Serving one’s country is the dream of every patriotic young man. Many are attracted to military duties as a way of defending the integrity of the nation. Some virile young men who excelled in sports and found battle field experience alluring, are not alive today to tell their story.
Nigeria’s first Commonwealth gold medal came at the Vancouver’ 54 Games. Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna who joined public service shortly after leaving Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha made history with a jump of Six feet, Eight inches.
Smallish Ifeajuna’s medal was the only gold won by the country. It was an all- three performance in the Long Jump event as the duo of Patrick Etolu and Nafiu Osagie picked silver and bronze respectively. The men’s 4×100 metres relay quartet of Abdul Karim Amu, Musliu Arogundade and Edward Ajado increased the haul with another silver.
Ifeajuna became ‘Emma Vancouver’ after that giant leap and went on to study Chemistry at the University College Ibadan, graduating in 1958. Among his contemporaries were Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Emeka Anyaoku, Grace Alele Williams, Chris Okigbo, Bola Ige, Gamaliel Onosede and Olu Akaraogun.
In 1960, Ifeajuna joined the Army. And that was the beginning of a sad chapter that eventually consumed him. As one of the masterminds of the January 15, 1966 coup, he as Brigade Major, Second Brigade, Lagos shot his commander, Brigadier Zakari Maimalari.
Ifeajuna was not done yet. He rushed to Ikoyi hotel and murdered Lt.Col Abogo Largema who had been dropped off some hours earlier by Maj. Ibrahim Haruna after a party at Maimalari’s house.
The young officer also abducted Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Official records say Ifeajuna killed Balewa but there are accounts to the contrary. Driven across the Benin border by his friend, Okigbo, after the coup, Ifeajuna told his pal that he did not hurt the Prime Minister.
While Ifeajuna escaped to Ghana, Ghanaian soldiers were also planning to strike. In February 1966, Lt. Arthur, announced the end of the Kwame Nkrumah regime through what became known as ’Operation Guitar Boy’. The Nigerian trio of Arthur Nzeribe, Sam Ikoku and Ifeajuna were out of favour with Accra.
Ifeajuna was sent back to Lagos and detained by the Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi administration. When Col. Emeka Ojukwu declared Biafra in 1967, the Commonwealth Golden Boy found himself as part of the Mid- West operations against Nigeria, led by Col. Victor Adebukola Banjo.
Hunter hunted, it was. In September 1967, Ifeajuna and Banjo were alleged to have planned to topple Ojukwu. They were tried and executed alongside two others: Sam Agbamuche and Maj. Philip Alale. That was the first time Nigerians faced firing squad for treason.
Alale was married to someone very close to Ojukwu. Julie Alale became popular after the Civil War as ‘Madam Rangers’. When her husband died, the only Rangers she knew were a group of young Biafran spies who penetrated enemy territory. Major Ibrahim Babangida also named his battalion in Umuahia, Rangers.
Two other sportsmen, Wing Commander Ben Ekele and Squadron Leader Martin Oloforunsho Luther, faced the bullets in March 1986 on allegations that they planned to overthrow Babangida. Gen. Mamman Vatsa, IBB’s friend was fingered as the man behind the plot.
Luther, an old boy of St. Gregory’s College Lagos, played basketball for Nigeria. His father, was Obafemi Martin. Ekele played rugby for Kano and once traveled to Zinder, Niger Republic to represent Kano. Both fought in the three-day war with Chad in 1983.
Maj. Patrick Chukwuma Nzeogwu was part of the first coup. At St. John’s Secondary School, Kaduna, he was the Physical Training Instructor. Nzeogwu assassinated the Premier of the Northern Region, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello. On July 29, 1967, he was ambushed and killed by Nigerian troops led by Abubakar Gora of the Nunmber Three Sector under Capt. Inua Wushishi.
Lt. Mohammed Magoro,had suffered mortar injury two weeks earlier in the same Nsukka axis. He was a good footballer during his at the Provincial Secondary School, Bida. His team mates included keeper Abdusalam Abubakar and defender Babangida. Then he was Block buster, not Maradona. Okigbo died around Opi as a Biafran major.
Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu was one of the best boxers to pass through Sandhurst. His course mates were Murtala Mohammed, Iliya Bisalla, Mohammed Shuwa and Chris Anuforo. He was the first Nigerian Junior Under Officer at Sandhurst. Tim survived the war but was tricked to death by commandos under Col. Olusegun Obasanjo.
Christopher Nwobodo was a better player than younger brother, Dominic ‘Alhaji’ Nwobodo. The former died in battle in Owerri. The latter was one of the Biafran commandos. Other soldiers who later played for Enugu Rangers include Godwin Achebe, Nwabueze Nwankwo, Ernest Ufele, Chukwuma Igweonu, Patrick Ozuah, Kelechi Emeteole and Patrick Ekeji.
Marcel Ezike was as good as any libero. Ekeji met him in the Stella Maris College Port –Harcourt squad of 1967 that included Senator Ugochukwu Uba[Pele], elder brother of Andy and Chris. He died fighting for Biafra. Another Ezike, Paulinus, played for the Flying Antelopes.
Maj. Taiwo Ogunjobi was national 400 metres Hurdles champion in 1977. He perished in the Ejigbo C-130 air crash of 1992. His youger brother, another Taiwo Ogunjobi, played for Shooting Stars and the Green Eagles.