Saturday, July 29, 2017



By Apollos O Nwauwa
Professor of History
Bowling Green State University, Ohio, USA

"My fellow countrymen, the Supreme Commander is dead." This was an excerpt of the announcement by Col Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Governor of Eastern Region, after the discovery in a shallow grave near Ibadan the decomposed body of Major-General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first Nigerian military Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, six months after his gruesome assassination with his host, Col Adekunle Fajuyi, the then military governor of Western Region. Today, July 29, marks the 51st anniversary of Gen Ironsi's overthrow and murder on July 29, 1966 by a mutinous segment of the Nigerian army, mostly of northern extraction led by Major T.Y. Danjuma, in what was described as a countercoup.

Since his death, Nigeria and Nigerians have been quite remiss and unfair to Gen Ironsi in spite of his noteworthy contributions to nation-building. For a man who gave his life to save Nigeria from anarchy, this utter disregard and ingratitude remains unfathomable. Love him or hate him, Gen Ironsi was an unwavering patriot and nationalist who loved Nigeria more than himself. His Army ADC, Sanni Bello, attested to the fact that at the time the coup started, Ironsi could have escaped if not that he wanted to make sure that there was no anarchy and bloodshed. Endangering his own life, Ironsi was reported to have said, "if he sacrificed his life and prevented bloodshed in Nigeria, it's better for him. Even his chaplain urged him to escape but he said No." Noteworthy is that Ironsi neither planned nor executed a coup against the legitimate government of Nigeria. The January 15 coupists did not implicate him. Rather, as the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian army, a disorderly country was thrust upon him. With little to no preparation for this enormous political role, Iron rose to the occasion.

Yet, Nigerian elites and intelligentsia are fixated on Ironsi's Decree No.34 of May 24th of 1966 promulgated to unify and hold the country together in a time of grave national crisis. His detractors have bought into the lop-sided narrative that this decree was the main reason for Ironsi's assassination and overthrow. Of course, they are not oblivious to the fact that given the prevailing ethnic tension in the country at the time, not even a saint would have been acceptable to the vengeful North as long as the person was Igbo. Despite that it was the Supreme Military Council (SMC), which imposed Decree 34 and unitary government upon Nigeria, it made no difference to those who were determined to tie the idea of a unitary government exclusively to Gen Ironsi as evidence of his alleged mission for Igbo domination. Indeed, a section of the country and its army officers believed that Gen Ironsi was part of the January 15 coup regardless of the fact that it was Ironsi who foiled the coup and forced the coupists to surrender. Such trumped up accusations and eventual murder of Ironsi was hardly surprising within the context of the political climate in Nigeria in 1966 when almost all anti-Igbo charges were 'believable.' In that sense, no matter what, Gen Ironsi was doomed!

For a Head of State accused of promoting Igbo hegemony, the composition of his Supreme Military Council (SMC) is quite instructive. Out of the nine-man members of the SMC, only one other Igbo (apart from Ironsi), Colonel Ojukwu, was a member by virtue of being the Governor of Eastern Region. The rest were drawn from other parts of the country including Brig. Ogundipe; Lt Col Gowon, Lt Col Fajuyi; Lt Col Katsina; Lt Col Ejoor; and Lt Col Kurubo; Mr. Joseph Wey. Even Ironsi's personal Aid-de-Camp (ADC), Major Sani Bello, was from the north. Yet, he was accused of promoting Igbo agenda and domination. Scholars are yet to pay much attention to this patriot and national leader who remain so misunderstood and maligned even in death.

Ironsi was the first Nigerian Military Head of State to be assassinated in a coup; the second was Maj.Gen Murtala Mohammed. Just look around you – there are several national monuments, national buildings, and federal highways named after Murtala Mohammed in commemoration of his sacrifice to Nigeria. Murtala's rule was as short of Ironsi's but each came at a different phase of Nigerian history. While Ironsi came to power at a time of national crisis when anarchy loomed, Mohammed came at time when the country was fairly stable under Gowon. Paradoxically, there are hardly any national memorial for Ironsi, no major national monument named after him, and Nigerian scholars have even ignored him despite his leadership and legacy. Ironsi was the first Nigeria's Army Major; first army Staff College attendee; first to append "M.V.O, Psc" to his name; first Lieutenant Colonel, (and therefore first to command a battalion); first Brigadier, first Major-General; first indigenous GOC of the Nigerian Army and its Supreme Commander; first military Head of State and Supreme Leader of Nigeria; and the first Force Commander of the United Nations Peace-keeping Mission in the Congo (the first African or Black Commander of any United Nations Peace-keeping mission).

Despite his good intentions to forge national unity, Ironsi failed to generate enough public sympathy and forces to back his desire for a united country. What his detractors have consistently failed to appreciate is that Ironsi was murdered for his belief in a strong national unity that will trump ethnic politics. Ironically, while several parts of the country are today calling for a restructured country that allows for true federalism with devolution of power to regions, the North insists on concentration of power at the center, a form of unitary government for which Gen Ironsi was condemned and murdered in 1966. Thus, major cities in the North should erect monuments for Ironsi since the current Northern posture on centralization aligns with those of Ironsi and SMC.

Thus, no matter the prism with which one views Gen Ironsi, he remains more of a hero than a villain. As the nation's first military ruler, did Ironsi make mistakes while in office? Certainly. Did he score some positive points? Of course. Although he paid the ultimate sacrifice for Nigerian unity, he remains a mere footnote in the Nigerian leadership discourses. His contemporaries and professional colleagues who did less, are better memorialized. It is rather unfortunate that the country for which he died continues to be bedeviled by ethnic and religious bigotry, which coalesce to obliterate his legacies.

May the soul of the Supreme Commander and first GOC of the Nigerian Army, Maj Gen Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi continue to rest in peace!

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