General Aguiyi-Ironsi: 50 Years After… By Uche Ezechukwu

By Ikenga Chronicles August 1, 2016

July 29th marked the golden jubilee milestone in Nigeria’s bloody history. That was the day in 1966, when Nigeria’s first military head of state, Major General Johnson Thomas Ummunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, was abducted and killed by officers led by the then Majors Theophilus Danjuma and Murtala Muhammed, in what was known as the counter to the first ever military coup in the country that had taken place on January 15th of the same year.

During the January 15 coup, top political leaders, predominantly from the Northern and the Western parts of the country were slain by the young ambitious military officers. Incidentally, apart from Colonel Arthur Unegbe, who was the quartermaster-general of the army, no other person from the East was killed in a putsch that severed off the top echelon of the political and military leadership from the North. In that coup, both the powerful premier of the North, Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduana of Sokoto, who was the leader of the ruling NPC was slain. So also was Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the prime minister of Nigeria. Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, the premier of Western Nigeria and the ally of the NPC was also slain; so was Sir Festus Okotie Eboh, the minister of finance. Topmost Northern military officer Brigadier Maimalari was also killed. 
Incidentally, no politician of Eastern Region origin was killed. The powerful Dr Michael Okpara, the premier of Eastern Nigeria and Chief Dennis Osadebey who was the NCNC premier of Mid-West region, and an Igbo from Asaba, were not killed. Of course, President Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was out of the country at the time, on a medical tour, was also not touched. Even though it would appear as a convenient after-thought explanation to say that the fact that all those Igbo people were spared was not quite planned but was an error of fate.
For one thing, the soldiers sent to Ikoyi to arrest and kill the chief of army staff, Aguiyi-Ironsi, could not meet him at home as he had gone to a party aboard a naval ship at the Marina, Lagos, and had learnt of the on-going coup there. From there, he had found his way to Obalende and Ikeja, where he organised some loyal troops to foil the coup in Lagos. It was also Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the commander of the Fifth Battalion atKano that foiled the coup in the North.
Yet, how do you explain to the sorrowing Northerners that the coup, whose victims were unfortunately very lopsided at the expense of the North, was not a plot by the Igbo officers in the military? After all, on the list of the coup plotters was mostly Igbo, even as its two leaders, Majors Emmanuel ifeajuna and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, as well as the other majors and officers were majorly Igbo. It hardly mattered that officers from all over the country including Major Ademoyega, Oyewole, Banjo, etc, were among the ring leaders of the coup. Neither, did it matter at those testy times that the coup plotters had planned to go to Calabar Prison, release Chief Obafemi Awolowo, who was serving a life–term for treason, and make him the prime minister. It also did not matter that Nzeogwu whose mother was Tiv and who was very angry over the military campaigns in Tivland in 1965, was only Igbo by name.
The natural thing at the time was to believe that it was a plot of Igbo politicians and their military to overthrow the government that was led by the North. It again did not matter that the naive military officers who organised the coup were idealist ideologues who were irked by the corruption they had noticed in government and had, therefore, vowed to end it. Or that the immediate causative factor was the deterioration of security situation in the West, as a result of the inconclusive general elections of 1965. Rioting, burning of houses and killing of people had become uncontrollable in a situation that was infamously known as‘Operation Wetie’ (meaning: drench him with fuel and light him up). It was that uncontrollable situation that finally moved the soldiers to strike.
But as is obvious in the affairs of men, it is not what happened that is the issue, it is rather the perception of what has happened, as it is generally accepted that perception is the reality. So, the fact that Aguiyi-Ironsi who foiled the abortive coup by his mutinous colleagues and assumed the reign of power as Nigeria’s first military head of state, was naturally seen as the leader of an “Igbo Coup” against the North and the impression stuck. There was no precedent to draw lessons from, so the military head of state refused to act like a typical Nigerian, who would have secured himself by surrounding himself with his kinsmen, but had rather empowered and surrounded himself with Northern officers. And that became his undoing.
Another ‘mistake’, which Aguiyi-Ironsi was blamed for was his abolition of the regions, which he claimed were divisive, by promulgating the mightily naïve Decree 34, otherwise known as the Unification Decree of 1966. The North had immediately interpreted it as another ploy of Igbos to dominate Nigeria, as it was they that had the predominant personnel that would work everywhere in Nigeria, especially in the public service of theNorthern provinces. That effort at making Nigeria a unitary government was regarded as Aguiyi-Ironsi’s major sin that created an excuse for his death.
One would have expected the North, when they got back power, to reverse the unitary government structure of Nigeria; they did not. Instead, under subsequent military and civilian administrations since those 50 years, North-dominated governments have frowned at, and even resisted, any suggestions of restructuring Nigeria back into regions. 
Another striking lesson of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s assassination, 50 years ago, is that it was planned and executed by people who were suffering from an inferiority complex and an identity crisis. TY Danjuma and his Middle Belt kinsmen who, with such people like Murtala Muhammed who suffered from identity complex were working hard to prove their ‘Northerness’ by executing what they saw as a revenge killing against Igbo military men and thousands of civilians who lived outside Igboland. For, the waves of pogrom against Igbos in the North in 1966 were mostly masterminded and executed by the Middle Belt soldiers, who incidentally, were also Christians, just as the Igbos. It was they who also predominantly fought Biafra. That was why the biggest massacres of Ndigbo in 1966 was carried out in Middle Belt cities – Jos, Bukuru, Kafanchan, Makurdi, etc.
General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi has been dead for 50 years now. Those he left behind, as well as the descendants and relatives of those many Igbo people who were killed in tow, have also moved on. Ironsi’s first son, Ambassador Tom, who, at only 12 years old, was with his father at Ibadan when Danjuma and his team came to arrest and kill him, and his siblings have also moved on. Tom has been a diplomat – an ambassador- as well as a minister of defence, just like Danjuma, had been. Ironically, Danjuma cannot be said to have fared as well. 
In spite of having performed what he might have seen as the greatest duty for the North, he is struggling to be accepted as a Northern leader. He is not taken as a force in Kaduna circles, but rather manages better in Lagos business circles. He should have understood that real Muslims do not engage in revenge, as their submission to the will of Allah makes revenge killing appear as if one is questioning the wisdom of the Almighty Allah, without whose permission or knowledge, nothing would ever happen.
This Friday, we will congregate at his modest family home in Umuahia, as we have done these several years, in a solemn celebration of a requiem remembrance Mass, to pray for the continued repose of the soul of the great soldier and the hero, and of Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, his host and the governor of Western Nigeria, who offered to die by his side, in the hands of the coupists of July 29, 1966.
*Uche Ezechukwu is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of The Authority, a national newspaper published in Abuja (
* Originally published on
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