July 29, A Significant Date In Nigeria’s History: Aguiyi Ironsi Honoured

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July 29 is an unforgettable date in Nigeria’s history. It was a date the country witnessed the overthrow of two military regimes , one of which led to the murder of Maj. Gen. Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi- Ironsi  in 1966 and the second in 1975. 

It is reflection time today as Nigeria marks the 50th anniversary of the July 29, 1966 coup that toppled the regime of the late Maj. Gen. Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi- Ironsi, and 42nd anniversary of the overthrow of his successor, General Yakubu Gowon, on July 29, 1975.

The 1966 military putsch, which was dubbed counter-coup to Nigeria’s first coup of January 15, 1966, claimed the lives of Ironsi and the then military Governor of Western Region, the late Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi, among several others. Ironsi was only six months in power.


Maj. Gen. Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi- Ironsi, and General Yakubu Gowon


Conversely, the one that deposed Gowon after being in power for nine years was bloodless. Ironsi seized power in the ensuing chaos following the January coup and was in Ibadan as part of his reconciliation tour after the first coup, which saw the killing of mostly prominent Northern politicians and army officers, when he and Fajuyi were arrested and murdered by a group of mutinous soldiers of Northern extraction.

Both Ironsi and Fajuyi fought in the United Nations operations in the Congo. Ironsi was the target of the coup plotters, but Fajuyi died protecting him. There are several accounts of the July 1966 coup, but there is no doubt that it was staged to vent anger in the aftermath of the January 15 coup.

Three officers formed the innermost circle of the plot. They were Lt. Col. Murtala Muhammed (Inspector of Signals), Captain Theophilus Danjuma (General Staff Officer II, SHQ) and Captain Martin Adamu (2nd Battalion, Ikeja). The coup leader was Lt. Col. Muhammed. Before then, some young Northern military officers had seized the opportunity of the Platoon Commanders Course at the Nigeria Military Training College (NMTC) to come together to share ideas and vent their frustration over the first coup.

These officers included Lts. Abdullahi Shelleng, Muhammadu Jega, Sani Abacha, and Bukar Dimka. They were said to have held secret meetings and even wrote a letter of protest to the Chief of Staff, Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon, openly stating that if senior Northern officers did not take action within a certain time frame, they would, and that senior Northern officers would have themselves to blame for the catastrophe.

Active planning for the coup began after the promulgation of the Unification Decree on May 24, 1966. This was after the Supreme Military Council (SMC) had ratified it.

The provisions involved the abolition of the regions and their conversion into groups of provinces, although with the same boundaries, governors and administrations. As a result, Nigeria would cease to be a federation but would become the Republic of Nigeria. The decree was apparently because Ironsi inherited a Nigeria, deeply fractured by its ethnic and religious cleavages.

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The fact that only one of the high-profile victims of the January 1966 coup was of Igbo extraction, led the northern part of the country to believe that it was an Igbo conspiracy. Though Ironsi tried to dispel this notion by courting the aggrieved ethnic groups through political appointments and patronage, his failure to punish the coup plotters and the promulgation of the unification decree, which abrogated the country’s federal structure in exchange for a unitary one – crystallized this conspiracy theory. The climax of the suspicion was July 29, 1966.

While at the Government House, Ibadan, as part of a nationwide tour, his host, Fajuyi, alerted him to a possible mutiny within the army. Ironsi desperately tried to contact his Army Chief of Staff, Gowon, but he was unreachable.

In the early hours of the morning, the Government House, Ibadan, was surrounded by soldiers led by Danjuma. Danjuma arrested Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the January coup, which saw the demise of the Sardauna of Sokoto and Ahmadu Bello. He was later killed alongside Fajuyi in a forest outside of Ibadan.

The coup plotters named Gowon, then a lieutenant colonel and who apparently   had not been actively involved in events until that point, the Head of State. On ascent to power, Gowon reversed Ironsi’s abrogation of the federal principle. In 1993, General Ibrahim Babangida, a participant in the July 1966 revolt, named an Army Barracks after Ironsi and posthumously awarded him the country’s highest honour – Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR). A street in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory was also named after him.

For Fajuyi, some streets in Lagos (Ikeja) and Ibadan were named after him. There is a square – Fajuyi Square – in his honour in his home state, Ekiti. On 29 July 1975, that General Gowon was ousted, he was attending an Organisation of African Unity (OAU), now African Union (AU) summit in Kampala, Uganda, when a group of officers led by Colonel Joe Garba announced his overthrow.

The coup plotters appointed Brigadier Murtala Muhammed as head of the new government, and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo as his deputy. Architects of the coup were field grade officers of the ranks of Lt. Col. and Colonels. Other than Brigadier Murtala Mohammed, who was prospectively identified and kept in the picture to minimize last minute arguments about leadership, no other brigadiers were directly involved.

They include Colonels Garba, Anthony Ochefu, Alfred Aduloju, Ibrahim Taiwo, Abdullahi Mohammed, Lt. Colonels Ibrahim Babangida and Shehu Musa Yar’adua. The plot started after Gowon reneged severally on his promise to relinquish power. He had declared on October 1, 1974 that Nigeria would not be ready for civilian rule by 1976. He also announced that the handover date would be postponed indefinitely.

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The man Ironsi

Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi- Ironsi was born to Mazi Ezeugo Aguiyi on March 3, 1924, in Ibeku, Umuahia present-day Abia State. He moved in with his elder sister, Anyamma, who was married to Theophilius Johnson, a Sierra Leonean diplomat in Umuahia, when he was eight years old. Ironsi subsequently took the last name of his brotherin- law, who became his father figure.

At the age of 18, he joined the Nigerian Army on February 2, 1942 against the wishes of his sister. He 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 Second Lieutenant on June 12, 1949.

He soon returned to Nigeria to serve as the Aide-De-Camp to John Macpherson, Governor General of Nigeria. He was assigned as Equerry to Queen Elizabeth 11 during her visit to Nigeria in 1956, an assignment for which he was sent to Buckingham Palace to train. During the Congo crisis of the 1960s, Ironsi, then lieutenant Colonel, led the 5th Battalion to the Kivu and Leopoldville provinces.

His unit proved integral to the peacekeeping effort, and he was appointed the Force Commander of the United Nations Operation. In 1960, he led the Nigerian contingent in Congo. There, he single-handedly negotiated the release of Austrian medical personnel and Nigerian troops, when they were ambushed by Katangese rebels.

For this, he was awarded the 1st Class Ritter- Kreuz Award. This and many other exploits earned him the name “Johnny Ironside”, a corruption of his name “Ironsi” with reference to various British military historical parallels. Ironsi returned from Congo in 1964 during the post-independence “Nigerianization” of the country’s institutions of government.

It was decided that the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army, Maj. General Welby- Everard, would step down to allow the government to appoint an indigenous GOC. Ironsi led the pack of candidates qualified for the coveted position.

A consensus was reached by the ruling Northern Peoples Congress (NPC) and National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) coalition government, and Ironsi became the first indigenous GOC of the Nigerian Army on February 9, 1965.

The man Gowon

Born on October 19, 1934, General Yakubu Chinwa Gowon is an Angas from Lur, a small village in the present Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State. He was Nigerian military leader between 1966 and 1975.

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He was educated in Zaria and joined the Nigerian Army in 1954, receiving a commission as a Second Lieutenant on October 19, 1955, his 21st birthday. He also attended both the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, UK (1955–56), Staff College, Camberley, UK (1962) as well as the Joint Staff College, Latimer, 1965.

Like Ironsi, he saw action in the Congo as part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force, both in 1960–61 and in 1963. He advanced to battalion commander rank by 1966, at which time he was still a lieutenant colonel.

After the coup of January 1966, he was appointed Chief of Staff by Ironsi, thereby becoming Nigeria’s youngest military Chief of Staff at the age of 31. But Northern officers staged a counter-coup in July 1966, and Gowon emerged as the compromise head of the new government.

Gowon tried to resolve the ethnic tensions that threatened to fatally divide Nigeria. Although, he was eventually successful in ending attacks against the Igbo in the North, he was unable to effect a more lasting peace. In a final attempt to resolve the conflict, on May 27, 1967, he declared a state of emergency and divided Nigeria’s four regions into 12 states.

Three days later, the Eastern Region declared itself the independent state of Biafra with then Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu as its leader. Consequently, armed conflict began in July.

After the Federal Government’s victory in January 1970, a remarkable reconciliation took place between the two sides Gowon declared that there would be no victor and no vanquished. In this spirit, the years afterward were declared to be a period of rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation.

The oil-price boom, which began as a result of the high price of crude oil (the country’s major revenue earner) in the world market in 1973, increased the Federal Government’s ability to undertake these tasks

By the mid-1970s, Gowon was emerging as an international leader and was involved in the establishment of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

On July 29, 1975, however, while he was in Uganda for the Organisation of African Unity summit, the army removed him from office. Gowon was exiled to Britain.

He was stripped of his rank for allegedly participating in the assassination of his successor, General Muhammed, in 1976. He was pardoned by Shehu Shagari in 1981, and his rank was restored by General Ibrahim Babangida in 1987.

Having earned a Ph.D. at Warwick University in 1983, he became a professor of political science at the University of Jos in the mid-1980s.


FELIX NWANERI –  New Telegraph


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