Fifty years ago, the late Lt. Col Victor Banjo, the 16th Nigerian to be commissioned into the Nigerian Army, was publicly executed reportedly on the orders of the late Ikemba Nnewi, Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was then the Military Head of the secessionist Biafra Republic. He was an Ijebu from Ogun State but died fighting on the Biafran side during the Nigerian civil war.
Banjo was before his death, in detention on allegations that he took part in the January 1966 coup, was released by Ojukwu when the war broke out and convinced to lead part of the Liberation Army, which went on the offensive against the Nigerian Army and got as far as Benin, in present day Edo State. Banjo was to declare another republic upon having Benin under his control.
In this interview with Dare Odufowokan, Assistant Editor, his daughter, Mrs. Olayinka Omigbodun, a Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Ibadan, recalls how Banjo’s young family was thrown into disarray upon his arrest and detention. She also lamented what she described as the unjust treatment meted out to her father while explaining why she thinks Ojukwu killed his friend, her father.
How does it feel remembering the events that led to the reported execution of your father (Lt. Col. Victor Banjo)?
First and foremost, I must express gratitude to God for keeping us alive and well all these years. Despite the fact that we lost our father while still so young, God has kept us to see this day. We are four children, two boys, two girls. I am the third. We’ve all been able to go through school and acquire degrees. All of us are alive and healthy.
I thank God for the kind of parents he gave me. Our father died 50 years ago and our mum 20 years ago. She was a widow for 30 years before she also went to be with the Lord. I am proud of them. It was 30 years of struggle and difficulty, but with our late mother determined to fulfil her promise to our dad, we made it.
Why do you think he did that to his friend?
He conveniently blamed Banjo and three other men. Lt. Col Ifeajuna, Alele and one other for sabotaging the Biafran efforts. He needed to tell the people who were losing faith in him something new as a reason for the defeats. His fear about the imminent fall of Enugu was also driving him to do something. So, on trumped up charges, my father and three other men were tried by a Kangaroo court and killed by firing squad in 1967.
The trial did not reveal any evidence linking Banjo with any act of treason against Ojukwu or the Biafran government. In fact, it took a second military tribunal to convict Banjo because the first tribunal stated that the evidence presented to it was insufficient to prove Banjo’s guilt in the case. Unsatisfied and not ready to let my father off the hook, Ojukwu constituted another tribunal speedily.
Apparently, it was a clear case of sacrificing someone as a scapegoat because while my father was looking forward to assisting Ojukwu further with the Biafran war in spite of the huge risk and sacrifice involved for him as a person, Ojukwu was looking for a way of implicating him for sabotage so as to retain the control of the region. Ojukwu betrayed my father by killing him.
And you don’t think his not agreeing in the secession was a reason he got into trouble with Ojukwu?
Well, they were friends and friends disagree. They probably must have disagreed on that before then because my father never hid his patriotism. But again, I was told that hours after the execution, Enugu fell. I am a Professor. Human beings are very fickle. We are wont to always look for excuses. For scapegoats; so, my father was simply the sacrifice.
He knew my father was up for one Nigeria. Even before drafting him into the war on his side, he knew my father was a patriot who wanted one united Nigeria. After the war we left Nigeria for Sierra Leone but my mother brought us back because my father, in his letters, had insisted we must be raised as Nigerians. So, his patriotism was never in doubt. Ojukwu merely executed him to cover up his own failures as a leader of the war.
But Gowon later became the Head of State. Why didn’t he release your dad?
After Gowon was installed as Head of State, my father made several overtures to him for his release. But Gen. Gowon refused to release him even though he knew he was not part of the coup. The only concession he gave was that Banjo could be transferred to a prison in Lagos if he so wished. My father rejected the offer.
Even when my father wrote Ironsi from prison in Ikot Ekpene, on June 1, 1966, he was wondering what on earth he did to warrant being imprisoned. He faulted the way he was being treated and asked for justice, fairness and loyalty from Ironsi as a loyal officer. He saw his detention as a grievous crime against him. He pleaded his innocence and asked to be released. There is really no basis for tagging him as a ‘coupist’. I sincerely think setting the records straight is one of the things Nigeria, and the likes of Gen. Gowon, owe us as his family and children.
It is very painful for us not knowing how he ended really. Not knowing where his remains are. Not even the exact date of his death. We only read in the book of a foreign journalist who had witnessed his execution of the date and circumstances. Beyond that, there is little or nothing to prove how he ended. This is very sad.