July 29 1966 on my Mind: Did General Aguyi-ironsi Deserve to Die?
Part Three: Quashing the Coup or Carrying out a Coup?
By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
In recent years, as more Nigerians begin to pay close attention to the country’s chequered past, the nature of Ironsi’s ascension to power has come under scrutiny. The original general perception is that the rump of the civilian cabinet voluntarily handed over power to Ironsi as an interim measure to deal with the January 15 coup plotters. The hand over, though unconstitutional, was voluntary. Or was it something else?
To answer this question it is important to examine available historical sources and accounts, including eye-witness reports.
According to Frederick Forsyth, in the afternoon of the coup day, Ironsi asked the Acting President, Dr. Nwafor Orizu, to appoint a Deputy Premier from whom he could take valid orders. The substantive President, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, was outside Nigeria and the Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa, was missing, having been kidnapped by Ifeajuna in the early hours of the day. But the politicians procrastinated into the next day. When Ironsi met the cabinet, or what was left of it, he told them point-blank that unless he was in charge, he could not assure his men’s loyalty and prevent war with Nzeogwu. Clearly, the politicians had been thoroughly discredited by their misgovernance which led to the coup. Quite a number of the officers who did not support or participate in the coup would not have acceded to a return to the status quo.
But the story just might be different. On the same January 15 1966, Ironsi met several top civilian and military officials at the Police Headquarters, Moloney Street, Obalende, including Alhaji Tako Galadima, the Minister for State in charge of the Army; Alhaji Ahmadu Kurfi, the Permanent Secretary of the Defence Ministry; police Inspector-General Kam Salem, and British and American military attaches. At this meeting, Ironsi was suspected by the Northerners present but just then news of Ahmadu Bello’s death came in. Ironsi broke down in tears and told them that he no longer knew which of his officers he could trust.
The General’s meeting with the Council of Ministers/Cabinet was also at the Police Headquarters on the same day. Naturally, only a few of them had the courage to be present. These are the highlights of that meeting:
1 Ironsi was given written orders to find the Prime Minister and end the rebellion. Galadima signed the orders in his capacity as acting Defence Minister since his boss; Inuwa Wada (Murtala Muhammed’s influential uncle) was not in Nigeria at the time.
2 Ironsi was mandated to protect the Parliament building.
3 The British were willing to give military assistance but insisted the request must come from the Prime Minister.
4 The cabinet now met Dr. Nwafor Orizu, the Senate President and Acting President, to appoint an interim Prime Minister. They recommended the most senior Northern People’s Congress (NPC) Minister, Alhaji Dipcharima. But Orizu, an Igbo and member of the National Convention of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC), the NPC’s partner, made it clear that he had to confer with NCNC members to know if Dipcharima would be acceptable to them. Hence, the Ministers were to go home and await further developments even as he, Orizu, would consult with Azikiwe who was outside Nigeria at that time, first for medical treatment and later on a cruise for convalescence.
Over the years the question has arisen: what was the actual reason for Orizu’s reluctance to appoint Dipcharima, a Northerner? NPC-NCNC infighting? Coercion from Ironsi? Adherence to constitutional provisions? Collusion with Ironsi to give the Igbo power at the centre? It should not be forgotten that Ironsi came to Orizu’s house when the cabinet was there and told him and Dipcharima the need for a Prime Minister who would give the army legitimate orders. There was a valid precedent in 1964 when, following constitutional clashes between President Azikiwe and Prime Minister Balewa, the military were faced with the challenge of whose orders they would obey. It took constitutional interpretations by legal experts, including the Dean of Law, University of Lagos, Professor Gower, to clear the air: the army would only take orders from the Prime Minister, the head of government though the officers, upon their commissioning into the army, swore an oath of loyalty to the ceremonial President in his capacity as the commander-in-chief.
Whether the meeting was an avenue for Ironsi to strong-arm the politicians is what this writer cannot say. But inasmuch as the circumstances were very auspicious for Ironsi to do this, it should be remembered that he was a man without political ambition, a fact attested to by even Northern officers who knew him.
Chief Richard Akinjide, an NNDP (Nigerian National Democratic Party and Western Region’s ally of the NPC) Minister in the cabinet and a lawyer, made these observations in 2000 about that meeting and the next one Ironsi had with the cabinet on 16 January: ‘Under the law, that is, the Interpretation Act, as acting President, Nwafor Orizu had all the powers of the President. (Implication: Orizu had no need to contact Azikiwe before appointing a Prime Minister). The GOC said he wanted to see all the cabinet ministers. And so we assembled at the cabinet office. Well, I have read in many books saying that we handed over to the military. We did not hand over.
‘Ironsi told us that ‘‘you either hand over as gentlemen or you hand over by force.’’ Those were his words. Is that voluntary hand-over? So we did not hand over. We wanted an Acting Prime Minister to be in place but Ironsi forced us and I use the word force advisedly, to hand over to him. He was controlling the soldiers.
‘The acting President, Nwafor Orizu, who did not cooperate with us, cooperated with the GOC. Dr. Orizu and the GOC prepared speeches which Nwafor Orizu broadcast handing over the government of the country to the army. I here state again categorically as a member of that cabinet that we did not hand over voluntarily. It was a coup.’
If it was a coup who staged it? Definitely it was not the Ifeajuna/Nzeogwu coup which had failed in the South where Lagos, the seat of the federal government, was located. There is evidence of a meeting between Ironsi and a number of military officers between January 15 and 16 1966. Present were senior officers such as Lieutenant-Colonels Yakubu Gowon, Victor Banjo, Hilary Njoku, George Kurubo, Major Patrick Anwunah and Commodore Joseph Wey of the Navy. These officers were the key men of the group that rallied round Ironsi when he mobilized against the coup. It must be stated here that almost all of them, perhaps except Gowon, had no love for the civilian government. According to Ademoyega, Banjo actively supported their coup but was unable to participate because the plotters disagreed with his view that the revolution should have a wider military foundation and an initial political base.
This group of officers most likely represented the military who wanted Ironsi to take over. Their argument was not without merit. First, many military officers had strong feelings against the ousted civilians, including those opposed to the January coup. Second, the air of instability, uncertainty and potential war created by the coup demanded a strong response. The GOC, as the country’s most senior military officer, was one effective rallying-point. Clearly, those elements that were wavering in following his lead would be brought to heel if he had the powers to deal with the situation. One may argue that the cabinet had empowered him to deal with the rebellion. But what of supporters or sympathizers of the Majors who may be tempted to carry out another coup to achieve what their heroes could not? Or even officers who would want to restore the ousted government? Or officers who might have another totally different agenda? It was a dicey time for all parties, not least of all Ironsi. Given the military ideal in which the most senior officer takes charge and unifies command, all eyes, including eventually Nzeogwu’s, must have looked to the bluff, apolitical commander. Also, at this time, some of the Southern-based coup plotters, namely Majors Anuforo and Ademoyega, were still scheming on how to retake Lagos from the loyalists. Major Obienu’s non-cooperation ended their plan and they retreated to the North.
Ironsi’s meeting with the council of ministers in the cabinet office on 16 January 1966 was decisive. The reality checks here are: could the civilians have said no to Ironsi? No, not when he was in full charge of the national instruments of coercion and they were not sure of emerging from the meeting alive. Then did Ironsi’s actions at the meeting show him as a power-hungry soldier? While interpretations are diverse, this writer, on the basis of accounts by eye-witnesses and subsequent developments, is inclined to say no.
Shehu Shagari, the first civilian executive president of Nigeria from 1979 to 1983, was the Minister of Works under Balewa. He belonged to the NPC and was one of the few survivors who attended the two meetings. His gripping account in his memoir ‘Beckoned to Serve’ is significant:
‘I was about to break the Ramadan fast on Sunday 16 January, when all ministers were asked to report at the Cabinet Office at 6.30p.m.m. The whole premises were surrounded by soldiers in battle order that some of us initially hesitated to enter. In the cabinet chamber were Major-General Ironsi, Bukar Dipcharima and Ibrahim Tako Galadima. There were no officials present.
‘Ironsi admitted to us that he had been unable to suppress the rebellion, which he said was getting out of hand. He stated that the mutineers were in control of Kaduna, Kano and Ibadan and had killed two regional premiers, Sir Ahmadu Bello and Chief Akintola. They had also murdered a number of his best officers, including Brigadiers Maimalari and Ademulegun, the Commander of the First Brigade Headquarters in Kaduna. Ironsi was full of emotion and even shed some tears. When we asked him about the whereabouts of Sir Abubakar and Chief Okotie-Eboh, he said he still did not know but averred efforts were still being made to locate them. At this stage Mbadiwe (the NCNC Minister of Trade) broke down and kept crying: ‘‘Please where is the Prime Minister?’’
‘When we reminded Ironsi if he needed to avail himself of the British pledge of assistance, he replied it was too late as the army was pressing him to assume power. Indeed, he confessed his personal reluctance to take over because of his ignorance of government; but insisted the boys were adamant and anxiously waiting outside. He advised it would be in our interest, and that of the country, to temporarily cede power to him to avert disaster. Accordingly, we acceded to his request since we had no better alternative. Ironsi insisted that the understanding be written.
‘Surprisingly, there was no stationery to write the agreement; and all the offices were locked while no official was around. Alhaji AGF Abdulrazaq, the Minister of State for the Railways (former NPC legal adviser), MANAGED TO SECURE A SCRAP OF PAPER ON WHICH HE DRAFTED A STATEMENT WHICH WE ENDORSED. That was the so called voluntary hand-over of power by the Balewa government to Major General Ironsi! It was agreed that the statement would be typed and Dipcharima would sign it on our behalf. We were then advised to return home and await further instructions.’
Dipcharima of the NPC and Mbadiwe of the NCNC signed the statement. Abdulrazaq confirmed Shagari’s account in an interview with ‘This Day’ newspaper on November 12 2007 as reproduced by Max Silloun in his book ‘Oil, Politics and Violence.’ According to Abdulrazaq: ‘I was the only one who took notes at the meeting. Ironsi told us Major Nzeogwu had taken over power and threatened that if we didn’t cooperate with them they would kill all of us.’
The statement signed by Dipcharima and Mbadiwe stated that the hand-over was voluntary. All the political parties issued statements pledging support for Ironsi and the armed forces. All these developments do not detract from the fact that Ironsi’s take-over was illegal since there was no constitutional provision for it. But the circumstances gave the cabinet no choice. To the best of this author’s knowledge there are no documented accounts from Orizu or Dipcharima of what actually happened during their meetings with Ironsi. Till evidence to the contrary is available, it is unlikely to conclude that Ironsi capitalized on the circumstances caused by the coup to seize power. He had to deal with the cards as they fell.
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a historian, writer and Chief Creative Officer of 2-4 henritz writing agency, Lagos.,Nigeria. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED