General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi, a soldier and military leader, who was so brutally killed by soldiers from a particular section of Nigeria, reminds us that on July 29, 1966, a vision for a strong and detribalised Nigeria, a vision that would have leapfrogged Nigeria into the comity of developed nations, was jettisoned by the bullets of treacherous soldiers. These soldiers were only hell bent on installing some kind of hegemony upon our plural structured nation, ensuring that our nation, like a bound Prometheus, would never take flight while originators of such hegemony feasted, not only on our regenerating hearts and morale, but also upon our commonwealth as a people. Nigeria is where it is today because of the coup of July 29, 1966. With Nigeria’s First Republic going through the throes of multiple but self inflicted crises, a few military officers, young and full of ideas, flirted with the idea of restoring sanity into the country’s political space through the use of force to shoot their way into relevance and obtain the obedience of the nation. Like every idea, this one hardened into some concrete plan and was given the name Operation Damisa. D-Day saw the January 15 boys strike, leaving in its wake, the demise of several leaders of the First Republic. The coup, nationalistic in its agenda, was highly successful in the North but failed woefully in the South, this was simply due to the timely and courageous reaction of the General Ironsi, who refused to accede to the demands of Nzeogwu and co. Rallying loyal troops to his side, Ironsi outwitted and arrested the mutinous officers, dealing the coup a fatal blow. Since Lagos and not Kaduna was actually the seat of power, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, leader of the coup had but no choice but to surrender to Ironsi. The Nigerian Senate, at that point in time, did hand over to Ironsi, who immediately settled down to fix the nation’s troubles. Possessing the best of intentions for Nigeria, Ironsi identified Nigeria’s biggest problem as tribalism and sought to end the trend. It is important to note that his maiden address to the nation ended like this, Nigerians simply want an end to tribalism. Assembling minds and a number of stakeholders to carefully study the Nigerian nation vis a vis its existing systems and the prevailing dynamics then, the committee did recommend the abrogation of regions and the creation of a unitary system, where every Nigerian would see himself as a Nigerian, even if they were in places outside their own regions of origin. Thus, a Hausa man would be at home in Orofia, Abagana , work there, live there and even marry from my home town if he so desired. He could even become a DG or permanent secretary in Enugu, contributing his quota for the overall development of Nigeria. This was Ironsi’s vision for Nigeria.
Ironsi, the soldier democrat, unlike other military dictators, who would have just announced such a policy without discussing it with fellow members of his ruling council, presented the document to the council, seeking their own input into such a document. No member of his council spurned the idea; none presented even the feeblest of opposition to the proposal. You might think that Ironsi’s Supreme Millitary Council must have been lopsided, having more Igbos than other ethnic groups in its membership, no! Ironsi had more Northerners and Yorubas than Igbos in the council. Members of this council included Yakubu Gowon, then his Chief of Defence Staff. Ironsi, not satisfied with the consent of his council alone, sought to engage the nation on his proposal, he began a tour of the country, visiting the various regions and listening to the input of its stakeholders. General Ironsi finally landed in the Western Region, it was here that the infamy of July 29, 1966 took place, Ironsi was abducted alongside his host, Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, the duo were then dispatched by bursts of a sten gun. Suddenly, the likes of Gowon, Kam Salem, Hassan Kastina and Alhaji Yesufu, found their voices, whilst trying to justify the coup. Gowon, who was later to succeed Ironsi, pitched the idea that Ironsi’s unification decree was never agreed upon and that it was an attempt to entrench an Igbo hegemony upon Nigeria, only for the same Gowon to do a summersault and implement a faulty version of what Ironsi had in mind, one that propped a Northern hegemony.
Ironsi was the last of statesmen, who served selflessly and refused to enrich himself with the commonwealth of ours, he was the last of leaders who did not own hilltop mansions, hotels, banks. It is reported that following his demise, his killers rushed to his bank to identify how much wealth he had stashed there perhaps to use the startling amount as one of their many excuses for toppling Ironsi, to their chagrin they met a paltry sum of six Pounds and ten Shillings, this put an end to their corruption story. General Aguiyi Ironsi, was a great man born to a great nation but his vision of unifying our nation during the height of our ugly human emotions, remains a legacy for future Nigerians be ye Hausa, Igbo,Yoruba or Tiv, a legacy that was jettisoned. Little wonder peace eludes our country today. His ideas still echo today, his voice towers above others, one that some of our founding fathers could not surpass.