29th July 1966: Why Aguiyi-Ironsi Was Killed -By Jude Chikezie

In the early hours of 15th January 1966, some Nigerian army officers, Majors Ifeajuna, Ademoyega, Anuforo, Chukwuka, Okafor, Onwuatuegwu and their leader, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu staged a coup d’etat code named operation ‘Damisa’ which took the lives of prime minister, Tafawa Belawa, premier of the Northern region, Ahmadu Bello, Finance minister, Okotie-Ebo, Premier of Western region, Sir Akintola. Others who were victims of the putsch are senior Army officers like Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari, Lt Col Yakubu Pam, Lt Col Abogo Largema, Col Kur Mohammed, Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun and Col Ralph Sodeinde.

While this elite politicians and senior army officers lost their lives in the coup, with the North having more of the casualties, the coup failed in the Eastern region with no politician killed there. It gave the impression that it was an ‘Igbo’ coup.

The Coup brought to power the first Army head of state in Nigeria in the person of General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi. He mounted the saddle of leadership after the coup failed and the plotters rounded up in Lagos, while Nzeogwu was tricked to Lagos from Kaduna and got arrested. The officers and their co-cospirators numbering up to 31 were clamped into Kirikiri maximum prison in Apapa area of Lagos.

There was a kind of melancholy in the North after this coup and among army officers of Northern extraction with the death of their prominent politicians and senior army officers especially Sardauna of Sokoto.

The main misgivings they had against Ironsi was the promulgation of decree 34 on May 24th 1966 which ushered-in the unitary system of government and abolishing regional system of governments. The belief in the North was that Ironsi was scheming to inflict permanent Igbo domination on the Nigerian entity by concentrating POWER to the centre.

He was accused of surrounding himself with only Igbo permanent secretaries he appointed who misadvised him. He promoted only Igbo army officers. All these in preparation of the said Igbo dominance. They also said Ironsi was privy to the coup, even participated, as a result of this, could not bring himself to discipline the perpetrators.

Ironsi denied all these as the whispers and rumours always gets back to him. He tried to balance appointments.

Of the four ADCs that he had, two were from the North. Lt Sanni Bello(Army ADC) and Asp Timothy Pam (Police ADC). Lt Nelson Okulaja (Naval ADC) was from Western region, while his air force ADC, Lt Andrew Nwankwo was Igbo.

As the rumours continued to fly, Ironsi appealed for calm and understanding, but on May 29th 1966 spontaneous riots broke out in the North with shouts of ‘ARABA’. Many Southerners and Igbos was the target. Ironsi called Hassan Katsina the Military governor of Northern region to do everything to quell the riots. He also made efforts to appeal to Northern elites, of which he invited first, Sir Kashim Shettima to government house in Lagos to explain things and appeal to him to use his influence in the North to calm the riots, but Sir Kashim left without being satisfied with Ironsi’s explaination of events of January 15 where he lost his bosom friend and, Ahmadu Bello.

Another Northern elite Ironsi reached out to, even sending government aircraft to bring him to Lagos was Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sir Abubakar 111, whom he personally met at Ikeja airport to welcome him.

General Aguiyi-Ironsi himself decided to embark on a national-wide tour to appeal to soldiers and generality of Nigerians and to address traditional rulers for co-operation. He toured Kaduna, Kano Zaria, Abeokuta. But when he toured Lagos and addressed Nigerian Police at Obalende, on July 13th 1966 he said the Military governors are to start six months tenure in office and rotate to another region to foster unity amongst the Military establishment. This irked the North more, cos they can’t bear to see an Ejoor or Ojukwu rule them in the North or their own Hassan Katsina taking a risk of going down to Eastern province to rule after what happened in January.

On July 26th, Ironsi toured Midwest for two days before moving to Ibadan to address National conference of traditional rulers comprising , Emirs, Obas and Ezes.This took place in the morning of 28th. After the speech he left for Mayflower school Ikenne, to return back to Mapo hall in the evening for a party organised for the Traditional rulers by Westen region government.

After the party, General Ironsi and Col Fajuyi retired to government house in Agodi area of Ibadan.

At 0030 hours in early morning of 29th, Ironsi’s air force ADC received a call at the government house Informing him that about five officers of Abeokuta garrison has been shot dead thirty minutes earlier and all, is of Eastern extraction. This information was also passed to the General who was awake now and tried to contact his army chief of staff, Gowon by telephone in Lagos without success. As he tried to get some top military brass by telephone, they were told that the mutineers were on their way to Ibadan from Abeokuta.

Meanwhile, by 0060 the government house was aready surrounded by Soldiers from near-by 4th battalion Ibadan led by Lt Theophilus Danjuma. After what seemed like eternity with every domestic staff in the government house and all the security officers who came down one by one to access the situation being arrested by Soldiers, Lt Danjuma tricked Ironsi’s ADC to take him upstairs where they first arrested Col Fajuyi and tied him with a cut telephone wire.

They met General Aguiyi-Ironsi in the parlour and the following dialogue ensued between him and Danjuma. Ironsi:

What do you want? Danjuma: You are under arrest Sir, you organised the killing of our brother officers in January and you have done nothing to bring the so-called dissidents to justice because you’re part and parcel of the whole thing.

After this exchange, the gun welding junior officers collected Ironsi’s pistol and his stuffed crocodile swagger stick and led him downstairs in a waiting Landrover with Fajuyi. Other arrested persons were packed in a truck and all were driven to the Jalupon area of Iwo road in Ibadan were Fajuyi and Ironsi was beaten mercilessly and shot. The other arrested detainees were driven back to Ibadan after long hours in the bush.

The ring leaders of the counter-coup were, Lt Murtala Mohammed, Lt Joe Akahan, Major Martins Adamu, Lt Garba Paiko, Lt J. I Onoja, Lt Ibrahim Bako and Lt Danjuma. Of all these officers, only Lt Danjuma showed up at government house with non commission officers  (Junior officers) to execute the coup. Others were the main plotters.

General Aguiyi-Ironsi and Col Fajuyi was buried in a shallow grave near a stream at Iwo road. Their bodies were exhumed after one week and re-buried at University college cemetery Ibadan. Ironsi’s body was exhumed again and given a final and state burial on 20th January 1967.

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