First military head of state in Nigeria

First military head of state in Nigeria

Nigeria was ruled by military heads of state at different points in its history. The first military regime started at the fall of the first republic in 1966. This article contains details about the first military head of state of Nigeria.

Nigerian Rulers

Who was the first military head of state in Nigeria?

The first military head of state in Nigeria was Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi.

He was born on the 3rd of March 1924 in Umuahia, Abia State. He went to live with his sister when he was eight years old. She was married to Theophilus Johnson, a diplomat from Sierra Leone. Theophilus Johnson became a father figure to him. Aguiyi-Ironsi later took up his brother-in-law’s last name to be his first name. Aguiyi-Ironsi went to primary school and secondary school in Umuahia and Kano. He went against his biological father’s wishes and joined the Nigerian army when he turned 18.

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Military career

Aguiyi-Ironsi enlisted in the Nigerian Army in the year 1942. He started as a private in the seventh battalion. He was promoted to company sergeant major in 1946. Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was sent to Staff College, Camberley in 1946 to study an officer training course. He was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant of Royal West African Frontier Force at the completion his course. Aguiyi-Ironsi became a captain in 1953. In 1995, he received a promotion to the rank of Major. He was among the officers who served as an equerry of Queen Elizabeth the second on her visit to Nigeria in 1956. He became commandant of the fifth battalion in Kano in 1960 as a lieutenant colonel.


In 1960, he also became the head of the Nigerian troops of the UN peacekeeping force in Congo. He became a brigadier general while serving as an attaché to the Nigerian High Commission in London from 1960 till 1962. While serving as an attaché, he enrolled in some courses at the Royal College of Defence Studies (formerly Imperial Defence College). He was appointed to be the commandant of the whole UN peacekeeping force in Congo (previously known as Zaire at the time).

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Aguiyi-Ironsi was given promoted to major general in 1965. The same year, he was made the general officer commanding the entire Nigeria Army. He was the first Nigerian to head the whole Nigerian Army.

How he became head of state

Ironsi at his first press conference

On the 15th of January, 1966, a group of soldiers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu killed most of the top Northern politicians and senior military officers and their wives including the then Nigerian Prime Minister, Tafawa Balewa. Aguiyi-Ironsi was also targeted to be killed, but he was able to take control of Lagos which was the Federal Capital Territory at the time. The president of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe at that time was outside the country. With nobody to intervene for the continuity of civilian rule, Aguiyi-Ironsi forced the remaining members of the government to resign. The acting President, Nwafor Orizu (the president was outside Nigeria then) officially surrendered power to Aguiyi-Ironsi. This resulted in the fall of the first republic and the start of the military regime in Nigeria.

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Aguiyi-Ironsi became head of state at a very delicate time when there was ethnic tension as a result of the coup. It was believed that the coup plotters targeted mostly Northern and Western officials. Also, most of the plotters were Igbos. He tried to persuade Nigerians otherwise by giving political appointments to people from those regions. But he did not punish the coup plotters and this aggrieved a lot of Nigerians especially the Northerners. This was part of what led to the Nigerian civil war.

Counter Coup and death

Aguiyi-Ironsi and other officers

On the 29th of July 1966, Aguiyi-Ironsi was on a nationwide tour, and he was spending the night at the Government House at Ibadan. While he was there, the military governor of Western Nigeria Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi informed him about a possible conspiracy within the army. Immediately, he tried to reach out to his Army chief of staff in person of General Yakubu Gowon, but he was unable to contact him. The following morning, the Government House at Ibadan was surrounded, and Aguiyi-Ironsi was arrested by Theophilus Danjuma the man who led the soldiers. He was interrogated for being allegedly complicit in the events of the January coup that resulted in the death of Ahmadu Bello. Aguiyi-Ironsi's body as well as the body of Fajuyi were found in a nearby forest. Circumstances leading to their death are a mystery till today. Aguiyi-Ironsi spent 194 days in office as head of state.

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He was married to Victoria. His son Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi was appointed as the Nigeria’s defense minister in 2006.

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