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

Who was the first military head of state in Nigeria?

Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi was the first military head of state in Nigeria. He was born March 3, 1924 in Umuahia, State of Abia. He went to live with his sister at the age of eight. She was married to Theophilus Johnson, a diplomat from Sierra Leone. Theophilus Johnson became a father figure to him. Aguiyi-Ironsi later took his brother-in-law’s family name to be his first name. Aguiyi-Ironsi went to primary and secondary school in Umuahia and Kano. He went against the will of his biological father and joined the Nigerian army at the age of 18.


In 1960, he also became head of the Nigerian troops of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Congo. He became brigadier general when he was assistant to the High Commission of Nigeria in London from 1960 to 1962. As an associate, he enrolled in courses at the Royal College of Defense Studies (formerly Imperial Defense College). He was appointed the commander of the entire UN peacekeeping force in Congo (formerly known as Zaire at that time). Aguiyi-Ironsi was promoted to Major-General in 1965. That same year, he was appointed general officer commanding the entire Nigerian army. He was the first Nigerian to lead the entire Nigerian army.

How he became head of state.

On January 15, 1966, a group of soldiers led by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu killed most of the leading North politicians and senior military officers and their wives, including Nigeria’s prime minister, Tafawa Balewa. Aguiyi-Ironsi was also targeted for assassination but could take control of Lagos, which was the Federal Capital Territory at that time. Nigeria’s President Nnamdi Azikiwe was then abroad. Having no one to intervene in the continuity of the civilian government, Aguiyi-Ironsi forced the other members of the government to resign. Acting President Nwafor Orizu (the president was out of Nigeria then) officially handed over power to Aguiyi-Ironsi. This led to the fall of the first republic and the beginning of the military regime in Nigeria. Aguiyi-Ironsi became head of state at a very sensitive time when there were ethnic tensions following the coup. It was believed that the putschists were aimed primarily at officials from the north and west. Also, most tracers were Igbos. He tried to convince Nigerians otherwise by giving political appointments to people from these areas. But he did not punish the putschists, and it hurt many Nigerians, especially the northerners. That was part of what led to the Nigerian civil war.

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Counter Coup and death.

On July 29, 1966, Aguiyi-Ironsi made a national tour and spent the night at the Government House of Ibadan. Colonel Adekunle Fajuyi, military governor of western Nigeria, told him of the possibility of a conspiracy within the army. Immediately, he tried to contact the Army Chief of Staff in person with General Yakubu Gowon, but could not contact him. The next morning, the house of Ibadan’s government was surrounded, and Aguilei-Ironsi was arrested by Teófilo Danjuma, the man who was leading the soldiers. He was reportedly questioned for alleged complicity in the events of the coup in January that led to the death of Ahmadu Bello. The body of Aguiyi-Ironsi, as well as the body of Fajuyi, were found in a nearby forest. The conditions that led to his death are a mystery until today. Aguiyi-Ironsi spent 194 days leading the country. He was married to Victoria. His son Thomas Aguiyi-Ironsi was appointed Nigerian Minister of Defense in 2006.

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