In another two days, it would be exactly 44 years since the pointless martyrdom of Lieutenant Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, first Military Governor of the Western Region.
His death is one of the most significant moral events in the history of Nigerian nationalism, inherently poignant and the unmistakable reference point for a dream first lost and then betrayed. Nigeria has lost its way. It cannot regain or recover it unless the silent majority of Fajuyis in this country are identified and brought to leadership through properly constituted electoral processes, and the current crop of interlopers kicked out and brought to justice.
His death was a deep thing. It embodied elements that make for the best tragic literature; it contained the idea that dying for one’s country is a gallant thing to do and the duty of all who profess to lead it. It is fully reminiscent of the tragic but heroic actions of Leonidas of Sparta at the Battle of Thermopylae. Who among our leaders is capable of withstanding a Persian horde?
On the eve of his death, Fajuyi, a Yoruba officer, hosted Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo who was Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Ironsi had come to power as an aftermath of a coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and other officers of Eastern extraction, on January 15, 1966. That coup took the lives of many Northern politicians and officers but spared Ironsi’s, who was not part of the plot. Nevertheless, he was made Head of State, fuelling suspicion among Northern officers that the coup had been motivated by ethnic and not national sentiments. The repercussion was the countercoup of July 29, 1966, in which both Ironsi and Fajuyi died.
Ironsi had visited Ibadan July 28, to discuss tensions in the Western Region with its House of Chiefs. It was also a good time to touch base with his friend, the colonel whose story is unfolding here. The original plan was for Ironsi to return to Dodan Barracks, Headquarters of his administration that very day. He had enough time to do this but Fajuyi prevailed on him to spend the night at Government House, Ibadan. It had seemed the right thing to do. He knew nothing of the plot to overthrow the regime and kill Ironsi. He was not slated for execution but the situation would create inextricable circumstances in which his integrity would reveal itself even as his courage had done earlier during his military service in the Congo, where he distinguished himself in North Katanga.
Military service had forged bonds of mutual respect between these men. They must have drunk some wine that evening, had a good dinner, even as Brutus and Cassius had done in a Shakespearean tent while ominous drums rolled in the distant fields of Philippi.
The plotters were brisk. They sought only the Commander-in-Chief. Fajuyi would allow this only if they took him along. He saw the implications of the drama playing out before him and recognized that he was duty-bound to defend his Commander-in-Chief, honour-bound to protect his guest. The customs of his people required it. His decision was clear as he requested his own death at the hands of the soldiers. Tragedy never had a better plot than this.
He was practical in hoping his death would preserve the fragile bonds of interethnic unity, and show that gallantry and courage should be the norms of civil conduct. As I wrote months ago, he decided to “pay the price in accordance with the strict precepts of a people [the Yoruba] whose ancient wisdom underscored the correspondence between the stability of a nation and the…actions of those who led it”. In other words, this story has been told before. It is worth telling again – until the deafness leaves our politicians. The Colonel died with visions of that national stability. Was it worth it? Looking at the country for which he did so, was it not meaningless? Had he thrown his treasured pearls to undeserving, undiscerning pigs? Was it all a wasted moment?
Perhaps not. Months ago, Lagos Governor Fashola dedicated a statue to Fajuyi’s memory. But the idea is to have it erected in every heart, etch it in the soul – a statue made of ideals and precepts represented externally by an object cast in stone. Its lessons should be engraved in every consciousness, chiselled in every bone.
The real tragedy in Fajuyi’s death does not lie in how he died but in the fact that it has not been realized as the core message of civic education. A saint died for an indifferent nation. When this happens – when a martyr dies so pointlessly and in vain – even the heavens that witness it conspire to rebuke the enclave for which such costly blood was so needlessly shed.