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How Nigeria’s First Gold Medalist Was Executed During Biafran War (BLAST FROM THE PAST)

20-year-old Ifeajuna posed with the Commonwealth Gold Statue

The first time Emmanuel
Ifeajuna
appeared before a crowd of thousands, he did something no black
African had ever done. He won a gold medal at an international sporting event. “Nigeria Creates World Sensation,” ran
the headline in the West African Pilot
after Ifeajuna’s record-breaking victory in the high jump at the 1954 Empire and Commonwealth Games in
Vancouver. He was the pride not just of Nigeria but of a whole continent. An
editorial asked: “Who among our people
did not weep for sheer joy when Nigeria came uppermost, beating all whites and
blacks together?”
In the words of a former schoolmate, Ifeajuna had leaped “to
the very pinnacle of Nigerian sporting achievement”. His nine track and field
team-mates won another six silver and bronze medals, prompting a special
correspondent to write “Rejoice with me,
oh ye sports lovers of Nigeria, for the remarkable achievements of our boys”.
Olympic image of Ifeajuna on exercise books in public schools was a common feature

Ifeajuna, feted wherever he went, would soon see his picture
on the front of school exercise books. He was a great national hero who would
remain Nigeria’s only gold medallist,
in Commonwealth or Olympic sport, until 1966.
INVOLVEMENT IN NIGERIA’S
FIRST COUP
The next time Ifeajuna appeared before a crowd of thousands
he was bare-chested and tied to a stake, facing execution before a seething
mob. He had co-led a military coup in
January 1966
in which, according to an official but disputed police report,
he shot and killed Nigeria’s first prime
minister
. The coup failed but Ifeajuna escaped to safety in Ghana, dressed as a woman and was driven to
freedom by a famous poet. Twenty months later, he was back, fighting for the
persecuted Igbo people of eastern Nigeria in a brutal civil war that broke out
as a consequence of the coup.
THE END: Close shot of a convict facing a firing squad

INCONCLUSIVE TRIAL
& DEATH
Ifeajuna and three fellow officers were accused by their own
leader, General Emeka Ojukwu, of
plotting against him and the breakaway Republic
of Biafra.
They denied charges of treason: they were trying to save lives
and their country, they said, by negotiating an early ceasefire with the
federal government and reuniting Nigeria. They failed, they died and, in the
next two and a half years, so did more than a million Igbos.
The day of the execution was 25 September, 1967, and the time
1.30pm. There was a very short gap between trial and execution, not least
because federal troops were closing in on
Enugu, the Biafran capital
, giving rise to fears that the “guilty four” might be rescued.
As the execution approached, the four men – Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Victor Banjo, Phillip
Alale (two former soldiers from federal troops who allied with Biafra) and Sam
Agbam
– were tied to stakes. Ifeajuna, with his head on his chest as though
he was already dead, kept mumbling that his death would not stop what he had
feared most, that federal troops would enter Enugu, and the only way to stop
this was for those about to kill him to ask for a ceasefire.
A body of soldiers drew up with their automatic rifles at the
ready. On the order of their officer, they levelled their guns at the bared
chests of the four men. As a hysterical mass behind the firing squad shouted,
“Shoot them! Shoot them!” a grim-looking officer gave the command: “Fire!” The
deafening volley was followed by lolling heads. Ifeajuna slumped. Nigeria’s great sporting hero died a
villain’s death. But he had been right. By 4.00pm two and a half hours after
the executions, the gunners of the federal troops had started to hit their
targets in Enugu with great accuracy. The Biafrans began to flee and the city
fell a few days later.

NO MONUMENTS, NO
HISTORY
Of all the many hundreds of gold medallists at the Empire and Commonwealth Games since 1930
none left such a mark on history, led such a remarkable life or suffered such a
shocking death as Ifeajuna.
His co-plotter in the 1966 coup, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, was buried with full military honours and
had a statue erected in his memory in his home town. But for Ifeajuna, the
hateful verdict of that seething mob carried weight down the years. His name
was reviled, his sporting glory all but written out of Nigeria’s history. His
name is absent from the website of the Athletics
Federation of Nigeria
, appearing neither in the history of the Federation
nor in any other section. There is no easy road to redemption for the gold
medallist who inadvertently started a war and was shot for trying to stop it.
Ifeajuna posing with officials at the Commonwealth shortly after he was announced winner

Nigeria’s first foray into overseas sport was in 1948, when
they sent athletes to London to compete in the Amateur Athletic Association Championships, and to watch the
Olympic Games before a planned first entry in the next Olympiad. In 1950 there
was cause to celebrate when the high jumper, Josiah Majekodunmi, won a silver medal at the Auckland Commonwealth
Games. He also fared best of Nigeria’s
Olympic pathfinders
, the nine-man team who competed at Helsinki in 1952.
Majekodunmi was ninth, with two of his team-mates also in the top 20. Nigerians
clearly excelled at the high jump.
With three men having competed in that 1952 Olympic final,
the Nigeria selectors had plenty of names to consider for the Commonwealth Games high jump in Vancouver
two years later. Ifeajuna, aged 20, was not a contender until he surprised
everybody at the national championships in late April, less than two months
before the team were due to depart. His jump of 6ft 5.5in, the best of the
season, took him straight in alongside Nafiu
Osagie, one of the 1952 Olympians
, and he was selected.
The high jump was on day one of competition in Vancouver and
Ifeajuna wore only one shoe, on his left foot. One correspondent wrote: “The Nigerian made his cat-like approach
from the left-hand side. In his take-off stride his leading leg was flexed to
an angle quite beyond anything ever seen but he retrieved position with a
fantastic spring and soared upwards as if plucked by some external agency.”
Ifeajuna brushed the bar at 6ft 7in but it stayed on; he then
cleared 6ft 8in to set a Games and British Empire record, and to become the
first man ever to jump 13.5in more than his own height. This first gold for black Africa was a
world-class performance. His 6ft 8in – just over 2.03m – would have been good
enough for a silver medal at the Helsinki Olympics two years earlier.
The team arrived back home on 8 September. That afternoon
they were driven on an open-backed lorry through the streets of Lagos, with the
police band on board, to a civic reception at the racecourse. The flags and
bunting were out in abundance, as were the crowds in the middle and, for those
who could afford tickets, the grandstand. There was a celebration dance at 9.00pm.
Ifeajuna told reporters he had been so tired, having spent nearly four hours in
competition, that: “At the time I attempted the record jump I did not think I
had enough strength to achieve the success which was mine. I was very happy
when I went over the bar on my second attempt.”
After a couple of weeks at home Ifeajuna was off to
university on the other side of the country at Ibadan. His sporting career was
already over, apart from rare appearances in inter-varsity matches. He met his
future wife, Rose, in 1955. They married in 1959 and had two sons. After
graduating in zoology, he taught for a while before joining the army in 1960
and was trained in England, at Aldershot. Ifeajuna had first shown an interest
in the military in 1956 when, during a summer holiday in Abeokuta, he had
visited the local barracks with a friend who later became one of the most important
figures in the Commonwealth.
Former Commonwealth General secretary, Chief Emeka Anyaoku

RELATIONSHIP WITH
ANYAOKU
Chief Emeka Anyaoku
joined the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1966
, the year of Ifeajuna’s coup attempt. While his good
friend escaped, returned, fought in the war and died in front of the firing
squad, Anyaoku moved to London, where he rose to the highest office in the Commonwealth, secretary-general, in 1990.
For four years at university he lived in a room next door to Ifeajuna, who
became a close friend.
Why did the record-breaking champion stop competing? “From
October, 1954, when he enrolled at Ibadan, he never trained,” said Anyaoku,
nearly 60 years later. “He never had a coach – only his games master at grammar
school – and there were no facilities at the university. He simply stopped. He
seemed content with celebrating his gold medal. I don’t think the Olympics ever
tempted him. I used to tease him that he was the most natural hero in sport. He did no special training. He was so
gifted, he just did it all himself. Jumping barefoot, or with one shoe, was not
unusual where we came from.”

OBASANJO’S ASSESSMENT OF
HIM

Another hugely influential
voice from Nigerian history
pointed out that Ifeajuna, in his days as a
student, had “a fairly good record of
rebellion”. Olusegun Obasanjo
served as head of a military regime and as an
elected president. He recalled Ifeajuna’s role in a protest that led to the
closure of his grammar school in Onitsha for a term in 1951, when he was 16.
Three years after winning gold, while at university, Ifeajuna made a rousing
speech before leading several hundred students in protest against poor food and
conditions.
Former president Olusegun Obasanjo as a military head of states
The former president also held a manuscript written by Ifeajuna in the aftermath of the coup but
never published. It stated: “It was unity we wanted, not rebellion. We had
watched our leaders rape our country. The country was so diseased that bold
reforms were badly needed to settle social, moral, economic and political
questions. We fully realised that to be caught planning, let alone acting, on
our lines, was high treason. And the penalty for high treason is death.”
In 1964, the Lagos
boxer Omo Oloja
won a light-middleweight bronze in Tokyo, thereby becoming Nigeria’s first Olympic medallist. It
was a rare moment of celebration in a grim year that featured a general strike
and a rigged election. Another election the following year was, said the BBC
and Reuters correspondent Frederick
Forsyth,
seriously rigged – “electoral officers disappeared, ballot papers
vanished from police custody, candidates were detained, polling agents were
murdered”. Two opposing sides both claimed victory, leading to a complete
breakdown of law and order. “Rioting, murder, looting, arson and mayhem were
rife,” said Forsyth. The prime minister,
Tafawa Balewa
, refused to declare a state of emergency. There was
corruption in the army, too, with favouritism for northern recruits. A group of
officers began to talk about a coup after they were told by their brigadier
that they would be required to pledge allegiance to the prime minister, from
the north, rather than the country’s first president, an Igbo. Ifeajuna’s group
feared a jihad against the mainly
Christian south
, led by the north’s
Muslim figurehead,
the Sardauna of
Sokoto.
First prime minister of Nigeria, Sir Tafawa Balewa

DID TAFAWA BALEWA DIE
OF ASTHMA OR SHOT BY IFEAJUNA?
The coup, codenamed
Leopard
, was planned in secret meetings. Major Ifeajuna led a small group
in Lagos, whose main targets were the prime minister, the army’s
commander-in-chief, and a brigadier, who was Ifeajuna’s first victim. According
to the official police report, part of which has never been made public,
Ifeajuna and a few of his men broke into the prime minister’s home, kicked down
his bedroom door and led out Balewa in his white robe. They allowed him to say
his prayers and drove him away in Ifeajuna’s car. On the road to Abeokuta they
stopped, Ifeajuna ordered the prime
minister out of the car, shot him, and left his body in the bush
. Others
say the Prime Minister was not shot, nor was the intention ever to kill him: Balewa died of an asthma attack or a heart
attack
brought on by fear. There has never been conclusive evidence either
way.
Ifeajuna drove on to Enugu, where it became apparent that the
coup had failed, mainly because one of
the key officers in Ifeajuna’s Lagos operation had “turned traitor”
and had
failed to arrive as planned with armoured cars. Major-General Ironsi, the main military target, was still at large
and he soon took control of the military government. Ifeajuna was now a wanted
man. He hid in a chemist’s shop, disguised himself as a woman, and was driven
over the border by his friend Christopher
Okigbo
, a poet of great renown.
Then he travelled on to Ghana, where he was welcomed.
Ifeajuna eventually agreed to return to Lagos, where he was
held pending trial. Ojukwu, by now a senior officer, ensured his safety by
having him transferred, in April, to a jail in the east. The Igbo people who
lived in the north of Nigeria were attacked. In weeks of violent bloodshed,
tens of thousands died. As the death toll increased, the outcome was a Civil War. In May 1967, Ojukwu, military
governor of the south-east
of Nigeria, declared that the region had now
become the Republic of Biafra. By
the time the fighting ended in early 1970, the number of deaths would be in the
millions.
Arguably, if either of Ifeajuna’s plots had been a success,
those lives would not have been lost. The verdicts on his role in Nigerian
history are many and varied: his detractors have held sway. Chief among them
was Bernard Odogwu, Biafra’s head of
intelligence
, who branded Ifeajuna a
traitor
and blamed him for “failure
and atrocities”
in the 1966 coup.
Adewale Ademoyega, one of the 1966
plotters
, held a different view of Ifeajuna. “He was a rather complicated
character … intensely political and revolutionary … very influential among
those close to him … generous and willing to sacrifice anything for the
revolution.”
The last time Anyaoku saw Ifeajuna was in 1963, in Lagos,
before Anyaoku’s departure for a diplomatic role in New York. He later moved to
London and was there in 1967. “I was devastated when I heard the news of the
execution,” he said. As for Ifeajuna being all but written out of Nigeria’s sporting history, he noted
that: “The history of the civil war
still evokes a two-sided argument
. He is a hero to many people, though they
would more readily talk about his gold medal than his involvement in the war.
There are people who think he was unjustifiably executed and others who believe
the opposite.”
One commentator suggested recently that the new national stadium in Abuja, Nigerian
capital, should have been named after Ifeajuna. But it will surely never
happen.


Brian Oliver is a former sports
editor of the Observer. This is an edited extract from his book, The Commonwealth Games: Extraordinary
Stories Behind The Medals
, published by Bloomsbury and priced £12.99

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