“When they introduce that kind of talk, I would look at them from their hair to their toe 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”, that was former first lady, Mrs Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi
In her cozy office at the Local Government Service Commission, where she worked as Commissioner one in Umuahia, Abia state capital on July 2016, the dogged lady popularly called “Queen of Ibeku” by her admirers had told the Guardian why she refused to remarry after the death of her husband, Major Gen Johnson Umunnakwe Aguiyi Ironsi in the counter coup in Nigeria in 1966. That was shortly before the 50th anniversary of the assassination of her husband.
Then over 80 years of age and radiating in what did not look like her real age since she was still strong and could go to her office and work until the day was over, she disclosed why she refused offers and pressures for marriage after the death of her husband.
She said: “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”
Asked whether she would marry a soldier in her next life, even with her ugly experiences serving in the barracks, she responded in the affirmative, but added “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”.
Mrs Aguiyi Ironsi, firm, strong and elegantly built. She was very colourful and hardworking. These attributes helped her to raise her eight children after her husband who she referred as “Jonny” was killed in the counter coup.
She hailed from Ohokobo Afara and married to Aguiyi- Ironsi , who was from Ndume, all of Umuahia north council. Growing up, she led the troupe of dancers in her community, an act she never stopped until the year she was married.
She had told the Guardian a little about her life as well as her marriage to Augiyi-Ironsi: “I have seen hell and at the same time, I have seen heaven.
However, 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”.
On the death of her husband in 1966, she tried her hands in many things to keep the family together. She became a building contractor and did jobs for the federal government during the Shehu Shagari administration as well as confectionaries.
“Before they killed the Supreme Commander, (Ironsi), 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 didn’t have anything. So I was with the children until they were taken to the convent for the reverend sisters to look after them.
“Ojukwu later called me and said I should help 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.
“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 in 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 used to buy the land. I did it so that the children can find a place where they can lay their heads and call their own. It is very important to me’, she added.
In Politics, she played a prominent role. She was a Mobilizer for the National Party of Nigeria (NPN). She also worked for Chief Arthur Nzeribe and became his Woman Leader when he (Nzeribe) contested the presidency in 1979.
The pangs of death however, snatched her on Monday morning, 22 August, 2021. Before her death, she was the Coordinator of former First Lady’s of Nigeria, a body that embodies surviving wives of former presidents of Nigeria.
She said she decided to form the body as a way of helping the former first ladies, whom she added were always forgotten the moment their husband leaves office or was no more. In Abia state, she became a rallying point for the various administrations of the state, who came to her to seek counsel. She began her work in the Local Government Service Commission during the administration of Orji Uzo Kalu. That was also following her belief that as much as she was alive, she needed to work to help people around her.
She died at the age of 87 years from a yet to be confirmed ill- health. When she celebrated her last birthday recently, those who gathered had eulogized her accommodating and caring spirit, stressing that she had “continued to put smiles on the faces of people around her”
Governor of Enugu State, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi had broken the news of her death during the opening session on Sunday of the 2nd plenary session of the Catholic Bishops of Nigeria Conference (CBNC) taking place in Enugu.
Ugwuanyi, who mounted the rostrum to address the gathering, had pleaded with the gathering: “I just got a message that the wife of the former Supreme Commander, Late Major General Aguiyi Ironsi died this morning. Please, if I have the permission of the chairman of this occasion, I want to call for a minute of silence for the repose of her soul”. Ugwuanyi had stated that she would be “greatly missed”.
Former National Chairman of the United Progressives Party (UPP), Chief Chekwas Okorie, had said of her death: “The news of the death of Chief Mrs Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi took many people by surprise because it was not long ago that she danced in her living room celebrating her birthday. She will be remembered for her candour and grace. She carried on her life with admirable dignity after the gruesome assassination of her husband General Aguiyi Ironsi the late Military Head of State of Nigeria. She was an epitome of forgiveness considering how warmly she received and related with some of those who play active role in the assassination of her husband. She was an exemplary first-lady that the Nigerian Government should give a befitting honour and immortalize. I pray that the Almighty God will grant her noble soul eternal repose”
For the Emeritus President of Aka Ikenga, Chief Goddy Uwazuruike, “ Lady Victoria Aguiyi Ironsi was a lady in word and deed. She sheltered with her children in my village, Umunakanu Ehime Mbano LGA of Imo state during the Biafra War. She carried herself with dignity and earned the respect of people. After the war, she lived in Umuahia town with her children.
That she is a survivor is seen in the way she took care of her children who turned out to be highly respected members of the country. An example is Ambassador Thomas becoming a Minister of Defense. Lady Victoria did not fall apart on the death of her husband. Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord.
Let perpetual light shine on her.”