FIFTY years after their assassination by northern military avengers, the gruesome murder of General JTU Aguiyi Ironsi and Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi has received more than a passing attention in the media. At the time of their death, Ironsi was the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Nigeria while Fajuyi was the military governor of the Western Region.
Since their passage, at no time have they been so fondly remembered and elaborately celebrated more than now. Fajuyi, particularly, is being celebrated by his Yoruba kinsmen for his courage and sacrifice. Ironsi is being mentioned in passing, probably because his Igbo kinsmen did not roll out the drums for him as the Yoruba did for Fajuyi.
Since the celebration began, many have had to wonder why the Yoruba staged such an elaborate outing for Fajuyi. The perceived impression in some quarters is that there is more to the celebration of Fajuyi than meets the eyes. I am, however, not persuaded by such suspicions. What makes sense to me here is that 50 years is a landmark. It is worth celebrating in the life and death of persons or institutions. Perhaps, the Yoruba may be saying through their celebration of the death of Fajuyi that 50 years of his passage is significant enough in underlining the undercurrents that brought down one of their own, who rightly deserves to be recognised as a national hero. No one should begrudge them the right to tell their own story, as it concerns one of their icons.
Perhaps, what we should question is the loud silence of the Igbo about the death of one of their own whose assassination signposts the endangered position of the Igbo in Nigeria. Why are the Igbo not talking about the murder of Ironsi on July 29, 1966, by northern military officers?
The most immediate reason for this is not far-fetched. The Igbo hardly celebrate anybody. They may recognise you for who or what you are, but they are not interested in symbolisms. They have never celebrated any one of their greats, be it Nnamdi Azikiwe or Chinua Achebe. Whereas the Yoruba place Obafemi Awolowo on the same pedestal as a demigod, the Igbo are hardly bothered about whatever Azikiwe represents or does not represent in the pantheon of the great.
Perhaps, the only Igbo man the people lionise is Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the leader of the defunct Republic of Biafra. The reason for this is simple. Biafra means a lot to the Igbo. The passion flows in their blood veins. It matters to the Igbo that Ojukwu was more than committed to the Biafran cause. He never wavered in his belief in and fight for the cause until death. The Igbo revere him for this. He is their war hero for all times.
Apart from the inherent disposition of the Igbo, which does not encourage the celebration of anybody, there are also remote reasons for the non-celebration of Ironsi by the Igbo. The Ironsi story is not an isolated one. It carries with it a myriad of sub plots which, when woven together, define the Igbo story and situation in Nigeria. There is no story of Ironsi without the story of the organised massacre of hundreds of Igbo military officers by their northern counterparts. The story of the murder of Ironsi also necessarily dovetails into the story of the pogrom visited on the Igbo in northern Nigeria. One pogrom followed the other. In all of this, there was no whimper from the federal military government led by General Yakubu Gowon. The government, which was supposed to protect the life and property of its citizens, as a primary responsibility, merely aided and abetted the organised massacres. All of this eventuated in the birth of Biafra. The Ironsi story is, therefore, a complex tapestry, which can hardly be unravelled and understood without making Biafra the subject matter.
Fifty years down the line, the Biafran story has not ended. The story, as we know, is the story of a race. It has a life of its own. The Ironsi story is merely a fraction of the integer. What this means is that you cannot talk about Ironsi in isolation. You rather talk about Biafra and weave Ironsi into it. This essential interconnectness may explain why Ironsi may not be singled out for special mention by his people.
But Fajuyi deserves what he is getting from his people. As the Yoruba celebrate him, the Igbo should also spare a thought for this nationalist. From what we have been told, Fajuyi had the option of staying alive if he had washed his hands off Ironsi. He could have disowned Ironsi if he wanted to. But he preferred to die rather than betray his guest. That was a rare act of courage. It was heroism writ large. That is why history has remained kind to him. It will remain so till the end of time.
It is significant to note that in talking about Fajuyi, copious references are being made to the January 15 and July 29, 1966 military coups. There are claims and counter claims about the murderous adventures that changed the course of the Nigerian state. One of the issues, which has cropped up from this is the effort being made by a group called Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF) to prove that the January 15, 1966 coup was not an Igbo affair whose intent was to eliminate prominent northerners and pave way for Igbo takeover of Nigeria. In struggling to make this point, they have urged Gowon to do away with his unholy silence about the events of that trying period. They want him to speak up so that the true intent and purpose of the January coup would be better understood and appreciated.
The promoters of ADF have a point. They know the dangers of distortion and what it can do to the health of a people or a nation. That is why they are struggling to have it exorcised from our body politic. But their concern, I am constrained to submit, may end up as mere wishful thinking. I say so because we know that it is the prerogative of the victor to rewrite history. The victors, of which Gowon was a prominent member, have rewritten and distorted the story of those heady days. Gowon cannot but flow with them. That is why he is strutting about with a heavy burden. That was why he went about praying for a country he helped to put on the path of damnation.
Besides, Nigerians as a people neither seek truth nor reconciliation. They are not interested in healing wounds. The country is a dungeon, a horrendous cave where civility and good conscience are aliens. That is why the country has remained perpetually on the path of retrogression. The country has continually failed to make progress because the psyche of the people has been programmed to repudiate progress. A country that has been on a cyclical wind for nearly six decades must be truly accustomed to standing still. In fact, stagnation has become a way of life in Nigeria. That is why the patriotic few, who feel bothered about the state of inertia are expressing concerns. They want the structure of the federation to be changed so that the country could experience something different. These few strident voices mean well. But will the conspirators let Nigeria experience a breath of fresh air? We look onto time for the resolution of these incongruencies.