By KODILINYE OBIAGWU, and LAWRENCE NJOKU,
Mrs. Victoria Aguiyi-Ironsi, widow of the first military Head of State, Major General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi will never consider any of her sons join partisan politics or the armed forces. Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the general on July 29, she spoke with the South East Bureau Chief, KODILINYE OBIAGWU, and LAWRENCE NJOKU, recently, in her office at the Local Government Services Commission, Umuahia, where she is Commissioner One. In reminiscing on how she has coped these past years, she shared her thoughts on President Muhammadu Buhari, Olusegun Obasanjo, Yakubu Gowon, Shehu Shagari, and former governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu and Others. After nearly two hours of sharing her experiences and slithering in a maze of flashbacks, but remaining steady on her course of recollections, the septuagenarian who has seen it all noted: “I have seen heaven and I have seen hell. I have no enemies and I bear no one any grudge. I give glory to God.” Excerpts:
How are you doing and what are you doing now with yourself after all these years?
I like the way you put it. I will start to say that I do appreciate the way you people have shown concern towards me and that is why I want to grant this interview. I believe that it is not everybody that you will see and try to find out how life is treating the person. So, on this note, I really do appreciate. The truth is that 29th of July this year will be 50 years since my husband was killed. By then, I had eight children. I have seen hell and at the same time, I have seen heaven. However, today I owe God my gratitude because I know I started my life in the convent, where reverend sisters are trained. Right from my elementary school, I was exposed to convent training because in those days when you passed Standard Six as a young girl, you were put in the convent and it was ridiculous for you to say you want to study further. But my elder brother was well educated. So, he refused and said his sister will go on studying. And that was how life started. So I know much about God. I was living with reverend sisters Mary and Mother Theresa; they were all British. In fact, when I finished with them, they made my wedding dress to marry the army man, the “Supreme Commander.” We started life in London. We had one week in Lagos and one week in Kaduna and we were abroad all the time.
All the same, it was an admixture of very good and very sad experiences, but with God on my side, my only problem was how to train my eight children. Last year was another sorrowful one for me. I lost one of my daughters in the United States after she had obtained her doctorate degree in law. She was trying to come home to take up an appointment. She was not married. We buried her in first week of May last year. It was devastating and it is now that I am just coming out of it.
Was she your last child?
No, she was the third child. She had completed her masters and doctorate degrees in law. She was trained abroad. They were all trained abroad. During the Civil War, they did not touch them because the reverend sisters in Ibadan came and took all my children away, because that was what Adekunle Fajuyi wrote to them. That was how they were able to go to school. The reverend sisters said I could look after myself.
Where you able to look after yourself as they said and how did you do it?
Of course I did look after myself very well. You know, before they killed the Supreme Commander, we hadn’t a hut. That was why immediately Emeka Ojukwu, heard that his master had been killed, what he did was to come to Lagos, negotiate with Gen. Yakubu Gowon that no harm will neither touch me nor the children. But we had no house in Umuahia then. We hadn’t anything. So I was with the children until they were collected and taken to the convent for the reverend sisters to look after them. So when we moved to Enugu later, Ojukwu gave us No 2 and 3 Mount Street, and trying to find out whether they killed the man or not.
But you know it was at Aburi that he was killed. They did not want to accept the truth that is why they killed him at first. But God being what He is, the war also broke, and all the things Ojukwu wanted to do, he couldn’t do them. He wanted to set up a beautiful house in Umuahia here for me, but the war did not allow that. He later called me and said, don’t worry about anything, come out and help. Come and help us organise the women so that they can be making chin-chin and serving soldiers at the war front. I was so annoyed when I heard that. I said, ‘me again and army? I will not do it.’ But after much persuasion, I decided to come out and help. But when we were there, I knew that it was good going to be good.
After my children were taken away by the reverend sisters, people were coming with various gifts, cash and what have you. This was during the war and even after the war. Through these, my elder brother suggested that we build a house here in Umuahia and that is Number 71 Nkwere Street. That is the house I stayed until the war broke out in Umuahia and we ran to Mbaise. That 71 Nkwere Street is my official residence. It is still there. It was a beautiful bungalow before, but now they are making it a storey building. It was the money I made that I bought the land. I did it so that the children can find a place where they can lay their heads and call their own. It was very important to me.
That was how we started. I didn’t want any communication with the army. But I was doing contracts and anything that could bring me money, apart from stealing or doing things that were immoral. God did his best for me. Any serious supply in the army, they will say, ‘it must be Vicky. If Vicky cannot do it, no other person can.’ I did some of those buildings in Abeokuta. I passed that road three months ago and I was telling my grand child who was in the vehicle with me that his grandmother did most of those houses there. He said, ‘grandma, how did you come to do it?’ I said Alex Ekwueme and Shehu Shagari gave me the contract to do it, and it was only then occupied by the Europeans. I built them and did the furnishing. So you see why I told you that God has been my strength in anything that I do.
Is your present work part of what you have been doing?
This is the eighth year that I am occupying this present office. Just because I was very sick and when I came back from America, my children said that I should not do anything again. They called a meeting to insist that I will never do any business again, but I told them that they know that their mother cannot stay at a place. I told them that I will be doing something but not as I used to do before. Then the former governor of Abia State, Orji Uzor Kalu called me and gave me an appointment, and they later brought me here to be Commissioner One in the Local Government Service Commission. I have been here for eight years and I don’t know how long I will be here. But as it is, I am doing my best, helping people as much as I can, which I enjoy doing. That is all about life.
Apart from Ekwueme and Shagari, have you benefitted from any other government in terms of contract since then?
I have no enemy. There is no place that I enter and say I want anything that they don’t give me. But my problem is do I go for something? When you are not used to people doing something for you, it is so difficult for you to come and expect people to do something for you. You know people would like you to come and beg them for something, but I was never that way.
As someone from the military background, when Olusegun Obasanjo was civilian president, did you have a relationship with him that he had to come and do something for you?
That is what I am telling you. Obasanjo till tomorrow remains my boy. He can give Victoria something. He doesn’t need me to come and ask him to give it to me. I cannot tell you that I have gone to him to demand anything. He is one of the good boys of the army. He respects me a lot, he respects the family a lot and my son is there who is an ambassador by the grace of God. My son as a child of God does not think about the evil that men did to him. He is friendly with everybody.
Is it the same thing with President Muhammadu Buhari?
The thing that I tell you is that shoes have sizes. You asked about Obasanjo but let me say that as at that time, Buhari was too low for me. Today he is in authority. He has the power now.
What is your relationship with people like Gen. Yakubu Gowon?
Gowon has been good, despite all the things that happened. When my first daughter Caroline was getting married, Gowon came with all his service chiefs to Umuahia. The villagers didn’t want to see him, but I said no. You know that everybody is a child of God. He talked to the people, begged them for what happened and they received him. To also show that I have nothing against him, I worked on the board called Gowon Centre, which was on Victoria Island. I was on that board for over 11 years. I don’t have any problem with anybody. Vengeance is for the Lord and not for me and that was what I told Gowon in my village.
Did you expect anything specifically or more from the Federal Government?
You will answer that question yourself. What did the Federal Government do for me? I did not ask for anything because they are not my God. But it did not stop me from mobilising the first ladies.
All these years, none of your sons joined the Nigerian Army. Why?
I refused to let them join the Nigerian Army. And even some people tried everything to get my first Thomas to join the army but I refused. You see, when I came to the army, I saw their life. The first thing I did was to shout, hey! This kind of people who drink like this, they call that place Officers’ Mess. This is where they eat lunch, everything. At times, I will ask the cooks, how many people are we cooking for? The orderly will say, ‘cook everything, is it your food? Don’t you see all these people following Oga? They will all eat, so that when they go and drink beer they will not misbehave.”
I remember the day all the soldiers were commissioned and promoted. We were all like a family; I didn’t see them as people coming to work. They were so many of them and we related well. But in all, I didn’t even allow my daughters to marry any solider because I discovered that it was the soldiers who killed my husband. Not today’s army anyway. I called today’s army the new army and not the old army. Life in the old army is different, their movement is different; it is not the greedy army we have today.
Why do you call them greedy and what is so different, because as they say, ‘soldier come, soldier go, barracks remain?’
It may be the same army in uniform, but not in character. In the Nigerian Army of those days, no one cared whether you have 10 houses or don’t have any. It does not worry them. The army that I knew, if you were their wives and suggested to them, let us go and build something, they will ask you who the woman was that came to brainwash you. Thereafter they will stop her from coming to visit you again. That was the army that was free in the mind; they did not care about what you had.
Why didn’t you remarry after all these years; did you ever think of it at any time?
No, I never thought of marrying again. I saw many white people and black people who wanted to marry me, but they were not of the type of man that I married. If you knew what I went through, you will sympathise with me. When they come to introduce that kind of talk, I would look at them from their hairs to their toes and ask, why have you come to say you want to marry me. Are you not afraid? I will say to them, “when you marry me tomorrow, will you take me to Buckingham Palace so that I will remove Johnny’s picture and put your own in his place, or what?” The man I married, I didn’t know whether I was a wife or sister or what. There was nothing he did not teach me. He molded me as he wanted and when he was going, he knew that I would never remarry. He knew I would train his children. So why would somebody because of earthly things ask me to remarry. It couldn’t be, please.
After the war, it was the question of, ‘I want to marry you’, and I think that somebody who will see a woman with eight children and still insist on marrying her is not serious. What is the person coming to do? When we were in the convent, there was a way you look at a man and we will say you have committed adultery. So, we were the “holy of the holies.” The only man I knew was my late husband. The man who so loved me and cared for me; a man who could dress my hair while we were in London, and even on our wedding day. He was the only one I could marry. There was nothing he did not do for him.
From my childhood, I have always been a strong person. I danced so much in my youth and every December, I was the one leading the dance troupe in my community. I never stopped until the year I married. Go to my village, Ohokobo Afara and find out what I am telling you. I was born in Ohokobo Afara and married in Ndume. For me, having children was no issue. Before anybody could suspect that I was pregnant, then you know that the pregnancy was in the seventh month. If I had remarried after the death of my husband, I would have also given birth to four or five children more. This is because of my age and nature of life.
In your next life, would you marry a soldier?
Yes; but the army officer has to be Johnny. An officer who has his spirit; who has his manners. And not knowing him is missing something. Physically, he is not here but spiritually, he is with me all the time.
Was the appointment of your son as minister part of your plans for the children?
That appointment gave me sleepless nights. I told my son to please be mindful knowing all that he knew all these years. When he was educated abroad, I went to London with him in four years and after nine years, I left him to continue there and the first holiday he came back we were at Marina. Even when what happened took place, I forgot that he came back on holiday the first time he came to Nigeria. So we quarreled when his father was going to Ibadan and wanted him to accompany him. I said no; leave my son alone, he is not a soldier. But he insisted that nothing was going to happen to his son.
He insisted and Tommy went with him. They were namesakes. That was what happened; he went to Ibadan with him. The day that incident happened in Ibadan, Johnny spoke to me nine times on the phone. He told me that he has spoken to his son that his son is a man; that he told him not to enter any car. The Supreme Commander said that he was looking for his helicopter and when I went to ask Ogundipe, he told me to go and ask the four ADCs about it. I was annoyed and called him an evil man and left his office. I went into my room and cried, all my workers came and asked whether I have heard anything and I said no.
Did you argue with your son not to accept being a defense minister?
No, not with Thomas. His Igbo name is Ikeokwuadighm ( meaning I don’t have capacity for too much talk) Iheanacho Thomas. You see, he has a strong character. That day his father was killed and following what the father told him, he came back to the State House. Immediately, he came and I asked him about his father, he said, ‘Mum have you had anything to eat?’ He called the chief cook and asked what he has given to me? They told him that I have not accepted to eat anything. Then he started pleading. He said that I should not worry that his father was a soldier and that he is so proud of his father; that his father did not allow the army to enter the house even when Fajuyi wanted to go with him. I was just looking at the boy. He was not crying, he has the spirit of a lion, he did not cry even when he knew he would not see his father again, but he could not show it. Tommy was about 18 or 19 years then.
How did you cope with that night when you discovered that something was gravely wrong?
The night before then, he was phoning me frequently. I did not sleep that night and my elder sister who came on a visit was with me at the State House. So, I asked him, what do they want? That was when I was discussing with him about his helicopter. I told him that I was trying to know what happened to the helicopter and Ogundipe told me that I had four ADCs that I should find out through them. He said, ‘did you talk to him?’ I said, yes and he said I should not talk to anybody again. I heard that on that day, somebody went and ordered the helicopter to fly back to Lagos but he never reached Lagos with the helicopter. The helicopter crashed. So the Supreme Commander died without the helicopter. It is so complicated.
In asking your children not to join the Nigerian Army, did you also ask them not to join partisan politics or run for elections?
I am the one in politics. God made me to be a politician but not this their type of politics where corruption has become the order of the day and people no longer say the truth for the sake of money. That is not my idea of politics. I have been in politics since my late husband died. During the days of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN), I was there. I was Arthur Nzeribe’s Woman Leader when he contested for the presidency. I was following him until he compromised. I played politics with some Hausa persons and I was mobilising for the NPN. Money has been the bane of our politics. Honesty is seriously lacking. I have refused to talk to people. Some persons have come to this office with money for me to grant them interview. But I refused. I like money but not the type that will not allow me have peace of mind. However, I did my best for Arthur Nzeribe then. If you go to his house at Oguta, you will discover a building on which it is boldly inscribed “Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi.”
At your age you are still very active. What is responsible for that. Is it the food you eat, the company you keep, or your children?
I eat the simplest food. I did all the courses in food, but all those things were beneficial when we were in the State House. I gave them the entire menu and that was how my late husband wanted it. I did a course at the London College of Fashion for four years. But the rest is God’s grace. We are what we are by His grace.
Looking at your days in the State House, is there anything you feel you didn’t do well or you are missing now?
I am not missing anything. The only thing I miss is my husband and nothing more. This is because I built a house of comfort. God gave me the type of house I wanted and my children are grown up today. I am also alive and giving my support and advise to fellow women and the society.
What was the agenda when you and your friends formed the Forum of Former First Ladies?
We are not many and I am their leader. Basically, we came together to offer support by way of advise to our fellow first lady and to help her carry other women along.
How do you think more women could be encouraged to participate in the political process so as to end this recurring complaint of marginalisation of women in politics?
I went to Beijing, China with the former First Lady, Mariam Abacha. It was here in Umuahia that I called the former First Lady, Mrs. Patience Jonathan to assist the women get to high political offices. During our time, there was no money compared with what we have now. So, I told her to look for qualified women and allow them occupy some positions in government. We achieved that. You cannot go to any department and say this job is meant for a man and the other for the woman. Take me for instance. As a woman, I have held this office for over eight years now and I am doing my work. Right now, I am granting you this interview to show the level of commitment I exhibit here. So should we allow integrity to suffer, or offer jobs to qualified people not based on whether the person is male or female?
Many years since that Beijing Conference, how would you rate the success of the Affirmative Action?
I think it has been very successful. Hitherto, it was the woman who did the work while the man relaxed and ate. So my attitude is that, if you cannot do the job, don’t accept the money. And that is Victoria for you. I will not support you to take a job, which you cannot do, even if you are a woman, and are qualified for the job.
But women are still not coming out for elective offices…
And whom are you going to blame for that when men don’t allow their wives to come and contest politically? Would any of you interviewing me now allow your wives to run for political offices without telling her that the children and other house chores are there to take care of? That is the point. It is the men that cause all these and I believe it is deliberate. When my husband was alive, would I have dared to go into politics? He would never have allowed that to happen. I mean, how can he come back from the office and Vicky is not there, and the cook is maybe serving him food. He will not eat it. So, if a man does not encourage his wife, she cannot go into politics. This has broken several homes.
What does the protest of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State for Biafra (MASSOB) and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), mean to you considering what happened to you?
I don’t want to get into any discussion about the groups. But I know they might have achieved something if not for the way they have engaged in the struggle.
The three governors you have worked with seem to be having some difference, how do you view this development?
I started with Orji Uzor Kalu and then worked with Theodore .A. Orji, whom I can describe as my brother because I was born and married in Ibeku and Theodore Orji, is from Ibeku. I prayed for the incumbent governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, in my house and I told him, he would be governor. They have charted the course of development of the state up till now. However, when these three people will reconcile their differences you will not be there. I know them very well and I wish them well. But they should know that they are all Igbo, and should be their brothers’ keeper. Too much quarrel among them is bad and not in the interest of the state. Okezie Ikpeazu just started and we are watching him. We believe that he will do well, by the grace of God.
You once said that the kind of advisers that governors have affect the decisions that they take. How have you been advising these governors on the best way to develop the state?
There is something about the leaders of this state, and I must say that they have great respect for me. If you need advise, you must seek it. I am so reserved and there is nobody who asks for my help that I don’t give. What I will tell you is that I can’t start going to give advice when I have not been asked for one. But beyond that, I am waiting for the time to talk to the incumbent governor on the governance of the state. The time has not come. They know me as the Queen of Ibeku and even if I don’t meet them, they will come and meet me, or the people will ask me to go and talk for them.
Are you satisfied with the role you are playing for the government at the moment, or do you think you can do more given your strength and agility?
There are two ways to life. I like to do my own when I am convinced that I am really wanted and not somebody to so that nobody would think that she is coming because she wants something. I don’t like people to feel like. At the same time, we cannot be here and see something going wrong and not talk about it. People will always ask me, ‘where were you when things were going wrong.’ In that regard, I will go and warn them that things are going wrong and that the people are not happy. Ikpeazu did well recently when he bought several items, which we sent to the wife of President Buhari, for onward distribution to the less privileged persons and the internally displaced persons. I was telling his wife the other day, that I would go to the governor to thank him and tell him how happy the president’s wife was over the gesture. This is the type of thing you do for God- helping the less privileged and the displaced persons.
Looking back at the last 50 years ahead of this year’s anniversary, do you feel any regrets that things have happened differently?
I owe a lot to God. My tribute will be to God Almighty, and some people whom I really pray that the Almighty God will reward for their encouragement, their assistance and goodwill. People like the first Mayor of Port Harcourt – Nzimiro. I knew him when we went to London. When they heard that the Supreme Commander was killed, they came to Umuahia and it is only those in Umuahia that can tell you the kind of things they brought to my house.
He is late now, but one day when we were still in London, my husband came back from work one day and told me that the only child they had died. He said they would like the body to be taken to Nigeria. So the Supreme Commander used the VC 10 and took the body home. These are the type of people I will use this opportunity to appreciate. So, you don’t and can’t forget people who remembered you back then. Then there this man, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu. You know he lost his first wife. That his wife, Eudora never joked with anything concerning me. When you go to our house in the village, you will discover that the chairs in the sitting room and dining section were built by Iwuanyanwu and his late wife. They did it and there are so many of them like that. So I think that any opportunity we find in life to help people, we should not allow anything to prevent us from doing. So, basically, that is what we will use this anniversary to achieve.