By Pini Jason
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
The day after tomorrow will be Thursday, 29 July. I can bet my last kobo that the significance of the day will be lost to millions of those who should know, and who are expected to, if not mark the day in any significant way, at least keep it hallow by dedicating it as a day of meditation and contemplation concerning the travails of the Igbo in Nigeria. July 29 marks 38 years since the assassination, some say cold blooded murder, of Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi, the first General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, the first military Head of State and Supreme Commander of the Federal Republic.
“A forgotten Hero Returns” was how The Guardian headed its cover story on Ironsi on Sunday, 25 July. Ironsi is today a “forgotten hero”, largely because he is an Igbo. I shall explain that later. He has “returned” and will continue to “return” because Ironsi is a festering sore on the conscience of the nation.
Try as hard as we can, we cannot escape the Ironsi challenge, and millions of lies have not succeeded in masking the truth about Ironsi. Ironsi is the most maligned Nigerian; a man unjustly sacrificed for the unity (which has become unitary) of Nigeria and yet has never been given his due. Instead, whenever we are confronted by the ofo and ogu of Ironsi's essence, we resort to a national eyebrow-scratching discomfiture! Nigeria lied about and against Ironsi. But those lies have refused to be interred with his bones!
When he was killed on 29 July, 1966, Nigeria, controlled by his killers, disseminated a lot of propaganda to rationalise their dastardly act. One and the most popular is that he abolished the regions by Decree 34 and unified the federal civil service in preparation for Igbo domination.
Perhaps, the crime Ironsi committed was to carry out that policy through the legal instrument of a decree. After all, the decree was abolished, yet Nigeria did not depart from the part of unitary command, and today, the cry is for a return to the status quo ante Decree 34! Who are those who ruled Nigeria and in whose watch Nigeria completely lost its character as a federation? Have all the provinces Ironsi delineated not become states today? Is it not true that centralised command, as Ironsi sought, is an essential feature of military hierarchical rule?
The second lie was that Ironsi surrounded himself with only Igbos. This is the most ridiculous lie, which thankfully, Chuks Iloegbunam has debunked in the biography Ironside. Another was that Ironsi was a semi-illiterate, a bumbling fool that could not manage his drink!
Again you would ask, how come this fool passed all his professional exams? How did he end up commanding the United Nation's forces in Congo with flying colours? Through federal character? How did he end up the favourite to take over the Nigerian command from the colonial powers? Through rotation, zoning or quota?
The Ironsi crucifixion was inextricably linked with the genocide against the Igbos, the first of its kind in Africa! They say the 1966 coup was an Igbo coup, and that Ironsi was part of it. Now if you buy that, the implication is that you are saying that the Igbo must be the most stupid people ever to plot a coup against a government in which their son was President, Senate President and Army Commander, apart from the Igbo strong presence in the academia, commerce and industry, and the civil service! Nigeria is yet to tell the world the incentive for the Igbo in overthrowing themselves! The centre was not as attractive as it later became and has remained till today. Nobody has explained why it was Ironsi and Ojukwu who aborted “an Igbo” coup?
Even if the coup was Igbo-led, did that necessitate the genocide against the Igbo? Was the 15 January 1966 coup the only ethnic-motivated coup in Nigeria? Which other ethnic group has been killed because soldiers of their ethnic origin were involved in a coup? What had pregnant women disembowelled and young girls raped to do with the coup by soldiers? The truth about all the disinformation about Ironsi is that the North, for the first time in the history of Nigeria, lost power.
They were desperate to get it back anyhow or secede. And it is on record that Biafrans did not originate secession in Nigeria. The July 29 revenge coup was code-named Araga (secession) by the authors and executors, some of who are today masquerading as great patriots! But thanks to Parker, the then British High Commissioner, the mutineers were talked out of secession.
Remember that to persuade the Northern soldiers to stop the killing of Igbos, then Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon reminded them that power had reverted to “another Northerner.” And having regained power, they had to rationalise the murder of Ironsi and the heinous genocide against Igbos by churning out those lies. Mark you, they employed the same disinformation when they removed Commodore Ebitu Ukiwe from office. Ukiwe was arrogant. They did the same thing when Rear- Admiral Allison Madueke was unceremoniously retired. He plotted a coup!
I guess anybody who commits a crime would want to lie about it. But the tragedy of Ironsi, as I said earlier, is that he was an Igbo! His own people believed the lies told against him. Many still believe them today. Mention Ironsi in an Igbo gathering, the first thing you hear is: He was a fool! Just as Igbos still regale themselves with Ukiwe's arrogance! Igbos are the only people in Nigeria happy to live with the derogation of their true identity and the defamation of their character, the very game that has continued in the political field today. Everybody is happy-go-lucky with his business. Nothing else matters. Not even what others write about the Igbo or what the Igbo write about themselves.
I was actively involved with the effort of Chuks Iloegbunam to write a true account of the Ironsi phenomenon, through to the harrowing experience in launching the book. You would cry for Ironsi! Chuks, and by implication Ironsi, was abandoned by the Igbos, the very people killed due to the lies told against Ironsi.
The Abuja launch was called off because nobody turned up, not even the Igbo legislators or the Igbo ministers in Abuja! The Lagos launch was rescued because Major-General Adeyinka Adebayo turned up, and gave true character witness about Ironsi. Ambassador Hamza Ahmadu recounted how Ironsi made him. Late S.O Wey was there to honour a man he was proud to serve! Late Gen. Philip Effiong came all the way from Ikot-Ekpene to chair the occasion. Other Nigerians turned up except the Igbos!
Even Ironsi's family tried to urinate on his grave! One of his children came to the launching, not to honour the father, but to disown Iloegbunam's effort to rehabilitate the father. The family, speaking through a friend of one of Ironsi's children, insinuated that the family did not endorse Ironside by Iloegbunam, as if they needed to, and that they would soon commission an official biography of Ironsi. That was in 1999! Since then, nothing has happened.
The truth is that Ironsi will not go away. He is the unresolved dilemma of the nation that will continue to haunt us. The dilemma is: do we tell the truth that Ironsi was unjustifiably killed and lied against, or do we continue to live the lie and continue to lead Nigeria astray? More importantly, when will the Igbo purge themselves of the lies they have swallowed about Ironsi, Ukiwe and themselves? And thanks to Chuks Iloegbunam once again for not waiting for the Igbo political class to seek the truth on behalf of the Igbos. As legendary Chinua Achebe told me years back, every generation has the responsibility to
tell their story. Chuks told his story. Ironsi's time will come!