Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi (Military Head of State of Nigeria, 1965 – January 1966)

Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi was Nigeria’s first Head of State and military man to the core. This article will be discussing the life and times of this man. 

Early Life, Childhood, and Education of Aguiyi-Ironsi

Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was born on March 3, 1924, in Umuahia, Abia State. At the tender age of eight, Aguiyi-Ironsi moved to stay with his elder sister, Anyamma Johnson. 

Anyamma Johnson was married to Theophilius Johnson, a Sierra Leonean who lived and worked in Umuahia. As a boy, Aguiyi-Ironsi admired Theophilius Johnson, who took care of him as a father would. Thus, when he grew up, he adopted Theophilius’ last name as his first name.

Aguiyi-Ironsi attended primary and secondary schools in both Umuahia and Kano. Despite his sister’s objections, he signed up to join the Nigerian Regiment when he turned eighteen.

Military Career of Aguiyi-Ironsi

Aguiyi-Ironsi joined the Nigerian Regiment in 1942, and he received a promotion in 1946 to the position of the company sergeant major. In that same year, his superiors sent him to Staff College, Camberley, in England for an officer training course.

Aguiyi-Ironsi completed this course in 1949, and he received a double promotion shortly after. The first was a promotion to second lieutenant while the second was promotion to lieutenant in the Royal West African Frontier Force.

Aguiyi-Ironsi continued to advance in his military career. In 1953, he became Captain, and in 1955, he rose to the rank of Major. Also, Aguiyi-Ironsi, along with other military men, welcomed Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Nigeria in 1956.

In 1960, Aguiyi-Ironsi became commandant of the fifth battalion in Kano, Nigeria. This role had the attachment of the lieutenant colonel rank. Also, in 1960, he assumed leadership of the Nigerian contingent force of the United Nations, a force whose purpose was to ensure peace in Zaire.

Between 1961 – 1962, Aguiyi-Ironsi served as the military attaché to the Nigeria High Commission in London, United Kingdom. For this service, he received a promotion to the rank of Brigadier-General. 

As a military attaché, Aguiyi-Ironsi took some training courses at the Imperial Defence College, Seaford House, Belgrave Square.

In 1964, Aguiyi-Ironsi became the commandant of the whole United Nations peace-keeping forces in Zaire. In 1965, Aguiyi-Ironsi rose to the rank of Major General. 

Also, in 1965, Aguiyi-Ironsi became the Head of the whole Nigerian Army when Major-General CB Welby-Everard handed over his position as the General Officer Commanding, GOC to him. This made Aguiyi-Ironsi the first-ever Nigerian to hold such a position.

Aguiyi-Ironsi Journey to Become Nigeria’s First Head of State

On January 15, 1966, Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu led the first-ever military coup, overthrowing and killing civil leaders. Of all the civil leaders, military, and police officers killed, only one of them was of Igbo descent. 

The others such as Sir Tafawa Balewa (Nigeria’s prime minister), Sir Ahmadu Bello (premier and Sardauna of Sokoto), Hasfatu Bello (his wife), Festus Okotie-Eboh (finance minister), among others mainly were Northerners, Southerners, and Westerners.

 Although reports had it that the coup had also targeted Aguiyi-Ironsi, he managed to take hold of Lagos state, the then Federal Capital Territory.

Nnamdi Azikwe, Nigeria’s President then, did not do anything about the coup, and so, Aguiyi-Ironsi seized this moment. After Tafawa Balewa’s death, the rest members of his cabinet were at a loss for what to do. 

Nwafor Orizu, the senate president, was placed as acting President. Aguiyi-Ironsi was then able to convince the cabinet members to resign and Orizu to hand over power to him.

When Aguiyi-Ironsi assumed power, he arrested Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and remanded him in the Kirikiri Prison. However, the then Governor of the Eastern Region, Chukwuemeka Ojukwu released Nzeogwu in 1967.

 This then confirmed the suspicion of the Northerners, who had believed that the 1966 coup was one targeted at their ethnicity. Aguiyi-Ironsi tried to convince them otherwise by giving political appointments to the Northerners and other affected ethnic groups. However, he refused to punish the coup plotters thus confirming suspicions of a conspiracy theory.

Aguiyi Ironsi’s first speech as a Head of State:

“The Government of the Federation of Nigeria having ceased to function, the Nigerian Armed Forces have been invited to form an Interim Military Government for the purpose of maintaining law and order, and of maintaining essential services.

The invitation has been accepted, and I, General J. T. U. Aguiyi-Ironsi, the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian Army, have been formally invested with authority as Head of the Federation Military Government and Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Armed Forces.”

During Aguiyi-Ironsi’s regime, he suspended a huge part of the Constitution. Some of them included:

● Constitution of the Federation relating to the office of President, the establishment of Parliament, and the office of Prime Minister

● Constitution relating to the establishing offices for Regional Governors, Regional Premiers, Executive Councils, Regional Legislatures.

● In place of the Constitution, Aguiyi-Ironsi established decrees. These included, among others:

● Internal affairs of the Federation to declare Martial Law in areas of the Federation where there were disturbances

● Internal affairs of the Federation to “maintain law and order in the Federation until a new constitution for the Federation, prepared in accordance with the wishes of the people, is brought into being.”

● The appointment of a “Military Governor in each Region of the Federation, who shall be directly responsible to the Federal Military Government for the good Government of the Region

● The appointment as Adviser to the Military Governor of the Region, of the last person to hold the office of Governor of the Region under the suspended provisions of the Constitution.”

Although Aguiyi-Ironsi suspended most of the Constitution, he left sections that dealt with fundamental human rights, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression.

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Assassination and Death

On July 29, 1999, Aguiyi-Ironsi and Lieutenant Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi were arrested by Captain Theophilius Danjuma in Ibadan, Oyo state. It is not certain how they were killed, but both Aguiyi-Ironsi and Fajuyi were found in a forest close by.

Aguiyi-Ironsi Honours and Awards

● Appointed a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO) in 1956.

● Awarded the Gallantry medal by the Austrian Government in 1960 along with other Nigerian soldiers for their role in rescuing an Austrian ambulance unit that had been imprisoned by the Congolese Government.

● Appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire, Military Division (MBE) in the 1962 New Year Honours list.

Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Personal Life

In 1953, Aguiyi-Ironsi married Victoria, and together, they had a son: Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi. On August 30, 2006, the Nigerian Government appointed Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi to Nigeria’s Defence Minister position.

Aguiyi-Ironsi Famous Quotes

“The National Military Government owes it as a duty to the people of this country to remove the ills which infested the former regime, to restore the faith of our people in their fatherland and its institutions, so that when the time comes for the civilian Government to return, a healthy body politic would have emerged, and last vestiges of bitter factionalism removed.”

“It is common knowledge that civil servants are expected to tender advice to Ministers but it was not obligatory on the part of Ministers to accept advice so tendered. It will therefore be wrong to blame civil servants for mistakes made by their Ministers who in many cases did not accept the advice given to them by these officers.”

“It is the cardinal aim of my Government to foster the growth of town development unions, membership of which should be open to all inhabitants of the particular town irrespective of their tribal origin. This does not mean for instance that Efiks residing outside Calabar should not contribute towards the development of the Calabar development union but it does mean that a Tiv or Hausa residing in Calabar should be eligible for membership and should be allowed to participate fully in the development of that town.”

“As a corrective regime, we must ensure that the fatal maladies of the past are cured before we relinquish power.”

“Nigerians must understand and respect one another in the new national spirit. Those ex-politicians in different camps who previously regarded one another as enemies should now forget the past and work together for the common good.”

“I want all Nigerians everywhere in Nigeria to regard one another not as strangers but as Nigerians with common nationalists irrespective of their tribe or place of origin. From henceforth no reference to tribe or place of origin will appear in any official document.”

“I wish to appeal to all newspaper editors and columnists to look for a more profitable pastime and desist from criticizing civil servants unnecessarily especially as they realize that because of the tradition of their calling, civil servants are barred from defending themselves on the pages of newspaper”.


Obialo, M. (2020)

Ogbemudia, V. (2020)

Omipidan, T. O. (2021)

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