Honours In Our National Pantheon: A Case For Chukwuma Nzeogwu And Emmanuel Ifeajuna

by Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

Every society must have heroes and heroines. Unfortunate is the land that lacks heroes or ruins. Without heroes humanity cannot have icons who will serve as beacons for plotting their progress. Ruins are for learning how to rebuild a society.

But Nigeria’s case is a journey in reverse gear. We consign our true heroes to the refuse heap and set up clay-footed idols in our pantheon. Instead of soberly contemplating the ruins we have created through our actions and inactions and how to build lasting structures from them, we are busy tearing apart what is left of our national fabric. One example: Nigeria is not the only country that went through a civil war. But since 1970 successive governments and generations have acted as if Biafra was an optical illusion. Other countries in similar position e.g. USA, Spain, have grappled with the challenges of their realities.

In my opinion Majors Chukwuma Patrick Kaduna Nzeogwu (1937-1967) and Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna (1932-1967) must be given their places in Nigeria’s roll call of honour. Since the histories of both men are well documented I will only cite portions relevant to this article.

Chukwuma Nzeogwu died on July 26 1967(some accounts say July 29) fighting for Biafra. But it is on record that very few Nigerians of his time, and even now, match his deep love and faith in Nigeria. Fighting for Biafra was a fate beyond his control. Imprisoned in Eastern Nigeria for his role in the January 15 1966 coup, Nzeogwu and his colleagues were released by the Eastern Regional governor, Colonel Odumegwu-Ojukwu in the run up to the civil war. The Nigerian government would not hear of Nzeogwu and only offered him another prison or probably worse if he returned. Nzeogwu openly opposed secession in press interviews shortly before the outbreak of fighting. Though he and Ojukwu disliked each other, the Biafran leader needed little pressure to allow him free reign in the Nsukka sector.

Quite a few questions can be asked about Nzeogwu’s claims to heroism. Does a man who tried to overthrow a constitutional government deserve a wreath or a hangman’s noose? Does a man whose actions apparently opened the floodgate to a course of actions that eventually inspired one of Africa’s bloodiest civil wars deserve commendation or condemnation? Did he bring honour or reproach to his constituency-the Nigerian military? Was he not a cold-blooded murderer? The list is endless.

But real heroes have always been controversial. Nzeogwu deserves accolades for these reasons:

The first coup of which he was a primary architect (if not the brains) taught Nigeria’s ruling elite one lesson they have never forgotten over the years, no matter how wrong-headed they have become: there is a limit to which you can toy with the Nigerian.

Nearly fifty years after the coup, Nigerians have come full circle and on the lips of many true believers in Nigeria is an intense prayer for a revolution to clean out the Augean stables. Nzeogwu and company’s revolutionary blueprint for taking Nigeria to her rightful place in the world remains relevant and inspirational. (See chapters two to four of Adewale Ademoyega’s ‘Why We Struck.’). Today, revolutionaries in the mould of Nzeogwu and Rawlings will be heartily welcomed in Nigeria.

Then Nzeogwu’s lifestyle and military genius, which are widely testified to by even his enemies, overwhelmingly show that young Nigerians can make Nigeria proud. One need not be a soldier or a coup plotter to learn from Nzeogwu’s life that the best path is one defined by principles, courage, honesty and self-sacrifice. Even in religious matters. I am a Catholic but I am light years away from measuring up to Nzeogwu’s deep but balanced devotion to the faith.

We can debate Nigeria’s first coup till the end of time but the fact remains that Nzeogwu loved Nigeria and meant well for her. Can we key into his dream for this country?

Emmanuel Ifeajuna is one of the most unfairly maligned Nigerians I have read about. Even among his fellow Igbo, uninformed ones swallow the propaganda that he was at the heart of efforts to destroy Biafra through the failed invasion of Mid-Western Nigeria in August 1967. Ifeajuna, Colonel Victor Banjo, Major Alale and Sam Agbam were tried and shot in Enugu on September 22 1967 for allegedly plotting against Ojukwu and deliberately foiling the Mid-Western operations in order to return Biafra to Nigeria. History may never give us a full record of what the ‘infamous four’ did. I recommend a study of ‘A Gift of Sequins’ by Banjo’s daughter as a beginner’s text for anyone who wants to objectively learn about the Mid-Western invasion. Though I do not want to open old wounds, it is no reason to throw Ifeajuna’s bones into the dung heap of non-recognition.

Nigerian sports authorities still act as if Ifeajuna never won a gold medal for the country at the 1954 Commonwealth games in Canada-the first by any Nigerian in any individual sports event. He won it years before joining the army. That record can never be erased as long as Nigeria exists.

Ifeajuna’s role in the first coup remains disputed. Some analysts have attributed its leadership-at least intellectually- to him because he was a university graduate with connections among Nigeria’s radical intelligentsia at that time. Whatever may be the truth, Ifeajuna stood for a new, united Nigeria. One only needs to read his unpublished manuscript as quoted in Olusegun Obasanjo’s book ‘Nzeogwu.’ It will sound odd in today’s tribalism-crazed Nigeria that Ifeajuna put his life on the line because he believed in the ideals of the Yoruba leader, Obafemi Awolowo. That he fled to Ghana when the heat against the January coup plotters got too much is indefensible but human. But that does not remove the fact that he was a pan-Nigerian revolutionary to the core. Maybe that was what cost him his life in Biafra.

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