Aguiyi Ironsi's Legacy
August 3, 2001
This 29 July, it became exactly 35 years since Major-General Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi left this mundane scene bowing, like the Roman Julius Caesar, to acquaintance treachery (which his local name typified).
On July 29, 1966 a mutinous troop led by Major Theophilus Danjuma (now Nigeria's minister of defence) abducted General Aguiyi-Ironsi from the Western Region state house, Ibadan with his courageous host, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, military governor of Western Region. Both were later reported dead.
Whenever a mutiny occurs against an existing political order, it is usual for the major beneficiary to either be the leader of the mutineers or a co-conspirator. But Aguiyi-Ironsi was neither the leader of the Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu-led mutiny of January 15, 1966 nor a co-conspirator with the famed "young majors." Aguiyi-Ironsi aborted the revolt in Lagos and so rendered it ultimately ineffective. It is thus rather ridiculous that some misguided opinion linked the man with the January 15 gruesome murders of some eminent Nigerians including the premier of Northern Region, Sir Ahmadu Bello.
If Ironsi was a party to the plot, he would have promoted and not have detained the coup actors. Major Ademola Ademoyega, a revolutionary Yoruba officer and one of the key actors in the famed "Igbo Coup" later, in his memoirs, Why We Struck, described General Aguiyi-Ironsi as a reactionary who mobilized his men to abort the revolution in Lagos. Furthermore, it is on record that Aguiyi-Ironsi did not take over from the rump of Balewa's government after a military conquest. It was the Senate President and acting President of the republic, Dr. Abyssinia Nwafor Orizu who handed over the reins of government to him. Thus Aguiyi-Ironsi did not come to power in violation of the 1963 Constitution.
General Aguiyi-Ironsi's unitary option for Nigeria was perceived as a fatal political faux pas in some quarters. There is no iota of fairness in such reasoning. Then, we had a federation where Nnamdi Azikiwe could not be premier in the West where he spent most of his adulthood. It likely would not have been possible for Ahmadu Bello to be premier in the East. That was regional federalism, a progressive structure that became dangerous in the Nigerian context because of its ethnic blend. Ethnic pressure groups thrived such that there was genuine doubt about the continued existence of Nigeria.
The union was at the precipice of violent disintegration because its people no longer believed in it, just like today. Aguiyi-Ironsi, a general who embraced dialogue (although he had the option of monologue), consulted with the military brasshats and promulgated the Constitution (Suspension and Modification) (No. 5) Decree No. 34 of 1966 which in principle aimed simply at keeping Nigeria one and peaceful.
The greatest irony in the criticism against this arrangement is that although General Gowon reverted Nigeria back to a federation from September 1, 1966 by his Decree No. 59 of 1966, yet Nigeria had since then been administered substantially in the spirit of Decree No. 34 of 1966. Gowon himself, being thoroughly embarrassed by the keynote of dismemberment of Nigeria, struck in the Eastern Region, quickly abolished regionalism and retained a nominal federalism by partitioning Nigeria into 12 States that owed their every breath to the centre. Successive military governments discovered (without conceding it, that the easiest way to keep Nigeria peaceful and united is by lumping much power at the centre. They used their centralised command structure and monopoly of coercion to achieve this. Under the 1999 Constitution, it is alleged that Nigeria is a federation. But the extraordinary powers lumped at the centre (particularly on the president) makes it look more like a unitary structure. The judiciary and the police under the constitution do not have less unitary arrangement than envisaged under Aguiyi-Ironsi's vilified unification of the public service.
If we realise that Nigeria must be one and that only a unitary structure can achieve that, why should we not call a spade a spade and post-humously apologize to (or at least vindicate) Aguiyi-Ironsi? Nevertheless history itself has vindicated him. A true Nigerian was "crucified' for the cause of a united Nigeria and today his murderers are the largest beneficiaries of a unitary and united Nigeria. If we operate a federalism why not allow the Niger Delta people to control their oil resources and pay royalty into the Federation Account? Why should the concept of 'federal might' not be reduced in practice to a myth? Why do we deceive ourselves?
For about six months, Aguiyi-Ironsi ruled Nigeria with a purely nationalistic spirit. His Promulgation of Newspapers Decree No. 2 of 1966 was a triumph for press freedom. He made laws on public order and state security aimed at de-emphasizing ethnic nationalism and militancy. (The renascent democracy has dawned a resurgence of ethnic nationalism because since Aguiyi-Ironsi's brutal murder whilst dialoguing for Nigeria's unity, the ethnic nationality question had never been addressed but merely suppressed.)
Being an officer gentleman trained in a strict British tradition and hardened by the brunt of colonial soldiering, General Aguiyi-Ironsi did not get involve in the lucre of self-enrichment that was later elevated to an art. To Nigerians, it was his "mistake". His widow, Victoria, was a first lady that never floated a multi-million pounds 'pet project' with the ostensible objective of bettering the life of rural women, supporting the family or caring for the child which are false pretences and pseudonyms for self-enrichment. Vicky's mistake? Then first ladyship was not a glamorous cult.
Although Aguiyi-Ironsi is a symbol of patriotism in Nigeria, very little has been done to immortalise his memory. Many believe this is because he was a scion of the Igbo nation. Yet it would appear more that his murderers had always been in power or along the corridors of power since July 29, 1966. It is also said that his dependants, to whom he bequeathed no loot, are yet to be rehabilitated by the Federal Government.
The challenge before Obasanjo's administration, which has indicated a desire to right past wrongs, is to rehabilitate Aguiyi-Ironsi's family as soon as possible. Government should find ways of immortalising his legacy for the present and future generations. For instance, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and General Murtala Muhammed were two Nigerian leaders from the North. One was murdered before and the other after General Aguiyi Ironsi. Their names have been systematically deified into national consciousness. - Ogham-Emeka is a Lagos-based lawyer.
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