Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi GCFR MVO MBE (3 March 1924 – 29 July 1966) was a Nigerian general who was the first military head of state of Nigeria. He was appointed to head the country after the 15 January 1966 military coup.

Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi
2nd Head of State of Nigeria
In office
16 January 1966 – 29 July 1966
Chief of StaffBabafemi Ogundipe
Preceded byNnamdi Azikiwe
Succeeded byYakubu Gowon
General Officer Commanding, Nigerian Army
In office
February 1965 – 15 January 1966
PresidentNnamdi Azikiwe
Prime MinisterTafawa Balewa
Preceded byChristopher Welby-Everard
Succeeded byYakubu Gowon
Personal details
Born(1924-03-03)3 March 1924
Umuahia, Southern Region, British Nigeria
(now in Abia State, Nigeria)
Died29 July 1966(1966-07-29) (aged 42)
Lalupon, Western Region (now in Oyo State), Nigeria
Political partyNone (military)
SpouseVictoria Aguiyi-Ironsi
OccupationMilitary officer
Military service
Allegiance British Empire (to 1960)
Branch/service Nigerian Army
Years of service1942–1966
Rank Major general
UnitCommander, 2nd Brigade
CommandsForce Commander, ONUC

He ruled from 16 January 1966,[2] until his assassination on 29th July in the same year by a group of mutinous Northern Nigerian officers and men. Led by Major Murtala Mohammed and included Captain Theophilus Danjuma, Lieutenant Muhammadu Buhari, Lieutenant Ibrahim Babangida and Lieutenant Sani Abacha in a revolt against his government in what was popularly called the July counter-coup.

Early life


Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born into the family of Igbo people Ezeugo Aguiyi on 3 March 1924, in Ibeku, Umuahia, now in Abia State, Nigeria.[3] Aguiyi-Ironsi subsequently took the last name of his brother-in-law as his first name in admiration of Mr. Johnson for the father-figure role that he played in his life.[4]

Aguiyi-Ironsi had his primary and secondary school education in Umuahia and Kano, respectively. At the age of 18, he joined the Nigeria Regiment against the wishes of his sister, Anyamma.[5]

Military career


In 1942, Aguiyi-Ironsi joined the Nigerian Regiment, as a private with the seventh battalion.[6] He was promoted in 1946 to company sergeant major. Also in 1946, Aguiyi-Ironsi was sent on an officer training course in Staff College, Camberley, England. On 12 June 1949, after completion of his course at Camberley, he received a short-service commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal West African Frontier Force,[7] with a subsequent retroactive promotion to lieutenant effective from the same date.[8]

Aguiyi-Ironsi was granted a regular commission on 16 May 1953 (seniority from 8 October 1947),[9] and was promoted to captain with effect from the same date (seniority from 8 October 1951).[9]

Aguiyi-Ironsi was one of the officers who served as equerry for Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom and Nigeria when she visited Nigeria in 1956 and so he was appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO).[10] He was promoted to Major on 8 October 1958.[11]

In 1960, Aguiyi-Ironsi was made commandant of the fifth battalion in Kano, Nigeria, with the rank of lieutenant colonel.[12]

Later in 1960, Aguiyi-Ironsi headed the Nigerian contingent force of the United Nations Operation in the Congo. From 1961 to 1962, Aguiyi-Ironsi served as the military attaché to the Nigeria High Commission in London, United Kingdom. During that period he was promoted to the rank of brigadier. During his tenure as military attaché, he attended courses at the Imperial Defence college (renamed Royal College of Defence Studies in 1961), Seaford House, Belgrave Square. He was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, Military Division (MBE) in the 1962 New Year Honours list.[13]

In 1964, he was appointed as the commandant of the entire United Nations peace keeping force in the Congo.[14]

In 1965, Aguiyi-Ironsi was promoted to the rank of major general. The same year, Major General C.B. Welby-Everard handed over his position as the general officer Commanding, GOC of the entire Nigerian Army to Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, which made him the first Nigeria indigenous officer to head the entire Nigerian Army.[15]

In January 1966, a group of army officers, led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, overthrew the central and regional governments of Nigeria, killed the prime minister and tried to take control of the government in a failed coup d'état. Nzeogwu was countered, captured and imprisoned by Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi.[16]

Aguiyi-Ironsi was named military head of state on 17 January 1966, a position he held until 29 July 1966, when a group of Northern army officers revolted against the government and killed Aguiyi-Ironsi.[17]

Fall of the Republic


On 15 January 1966, soldiers of mostly Igbo extraction, led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, an Igbo from Okpanam near Asaba, Noé in Delta State, eradicated the uppermost echelon of politicians from the Northern and the Western Provinces.[18] That and other factors effectively led to the fall of the Republican Government. Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, was purportedly slated for assassination but effectively took control of Lagos, the Federal Capital Territory.[19] Also an Igbo, President Nnamdi Azikiwe refusing to intervene to ensure the continuity of civilian rule, Aguiyi-Ironsi effectively compelled the remaining members of Balewa's government to resign. Seeing that the government was in disarray, Aguiya-Ironsi then allowed Senate President Nwafor Orizu, another Igbo who was serving as acting president in Azikiwe's absence, to surrender power to him officially, which ended the First Nigerian Republic.[20]

Head of state


Aguiyi-Ironsi inherited a Nigeria that was deeply fractured by its ethnic and religious cleavages. None of the high-profile victims of the 1966 coup was of Igbo extraction, and the main beneficiaries of the coup were Igbo. Those facts led the north the country to believe that it had been an Igbo conspiracy. Though Aguiyi-Ironsi tried to dispel that 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. 34", which abrogated the country's federal structure in exchange for a unitary one, crystallized the conspiracy theory.[21]

During his short regime (194 days in office), Aguiyi-Ironsi promulgated a raft of decrees. Among them were the Constitution Suspension and Amendment Decree No.1, which suspended most articles of the Constitution though it left intact those sections that dealt with fundamental human rights, freedom of expression and conscience. The Circulation of Newspaper Decree No.2 removed the restrictions on press freedom that had been put in place by the preceding civilian administration.[22] According to Ndayo Uko, the decree was to serve "as a kind gesture to the press" to safeguard himself when he went on later to promulgate the Defamatory and Offensive Decree No.44 of 1966, which made it an "offense to display or pass on pictorial representation, sing songs, or play instruments the words of which are likely to provoke any section of the country".[22]

July counter coup


On 29 July 1966, Aguiyi Ironsi spent the night at the Government House in Ibadan, as part of a nationwide tour. His host, Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, Military Governor of Western Nigeria, alerted him to a possible mutiny within the army. Aguiyi-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 led by Theophilus Danjuma.[23]

Arrest and assassination


Danjuma arrested Aguiyi-Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the coup, which saw the demise of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello. The circumstances leading to Aguiyi-Ironsi's death have remained a subject of much controversy in Nigeria. His body and that of Fajuyi were later discovered in a nearby forest.[24]



The swagger stick with a stuffed crocodile mascot carried by Aguiyi-Ironsi was called "Charlie". Legend had it that the crocodile mascot made him invulnerable and that it was used to dodge or deflect bullets when he was on mission in the Congo. Despite the stories, the crocodile mascot probably had something to do with the fact that the name "Aguiyi" translates as "crocodile" in Igbo.[25]

Personal life


Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi married his wife, Victoria, in 1953. His son, Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, was appointed to the position of Nigeria's Defence Minister on 30 August 2006, forty years after his father's death.[26]



The Gallantry Medal was awarded by the Austrian government to Lieutenant Colonel Aguiyi-Ironsi, Maj Njoku, two expatriates and twelve Nigerian soldiers for their role in the Congo in 1960 in freeing an Austrian ambulance unit, which had been arrested and imprisoned by the Congolese authorities because it claimed to be Belgian parachutists.[27]

See also



  1. ^ Nowa, Omoigui. "Nicknames, Slogans, Local and Operational Names Associated with the Nigerian Civil War". Retrieved 6 September 2021.
  2. ^ "Aguiyi-ironsi". Vanguard News. 30 July 2016. Retrieved 28 February 2022.
  3. ^ smile (30 June 2020). "JOHNSON THOMAS UMUNNAKWE AGUIYI-IRONSI". Glimpse Nigeria. Archived from the original on 28 October 2021. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  4. ^ Obialo, Maduawuchi (27 March 2020). "Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi Biography". Nigerian Infopedia. Retrieved 28 January 2021.
  5. ^ "nigeria johnson thomas umunnakwe aguiyi ironsi biography and profile".[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "The rise and fall of Major general Johnson Aguiyi Ironsi: He was a brilliant soldier and a dictator - Opera News Official". Retrieved 9 July 2020.
  7. ^ "No. 38682". The London Gazette (Supplement). 5 August 1949. p. 3793.
  8. ^ "No. 39332". The London Gazette (Supplement). 11 September 1951. p. 4812.
  9. ^ a b "No. 40148". The London Gazette (Supplement). 13 April 1954. p. 2279.
  10. ^ Dennison, Matthew (13 March 2021). "What history tells us about the Royals and race". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 24 May 2021.
  11. ^ "No. 41573". The London Gazette (Supplement). 12 December 1958. p. 7654.
  12. ^ Cyril (29 July 2020). "General AguiyiIronsi: Life and times". The Sun Nigeria. Retrieved 20 June 2024.
  13. ^ "No. 42555". The London Gazette (Supplement). 29 December 1961. p. 43.
  14. ^ Cyril (29 July 2020). "General AguiyiIronsi: Life and times". The Sun Nigeria. Retrieved 20 June 2024.
  15. ^ "Supreme Commander, General Johnson Umunnakwe Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi 1". Retrieved 9 July 2020.
  16. ^ "Nigeria - The 1966 Coups, Civil War, and Gowon's Government". Retrieved 25 May 2021.
  17. ^ Obotetukudo, Solomon (2011). The Inaugural Addresses and Ascension Speeches of Nigerian Elected and Non elected presidents and prime minister from 1960 -2010. University Press of America. pp. 56–57.
  18. ^ "Ironsi, Fajuyi & 53 years of unitary system'". 4 August 2019. Retrieved 9 July 2020.
  19. ^ Time Magazine "Nigeria: The Men of Sandhurst".
  20. ^ "How Gowon, Obasanjo And Buhari Became Presidents In Their 30's! Here's Why Young Nigerians Can't Be Presidents Any More". Daily Advent Nigeria. 30 May 2019. Retrieved 25 May 2021.
  21. ^ "General Ironsi's Address May 1966". Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  22. ^ a b Uko, Ndaeyo (2004). Romancing the gun: the press as a promoter of military rule. ISBN 9781592211890.
  23. ^ "1966: Ironsi". Retrieved 5 February 2017.
  24. ^ "I lost control after we arrested Aguiyi Ironsi — Danjuma". Vanguard News. 28 July 2019. Retrieved 25 May 2021.
  25. ^ Siollun, Max (2009). Oil, politics and violence: Nigeria's military coup culture (1966–1976). p. 63. ISBN 9780875867106.
  26. ^ Nwankwere, Lucky; Kilete, Molly (31 August 2006). "Obasanjo drops Defence Minister…Aguiyi-Ironsi's son takes over". Online Nigeria. Retrieved 25 January 2007.
  27. ^ smile (30 June 2020). "JOHNSON THOMAS UMUNNAKWE AGUIYI-IRONSI". Glimpse Nigeria. Archived from the original on 28 October 2021. Retrieved 25 May 2021.
Political offices
Preceded by Head of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria
16 January 1966 – 29 July 1966
Succeeded by