Senator Andrew Nwankwo from the Izzi clan in Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, was a captain in the Nigeria Air Force before the January 1966 coup that made way for Major General J. T. U Aguiyi Ironsi to emerge as Head of State.
He became Ironsi’s Aide-De-Camp through the recommendation of Brigadier George Krubo who was then in-charge of the Air Force and subsequently supervised the late Head of State’s security.
Capt. Andrew Nwankwo (rtd) said he was to die with his boss, but for fate. He was present when both Ironsi and Fajuyi were shot dead.
Tracking the 61-year-old former ADC down in his one story building residence in Abakaliki was not as difficult as getting him to recall the events that led to the death of his master 38 years ago.
He would start by taking you down memory lane when he served as a courier to late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, “I was manning the octopus-a helicopter that carries 105 artillery gun and six other machine guns.
“So when Ethiopia was at war with Somalia in 1964/65 we formed the defence group of the emperor, we also formed an attack force. When the emperor is going to the frontline to see what is happening, we ring him round to clear the way for him”.
It was part of these that Ironsi saw and handed over his security to the young captain. “It was cool working with Ironsi, he understood everything about what I should do because he had commanded the UN forces in Congo, and that exposed him to the type of people he needed”.
Recalling the events of that night, July 29, 1966, Nwankwo noted that they were in Ibadan, “we had a small detachment of 106 Artillery, Commanded by one Walbe from Plateau”
The Head of State had the previous day hosted traditional rulers from all parts of the country in the Ibadan Government House. “He wasn’t feeling quite well, he had a knee problem and had to go to bed early.
“Lieutenant Sanni Bello was the army ADC, and we were very close. So, we left that night to go and look out and came back late. Lt. Adamu who was the ADC to Fajuyi, Sanni Bello, Walbe and myself, we all slept together in one room that night”.
At about 4a.m the telephone rang, I picked it up and that was Adeola, the then commissioner of police, Ibadan he said he wanted to speak with Ironsi, I said I was the ADC, he said he wanted to speak with him because there was a coup and he gave me some names Orok and two others that had been killed in
“Immediately, I made a mental picture of it, and I knew that it was the northerners that were responsible. So, I handed the phone to Ironsi and they talked. I then alerted Adamu and Sanni Bello and said look, there is a coup and the trend is this way.
“Bello assured me that if it is his own people he will protect me, because, there was tension in the land such that we knew a coup was imminent. So, we agreed to protect each other depending on where it will be coming from. I later discovered that Walbe who was sleeping with us was part of the coup; he later became ADC to Gowon.
“Around 5:30 we heard gunfire, then Ironsi had called Col. Njoku to tell him about the coup. As Njoku was going out, he was short at, but he escaped with bullet wounds. It was Njoku, who was the commander of Lagos Garrison that alerted others outside the Government House, Ibadan.
“Fajuyi later sent me outside the government House to find out what was happening. I met Danjuma, who was then a major and he was my friend. He pretended he didn’t know what was happening, he was asking me, and I said I didn’t know. While I was trying to go back, one sergeant from Benue almost shot me, but Danjuma stopped him and spoke to him in Hausa. Danjuma later told me that he would like to see Ironsi, so that he could tell them what to do.
“It was then that Fajuyi came out to find out what was holding me, and there inside the Government House Danjuma ordered for his arrest and mine too. That was when I saw Walbe. Then Fajuyi asked me to take him to Ironsi so that they will obey him, that there should be only one person in charge. So, I took them to Ironsi, and major Newman, immediately he saw Ironsi, he seized his crocodile swagger stick, and then they started asking him about the January coup, he said he didn’t know about it that he only agreed to be Head of State so that he can restore confidence and normalcy. It was immediately they arrested Ironsi that they turned violent”.
The road to the valley of death
They marched us down, Ironsi and myself, to where Fajuyi was. They used telephone cable to tie my hands behind and my legs, with a little space to walk. Same they did to Ironsi, but they removed his shirt, he wore only trousers, they also tied Fajuyi. Ironsi was in a Land Rover, Fajuyi in a mini bus and myself in another bus. They drove us towards Iwo Road, 10 km from Ibadan, there was a small forest were they stopped, marched us to the right hand side of the bush, Fajuyi was leading and as he tried to cross a small stream, he fell down, the soldiers were unruly, it appeared some of them had for the first time taken Indian hemp, so when he fell down some of them started beating him.
As Fajuyi fell down and they were beating him, Sanni Bello came to me and tapped me and said, we could do something now. It was providence, may be I was not destined to die. I took a few steps from them and jumped into a nearby ditch, all in a split of a second, Bello came and stood by the ditch and was shouting that I had escaped pointing at another direction. So the soldiers ran around that direction shooting into the bush, and when they felt they must have killed me, they shot Fajuyi and then Ironsi there, by the side of the stream. So Bello made sure that he was the last to leave the place.
The ADC, who was later elected senator in 1983 stated that the former Head of State could have escaped if not that he wanted to make sure that there was no bloodshed. He said if he sacrificed his life and prevented bloodshed in Nigeria, it’s better for him. Even his chaplain urged him to escape but he said No. Also many of his officers who were contacted instead of taking action ran away.
The ADC denied the prevailing story that Ironsi was tied to a Land Rover and dragged along the road. He maintained that he saw Ironsi and Fajuyi shot dead. “They shot him on the chest and it was a burst, so he would have died after the first shot”.
The crocodile staff
It was a swagger stick, which he made after his name Aguiyi (crocodile). It was in the Congo, when he was commanding the United Nations Forces, the Indian troops were to land at the Lumumbashi Airport but the Cameroon gendarmes went and blocked the place with trucks, so that the Indian soldiers will not land, so, he used a Land Rover and with the stagger stick waved as they were shouting, he was eventually able to convince them to remove the trucks. Many attributed that feat to extraordinary powers in his swagger stick. But there was nothing in it, it was just a stick. Ironsi was not fetish; he was a devoted Catholic and attended mass every morning, even the day he was killed.
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