The Ironsi Tragedy and the Limitations of Tribalism


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As July 29 2016 as come and gone, one remembers the sad events of 50 years ago. That was the day Nigeria’s first military head of state was assassinated and overthrown in a violent change of government.


What was particularly noticeable, was that his government simply collapsed without a fight even though the coup that toppled it took place, unusually, in the morning. That should have given his foot soldiers the needed advantage to defeat the coup.


This article attempts to look at the unceremonious collapse of the Ironsi government on that day and the reasons for it.  In order to fully appreciate the reasons for Ironsi’s easy overthrow one has to examine his firewall. Ironsi’s early army appointments were as follows:


Commanding Officer, 2 Bde, Lt. Col. H. Njoku (East, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, 2 Bn, Major H. Igboba (Midwest, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, Abeokuta Garrison, Major G. Okonweze (Midwest, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, 4 Bn, Major Nzefili (Midwest, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, Federal Guards, Major Ochei (Midwest, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, 1 Bn, Major D. Ogunewe (East, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, 1 Bde, Lt. ColW. Bassey (East, non-Igbo)

Commanding Officer, 3 Bn, Major Okoro (East, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, Depot, Major F. Akagha (East, Igbo)

Commanding Officer, 5 Bn,Major M. Shuwa (North)


As has become common (to a lesser degree now), the then supreme commander put a lot of faith in the ability of his kinsmen to secure and control the army and in effect stabilize his government. His personal aide de camp and the man personally charged with securing  his personal security was Capt Andrew Nwankwo (another kinsman).  The question then is, why did Ironsi’s government collapse so easily and why was Ironsi so callously betrayed by the people he most trusted.


On the day in question, it became clear to Ironsi, Hillary Njoku (commander of the Lagos Brigade) and colonel Fajuyi that all was not well in Ibadan. Government house Ibadan appeared to be surrounded. Ironsi delegated Hillary Njoku with the task of ascertaining whether danger lurked outside Government house. It did. Hillary Njoku was shot at by rebel soldiers. Nonetheless he managed to escape with a gun shot injury to his leg. What was most curious was the actions of Lt Col H Njoku thereafter. Rather than proceed to Lagos to assume command and control of his brigade, he went into hiding and proceeded to the Eastern region in disguise leaving his supreme commander non the wiser as to where he was or whether Njoku would be raising a force from Lagos to secure or defend his freedom. In the most absurd of circumstances, it fell to the army officer that held an administrative post in Ironsi’s government (Brigadier Ogundipe was chief of staff to Ironsi) to unsuccessfully attempt to command and control Hillary Njoku’s out of control troops.


Njoku’s conduct appeared to mirror the conduct of other officers in command positions that were not killed on the morning of the 29th July 1966.


By far the worst cases of cowardice can be gleaned from the igbo officers stationed in the Northern region. Most of the igbo officers stationed in the North started their escape from the North after becoming aware of the events in Abeokuta but BEFORE the outbreak of any hostilities in the North. None tried to assume control in order to control or pre-empt a breakdown of law and order. The prevalent instinct was to plan the quickest escape route to the eastern region in much the same manner as Hillary Njoku.


By around 8 am in the morning, General Ironsi was reduced to phoning all over the country requesting helicopter airlift from Ibadan to no avail. The irony appears to be that the only commander that proved to have merited his appointment was stationed in the Eastern region. Rather than take a cue from the officers stationed in the West and North of Nigeria, whose first instinct was to play coward and escape (whether that be in the boot of a car, roof of a train or disguised as a maiguard),  Ogunewe assumed control and command of his predominantly northern dominated Enugu barracks in the face of danger to his life and frustrated the planned coup/ insurrection from occurring in the Eastern region.  Ogunewe’s heroic actions could not be believed by Ojukwu himself who promptly ran for cover and went into hiding  the moment he heard of the events occurring in the west of Nigeria. Ogunewe had to persuade Ojukwu to come out of hiding and return to Enugu. That was partially successful. Ojukwu and his family took up residence at police headquarters surrounded by igbo mobile police officers and refused to leave it until Gowon agreed to transfer Northern officers from Enugu barracks out of the Eastern region two weeks later.


Perhaps, the worst possible betrayal that Ironsi suffered that day was the escape of his aide de camp in whose hands his personal security was entrusted. Capt. Andrew Nwankwo (rtd) escaped the moment his Northern colleague gave him the sign. Once he had escaped, no thought for nor obligation towards Ironsi was felt by Andrew Nwankwo. His overriding instinct was to escape and  lay low.  For months thereafter, no one seemed to know what actually happened to Ironsi and Fajuyi. It fell to the unarmed officer holding a political posting to attempt to persuade their captors not to harm Gen Ironsi. In that mission, Colonel Fajuyi failed miserably.


One only needs to contrast the actions of the men Ironsi entrusted with command positions with the heroics displayed by Abacha and IBB’s military officers in fighting to the death to protect IBB. If anything, the events of July 29 1966 showed the limitations of tribalism and its dangers. Rather than appoint brave and capable soldiers capable of standing their ground under the most dangerous of situations (as is required of a soldier) he appointed cowards that became overwhelmed with fear and succumbed to their initial instinct of running home as fast as one could.


In the end, rather than have kinsmen fight to rescue him, he was left to his own fate by the very people he had favoured during his rule. Ironsi died with an unusual companion in Fajuyi who stayed with him to the death for no other reason than Ironsi was taken as a hostage from his home. There may still be a lesson to other military rulers and civilian leaders in that truly tragic circumstance. It may be best to appoint the best officers to military positions.

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