By Prof.(Mrs) Adetowun Ogunsheye
The period of the civil war and the subsequent death of a son, brother, father and uncle in the middle of it was a traumatic experience for the Banjo family. As the nephews who admired him and his children who were too young to re him grew up, they began to ask the questions: What happened? How did he come to be in Biafra? He was not part of the 1966 coup yet everybody was saying the opposite. We had his letters to Ironsi. We had copies of his speech in Benin denying involvement. Yet, nobody took notice of it. The press on the Federal side was condemning him for fighting on the side of Biafra. When he condemned secession and said the army had no right to dismember a country handed over to them to preserve, nobody published it. When Ojukwu had him and three others executed for suggesting dialogue and reconciliation, nobody protested on the Federal side. There was a conspiracy of silence.
When Ojukwu came back a prodigal son, a large reception was given to him. Nobody remembered that he had killed Banjo or asked him why he had to do this. Not even the Yorubas – his kith and kin – recognised that he had saved them from being overrun by an invading force, and had put his own life on the line in the process. They received back his killers with open arms.
Then came all the literature on the civil war with its lies and half-truths. I could hardly contain myself. But Mother continued to maintain the hope that, he was alive. I could not destroy that hope, which kept her alive. I therefore decided to wait until more auspicious time, when I shall have collected all available documentation on the events and when time shall have removed the hurt and anger that I felt for the wastage of the life of a beloved brother, one of the gems in the family. I had to wait until when my disgust for a debased society, which had lost all sense of national identity and patriotism had abated. I had to wait until my contempt for a society that had discarded honour, integrity and upheld freedom for sycophancy, love of material wealth and slavery had been replaced by compassion and forgiveness that only the Holy Spirit of God can give.
The wait has been worthwhile. The evidence turned up even in some of the writings of his enemies. I was able to have the BBC Transcription Centre do some research into the Press literature abroad for me. I am grateful to them for his speech in Benin and the foreign press cuttings. I also to wish to thank Chief Joop Berkhout who encouraged me to write Victor Banjo’s story and put the record straight on his activities, his vision and hopes for Nigeria and Africa. I was able to read even some of the unfavourable literature and do an analysis on why the poor press presentation, the falsehood and bias.
I refuse to accept that he was a necessary sacrificial lamb for the unity of Nigeria. I am very proud of him. He was indeed a worthy son of his family’s heritage of warrior princes. Grandfather was a member of the army that defended Ijebuland against the white invaders in the Makun wars . Victor had a vision for Nigeria and even Africa, which was beyond the comprehension of the tribal, just emerging Stone Age contemporaries he was dealing with. He wrongly credited them with qualities and understanding of real Nigerian gentleman soldier elite. They were tribal warlords operating under the camouflage of the Nigerian Army uniform. When they did a coup in the name of the people of Nigeria, it was for their tribal group to gain power to enable them oppress the rest of us and loot the nation for their tribal group. Thus Ironsi could not believe that a Yoruba officer would prop up an Ibo Head of the army as Head of State. Victor had to be removed to give the tribal group a free hand. They detained him with the group that did the coup and trumped up the lie that he was one of them.
When Ojukwu released him from prison in Ikot Ekpene, where Ironsi had detained him, his fellow Ibo officers were jealous of his relationship with Ojukwu. They could not understand why a Yoruba man would claim to be more offended by the Ibo massacres in the North and undertake the training of the Biafran Army to help them fight back instead of joining his family abroad. They dubbed him a mercenary. They were happy to help the Kangaroo court that declared him a traitor for maintaining the case for a united Nigeria. They had him executed to take the blame for their failure to continue the success Victor had achieved in liberating the Mid-West.
The Yoruba sent a Save Our Soul (SOS) to Victor and yet were ready to ditch him, when Gowon invited them to participate in his government. When he was executed, they did not even acknowledge the role he played in sparing the West from being a battle ground. They did not even have the courage to publish
The silence of the family was in deference to Mother. She refused to believe that any cultured humane group will kill a guest, who had helped train their army and fought their battles successfully. As one of their own writers, Nelson Ottah, maintained, they killed him because his judges and accusers at the Nkemena’s Kangaroo court held in secret, resented his brilliance and feared him (page 49, Rebels against Rebels). Ojukwu and the Ibos who were alleged to have clamoured for Victor’s death had no qualms coming back to the Federation and becoming Abacha’s supporters and ambassador to foreign countries to accept the continued repression and looting of the national coffers. They were also silent about the truth.
I am indebted to Adewale Ademoyega for his account of the first coup (Why we struck) providing evidence that Victor was not one of their group who planned and executed the first coup. He was also Victor’s number two man in the Liberation of the Mid-West. His first-hand account of the National Liberation Army’s operations before it metamorphosed into the Biafran Army and Banjo’s wise retreat to save the lives of the frightened, poorly equipped Biafran soldiers put paid to the lies that were sold to the Biafran people about Victor’s withdrawal to Agbor.
The Northern feudalists, which Victor had indicted, kept a studied silence. After all, their plan for domination and repression of the other ethnic groups was being aided by the Ibos and Yorubas in the Gowon government. History has vindicated Victor and proved him right about their designs and plans for Nigeria. Both the Yoruba and the Ibo have paid dearly for their negligence and are still paying for ignoring Victor’s warning.
Thirty years later, another brother, Professor Adesegun Banjo had challenged the excesses of the Abacha regime trying to put in place a resistance to Abacha’s repression and detention of Abiola, the Nigerian people’s choice for president. He paid for it with a spell in Cotonou prison; and ran a race for his life from Abacha’s men, who chased him from pillar to post in Ghana. When Abacha died, Abubakar’s men took on the chase from Kampala (Uganda), where he had resumed his career as professor of anatomy to Nairobi (Kenya), Zimbabwe and back to Ghana, where he had a respite until May 29, 1999, when Obasanjo took over. Meanwhile, when Abacha’s secret service men could not catch up with him, the family was made to pay for this. They pulled in his retired 68-year-old elder brother, Dr. Ademola Banjo and detained him in Apapa Gulag for four months. The family house in Ijebu Ode was sealed for more than a year and I was hauled up for questioning before the Omenka Tribunal.
The first draft of this biography of Victor was smuggled out of the country at the height of the Abacha’s men onslaught on the family. The death of Abacha and the return to civil rule have given me the opportunity to write the epilogue and compare Victor’s predictions and warnings in 1967 on future political development and the events that have taken place since the dark period of army occupation and the return to civil rule.
The unfolding scenario, more than 35 years after Victor’s demise, in the political arena call to question the stability of the Federation. Will the centre hold?
1.) Ajayi, J.F. and R. Smith, Yoruba warfare in the 19th Century. (Ibadan University Press) 1971. Note by Ajayi on Imakun wars. 1864 – Ijebu Ode was alleged to have taken part (Okunboye).
* The Introduction to, A Break in the Silence: Lt. Col. Victor Adebukunola Banjo, by Prof. Adetowun Ogunsheye (Spectrum Books Limited, Ibadan).