Title: IRONSI: NIGERIA, THE ARMY, POWER AND POLITICS
Author: Chuks Iloegbunam
Year Of Publication: 2019
Publishers: Eminent Biographies, Awka, Anambra State
Reviewer: DAN AMOR
“Life is terribly deficient in form.
Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way.
There is a grotesque horror about its comedies.
And its tragedies seem to culminate in farce.”
⁃ Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).
How do we begin a critical review of a book on a personality such as Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi? Many writers have been devoted to investigations of great events and great leaders. Few have combined that devotion with the ability to write effectively, amusingly, even brilliantly about those events and people – about the great moments and the low moments, the great men and women and those who were only interesting, entertaining or absurd. Chuks Iloegbunam combines devotion to investigations with ability, as all who read this book will testify.
In ‘IRONSI: NIGERIA, THE ARMY, POWER AND POLITICS’, the author employs a lively and exuberant style to excavate the monumental tragedy of the first decade of post independence Nigeria and the figure who embodies or symbolizes the innocent victims of that tragic era. In this book of about 300 pages, Chuks Iloegbunam, one of Nigeria’s first-rate journalists and writers, navigates the beleaguered contours of a nation, interrogates her chequered post colonial heritage and protean existential predicaments to weave the portrait of the country’s first indigenous military leader who was thrust by fate into a miasma of contentions.
Indeed, the strength of the book comes from its directness of language and emotion. As though Iloegbunam was writing in tears, sometimes the imagery he creates is flashy; sometimes sentiment becomes sentimentality. But such indulgences are appropriate to the romantic and indulgent sensibility of the passionate narrator. For those who know him, Chuks Iloegbunam has never been afraid to overextend himself in terms of candour or forthrightness: read this exponential monument to the nineteen-sixties. The book is therefore an extreme response to reality. The reality is extravagant, obscene, bizarre.
It wrenches narrative coherence and historical authenticity wildly askew. At the same time it celebrates the wholeness of life, the diversity of experience, the triumph of body over mind, and freedom over slavish convention. It is a book filled with love and depravity, interlaced with a style basically ingenious, energetic, outrageous; it sings of its own defiance. Skits, quips, aphorisms and a broad array of allusions to violence as Nigeria’s national culture and the contemporary scene are scattered all over the book. Occasionally, the sheer poetry of Iloegbunam’s language creates the illusion of beauty where there is none, of sensitivity where there is only eccentricity. What was beautiful or sensitive about Nigeria in the turbulent sixties? The thematic undercurrent of the book is sorrow.
Segmented into twenty chapters, and the “Appendices” as chapter 21, ‘IRONSI: NIGERIA, THE ARMY, POWER AND POLITICS’, introduces the general reader to an astonishing variety of information on the subject and provides a wide range of historical and literary interests, from setting, thematic analysis to critical theory; and critical access to the rich diversity of the background of Ironsi, an iconic personality. Probably because the subject lived a worthy life, the book also is an admixture of joy and sorrow as the author writes with such ingenious cheerfulness, and with such a sure command of language as a lived-in medium, that even when he acknowledges the challenging side of the subject’s story, it is with tolerance, and affection. And when he writes of the vicissitudes of life, its transcendent visions and inexplicable forces, it is done with such apparent candour and conviction that we, the readers, too, are ready to believe.
‘IRONSI’ is a political biography of high order, intended to sustain the reader’s interest, remain true to the historical evidence, and deliver a fundamental message, all at the same time. The plot is structured according to the complex rules of biographical writing. Characters are stock figures of the genre, showing little depth and less complexity on those mentioned, even when involved in the most intricate set of relationship. Yet there is a high degree of authenticity about the narrative, the result of an extensive and introspective rumination into the historical setting. It is because we have all forgotten about Ironsi’s life and contribution to the national ideal for more than half a century after his assassination, that Iloegbunam has chosen to immortalize him with this book, to make him an ineluctable chapter of Nigeria’s life.
Chapter One, “The Collapse Of The First Republic”, circulates about the events that preceded the January 15, 1966 military coup, the first incident of such calamitous magnitude in Nigeria and on the night of the putsch itself. It captures the various characters or actors and their respective maneuverings on that fateful night of January 14 and 15, 1966 and after. Chapter Two, “Here For The Sister”, goes to town with the account of Ironsi’s birth on March 3, 1920 as the second child to Mazi Aguiyi Ironsi by Mrs. Eguzo Ironsi at Umuana Ndume Village, Umuahia Ibeku in present day Abia State when Christianity had just made inroads into the village while the ancestral gods reigned supreme. The newborn who cried profusely until the father consulted the diviner who delivered a message from the spirit world that Anyamma,his ten year old elder sister feed him with water, was to be baptized as Thomas.
Chapter Three, “The Johnson Factor “, reminisces about Umunnakwe’s relocation from Umuana Ndume to Umuahia township with her now married elder sister, Mrs. Anyamma Johnson and growing up in the city remarkable for its hosting of the huge railway station. The chapter gives account of his primary education and employment as a store clerk at the army base in Kano to where he eventually departed at about 17 years of age by train to assume duty. He later got enlisted in the 7th Battalion of the Nigerian Regiment in Kano on February 2, 1942 at age 22.
Chapter Four, “An Officer And A Family Man”, ruminates on Ironsi’s early years in the army as a Private and posting to the Ordinance Depot in Freetown, Sierra Leone; his posting to Lagos and promotion to the rank of Company Sergeant-Major. He was commissioned in June 1949 after his officer training at Eaton Hall, England and was subsequently posted to the West African Command Headquarters in Accra, the Gold Coast (Ghana). Upon his return to Nigeria from Ghana in 1952, Ironsi was promoted to the rank of full lieutenant and appointed aide de-camp to Sir John Macpherson, the Governor General. It was then that he felt the need to form a family of his own and got married to Victoria Nwanyiocha, then 16 and a student of Holy Rosary Convent School, Okigwe. Ironsi was 32.
Chapter Five, “Primus Inter Pares”, concerns the pre-independence preparation of the white man, the plan to groom young indigenous Nigerian officers who would take over from British officers and the circumstances surrounding Ironsi’s emergence as the most senior indigenous army officer at the time ahead of his contemporaries such as W. U. Bassey, Samuel Ademulegun, and Shodeinde. Chapter Six, “Ironsi In The Congo”, reports Major Ironsi’s involvement as Commander of the Nigerian Contingent in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo. Chapter Seven, “Commander Of The UN Forces”, expatiates on his role in the Congo intervention. Chapter Eight, “The Diplomat”, circulates Lieutenant Colonel Ironsi’s return to the 5th Battalion from Congo in May 1961 and diplomatic posting to the Nigerian High Commission in London after just six months stay with the 5th Battalion at Kaduna.
Chapter Nine, “General Officer Commanding”, disseminates about the undeclared contest that raged amongst four most senior indigenous army officers, all Brigadiers, as to who would become the General Officer Commanding. Upon his return from Congo in June, Ironsi immediately assumed command of the 2 Brigade with headquarters in Lagos while his peer, Brigadier Ademulegun commanded the 1 Brigade at Kaduna. The other two indigenous Brigadiers were Babafemi Ogundipe and Zakariya Maimalari. In the end, despite the tussles, Brig. Ironsi clinched the diadem as he eventually succeeded the outgoing British GOC, Major General Welby-Everard by merit. Chapter Ten, “Just Before The Turmoil”, goes to town with the Nigerianisation of the army as Ironsi assumed duty as the first Nigerian GOC at the Defence Headquarters in Lagos having yielded his position as Commander 2 Brigade, Lagos to Maimalari while Ademulegun retained his position as Commander 1 Brigade, Kaduna and Brigadier Ogundipe as Chief of Staff, Nigerian Defence Forces.
Chapter Eleven, “Two Hundred Days To Eternity”, discusses the multiple problems Major General JTU Aguiyi-Ironsi inherited as Nigeria’s first military Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The January 15, 1966 coupists had programmed him to be one of those to be killed but somehow by a curious twist of fate he escaped and ended up detaining the dissidents. Yet, in spite of his efforts to contain the situation in a more logical fashion, his murderers still invented several malicious allegations against him in order to hang him after just about 200 days in office as Head of State. Chapter Twelve, “Ironsi’s Government: Style, Substance, Sabotage “, espouses developments around the pandemonium and ripples that characterized the coming to power of the military following the failure of the coupists to consolidate their plans. It is therefore apparent that Ironsi did not seek power but it was foisted on him by his colleagues who felt the need to intervene given the situation the country found itself after the failed bloody coup.
Chapter Thirteen, “Crash Of The Elephant”, gives a pungent account of the misconceived rebellion in the army by young northern officers while the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces was on an official duty to Ibadan, capital of the Western Region. The counter coup had begun with some officers of Eastern Nigeria origin, Lt. Col. Gabriel Okonweze, Major John Obienu, and Captain E. B. Orok, all of the Abeokuta Garrison already shot dead by the counter coup makers. In all this, several frantic efforts by Ironsi to reach Lt. Col. Jack Gowon, the Chief of Army Staff in Lagos, proved abortive. He was not picking his calls. Chapter Fourteen, “Ironsi’s Chief of Army Staff”, gives the account of Col. Gowon’s role in the plot of the July 29 counter coup. Chapter Fifteen, “Pogrom”, circulates the tree-by-branch account of the assassination of Ironsi and his host, Col. Francis Adekunle Fajuyi and the killings of civilians and military personnel of Eastern Nigeria origin (especially the Igbo) in the North. Chapter Sixteen, “Pogrom 2”, details the report of the Justice G. C. M. Onyiuke Tribunal of Inquiry (Atrocities Against Persons of Eastern Nigeria Origin) in ten chapters.
Chapter Seventeen, “Requiem”, talks about Lt. Col. Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, military governor of Eastern Nigeria’s response to the news of Ironsi’s demise and his special broadcast to the people of his region and Nigerians, at large. He urged the people of Eastern Nigeria to accept Ironsi’s death as yet another sacrifice the region had made for the continued survival of the country. The chapter also reports on the avalanche of condolence messages streaming into the country from across the world and from Queen Elizabeth || of England; also from Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister and Lyndon Baines Johnson, the President of the United States of America and a brief account of the stalemate which enveloped the country culminating in the first Aburi meeting hosted by Lt. General J. A. Ankrah the Ghanaian leader, where Ojukwu insisted that Ironsi could not be treated as a scoundrel.
Chapter Eighteen, “The Last Nigerian”, reminisces about the 20th anniversary of the death of Major General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi on July 29, 1986. Successive administrations in Nigeria had kept Ironsi’s name in the cooler and left the bereaved family like a fish on a dry sandy beach panting. Yakubu Gowon who succeeded him refused to have audience with Victoria, Ironsi’s wife nine times after the Civil War. It was Murtala Muhammed, Gowon’s successor who stumbled on Mrs. Ironsi’s applications and sent for her. He awarded three of Ironsi’s daughters scholarship to study in overseas universities. But this did not last long as the Army stopped overseas scholarships. Private friends of the Ironsis supported the widow to train her children. Today, all the eight children ( six girls and two boys) are university graduates and living independently. Ironsi, a man of honour, who could not hurt a fly died without being honoured by his country, safe for the posthumous conferment on him by General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, with the honour of the Grand Commander of the Federal Republic (GCFR) on August 26, 1993, the day he “stepped aside”.
Chapter Nineteen, “A Way Forward “, ruminates on the structural imbalance of the country, the symbiotic relationship between the North and the South which is the legacy of the British imperialists who colonized and plundered Nigeria for almost a century before granting her political independence in 1960. The chapter advocates for equal opportunity for all Nigerians and proper husbanding of the country’s resources for Nigeria and its citizens to flourish. Chapter Twenty, “Epilogue”, goes to town with lamentations of a few stakeholders of the Nigerian project and memories of the hitherto agreed terms for the union which have been repudiated by successive governments, especially the military which foisted the lopsided unitary structure on us, which has failed to unite the country. Chapter Twenty-One, “Appendices”, are notes and annotations on policy pronouncements by Nigerian rulers and their administrations.
IRONSI: NIGERIA, THE ARMY, POWER AND POLITICS, remains the book to beat, which cannot disappoint any cerebrally competent reader. The book tells the story of the Nigerian journey. General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, the man variously described as “Ironside” due to his insurmountable courage and indomitable spirit, actually displayed raw courage, the strength to resist political pressure, and he took a lonely stand on his own sense of what was right. Fifty-four years today after his death, the real Ironsi is now the symbolic Ironsi, the figure about whom has clustered the yearnings, the ideals and the aspirations Nigerians have for themselves and their country. But can the present change the meaning of the past? We now know what happened, and we cannot undo that knowledge. We can get the records straight, as historians like to put it. But the meaning of that straightened record is inextricably involved in the meaning we also try each day to discern in the confusion of the living present. It is a memorable book; a collector’s item. Go for your own copy now. Dissect it as I just did. And keep it in your family library for posterity.
*Amor, critic and journalist, lives in Abuja.