What Aguiyi-Ironsi means to us, by family, others
It was tears 50 years ago, when the corpse of former Military head of state, Major Gen. Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was brought by train to his fatherland in Ndume-Ibeku, Umuahia- Abia state. He was brutally murdered by soldiers in Ibadan, where he had gone to visit the then Governor of the Western Nigeria, Col. Adekunle Fajuiyi.
Last Friday, family, friends and well-wishers gathered at Umuahia in remembrance of Ironsi who was assassinated on the 29th of July, 1966.
Although it was a low-key remembrance, as planned by the family, it provided opportunity for those who knew him and those who never knew him but have heard about him through history, to reflect on his life and times.
At the occasion were Major General Edward Nze of the Defence Headquarters representing the Military High Command along with the Garrison Commander of the 82 Division of the Nigerian Army, Enugu and other military officers.
There was the leadership of apex Igbo socio-cultural organization, Ohanaeze Ndigbo led by Chief Enwo Igariwey; wife of Anambra state governor, Eberechukwu Obiano, who represented wife of Nigeria’s President, Mrs. Aisha Buhari; wife of Abia state governor, Deaconess Nkechi Ikpeazu; Catholic Bishop of Umuahia, Most Rev. Lucius Ugorji; traditional rulers among others.
Mrs. Buhari described the military Head of State as “a great patriot and a soldier’s soldier who stood for the unity of Nigeria.” She also lauded the General’s widow, Victoria Ironsi, for holding on in the past 50 years, saying it was a proof of her commitment, courage and selfless service.
Abia state Governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, who was represented by his wife, said Ironsi lived and died for the unity of Nigeria, urging Nigerians to imbibe similar virtue of hard work and patriotism.
The first son, Ambassador Thomas Aguiyi Ironsi, described the father as a patriot who served the fatherland with dedication in many capacities as a military officer and statesman. He recalled that the father was awarded one of Austria’s highest medals for bravery in rescuing its nationals from rebels in the then “Congo” in the sixties.
He said that his father’s death should be a reminder of the urgent need for national reconciliation, peace, unity and stability, which he demonstrated while in office. He said he would remain proud of his late father as a man who never succumbed even in the face of death.
The traditional ruler of Ndume – Ibeku Kingdom, His Royal Majesty, Dr. D.I Aguiyi, described the late General as a “fearless officer, whose services was cut short in his prime”, stressing that “his kind of person is rear to find in a generation.”
He recalled: “When Aguiyi Ironsi left unexpectedly, it was like darkness has enveloped the entire Ndume, it was like the people of Umuahia have ceased to exist. I will say that his exit was the exit of gentility, candour, gallantry, unity, peace and love in the Nigerian army”. He was a true Igbo son and a manifestation of Igbo spirit. Ndume people love him; Umuahia and the entire people of Abia state love him. We will not forget in a hurry his person.”
The monarch described the wife as a “lady of great courage. She did not remarry; she kept faith and continued with the training of the children her late husband left behind. In a sane society, somebody of her status will earn national recognition. Our message is that the federal government should remember his family so that his death will not be in vain. Remembering him will also serve as encouragement to Nigerians who might want to excel in their various fields of endeavour.”
Perhaps, the most solemn moment came when the leader of the Nigerian Legion in Abia State, Col. A.C. Obaja took the gathering down memory lane to the day of Aguiyi–ironsi’s death and his burial at Umuahia.
He had begun by asking the gathering whether anybody among them knew Aguiyi Ironsi personally to which there was no positive response. Then he added: “I think I am the luckiest because I knew him personally. I could not forget fifty years ago when his remains were brought to Umuahia. Train brought it. I was there and I witnessed the brief ceremony. That day, nobody believed he was dead even when the coffin bearing his remains was displayed where he was buried. People kept saying he was in our midst, they kept saying he never died. They were saying that somebody like him should not die.
“He died in action with the flag of Nigeria’s unity in his hands. He won many laurels and was a good representative of his people. Though painful, his exit however was remarkable because even in death, he remained a hero.
“We use this celebration to remember all those who died during the war. Although it is fifty years already, it was like yesterday and for us, he remains our hero.
Turning to the federal and state governments he said: “The cenotaph of JTU is still not completed. We expect that something should be done to complete it in record time to make the place ready for us.”
President General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, who led the entire national executive of the apex Igbo socio- cultural organization to the event said: “We came here on a solidarity visit and to remember fifty years ago when the action we are remembering today happened. We remember him as our excellent son, a great soldier, a fine soldier and the highest-ranking first Nigerian General. He may have died but history will forever remember him and remain fair to him. Nobody can wish him away. It is almost a National Day in the country to remember the July 29, 1966 episode.
“If we want to act right, we should celebrate and remember the fallen heroes. The federal government should honour such great Nigerians – Ironsi and Adekunle Fajuiyi to tell generations to come that people can die for a cause. Fajuiyi had no business dying; he showed solidarity for his boss, he had to pay the price. Just as Igbos recognize Fajuiyi and appreciate him for his actions, we also remember our own that is why we are here. We really need to unite this country in the spirit of brotherhood and love, like the great leaders who craved and worked for unity of the country”.
For the Secretary General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Dr. Joe Nworgu: “July 29 this year makes it exactly fifty years that the former head of state, Gen. Aguiyi Ironsi was assassinated by people who through their action threw Nigeria into confusion. It is about sectionalism, that they
tried to promulgate by their action. Their motive was to destroy the country and cause sectionalism that was what led Nigeria astray, causing so much fuss and disharmony even in the present time.
“We know what happened but I want to tell you that Nigeria has not recovered from that incident till date. Although it has come and gone, the repercussions and cracks are still there. There is no action since these fifty years to bring about unity in Nigeria.
“What should be done is that the federal government should apologise to Ndigbo for fifty years of exclusionism and I want to restate that no positive action to achieving national unity is being taken. Nigeria is a country of very many ethnic groups so positive steps should be taken for us to create a nation where all Nigerians will be together in equity, justice and fair play”.
However, Dr. John Ugo, an analyst, said that one moral lesson that Nigerians should learn in the kind of death suffered by Aguiyi and Fajuiyi was the “greatness inherent in service”. He told The Guardian that the time had come for people to aim at legacies that would make the world remember them and not to live for “ephemeral things of life.”
“To me, it is still rare to remember people, fifty years after their death; but in the case of Ironsi, family and friends have continued to keep his memory alive. That is the essence of life. That is the value of life. He hadn’t a place of his own, something that the present day leaders will not accept. He wanted service and lived for service. He remains my role model, no matter what other Nigerians think,” he said.