By Emeka Obasi
Many still dismiss General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi as a tally clerk, lucky to be picked as Nigeria’s First indigenous Army Chief who subsequently became First military leader on a platter of gold.
That is the height of ignorance. Ironsi could have been wrong all down the line but for a man who joined the Army as a Private in 1942 and rose to the height of leadership, there must be something in him that his critics have failed to see.
Yes, Ironsi, fought the Second World War at home[on the West African Coast] while, Brigadier Babafemi Ogundipe, saw action in India and Burma respectively. Ironsi, of course, did not pass through Sandhurst. That did not stop the United Nations from appointing him First African to command UN Forces.
Let us follow Ironsi’s rise to power and see who really was the nitwit, the general or the opposition. He was not the first Nigerian to be commissioned. Official records give it to, Lt. Victor Ugboma, who earned his pips in 1948. Lt. Wellington Bassey emerged in April 1949. Two more subalterns, Ironsi and Samuel Ademulegun, appeared on June 12, 1949.
Ugboma left service shortly after. So in Army records, Bassey is recognized as N.1. Ironsi follows as N.2, Ademulegun N.3 and Raph Sodeinde comes in as N.4.
The British colonial masters found Ironsi capable in many ways. He was Equerry to Queen Elizabeth when she visited Nigeria in 1956. The officer was also Defence Adviser at the Nigerian High Commission, London. And to cap it all, was recognized by the UN.
Then power politics took over. As commander of UN Forces in the Congo, Ironsi wore the rank of Major General. He was even decorated by the Austrian government for bravery in Katanga.
When the UN commander returned to Nigeria, he was asked to drop his rank and revert to brigadier. The erstwhile Maj. Gen was posted to command Second Brigade, Lagos. Unconfirmed reports said, Brig. Ademulegun, did not like the idea of his equal going one step ahead.
Ambition is no crime. Both were commissioned the same day, June 12[that date did not start with Chief Moshood Abiola] 1948.
When the last British GOC of the Nigeria Army departed in 1965, Ironsi was not favoured as his replacement. Gen. Christopher Welby-Everard recommended Ogundipe. It was probably a nice way of stemming the Ironsi/Ademulegun rivalry.
Some accounts say it was the brain of Brigadier Zakari Maimalari and the hand of Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa that elevated Ironsi above Ademulegun. Maimalari was, of course, the nation’s first Sandhurst trained officer as member of Intake 10, 1951-1953.
Ironsi did not therefore have it easy in his home country. Shortly before the January 15, 1966 coup he was penciled for retirement. It would have commenced with his annual leave which was approved from January 17, 1966. Forty Eight hours before the Young Majors struck.
While the politicians planned to retire the general, the Young Majors were after him too. Major Donatus Okafor led the assault.
All these were what Ironsi bore when he found himself leading efforts to neutralize the plotters. Some say he was a drinker. Well in his case, drinking paid. While other senior officers went to bed from Maimalari’s party, the general moved on to catch fun elsewhere.
That decision saved his life. Lt. Col. Abogo Largema was dropped off at Ikoyi Hotel, by Maj. Ibrahim Haruna. It was there that Maj. Emma Ifeajuna killed the colonel. Okafor could not get Ironsi at home. And that was the failure of the coup.
Ironsi rose as a real general. He used his brain and restored order. Balewa had been murdered. Ademulegun and Maimalari were not spared. Two Regional governors were assassinated alongside a minister and five other senior officers.
After taking control of Lagos, Ironsi knew the plotter in Kaduna, Maj. Chukwuma Nzeogwu, was a major threat. The GOC fished out the man who was doing the Defence Attache job in London, Col. Conrad Nwawo, and sent him to the North.
Nwawo was not only from the same Mid- West Region with Nzeogwu, both understood their own dialect of the Igbo language. The former was held in high esteem by the latter as a one-time instructor. The trick worked. Nzeogwu was flown to Lagos and chained.
With that achieved, Ironsi saw an opportunity and grabbed it without firing a shot. He did not spill blood. The Young Majors began it all and planned to finish him but the general laughed best.
He could have asked Acting President, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, to swear in Alhaji Zanna Bukar Dipcharima as Prime Minister in the absence of Balewa. He did not. Rather Ironsi said the politicians had voluntarily decided to hand over power to him. Far from the truth.
Two ministers, Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Mr. Richard Akinjide, debunked that claim. They said Ironsi forced them to cede power.
According to Shagari: “ Ironsi advised it would be in our interest and that of the country to temporarily cede power to him to avert disaster.”
Akinjide was blunt. Hear him. “ Ironsi said, you either hand over as gentlemen or you hand over by force”. The general made sure the hand- over was documented. It was done by Alhaji Abdul Rasaq, not senior lawyers present like Dr. Taslim Elias and Akinjide.
As new leader, Ironsi, applied tact. Ogundipe became his Deputy. No Igbo was appointed Service Chief, Murtala Mohammed, who adored Maimalari got double promotion to the rank of Lt.Col. to compensate for his uncle Inua Wada’s sack as Defence minister.
With the death of the Sarduana, a Fulani Prince, Hassan Katsina, was appointed Military Governor and promoted Lt. Col. Ahmadu Bello’s relation, Hamza Ahmadu, was made Personal Secretary.
The Kanuri who lost three senior officers, gained Kam Selem, lifted to Police Chief. Muhammadu Shuwa was also double promoted and made Battalion commander.
Ironsi was killed by those he promoted. That was treachery. Not even his Igbo kinsmen who commanded ninety percent of Army formations could save him. He was not stupid. Nigeria failed him.