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BORN in 1924 Aguiyi – Ironsi enlisted as a private in the 7th Battalion of the Nigeria Regiment when only 18. At 32 he had risen to the rank of captain and was chosen as equerry to Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain during her state visit, to Nigeria in 1956. He served as Military adviser to the Nigerian High Commission in London. He was the first African Commander of the UN Peace-Keeping operation in the Congo, now Democratic Republic of Congo. In 1965, he was promoted to the distinguished rank of Major-General and appointed the General Officer Commending the Nigeria Army. In the small hours of 15th January, 1966 some young military officers revolted. The revolt was limited to Enugu, Ibadan, Kaduna and Lagos during which the Prime Minister, the Premiers of West and North Regions and high-raking politicians were assassinated. The escalating political unrest in parts of the country with increasing loss of faith between political parties and between political leaders, charges by the opposition parties of rigging of elections and general abuse of power by the regional governments in the conduct of the last election, triggered off the revolt. Prominent among the four chief Coup splotters was Major C.K. Nzeogwu. After the seizure of power Major Nzeogwu as spokes-man of the group had these to say “We seized power to stamp out tribalism, nepotism and regionalism.” After a marathon round of negotiations the military and the politicians reached an agreement that the former should take control of the government. On January 16, 1966, because the incumbent President Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was out of the country on vacation, the Acting President Dr. Nwafor Orizu made a nationwide radio and television broadcast of the unanimous decision of parliament to relinquish power to the military with immediate effect. He then called upon the General Officer commanding Nigeria army, Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi to take over the reigns of government. The Major-General accepted the offer and in his inaugural speech said “The National Military Government will stamp out corruption and dishonesty in our public life with ruthless efficiency and restore integrity and self respect in public affairs”. Thereafter, he suspended the offices of President, Prime Minister and Parliament. The constitution was also suspended. He announced that the functions of the Federal Military Government would be exercised by the Supreme Military Council. All political office holders were also suspended. The judiciary and civil servants were to continue in their normal duties. He appointed Military governors to take charge of all four Regions of the Federation in accordance with their ethnic or geographical origins as follows. Lt Col FA. Fajuyi, West, Lt. Co. D.A. Ejor Mid West, Lt Col C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, East and Lt. Col Hassan Katsina, North. An announcement of moves towards unitary government which was misinterpreted, sparked off violent protests and demonstrations in the north during which southerners mostly Igbos were massacred and their properties destroyed. The crises came to a head on 29th July, 1966 when dissident soldiers stormed Government Lodge, Ibadan and allegedly kidnapped Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi who was on a state visit and his host U. Col. Fajuyi to an unknown destination. Their where-abouts remained a mystery for about six months after which they were declared dead. The body of the Late Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi was then taken to his hometown, Umuahia-Ibeku for state funeral.
Following the bloody overthrow of Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Government, General Yakubu Gowon with the consent and approval of the majority of members of the Supreme Military Council emerged as the new and youngest head of state ever. The revelation of events of the first and second coups indeed generated a rift between the Federal Government and the East Regional Government. The crisis raged and sanctions were imposed on the Eastern Region by the Federal Government. Since all internal efforts to resolve the issues proved futile, a concerned General Joseph Ankra of far away Ghana convened a meeting of the Supreme Military Council in Aburi-Ghana which was also attended by Lt. Col Ojukwu during which certain decisions were reached. There were arguments on the many interpretations of some of the decisions. Lt Col Ojukwu believed it was agreed in Aburi that the regions should move slightly apart but Gen. Gowon disagreed intoto with his interpretation. There were many other points of disagreement. The crises deepened and Lt. Col Ojukwu suddenly proclaimed the “Independent State of Biafra” which General Gowon regarded as illegal and vowed to crush it. Gen. Gowon then split the country into 12 States as basis for stability and declared a state of emergency all over the country. Sanctions that were earlier lifted in implementation of the Aburi accord were re imposed. When relations between the Federal and the East Regional Governments had reached boiling point, hostile action began on 6th July 1967 which the Federal Government initially termed “police action”. The action soon ripened to a bitter and sanguinary civil war which ended on January 12th 1970. To engender goodwill after the cease fire, Gen. Gowon said “No victor no vanquished”. In February 1970, he said “All Nigerians are unanimous on their desire to live together in peace and harmony with one another irrespective of ethnic origin, religion or creed. We cherish peace and stability, we desire progress, justice and the right atmosphere to live happily as one family and bring our children up as citizens of one united country.” That Nigeria is today still a single entity is largely due to the efforts of Gen. Gowon who fought courageously and unflaggingly to keep Nigeria one. Like the legendary atlas that carries the globe on its shoulder, Gen. Gowon carried the burden of the Nation on l1is shoulder at the tender age of32 and did surprisingly well. I dare say, Nigerian politicians are today enjoying the fruit of the labour of Gen. Gowon whose courage and genius coupled with the expression “Go on with one Nigeria” coined from his Surname (Gowon) inspired him and indeed all patriotic Nigerians to fight to keep Nigeria one. The slogan “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done” was broadcast both on radio and television daily during the civil war at regular intervals from dusk to dawn. Gen. Gowon did not after all fight in vain as Nigeria is today not only still an entity but also still the most populous black nation in the world. He fought in keeping with the words of our National Pledge “To serve Nigeria with all my strength to defend her unity. And uphold her honour and glory”. During his incumbency, there was economic boom from the oil wells and so began the most prosperous period of the nation. In the palmy days of General Gowon the standard of living of Nigerians rose to an enviable level. The General used the petro dollar to build dual carriage ways, the national stadium, the national theatre and the teaching hospital all in Lagos the then Federal Capital City and seat of government. The National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) which is a replica of the American peace corps was introduced during his regime. The Gen. was and is still a first class gentleman and a model of integrity and decency. He walked in humility when head of state for it was indeed a happy re-union when he encountered his former cook during a courtesy call to his alma mater the military academy, Sand-haust, for he did not look down his nose at him. Though he was super humble and good natured, he failed to leave the podium when the ovation was loud. A newspaper columnist once wrote during his regime. “If a military government remains too long in power it becomes unpopular” Gen Gowon’s regime’s popularity declined when it remained too long in power – 9 solid years. Consequently on 29th July, 1975 his government was toppled. He then fled to Britain where he had a heaven-sent opportunity to study and graduate in political science at Warwick University. He later returned to his native Nigeria at an opportune moment. After a careful study of the political scene for a while, he decided to have a shot at the presidency but failed to win the hearts and minds of party faithfuls at the preliminary stage. This temporary set back not withstanding, he could stage a dramatic come back, you never know. His very creditable performance as head of state during Nigeria’s darkest period, should not be consigned to oblivion. “There are no bad leaders but bad advisers” Gen. Yakubu Gowon (ret).