#YNaijaEssays: June 12 and the legacy of Nigerian Leadership I

Last week, Nigeria as a nation celebrated the post-humous honour granted to Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola and the recognition that was given to the 1993 elections. However, much of this joy seemed restricted to certain age demographics. Specifically, only the people who had lived during his own run for the presidency seemed to suggest there was a widespread lack of context and historical knowledge especially when our former military leaders are discussed. Remarks made by President Muhammadu Buhari a few months ago praising now dead dictator General Sani Abacha and the lack of outrage that followed seemed to suggest that, we knew as little about how legacy as a nation than anyone could have predicted.

This inspired our Weekly Essay at YNaija this week. We have asked all our writers to research on and write about our past military leaders, the often less discussed aspects of their time in leadership and the legacy of their decision making. We hope it enlightens you as much as it did us. Here is the first article in this three-part essay.


The January 1966 coup that took place in Nigeria was the fifth coup in West Africa and the first in Nigeria, foreshadowing several decades of violent and bloodless coups and the constant undermining of democratic structures. The first Nigerian coup didn’t only affect Nigeria, it was the catalyst for the internal agitations that led to successful coups in countries like Liberia and Ghana.

One major actor, however, in the events that followed the coup was Major General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, who is often overlooked when Nigeria’s military legacy is discussed in recent times, perhaps because of his short stay in office (194 days) and his unpopular decrees.

Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was Nigeria’s first Military Head of State. He assumed power following the first military coup which took place on January 15, 1966, plotted by a group of young army officers, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, that overthrew the central and regional governments of Nigeria, and saw to the assassination of the Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, Chief S.L Akintola, Brigadier S.A Adegoke and a few other military officers.

Aguiyi-Ironsi had previously served as Commandant of the United Nations Peace-Keeping Force in the Congo and General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the entire Nigerian Army, and was thereafter named the military head of state on January 16, 1966, being the most ranking military officer at the time,though there are reports that he compelled the remaining members of Balewa’s Government to resign seeing that the government was in disarray. The Democratic Republic of Congo had become the first African country to become embroiled in a post-independence Civil War, following its emancipation from oppressive Belgian rule and it is believed Ironsi first got his idea to wrest control of Nigeria’s young parliamentary government this way.

In a broadcast through Kaduna Radio, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu who led the coup plotters affirmed that there were five of them in the inner circle who planned the details of the coup and as such levelled a number of accusations against Balewa’s regime which they had just overthrown. Nzeogwu explained that the Tafawa Balewa led administration was corrupted with regionalism, nepotism and tribalism resulting in unhealthy rivalries that existed between the government at the centre and those of the regions, especially because of the administrative structure which concentrated much of state powers at the regions, at the expense of a weak centre, thus making it difficult for the federal government to exercise unifying or restraining influence on the federating units.

The aforementioned issues threatened the country’s sovereignty as it went from one political crisis to the other, notable among which were the 1962 Western Region crisis, the 1962/63 census crisis, the 1964 nationwide strike, the 1964 Federal election crisis, the University of Ife crisis (1964), the University of Lagos crisis (1965) Western Region Election crisis (1965), all of which became the foundation on which the Military authorities led by Ironsi eventually assumed leadership of the country.

Ironsi in a national broadcast to the country confirming a change of guard said:

The Military Government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria wishes to state that it has taken over the interim administration of the Federal Republic of Nigeria following the invitation of the Council of Ministers of the last Government for the Army to do so.

……The invitation has been accepted and I, GENERAL JOHNSON THOMAS UMUNAKWE AGUIYI-IRONSI, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, have been formally invested with authority as Head of the Federal Military Government and Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces.”

He then passed into law decrees suspending provisions of the 1963 constitution relating to the office of the President, the Prime Minister and the establishment of such offices, as well as those of regional governors, regional premiers, the office of the executive councils and regional legislatures.

A number of decrees equally followed suit to enable the National Military Government to perform its functions and in another broadcast on January 28, 1966, he addressed the nation through the Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, Lagos, where he announced his policy statement to the country.

Ironsi outlined the policies and programmes of his regime to include; end to regionalism and sectoral interests, stressing that it was embarking on an urgent task of national reconstruction as well as a mission to stamp out corruption and dishonesty in the nation’s public life, restore integrity and self-respect in the public affairs of the country, administrative reforms, put an end to extravagance and waste in public expenditure and a promise of firm, honest and disciplined leadership.

He further promised to reappraise the educational policies, give priority to low-income housing schemes and pursue industrialisation through a six-year Development Programme to boost the iron and steel industry and economy in general.

Against the background of the myriad of issues facing the country, Ironsi’s broadcast came as a masterstroke, but his regime proved however to be one marked by weaknesses, lack of a realistic political objective, unpreparedness and lack of ambition as his actions especially in his slow approach to addressing issues, including those of critical security implications reflected this clearly. As Vincent Ekwurumadu in a publication of the Policy Magazine in 1966 described Ironsi, he was ‘a man who forgot himself.’

In the opinion of many, the pitfalls of the regime started with the holes in his policy statement broadcast to the nation, where he failed clearly to punish the coup plotters who had surrendered to the Military government, his decision to not set a timeline for a return to civilian rule or what processes he would put in place to restore power to civilians in the light of his initial announcement that it was going to be an interim military government.

A few weeks into the administration, Ironsi, having noticed the mood of the nation and a general consensus that the parliamentary system previously practised had failed, commenced an arrangement to transform the country from a federation into a republic (unitarism) as a solution to her challenges, and with the promulgation of the controversial Decree 34, Nigeria was to assume a unitary status on May 24, 1966, where the 4 regions would become a group of provinces, where each of them would be administered by a military governor, who was in turn responsible to the National Military Government. This development did not go down well with the Northern group of provinces (as it was to be called), thus leading to anti-government protests in the North in the form of newspaper publications, broadcasts and organised killings of easterners in the North, even before the implementation of the decree commenced.

While we can credit Ironsi for his legacy of curbing extravagance and high cost of governance as evident in the reduction of ministries, abolition of the Offices of Agent-General in London, limitation of overseas tours by public officials, and other related policies, demands he also placed on military governors, the greatest undoing of the regime is seen to be a cardinal part of its policy aimed at achieving national unity by rotating the deployment of each administrative heads of the group of provinces from those of their origin to others.

The northern region among other things perceived it to be a plot by the southerners to enslave them on their homeland and just like the pre-Ironsi era where threats of secession already existed in the North, a breakdown of law and order occurred in the north as southern families became heavy casualties in the May riots which eventually led to what is popularly called the July Counter Coup.

Ironsi was assassinated alongside Lt. Col. Adekunle Fajuyi, then Military Governor of Western region and over 30 military officers (mainly of southern extraction) in an overthrow of the regime on July 29, 1966, by a group of mutinous Northern army officers who revolted against his government.


It is no longer news that General Yakubu Gowon came into power before Nigeria’s civil war. Before he overthrew the mostly Igbo military cabal in 1966, the same group who had overthrown the Nigerian civilian government in January of the same year, there are no records of Gowon’s interests in politics – he was a strictly professional soldier. Gowon, who was only 32 at the time, first had to reinstate order.

By the end of 1966, the then military governor of Eastern Nigeria, Lieut. Colonel Chukwuemeka Ojukwu (later General), reacted to the killing of over 30,000 eastern Nigerians and called for the secession of his region. Nigeria had been divided along ethnic lines as Igbos were accused of leading the country out of civilian rule.

The two men – Gowon and Ojukwu – had a meeting in January 1967 that failed to reach a concession, which prompted Gowon to declare a state of emergency on May 27, dividing Nigeria into 12 new states. This decision, which included dividing the eastern region into three states, was part of a plan to undermine the influence of Ojukwu. In response, the spirited soldier, supported by the eastern region’s consultative assembly declared the state of ‘Biafra’ three days later on May 30, which the Gowon-led federal government interpreted as an act of rebellion; this literally started the civil war that began in July.

The former Chief of Staff (Gowon) of the previous government led by Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi had tried to resolve the ethnic tensions that threatened ‘One Nigeria’ with the conference between a delegation from the eastern region and the federal government that held on a neutral ground in Aburi, Ghana. That event is known in Nigerian history as the Aburi Accords.

Speaking on the meeting later, Gowon said the federal government went to Aburi in order to regain the confidence and trust of Nigerians, following a disagreement, which broke out between the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and the Eastern region, led by Ojukwu.

We agreed to put our heads together, to regain the trust and confidence of Nigerians. We went to Aburi, to agree to deal with the situation of our country, by ourselves.

We did not go with any prepared position on the federal side, but, Ojukwu came with a paper he prepared. His prepared position was on a pink paper. Usually, pink paper at the Staff College is directing staff solution to the problem,” he said on AIT’s ‘People, Politics and Power’.

We went there (Aburi) to restore the trust of our country. If we were working together, anyone with a conscience will assuage the feelings (of the South-easterners). However, Ojukwu thought otherwise. He had in mind all along, based on what happened to his people in the North, that secession was the only way out. Nevertheless, we were thinking of the whole country, because all parts of the country were involved. The military was not involved in the killings of South-easterners in the North,” he added.

Gowon was able to end attacks against Igbo in the North but peace was far from the country. Within weeks from when the sectarian disputes started, it had grown into a full-scale civil war. In August 1967, the now Biafran troops crossed the Niger, seized Benin City and were on their way to Lagos but were stopped at Ore, Ondo. Not too long from that time, federal troops invaded Enugu, the interim capital of Biafra.

Into the second year of the war, Gowon, who had the support of Great Britain and the Soviet Union succeeded in isolating Biafra diplomatically and the Nigerian Navy isolated the region physically – but the Igbos were resistant. There were casualties among civilians as well in both armies and attempts by the Organisation of African Unity (now African Union) to broker peace seemed to continue to hit a brick wall. However, the Igbo population earned recognition from African states and secured aid from international organisations.

This ‘cold war’ lasted until Biafran troops ran short of ammunition, the siege laid on them starting to really amass human casualties. The last straw would today be considered a major human rights violation and a war crime; the Igbo population was deliberately starved as the government on June 30, 1969, banned all Red Cross aid and about two weeks later restricted food supplies. Over one million people died of forced starvation. In addition, its rebellion’s leadership had lost most of its hold on the Biafran people. This allowed federal troops on December 24 of the same year to launch a colossal onslaught to subdue the other side. Gowon had originally instructed government forces to remember that they were fighting Nigerians, who were to be encouraged to forget the Biafran state and rejoin Nigeria. He also gave permission to international troops to monitor the conduct of his troops.

Upon Ojukwu’s absence, who had, on January 11, 1970, fled to Côte d’Ivoire, a Biafran commission surrendered – days later. From then, Gowon brought the two sides together without apportioning blame, his first of many attempts to foster reconciliation. In fact, he established a policy of “no victor, no vanquished.”

An oil boom took off from then and the federal government was able to finance development programs but Gowon’s attempt to implement his 3R program of reconstruction, rehabilitation, and reconciliation across the now supposedly ‘One Nigeria’ failed. It was defective, as literally most of Nigeria had lost faith in his administration. Corruption now became the order of the day. A claim which he dislodged at the Eighth Annual General Meeting and Conference for Heads of Anti-corruption Agencies in Commonwealth Africa, in Abuja.

He said in an interview with Vanguard, “Everything we had in the country belonged to the nation, belonged to the people and we must not touch anything. We made sure nothing like that (graft) happened, especially in the civil service.” Gowon added that he and his officers did not indulge in corruption.

No one till date believes that. Besides, his attempt to return Nigeria to civilian rule was reversed or postponed, even when his ministers were accused of gross corruption.

On July 29, 1975, Gowon was overthrown and replaced by General Murtala Muhammed. Gowon was in Uganda for an OAU summit meeting, and the army seized the opportunity. He then fled to Great Britain. He only returned when General Ibrahim Babangida granted him pardon from all the allegations levelled against him.

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