Aguiyi-ironsi, by Obi Nwakanma

Maj-Gen JTU Aguiyi Ironsi
Maj-Gen JTU Aguiyi Ironsi

Fifty years ago, on a Friday night at the Western Nigerian Governor’s lodge in Ibadan, a group of soldiers led by Major Theophilus Danjuma committed a terrible act of treason. They accosted their Commander-in-chief, Major-General Johnson Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Military Head of state of Nigeria only six months in the making, stripped him of his epaulettes and his swagger stick shaped in the form of the Crocodile, and proceeded to arrest him and his host, the Military Governor of the West, Colonel Francis Adekunle Fajuyi. These soldiers, some of them far too drug-addled, did not stop there.

They proceeded to administer brutal beatings and a careless torture of the General, and the Governor, Colonel Fajuyi, supervised by T.Y. Danjuma, and Ironsi’s ADC, William Walbe. They did not stop there: bruised and much bloodied, these two men were later bound hand and feet, as legends would have it, and tied to a military truck driven by Jeremiah Useni, through the streets of Ibadan, and taken to that quiet spot on Iwo road, where they were murdered and buried in mean and shallow graves.

Fajuyi was by then, nearly dead in any case, far too brutalized to endure any further humiliation. But Ironsi stood tall to the very end – the image of a great elephant enduring the beatings that accompanied him finally to the dug-spot. Accounts of Ironsi’s stolid, dignified and courageous handling of his brutal end come to us by a number of eye witnesses. He was travelling with then Colonel Hillary Njoku, Commander of the Lagos Garrison, in his entourage. They were upstairs in the Governor’s lodge when they sensed the change in the air, by the rustle of the mainly Northern troop that had been arranged for his guard detail.

As soon as they noticed the mutiny afoot on the grounds of the Governor’s lodge in Ibadan, they quickly knew that they had only one shot at getting out there alive. Ironsi ordered Hillary Njoku to find his way out of the grounds and make contacts with his headquarters in Lagos to send some reinforcement. Meanwhile, he got through to Yakubu Gowon on the phone which were still working, to send a Helicopter for him.

The Helicopter did not come. Gowon, Ironsi’s Chief of Staff, was busy issuing different orders to Danjuma in Ibadan, and apparently to Murtala Muhammed and Martin Adamu in Lagos, the arrowheads of that July mutiny. Neither did any reinforcement come. Just as he was attempting to sneak out of the Governor’s lodge, the mutineers saw Colonel Hillary Njoku, and fired shots at him. He escaped by scaling the fence of the Government House, but was so seriously injured he had to find his way to the University College Hospital, where he was treated.

Northern soldiers pursued him to the hospital and ransacked the hospital, but Hillary Njoku had been hidden by the Igbo nurses on duty that day, and under the supervision of Dr. Eruchalu, was smuggled through the Igbo underground of Mokola, and smuggled to safety in the East. Ironsi’s fate was essentially sealed. His government fell, and he was killed and left to suppurate in a shallow grave for weeks.

It was a fate ordained for him by the rapid turn of events between 1965, when he was appointed the General Officer and Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces, after the expiry of the office of the British G.O.C, Major-General Welby-Evarard, and 1966, when a group of young officers, led by Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, overthrew the civil government of the first republic, and murdered key political and military figures especially of the North and West in January 15, 1966.

The lone Igbo casualty of that January coup, Colonel Arthur Chinyere Unegbe, the Nnewi-born Adjutant-General of the Army, is often forgotten in the grand narratives of that coup, because he does not fit the narrative of “an Igbo coup,” the grounds on which Ironsi was killed in what history has come to record as a “retaliation coup” by Northern officers of the Nigerian Army, whose aims were clearly revanchist rather than nationalist. The character of that coup continues to direct the character, political climate, and trajectory of Nigeria as a nation, even in this second decade of the 21st century. Ironsi was the grand bull offered to Moloch.

When soldiers under his command sacked the first republic, Ironsi rallied the troops and ended the coup. But the acting President of the Federal Republic, Nwafor-Orizu, after consultation with the Council of Ministers ceded emergency power to Ironsi to defeat the mutiny, restore law and order, and then begin a transition back to a national civil government.

Ironsi was in the midst of fulfilling this legal mandate when he was assassinated by discontented officers of the North, who feared that he was fulfilling an Igbo ethnic agenda to “dominate Nigeria” totally. They suspected and distrusted the administrative changes he was intent on making to unify a broken nation. They held him responsible for the “Igbo coup” of January 15th. They accused his government of hedging on trying the coup-plotters. They accused him of surrounding himself with Igbo officials, and above all, feared that a second wave of the “Igbo coup” was in the offing, aiming to wipe out the rest of the Northern officers. As it turned out, all these were false.

But was there anything Ironsi could have done differently? Ironsi could certainly have chosen to be brutal and pitiless, but he chose toleration, civility, and openness. Ironsi’s has remained the most civil military administration in Nigeria. He brushed aside rumours of coup plots against him, and plans for open revolts in the North. In one famous case, when Alex Madiebo brought credible intelligence from the North about the plots against Ironsi, the General brought his chief of staff Gowon, Kam Salem, the Inspector General of police, and MD Yusuf, the Chief of the Police Special Branch, all Northerners, and Major Mobolaji Johnson, the Administrator of Lagos, and asked Madiebo to repeat his story about a plot to overthrow him, which they naturally, promptly denied, following which Ironsi dressed down Madiebo for “rumour-mongering.”

Ironsi trusted the North. He dismissed any notion of a “Northern plot” against him. He grew up in the North. He spoke Champagne Hausa. He went to school in the North; he had many influential friends in the North, among them the princes of Sokoto; he loved the equestrian culture of the north, and he surrounded himself with Northern officers.

Ironsi was the typical “cosmopolitan Igbo.” By all accounts also, Ironsi seemed to have reconciled with his “Chi” and accepted his fate in the end, and hoped his death would be a deep personal sacrifice, which would assuage the rage of the North, and reconcile Nigeria. This at least was what he told one of his oldest friends, the now equally late Dr. J.O.J. Okezie, who later became Nigeria’s minister of Health after the civil war. He seemed reconciled with the inevitability of his own fatality, except that he did not quite realize the dimensions it would take. Ironsi’s death was doubtlessly one of the remote factors that led to the Nigerian civil war. His somber burial in the East reflect the quiet and seething rage by which he was mourned (here is a video link to that event: )

Account of Ironsi’s life has been finely documented in Chuks Iloegbunam’s biography of the General, Ironside, published by Press Alliance in 1999, and should be bedside reading for any literate Nigerian and on the reading list of any decent departments of Political Science, History, and Literature in Nigerian Universities.

But this is sadly not the case because of the revisionist, anti-intellectual, and limited mission of Nigeria’s public education, particularly at the tertiary level. In any case, my point is that Mr. Iloegbunam has documented Ironsi’s life so well that I could hardly say more. General Ironsi was a man of great historical accomplishments, whose standing in Nigerian history in which he recorded many firsts – first Nigerian Commander of an International Military force; first Nigerian General of the Legion, First Nigerian General Officer and Supreme Commander of the Army, and first Nigerian Military Head of state – stands so tall that every other who came after him pales beside him.

Read more at:

Leave a comment