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Footprints of the fathers

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Theophilus Danjuma

Chief Solomon Asemota and Lt General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma are veterans of the Nigerian public space. One is a retired policeman and lawyer.

The other is a retired soldier and boardroom impresario. Both men are significant in our history in the past half a century, Danjuma more so.

However, it is not always well known how much Asemota had played in the penumbra of power and how far he had influenced the trends of our national lives. Both have now passed the magical age of 80 and it is not out of place that we have a kind of summing up.

Asemota celebrated his 80th on December 8 while Danjuma on December 9.

Apart from the notable exceptions of Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida, Danjuma is perhaps the most politically influential soldier in Nigeria today. Unlike the duo, however, he never held any political office.

Throughout his military career, he was basically in the army and he retired as Chief of Army Staff.

Yet in and out of office, he remained a formidable player in the Nigerian field of politics. When Obasanjo emerged as our President in 1999, he persuaded Danjuma to take the job of Minister of Defence. Danjuma said he would not serve more than one term.

Danjuma is a serious man of few words. In 1993, we were surprised shortly after Justice Dolapo Akinsanya declared illegal the regime of Chief Ernest Shonekan and his Interim National Government, Danjuma showed up in Chief Moshood Abiola’s residence in Ikeja, Lagos.

It was at the height of the national campaign against the ING which was installed in power following the disorderly retreat of General Ibrahim Babangida from power on August 27, 1993.

Babangida had annulled the victory of Abiola at the June 12, 1993 presidential elections. That afternoon, Danjuma read a poem declaring his support for democracy and opposition to continuing military rule in any guise.

Of course, full-blown military rule continued when General Sani Abacha seized power from Shonekan that November and throughout the Abacha era, Danjuma was rarely heard. When Abacha successor, General Abdulsalami decided to embark on a transition to civil rule programme, Danjuma and Babangida were the leaders of military officers who recruited Obasanjo into the presidential race in 1998 and ensured his victory on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.

Danjuma entered into the national stage at 29 in 1966, six years after he joined the army. He attended the Benue Provincial Secondary School, (now Government College), Katsina-Ala, from 1953 to 1958 and after that spent one year at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Zaria, (the precursor of Ahmadu Bello University) before gaining admission into the Nigerian Military Training Centre, Kaduna.

His young mind must have thought of a long career in the army, away from the hurly-burly of politics and business. But destiny had something different in store for him.

The coup of January 15, 1966 shattered his world and changed Nigeria. The Prime-Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa, his neighbour, the flamboyant Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Okoti-Eboh, the powerful Premier of the North, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello and the Premier of the West, Chief Ladoke Akintola, were killed by the coup makers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu. The coupists also visited their anger on their superiors in the barracks.

Among top officers killed were Brigadiers Zakariya Maimalairi and Samuel Ademulegun, Colonel Ralph Shodeinde, Abego Largema, James Pam, Arthur Unegbe and Kor Mohammed.

Though the coupists failed to take over power, nonetheless, it was the end of the Balewa regime as power fell into the laps of General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first African to command the Nigerian Army.

Some young military officers, led by Lt. Colonel Murtala Muhammed, felt the North had been unfairly treated by the coupists and General Ironsi who delayed in bringing the suspected criminals to justice. It was these young officers including Danjuma, Martins Adamu and several others that carried out the coup of July 29, 1966.

Danjuma was the officer that led soldiers to Ibadan to kidnap Ironsi and his host, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi in the wee hours of Coup Day.

For two days, Nigeria had no ruler until the new coupists agreed to install then Lt. Colonel Yakubu Gowon in power on August 1, 1966.

Gowon, a modest man of great charm, moved to the official residence of the Minister of Defence in Doddan Barracks instead of the palatial State House on the Marina.

Nine years later, another group of young officers including Colonels Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, Ibrahim Taiwo and Joe Garba, toppled the Gowon regime in 1975. They brought in three old war commanders to take charge.

Murtala Muhammed became Head of State, Obasanjo became his deputy as the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters and Danjuma, who was General Officer Commanding the Third Marine Commando Division, became Chief of Army Staff.

When a section of the army rose again in 1976 and Murtala Muhammed was killed, it was again Danjuma who rallied loyal soldiers to save the day.

Ten years after Mohammed was killed, I had gone, reporting for Newswatch magazine to Chief S.B. Bakare on Oyinkan Abayomi Drive, Ikoyi, to report on our story on the anniversary of Mohammed’s assassination. Chief Bakare took me to his bedroom upstairs and asked me to sit on wooden upholstered chair.

“That was where Obasanjo sat on the day of the coup,” he said. Early that morning a Volkswagen beetle car had drove furiously into Bakare’s compound and Obasanjo emerged from it and the car drove out. He was agitated. He told Bakare, also a veteran of the Second World War, that Muhammed had been killed.

The coup had taken the regime by surprise for they believed they were doing what Nigerians wanted. Obasanjo said if that was what Nigerians were ready to repay Mohammed with, then he would have nothing to do with the military government anymore.

He was armed with a pistol. He told his host that if the rebel discovers his hiding place, he was ready to go with them.

By evening, loyal troops had quelled the coup, thanks to the efforts of commanders like Danjuma and Alani Akinrinade, the GOC One Division in Kaduna.

The telephone was working and they sent for Obasanjo to meet his colleagues at Doddan Barrack. He told them he was not interested in leading the country. He said he was only interested in working with Murtala Muhammed and now that he was gone, he had no interest anymore. He asked Danjuma to take the rein. Danjuma refused.

The following day after Mohammed had been buried in Kano, the meeting reconvened and Obasanjo insisted on his point. He said Danjuma was best suited to be Head of State. In the end, it was Danjuma’s view that prevailed and Obasanjo became Head of State “against my personal wish and desire.”

Twice, Danjuma helped to make Obasanjo ruler of Nigeria. He believes in doing what is right for Nigeria and not what he can gain for himself. Despite his long public service, no one has succeeded in dragging his name into the cesspit of corruption or wantonness. His wife, Daisy, a formidable politican in her own right, was elected into the Senate and she must have benefitted from the mystique of her surname.

Danjuma shares a lot with Asemota, his fellow octogenarian. Asemota is a lawyer of considerable means and stubborn commitment to the constitutional re-arrangement of Nigeria. Asemota was the lawyer who represented Chief Olu Falae when he went to the tribunal challenging the victory of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo at the 1999 presidential election.

Falae was the candidate of the All Peoples Party, APP, and the Alliance for Democracy, AD, coalition who contested against the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Chief Obasanjo. As the case was progressing at the tribunal, we were told that the military junta of General Abdulsalami Abubakar was not a disinterested observer.

Some of its members were keen on ensuring that the entire election was annulled so that military rule can be given a new lease of life. Though Abusalami was opposed to this, these members were influential and desperate.

We got in touch with Chief Asemota advising that Chief Falae should withdraw his petition against Obasanjo so that we can have a handover by May 29, 1999. Falae was in London as a guest of Chief Harry Akande, the legendary Nigerian international businessman.

Chief Asemota was contacted by the leadership of Afenifere about our desire on the case. He refused. He said he can only take instructions from his client, Chief Falae. He must have been amazed about our impudence. Chief Falae later came home to take charge of his case and the reactionary forces were kept at bay.

Asemota trained at the Police College, Ikeja where he graduated in 1960. He was born in Benin, Edo State, December 8, 1938 and had his secondary education at the Immaculate Conception College, Benin, 1954 to 1958.

In 1963, he became the aide-de-camp to the first Governor of old Mid-West State, Chief Jereton Mariere. But that was just the beginning.

In 1964, he took leave to attend the University of Lagos where he studied Law. He was one of the best trained police officers of the old schools, attending several institutions in the United Kingdom and other countries. Since he left the police, he has concentrated on his law practice, rising to the enviable height of the Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN.

Now in the winter of their days, these two men owe Nigerians the debt to write their stories. Lindsay Barret’s Danjuma: the Making of a General, only tells a part of General Danjuma’s life. Now he needs to fill in the gaps. So also Chief Asemota.

So many of our eminent citizens and participants are reluctant to tell their own side of the Nigerian story. They need to give future generations the benefit of their experiences.


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Footprints of the fathers
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