By Emeka Obasi
They were Commonwealth Games medalists in high jump, born in 1935, joined the Army and were executed by firing squad. Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna and Ebenezer Abossey Kotei, better known as Robert, shared so much in common. Note the striking initials, E.A.
Ifeajuna was the first Nigerian to win a Commonwealth gold medal. This he achieved in the high jump event of Vancouver ’54. His feat of 6 feet, 8 inches, dwarfed the young man’s height.
Kotei was the first Ghanaian to win a Commonwealth Games medal, a bronze. At Cardiff ’58, his mark was 6 feet, 7 inches. And that came four years after Ifeajuna’s triumph in Canada.
The year Kotei won a Commonwealth medal, was the year Ifeajuna bagged a degree in Chemistry, from the University College, Ibadan. Two years later, the latter joined the Nigeria Army and was commissioned Second Lieutenant. That was in 1960.
Kotei’s first and only Olympic appearance was in 1960 when Ifeajuna enlisted in the military. Ifeajuna trained at the Mons Officer Cadet School, in the United Kingdom. Same year, Kotei, set a new Ghanaian high jump record in London. That record lasted for 36 years until it was broken in 1996.
Even in death, they followed the same path. Ifeajuna was executed in 1967, allegedly, for plotting to oust Biafran leader, Col. Emeka Ojukwu. Shot with him were Brig. Victor Banjo, Major Philip Alale and Mr. Sam Agbam, of the Foreign Service.
Kotei’s execution came in 1979. It was after the Jerry Rawlings coup. Those who faced the bullets with him included: Generals Akwasi Afrifa, Ignatius Acheampong, Fred Akuffo, Admiral Joy Amedume, Air Vice Marshal George Boakye and Col. Roger Felli, Forign Affairs minister.
They were executed in their respective countries’ capital cities, Enugu and Accra. Both were buried in the Eastern region. Enugu, was capital of the Eastern region before the declaration of Biafra.
Kotei’s grave lay at the Nsawam Prisons Cemetery, Adoagyiri in the Eastern region. His body was later exhumed in 2001 and reburied with full military honours, thanks to President John Kuffour.
Similar things happened during their execution. In Enugu, Banjo, stood with head unbowed after the others had been silenced by the marksmen. A tough officer, who knew about Nigeria’s first coup in 1966, but did not take part, it took more bullets to silence him.
“ Am not dead yet, am not dead,” Banjo who commanded what he saw as The Liberation Army, shouted. Biafrans called his troops 101 Division and his First Chief of Staff was, Ifeajuna.
In Accra, Afrifa, who arrived the execution crowd waving, was hard to kill. “Am not dead, am not dead yet,” he screamed. A soldier walked up to him, pulled a pistol, it would not work. A sub machine gun was applied to do it.
Afrifa played a huge role in Ghana’s first coup of 1966. The leader was Ifeajuna’s namesake, Emmanuel Kotoka. Afrifa was Brigade Major, Second Brigade, Kumasi. Ifeajuna was Brigade Major, Second Brigade, Lagos. Kotei was Acheampong’s last Chief of Army Staff.
Before Afrifa, another officer, Lt. Samuel Arthur, had defied death during execution in Ghana. It happened at Labadi Beach in 1966. Twenty years later, 1986, and 19 years after Banjo, it also happened in Nigeria’s Kirikiri Prison. Lt. Col. Mike Iyorshe, did not give up easily.
Ifeajuna was Igbo and his people trace their roots to the Hebrew State of Israel. Kotei came from the Ga Dangmes ethnic nationality. They look up to the Jews as their ancestral siblings.
The first Nigerian military leader, Gen. Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, was Igbo and would have been retired in 1966 before he smashed the first coup. The general was commissioned in 1948 and served in Ghana during the Second World War.
The first Ghanaian military Head of State, Gen. Joseph Ankrah, was Ga and was called from retirement in 1966 after the first coup. Ankrah received his commission in 1947 and tried to make peace in Aburi during the Nigerian Civil War.
While Kotei won bronze in Cardiff, two sisters, Amelia and Edith Okoli, became the first siblings to represent Nigeria at the Commonwealth. Like Ifeajuna, they were Anglicans. And like Kotei, their brother, Alex, represented Ghana in highjump against Nigeria at the 1954 Triangular Games.
Ifeajuna jumped across the Nigeria/Dahomey border after the January 1966 coup and ran into the warm embrace of the first Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, in Accra. The Osagyefo’s mentor was, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first President of Nigeria.
And this Ifeajuna/ Kotei nexus could have so much to do with the Owelle. Zik and Ifeajuna were from Onitsha. In that part of Anambra, you have section named after Ghana.
Dr. Azikiwe trained as a police officer in Kumasi. His first job as a journalist was in Accra. The Owelle’s wedding in 1934 was in the Ghanaian capital. And that was a year before Ifeajuna and Kotei were born.
Zik’s aunt, Okwuegbunam, was the grandmother of Deborah, whose daughter, Stella Adadevoh,is today widely beautified as the Angel who saved Nigeria from Ebola destruction in 2014 and died so that Nigerians could live.
Ifeajuna and Kotei wiped tears off Dr. Azikiwe’s face. They won Commonwealth Games medals, gold and bronze, respectively. Zik was denied the opportunity of taking part in the Games in 1926.
At Storer College, the United States, Zik was an outstanding athlete. Before he left Nigeria, the young man played soccer for Diamond Football Club, Lagos. Azikiwe played tennis, was a good boxer and outstanding in track and field.
In 1926, this Nigerian was Storer College all rounder. He thought he was good enough for the British Empire Games. Zik was denied because of his skin colour. That was the day the Onitsha man dropped his English name, Benjamin.