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Ironsi and Jonathon: Faces of the Same Coin?

By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema (Nigeria)


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In recent times I have been reflecting about Good luck Ebele Jonathan; the manner of man he is and the position he occupies as Nigeria’s president. The more I try to analyze his efforts to steer the increasingly volatile ship of the Nigerian state, the more I am constrained to compare him with General Johnson Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military Head of State. 
History is a discipline which gives those who are humble enough to learn from it fresh insights. While periods, circumstances and individuals vary, there are vital points to be drawn from seeing how our predecessors handled situations that are not unlike contemporary challenges. My comparison of both leaders; the circumstances surrounding their rise to power and the implications for Nigeria is based on this premise.

Ironsi was the first indigenous General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian army. An Igbo from Umuahia in present day Abia State, Ironsi was mostly responsible for quashing the Ifeajuna-Nzeogwu led coup of January 15 1966. He was a key target of the mostly Igbo coup plotters who wiped out a sizeable number of the then ruling class. Ironsi became the head of state in rather controversial circumstances. The popular version of his ascension report that the discredited and surviving rump of Balewa’s government invited Ironsi to take over following his successful routing of the majors’ coup and thus fill in the power vacuum. But key surviving members of that government paint a different picture. This group asserts that Ironsi compelled them to hand over to him following the failure of the January coup. Instead of acceding to the swearing in of Alhaji Dipcharima, the most senior Minister in the rump , the then Senate President, Nwafor Orizu, allegedly worked hand in glove with Ironsi to hand over power to the military. Indeed, Ironsi allegedly told the remnants of Balewa’s cabinet to ‘either hand over as gentlemen or you hand over by force.’ Thus Orizu made a broadcast ‘inviting’ Ironsi to take over and he ‘accepted.’

But even many of Ironsi’s detractors admit that he was reluctant to become head of state. In the words of ex-president Shehu Shagari, 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 similarly controversial. Following President Yar’adua’s health problems which necessitated his being flown to Saudi Arabia, one would have expected GEJ as the 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 numerous interests were thrown up. Jonathan, like Ironsi, gave the impression of a man disinterested in power-juggling and simply determined to do his job at a trying time to secure Nigeria. Till date the doctrine of necessity formulated by the National Assembly that brought GEJ to the presidency on February 9 2010 remains open to diverse interpretations. History will definitely reveal if and what was GEJ’s role in that frontier-expanding politico-legal exercise. Since then GEJ’s position has not been generally beloved.

Strikingly similar issues are thrown up by the rise of both leaders. Who were the military boys who insisted on Ironsi’s take-over, if such a group existed? Whose agenda were they pushing, given that the army at that time was a hotbed of political intrigue? Ironsi himself once lamented that ‘I asked for soldiers and am given politicians dressed in uniform.’ Contemporary Nigerians will remember that GEJ started out as a seeming political neophyte. But the April 2011 elections changed all that. GEJ’s opponents accused him of being beholden to a group of power-seekers bent on disregarding the ruling party’s   power-sharing formula. This group insisted that GEJ must contest for the presidency and win. He took his time before throwing his hat in the ring. Was he ruminating and consulting or was he balancing his acts with this invisible group, if it exists?

Ironsi’s leadership position radically changed Nigeria’s political equation. For the first time since Nigeria’s independence a Southern Nigerian Christian was the executive though unconstitutional head of government with full powers. This did not go down well with the former mostly Muslim Northern ruling elite. Ironsi’s actions in power only worsened the situation, though it is a historical tragedy that many scholars of this period overlook noteworthy policies of the Ironsi regime such as the unification of the country’s foreign policy system. The then elite, shattered by the Ifeajuna-Nzeogwu coup which took a heavy toll on their best, were embittered by Ironsi’s inability or unwillingness to court-martial the plotters. But historical evidence indicate that no matter what he did to placate them-and Ironsi stretched his massive bulk to do so- the elite were not ready to accept their loss of power. Documented British support for anti-Ironsi forces indicate that foreign interests were not comfortable that those they had structuralized Nigeria to be in their charge were no longer in control.
Does this situation not compare with GEJ’s circumstances? The Northern elite-who ARE NOT the same as the Northern people- who began to feel threatened by Obasanjo’s antics during his second tenure were  alarmed when GEJ, SUPPOSEDLY Obasanjo’s ‘lieutenant’ succeeded Yar’Adua, despite their best efforts.  With GEJ’s control of the ruling People’s Democratic Party and election triumph this Establishment had to fight back on all fronts. True, Boko Haram is rooted in the global wave of Islamic extremism and gross poverty and injustice in Northern Nigeria but its local dynamics are entrenched in our political peculiarities.  I look forward to the security agencies unearthing concrete evidence of local political sponsorship of the group, if they can.

Ironsi was a convinced One-Nigeria man. Whether he practiced this creed with wisdom is another matter.  The composition of his government and personal security cut across all tribes. According to Alexander Madiebo in his book ‘The Nigerian Revolution and the Biafran War’ Ironsi went as far as conferring with Igbo officers in the presence of the Yoruba military administrator of Lagos, then Major Mobalaji Johnson, to avoid being accused of running an Igbo regime.
GEJ’s One-Nigeria record is well known. Like Ironsi he reached out to the Northern elite. He appointed the first Igbo Chief of Army Staff since Ironsi held the job. I hope he practices his One-Nigeria creed with wisdom.

Ironsi went down apparently because of the infamous Decree 34 (Unification Decree) which he promulgated to turn the ill-shaped Nigerian federation into a unitary state. I use the word ‘apparently’ for the following reasons: first, the Northern elite would not give him a chance perhaps unless Nzeogwu and Co. faced the firing-squad; then what did the Northern 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 readjust the political alignment?

But Ironsi made a fundamental mistake which GEJ must learn from: the deep-seated fears of components of the Nigerian populace should be considered when policies are enacted and concrete measures taken to assuage them. If Ironsi’s advisers had been knowledgeable about the country perhaps Decree 34 would not have come in the form it did or at all.GEJ should bear this in mind as he grapples with his admittedly laudable policy of fuel subsidy removal and other far-reaching reform agenda. He should be savvy enough to understand the disparate nature of this complex entity called Nigeria. Ironsi wanted to exorcise the demon of regionalism; GEJ wants to restructure Nigeria’s economy and ensure effective deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector.  Laudable objectives but the two leaders have both fat cats who live off the system, and far more dangerous, the long-suffering masses who; threatened by the cost of change, refuse to stay silent.

Ironsi met formidable security challenges when he ruled from January to July 1966. Space and time do not permit me to mention them. I recommend a critical study of Chuks Iloegbunam’s book on Ironsi titled ‘Ironsides’ and Nowamaigbe Omoigui’s online publication ‘Operation Aure: The Northern Military Counter-Rebellion of July 1966’ at www. for details. GEJ may learn one or two things.  Boko Haram might be the new face of an old monster. On January 8 2012 he cried out that the group’s men had infiltrated his government and security forces. I pray that cry is not too late.  Ironsi’s destruction was facilitated by fifth columnists in his government. His overthrow began the bloody race to Nigeria’s civil war. 
May God save Nigeria.

Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a writer and historian based in Lagos. Email: