General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi MVO, MBE (3 March 1924 – 29 July 1966) was a Nigerian Army general who was the first Military Head of State of Nigeria. He seized power amidst the ensuing chaos following the 15 January 1966 military coup, which decapitated the country's leadership.
He ruled from 16 January 1966 until his assassination on 29 July 1966 by a group of mutinous Northern Nigerian officers and men who were led by Major Murtala Mohammed and included Captain Theophilus Danjuma, Lieutenant Muhammadu Buhari, Lieutenant Ibrahim Babangida and Lieutenant Sani Abacha in a revolt against his government in what was popularly called the July Counter Coup.
Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born into the family of Mazi (Mr.) Ezeugo Aguiyi on the 3rd of March 1924, in Ibeku, Umuahia, located in the present-day Abia State, Nigeria. At the age of eight, he went to live with his older sister, Anyamma, who was married to Theophilius Johnson, a Sierra Leonean diplomat working in Umuahia. Aguiyi-Ironsi subsequently took the last name of his brother-in-law as his first name, in admiration of Mr. Johnson for the father-figure role he played in his life.
In 1942, Aguiyi-Ironsi joined the Nigerian Regiment, as a private with the seventh battalion. He was promoted in 1946 to company sergeant major. Also in 1946, Aguiyi-Ironsi was sent on an officer training course in Staff College, Camberley, England. On 12 June 1949, after completion of his course at Camberley, he received a short-service commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal West African Frontier Force, with a subsequent retroactive promotion to lieutenant effective from the same date.
Aguiyi-Ironsi was one of the officers who served as equerry for Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Nigeria, at the time she visited Nigeria in 1956, for which he was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO). He was promoted to major on 8 October 1958.
In 1960, Aguiyi-Ironsi was made commandant of the fifth battalion in Kano, Nigeria, with the rank of lieutenant colonel
Later in 1960, Aguiyi-Ironsi headed the Nigerian contingent force of the United Nations Operation in the Congo. From 1961–1962, Aguiyi-Ironsi served as the military attaché to the Nigeria High Commission in London United Kingdom. During this period he was promoted to the rank of brigadier. During his tenure as military attaché he attended courses at the Imperial Defence college (renamed Royal College of Defence Studies in 1961), Seaford House, Belgrave Square. He was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, Military Division (MBE) in the 1962 New Year Honours list.
In 1964 he was appointed as the commandant of the entire United Nations peace keeping force in the Congo.
In 1965, Aguiyi-Ironsi was promoted to the rank of major general. That same year Major General C.B. Welby-Everard handed over his position as the general officer Commanding, GOC of the entire Nigerian Army to Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (making him the first Nigeria indigenous officer to head the entire Nigerian Army).
In January 1966, a group of army officers, led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, overthrew the central and regional governments of Nigeria, killed the prime minister, and tried to take control of the government in a failed coup d'état. Nzeogwu was countered, captured and imprisoned by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi.
Aguiyi-Ironsi was named military head of state on 17 January 1966, a position he held until 29 July 1966, when a group of northern army officers revolted against the government, and killed Aguiyi-Ironsi.
Fall of the First Republic
Main article: 1966 Nigerian coup d'état
On 14 January 1966, Soldiers of mostly Igbo extraction led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, an Igbo from Okpanam near Asaba, present day Delta state, eradicated the uppermost echelon of politicians from the Northern and Western provinces. This and other factors effectively led to the fall of the Republican Government. Though Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, was purportedly slated for assassination, he effectively took control of Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory. With President also an Igbo Nnamdi Azikiwe refusing to intervene and insure the continuity of civilian rule, Aguiyi-Ironsi effectively compelled the remaining members of Balewa's Government to resign seeing that the government was in disarray, he then allowed the Senate president Nwafor Orizu, another Igbo who was serving as acting president in Azikiwe's absence, to officially surrender power to him, thus ending the First Nigerian Republic.
Head of state
Aguiyi-Ironsi inherited a Nigeria deeply fractured by its ethnic and religious cleavages. The fact that none of the high-profile victims of the 1966 coup were of Igbo extraction, and also that the main beneficiaries of the coup were Igbo, led the Northern part of the country to believe that it was an Igbo conspiracy. Though Aguiyi-Ironsi tried to dispel this notion by courting the aggrieved ethnic groups through political appointments and patronage, his failure to punish the coup plotters and the promulgation of the now infamous "Decree No. 34"—which abrogated the country's federal structure in exchange for a unitary one— crystallized this conspiracy theory.
During his short regime (194 days in office) Aguiyi-Ironsi promulgated a raft of decrees. Among them were the Constitution Suspension and Amendment Decree No.1, which suspended most articles of the Constitution (though he left intact those sections of the constitution that dealt with fundamental human rights, freedom of expression and conscience were left intact). The Circulation of Newspaper Decree No.2 which removed the restrictions on press freedom put in place by the preceding civilian administration. According to Ndayo Uko, the Decree no.2 was to serve "as a kind gesture to the press.." to safeguard himself when he went on later to promulgate the Defamatory and Offensive Decree No.44 of 1966 which made it an "offense to display or pass on pictorial representation, sing songs, or play instruments the words of which are likely to provoke any section of the country." He also as per the proposals of a single man committee passed the controversial Unification Decree No. 34 aimed to unify Nigeria into a unitary state.
Counter coup and assassination
On 29 July 1966 Aguiyi-Ironsi spent the night at the Government House in Ibadan, as part of a nationwide tour. His host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, Military Governor of Western Nigeria, alerted him to a possible mutiny within the army. Aguiyi-Ironsi desperately tried to contact his Army Chief of Staff, Yakubu Gowon, but he was unreachable. In the early hours of the morning, the Government House, Ibadan, was surrounded by soldiers led by Theophilus Danjuma. Danjuma arrested Aguiyi-Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the coup, which saw the demise of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello. The circumstances leading to Aguiyi-Ironsi death still remain a subject of much controversy in Nigeria. His body and that of Fajuyi were later discovered in a nearby forest.
The swagger stick with a stuffed crocodile mascot carried by Aguiyi-Ironsi was called "Charlie". Legend had it that the crocodile mascot made him invulnerable and that it was used to dodge or deflect bullets when he was on mission in the Congo. Despite the stories, the crocodile mascot probably had something to do with the fact that the name "Aguiyi" translates as "crocodile" in Igbo.
Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was married to his wife Victoria in 1953. Aguiyi-Ironsi's son, Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, was appointed to the position of Nigeria's Defence Minister on 30 August 2006 – forty years after his father's death.
Gallantry medal (was awarded by the Austrian Government to Lt Col Aguiyi-Ironsi, Maj Njoku, two expatriates and twelve Nigerian soldiers for their role in the Congo in 1960, in freeing an Austrian ambulance unit which was arrested and imprisoned by the Congolese authorities because they claimed the unit were Belgian parachutists).