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Aguiyi-Ironsi: Echoes of January 1966 coup


The after-effects of the January 1966 coup are still haunting Nigeria today, 50 years on. Among other things, it set in motion a set of events that plunged the country into the 30-month civil war, over three decades of military rule and a heightened sense of tribalism. Deputy Political Editor RAYMOND MORDI examines the role played by the late Head of State and one of the victims of the July 29, 1966 counter-coup, Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi.

This week marks 50 years of the death of Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, the senior military officer who seized power in the ensuing chaos that followed the January 15, 1966 military coup. Aguiyi-Ironsi was reputed to be a good soldier. He did not take part in the bloody January coup executed mostly by young, idealistic officers of Igbo extraction. By virtue of his seniority in the armed forces, he suppressed the coup. But, rather than hand power back to the civilian authorities, he assumed office as the new Head of State.

Aguiyi-Ironsi was accused of forcing the remaining members of Balewa’s Government to resign at gun point. He then made the Senate President, Nwafor Orizu, who was serving as Acting President in the absence of the substantive President, Nnamdi Azikiwe, to officially surrender power to him; thereby ending the First Republic.

The so-called revolution was staged to put an end to corruption and ethnic rivalry. But, it ended up worsening the situation. Northerners interpreted the coup as an Igbo-led conspiracy to subjugate the north and impose Igbo domination. With the benefit of hindsight, observers say it was not a good move that Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo man, emerged as the Head of State, after the coup. It was like sitting on a keg of gunpowder, because from the mood of the country, a northern counter-coup was inevitable.

That was what happened; six months later; on July 29, 1966 northern soldiers staged an even bloodier, counter-coup, against their Igbo colleagues. The counter-coup claimed Aguiyi-Ironsi’s life and that of his courageous host, Lt-Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi. The late Head of State had arrived Ibadan on July 28, 1966 to address a conference of Western Nigeria traditional rulers. By dusk, he was through with the assignment and was prepared to head back to Lagos. But, his host urged him to spend the night with him and he obliged.

In the early hours of the morning, the Government House, Ibadan, was surrounded by soldiers led by Theophilus Danjuma. The circumstances leading to Aguiyi-Ironsi’s death still remain a subject of much controversy. But, suffice it to say that Aguiyi-Ironsi was arrested and questioned about his alleged complicity in the coup, which saw the demise of the Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa; Minister of Finance, Festus Okotie-Eboh; the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello; the Premier of Western Region, Samuel Ladoke Akintola; as well as top army officers and some civilians.

According to reports, Fajuyi did not treasure his personal safety over that of his Commander-in-Chief and intimate friend. Both were physically battered by the coup plotters on their way to the serene, sleepy and desolate area at the outskirts of Ibadan, where they were killed. For their families, it was deep, but subdued mourning, because the new military authorities would not readily admit that the two fallen heroes had died in the coup. It took seven months before an official announcement confirmed what had been widely known: that Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi were dead!

After the counter-coup, some of the officers involved in the January coup were subjected to grisly treatment by northern soldiers. For instance, in August 1966, they raided the Benin prison and released the northern troops who were detained there for their part in the Chukwuma Nzeogwu-led coup. Igbo officers also detained with them for the same offence were not spared. Five of them, including Majors Chris Anuforo and Don Okafor, were tortured to death.  According to reports, Anuforo was shot dead, while Okafor was buried alive.

The man Aguiyi-Ironsi

Aguiyi-Ironsi was born to Mazi Ezeugo Aguiyi on March 3, 1924, in Umuahia-Ibeku, present-day Abia State. When he was eight years old, he moved in with his elder sister, Anyamma, who was married to Theophilius Johnson, a Sierra Leonean diplomat in Umuahia. Aguiyi-Ironsi subsequently took the last name of his brother-in-law, who became his father figure. At the age of 18, he joined the Nigerian Army against the wishes of his sister.

Aguiyi-Ironsi enlisted in the Nigerian Army on February 2, 1942 and was admitted to and excelled in military training at Eaton Hall, England and also attended Royal Army Ordnance Corps before he was later commissioned as an infantry officer with the rank of Lieutenant on June 12, 1949. He soon returned to Nigeria to serve as the aide-de-camp to John Macpherson, Governor-General of Nigeria, and he was assigned as equerry to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Nigeria in 1956, for which assignment he was sent to Buckingham Palace to train.

During the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, the United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, appealed to the Nigerian government to send troops to Congo. Lieutenant Colonel Aguiyi-Ironsi led the 5th battalion to the Kivu and Leopoldville provinces of Congo. His unit proved integral to the peacekeeping effort, and he was soon appointed the Force Commander of the United Nations Operation in the Congo.

Aguiyi-Ironsi returned from Congo in 1964 during the post-independence “Nigerianisation” of the country’s institutions of government. It was decided that the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army, Major General Welby-Everard, would step down to allow the government to appoint an indigenous GOC. Aguiyi-Ironsi led the pack of candidates jostling for the coveted position. A consensus was reached by the ruling Northern People’s Congress (NPC) and National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) coalition government, and Aguiyi-Ironsi became General Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Army on February 9, 1965.

The deaths of hundreds of Igbo soldiers and that of the Head of State did not mollify some northern soldiers. In the early stages of the counter-coup, Igbo soldiers were killed if they were suspected of complicity in, or supporting the coup of the “Five Majors” in January 1966. Later on, simply being Igbo became reason enough to be killed. As the new Head of State, Yakubu Gowon, struggled to stabilise himself in power, random murders of soldiers of Eastern Region origin continued to occur. Senior northern officers could no longer control the violence they had unleashed; junior officers simply went on rampage, while their superiors looked the other way.

194 days in office

As Head of State, Aguiyi-Ironsi inherited a country deeply fractured by its ethnic and religious cleavages. The fact that none of the high-profile victims of the January 1966 coup were of Igbo extraction, and also that the main beneficiaries of the coup were Igbo, led the Northern part of the country to believe that it was an Igbo conspiracy. Though he tried to dispel this notion, by courting the aggrieved ethnic groups through political appointments and patronage, his failure to punish the coup plotters crystallised this conspiracy theory.

In the wake of the January 15 coup d’état, there were tensions within the military. Quite apart from the shenanigan that led to the “civilian hand over”, the fundamental crisis of confidence within the military was borne out of the failure to try those behind the coup according to the dictates of military law. The Head of State reportedly became hostage not only to radical opinion in the media in the South that hailed the coup plotters as heroes, but also to the curious five-point agreement he had negotiated with Nzeogwu in Kaduna back on January 17.

According to reports, the coup was investigated by the police and the report was ready by March. But, the panel was set up to review the report and come up with formal charges went to sleep; it never sat. Major Adewale Ademoyega corroborates the above in his book, Why We Struck, stating that each time the matter was brought up for discussion at the Supreme Military Council (SMC), that Colonel Fajuyi, the Governor of the West, was opposed to any trial.

Meanwhile, there were allegations that the mutineers were being treated specially in prison. Thus, the failure to bring the mutineers and murderers to book gave a platform for the numerous military coups of the following years. It established the notion that a “successful” coup plotter would never be called to account for his actions. Nigeria paid the price for this in subsequent years, with coups becoming the fashionable way to change a government.

Owing to increasing tensions in the land, former leading politicians in the Western and Eastern regions were detained on March 7, but those of the Northern region were left alone, because of political sensitivities resulting from the coup. Indeed, Aguiyi-Ironsi made an effort — ultimately insufficient — to pacify the North. He had appointed and promoted the son of the Emir of Katsina as the new military governor, released NPC ministers who were detained by Nzeogwu in Kaduna, reappointed Sule Katagum to the Public Service Commission and placed Malam Howeidy in charge of the defunct Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN).

In May, among other promotions, he promoted three substantive northern Captains (Ibrahim Haruna of Ordnance, Murtala Muhammed of Signals and Mohammed Shuwa of Infantry) who were then acting Majors to the ranks of temporary Lt. Cols. But, he fell short on more culturally sensitive matters. For example, the military governor of the Northern Region, Major Hassan Katsina, was discouraged from attending the funeral of the late Prime Minister in Bauchi.

Federal structure abrogated

In a nationwide on May 24, he promulgated Decree 34, which turned the country into a unitary state. Decree The decree divided Nigeria into 35 provinces and made all civil servants part of a unified civil service. Three days after, students and civil servants took to the streets, to protest against this development. The regime was shaken by the riots; one of the precursors of the July 29 counter coup.

Fifty years after, the after-effects of the January 1966 coup and the counter-coup in July are still haunting Nigeria. The succession of military regimes that followed was inevitably led by northern soldiers that carried out the 1966 counter-coup. The military ruled the country for 29 of the next 33 years, until the restoration of democracy in 1999.

The civil war was spurred by the killing of about 30,000 Igbos by Northern mobs in revenge of the killings of the notable figures from the region murdered during the January coup. As a result, Igbos fled south. In 1967, they attempted to secede from Nigeria. Although the army successfully suppressed the rebellion, bitterness remains 50 years after. Observers say the current agitation for Biafra has its roots in the unaddressed grievances from 1966.


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About the author

Sydney Chesterfield

Poet, Playwright, Philosopher, Humanitarian, mad lover of children and unflinching fighter for equality on all grounds viz. Women's rights, child rights, sine die.

Twitter: @syd_field