In the history of Nigerian sports, one name stood out – Emmanuel Ifeajuna. He was the first person to win the country a gold in global sports at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. However, it is very saddening that one hardly hears of this name when talking about sports or medalists in Nigeria. It was as if the name never exists. Why could this be so, many of our modern generations would ask? This may not be unconnected with the first coup that took place in the country in 1966 because Ifeajuna was among the plotters of that very coup that toppled the then civilian government.
Emmanuel was born in Onitsha in 1935 to a civil servant father. His mother was a full housewife. He attended Dennis Memorial Grammar School, Onitsha. At the completion of his secondary school study, he got a job as a clerical officer. It was while he was a clerk at the chief secretary’s office in the seat of the colonial British government in Lagos that he represented Nigeria along with other athletes at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games where he won a gold medal in high jump. It was the very first time in the country. His feat threw the whole country into celebration and he immediately became a hero as he was either called “The Man Vancouver” or “Emma Vancouver”. For this feat, a pencil sketch of Ifeajuna taking the jump over a tall bar was embossed on a popular exercise book and other high jumpers tried to imitate his style of jumping for a few years.
Emmanuel gained admission to study Chemistry at the University College, now University of Ibadan and graduated in 1958. After his graduation, he got a job as a teacher but he didn’t stay long before being enlisted into the Nigerian Army where he changed the course of the Nigerian history.
On January 15, 1966, history was made in Nigeria. That history fundamentally altered Nigeria’s political landscape. It marked a major turning point in the country’s political trajectory. The constitution was overturned. A military revolution was conceived in Nigeria by a group of Army officers led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna but was foiled by Major Aguiyi Ironsi. Ifeajuna fled to Ghana, but was sent back to Nigeria when Nkrumah was overthrown in February. He was detained and jailed in Uyo in the East but was later released by Lt. Col. Ojukwu in September when Biafra seceded. Ifeajuna had to join the Biafran Army.
On August 9, 1967, as a Biafran Lt. Col., Ifeajuna was the first Chief of Staff of the ‘Midwest Liberation Force’ (101 Division) under Victor Banjo. However, he again got involved in an alleged plot to overthrow Ojukwu and was tried under Ojukwu’s Biafran Law and Order (maintenance) Decree of 1967, before being executed in Enugu in September, 1967 along with Banjo, Alale and Agbam.
Emmanuel Ifeajuna’s great status as the first gold medalist from Nigeria in world sports is never remembered and has actively been swept under the carpet. Even among the people of Onitsha or other parts of the Eastern states where he came from, there is nothing to remember him; no rehabilitation or commemoration of his name. However, one thing is very certain whether we like it or not – Emmanuel Ifeajuna’s name is stamped in the international sports record, especially, at the Commonwealth Games in which Nigeria still take part in. He was a world-class gold medalist and he won that gold medal for Nigeria and happened to be the first person to do so in the history of Nigerian sports.