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Victor Banjo: The Biafrian Soldier That Fought Against Nigeria

Born as Victor Adebukunola Banjo on the 1st of April 1930 in Ogun state, not much is really known about the early life of the Ijebu-man who rose to the position of a Colonel in the Nigerian army, and died on Sept 22, 1967 aged 37.

In his early days however, Victor Banjo obtained a BSc. in Mechanical Engineering as a product of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, England. This was possible because in those days, Nigerian officers were generally entitled to training in England or other nearby countries, by virtue of our colonial tie to Britain.

Lt. Col. Banjo was loved by his family and people and you can rarely find any pictures of him that do not have his wife or family members in them.

In 1953, Victor Banjo joined the Nigerian Army as Warrant officer 52, and as stated by the records, he was the sixteenth Nigerian to be commissioned in the Nigerian Army as an officer -(NA 16), representing one of a generation of precocious young men to do so. Banjo rose to become the Director of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering Corps of the Nigerian Army in the early 1960s. And as the first Nigerian to do so, it was the ideal life for a young man who was in his 30s with a young wife and two children.

The 1966 Coup d’etat on the 15th of January 1966
Many of Victor Banjo’s peers executed a decision to seize power from the civilian government. The coup of 1966, included a group of army officers which were led by by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu. They overthrew the central and regional governments, killed the then prime minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and tried to take control of the government. Unfortunately, Major Nzeogwu was countered, captured and imprisoned by General Aguiyi-Ironsi who was named Military Head of State.

Banjo’s Detention
Three days after Maj. Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi assumed power following the failed coup, Lt. Col. Victor Banjo was summoned to the office of the newly-selected Supreme Military Commander, and while he was still waiting to see the Head of State, he was arrested. What happened next is still a mystery only a few can claim to understand, but was is known is that Victor Banjo was summarily detained on the ground that he was planning to kill the Head of State, General Aguiyi-Ironsi.

The politics surrounding the coup had been very tribal, and it has been suggested in accounts of that period that Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi was simply caught in the middle of everything. Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was under huge pressure from the North to bring the coup plotters to justice, after a group of soldiers who were largely Igbos, murdered the majority of the North’s leaders.

However, the leaders of the Eastern region were pleased that the perceived stranglehold of the Northern leaders had been broken, but Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi was confused and did not know what to do because the people needed scapegoats.

This was not the first time that tribal matters would determine the course of Banjo’s life who was detained until the Northern counter-coup of July 28, 1966 that was masterminded by Lt. Colonel Murtala Muhammed and many northern military officers, and resulted in the murder of General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi who upon his termination, the coup conspirator appointed Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon as the new Head of State.

Banjo’s Letters from Prison
There’s a popular quote which says that adversity brings out the best in men, and while Victor Banjo would have undoubtedly flourished outside prison walls, it was at that time he exhibited the liberal system of beliefs and moral fibre that would allow him stand out at even the most testing moments in his short life.

According to the book he wrote titled- “A Gift of Sequins: Letter to my wife”, Victor Banjo at that time, had a very young family of four children who he did his best to constantly stay in touch with and improve what was undoubtedly a hard time through constant letter writing.

It was revealed through Banjo’s letters that he had a liberal non-tribalistic worldview, and deep inside, he was a man who loved his country dearly and wanted to see his fellow soldiers do much better.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Banjo had been moved to a prison in the East and Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, who was the leader of the Biafran people, released him and made him a colonel in the Biafran army.

Despite being a Yoruba man, Banjo sought to fight for the Biafran nation. Lt. Col. Victor Banjo would later say that when he discovered the emerging trend which followed the declaration of Biafra’s Independence, it became clear to him that a war was imminent with the North.

Banjo’s role in the Biafran Army was greeted with scepticism, but he quickly proved himself to his fellow soldiers and earned their belief and trust as a master tactician and a fearless soldier when the Biafran Army attacked Nigeria.

On July 6 1967, the day the Nigerian Army invaded Biafra, Col. Ojukwu sent Lt. Col. Victor Banjo and Major Albert Okonkwo to invade Nigeria. Banjo and his squad moved quickly and was able to capture Benin City under 24 hours. By the time they would take a break, Banjo and his men were able to get to within 300 kilometres to Lagos – the then capital of Nigeria.

However, something changed when the Biafrans tried to invade Lagos. It was reported at the time that the Biafran offensive on Lagos started heavily at “lightening speed” and with purpose, but midway through it, Col. Banjo with his fellow commanders, Major Okonkwo and Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna stopped and turned back their army to Biafra.
On their return to Biafra, Col. Ojukwu had the soldiers detained.

Col. Ojukwu had reportedly seen their retreat as an act to sabotage the existence of Biafra, but why they did it is not exactly known. Some of the relations of Ifeajuna claimed that as the was war progressed, Col. Banjo and Major Ifeajuna did not share the idea of a break up of Nigeria with Ojukwu.

Their cases were however taken to a tribunal, of which the first tribunal dismissed the case, but a second sentenced the soldiers to death.

At his sentencing, Banjo said that he came into the war at a moment of temporary collapse of the fighting effort of the Biafran Army, and when it became quite clear to him that their fighting effort was not only being incompetently handled, but was also being sabotaged and since then, the Biafran troops had been his fortune to command on their successful exploits.

However, Banjo had in private, told Col Ojukwu that he could never be made to stand charged for having plotted against his office. “There was no plot against him” Victor Banjo said, but on the 22nd of September 1967, He, Emmanuel Ifeajuna and Philip Alale were marched into the city centre of Enugu and tied to a pole.

A Biafran soldier firing squad shot at them and when Victor Banjo was hit, he yelled defiantly, “I’m not dead yet!” and was shot multiple times before he died.
In a country were the legacies of soldiers who fought on both sides have largely been forgotten, Lt. Col. Victor Banjo did set a template for us as Nigerians to live beyond tribe, and for the greater purpose of humanity.

Source: Yoruba Cultural centre, Facebook and Igbo History, Facebook.