By Emmanuel Aziken, Political Editor
Even though he was famed as Ironside on account of his sheer physical prowess and escapades, the cascade of events that overwhelmed Nigeria in the first seven months of 1966 was enough to devour the boldest of men. General JohnsonThomas Aguiyi Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military head of state was unprepared for the duties of statecraft thrust upon him by the events of January 15, 1966, when the political leadership of the country was removed.
There was also no indigenous experience of a military junta to draw lessons from. He had been a sort of pioneer, having been the country’s first Major General, the first indigenous Commander of the Nigerian Army, first Nigerian to command a United Nations Peace Force among many other caps earned locally and internationally.
Reaping from January 15 coup
Aguiyi Ironsi was thrown unto the national sphere by the events of January 15, 1966, which led to the overthrow of the country’s civilian government by a group of young officers styled as the Five Majors. By happenstance or coincidence, Aguiyi Ironsi, who was the GOC of the Army (Chief of Army Staff) escaped the bullet of the military usurpers. All but one of the five Army Majors, Major Wale Ademoyega, were all of Igbo ancestry. Even more remarkable was the fact that the tide of the killings during the January 15 failed coup was heavily tilted against the North.
Following the coup, Ironsi outsmarted the coup leader, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu, who was tricked into coming down to Lagos from his Kaduna base where he had taken almost total authority at the 1st Infantry Division headquartered in Kaduna.
The disappearance of the Prime Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa after the disturbances of January 15 had, meanwhile, left the federal cabinet in much confusion. An attempt by the members of the cabinet on January 16 to nominate Zanna Bukar Dipcharima, a northerner as acting prime minister did not receive the endorsement of the Acting President, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, a development that was to create room for further suspicion.
Orizu relinquish power to Ironsi
Meanwhile, Orizu against the grains of the constitution, handed over power to Aguiyi Ironsi allegedly voluntarily.
It was, however, to be further revealed by the likes of Alhaji Shehu Shagari that Ironsi stampeded the remnant of the Tafawa Balewa cabinet to handover to him.
Shagari, who was a member of the cabinet in his book: ‘’Beckoned to Serve,’’ disclosed that Ironsi had at the point of tears narrated how some of his best officers were killed by the coup plotters and how he was under pressure by soldiers to take over control.
“When we reminded Major-General Ironsi if he needed to avail himself of the British pledge of assistance, he replied it was too late as the army was pressing him to assume power. Indeed, he confessed his personal reluctance to take over because of his ignorance of government; but insisted the boys were adamant and anxiously waiting outside. He advised it would be in our interest, and that of the country, to temporarily cede power to him to avert disaster. Accordingly, we acceded to his request since we had no better alternative. Ironsi then insisted that the understanding be written,” Shagari wrote.
Ironsi forced us to handover to him – Akinjide
Another account by another cabinet member, Chief Richard Akinjide given at a book launch in Lagos in July 2000 spoke of a more coercive effort by Ironsi.
“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 handover to him. He was controlling the soldiers,” Akinjide was quoted as saying.
Ironsi’s unitary decrees
Following the takeover, Ironsi churned out a number of decrees to establish his firm control over the country. However, his actions continued to be received with suspicion especially in the light of the fact that Nzeogwu and others who inspired the January 15 coup were not tried.
In fact, rumours continued to go round the country that they were, in fact, being treated like kings in detention.
Meanwhile, in his bid to further draw the country together, Ironsi issued the unification decree.
The enactment of the decree was despite strong condemnations of the move by the Northern Intelligentsia which upon first getting wind of the move had cautioned the Ironsi regime against it.
Suleiman Takuma, a journalist, who later gained fame as national secretary of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN in the 80s, was arrested by Ironsi’s soldiers after writing a critical opinion against the perceived moves to enact the unification decree. Takuma had also criticised the delay in the trial of the January 15 plotters. The suspicion of a move towards unification was not helped after Ironsi ordered the four military governors at that time to start attending the meetings of the Federal Executive Council, FEC.
Meanwhile, around the North and in barracks in the South tension continued to escalate.
Ogbemudia’s account, brewing northern coup
Brigadier-General Samuel Ogbemudia who was at the time brigade-major in the 1st Infantry Division, Kaduna told Vanguard of how Lt. Col. Hassan Katsina the then military governor of the Northern Region warned that the North was not afraid to carry out its own coup.
“We Northerners are not cowards and if we want to carry out coup it would be in the day time and not in the night,” Ogbemudia quoted him as saying during a peace building meeting summoned by Lt. Col. Philip Effiong, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division sometime around May, 1966.
Meanwhile, some notable, northern figures including the Sultan of Sokoto were also appealing for peace across the region.
Their efforts nonetheless, there were insinuations that Ironsi had become hostage to a secret set of advisers whosome alleged were mostly Igbo.
Among them were Francis Nwokedi, a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; Pius Okigbo, who advised him on economic matters, and Lt. Col Patrick Anwunah.
Ironsi, on May 24, made a nationwide broadcast affirming the Unification Decree a move that quickly led to riots across many parts of Northern Nigeria. About the same time, despite a moratorium on promotions, the military announced the promotion of 25 military officers mostly of the ranks of Major and Lt. Cols. Of the 25, 19 were either Igbo or Midwesterners; five were from the North, and one was Yoruba.
Properly interrogated, the promotions were seen to be deserving to all, but it was believed to be another image disaster for the Ironsi regime as it portrayed the new regime as trying to consolidate on the Igbo gains from the January 15 coup.
It was not surprising that the rank and file mainly comprising Northerners soon began to openly despise their Southern superior officers.
Three northern military officers, including Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed and two others, who were Christian northerners including one who rose to become army chief, allegedly conceived the plan to overthrow Ironsi under an operation that was code named “Aure,” Hausa term for “marriage.”
Various plans on where and how to carry out the coup were reportedly analysed until it was resolved to capture the Head of State in Ibadan during a state visit, a plan that was executed exactly 50 years ago today.