Sunday, August 1, 2021 8:00 am
Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe was the second in Command to Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, the Head of State who was assassinated in a counter coup of 29 July 1966. That was exactly 55 years ago on 29 July 2021. Ogundipe who ought to step in as the leader was elbowed aside by the coupists. As a result of some body language and subterranean threats, he went underground and found his way into a British frigate anchored on the Lagos Marina. He escaped to London.
The man who made the escape possible was Theophilus Oluwole Akindele, a former Director of Communications. He narrates this in his ‘Memoir of Mixed Blessings’, The Book Company Limited, 2009, pp.129-140.
Read Akindele’s narrative below:
Ironsi’s death, my role in Brigadier Ogundipe’s escape
By Theophilus Oluwole Akindele
I became a regular visitor at the State House in Marina, where we would sit and talk about the state of the country. Over the next six months, The Head of State will often drive himself to my residence in Surulere, in disguise and under cover of darkness.
He would spend the night with us and leave before dawn the following morning. Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe who was Ironsi’s deputy, would also visit regularly and my wife and I would visit him at his house, Number 6, Second Avenue in Ikoyi.
He sent his two children to stay with us whenever there was any sign of unrest. Ironsi also did the same thing.
We returned to work, although things were still very tense. I remember everyone being very careful about what they said, not knowing who was on whose side.
During one of my official visits to a Telecommunications firm in the UK, I ran into Colonel Adeyinka Adebayo. He told me that he was attending a course in London, and he mentioned he was eager to return to Nigeria to help re-build the nation, but that he was not in Ironsi’s good books.
He knew Ironsi and I were quite close and asked if I could put in a good word on his behalf. I promised to do this, although I said it was hard for a civilian to influence an army man, no matter how close they were.
The day after I returned to Nigeria, Ironsi came round to our house. After settling him down with our usual drink. I mentioned my meeting Adebayo. Ironsi was unusually silent.
When he replied, he said scoffingly, “I hope Bob means what he is saying. These are trying times and it would be dangerous to toy with our actions!” he stopped abruptly, leaving me unsure of what he really meant. For the rest of the evening, we didn’t return to talk about Adebayo’s request, and I thought Ironsi had dismissed it completely.
However, a week after this discussion took place, Ironsi rang me and asked if I could go to London with him. “Your Excellency,” I said, “I have no assignment in the UK for now, so I will need an official request passed through the Secretary to the Military Government. The High Commission in London will also need to be informed, as they will be providing the travel documents.”
“Theo,” the Head of State said humorously, “I haven’t forgotten all the red tape involved in any civil service request. I will ensure it all follows the correct channels.”
With all the approvals in place, I left for London two days later.
As I boarded, I found Abdul Atta was also on the flight. He had been transferred to the Ministry of Finance, so we hadn’t had an in-depth conversation for a long time. We had time to catch up on the flight. When we arrived in London, we parted company, and I was met by the High Commission staff and taken to the Royal Lancaster Hotel.
I settled into my room and was just freshening up when the phone rang. I picked up the extension in the bathroom and a familiar voice crackled down the line. “Hello Akin. Welcome to London. I am sure you don’t know who it is.” I couldn’t guess so he quickly put me out of my misery.
“It is C.P!”
C.P. Leventis was an old friend of mine, and he has been living in Nigeria for over 20 years and had recently relocated to London.
Abdul whom I later learnt was also staying at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, let the cat out of the bag when C.P. paid him a visit. “Are you free for dinner at my house tonight? Abdul will be coming as well.” As I hadn’t planned anything, I said I would be delighted.
When I arrived at the Leventis’ home, Abdul Atta was already there. We were the only guests joining the C.P. and his family. The food as always, was lavish, and we had just started on the second course when the door-bell rang. C.P. picked up the phone beside him and after ascertaining who it was, he pressed the buzzer to let the guest in. “A surprise for you,” he said to Abdul and I.
When the door was opened, we were indeed surprised to see Adeyinka Adebayo come in. C.P. invited him to join us at table. He was surprised to see me, and after exchanging pleasantries with everyone, I said in Yoruba, “Iwo naa ni oga ran mi wa ri.” “It is you the boss asked me to come and see.”
He couldn’t hide his surprise. I said we would talk later, and we got back to enjoying the dinner.
Adebayo decided to join me on the drive back to the hotel, but as Atta was also in the official car provided by our embassy, we couldn’t talk then.
We went up to my room after we bid Atta good night, and I was able to tell Adebayo that Ironsi had asked for him to come to Nigeria for consultation. His reaction to this message was odd. He explained his coolness by saying if the Head of State wanted him, I should not have been the one sent to deliver an official message of that nature.
It should have been channelled through the High Commissioner, he said. “Yes, you are right, but don’t be too hasty to write the message off. Don’t forget I was the one you appealed to for intervention. Ironsi must have thought it would have more meaning to send me to you.
But there is no need to rush into a decision. Let’s wait to see what will happen tomorrow.” And that was how we left it that evening.
At about 10am the following morning, Adebayo called to say he had just got back from the Nigeria High Commission at Northumberland Avenue, upset that there hadn’t been any message for him. This confirmed his doubt. I was sorry that there hadn’t been any official word but tried to reassure him that my message was valid.
At about 2pm, Adebayo called again, this time in an upbeat mood. The High Commissioner just called him that he was wanted in Nigeria for consultation. He was on his way to the High Commission to collect his travelling papers. I was delighted at the news and said we would meet in Nigeria.
But when he heard I was leaving the following day, he said he would try to get a seat on my flight.
We met at Gatwick the following morning, and travelled on British Caledonia.
We spent most of the flight talking about the political situation in Nigeria. “What if you are told to start work right away?” I asked Adebayo. “I wouldn’t be able to,” he said. “You know my wife and children are still in London. I still need to go back and sort all those things out.”
As fate would have it, his time in Nigeria ended up being much longer than he planned.
The car which came to collect me from the airport took both of us, first to my house at Surulere, and then on to the State House.
Ironsi was in the garden when we arrived, taking an evening stroll. He would often spend time there in the early evening, thinking through the problems of the country. Ironsi had been Head of State for barely six months, but rumours were already circulating that a counter coup was being planned as a revenge to the first coup which had seen the death of the Sardauna of Sokoto and others.
Ironsi was planning a trip to Ibadan the following day to try to make peace with the rank and file in the armed forces.
He seemed pleased to see us. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, he turned to Adebayo.
“I would like to see you tomorrow, at about this time.” Then he turned to me “Theo, please I would like you to be here too.” I promised I would be. We shook hands and we left him to finish off his walk. I then dropped Adebayo at his cousin’s house in Ribadu Street, South West Ikoyi, where he planned to stay whilst he was in Lagos.
His cousin Adedokun Adeyemi, was also a friend of mine, and he was the architect who designed my house in Surulere so we had become quite friendly.
Early the next morning, July 29 1966, I was woken up with a start, by a phone call.
There were rumours that there had been a coup, this time in Ibadan, but we were unable to verify these stories. Ogundipe took a taxi to my house in Surulere late that evening, wearing a T-shirt and shorts. According to his narration of events, he said he couldn’t contact Ironsi who had gone to Ibadan the night before.
Ogundipe had then decided to send a group of officers to secure Ikeja airport, so that the Head of State could land safely. The soldiers were ambushed between Oshodi and Ikeja and were totally annihilated.
He then asked for another formation to be sent, and decided to change the route, so that the same fate would not befall them. Ogundipe said he was astounded when a Private shouted out, “We won’t go!” he quickly realised that a mutiny was simmering.
Showing no signs of the turmoil he was inwardly experiencing, he said he calmly asked them to await further instructions whilst he went inside to consult others.
He then went inside the State House and got out of his army uniform. Now suitably disguised in khaki shorts and a T-shirt, the Chief of Staff, the highest ranking army officer, ran through the grounds at the back of the State House, scaled the wall, and ran along the Marina, looking for a taxi, that will take him to safety.
I had been called by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Adetokunbo Ademola early that morning and asked to attend a meeting. As Director of Communications, and with many close friends in the army, my assistance and opinion was often sought at such times.
The atmosphere in the house on the First Avenue was tense. When I arrived, the Chief Justice was sitting in a group with Chief Okunowo and three others, discussing the events of the past two days. Twenty-four hours after the coup, there was still no word on the whereabouts of the Head of State.
Ogundipe who was staying with me, agreed to come along.
I also rang Adebayo and invited him to join us. There were rumours and whispers, but no concrete information, and we left at dusk, no clearer about the political turmoil that had engulfed the nation. We were asked to reconvene at 5pm the next day.
We all turned up the next day, with the exception of Ogundipe. Before I left home, he had given his apologies, without elaborating, but I deduced from their conversation before, that his decision not to attend had something to do with Adebayo.
From my observations, a certain amount of distrust seemed to exist among soldiers, and these two were no exceptions. Soldiers would however never discuss these sentiments with civilians.
As we sat there, the Chief Justice decided to ring a very good friend of his, Ibrahim Kashim, former Governor of the Nothern Region. If anyone would know what was really going on, he would.
During their conversation, the Chief Justice suggested they should install the second in command Brigadier Ogundipe in an acting capacity, until things became clearer. Kashim was however against this suggestion. If Ogundipe had the nerves of a soldier, Kashim said, he should have assumed authority immediately. “Well,” said the Chief Justice, “I don’t think it is too late for him to put things right.”
He was taken aback when Kashim replied, “It is already too late. Our man is in Ikeja, and he will be talking to the nation soon.”
The Chief Justice turned to me. “Akindele, can you check whether this is true? Who is the person already planted in Ikeja? We need the information immediately.”
He knew that as the Head of Communications, news reached me earlier in times of emergency.
The meeting came to an abrupt end at about 6.15pm. I returned home weighed down with the rumours and the task that had now been given to me. Ogundipe was still in my house, and I narrated the day’s events to him. I could see the hurt in his eyes, when I told him what Kashim had said.
He recognised that there was a perception that he had failed the nation by not taking up the post as Acting Head of State.
He however believed that he was doing the right thing by waiting for definitive news of Ironsi, before he stepped in. Ogundipe was known as a peace-loving person, never seeking to use the downfall of others to his own advantage.
I left him pondering these things to carry out the assignment I had been given.
A technician who was responsible for the maintenance of telecommunications equipment for the military base at Ikeja came up with the information we needed.
He told me there had been a huge surge in the activities at the Ikeja base in the last 48 hours. The telephone had not stopped ringing and the person most sought after was someone called ‘Jack’.
He mentioned hearing the voices of one or two Europeans, but the rest were mostly Hausa-speaking. Another name he said he heard frequently was ‘Yakubu’.
At the meeting the next day, I mentioned what I had found out. Adebayo immediately recognised the names. He said they were the names of a junior officer who had just returned from a course abroad.
He was called Yakubu Gowon.
After hearing that, everyone was relieved. The suspense would soon be lifted, and we could return to a normal and peaceful life.
At the end of the meeting, I went back to Architect Adeyemi’s house with Adebayo. Adeyemi and a few others were already having a lively debate and we joined them, whilst partaking in this delicious small chops provided by Mrs. Toun Adeyemi.
During the discussions, I got up to go to the gents. On my way through the long corridors, I came across Adebayo in a side room, hunched over a telephone on a low stool. He was whispering into the handset and I caught snippets of the conversation.
“I shall be loyal to you Sir. Yes I suggest I go and takeover at Ibadan, until we know what has happened to Fajuyi.”
More whisperings and then I caught the words “through Badagry to Ibadan, to evade any ambush.”
He concluded the conversation by saying, “Yes Sir, I will do so tomorrow morning.” I froze in my steps. “Ah ah! Bob! Who are you talking to? I hope it was not the junior officer you had mentioned earlier you were saying ‘yes Sir’ to?”
Adebayo tried to make light of the situation by saying “He was saying ‘Yes Sir’ to me too from the other end.”
I was very disappointed that a matter we were treating confidentially should be blown open. We had all been warned by the elders to keep the findings secret so that government’s arrangement were not derailed.
I was very upset, and I expressed my disappointment in no uncertain terms. I called Adebayo’s cousin’s attention to what, to my mind, was an irresponsible action.
I however did not mention it to Ogundipe who I know would have taken an extremely dim view of Adebayo’s action.
That was the last I saw of Adebayo, until we heard he had been appointed Governor of the Western Region.
The meeting with Ironsi he had come back home for never took place, but Adebayo had got himself a new position of power all the same.
The following afternoon, I was in the sitting room, going through the newspapers, and trying to glean whatever information I could from the various reports, when an army jeep roared into our compound.
I looked up from my paper to see an army officer standing before me. His epaulets indicated he was a Captain.
Fingering the revolver in his belt, he respectfully asked for Ogundipe. “I have been sent to deliver a message to Brigadier Ogundipe who we understand is staying here.” I was astounded.
No one, apart from Adebayo knew Ogundipe was here. I tried as much as possible to look unruffled. “Oh yes, he is here alright, but only left five minutes ago for Lagos.” When he asked when I expected him back, I said I didn’t know. “It may be late as we had only finished our lunch before he left.”
The Captain looked around the room suspiciously, and his gaze returned to fix on me. “Please Sir, let him know that his presence is required at a meeting holding in the Lion Building in Lagos.
It is crucial that he attend.” I nodded, before returning to scan the papers before me, as the Captain went out to his waiting jeep.
All the time I was talking, Ogundipe was in our guest room next door. As soon as the Captain left, he emerged very agitated. “Olu, you have killed me. You let them know that I am here! How could you do that?”
“If they were not aware you were here, why did they send the Captain all this way to deliver a message to you? Someone must have leaked it. If I said you weren’t here, they would have been suspicious. The three other armed soldiers waiting in the jeep would have searched the whole premises.
If they found you hiding, that would have been a more dangerous situation.”
He became calmer when he heard my reasoning. It was however clear that his life was in danger. We decided he needed to form an escape plan. He went back in the room and emerged minutes later in his disguise. He told me he was leaving, and would get in touch as soon as possible.
He didn’t say where he was going so as not to endanger me.
Four hours passed before I heard from him. He rang me and gave me an Ikeja area telephone number where I could get him in an emergency. A few minutes after he gave me the number, I tried to call him, to test the authenticity of the number. After the number rang for about 30 seconds the call was answered by a male voice who asked me to identify myself.
On telling him my name, he said Ogundipe would ring back immediately. It took twenty minutes before Ogundipe finally called back. The phone link to him was about five people long. He told me not to worry. He was fine. He would get in touch with me soon. And before he dropped the phone, I asked if he had got in touch with the people in Lion Building as requested but he said he would do so in due course.
We lived through another eighteen hours with no broadcast forthcoming from the new Head of State and no news of the previous Head of State. At about six o’clock the next evening, as I was getting ready to go back to the office to clear my tray, as was my usual habit, Ogundipe arrived in a taxi.
“Olu, I need a favour, I need you to give me a lift into Lagos.” I was at first reluctant. Here was a wanted man. I began to fear for my own life as well. If he was found with me, I would not be safe either. But I did not have a choice. This was a friend in need, someone I loved, pleading with me.
We got in together, and drove through Apongbon towards Marina and the General Post Office, where my office was. The State House was a stone’s throw away from my office but I already said I would not be willing to drive that far, as it woud be under heavy guard.
It was already getting dark and as we drove towards the old Secretariat, he asked me to slow down.
He motioned to a green light moving up and down in sequence. “Can you see that flashing light? Drop me there.” I could just about make out the Navy Jetty.
We pulled in, and even before the car came to complete stop, Ogundipe had already opened the door.
Shadows appeared at the side of the car and I saw two Naval Officers saluting swiftly as they helped Ogundipe out of the car. “Olu,” he said, “Thank you. You are a good friend. I will get in touch as soon as we reach our destination.”
Further along, sitting on the rocks by the jetty, I could make out Mrs. Ogundipe and two of their young children. The fear made their greetings come out in whispers. I wished them all the best of luck and promised that I would remember them in my prayers. It was a real sad parting.
The following morning, the long-awaited announcement to the nation by Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon was broadcast. He requested everyone to get on their work peacefully, as everything was under control.
I got a telephone call from Brigadier Ogundipe about ten days after he left the shores of Nigeria. He was speaking from Las Palmas. They had been taken to board the M.V. Aureol the night I dropped them off and the ship set sail the following day at noon.
It was only when they were safely out of the way that the Head of State could make his announcement.
Ogundipe told me they were having a two week holiday in Las Palmas, after which he had been asked to assume duty as the Nigerian High Commissioner in the United Kingdom.
Imagine the shock of other fellow travellers from Nigeria, when Brigadier Ogundipe, the most senior army officer in Nigeria finally emerged from his cabin in Las Palmas.
Many had thought he had been murdered along with Aguyi Ironsi and Fajuyi.
Ogundipe told me that he had been asked to attend the meeting at Lion Building so that he would voluntarily relinquish power to Gowon who was junior to him. As long as Ogundipe was around. Gowon could not assume leadership.
All along, we never knew that this was what was causing the delay in the proclamation of the Head of State.
The 72 hour delay was essential for all key participants to be reconciled, before peace could be restored. My life had taken many strange twists and turns, but never had I imagined that I would be giving shelter to someone who was Head-of-State in waiting!
Months later, I was a guest at the Nigerian High Commission in London, and thereafter, I would visit the Ogundipes whenever I had the opportunity, on my trips to the UK
There were often other interesting visitors, and I remember this is where I first met and became friends with Chief Olopade, who was to marry a cousin of mine, Yewande Daniel. We would spend many hours discussing the political situation in Nigeria, with all the fascinating twists and turns.’
-Theophilus Oluwole Akindele, a former Director of Communications, narrated this in his ‘Memoir of Mixed Blessings’, The Book Company Limited, 2009, pp.129-140. Shared by Wale Adedayo