West was secure. Secondly, I knew that Ojukwu was very difficult to work with. I had the experience in Kano and it was not funny. (Ojukwu was in charge of the Army in Kano during the January 15, coup de’tat). If Banjo, his friend and co-equal, could not successfully work with him, how could I who had hardly seen eye to eye with him at any time? I was most anxious to avoid taking direct orders from Ojukwu. I would rather that Banjo took orders from him and I from Banjo.”

Ademoyega noted that they were actually having problems in Benin and Banjo took these problems quickly to Ojukwu and when he came back, he was “optimistic” that they would get some help and both return to Benin .

Ademoyega confirmed that one of the problems they had after the incursion into Benin was lack of experienced officers because the Liberation Army of Biafra behaved ‘like an army of occupation and not liberation, by molesting the people’; noting that these problems could have been solved if only the units had their complement of officers or something near to it in this reverse case where a whole Battalion had only one or two seasoned officers”.

Worse, Ademoyega confirmed that he was at a meeting, where “Oba of Benin, the revered Akenzua ll and his chiefs “simply wanted the menace of the Biafran troops removed” even though Banjo had taken the precaution of asking the Biafran troops to remove their Biafran Army “badge. It is unfortunate and tragic that though the “Biafran cause” and possibly a reasonable alternative in a situation where a race is pushed to the wall in a country, the charismatic leader of the struggle had no men, weapons and sound political wherewithals to push his case devoid of rhetorics and cost human life.

This was obvious to the officers who pushed the liberation army to Benin. Politically, and militarily, you cannot effectively subdue the people in a territory, then you have no choice than to pack out. In the ensuing confusion in Benin, Banjo who was imprisoned by authorities in Lagos and had got an emphatic “back to prison order” from Lagos authorities, before the start of the war may have been more confused. (See A Gift of Sequins – Letters to My Wife).

Ademoyega said on page 165 of Why We Struck that Banjo noted that “On the question of Nigerian Unity, he agreed with Gowon adding that “Ojukwu knew it too and that was why he did not really want or allow Banjo to remain in Benin for long and he always called Banjo back within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of his arrival in Benin.

Though Ojukwu had his way by subsequently executing Victor Banjo and others, this was a morale booster for the Nigerian Army, according to Olusegun Obasanjo in My Command. It showed a crack in the Biafran Army. Incarceration of Banjo and co would not have raised so much cheer in the Nigerian sides.

NOW, coming to the book, A Gift Of Sequins – Letters To My Wife by Victor Banjo himself with his daughter, Olayinka Omigbodun. The book draws its title from the gift of expensive satin and silk pink dress covered all over with sequins, “which Banjo gave to his wife to cheer her after she lost a baby. It was also a collection of all prison letters written by Victor Banjo to his wife, Mrs. Taiwo Joyce Banjo while he was detained after his arrest on Monday 17th January, 1996 by his course-mate, Lt. Col. George Kurobo and Major P.A. Anwuna. Interestingly, Banjo who was once a teacher at Egbado College, Ilaro in the early 1950s (before this writer was born) sometimes switched to French language when he was tired of writing his wife in English.

The book confirmed the impression of this writer when he noted in his encounter with Ojukwu that the execution in the East was a waste of talent (even though I never came across anyone in the Banjo family nor had access to his innermost personality. Many of these waste had happened between 1966 and 1999. At a particular time, Banjo had written to his wife that he was willing to leave the Army and he conveyed this to the Head of State through his friend Emeka Ojukwu, who was the Governor of Eastern Region.

It is not clear what made him and who made him to change his mind to leave the country to escape from the hands of those who said “his life was in danger “in the West or Lagos if he was set free.

From Banjo’s letter to Ironsi, copied to his wife, it was clear that “he spoke first amongst officers present at a meeting with Ironsi on Sunday 16th January, a day before his arrest. This confirmed his outspokenness and frankness as noted by Major Ademoyega in Why We Struck. Obviously, Banjo did not take part in the Nzeogwu coup de tat. His name was not mentioned by any of the key participants of the first coup plot. But somehow, he was framed for plotting to overthrow Ironsi. Banjo too was stupefied as contained in his letters to Ironsi, who replied him and declared that his matter was under “consideration”. The outcome of that “consideration” was continued incarceration until Ironsi was killed.

One striking feature of this personality called Victor Banjo, according to his letters to his wife is that of a strong man who also succumbed to emotional pressure and cries for his batman when he embarked on hunger strike to prove his innocence in the prison. The spirit of nationalism could be felt through his letters, where he told his wife the need to get their children to have their fatherland in mind in their education and through orientation and courses they took at school rather than be fully integrated into American values at the American international School. This is contrary to current practice where virtually every person who had tasted power want their kids to reside permanently in America and/ or bring white skinned spouses.

From Ikot – Ekpene prison, Banjo wrote the wife on the nature of cruelty in some of the armed forces – noting that “to move me, alone and unarmed from Federal Guard, Ikoyi to 2 Bn Ikeja took, 3 land Rovers, 1 heavy Anti-Tank Gun, 3 medium – machine guns, 25 rifles, 3 sub – machine guns, all loaded; 1 captain, 1 lieutenant and 30 soldiers !!! I must have been really dangerously unarmed as I was”

In some of his letters, Banjo recalled that he was a victim of “treachery” and that he would not write Ironsi, Gowon or anyone again about his innocence. But it’s also on record that he wrote his wife about Gowon’s gentleman’s attitude and good Christian attributes in his speech when he took over after Ironsi’s death. However, those Christian attributes perhaps could not be put to use by Gowon earnestly, possibly because of the “forces” that put him in power who could also be puppets to the masterminds of Banjo’s illegal and treacherous incarceration.

BANJO’S new book is actually speaking to the nation from the great beyond, courtesy of his children who were victims of a treacherous clique, wickedness and rivalry amongst armed course mates.

The nature of the army in post independence Nigeria could be seen in the manner of backstabbing and treachery and wickedness. Lindsay Barret in the book, Danjuma: The Making of a General highlighted how Gowon again briefed Danjuma about the incidents in Abeokuta and Danjuma informed him of their intention to arrest Ironsi in Ibadan when Gowon himself was trusted by Ironsi as a Chief of Staff.

“Can you do it? Gowon reportedly asked.

“We’ve got the house surrounded and sealed off, sir. We can do it.

“Alright, but please make sure there is no bloodshed,” Gowon was quoted as saying.

Is Gowon as clean as we are made to understand in all these?

In Reuben Abati’s piece in The Guardian on Sunday 20th January, 2008 , he noted that the exact truth about Banjo’s role in Nigeria and Biafra may never be fully known. But in the Sequin book, Banjo told Ojukwu before he was shot that he did not plot against him. If one looks at the letter written by Ojukwu to Banjo on August 22, 1967, one will discover that behind Ojukwu’s intention to break away into the East, he also intended and implied to subdue and subjugate the Yoruba and place them under his hegemony.

Part of the letter from Ojukwu to Banjo revealed by the elder sister shows as follows:

* The liberation of Western Nigeria will be a prelude to the liberation of all Yorubas up to the River Niger and the severance of all connections between the West and the North at Jebba.

* During the period of Biafran troops’ presence in your territory, all political measures, statements or decrees shall be subject to the approval, in writing by myself or on my authority.

* Should our troops arrive and liberate Lagos , the government of the Republic of Biafra reserves the right to appoint a Military administrator for the territory. Such an Administrator will remain in office until a merger of that territory with Yorubaland is effected by Biafran troops.

* As soon as possible after your appointment as the Military Governor of Western Nigeria and separation of that territory from Nigeria , you and I must meet to discuss:

(a) the duration of stay of Biafran troops in your territory;

(b) the areas and subjects of cooperation between the liberated sovereign states of Western Nigeria, or by what name it may call itself, and Biafra .

Chief Obafemi Awolowo was not the kind of person who would want to backstab Gowon who had just released him the previous year and immediately nurture the ambition of ruling Nigeria under the guise of a Biafran led invasion and Ojukwu’s hegemonic rule as noted in Ojukwu’s letter to Banjo. Awolowo confirmed his unflinching support and gratitude to Gowon in the book; My March Through Prison.

On page 200 of the Sequin’s book, it contained Banjo’s frustration to his wife when he asked her “to forget about this country or any military men for the future” in the letter of February, 5th 1967 similar to the utterances of General Maman Vatsa in 1986 when Babangida, his classmate – whom he took over command from after he (Babangida) was wounded during the Civil War) also ordered that he should be shot.

In one of Banjo’s letters when the Civil War was looming, Banjo still remembered Brigadier Ademulegun who was killed with his wife; noting he would have to do something for Ademulegun’s children whenever he was released so as to assist them so that they would not feel the loss of both parents too much!

It’s ironic that Banjo pitied Ademulegun’s children in jail over the loss of their own father. Banjo’s wife had to take up odd jobs to see them therough the turbulence of this world before and after their escape to Sierra-Leone and all through the university. Banjo in his letters was a philosopher and a counsellor.

These letters will make those who hate his guts more uncomfortable as long as they live. This was a book I threw away three times in tears before I could finally settle to read to the end. I kept thinking about those who are no longer ‘victorious and vanquished’ as they enjoy their pensions in retirement while the children of their dead colleagues, who they schemed out of life do not know their father’s graves and when their seized properties would be returned.

THE book is powerful and it is the story of a courageous woman, Taiwo Joyce Banjo, who is now deceased. It is an indication that no one can kill a dream. Both Victor Banjo and wife are speaking to Nigerians from the great beyond and reminding us of the bond that should exist between husbands and wives in moments of adversity. It is a lesson to women or widows who think that being rotten at the tribulation or death of their breadwinners and spouses is the ultimate to a successful life now inherent in Banjo’s children!

* Akingbade, a Journalist and author lives in Lagos .

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