The First Martyr for Nigerian Unity

A moment before he was shot, on July 29, 1966, Nigeria’s first military head of state Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi reportedly told his assailants, “Shoot me and you shoot Nigeria.” The goons did not budge. They emptied magazines of Stein guns into his body and that of Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, military governor of Western Region.

Aguiyi-Ironsi‘s last words echoed in many Nigerian minds on Friday, half a century later. Truly, Nigeria has been a “mere geographical expression”: nobody seems to believe in the country or that it is worth dying for. The civil war that followed Aguiyi-Ironsi’s assassination ended in 1970, yet several wars for secession have been fought to this day. Those who dishonestly canvass Nigerian unity do so with oil at the back of their minds. Once oil (the string that has held the wobbly country) is finished, Nigeria is not likely to last a year longer.

Aguiyi-Ironsi was a soldiers’ soldier and a generals’ general – he was perhaps the only Nigerian general that earned his rank from battlefields rather than from pepper-soup joints and political offices. After putting down the first military coup led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the army chief set out to heal the wounds caused by the coup. As head of state, he surrounded himself with mainly northern officers all in a bid to pacify the section of the country that viewed the January massacres as lopsided. The Unification Decree No. 34 of 1966 was meant to abolish ethnicity by replacing Nigeria’s federal system with a unitary one.

Major Murtala Muhammed once openly described the head of state as a fool in the presence of junior officers. He was right. Aguiyi-Ironsi, who never stopped taking his whisky, thought that Decree 34 would unite the country. He thought that by appointing northerners to important positions he would dispel the notion that the January coup was an Igbo coup. On one occasion, he was alerted to an impending coup. Rather than move against the insurgents, he called his chief of army staff (Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon) to ask him if it’s true.

Nobody has given any cogent reason why Aguiyi-Ironsi deserved to die. Was it because he did not submit himself to be murdered by the plotters of the January 15 coup? Was it because he suppressed the Nzeogwu coup? Or should he have executed the coup plotters without trial? The avengers felt that six months was too long to keep them in jail. Nnamdi Kanu, Sambo Dasuki, Henry Okah and others must be gnashing their teeth today!

There is no justification for any coup. But if staging a coup against a civilian government is wrong, then, the coup makers of December 1983 stand condemned just like Nzeogwu and co. And if Aguiyi-Ironsi committed a sin by putting the January coup plotters in jail, then, Gowon committed a greater evil by rewarding, not punishing, the executors of the July revenge coup that was bloodier.

Indeed, Aguiyi-Ironsi erred by choosing appeasement instead of highhandedness. Had he treasured his own life, he would have pre-empted the avengers and put them in jail also. Had he chosen that option, perhaps, he would have saved Nigeria the rape and destruction caused by military “leaders” in later years. Besides, during his short reign, the pogrom (mass murder of Easterners in northern Nigeria) had started, and Isaac Adaka Boro had begun a rebellion in the Niger Delta. This apostle of Nigerian unity moved against Boro but couldn’t cage those that were killing thousands of his own kinsmen without cause.

Boko Haram, IPOB, MASSOB, Niger Delta Avengers, OPC and other groups seeking separate states have refused to give up. Yet, even before 1966, Nigeria had fractured several times. In 1953, parliamentarians from the north wanted their region excised from Nigeria. Agitations for “Araba” [separation] were widespread across the north until Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe called Sardauna  Ahmadu Bello aside and showed him a map. Zik showed him the seaports in Nigeria and asked him how they hoped to survive as a separate state: “If you go, we won’t allow you to use any of our ports unless you pay. How are you going to sell your groundnuts? Are you going to fly them?”  Bello confessed to Zik that he had not thought about it that way. “Now you know,” Zik told him. “Go and talk to your people.” And, the next day, the agitations subsided and then stopped.

The great conciliator that was Zik continued to seek Nigerian unity by making sacrifices. Rather than let his party (NCNC) align with Awolowo’s AG after the 1959 general election, Zik chose to align with Bello’s NPC. That’s how he became a ceremonial president while the less qualified Tafawa Balewa became prime minister. Also, shortly before the civil war, Zik warned his kinsmen from the east against secession because he didn’t want the country he had fought for all his life dismembered. Younger people shouted him down, but he insisted that his stand be recorded in the minutes. A few months after the war with Biafra broke out, he returned to Nigeria at great risk to his life.

Zik coined the phrase “One Nigeria”, but it was Aguiyi-Ironsi who paid for Nigerian unity with his life. It was while he was still touring the country to preach peace and unity that he was martyred.  They shot him and shot Nigeria. In a bid to remove the North from Nigeria, the coup plotters quickly started relocating their families from Lagos until another intruder [the first “intruder” was Zik] reminded them of their thoughtlessness.  How were they going to pay their soldiers when all the money was in the Central Bank of Nigeria? How was the new country to survive without the oil wealth that had started trickling in?  Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, governor of the Eastern Region, had agreed they should go if they wanted. But when they returned to their senses, and accepted to remain in Nigeria, they chose Gowon to be head of state, even though other southerners including Brigadier Ogundipe and Ojukwu were senior to him.

The intention of Aguiyi-Ironsi’s killers to secede was betrayed in Gowon’s first address as head of state on August 1. He said that “the basis of trust and confidence in our unitary system of government has not been able to stand the test of time” and “putting all considerations to test — political, economic, as well as social — the base for unity is not there or is so badly rocked, not only once but several times”. To this day, Nigeria has yet to abandon the unitary system for which Aguiyi-Ironsi was betrayed and murdered. Although it claims to be a federal republic, it’s been a unitary state since then. Calls for “restructuring” have become more strident in 2016.

How many of those who killed Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi have yet to join them in the great beyond?  One, now dying slowly of AIDS in Jos, is still telling newspapers “why we killed Ironsi and installed Gowon”. Another has been a bipolar disorder patient.  There is no denying that the spirits of the two great men still rove around Nigeria.  Perhaps the country should ask for their forgiveness so as to avoid disintegration.


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