Opinion: The Ironsi Tragedy and the Limitations of Tribalism by Dele Awogbeoba

 As July 29 2016 has 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

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

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
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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