2nd President of Nigeria In office
January 16, 1966 – July 29, 1966
Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (March 3, 1924, Umuahia - July 29, 1966, Lalupon, Oyo State) was a Nigerian soldier. He served as the Head of State of Nigeria from January 16, 1966 until he was overthrown and killed in a coup d'état on July 29, 1966.
Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born to Mazi and Ezugo Aguiyi on March 3, 1924, in Umuahia, present day Abia State, Nigeria. When he was eight years old, Ironsi was moved in with his older sister Anyamma, who was married to Theophilius Johnson, a Sierra Leonean diplomat in Umuahia. Ironsi subsequently took the last name of his brother-in-law, who became his father figure. At the age of 22, Ironsi joined the Nigerian Army against the wishes of his sister.
Aguiyi-Ironsi excelled in military training at Eaton Hall, England and became a commissioned officer in June, 1949. He soon returned to Nigera to serve as the Aide de camp to John Macpherson, Governor General of Nigeria. During the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, the United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, appealed to the Nigerian government to send troops to Congo. Lieutenant Colonel Ironsi led the 5th battalion to the Kivu and Leopoldville provinces of Congo. His unit proved integral to the peacekeeping effort, and he was soon appointed the Commander of the United Nations Operation in the Congo. Ironsi returned from Congo in 1964 during the post-independence "Nigerianization" of the country's institutions of government. It was decided that the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army, Major General Welby-Everard , would step down to allow the government to appoint an indigenous GOC. Ironsi led the pack of candidates jostling for the coveted position. A consensus was reached by the ruling Northern People's Congress (NPC) and National Council of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) coalition government, and Ironsi became General Officer Commanding of the Nigerian Army on February 9, 1965.
The political crisis in post-colonial Nigeria precipitated into a breakdown of law and order in some of the country's provinces. The inability of Prime Minister Tafawa Balewa to quell the situation incited the military to terminate civilian rule in a bloody coup d'etat on January 14, 1966. The revolutionary soldiers, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, an Igbo from the Mid-western province, but a group that also included major Ademoyega, a yoruba, eradicated the uppermost echelon of politicians from the Northern and Western provinces. Though Ironsi, an Igbo, was originally slated for assassination, he was able to outmaneuver the rebellious soldiers in Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory. Ironsi then rose from the ashes of the First Republic to become the country's first military Head of State when Acting President Nwafor Orizu officially surrendered power to the military.
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 Hausas and Yorubas to believe that it was an Igbo conspiracy. Though Ironsi moved swiftly 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. 1"—which abrogated the country's federal structure in exchange for a unitary one— crystallized this conspiracy theory.
On July 29, 1966, Ironsi spent the night at the Government House Ibadan as part of a nation-wide tour. His host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, Military Governor of Western Nigeria, alerted him to a possible mutiny within the army. 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 of Hausa and Fulani extraction, led by Theophilus Danjuma. Danjuma arrested Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the coup which saw the demise of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello. Though Fajuyi was not a target in this counter coup, his insistence on standing by his Commander in Chief, Ironsi, forced Danjuma to arrest him also. The bullet-riddled bodies of Ironsi and Fajuyi were later found in a nearby forest, and Yakubu Gowon became the new Military Head of State