Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi: Nigeria’s First Military Head-of-State

Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was Nigeria’s first in many areas; Aide-de-Camp, Head of the Nigerian Army and Head-of-State among many. However, he would go down in history as one who took the rudders of the nation during a military coup that terminated the First Republic.

Image of Major-General Johnson T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi (1924–1966), Nigeria's First Military Head-of-State (January 16, 1966–July 29, 1966).
Major-General Johnson T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi (1924–1966), Nigeria’s First Military Head-of-State (January 16, 1966–July 29, 1966).

Today, 03/03 marks an important day in the life of the late General. He would have been 95 today having been born in 1924 in Umuahia-Ibeku in present day Abia State. However, let me not keep you waiting. Below are some of the interesting facts you did not know about Nigeria’s first military Head-of-State.

Early Life and Education

1. Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi to his father Mazi Ezeugo Aguiyi on March 3, 1924, in Umuahia-Ibeku, present-day Abia State, Nigeria. He adopted the name “Johnson” as his first name from her older sister’s husband, Theophilus Johnson, who was a Sierra Leonean diplomat in Umuahia.

2. Aguiyi-Ironsi had his primary and secondary school educations in Umuahia and in Kano.

Career in Nigerian Army

3. In 1942, at the age of 18, Aguiyi-Ironsi joined the Nigerian Army against the wishes of his sister, at the rank of a Private with the 7th Battalion. He got promoted in 1946 to the rank of company Sergeant-Major. Also in 1946, Aguiyi-Ironsi was sent on an officer training course in Staff College, Camberley, England.

4. On June 12, 1949, after completion of his course at Camberley, he was promoted Second-Lieutenant of Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) and soon returned to Nigeria to serve as the Aide-de-Camp to Sir John Macpherson, Governor-General of Nigeria.

5. Aguiyi-Ironsi was promoted to Captain in 1953 and again promoted to Major in 1955. As Major, he served as Queen Elizabeth II’s equerry on her official visit to Nigeria in 1956.

6. In 1960, he became a Lieutenant-Colonel and was subsequently made commandant of the fifth battalion in Kano, Nigeria. Also, in the same year, he headed the Nigerian contingent force of the United Nations Operation in the Congo. In 1962, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General and in 1964 he was appointed at the Grand Commandant of the entire United Nations peacekeeping forces in the Congo.


7. In 1960, the Austrian Government awarded a Gallantry medal to Aguiyi-Ironsi and 13 other Nigerian soldiers for their role in the Congo in freeing an Austrian ambulance unit which was arrested and imprisoned by the Congolese authorities because they claimed the unit were Belgian parachutists.

8. In 1965, Aguiyi-Ironsi was promoted to the rank of Major-General the same year the British General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army, Major-General Christopher B. Welby-Everard (1909-1996) handed over his position, making Aguiyi-Ironsi the first Nigerian to head the entire Army on February 9, 1965.

Nigeria’s First Military Head-of-State

9. However, less than a year, Aguiyi-Ironsi became Nigeria’s first military Head-of-State after a brutal coup led by junior officers of the Nigerian Army on January 15, 1966. To put down the rebellion, Aguiyi-Ironsi seized power and took over as Head-of-State and Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces.

10. Decree Number 34 of May 24, 1966, promulgated by Ironsi caused massive unrest in the Northern part of the country as the Northerners had gone against delimiting of regional powers as far back as 1959. The decree made the centre strong, thereby abolishing the powers granted to the regions. In June 1966, Ironsi began a tour of the country (never to return to Lagos) and met with Northern elite, assuring them of a united Nigeria.


11. On July 28, 1966, he was hosted by the military governor of the Western Region, Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (1926-1966) in Agodi, Ibadan. As he made to leave for Lagos, Fajuyi coaxed him in spending the night in the Government House. On the wee hours of July 29, 1966, Northern soldiers led by Major Theophilus Y. Danjuma (b. 1938) came to arrest Ironsi and questioned him about his alleged complicity in the coup which saw the demise of the Sardauna of Sokoto, Ahmadu Bello and Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa. The soldiers overpowered Fajuyi and Ironsi and violently stripped off their epaulettes. They were also stripped naked, beaten and strapped to a vehicle as they were dragged along to a shallow pit in Lalupon, near Ibadan, where their bodies were riddled with bullets.

Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was 41 years 10 months and 13 days old when he became the Head-of-State of Nigeria on January 16, 1966. As Head-of-State, Aguiyi-Ironsi spent 194 days in office-the shortest of any military Head-of-State.

12. Aguiyi is an Igbo word which means “crocodile”. Hence, Aguiyi-Ironsi moved about with a crocodile shaped swagger stick which many of his soldiers believed it was a charm he used to stay invulnerable and alive. The name of the swagger stick was “Charlie”.

13. At 6ft 4in, Aguiyi-Ironsi remains Nigeria’s tallest Head-of-State and at the age of 42 became the second youngest to die in office after Murtala Mohammed.


14. During his short regime 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 he left intact those sections of the constitution that dealt with fundamental human rights, freedom of expression and conscience were left intact) and the Circulation of Newspaper Decree No.2 which removed the restrictions on press freedom put in place by the preceding civilian administration.

15. In 1953, Aguiyi-Ironsi got married to his wife, Victoria and one of their children, Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, went on to serve as Nigeria’s Defence Minister on August 30, 2006, under President Olusegun Obasanjo.

16. Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was 41 years 10 months and 13 days old when he became the Head-of-State of Nigeria on January 16, 1966. As Head-of-State, Aguiyi-Ironsi spent 194 days in office-the shortest of any military Head-of-State.

17. As a soldier, Aguiyi-Ironsi loved alcohol so much. He was a heavy drinker and “a lover of the bottle”.

18. Aguiyi-Ironsi was a devoted Catholic and attended mass every morning, even on the day he was killed.

19. On Wednesday, March 28, 2017, the Oyo State government transformed the spot where Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi were murdered at Lalupon, into a memorial park; the Ironsi–Fajuyi Memorial Garden Park. There is a palm tree which still conceals some bullet holes and their blood stains.

20. Aguiyi-Ironsi was a good family man and a professional soldier. He hated partisan politics as he would groan, “I asked for soldiers, I’m being given politicians dressed in uniform.” The Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi Way, Maitama, Abuja and Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi Tunnel in Owerri, Imo State are one of the many locations in the country named after him.

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Ayomide Akinbode

Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.

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