Aguiyi-Ironsi: The murder that birthed Nigeria’s northern hegemony

By Akin Irede

Posted on Thursday, 17 March 2022 16:39
First military Head of State, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi

It’s 6am on 25 July 1966. Soldiers of northern extraction have surrounded Government House, Ibadan, where the Supreme Commander and Head of State, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, spent the night at the invitation of his host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the military governor of the Western Region.

Aguiyi-Ironsi, nicknamed Johnny Ironside, was visiting Ibadan as part of a peace tour and was accompanied on the trip by his 12-year-old son, Thomas, who had arrived from London for holiday, just days before.

Hours earlier, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi had been informed of a mutiny wherein senior Igbo officers were killed in Abeokuta some 118km away and the insurrectionists had been on their way to Ibadan. He makes several frantic calls to his chief of staff, Yakubu Gowon, but there is no response as he is also believed to be part of the coup plotters.

David Ejoor, Aguiyi Ironsi and Oba Akenzua during Ironsi’s state visit to Benin City before he left for Ibadan where he would be murdered a few hours later. (Photo: Eni Ehikhamenor, circa July 28th 1966)

By 6am, the executioners arrive. Fajuyi, sensing something is amiss, makes his way out of the main building into the compound where he sees his aides sitting on the floor barefooted. “Sir, you are under arrest,” says 27-year-old Major Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma. A startled Fajuyi, recognising that this young officer was part of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s entourage, says: “Are you talking to me?”

“Yes,” a defiant Danjuma says, further revealing his plan to arrest the head of state who is inside the building, unaware of the mutiny taking place outside. “Let me inform the head of state,” Fajuyi tells Danjuma, but minutes later, nothing is heard from him. Inside the house, Aguiyi-Ironsi who is now aware of the mutiny, bids goodbye to his young son, saying: “Do not take revenge.” He then shuts the guest room door.

You have been fooling us. I ran around risking my neck trying to calm the ranks and in February you told us that they would be tried.

Danjuma, who is growing impatient outside, leads four soldiers into the main building, but quickly picks up a hand grenade, removes the pin and suppresses it with his thumb, ready to blow everything up in case things go awry. He finally finds Aguiyi-Ironsi and informs him of his arrest. The flabbergasted head of state asks what the matter is and Danjuma fumes.

He says: “The matter is you, sir. You told us in January, when we supported you to quell the mutiny, that all the dissident elements that took part in the mutiny will be court-martialled. It is July now. You have done ‘nothing’. You kept these boys in prison and the rumours are now that they will be released because they are national heroes.” Aguiyi-Ironsi however denies the allegation saying: “It is not true.”

Danjuma says: “You organised the killing of our brother (northern) officers in January and you have done nothing to bring the so-called dissident elements to justice because you were part and parcel of the whole thing… You have been fooling us. I ran around risking my neck trying to calm the ranks and in February you told us that they would be tried. This is July and nothing has been done. You will answer for your actions.” He escorts him out of the main building, promising that no harm will come to Aguiyi-Ironsi.

Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (photo twitter: @HistoryVille)

Nevertheless, things get out of hand as trigger-happy northern soldiers tie up Aguiyi-Ironsi’s hands behind his back with a telephone cord, drag him to the floor and begin trampling on him with their jungle boots, severely beating him until he is soaked in blood.

Both Fajuyi and Aguiyi-Ironsi are driven away in a vehicle never to be seen alive again. Days later, their corpses are recovered from a shallow pit with evidence showing that they had been stripped and severely tortured before being shot. For the next four days, Nigeria has no head of state, plunging Africa’s most populous nation into crisis and an inevitable civil war months later.

The January slaughter

Why would soldiers who ought to be the epitome of discipline be so barbaric and defiant as to kill their own head of state and supreme commander? Less than seven months prior, on 15 January 1966, a band of mutinous majors who tagged themselves as revolutionaries perpetuated the largest political killing spree in Nigeria. The majors, who were all of Igbo ethnic extraction – except one who was Yoruba – accused Nigeria’s top political hierarchy of grand corruption. The plan was to kill all the top politicians and the most senior army officers who were loyal to the ‘corrupt political class’.

The coup was masterminded by two key figures: Major Emmanuel Ifeajuna, who about a decade earlier had brought glory to Nigeria by winning the country’s first gold medal in high jump in the Commonwealth games in Canada, and Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, a military intelligence officer and chief instructor at the country’s military academy.

Notable politicians who were killed include Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa (prime minister); Samuel Ladoke Akintola (premier of the Western Region); Sir Ahmadu Bello (the influential Sardauna of Sokoto and northern premier) and his wife; as well as Festus Okotie-Eboh (the wealthy minister of finance).

The senior military officers who were killed are Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun (the Commander 1st Brigade) and his pregnant wife; Colonel Ralph Shodeinde; Colonel Kur Mohammed; Lt-Colonel Abogo Largema; Lt-Colonel Yakubu Pam and Lt-Colonel Arthur Unegbe (the Quarter-Master General and the only senior Igbo officer to be killed by the coup plotters).

Ironsi told us that ‘you either hand over as gentlemen or you hand-over by force’. Those were his words. Is that voluntary hand-over?

Arguably, the biggest casualty on the military side was Brigadier Zakaria Maimalari, who was the Commander of the 2nd Brigade and the most senior northern military officer. He had been primed to head the military due to his status as the first Regular Officer of the Nigerian Army and had been trained at Sandhurst, the prestigious Royal Military Academy.

On the night of the coup, all senior officers had converged at Maimalari’s home located at 2 Thompson Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, where he was celebrating his wedding party. The officer in charge of drinks at the party was Major Ifeajuna, the chief plotter of the coup who would kill Maimalari four hours later after he ran to him for help while fleeing from gun toting mutineers.

The aftermath

On getting wind of the coup, Aguiyi-Ironsi was able to rally loyal troops to quell the rebellion. However, the north was still under the firm grip of the putschists. Aguiyi-Ironsi then met with the federal cabinet and told them that his men had pressured him to take over the government as head of state so that he could effectively quell the uprising in other parts of the country. Different ministers who were present have painted a completely different picture of what transpired at that meeting.

While Shehu Shagari (who later became president) says Aguiyi-Ironsi “shed some tears” and informed them that he had no choice but to heed to the demand of the army to take over the government, another minister, Richard Akinjide, painted a picture of a hostile takeover, saying: “Ironsi told us that ‘you either hand over as gentlemen or you hand-over by force’. Those were his words. Is that voluntary hand-over? So we did not hand-over. We wanted an acting prime minister to be in place but Ironsi forced us, and I use the word force advisedly, to hand over (power) to him. He was controlling the soldiers.” With full federal might, Aguiyi-Ironsi was able to arrest all those who took part in the coup.

Suspicions grow

The fact that Aguiyi-Ironsi, the head of the army, was not killed in the coup began to raise suspicions about the intention of the coup plotters who were mostly Igbo, just like Aguiyi-Ironsi. Even more shocking is that while the political leaders were killed, the Igbo premier in the east, Michael Okpara, was not assassinated.

The top five most senior northern officers were all killed in the coup. It would then seem that the north was the biggest loser in the coup, while the Igbo were the biggest beneficiaries. It also didn’t help matters that the bloodletting took place during Ramadan, the holy Islamic month cherished by the predominantly Muslim North. President Nnamdi Azikiwe (who had a ceremonial role at the time), was out of the country on medical leave when the coup took place.

Nowadays, when people are slow, they say it is a virtue but at that time, they didn’t want things to be slow. He was taking his time.

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s refusal to prosecute and execute the coup plotters also evoked suspicion. Even after the coup had been quelled, Nzeogwu, who led the killings in the north, boasted in a televised interview that his relationship with Aguiyi-Ironsi remained cordial. The putschists were paid full salaries while in detention.

In an interview on Arise Television in 2019, Aguiyi-Ironsi’s oldest son, Thomas, who saw his father being taken away by the mutineers in 1966, relived the events of that fateful day. Thomas, who decades later was appointed as the country’s minister of defence, said his father was killed for being too slow.

Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (photo twitter: @HistoryVille)

“There was a lot of distrust that this was an Igbo agenda and the northerners insisted that he consult with them… The Sultan of Sokoto came down to see him (Aguiyi-Ironsi) and they said you must consult with us. He failed to do that initially and by the time I came down on holiday, he was in the process of trying to make up for that. They needed assurances as to what programmes he was going to do, what he was going to do with the soldiers that were locked up, who carried out the coup.

“He was too slow. Nowadays, when people are slow, they say it is a virtue but at that time, they didn’t want things to be slow. He was taking his time,” said Thomas.

There were also complaints by families of the slain officers that Aguiyi-Ironsi’s regime abandoned them. Before long, many began to suspect that he was part of the coup having been its biggest beneficiary and failed to take proper action. “We don’t know why General Ironsi did not deem it fit to accord his officers the respect and dignity they deserved,” said Kaneng Daze, the oldest daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Pam, who was killed in the coup.

The beginning of the end

The last straw that broke the camel’s back was the unification decree (Decree 34), which abolished the existing federal system of government and replaced it with a unitary system of groups of provinces in May 1966, weakening the federating units and strengthening the central government.

Aguiyi-Ironsi also unified the regional civil service structures into one, thereby bringing an end to the ‘northernisation policy’ of Ahmadu Bello, which sought to ensure that northerners were given priority employment in their region. Competence would now determine one’s suitability for jobs and this favoured the southerners, who were generally more educated than the northerners.

The policy was quickly rejected by the northern elite who sponsored protests that would lead to killings of thousands of Igbo living in the north.

The northern officers used the waning popularity of Aguiyi-Ironsi to strike, killing no fewer than 200 Igbo soldiers. This culminated into the revenge coup of 29 July 1966 that led to the death of 42-year-old Aguiyi-Ironsi, effectively returning political power to the north. Aguiyi-Ironsi left behind two aged parents, a wife and eight children, the oldest aged 12 at the time.

Ironsi’s preparedness for the job of head of state and supreme commander of the Armed Forces of Nigeria was clearly evident from the way he handled a delicate and complex situation.

“The July 29, 1966 coup was a reaction to inaction against an illegal action. Right from the beginning, Ironsi had labelled Nzeogwu and others as rebels. The next thing was for him to discipline them. If this was not done, then he was condoning treason,” said Maman Vatsa, one of the officers who took part in the coup, and who would later be executed for an attempted coup.

Several world figures, including Queen Elizabeth of England, President Lyndon Johnson of the United States and Britain’s Prime Minister Harold Wilson, all sent condolence messages, but there were no stern words of condemnation over the bloody counter-coup.

Burial of Major General Aguiyi Ironsi, on 24 January 1967 (photo from twitter @NigeriaStories)

Ironsi’s legacy

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s murder would usher in a new order of northern hegemony, which has continued to date. Some of the masterminds of the coup have continued to rule Nigeria by proxy – either politically or economically. Danjuma, who played a pivotal role in the assassination, was named as one of the richest men in Nigeria by Bloomberg, with an estimated net worth of $1.2bn.

Other northern military officers who were implicated in the counter-coup include Yakubu Gowon (later head of state); Murtala Muhammed (later head of state); Muhammadu Buhari (current President of Nigeria); Ibrahim Babangida (later head of state); and Sani Abacha, who ruled Nigeria with an iron fist from 1993 to 1998. Several others would later hold key ministerial and administrative positions.

Aguiyi-Ironsi has remained the shortest serving leader in Nigeria, having ruled for less than seven months. Despite his status as Nigeria’s first military leader, he has no national monument named after him, except for a military barracks. He also does not appear on any of the country’s currencies, but his legacy remains unquestionable as he was the first captain, first major, first lieutenant colonel, first brigadier, first military attaché to a Nigerian diplomatic mission – as General Emeka Ojukwu pointed out in his eulogy of the slain head of state.

Although his alleged complicity in the first coup was never established, historians agree that he was naïve probably because he was not cut out for politics. For some, he was simply a scapegoat. “Ironsi’s preparedness for the job of head of state and supreme commander of the Armed Forces of Nigeria was clearly evident from the way he handled a delicate and complex situation,” says Alaba Ogunsanwo, a former ambassador and professor of international relations.

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