Friday, 29 July 2016

50 Years After, Aguiyi-Ironsi’s Son Speaks On 1966 Coup


On this day, 50 years ago, the late General Johnson Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi, Nigeria’s first military head of state, while on official assignment at the Government House, Ibadan, was taken away from his room by a group of soldiers in a coup that led to his death. His then 12-year-old son, Ambassador Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi witnessed how his father was taken away to his death. In this interview with CATHERINE AGBO, the former envoy to Togo and former minister of defence in the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration, spoke on the coup, the Biafra agitation and calls for restructuring of the country, among other issues.

You were with your late father on the commencement of events that led to his death. How did the events of that day shape your life as you grew up?

As I grew up, I had to understand that the person who I was looking up to, to save my life had gone. But surprisingly, as every year went on, I saw that his influence was still there with me. Already, he had imparted something to me that you have to give service. I had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong. How all these came about was because my father had sent me to a British public school and that inculcated in me a certain system of life, because he believed in this so called principle of officer and a gentle man. Well, I guess that’s what I have always tried to follow, to be a gentle man as the years went on.

How different would things have been were he to be around much longer?

Already, he had set some values in me and where he sent me to go and be educated, in that system they had a certain set of values and so I still followed the value system that he wanted me to have, which is to be an officer and a gentleman. He remains my hero. The manner of his going, the way he conducted himself when they led him away, these are things that I have always carried in my mind. The way he spoke to me before he was taken away, this impressed me and I thought that this is how to be a man. He’s my hero and I know he is a hero to a lot of people. Of course everyone has their hero on that auspicious occasion. What he did is something that if you look at today, very few Nigerians can do. It was heroic. So those are things to hold on to. Of course, as we grew up, there are certain events your father didn’t see that you will wish he saw. For instance, see you get married, your father didn’t get to see his grandchildren and didn’t see you going to school and the laurels you won. All those things are there but people lose their parents and life must still go on. What you have are the debris and he left an indelible imprint, a positive imprint for me to take as a value system to even pass on to my own children.

When he was taken away that night, did you quite understand what was going on and did you think they were going to kill him?

There was nothing like killing. It wasn’t in the night. The gunfire started in the night but by the time troops surrounded the whole guest house, it was already light. I was coming from my bedroom to his own to greet him and when I looked out of the window, I could see that the place was already surrounded by soldiers. And he said to me in a joking manner that he doesn’t know whether those are friends or foes. But of course I knew he was joking because they were obviously foes. He was going in and out, talking to my mother in the State House in Lagos. Of course he was waiting for his helicopter that never came till they now came up to knock at his door. That was what happened, they knocked at his door, and he told me, after he had spoken to me anyway, that I should not come out but stay behind the door, that’s what happened. So I stayed behind the door while they were talking. Of course when they said that there was not going to be any killing here, it was obvious that something bad was going to happen. After a while, they left the place. For many months the death was not announced anyway, all that was being said was that he had been kidnapped. It was at the Aburi meeting in Ghana that they actually now confirmed what had happened. By that time, I had gone back to school in England.

Do you remember who it was that said there would be no killing?
No, I will not know that. Of course I know the characters that were around but I cannot say this is so and so that said this or said that. No. I will not say. Even if I knew, I wouldn’t say that.

Do you think the 1966 coup, which your father was a victim of, was necessary?
That is a very interesting question. As a student of international relations, political studies, when you ask whether a coup was necessary, I’ll say you have to go back in history, to look at the situation in history at the time, what was situation in the country. That is part of the problem that President Obasanjo was trying to complain about. That there is not enough being taught in secondary schools nowadays on civics so that people have an idea of how things developed. Was there confusion in the country? What brought about the coup? People just woke up one morning and said there should be a coup? Something must have been going wrong. Was it only in Nigeria that they were having coups? Were there so many coups going on in Africa at that time? What was causing it? When we look at things in an empirical, historical manner, then you can be in a better position to answer a question as to whether it was right for the coup to have happened. All I am going to say is that there must have been something on the ground and there was something on the ground that brought about that coup.

50 years after you lost your father, will you say Nigeria has been fair to his memory?
I will say that Nigeria has been fair to his memory. You recall that he was included on the list of 100 prominent Nigerians. That is not to say that there are no longer any other prominent Nigerians but he made the list of 100 and as such, I’m sure he would have been elated if he were to be alive. This hotel that we are staying in, the Hilton, is located on Aguiyi Ironsi Street, named after him. In his home town and state, there are a lot of edifices that remain to acknowledge the fact that he was once on this earth. True, for many years, his wife was neglected like many other widows in the Nigerian Army and Nigerian Armed Forces. But as she approaches her 80th birthday, I can say that Mrs Abacha, Mrs Aisha Buhari are people that have helped to also put her position in a better light.

In 2010, the Senate resolved that spouses of former heads of states be given some remuneration, was that money ever paid to your mother?
You have to and ask her.

Your late father believed in the unity of Nigeria. Now, there are agitations for self-determination from IPOB and other groups calling for restructuring. Do you think these calls are really necessary at this time in the history of our country?
From the perspective of being a Nigerian, I come from Nigeria and we have to look at what is the entity called Nigeria, we have to look at the structure called Nigeria. There have been calls for the restructuring of Nigeria and since we got independence, the country has been restructured, moving from regions, moving from states and additional states. So it wouldn’t be amiss to say that the restructuring could continue but the restructuring has to be done by Nigerians. They have to meet, they have to discuss, the modalities have to be put in place. So since we have been having restructuring, I think we will continue to restructure till we get it right. I think everybody seems to be in agreement that we should have some type of true federalism. But from my perspective, whether you are an Igbo man, Hausa man or Yoruba man, Christian or Muslim, the important thing is that yes, we should be united in our differences. The most important thing is to respect our differences, this is what people like the late Sardauna of Sokoto also believed in, that we should respect our differences. I think the problem that comes about is when people don’t want to give due respect to people’s differences and opinions and that is where different church groups, Muslim groups, civil society groups, mothers, fathers, guardians have to inculcate the fact that people should respect differences. The whole issue of the youth corps system that was brought about was to try for our elites to understand themselves and respect themselves and move the country forward because normally, it’s when the elites are having problems that the country can be jettisoned. They can move people to do the wrong things. The youth corps system is something that we need to have further developed even to the secondary school level, not just the university level the way things are going on in the country now. I would want some type of system like that even for the secondary school level.

Still on the Biafra issue, do people not have the right to self-determination especially putting into perspective what has happened with Britain voting to leave the European Union and bearing in mind also that the whole coming together of Nigeria was the idea of the British?

I said that Nigeria has been restructured with the different states creation. Different states have been created so the country has to agree on how it wants to continue to restructure itself but there will still be one Nigeria but the restructure. Maybe we have to call it the United States of Nigeria and it is the people themselves that will have to decide how they are going to restructure it in the fashion that will have true federalism and true respect for every citizen of Nigeria.

But the Biafra agitators are not asking to remain as part of Nigeria, they are asking to secede, they want to be on their own as an independent country. Do they not have a right to that agitation?

We have seen a lot of wars in this world. We have seen the first Great War, the Second World War, the Korean War, we have seen civil wars. Wars are no good things. My perspective is that we have not yet reached the stage for people to go their separate ways, I still think that there is still time to negotiate the type of structure that can give everybody a sense of belonging in an entity called Nigeria. And I think it is the right of the majority of Nigerians, their own human right, first and foremost to be able to have that negotiation. It’s not something that any small number of people can force on a majority by the gun or by terror. The majority also has a right to have a negotiation on how the country should be restructured. It is not something that a minority can force because they use guns or terror and force. It is a question of human rights of the majority that should also prevail, that’s my perspective.

On the issue of self-determination, it appears there’s a disconnect between the older generation of Igbos and the younger generation, then in the midst of all this, there is no one voice that can speak on behalf of the Igbos. How is it that there is no figure head to connect the older and younger generations on this burning issue?

I don’t see too much of a disconnect, all I see is that, there is a generational divide, it’s not a disconnect. People like music, but depending on your age, it is a different type of music, it doesn’t mean that everybody hates music. So as far as the south east is concerned, everybody there wants development. Nigeria is a developing country, everybody wants development but depending on your generation, there may be things or views that as to which way to go to get that development but the idea that whether you are old or young that you want development for the south east, I think that is still in place. There is a need to have some mechanism and some voices to come together to further discuss the best way to have that development.

Unless you believe in dictatorship, to say that our leader has spoken, Igbos like to hear different views and are very democratic in that sense if you want, republican in their attitude. That is why I said that what is there is for a forum for the so called generational divide to be able to meet so that views can be expressed and solutions arrived at.

During the last election, the Igbos followed a voting pattern, which some people have alluded to as the reason why they are allegedly being marginalised by the government in power. What’s your view about this?

Of course, the Igbos have a right to choose who they’ll vote for like other Nigerians, to choose whichever candidate they want to vote for. All I know is that our president, is the president of the whole of Nigeria. He wants development in the south east, he wants development in the south west, and of course, he wants development in the north east.

You served as defence minister in the President Olusegun Obasanjo government. What are your thoughts on the arms deal probe, how money meant for arms procurement was handled?

This is a very sensitive issue and I am not prepared to go into specifics but all I can say is that I like the way President Buhari is handling the issue. As a father, you have to mete out punishment when a child does something wrong but of course, you are not going to kill your child because you are giving punishment. So if there is going to be plea bargaining, if there are going to be systems put in place to ensure more transparency in arms purchases, all these things under the Buhari administration I know will be done effectively.

As a minister, there was the Niger Delta agitation around that time, right now we have Boko haram in the north east and the Niger Delta agitation is resurgent. How did you advice the president then to tackle the issue and how will you advise this government to look at the issues considering the time that has passed between then and now?

What I want to say is that, under President Obasanjo there was a deliberate and sustained attempt to engage those in the Niger Delta in discussion. There were a lot of discussions and there was agreement that the region needed a master plan for development and this was done. The Boko Haram issue is more complex because there are outside influences, I don’t want to go too much into but President Buhari has taken the right option of forming cooperation with neighbouring states, especially those that have borders with Nigeria, so he is going in the right direction with that and also engaging in dialogue. Most Nigerians will agree that where there is criminality, the head of state has to take actions against criminals but where things are being done by sitting down and discussing what the problems are, then I am sure that the president is somebody who can engage people to do that. Luckily, we still have advisers like president Obasanjo and numerous seasoned military officers who have retired who can still give good inputs to make Nigeria secure and safe.

Some people have asked for amnesty for Boko Haram as it was in the case of the Niger Delta. Do you think the situations are the same and deserve the same attention in terms of amnesty?

I don’t. I don’t think the situations are the same but it is up to the president if he wants to give amnesty. That is all I can say.

Did the Niger Delta issue get as much money as was voted for the Boko Haram fight when you were minister and what impact will the money have had if all of it was put into fighting the insurgency as intended?

I have already said that the situation of Boko Haram and Niger Delta are not the same. There are some similarities but this does not go into the issue of warfare but rather lack of infrastructural development in both the north east and the Niger Delta, the issue of environmental degradation, issue of lack of educational opportunities, these are issues that you cannot win with guns. These are issues that you have to have a plan to implement. These are issues you have to get money to put on ground to implement. So that is why am stressing that they are not the same. And that is why President Obasanjo insisted on having dialogue with the Niger Deltans, why late President Yar’adua also knew that extending an amnesty also had to come into play in the Niger Delta. Already, you can see that General Danjuma is heading a committee to see how the structural defects in the north east can also be ameliorated. I will also add that Boko Haram too has what I can term a religious perspective whereby the Muslim leaders also need to come together to ensure that the so called fanatics are not able to dissuade the youths and children. There has to be closer monitoring in the mosques of the type of teachings that go on, there is also a battle not only in Nigeria, but worldwide some of these radical messages are transmitted. Somehow, Nigeria also has to see how we can look into those issues. Because as most people know, Islam is a religion of peace. So there should be no confusion about that.

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