Image of Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi

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

General Yakubu ‘Jack’ Dan-Yumma 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, Plateau State.

Major Kaduna Patrick Chukwuma Nzeogwu was born on February 26, 1937, to his Igbo immigrant parents in Kaduna, Kaduna State. He was an ambitious young military officer and a Roman Catholic. He was 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 thing is that Nzeogwu “the rebel” changed the history of the country that brought the two generals into power. 

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

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

Of the two generals, as military Heads-of-States, one ruled Nigeria the shortest (164 days) while the other ruled Nigeria the longest at a stretch (3,284 days).

But there are unanswered questions by historians; what led to this? Are these men to be celebrated, castigated or forgotten in the annals of Nigerian history? For the sake of posterity, 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 then 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.

A Carnage Before Dawn
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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.

But the coup, as the coup plotters demonstrated, was a revolutionary one to get rid of corrupt politicians and officers in the country.

But how was the coup revolutionary, when defenceless men were killed? Brigadier Samuel Ademulegun (1923-1966) the officer in charge of the Kaduna garrison was shot dead in bed with his pregnant wife. Ahmadu Bello was also killed with one of his wives.

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s “Mistake”?

Whether the coup was Eastern favoured or not, it brought into 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 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 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 by 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, that 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 Mohammed (1938-1976) as head of the new government, and Brigadier Olusegun Obasanjo (b. c. 1937) as his deputy.


The 29th day of July 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. Only one of them was lucky to be alive to this day.

Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi lost power and his life on July 29, 1966, in a counter-coup.

A year later, on July 29, 1967, Patrick Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu while fighting on the Biafran side lost his life in an ambush while conducting a night reconnaissance operation against federal troops of the 21st battalion under Captain Mohammed Inuwa Wushishi (b. 1940).

Also, on July 29, 1975, Yakubu ‘Jack’ Dan-Yumma Gowon lost power when he was toppled in a bloodless coup.

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

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You can also get A Carnage before Dawn, a historical account of Nigeria’s first coup d’état. E-book here. Paperback here.

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