July 29 - The Day Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Nzeogwu met their doom

July 29: The Day Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, Nzeogwu met their doom

July 29 remains a significant day in Nigeria’s history as the three men who changed the fate of the country met their doom on that day. Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, Yakubu ‘Jack’ Dan-Yumma Gowon, and Kaduna Patrick Chukwuma Nzeogwu. Only one of them was lucky to be alive as of the time of writing this article.

Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi was 41 years, 10 months, and 13 days old when he became the Head of State of Nigeria on January 16, 1966, having been born on March 3, 1924, in Umuahia, present-day Abia State.

General Yakubu Gowon was 31 years, 10 months, and 18 days old when he became the Head of State of Nigeria on August 1, 1966, having been born on October 19, 1934, in Kanke, present-day Plateau State.

Major Kaduna Nzeogwu was born on February 26, 1937, to his Igbo immigrant parents in Kaduna, present-day Kaduna State. He was an ambitious young military officer and a Roman Catholic. He was also a rebellious military officer and the forerunner of the Nigerian Army Intelligence Corps. He was in charge of counterintelligence; the first Nigerian to hold the post.

One interesting fact is that in 1966, Nzeogwu changed the history of Nigeria that brought the two generals, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Gowon, into power.

Aguiyi-Ironsi Gowon-July-29
Clockwise: Aguiyi-Ironsi, Gowon, and Nzeogwu

One unified the country with a decree; the other unified the country with a bloody civil war that lasted for 30 months.

As military Heads of State, Aguiyi-Ironsi ruled Nigeria the shortest, for 194 days, while Gowon ruled Nigeria the longest, a lengthy 3,284 days.

However, on a July 29, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Nzeogwu would lose their lives while Gowon was lucky enough to lose power, and not his life, in a bloodless coup on July 29, 1975.

So, how did these events come to be?  What’s special about July 29? That’s the focus of this article.

First, let’s go back to the beginning.

Independent Nigeria

When Chief Anthony Enahoro (1923-2010) moved the motion for independence in 1953, Northern lawmakers kicked against it. Eventually, it was ratified and April 2, 1960, was announced as Independence Day but Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa (1912-1966) ‘begged’ for it to be postponed to October 1 of that year.

In 1963, Nigeria became a republic and all ties with Britain were cut off. Uniforms and insignia were changed to reflect sovereignty. As expected, Nigerianisation of all posts began earnestly which led the then British GOC (General Officer Commanding) of the Nigerian Army, Major-General Sir Christopher Welby-Everard (1909-1996) to hand over to Brigadier Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (1924-1966) as the first indigenous GOC of the Nigerian Army in February 1965.

Meanwhile, there were rumours of an imminent coup as early as January 1965. Some junior officers of the Nigerian Army led by Majors Emmanuel Ifeajuna (1935-1967) and Kaduna Nzeogwu (1937-1967) had concluded their plans for the Revolutionary Coup as of August 1965, which was the mass annihilation of top politicians and senior military officers in the country, due to the loss of control of certain part of the country and widespread corruption.

Security reports concerning coup plotting were passed to Prime Minister Balewa, who ignored them or chose not to act upon it.

Nigeria’s First Coup D’etat

On the morning of January 15, 1966, the nation woke up to the frightening news that Prime Minister Balewa was missing (he was later found dead), the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of the Northern Region, Alhaji (Sir) Ahmadu Bello (1910-1966), Premier of the Western Region, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola (1910-1966), Minister of Finance, Chief Festus Samuel Okotie-Eboh (1919-1966) and a host of others including senior and junior military officers had been killed in a military pogrom and putsch. Aguiyi-Ironsi was also targeted, but he outmanoeuvred the boys, rounded them up, and took official control of the country.

Of the five majors, four were Easterners, while one, Adewale Ademoyega (1933-2007), was a Westerner. The new Head of State, having dissolved the civilian government, was an Easterner.

These events raised tensions among the Northern elite, especially in the Army, that the Easterners were behind the coup, as the majority of the coup plotters were Easterners while the majority of the casualties were Northerners. In a bid to quell contentions in the Army, Ironsi made Gowon, the most senior Northern officer alive, his Chief of Army Staff.

Image of Kaduna Nzeogwu interview
Kaduna Nzeogwu’s interview with the BBC in Kaduna, January 15, 1966.

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s “Mistake”?

Whether the coup was Eastern favoured or not, it brought to the fore a united Northern Region in the Army, regardless of tribe or religion.

Decree Number 34 of May 24, 1966, promulgated by Ironsi was the beginning of the end for him. The decree made the centre strong, thereby abolishing the powers granted to the regions. Interestingly, Nzeogwu, in an interview he granted in 1967, affirmed that Ironsi shot himself in the foot with that decree. Another “mistake” Ironsi did was the non-trial of the coup plotters of the January 15, 1966 carnage.

These caused massive unrest in the Northern part of the country as the Northerners had gone against the delimiting of regional powers as far back as 1959. In June 1966, Ironsi began a tour of the country (never to return to Lagos) and met with the Northern elite, assuring them of a united Nigeria.

The July 29, 1966, Northern Counter-Coup

On July 28, 1966, Aguiyi-Ironsi was hosted by the military governor of the Western Region, Lt. Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi (1926-1966) at the Government House, Agodi, Ibadan. As he made to leave for Lagos, Fajuyi coaxed him into spending the night with him.

In the early 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.

Aguiyi-Ironsi answered Danjuma in the negative and denied playing any part in the coup. Eventually, the soldiers overpowered the Head of State and Fajuyi violently stripping off their epaulettes. They were also beaten while dragged along to a secluded area in Lalupon, along Iwo Road, near Ibadan, where their bodies were riddled with bullets. The murderers then buried them in shallow graves.

For three days, the country had no leader and the most senior northern officer (in this case, Gowon) in the army was chosen to head the country.

Gowon’s Ascension and the Bloody Civil War

One major factor that favoured Gowon as Aguiyi-Ironsi’s successor apart from being the most senior northern officer in the army is that he was a Christian from a Northern minority tribe. Yakubu Gowon is a Ngas from Lur, a small village in the present-day Kanke Local Government Area of Plateau State.

In his maiden broadcast to the nation, he promised to stop further bloodshed and to restore law, order, and confidence in all parts of the country. But the civil war which happened thereafter claimed more than a million Nigerians, including innocent Biafran children and artisans, turned soldiers overnight, who were ill-trained, in reference to what happened in the 1967 Asaba massacre.

Gowon’s role was to keep the nation as one and creating 12 states on May 30, 1967, infuriated some Southerners who had hoped to break away from the country. This escalated proceedings in the Eastern part of the country and Biafra was formed. This secession sparked reactions from the Federal Military Government headed by Gowon and many lives were lost in a bloody civil war that lasted from July 6, 1967, to January 15, 1970 – a period of 30 months.

Image of General Yakubu Gowon in Kampala, Uganda, on the day he was overthrown.
General Yakubu Gowon in Kampala, Uganda, on the day he was overthrown, July 29, 1975.

After the war, Gowon promised to hand over power to civilians in 1976. But in 1974, in an Independence Day broadcast, he reneged. Apart from this, there were allegations of corruption in his administration as Nigeria had experienced the oil boom of 1973.

The July 29, 1975, Bloodless Coup

Although he was never found complicit in the corrupt practices, he was often accused of turning a blind eye to the activities of his staff and cronies. These raised agitations amidst the military hierarchy and top politicians in the country, and by late 1974, internal moves to remove Gowon had begun, and by June 1975, there were rumours of an imminent coup.

On July 29, 1975, while attending an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit in Kampala, Uganda, a group of officers led by Colonel Joseph Nanven Garba (1943-2002) announced his overthrow. The coup plotters appointed Brigadier Murtala Muhammed (1938-1976) as head of the new government, and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo (b. c. 1937) as his deputy.

The Significance of July 29

The significance of July 29 in Nigeria cannot be overemphasised. The day remains a significant day in the country’s history as we have written earlier that the three men who altered the fate of the country met their doom on that day. Only one of them was lucky to be alive at the time of writing this article.

That lucky man was Yakubu Gowon who lost power, and not his life when he was toppled in a bloodless coup while he was far away in Kampala, Uganda, on July 29, 1975.

However, his predecessor, Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was not that lucky – as he lost power and his life in a Northern counter-coup on July 29, 1966.

A year later, on July 29, 1967, Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu while fighting on the Biafran side lost his life in an ambush. He was conducting a night reconnaissance operation against federal troops of the 21st battalion under Captain Mohammed Inuwa Wushishi.

Is the day, July 29 in Nigerian History, especially as it applies to these three men, a coincidence? Let us know in the comments below.

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Chemist. Novelist. Writer. Author, A Carnage Before Dawn, 2020.
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