Ironsi and Jonathan
By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
HENRY CHUKWUEMEKA ONYEMA
In recent times I have been reflecting about Goodluck Ebele Jonathan; the manner of man he is and the position he occupies asNigeria’s president. The more I try to analyze his efforts to steer theincreasingly volatile ship of the Nigerian state, the more I am constrained tocompare him with General Johnson Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s firstmilitary Head of State.
History is a discipline which gives those who arehumble enough to learn from it fresh insights. While periods, circumstances andindividuals vary, there are vital points to be drawn from seeing how our predecessorshandled situations that are not unlike contemporary challenges. My comparison ofboth leaders; the circumstances surrounding their rise to power and theimplications for Nigeria is based on this premise.
Ironsi was the first indigenous General OfficerCommanding (GOC) of the Nigerian army. An Igbo from Umuahia in present day AbiaState, Ironsi was mostly responsible for quashing the Ifeajuna-Nzeogwu led coupof January 15 1966. He was a key target of the mostly Igbo coup plotters whowiped out a sizeable number of the then ruling class. Ironsi became the head ofstate in rather controversial circumstances. The popular version of his ascensionreport that the discredited and surviving rump of Balewa’s government invitedIronsi to take over following his successful routing of the majors’ coup andthus fill in the power vacuum. But key surviving members of that governmentpaint a different picture. This group asserts that Ironsi compelled them tohand over to him following the failure of the January coup. Instead of accedingto the swearing in of Alhaji Dipcharima, the most senior Minister in the rump ,the then Senate President, Nwafor Orizu, allegedly worked hand in glove withIronsi to hand over power to the military. Indeed, Ironsi allegedly told the remnantsof Balewa’s cabinet to ‘either hand over as gentlemen or you hand over byforce.’ Thus Orizu made a broadcast ‘inviting’ Ironsi to take over and he ‘accepted.’
But even many of Ironsi’s detractors admit that hewas reluctant to become head of state. In the words of ex-president ShehuShagari, then a Minister in Balewa’s administration: ‘Indeed he (Ironsi)confessed his personal reluctance to take over because of his ignorance of government,but insisted the (boys?) were adamant.’
GEJ’s road to the presidency was similarlycontroversial. Following President Yar’adua’s health problems whichnecessitated his being flown to Saudi Arabia, one would have expected GEJ asthe vice-president to step into his boss’s shoes. But like in Ironsi’s time,Nigeria’s stability was rattled by the abrupt power vacuum and numerousinterests were thrown up. Jonathan, like Ironsi, gave the impression of a mandisinterested in power-juggling and simply determined to do his job at a tryingtime to secure Nigeria. Till date the doctrine of necessity formulated by theNational Assembly that brought GEJ to the presidency on February 9 2010 remainsopen to diverse interpretations. History will definitely reveal if and what wasGEJ’s role in that frontier-expanding politico-legal exercise. Since then GEJ’sposition has not been generally beloved.
Strikingly similar issues are thrown up by the riseof both leaders. Who were the military boys who insisted on Ironsi’s take-over,if such a group existed? Whose agendawere they pushing, given that the army at that time was a hotbed of politicalintrigue? Ironsi himself once lamented that ‘I asked for soldiers and am givenpoliticians dressed in uniform.’ Contemporary Nigerians will remember that GEJstarted out as a seeming political neophyte. But the April 2011 electionschanged all that. GEJ’s opponents accused him of being beholden to a group ofpower-seekers bent on disregarding the ruling party’s power-sharing formula. This group insistedthat GEJ must contest for the presidency and win. He took his time beforethrowing his hat in the ring. Was he ruminating and consulting or was hebalancing his acts with this invisible group, if it exists?
Ironsi’s leadership position radically changedNigeria’s political equation. For the first time since Nigeria’s independence aSouthern Nigerian Christian was the executive though unconstitutional head ofgovernment with full powers. This did not go down well with the former mostlyMuslim Northern ruling elite. Ironsi’s actions in power only worsened thesituation, though it is a historical tragedy that many scholars of this periodoverlook noteworthy policies of the Ironsi regime such as the unification ofthe country’s foreign policy system. The then elite, shattered by theIfeajuna-Nzeogwu coup which took a heavy toll on their best, were embittered byIronsi’s inability or unwillingness to court-martial the plotters. Buthistorical evidence indicate that no matter what he did to placate them-andIronsi stretched his massive bulk to do so- the elite were not ready to accepttheir loss of power. Documented British support for anti-Ironsi forces indicatethat foreign interests were not comfortable that those they had structuralizedNigeria to be in their charge were no longer in control.
Does this situation not compare with GEJ’scircumstances? The Northern elite-who ARE NOT the same as the Northern people-who began to feel threatened by Obasanjo’s antics during his second tenurewere alarmed when GEJ, SUPPOSEDLY Obasanjo’s‘lieutenant’ succeeded Yar’Adua, despite their best efforts. With GEJ’s control of the ruling People’sDemocratic Party and election triumph this Establishment had to fight back onall fronts. True, Boko Haram is rooted in the global wave of Islamic extremismand gross poverty and injustice in Northern Nigeria but its local dynamics areentrenched in our political peculiarities. I look forward to the security agencies unearthing concrete evidence of localpolitical sponsorship of the group, if they can.
Ironsi was a convinced One-Nigeria man. Whether he practicedthis creed with wisdom is another matter. The composition of his government and personal security cut across alltribes. According to Alexander Madiebo in his book ‘The Nigerian Revolution andthe Biafran War’ Ironsi went as far as conferring with Igbo officers in thepresence of the Yoruba military administrator of Lagos, then Major MobalajiJohnson, to avoid being accused of running an Igbo regime.
GEJ’s One-Nigeria record is well known. Like Ironsihe reached out to the Northern elite. He appointed the first Igbo Chief of ArmyStaff since Ironsi held the job. I hope he practices his One-Nigeria creed withwisdom.
Ironsi went down apparently because of the infamousDecree 34 (Unification Decree) which he promulgated to turn the ill-shapedNigerian federation into a unitary state. I use the word ‘apparently’ for thefollowing reasons: first, the Northern elite would not give him a chanceperhaps unless Nzeogwu and Co. faced the firing-squad; then what did theNorthern members of his regime do to get Ironsi to put off enacting that decree?Thirdly, was anger against the decree not a cover for those who wanted to readjustthe political alignment?
But Ironsi made a fundamental mistake which GEJ mustlearn from: the deep-seated fears of components of the Nigerian populace shouldbe considered when policies are enacted and concrete measures taken to assuagethem. If Ironsi’s advisers had been knowledgeable about the country perhaps Decree34 would not have come in the form it did or at all.GEJ should bear this inmind as he grapples with his admittedly laudable policy of fuel subsidy removaland other far-reaching reform agenda. He should be savvy enough to understandthe disparate nature of this complex entity called Nigeria. Ironsi wanted toexorcise the demon of regionalism; GEJ wants to restructure Nigeria’s economyand ensure effective deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector. Laudable objectives but the two leaders haveboth fat cats who live off the system, and far more dangerous, thelong-suffering masses who; threatened by the cost of change, refuse to staysilent.
Ironsi met formidable security challenges when heruled from January to July 1966. Space and time do not permit me to mentionthem. I recommend a critical study of Chuks Iloegbunam’s book on Ironsi titled ‘Ironsides’and Nowamaigbe Omoigui’s online publication ‘Operation Aure: The Northern MilitaryCounter-Rebellion of July 1966’ at www. Omoigui.com for details. GEJ may learnone or two things. Boko Haram might bethe new face of an old monster. On January 8 2012 he cried out that the group’smen had infiltrated his government and security forces. I pray that cry is nottoo late. Ironsi’s destruction wasfacilitated by fifth columnists in his government. His overthrow began thebloody race to Nigeria’s civil war.
May God save Nigeria.
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a writer and historianbased in Lagos. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org