The 29th of July marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination and overthrow of General Aguiyi Ironsi; a Nigerian patriot and nationalist who ironically fell to the turbulent winds of tribalism in the crisis ridden 60’s.
He came to power on the 16th of January 1966 in the aftermath of the Major Kaduna Nzeogwu led putsch which he had successfully quelled. Before his emergence as head of state he had served as the first indigenous general officer commanding (GOC) the Nigerian army. Previous to that he had also served as the force commander of the United Nations operation in the then Congo.
The Nzeogwu putsch itself had been occasioned by rampant corruption in the ruling government, ethnic divisions and most importantly crisis in the Western region which had resulted initially in a state of emergency being declared and subsequently in rigged elections in 1964 and attendant violence (wetie) that continued unabated until the 1966 putsch. Indeed the failings and disappointments of the 1st republic were legion. Nigerians had fought for and entered independence with much expectations. These expectations were aptly captured in Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s speech when he proclaimed on the nation’s attainment of independence that “his stiffest earthly assignment is ended and his life’s work is done.” For a man who was at the helm of the independence struggle, this declaration demonstrates how much faith he had in the potentials of post-colonial Nigeria.
But those who assumed political power soon dashed all dreams of a potential “giant in the sun.” Increasingly, ethnic and regional sentiments/considerations took precedence over nation building and the development of a virile democracy. Rigged census results and elections soon became the order of the day. Political violence followed in tow, while corrupt enrichment continued to thrive in full view. What finally sealed the fate of the 1st republic was the unprecedented violence that followed the 1964 electoral fraud in the Western region. With arson, mass murders and thuggery a daily occurrence and no visible action by government to stop it, disillusioned and angry young officers entered the scene on the 15th of January 1966.
Not surprisingly, the putsch was initially very popular (before it was consumed by tribal sentiments) as most had lost faith in the post-independence regime due to excesses that had increasingly become common place. Though the putsch was ultimately unsuccessful, it nonetheless created enough chaos to truncate the 1st republic. A subsequent resolution by the parliament relinquished power to Aguiyi who being the GOC and most senior military officer assumed office as the nation’s first military head of state, inheriting a nation reeling not only from the needless crisis of the 1st republic but also from the attrition and ashes of the Nzeogwu putsch. Aguiyi faced a damning dilemma—allow the nation drift or try to hold it together. As can be imagined, he was literarily flooded with an avalanche of suggestions, advice, threats and declarations by advisers on one hand and various interest groups on the other.
For 5 months he dithered; weighing the odds between letting the nation drift as it increasingly was or try to hold it together until the situation stabilised. On the 24th of May he finally announced Decree No. 34 intended to unify and hold the country together in a time of grave national crisis. The main elements of the decree was the re-designation of Nigeria as a republic rather than a federation, the replacement or renaming of the regions to provinces albeit with the same boundaries and steps to centralise the civil service to be known as “the national public service.” Considered the first plunge into a unitary state; like it or hate it, decree 34 was a response to a critical situation at the time Aguiyi took power. But as it turned out in a nation long poisoned by the chalice of tribalism, Aguiyi’s ethnicity had already subjected every move he made, no matter how well intentioned to suspicion.
It didn’t take long before accusations rent the air. The north took particular umbrage over the decree and accused Aguiyi of wanting to consolidate Igbo domination through it. The whimperings and conspiracy theories continued until Aguiyi together with Col Adekunle Fajuyi the then military Governor of the Western region who had refused to surrender the head of state were assassinated in the course of a state visit to Ibadan on the 29th of July 1966 in a northern counter-coup. By the time he was ousted; decree 34 promulgated on the 24th of May had only lasted 2 months and 4 days. The major reason for his overthrow was the controversial decree even though on closer observation it turns out the decree was unitary in name only.
For example; Aguiyi’s decree did not remove the right to regional control of resources which is today the major contention for true federalism. Regions thus, continued to control their resources and pay taxes to the centre under Aguiyi’s decree 34. Similarly; though the regions were renamed provinces their boundaries remained intact as Aguiyi neither balkanized any region nor created states out of any of them as subsequent regimes did. Existing regional constitutions were also retained. In all, outside the centralisation of the civil service, Aguiyi’s so called unitary decree was more in name than in substance. As proof that Aguiyi was a victim more of his ethnicity than the policies he pursued, those that overthrew him on the grounds that he introduced the unitary decree went further to consolidate the same unitary system by creating states and abolishing all levers of resource control.
50 years on; in the face of increased agitation to restructure the nation along the lines of true federalism, its paradoxical that the greatest defenders of the unitary system are the same northerners who overthrew Aguiyi for introducing it and in doing so, often give the same reasons he once gave being the necessity to hold the nation together. Given the level of convergence that now exists between Aguiyi’s so called unitarist decree and the vociferous position of the north in defending the unitary system, one would have expected the north to apologise to Aguiyi’s family on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his overthrow. But alas; no northerner attended the anniversary nor made any conciliatory statements. Conversely, the next day being the 30th of July, the cream of northern leaders emptied in a similar anniversary for late General Hassan Katsina; former governor of the Northern region incidentally appointed by Gen Aguiyi Ironsi. Apparently, it was more convenient for northern leaders to show up for Katsina’s anniversary, than for Aguiyi who was a former head of state.
What this demonstrates is that the tribal animosity, propaganda and deceitful premises that gave rise to the assassination and overthrow of Aguiyi are still alive and well even though it’s now obvious the man was anything but a patriot and the north has found more convergence with his albeit symbolic unitarist decree than any other regime in history. 50 years on; we are still unable to tell ourselves the truth and let it set us free. Yet this insincerity and hypocrisy is exactly the reason Nigeria has remained stagnated. For those who furthered and continue to defend the unitary system to give such cold shoulder to the man they claim started a system they have continued to insist on, at a time when they should be apologising to the man, tells it all.
Nigeria is a nation still divided, still sustained on lies, still populated by hypocrites and still not ready to face the necessary truths that can heal and set us free!