He was the wunderkind who won Nigeria’s first ever gold medal at a world-class sporting competition.
He was equally the first Nigerian to lead a military coup!
They no longer make men like Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna.
Ifeajuna was yet to join the military when he made history as a high-jumper. He was one of the athletes selected to represent the country in the Empire Games which held in Vancouver, Canada in 1954.
On July 31, 1954, in faraway Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, the 19-year-old Ifeajuna had a date with history. The high jump bar was set at a staggering height of 6 feet 8 inches, that is, 13 inches above his head.
The young lad knocked down the bar in his first attempt. In his second attempt, he did something uncannily dramatic. He removed one of his spike shoes.
Then he measured the height with narrowed eyes and …one…two…three… he scaled over the bar, thus becoming the first ever Nigerian to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal.
Ifeajuna’s feat threw the entire nation into an orgy of celebration. One British paper, writing on the Ifeajuna feat, said: “Africans have a natural spring.”
He made headline news across the then British Empire. Editorials extolling his accomplishment were written in purple prose.
The jumping Ifeajuna was on the cover of school exercise books. He instantly became a folk-hero and everybody hailed “The Man Vancouver” or “Emma Vancouver”, as he was variously dubbed.
Curiously, on April 24, 1987, when the first National Sports Awards Ceremony for Heroes and Heroines of Yesteryears was held at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos, Ifeajuna’s name was missing from the list of 71 sportsmen and women, administrators, philanthropists, referees, sponsors and sportswriters honoured.
Incidentally, K.A.B Olowu who won a silver medal in long jump at the same Empire Games was the first name on the honours list.
This sparked off heated controversy. An editorial on the May 4, 1987 edition of The Guardian said: “What the Sports Heroes committee failed to admit is that its members were working according to a political wicket. They would not want to admit it, but it is clear that Ifeajuna’s participation as the leader of the military coup d’etat of 15 January, 1966 informed the effort to make the first not just the last but nothing.”
I anchored a cover story on the controversy for THISWEEK magazine entitled “Who is Afraid of Ifeajuna?”
Born in Onitsha, Anambra State in 1935, Ifeajuna was admitted into the famous Dennis Memorial Grammar School, (DMGS) Onitsha in 1946. He spearheaded a school riot that marked him out as a lad to watch out for.
He got a job as clerical officer II in Lagos after completing his secondary school studies. A keen sportsman, he excelled in his chosen sport, high jump, and was selected to represent the country.
Ifeajuna of course made history.
He then studied Chemistry at the University College Ibadan and graduated in 1958 but not after he had participated in about three riots.
He was given a job as a teacher but he found it boring and then sought admission into the military. He was accepted and he changed the course of Nigerian history on January 15, 1966 when he staged the first military coup.
Ifeajuna wrote in his underground unpublished autobiography: “At dusk on 14 January, we saw the sun disappear behind the horizon. We knew that some people will not see it again. And it might be us.”
On that coup night, Ifeajuna found out to his chagrin that his Ibadan university civilian mate with whom he kept the coup speech had turned tail. Chukwuma Nzeogwu, after waiting in vain to hear from Ifeajuna in Lagos, stole the thunder by improvising and reading his fabled coup broadcast from Radio Nigeria, Kaduna.
Ifeajuna survived the bloody night on which so many were killed. He disguised as a woman and fled to Ghana.
The poets Christopher Okigbo and J.P Clark had to go to Ghana to bring their friend back to Nigeria.
He was detained in Uyo Prisons and was later released by Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu when Biafra seceded.
He had no choice but to enlist in the Biafran Army though he still nursed the ambition of hatching a full Nigerian revolution.
He was executed on the orders of Ojukwu for alleged coup-plotting against the Biafran leader on September 20, 1967.
The Ifeajuna name thus became airbrushed from the history of both Nigeria and Biafra!
His gravely endangered wife Rose and their two sons were given shelter by Obasanjo at the end of the war, and the family bore the name Arinze instead of Ifeajuna.
Whatever anybody may say about Ifeajuna’s politics, the man remains an inimitable hero in the annals of Nigerian sports.
Sporting records cannot be destroyed by military fiat or political gobbledygook.
The world knows who won Nigeria’s first Commonwealth Games gold medal.
It was Emmanuel Arinze Ifeajuna, alias The Man Vancouver.