Every Nigerian both young and old must have come across the Olympic exercise book. What inspired the Olympic exercise book? Beyond a conceptual design, this exercise book symbolizes much more.
It is a book that holds a portion of the Nigerian history; and has preserved it till this day. Anyone familiar with history will just mention the name Emmanuel Ifeajuna. And who is Emmanuel Ifeajuna?
Emmanuel Ifeajuna was an Igbo young man from the eastern part of Nigeria, Onitsha precisely. He was the first African ever to win a gold medal on the international level.
His victory came from the high jump category during the 1954 Empire commonwealth Games in Vancouver. With his success, he blazed the trail for many more international successes. He was not just the Nigerian sweetheart back then but also the pride of Africa.
No one would have thought the same people he did proud at this one significant time would not blink to gun his life out. His tragic end was unprecedented for a young vibrant athlete who put Africa on international sports map with his world-record.
Besides the sporting talent, Emmanuel Ifeajuna had the burning zeal to lead. His rebellious nature has been evident right from his early days in school.
He participated in a protest that closed down the school for a term. He led the students who agitated over poor food and conditions in the school. Let’s just just say he was strongly allergic to corruption.
Emmanuel graduated as a science student at University College of Ibadan. He later delved into politics and later became an army general working co-side Kaduna Nzeogwu. Both played key roles in the 1966 military coup that introduced military rule to Nigeria. He has always been a political enthusiast. His rise in the military was rather faster than usual.
Dissatisfied with the trajectory of the government and inherent corruption, Emmanuel Ifeajuna alongside 4 other generals made a tactical plan to overthrow some leaders in government.
In his unpublished manuscript it appears the team had their targets under the reign of Tafawa Balewa as the prime minister. The generals carried on with their coup but not as successful as planned.
With the help of his poet college friends, he escaped to Ghana disguised as a woman. After the coup that deposed Kwameh Nkruma’s regime, Ifeajuna returned home. He was assured of his safety by General Ojukwu, the Biafran leader and commander.
Emmanuel began to work hand in hand with Igbo comrades under the Biafran banner. Later on he was accused of working with the British and the Federal government to betray Ojukwu. Upon his arrest he kept refuting the claim.
He said he just wanted to save lives. He kept warning against an imminent assault by Nigerian federal troops. He had tried to negotiate with the government to avert their invasion. He suggested a ceasefire but Biafran leaders did not believe him.
On September 25, 1967, Emmanueal Ifeajuna and his ‘accomplices’ were condemned to death by Ojukwu for treason. 2 days after his death, federal troops indeed invaded Biafran capital, Enugu and left the eastern region in ruins. The fate of Igbos in the north was much worse.
Much later after his execution an unpublished manuscript from the intellectual but controversial hero read:
“It was unity we wanted, not rebellion. We had watched our leaders rape our country. The country was so diseased that bold reforms were badly needed to settle social, moral, economic and political questions. We fully realised that to be caught planning, let alone acting, on our lines, was high treason. And the penalty for high treason is death.”- Emmanuel Ifeajuna
If only they gave heed to his warnings, millions of Igbo lives would be spared. In recent times the ‘infamous’ tag on Ifeajuna’s personality has been questioned and argued. Many believe without a doubt that he is a hero, others do not. However there is a puzzle over why his 1966 coup partner, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu is recognized as a hero and he is not.
Nzeogwu has an honorary statue in his hometown but Ifeajuna seems completely erased from national history. He is neither mentioned in the political history (in good light) nor in Nigerian sports history. This is sad considering his gold medal exploits. Ifeajuna comes across as the fellow who won a high jump contest wearing only his left shoe. He never had a coach.
It appears the only good memory of Emmanuel Ifeajuna is his image on the front cover of Nigerian exercise books. Somehow that is the only way that this champ gets remembered for good. I bet not even half of the easterners who agitate for a sovereign state recognition know his name and what he represented.
“He was a rather complicated character … intensely political and revolutionary … very influential among those close to him … generous and willing to sacrifice anything for the revolution.” -Adewale Ademoyega,