Thursday, August 22, 2002

Dr. Nnaemeka Luke Aneke
[email protected]
Westbury, NY, USA

The demise of Ironsi:
Any lessons for the Igbos?

n the early hours of Friday, July 29 1966, 41-year old Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was arrested and kidnapped by then Major Theophilus Danjuma and his men at the Government House, Ibadan, and then tortured and killed. His host, Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi was also swept away by the orgy of vengeance controlling the northern troops. Since then, the period of July/August has become somewhat of a fashionable time for writings and commentaries on the life of this great Nigerian. Most of these writings have celebrated the greatness of the man and his contributions to the military both in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, especially the Congo.

Saying that Ironsi was a legendary figure in the Nigerian army is like saying that what used to be the World Trade Center in New York City was tall. It will not only be redundant, but will add nothing new to the accolades already deservedly showered on his person. Rather, this writing will look in another direction, namely to discuss if Ironsi was a victim of his own negligence and whether he would have probably been alive today if he had done a few things a little differently. With the Igbos strategizing for the Nigerian presidency come 2003, it is indeed pertinent to revisit how the last Igbo at the helm of the countryís affairs handled his own security matters.

That Ironsi survived other closer and more dangerous encounters with death only to perish at the hands of an officer of Danjumaís standing, at the time, illustrates an Igbo proverb that says that the cockroach swam the oceans and the seas only to perish in a womanís pot of soup. This writer believes that Ironsi did not die because Danjuma was smarter than, or even as smart as, other officers who had tried to kill Ironsi before. Nor did he die because he didnít get enough warnings or see the handwriting on the wall. He died because he chose to do nothing about the obvious red signals visible to him, thereby enabling Danjuma and his men to walk into fame and celebrity at his expense.

In a way, Ironsiís death reminds me of the death of the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, who received four distinct warnings about his impending death, and yet walked into the hands of his murderers. In Shakespeareís Julius Caesar, Act I Scene I, during a public procession, an unsolicited soothsayer warned Caeser about the dangers to his life by telling him to "Beware the ides of March". Caeser dismisses the man as a dreamer and went with the procession. A second warning came to Caeser from the strange dream of his wife, Calpurnia, showing him bleeding from multiple wounds and Romans washing their hands in his blood. When his wife insisted that he not leave the house that day, he refused and boasted that:

"Caesar shall forth: the things that threateníd me Ne'er look'd but on my back; when they shall see The face of Caesar, they are vanished"

A third warning came to Caeser in Act II, Scene II when he sent his servant to the priests to decipher the meaning of his wifeís dream. The servant came back with news from the priests (diviners) that he should not step out of his house that day. Caeser reacted by accusing the priests of "shame of cowardice". Finally, a few minutes before his death, as he was walking into the Roman capitol, Caeser met the same soothsayer and told him "The ides of March are come", to which the soothsayer replied "Ay, Caesar; but not gone". Caeser also refused to read a warning letter from one Artemidorus, which detailed the intention of Brutus and his gang. Minutes late, the mighty Caeser was lying so low "reduced to this little measure", in the words of Mark Anthony.

In the case of Ironsi, his first brush with death was on January 15, 1966 when he narrowly escaped the dragnet mounted for him by the majors in charge of the Lagos operations. In his speech at the Abuja war college in February 2002, General Philip Effiong stated that Gen. Ironsi was "one of those earmarked for elimination." Also, in November 1966, 27-year old then Major Timothy Onwuatuegwu, in a prison interview, told New York Timesí Lloyd Garrison that General Ironsi was on the rebelís original target list. "I hate Ironsiís guts", Major Onwuatuegwu told his interviewer. (See New York Times, November 20, 1966; page 27, column 1). There are other numerous accounts verifying that Ironsi faced death on January 15, 1966, but narrowly escaped.

On Monday January 17, 1966, Gen. Ironsi, in a second and close brush with death, escaped an assassination attempt by Lt. Col. Victor Banjo. Col. Banjo, reportedly distraught over the deaths of Colonel Shodeinde and Brig. Samuel Ademulegun (both Yorubas) had invaded Ironsiís office at gunpoint but had been quickly overpowered before firing a shot and before any harm had been done to Gen. Ironsi. Not surprisingly, Ironsi, himself, understanding the charged emotions of the period, did not court-martial and kill Col. Banjo. Instead, he put him in detention in the East, from where the colonel ended up in Biafra after its declaration.

It is not clear whether the survival of the January 15 & 17 encounters by Ironsi gave the general an air of invincibility and, hence, a false sense of security, thereby enabling officers that were not anywhere near the widely acclaimed intelligence, dexterity and intuition of Banjo to finally be his undoing. What is clear is the existence of Ironsiís subsequent laxity about his own security. This was demonstrated clearly in how the general handled obvious threats to his life.

A third warning to Ironsi of his impending death came in May 1966. In the second half of May 1966, as massive anti-Ironsi demonstrations swept the whole North, rumours became rife in Northern Nigeria that Ironsi had been killed, something that definitely warranted thorough investigation. But rather than carry out an indepth investigation that would have most probably uncovered plans for his upcoming demise, Ironsi chose to deal with the situation with announcements and warnings. Hence, on May 29, 1966, Ironsiís government issued the following warnings:

"The head of the National military Government and supreme commander of the armed forces has received, within the last few weeks, reports about the activities of some Nigerians who are in collusion with certain foreign elements to incite law abiding Nigerians to disaffection leading to disturbances in some areas of the country. The Government sincerely hopes that these foreign elements are not being backed by their respective governments. The Government is fully aware that any promise made to those Nigerians who have allowed themselves to be deceived by outside influences are not in the best interests of this country, and hereby warns all those so-called friends of Nigeria that it will not hesitate to take appropriate measures against them, irrespective of their status either as Nigerian citizens or as foreigners enjoying protection within our borders. Any damage caused to property or injury inflicted upon persons will not be treated lightly, and those responsible will be made to pay the full penalty of the law.

The government therefore appeals to all law abiding Nigerianís not to allow themselves to be deceived by any irresponsible elements in their midst. The Government is determined to pursue an honest policy of national reconstruction, which will serve the best interests of our people in every part of Nigeria." (See New York Times, May 30, 1966; page 4, column 8).

Notice that Ironsi was aware of "the activities of some Nigerians who are in collusion with certain foreign elements", but rather than go after those Nigerians and have them clear themselves, he rather vented his anger on the "foreign elements" by threatening that the government "hereby warns all those so-called friends of Nigeria that it will not hesitate to take appropriate measures against them, irrespective of their status either as Nigerian citizens or as foreigners enjoying protection within our borders". For Godís sake, by priority, is it the "foreign elements" that Ironsi needed to "take appropriate measures against" or the "Nigerians who are in collusion" with them?

Furthermore, as the rumours about Ironsiís death persisted and amplified in the North, Ironsi, on the night of May 31, two months before his death, made a nationwide broadcast condemning the rumours and noting that it was circulating particularly in the northern group of provinces (as the regions were referred to under his unitary government). So between these announcements and warnings, Ironsi may have considered the situation under control.

Meanwhile, Ironsi, probably unknown to him, was instituting and perfecting the apparatus for his own death. After promoting Lt. Col. Gowon to an unmerited Chief of Army Staff (COAS) position over his more qualified and available superiors, Brig. Babafemi Ogundipe and Col. Robert Adebayo, to placate northern troops, Aguiyi proceeded with further northernization of military appointments. In Kano, he removed the Igbo commanding officer of the 5th battalion, Major David Okafor, and replaced him with Lt. Col Mohammed Shuwa, and also appointed Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed as inspector of signals. In Ibadan, where the 4th battalion was stationed, he removed the Igbo commanding officer, Major Nzefili, and replaced him with Gowonís kinsman, Major Joseph Akahan. Subsequently, he promoted Theophilus Danjuma, his eventual nemesis, to the rank of Major and appointed him deputy commander to Joseph Akahan in Ibadan. Finally, to put the last nail in his own coffin, he appointed himself a northern ADC, one in particular, whose own brother, Col. Pam, died in the January 1966 crisis, before entrusting his personal security to northern troops.

Having sealed his own fate, Ironsi embarked on a nationwide tour which presented the catalyst for the forces he had already marshaled against himself to make their move, and when they moved against him, it was a piece of cake. In an article titled "The Northern Counter-Coup of 1966: The Full story", published in October 2001, the author, Max Siollun, described as "with great courage" Ironsiís decision to entrust his safety and security to predominantly northern troops. But I must state categorically that this is not my idea of being courageous and I hope that if and when another Igbo emerges as President or Head of state of Nigeria, he will not try to demonstrate courage in that manner. I donít see anything courageous in not recognizing a real and present danger, or in recognizing it but doing nothing about it.

People who try to show courage by entrusting their safety to their "adversaries" do not get to tell their stories. Indira Gandhi tried it with just one Sikh bodyguard among many loyalists and we know what happened. Gowon obviously learnt from the disaster of such courage. So when he came to power, he made his kinsman, Joe Garba, his security chief, as commander of federal guards, and that worked for him. When it was time to get rid of Gowon, his kinsman made sure he lost only his job and not his life. And I believe that was not a lack of courage. Indeed that is showing the good old primitive instinct for survival.

Dr. Nnaemeka Luke Aneke is a practicing physician and Health Law attorney in Westbury, New York.