“I’m Not Dead Yet!”: The Story of Victor Banjo
by: Deji Yesufu
(On June 30, 2017, IPOB led a successful campaign of sit-at-home in most of Eastern Nigeria to commemorate 50 years of the declaration of Biafra by Col. Ojukwu. I sat in my home and wrote this article in response to that event; the article had since gone viral. This Facebook post encouraged me to write a book on Victor Banjo. The dream was realized in June 2018. I wrote that the original Facebook post this day, three years ago. Enjoy it).
Victor Banjo was executed by firing squad by the regime of Col. Emeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, on trumped up charges of planning a coup against the government of Biafra, on September 22nd, 1967. I met Victor Banjo in 2008.
I had taken up a job as an A-level teacher of Physics in March 2008 at the Educational Advancement Center, Bodija, Ibadan. Among the children I taught in the set that wrote the May/June examinations of that year, was the grand child of Victor Banjo. His aunt, Prof. Mrs. Olayinka Omigbodun, had just published the book “Gift of Sequin: Letters to My Wife”, which she wrote in her father’s name. The book was a compilation of letters which her father, Victor Banjo, had written to their mother, while he was in prison. The young man, Banjo’s grandchild, gave the book to the literature teacher in the school I was teaching in and I just happened to lay my hands on it. Through its pages, I met Brigadier Victor Banjo.
Victor Banjo was among officers arrested by the government of Aguiyi Ironsi after the coup of January 15th 1966, that led to the deaths of the then Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello, the then Finance Minister, Sir Okotie Eboh, and a number of civilians and military officers. Banjo denied he ever was knowledgeable of the coup and many of the coup plotters attested to the fact that he was not one of them. But Ironsi left him in the gulag and Yakubu Gowon, who succeeded Ironsi, refused to heed the numerous letters of appeal Banjo wrote him from prison to be released.
The book “Letters to My Wife” was Banjo’s various directives to the wife on keeping the family front in his absence. The brilliance of this Electrical Engineering trained senior military officer showed even in his private letters to his wife. He left directives on how money could be sourced to take care of the children, he planned when exactly the wife was to flee Nigeria in case war broke out (and she and the children did eventually), he instructed his wife that whenever peace returned he wanted his kids raised Nigerians (the wife was Serra Leone and she fled there afterwards), and many other such instructions. He didn’t leave out words of endearment either. Strangely enough, he told the wife that if anything was ever to happen to him, he would let her know about it. In the letters, Banjo refuted the claims that he was part of the January 1966 coup plotters. In a sense, the book was written to clear his name of that list and I believe it has succeeded in doing that.
Banjo was imprisoned in Ikot Epene in Eastern Nigeria. So when the whole brouhaha began between Ojukwu and Gowon over the secession question began, Ojukwu released all officers that planned the coup and had been imprisoned in the East. They all joined the Biafran rank – including Banjo. Banjo, as a Yoruba, was at first reluctant to work with Ojukwu. But Ojukwu urged him to join his government. At that time, the Nigerian crisis was mainly between the Ibos and the Hausas. The Ibos had accused the Hausas of carrying out genocide on their people in Northern Nigeria. The Hausas claimed the 1966 coup was an Igbo coup targeted at killing their Sardauna and other key Hausa leaders. The country was boiling. Killings were being carried out every day in every part of the country. The Ibos felt vulnerable and were returning in droves to the East. Ojukwu was playing with the idea of Secession. Banjo advised he delayed announcing it. Ojukwu announced the secession of the nation of Biafra on the 31st May, 1967. Civil War had broken forth in Nigeria.
The mid West, now Delta and Edo State, at first took a middle position as far as the crisis was concerned. Ojukwu sent Victor Banjo and an army of soldiers to take over the mid West. The mid West fell to Biafran soldiers in August 1967. It was a major military tactical move that many have credited to the intelligence of Banjo. Not a bullet was shot to take over Benin and it environs. But on getting to Benin, things fell apart between Banjo and Ojukwu. The plan had been that 24 hours after taking Benin, the Biafran soldiers were to be enroute to Lagos and Ibadan to take over those cities. Another account by Victor Banjo elder sister, Prof. Ogunsheye, in her book “A Break in Silence “, she said that Banjo invaded the mid West at his own initiative, leading a liberation army. The neatness of the invasion and take over took everyone by surprise. But Banjo may have made the mistake of announcing his presence in Benin by making a broadcast to the Western people, asking them to prepare to receive the liberation army.
This action jolted Gowon from his sleep but incensed Ojukwu. Ojukwu recalled Banjo to Enugu and placed on house arrest. Ogunsheye reports that Banjo was so popular with the troops in Benin that Ojukwu had to trick him back to Enugu. Subsequently the invasion of the mid West began to suffer disorder and Ojukwu was forced to return Banjo to command the Benin front.
On the side of the West, there was mixed reaction in the minds of Yoruba people when news of the Biafran take over of the mid West reached them. On one hand, they saw the Biafran brigade led by a Yoruba, as a liberation army and they looked forward to their coming. But as news of the atrocities being wroughted out on the non Igbo’s of the mid West by the Biafran army reached the West, the Yoruba’s became less convinced that the Igbo were really coming to liberate them from the shackles of their colonizers – the Hausas. Banjo himself was reluctant to invade the Ibadan and Lagos without having at least 50% grass root support. Banjo’s sister wrote of her he called her requesting to know the feeling in town. Fact is that the Yoruba elders of that time were not decided and Awolowo as number two man to Gowon made matters more difficult. Soyinka wrote of how he drove around Ibadan, trying to convince Obasanjo to permit Banjo a smooth sail through Ibadan into Lagos. Obasanjo, the head of the military in Ibadan, would have none of it. Banjo could have rolled into Ibadan successfully but he would not invade Ibadan without the cooperation of his people. His sister reminded him of Afonja and the Ilorin emirate and he said he remembered. He would eventually be felled as another Afonja of the 20th century.
Banjo had also reached an agreement with Ojukwu to take over the government of Gowon and allow the Easterners to go their way, with a possible secession of the North too. But Ojukwu had reneged on an agreement he had with Banjo not to sack the government of the mid West. The mid West was meant to be a passage through and not a destination. The two of them argued over this matter for days on the phone in Benin, giving the Nigerian government sufficient time to recover from the take over of the mid West. Muritala Mohammed was sent by Gowon to recover the mid West and invade Biafra itself. The Nigerian army successfully pushed their Biafran counterpart out of the mid West. This was the period the famous “Ogun ore olekun” occurred. The Biafran army blew up a part of the Niger bridge, therefore impeding the Nigerian army’s surge into Onitsha.
Ojukwu welcomed his defeated army back to Enugu with open arms. He had mended fences with Banjo and had promised him greater task ahead. But in a few days, trumped up charges of a coup were levied against Banjo. Banjo had made Ifeanyi Ifeajuna his chief of staff. Ifeajuna had acted as a go between with Banjo and Ojukwu at Benin. However the charges of plotting to overthrow the government of Biafra was levied against Brigadier Victor Banjo, Lt. Col. Emmanuel Ifeajuna, Major Philip Alale and Mr. Samuel Agbam. At their court martial, it was Brigadier Victor Banjo that stood as counsel for himself and the three others. His words, as recorded by Alexander Madiebo in his book, are these:
“My name is Brigadier Victor Banjo. I command the liberation army in Mid-West. Before then, l commanded all the operations in the Northern front.
“I know all the other three accused persons fairly well. The second accused, Philip Alale, l met for the first time on July 9, 1967 when there was a collapse of the Nsukka front among our troops. Neither himself nor myself was then an officer in the Biafran Army.
“We went to Nsukka together with Brigadier Philip Effiong to assist to watch Philip talk to the troops with vehemence and sincerity. That, to a great extent, helped to rekindle their sagging morale.
“His Excellency, Col. Ojukwu, was as well at Nsukka that night. I later found out from the Governor that Philip Alale has been his close friend and that the man was primarily instrumental in organising the support of the masses for the declaration of the Republic of Biafra.
“I know that Major Alale has been involved in settling some conflicts in the trade union movements, which might well account for the extraordinary hostility of one of the witnesses for the prosecution. I remember, in fact, that when l was about to return to the Western Command, His Excellency refused to allow Major Alale accompany me because he needed Major Alale for the task of preparing a political programme for the Republic of Biafra. It would be impossible to conceive of Major Alale being tried by this tribunal for the offence in this charge.
“I know Lieutenant Colonel Emmanuel Ifeajuna very well. He had been my colleague in the old Nigerian Army, although a junior colleague. I know about his involvement in the coup of January 1966. He was responsible for the deaths of a few people. He was with me in prison for quite some time.
“I have had opportunity of discussing the details of that coup with him. I know he regrets the bloodshed that took place on that occasion in fact, his aversion to bloodshed is in the nature of an obsession, which to a certain extent, militates against his efficiency as a commander of troops in the battlefront.
“These considerations were primary in my mind when he was offered to me as a commanding officer for the Western operations. Instead, l chose to make him my Chief of Staff. As Chief of Staff, he discharged himself with such confidence that constituted in no small measure to the success of that operation.
“Lt-Col. Ifeajuna joined the group of young men who have been in the habit of giving advice to His Excellency on State matters. During my short disagreement with his Excellency on the MidWest political policy, he was himself personally instrumental in bringing to His Excellency, my point of view on the Mid-West operation. I am aware that he subsequently became a frequent member of this group.
“My stay in Biafra, after having been released from prison, has been due to my friendship with Col. Ojukwu. I clearly remember once telling him that l would return to the West. He told me that he needed me here because he felt he needed someone who could ta to hi without ceremony; someone in a position to give blame t him for his mistakes. Most of the political manoeuvres that Col. Ojukwu planned early this year in connection with achieving Southern solidarity against the North, were planned with me.
“When he decided to declare an Independent Republic of Biafra, l pleaded with him to postpone it as both the people West and Mid-West wee not ready or at that stage, sufficiently strong militarily to take the same stand, even though they would wish it.
“I pointed out to him his declaration of Biafra at the time was not consistent with our plans and agreements. I told him that the people of the West who were acting on the basis of the fact that l would bring assistance to them from here, would consider the decision to declare Biafra at that time a betrayal of our arrangements. I tod the military Governor that l would leave Biafra for the West or for the outside world after his declaration of Independence.
“However, when l discovered the emerging trend that followed the declaration of Independence of Biafra, it became clear to me that a war with the North was imminent. I decided to stay behind and assist in the prosecution of the war, both for the sake of my friendship with Colonel Ojukwu and in the hope that having assisted to fight back the Northern threat to Biafra, he would assist me with troops to rid the Mid-West and Lagos of the same menace.
“I came into the war at a moment of temporary collapse of the Biafran fighting effort, when it became quite clear to me that the fighting effort of the Biafran Army was not only being incompetently handled, but also being sabotaged. Since then, it has been my fortune to command the Biafran troops on their successfull exploits.
“On the whole, l had in private, told Col Ojukwu that l could never be made to stand charged for having plotted against his office and his person. There was no plot against him.”
The highest authorities of the Biafran government did not believe Banjo’s story. The officers hearing the court martial of these four officers found them guilty of plotting to overthrow the government of Biafra which Ojukwu headed. They were sentenced to death. Banjo’s last moment reels with poignancy. It was said that all four men walked to the site of their death with head high. Banjo, without his glasses, stood erect as he was tied to the poles. Their executors took position and opened fire on them. After the first round of fire, all three men were dead except Banjo. Defiant till the end, he let out a cry “I’m not dead yet… I’m not dead yet…” This time all executors directed their rifles at Banjo alone. After the second round of shots, Banjo is still screaming defiantly: “I’m not dead yet…” However the third rounds of shots silenced him.
Kunle Ojeleye in his book commented on how ill prepared the Biafran army were and that Banjo and the three others were killed because they dared to request better equipping for the soldiers. Hear him:
“Indeed, it was at the behest of this feeling that four Biafran military officers wrote a memorandum to the Biafran administration requesting for a review of the war effort. among others, their memorandum requested: that Biafra should have its own currency; there should be an immediate re-organisation and appropriate equipping of the Biafran army; the admittance of civilians into the Biafran decision making body and the decentralisation of the Biafran government; the mortgaging of Biafran oil in exchange for urgently needed military aid and equipment; and in the absence of all the preceding four requirements, immediate negotiation with the federal forces for a peaceful settlement of the crisis.
“For daring to take such a course of action, Lt.-Col. Victor Banjo, Major Emmanuel ifeajuna, Samuel Agbam and Major Alale were labelled as traitors, accused of wanting to overthrow the Biafran administration, court martial, and executed (Ottah 1981).” At the end, these four men were right. Biafra lost the war because it was ill prepared and because one man, Ojukwu, was chasing a pipe dream.
Banjo had told his wife that that whatever happens, he would let her know of his well being. One morning, following Banjo’s death, Banjo’s wife woke up in far away Sierra Leone with a dream on her heart. A bird had come into their home and after flying about a bit, it flew out of the window into the blue skies. Mrs. Banjo knew instinctively that that her husband was dead. She would eventually relocate to Nigeria and bring up her children as Nigerians, as her husband had wished.
A few months after Odumegwu Ojukwu died, following a prolonged illness, I was in the office of Prof. Olayinka Omigbodun (nee Banjo), the second to the last daughter of Victor Banjo, at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. I had come to see her on the book she wrote of her father. Among a few things we discussed I remember her saying this and I paraphrase: “the man who caused all these is today being buried as a national hero, while my father lies somewhere buried in an unmarked grave”. The bodies of those four men were never found. Many of their families have found it difficult to reach closure on them.
Chris Ngwodo has rightly pointed out that the civil was wholly unnecessary. It was a war that was the result of the youthful exuberance and pride of 36 year old Ojukwu and 31 year old Gowon. Unfortunately those beating the drums of secession and war today are the same youths who have refused to learn from our history. Banjo fell out with Ojukwu from day one when he refused to support his secession course. However they both needed each other and they rode on themselves until the ride could no longer continue. Prof. Wole Soyinka, in his Memoirs, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, said when he met Banjo in Enugu, he saw a man who bought into his idea of a Third Force.
While the Nigerian and Biafran course was the first and second forces, set at warring against each other, Soyinka and a few others saw themselves as The Third Force. The Third Force aimed simply at stopping the war. They did everything to delay it. And if the youth leadership we had then were listening to them, there would not have been a war and the over three million lives lost would not have occurred. Gen. Alabi Isama, in his book on the civil war, “The Tragedy of Victory”, wrote about so many gallant officers lost needlessly to this war. For his efforts at trying to broker peace between Nigeria and Biafra, Wole Soyinka was imprisoned by the Gowon government without trial all the war. He was refused permission to even bury his father. Gowon would however apologize personally to Soyinka for this years later.
The man Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), is asking Nigeria to go back to this painful lane again. Someone has said that a call to secession is not the same as a call to war. I have however reminded him that history has equated most calls to secession to a call to war. If it were not so, why are IPOB members armed to the teeth today? Why are they brow beating their people to obey some sit at home order? While this country can very well call for a referendum to decide on the question of Biafra, the mere fact that free and fair elections cannot hold in the Eastern part of this country is proof that no free and fair referendum can hold in the East. Besides, what states in this Federal Republic will call themselves Biafra? The last I heard, the people of the oil rich Niger Delta are averse to secession. And Kanu needs to get his elders involved in his course. He needs to respect his state governors, Senators and Rep members. As long as he treats these people as thrash, he cannot get their support. And government will not listen to a rabble rouser. When all these is done, we will then settle the matter of the thousands of intermarriages between Biafrans and other parts of this country. As far as I can see with all these matter on ground, Biafra is a dead agenda.
Victor Banjo, though dead, yet speaketh. His last words that he is not dead rings true. As a member of the Third Force, who did everything to avert war, he was calling on the people of this generation to sheath their swords. A united Nigeria is better than a splintered one, he’s saying. He’s telling us that if Nigeria divides, there will be no end to its division because every region of this country are still made up of people groups. If we cannot live together now, we will not live together in splintered groups. He’s calling on us to jaw jaw, rather than war war. He’s asking our young men to redirect their energies to more fruitful endeavors. He’s saying that if we do not do the hard work of living together, the easy path of secession, which we think is better, will only be littered with the body and blood of our best minds.
The motives of those calling for secession today is even more insincere than those who called for it years back. If Biafra of Ojukwu days was born out of the genocide perpetrated against lbos, who is killing IBOs today? Let this Biafra cry cease. Let the legitimate claims of IBOs be looked into. Let us live together happily ever after. We are better off together than divided.
(Get my book #VictorBanjo. Reach me via email: email@example.com)