The Sun News

Aguiyi Ironsi: The tragic comet of the July 29, 1966, coup

“If the Crusades were for Europe the dawn of a renaissance they were for our people the beginning of the dark ages. For the Egyptian people almost alone, carried the burden of the Crusaders which left them weak and impoverished ….to submit to the yoke of the Mongols, the hired slaves who became the masters of Egypt.”

See P. Mansfield, Nasser, Makers of the Modern World, London 1969

Ironsi appears to have ended up being the one Head of State who had the least number of friends or sympathy among current Historians. From the North, he is attacked for having had anti-north and pro-south policies, from the East, he is attacked for not protecting the East, his own people, and in the South he is attacked for aborting the revolution of January 1966, the plotters of the coup that inadvertently led to his assumption of power after the boys abortive coup. The boys roundly criticised him and wanted to kill him and the northern plotters of the coup that eventually removed him from power killed him and blamed him for complicity on the side of January 15 Revolution.

In that memorable dialogue with Major Danjuma before the ‘young man’ who was his equerry pulled off his Major General’s epaulets, Danjuma’s death sentence to his Commander-in-Chief was beyond the tradition.

Ironsi: “Young man.”

Danjuma: “Sir, you are under arrest.”

Ironsi: “What is the matter?”

Danjuma: “The matter is you, Sir… You kept these boys in prison and the rumours are now that they will be released because they are national heroes… You will answer for your actions.”

Elsewhere, in his classic documentation of the 1966 coup…. Nigeria 1966, The Turning Point, C. Ikeazor argued on page 147 that, in spite of the traditional effort to malign a deposed Head of State in order to add more justification for the coup, General Ironsi was more naïve than most in this regard.

The propaganda campaign against a deposed administration should be seen in the context of political necessity as perceived by the succeeding regime. It is not usually anything personal. General Gowon, Buhari and even Babangida, have all lived through that. Each one in turn when succeeded by another military regime has been castigated by the new regime.

Unlike them however, General Ironsi did not live to defend himself against the charges leveled against him. Why would he leave his security in the hands of people he was plotting against? Ironsi according to many other charges was naïve but not mentally unbalanced! Continuing, Ikeazor, queried the “furtherance of Igbo hegemony when Ironsi would have ensured Edet as his Police Inspector General, the Head of the Police Special Branch was Igbo, that his bodyguards were not Northerners ….and that the head of his Security Detail and Aide de Camp were all Igbos or Easterners. Rather, his Political, Police, Military and Security appointments were indicative of genuine personal commitment to unity.

In his own analysis of the Ironsi tragedy, General Philip Effiong, the last Commander-in-Chief of the Biafran Armed Forces, recalled that “the last telephone call from the beleaguered General came from Ibadan to his Kaduna Brigade headquarters by 0815 hrs, July 29, 1966. “Major Emelifonwu, the Brigade Major took the call and later informed me as I was not yet on seat. I put an urgent return call through and the Supremo asked to speak to Col. Duke Bassey and I told him Bassey was in Lagos…. then he asked me where the Governor, Lt. Col. Hassan was and I told him the latter had gone to play polo in Kano….”

“After my briefing and orders I asked Major Kyari what the northern troops wanted. He said to me and I quote ‘what the troops want is quite clear. If a section of the army can rise up and kill their colleague with impunity, it is obvious what the troops want. They want justice.’ So, I said to him, ‘Surely, you know that the government is publishing a White Paper on this very issue in order to clear the public’s mind for the necessary disciplinary action? The Chief of Staff, Army, who is a member of the Supreme Military Council is well aware of this move and should have briefed the Army accordingly.”

In his own command eye witness account, Brigadier General Hilary Mbilitem Njoku, Commander of the 2nd Brigade, Nigeria Army 1966, recalled that at the Ibadan Government House July 29, “the Supremo, the Governor were held captive in the servants’ quarters close to the chalet. The operation was led by Major Theophilus Danjuma. As the Commander of the Army, the Supremo was supposed to have chosen his immediate and closest staff officer from one of the staff branches of the Army Headquarters. As the Commander of the Army, the staff to accompany him on such a tour should have been a Grade One Staff officer if his Chief of Staff was unavoidably absent. In accordance with the Staff procedure, Lt. Col. Jack Gowon as the Chief of Staff was the right man not Major Danjuma, to accompany the Supremo on tour of the country. He was the only one supposed to advice the Supremo on military matters. Protocol wise, detailing a Grade two Staff Officer to represent the Army on a countrywide tour of the Head of State was a capital insult to the person and office of the Head of state.”

Brigadier Njoku, continuing in his chronicle, A Tragedy Without Heroes, observed like General Effiong, that Ironsi had reneged on his assurances to the Revolutionaries and had ordered Court-martial proceedings against the boys to be headed by the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon.

In his own tribute to the Supreme Commander, Effiong noted that “Ironsi’s execution was vital for the complete success of the counter coup. It would have been blatant folly to have made the same mistake that the first coup plotters made by underrating Ironsi and thereby sparing him. For one thing, he was the top most Igbo officer and for another, he was also the Head of State. Both Gowon and Danjuma could have appreciated this vital factor. Gowon had betrayed the trust Ironsi reposed in him when he appointed him Chief of Staff over Brigadier Ogundipe and above other officers. Again, when the time came, whatever feelings Gowon may have had as a person concerning the fate of Ironsi had to be discarded for the higher interest of his northern group.” See page 87, Effiong, Nigeria and Biafra, My Story.

Fifty years after, the underlining narrative of General Aguiyi Ironsi, the tragic Comet of the July 29 coup, lay in the fact that his was the first Nigerian Government to truly fight corruption set on personal examples. He never promoted himself while in office, never engaged in any contracts and is recorded as the first Nigerian Head of State that ended his tenure completely untainted and left office in a personal debt of N18,000!


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  1. Emmanuel Chukwuma Umeh 16th August 2017 at 5:18 am

    Tribalism, bigotry and nepotism, among others, is the main socio-political problem in NIGERIA, especially since 1960 independence till date!

  2. Olufemi Bello 16th August 2017 at 11:12 am

    Nigerians, if we juxtapose the VOLUME of CORRUPTION by all the military regimes from Gen. Ironsi to Abdulsallam and all civilian regimes from Balewa to date, which one is bigger ? I just ask. No bad feelings intended please.

  3. mazi offor joseph okereke 16th August 2017 at 11:34 am

    my reaction to this piece is nothing but ‘AND THEN?’ and then in the sense that since ironsi conspiratorial gruesome murder in ibadan, has nigeria known peace since then. even the perpetrators of that heinous tribal vendetta, from danjuma to gowon,how have they faired in their life journey after exterminating ironsi;s life on such a vengeful manner. gowon was trusted by irosi but he betrayed the trust and was paid by his northern brothers by making him head of state to prosecute the nigeria/ biafra war. what happened at last. was it not the same people who used him that later dumped him through military coup when he was away for oau meeting. they even went as far as involving him in another coup,{muritala} and was sentenced, declared personal non grata with all his military rank taken away from him. if not shehu shagari who out of benevolence, that restored his military rank and entitlement, he would have died in exile. he only came back to nigeria and used nigeria pray to make himself relevant in nigeria . that’s a typical saying that one who goes by the sword dies by the sword. ironsi did not do anything to warrant that treachery. the unitary system of government they accused him, what we practice today in nigeria in the name of federalism, is it not a glorified unitary system?. unless nigeria eschew tribalism, nepotism, religious bigotry, federal character at the expense of excellence, we will continue to millipede in our developmental speed with the deceit of calling our selves or country giant of africa.

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