Today in History: How Ironsi and Fajuyi walked into a trap!
WALKING INTO THE TRAP: July 29,1966 exactly 51 years ago
The Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces,Major Gen J T U Aguyi-Ironsi and the Military Governor of the then Western Region, Col Adekunle Fajuyi arriving at their last state function in Ibadan into a well coordinated trap set by then temporary Major Murtala Mohammed, Captain Martin Adamu, Captain TY Danjuma and some other Northern Army officers on July 29,1966 exactly 51 years ago today.
The bloody events of that night at the Government House Ibadan and military formations in Lagos, Abeokuta and some other parts of the country were the major factors that led to the Nigerian Civil War which claimed over one million lives.
May their souls rest in peace.
Here is a detailed report of the events of that faithful night as captured by the renowned military historian and heart surgeon, Prof Nowa Omoigui : IBADAN, FRIDAY, JULY 29, 1966 (“Paiko’s Wedding”)
The situation in Ibadan on July 28 was tense. Northern civil servants, chiefs and traditional rulers who had come for the Conference of Traditional rulers were eager to get out of the South, fearful that they would be targetted in the so called “Plan 15” Igbo Plot. Indeed there were false rumors that the conference Hall was slated to be blown up. At the regimental parade for General Ironsi a small controversy erupted in the Press about the observation that northern troops refused to (or could not) sing the National Anthem. Arguments went back and forth on TV about whether their lips were moving.
Nevertheless, there was a grand reception in the evening hosted by the Military Governor, Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, which belied the tensions that were simmering underneath. Fate was beckoning. Both Ironsi and Fajuyi were distinguished veterans of the Congo peace-keeping operations (ONUC) from 1960-64. Then Brigadier JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi was the overall Force Commander for the last six months of the operation. Fajuyi was well known as the first Nigerian officer to be honoured with an international military citation. As a Major, he was awarded the Military Cross (MC) for personal action in leading C company of the 4QNR in combat on November 27, 1960 and subsequently extricating it from an ambush during operations on January 3, 1961.
Nevertheless, following the call from Lt. Pam Mwadkon in Abeokuta, Lt. Garba Dada (Paiko) woke up other northern officers at the 4th Battalion, including Major TY Danjuma, a staff officer at AHQ who was temporarily staying at the Letmauk Barracks, having accompanied Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi from Lagos. The Barracks is named after a town called Letmauk, site of a bitter campaign in April and May 1944 to retake AN from the Japanese in Burma, by the 1st Nigerian Brigade of the 82nd West African Division during World War II.
Dada told Danjuma: “Sir, we will have to do the same thing. The most important target is the Supreme Commander. For as long as he is there, everything we are doing here is nothing. We should go there.”
After a brief meeting with Lts. Ibrahim Bako and Abdullai Shelleng, a quick phone call was made to Lt. Col. Murtala Muhammed in Lagos, seeing as Muhammed had earlier contacted the boys to stand down from their group’s pre-planned coup. But Muhammed initially urged restraint, seeing as he was unsure whether his earlier confrontation with Anwunah meant that Igbo officers and soldiers in Lagos were already armed and may well have the advantage – as Anwunah had threatened. However, concerned that exposed northern mutineers in Abeokuta would be isolated and thus likely arrested and charged if they delayed action, Danjuma, Dada, Bako, Shelleng, and the duty officer (James Onoja) decided to overrule Muhammed and proceed with operations in Ibadan. Because Danjuma did not go to Ibadan with combat dress, he borrowed one from Lt. James Onoja* who had recently come back from a course in the US, and wore it right over his pyjamas. Then Danjuma armed himself with a hand grenade for suicide in the event of mission failure.
(*Some accounts say it was Akahan’s uniform, but the Onoja version is likely more correct, confirmed by Danjuma himself. In any case Akahan was out of the loop until daybreak).
Soldiers were then hurriedly selected from infantry companies at Mokola commanded by Onoja and Shelleng. While Shelleng took one group to man checkpoints along the Lagos and Abeokuta roads to protect the southern approaches to the city, 24 soldiers under Lt. James Onoja, some say in two landrovers mustered by the MTO, Lt. Jerry Useni, accompanied Major Danjuma to the Government House in the early hours of July 29, 1966. The specific initial objective was to isolate the premises, disconnect the Supreme Commander from the chain of command and arrest him as a tool for negotiations regarding the boys who killed Okonweze and others at Abeokuta. The Government House was already guarded by elements of the National Guards company, led by Lt. William Walbe, who was in charge of a 106 mm recoilless rifle group, along with some soldiers on duty from the 4th battalion whose reporting relationship was to the adjutant of the battalion as well as the duty officer.
THE TAKE-OVER OF THE GOVERNMENT HOUSE, IBADAN
Upon arrival there, having established that the Supreme Commander was in, Major Danjuma was confronted by two command problems. Both arose from the fact that he neither belonged to the 4th battalion nor was he part of the National Guard, although he was senior to all the boys on the ground. First task, therefore, was to ensure the cooperation of those elements of the 4th battalion who were on duty there. The second was to secure the cooperation of the National Guard Commander on the ground. In order to address the first problem he asked the adjutant (“Paiko”) to issue a “legitimate” order that all his soldiers on duty be disarmed by the duty officer (Onoja) who was there to conduct a “legitimate” inspection. After being disarmed by the Duty Sergeant, they were illegitimately screened and those who could be trusted (ie northerners), illegitimately rearmed. Then they were supplemented by the pre-selected group Danjuma brought along from the barracks with Onoja. To deal with the second problem he confronted Lt. William Walbe directly and secured his cooperation. This wasn’t too difficult. Although they were in different cells, Walbe himself had been attending separate meetings in Lagos with Joe Garba and others and was well aware of the outlines of a coup plot although he did not expect one that night.
Once the building was surrounded and the 106 mm gun positioned in support, Danjuma came under pressure from the boys on the ground to proceed with the operation. There were fears, based on myths acquired in the Congo, that General Ironsi was assisted by “juju” and that he could disappear at anytime using his “crocodile”. Junior officers who had come to join the party urged immediate attack, some even suggesting a repeat performance of the Nzeogwu assault on the Nassarawa Lodge in Kaduna in January. They wanted the 106 mm weapon used to bring down the complex. Danjuma resisted the pressure.
Lt. Col. Hilary Njoku, Commander of the 2nd Brigade in Lagos, then emerged from the main building and was walking right past the soldiers on duty moving toward the gate. One account says he came up from Lagos with Ironsi, had been staying at the guest house next to the main lodge, but was at the main lodge where Ironsi was staying, socializing with both Ironsi and Fajuyi. Another account says he came up from Lagos that evening when rumors of a coup gained strong currency among senior Igbo officers in Lagos to brief the C-in-C. When he attempted to leave the premises, ostensibly to mobilize loyal units, he was shot at by soldiers who had been ordered not to let anyone out and he responded in kind. (Some say he shot first). Luckily he escaped with serious injuries, some say with no less than 8 pieces of shrapnel in his thigh. Njoku initially made his way to the University College Hospital but had to escape again when a “mop up” team came searching for him.
At this point, Lt. Onoja asked for permission to leave, saying he was going to get more ammunition from the barracks. However, he panicked and ran away in one of the landrovers, fearing that Njoku’s escape meant the coup would fail. He was later arrested at Jebba.
When it became apparent that Njoku had escaped, Danjuma, guarded by two soldiers, made rounds to check all guard positions around the lodge and was moving toward the guest house when he heard the phone there ringing. He asked one of his guards to break the window so he could reach in to answer the phone. According to General Danjuma (rtd), this is how the conversation went:
Gowon: “Hello. I want to speak to Brigade Commander. I want to speak to Colonel Njoku.
Danjuma: “May I know who is speaking?”
Gowon: My name is Gowon. Yakubu Gowon.”
Danjuma: “Ranka dede. This is Yakubu Danjuma.”
Gowon: “Yakubu, what are you doing there? Where are you?”
Danjuma: “I am in the State House here.”
Gowon: “Where is the Brigade Commander?”
Danjuma: “He is not around.”
Gowon: “Have you heard what has happened?”
Danjuma: “Yes, I heard and that is why I am here. We are about to arrest the Supreme Commander. The alternative is that the Igbo boys who carried out the January coup will be released tit for tat since we killed their own officers.”
Gowon: (after a period of silence) “Can you do it?”
Danjuma: “Yes, we have got the place surrounded.”
Gowon: “But for goodness sake we have had enough bloodshed. There must be no bloodshed.”
Danjuma: “No, We are only going to arrest him.”
At this point Danjuma replaced the phone as yet another command crisis with the soldiers on the grounds was brewing. It is not clear from available information what Gowon did with the explosive information he had just gained from Danjuma or how he and Ogundipe planned to deal with it. Danjuma does not say that Gowon or any other senior officer explicitly ordered him to desist from his activities. To what extent, then, did knowledge that Ironsi was already surrounded by elements of the 4th battalion affect efforts to send a Helicopter or the force structure of any potential rescue mission? It appears that, at least in dealings with Ibadan, a decision was made, by omission or commission, to adopt a negotiating rather than fighting attitude to the mutiny.
This is an area which will attract considerable attention of researchers in the future. Some have used it to implicate Gowon in the coup but depending on what other information he had at that point about availability of loyal fighting units, this may be too harsh a conclusion to draw without additional clarification from Gowon himself. He may well have been stalling to allow him time to make alternative plans. Certainly, neither the National Guard company, 2nd (in Lagos) nor 4th (in Ibadan) battalions nor the garrison at Abeokuta were usable at that point. Even if they were willing, battalions in Enugu, Kaduna and Kano were too far away to be useful, particularly considering the lack of emergency strategic airlift capability. In any case, any thinking along these lines was quickly neutralized by Murtala Muhammed’s decision to seize Ikeja airport at dawn. Lastly, Gowon may have viewed Danjuma as the lesser of two evils – the other being an all out effort by mutinying junior officers to get their hands on the General (which is what eventually happened). In retrospect, at that point only a foreign power could have mustered the might to stage a complex night-time military rescue operation to save Ironsi. But there is no evidence that such an option was ever considered.
In any case, when Onoja ran away, TY Danjuma was isolated. With no duty officer on ground, and no other officer from the 4th battalion on the premises, the NCOs began to wonder if they should take strange orders from this Major they had never met, wearing a mis-sized American satin combat uniform on top of pyjamas and who wasn’t even from their unit. They began to wonder if Danjuma might even be an Igbo officer based on his physique and bearing and perhaps even his reluctance to destroy the building. Fortunately for Danjuma, Lt. Abdullai Shelleng returned briefly from his checkpoint on Abeokuta road to check on things and persuaded the NCOs to obey him, assuring them that he was a northerner.
Other officers also arrived back on premises as daybreak approached, including “Paiko” himself. Nervous soldiers then appealed directly to Garba Dada (Paiko) to blow up the house but he refused to do so unless Danjuma gave the okay. Danjuma chose to maintain the siege, waiting patiently for the occupants to emerge from the building. The opportunity would come at 8 am when the Governor and Head of State were scheduled to go for official engagements in town. The one curious oversight, though, was that no effort was made to cut off the phone lines at the lodge.
At 6:30 am General Ironsi’s Army ADC, Lt. Sani Bello emerged from the building to find out what was going on. After a brief confrontation with Danjuma and a group of hostile northern NCOs, he was arrested, told to remove his shoes and sit down on the ground. As members of the Head of State’s convoy and delegation began arriving from guest chalets they too were detained and asked to sit on the ground. They include many others like Colonel Olu Thomas, an army physician, and Chief C. O. Lawson, Secretary to the Government, arrested at about 7:30 am.
At this point, Lt. Col. Fajuyi personally emerged from the building. Some accounts claim that his ADC had absconded during the night and switched sides. Danjuma describes his conversation with Fajuyi as follows:
Fajuyi: “Danjuma come. What do you want?”
Danjuma: “I want the Supreme Commander”
Fajuyi: “Promise me that no harm will come to him”
Danjuma: words to the effect that no harm would come to Ironsi and that he was only being arrested.
Fajuyi: “I will go and call him.”
Chorus of northern NCOs: “No, Sir. Don’t allow him to go.”
Danjuma: (talking to Fajuyi who had briefly turned around) “Sir, you see what I have. This is grenade. If there is false move two of us will go.”
At this point Fajuyi led the way into the building with the grenade bearing Danjuma and five armed soldiers (including Lt. Walbe) right behind him, essentially using him as a cover as they climbed the staircase and went upstairs to meet General Ironsi.
Ironsi: “Young man”
Danjuma: “Sir, you are under arrest.”
Ironsi: “What is the matter?”
Danjuma: “The matter is you, Sir. You told us in January when we supported you to quell the mutiny that all the dissident elements that took part in the mutiny will be court-martialled. It is July now. You have done nothing. You kept these boys in prison and the rumours are now that they will be released because they are national heroes.”
Ironsi: “Look, what do you mean? It is not true.”
At this point Ironsi and Danjuma began arguing, with Fajuyi getting in between them and reminding Danjuma again and again of his promise that no harm would come to Ironsi.
Danjuma: “Fajuyi get out of my way. You, just come down.”
Danjuma: (to Ironsi) “….You organized the killing of our brother officers in January and you have done nothing to bring the so called dissident elements to justice because you were part and parcel of the whole thing.”
Ironsi: “Who told you that? You know it is not true.”
Danjuma: “You are lying. You have been fooling us. I ran around risking my neck trying to calm the ranks, and in February you told us that they would be tried. This is July and nothing has been done. You will answer for your actions.”
At this point Danjuma and Lt. Andrew Nwankwo, Ironsi’s AirForce ADC, had a fierce verbal exchange, with one holding a grenade with the pin pulled and the other holding a pistol. But with the fingers of five other soldiers on the triggers of automatic weapons, Nwankwo was outgunned.
IRONSI AND FAJUYI ARE KIDNAPPED
When the group got downstairs, Danjuma instructed the 4th battalion adjutant, Lt. Garba Dada (“Paiko”), to arrange for both Fajuyi and Ironsi to be taken to the guest house on the cattle ranch at Mokwa “pending date of full inquiry”. Lt. “Paiko”, however, informed Danjuma that he was not a party to the commitment he made to Fajuyi (or Gowon) about their safety and a fierce emotional argument erupted between Danjuma and the others. At this point a northern soldier tapped Danjuma on the shoulder with a loaded rifle and, speaking in Hausa, said:
“These foolish young boys. That is the kind of leadership you have given us and messing us up. They killed all your elders and you are still fooling around here. The man you are fooling around here with will disappear before you know it.”
The other soldiers agreed with this soldier and pounced on both Ironsi and Fajuyi, wrestling them to restrain any movement. Danjuma, faced with one command crisis after another all night, had finally lost control.
Fajuyi turned to Danjuma and said: “You gave us the assurance.”
Danjuma replied: “Yes, Sir. I am sure you will be all right.”
He was wrong.
Two landrovers took the captives away while Danjuma hitch-hiked back to the barracks.
Both Ironsi and Fajuyi were squeezed into the front seat of one vehicle while Ironsi’s ADCs, Lts. Bello and Nwankwo were behind. Two officers, Lts. Walbe and Dada, accompanied the group with one joining the driver of the lead vehicle. The command vehicle led another vehicle full of armed troops. Among those soldiers said to have been present include the 4th battalion unit RSM Useni Fagge, Sergeant Tijjani (from Maiduguri), Warrant Officer Bako, and other soldiers including Dabang, Wali, and Rabo. Some of those involved were later to come to prominence during the unsuccessful Dimka coup of 1976.
They drove to Mile 8 on Iwo road, where the group dismounted and went into the bush, crossing a small stream. Ironsi and Fajuyi were subjected to beatings and interrogation. General Ironsi acted a soldier as he was questioned, refused to be intimidated and remained silent, refusing to confess any role in the January 15 coup. Indeed, according to Elaigwu, “It was reliably learnt from an officer and a soldier on the spot that it was Ironsi’s muteness amidst a barrage of questions that led to his being shot by an angry Northern soldier.” Other sources suggest that the “angry northern soldier” may have been Sergeant Tijjani. Details are murky.
Fajuyi was also shot. Although the western region publication “Fajuyi the Great” published by the Ministry of Information in 1967 after his official burial said he had offered to die rather than “abandon his guest”, those involved in his arrest and assassination insist that he was an even more critical target than Ironsi .