The military has governed Nigeria for more than two-thirds of its years

after independence. In fact, the longest stint that an elected government has been

in power in Nigeria was from 1960 independence to 1966.


The first military coup took place early in January of 1966, but was

largely unsuccessful. The coup leaders, who were primarily Igbo army officers,

overthrew the government, killing the prime minister (Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa

Balewa, a Northerner), the Northern premier (Alhaji Ahmadu Bello), and the

top-ranking Northern military officer (Brigadier Maimalari), but inexplicably no

major Igbo politician or top-ranking military officer was harmed. The leaders

were unsuccessful because they had been defeated in Lagos by a counter-attempt

led by the Army Chief of Staff, Major General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, himself

an Igbo. Aguiyi-Ironsi became head of state by default and the plotters were

imprisoned. It is important to note that Nigeria was in deep crisis for several

months before the coup, especially in the West where political killings had

raged to a dangerous level. The subsequent military ascension to power helped

control the crisis, which the politicians had precipitated, but the apparent selective

killings of Northern leaders by the coup plotters were to throw the country

into a far deeper crisis.


Major General Ironsi's government lasted for only six months before

Northern military officers carried out a countercoup that was extremely bloody.

Ironsi was killed and several Igbo officers were executed in Lagos. The coup

was essentially an ethnic revenge. Lieutenant Colonel Yakubu Gowon was then

appointed head of state to replace Ironsi, but the killings had got out of hand.

In the North, a number of Igbos were attacked and killed on the streets and others

fled to Igboland in the south east of Nigeria. The Igbos led by Lieutenant

Colonel Emeka Ojukwu declared a secessionist state of Biafra. A three-year

civil war commenced and only ended when Biafra surrendered in January of



Many Nigerians looked forward to a return to democracy after the war

and at least one federal minister (Chief Obafemi Awolowo) resigned in 1971 in

protest against the continued military rule. General Gowon promised a return to

democratic rule in 1976 but put it off in an October 1974 speech (Joseph, 1987).

This indecision about a return to civilian rule was one of the reasons that led to

Gowon's removal in a July 1975 coup led by Brigadier Murtala Mohammed.

Other reasons were cormption and mismanagement of funds, increasing concentration

of decision powers around Gowon, and lack of control of the state

governors' activities. Brigadier Mohammed was killed in a failed coup attempt

early in 1976 and Lieutenant General Olusegun Obasanjo took over as head of

state until he handed over power to an elected democratic government in 1979.


Major General Muhammed Buhari's December 1983 military coup was

carried out as a means to cleanse the society of an increasing malaise of corruption

and indiscipline. Buhari's scheme was elaborate and led to the imprisonment

of many politicians, muzzling of the press, several detentions without substantiated

charges, and the promulgation of a wide number of military decrees.

Buhari's regime was very similar to the first stint of Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings

regime in Ghana, without the execution of military officers.


Arthur Richards who, in 1945, thought that the ensuing three regions were Nigeria's

natural divisions and, therefore, gave the "purely administrative arrangement"

constitutional recognition (National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons

1945:12). While this decision might have had an innocuous intent, the fact that

the second half of the 1940s represented the period of the crystallization of

ethnic nationalism in Nigeria, particularly in the south, meant the creation of

territorial administrations that coincided with the home base of each of

Nigeria's three main ethnic groups. The west became coterminous with the

Yoruba ethnic group, the east with the Ibo, and a residual north with the Fulani-

Hausa ethno-political cluster.3 These three territorial regional administrations

were transformed into territorial, ethno-political and regional identities, with

the Ibo Federal Union (to become the ethnic organizational basis of the erstwhile

nationalist party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons

which dominated in the east), Egbe Omo Oduduwa, in 1948, (the Yoruba cultural

organization which later became the Action Group - AG in 1951, the party

of the west) and, in 1949, the Jamiyya Mutanem Arewa (the pan-northern cultural

association that became the Northern Peoples Congress - NPC in 1951, and

the party of the north).4 They were the conflict units with which the Yoruba,

Ibo and the Fulani struggled for the exclusive domination of the Nigerian state,

the control of which was soon to be relinquished by Britain


The First Transition from Democracy, 1960-1966

The result of the federal election of December 1959, by which power would be

transferred from Britain to a Nigerian government, confirmed the tri-ethnic

framework of Nigerian politics. Of the 312 seats contested, the NPC won 134,

all of them won from the Northern region; the NCNC won 89 seats, 58 from its

Eastern region base, and 31 from ethnic and political minority groups in the

north, west and Lagos; the AG won 73 seats, 33 from its ethnic support base in

the western Region, 25 from northern minorities, 14 from eastern minorities,

and 1 from Lagos; other parties and independent candidates took the rest 16


The British Governor General, James Robertson, thought the north would not

accept a government made up from a coalition of the southern parties and so,

asked the NPC to form a government (Robertson 1974: 234). Nevertheless, the

AG's active support for minorities in the north and east already made a coalition

of the NPC and NCNC likely. The NPC went into coalition with the NCNC, and

the AG became the opposition. By the pattern of thinking about politics, this

meant an Ibo-Fulani coalition against a Yoruba opposition. Considering the animosity

between the AG, on one hand, and the NCNC and NPC on the other, the

pattern of alignment appeared exclusionary. But the more frightful import of

this pattern for the AG was the possibility of using central executive power to

intervene in the west and undermine its ethnic and political base. It was to forestall

such an eventuality that the executive council of the AG in mid September

of 1960 established a tactical committee. While this move represented a tendency

to consolidate the status of the AG as a regional force with the hope of

capturing central power, another tendency, symbolized by the deputy leader of

the AG, Samuel Akintola, emerged that favoured cooperation with the coalition

government and partaking in the distribution of political and economic



A wide ideological gulf separated the NPC and NCNC. The NPC was conservative

and isolationist; the NCNC socialistic and pan-Africanist. However, they

had the resentment of the AG, with its leader, Obafemi Awolowo, in common.

That was the true basis of the coalition. Two developments followed from this.


The conflicting tendencies within the AG created factional problems which led

to a political crisis in the Western region in May 1962, and the opportunity for

the coalition to intervene and eventually confirm its AG supporter, Akintola, in

power. By mid 1963, with the conviction of Awolowo for treasonable felony, and

the excision of a Midwest region from the west, the influence of the AG in

regional and national politics had been virtually destroyed (Sklar, 1991).

An initially quiet struggle for supremacy between the coalition partners had

become evident by the beginning of 1961. As the AG went down, this became

progressively pronounced and came to determine the direction of the politics

and stability of the Nigerian state. Their disagreement over the 1962 census

figures, the proposed basis for delimiting constituencies for the 1964 federal election, heightened and nationalized this rivalry and, ultimately, led to the formation

of two broad alliances - the United Progressive Grand Alliance and the Nigeria

National Alliance.


Although representing the south and north respectively, the thinly concealed

the struggle between the NCNC and the NPC or, more accurately, between the

Ibo and Fulani, to control central executive power. The federal elections of

1964/65, contested on the platforms of the alliances, were as uncompromisingly

fought as they were manipulated. The NNA, and thus the north, won. It was in

the midst of the clamor for eastern secession and the violent aftermath of the

election in the west that the military struck on 15 January 1966.




On the whole, the abuse of the electoral process and the intensity of the electoral violence which characterised the elections created constitutional crisis and undermined the legitimacy of the new civilian government. The socio-political crisis that emanated from this situation was exacerbated by the high rate of inflation and mass poverty, labour’s demand for higher wages, and the Tiv tribe uprising in Northern Nigeria inevitably provided the pretext for the first coup d’état that aborted democracy on 15th January 1966 and brought the military into the political administration of the country. The constitution was suspended and all existing political institutions including the Federal Electoral Commission were dissolved to mark the end of the first republic.




The largest ethnic groups in the north of country were the Muslim, traditional

and socially conservative, Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups. Intermarriage and cultural

assimilation had blurred the distinction between the two ethnicities and Nigerians

refer to them in compound form as the “Hausa–Fulani.” The south was dominated

by two competing ethnic groups: the proud and culturally rich Yorubas in the

south-west, and the energetic and vibrant Igbos in the south-east. The British carved

the country into three regions broadly corresponding to the location of these three

largest ethnic groups. Hemmed in between them were approximately another 250

disparate ethnicities. Some were millions strong and others had only a few hundred

members. Most of these groups had nothing in common with each other outside of

their mutual suspicion and hostility.


The differences between them were accentuated by religion. The south of the

country is predominantly Christian and the north predominantly Muslim. The

general outlook of the people in the north and south is so different as to give them

practically nothing in common and to make physical confrontation between them

a virtual certainty.


Northern leaders feared that a Yoruba and Igbo alliance from the south could

swamp them, threatening their way of life and their political dominance. Bello expressed

these fears: “A sudden grouping of the eastern and western parties (with a

few members from the north opposed to our party) might take power and endanger

so endanger the north. This would, of course be utterly disastrous.” Bello’s fear was

not without justification and Northerners for their part resented the condescending

attitude of southerners. Some southerners regarded Northerners as backward, uneducated

and unsophisticated, and some Northerners felt southerners were no more

than ill-mannered infidels. The Northern Region had threatened to secede unless it was given half the seats in the post-independence Parliament.


After independence in 1960 the NPC took control of the federal government with

the NCNC as the junior partner in a shaky coalition. The NPC’s deputy leader, Tafawa

Balewa, became the Prime Minister and the NCNC’s eloquent leader Dr. Nnamdi

Azikiwe took the ceremonial role of Governor-General until 1963, when the country

became a republic, upon which his title was changed to “President.” The AG formed

the opposition with the energetic Obafemi Awolowo as Leader of the Opposition.

The Yoruba were left out in the cold while the Igbo and Hausa–Fulani parties (the

NCNC and NPC respectively) colluded.


In 1963 a census revealed that the population of the south was greater than that

of the Northern Region. Each region’s census results determined its share of seats in

the Parliament, and each region was widely assumed to have inflated its population

count. The results from the south showed a preposterously high rate of population

growth, unprecedented in the history of mankind. The Prime Minister ordered a verification of the results, after which an additional eight million people were “found” in the Northern Region. The verification exercise showed that the Northern Region did after all have a larger population than the south. The census figures caused mutual bitterness between the Northern Region and south, with each region accusing the other of massively distorting the census figures. It also carved a huge rift in the NPC–NCNC coalition and leaders from both parties publicly traded insults.


A US report noted: The facts of geography and population assure that under the constitution, the federal government will continue to be dominated by the party representing the tradition-bound Moslems of the north, who are generally contemptuous of the south and unsympathetic to its problems. The southern regions, which are deeply divided along tribal, regional, and party lines, resent northern domination (1965)


...disagreement between Awolowo and Akintola led a faction within the AG to

attempt to dismiss Akintola. On May 25, 1962, the Western Region House of Assembly met to debate a motion of no confidence in Akintola. In a suspiciously prompt move the federal government imposed a state of emergency in the Western Region and appointed the Prime Minister’s personal friend and physician, Dr. Moses Koyejo Majekodunmi, as the Administrator of the Western Region.


it became apparent to southerners that the only way for them to alter the Northern Region’s control of the country was via a constitutional amendment (unlikely, since politicians from the Northern Region controlled the Parliament) . . . or violence. The conviction and imprisonment of the AG leader Chief Obafemi Awolowo for treason seemed to suggest that some southerners had chosen the latter option. In a controversial trial Awolowo and several of his AG supporters were convicted of plotting to overthrow the federal government by force of arms. Awolowo and his party supporters had been training fighters in Ghana and that they tried to bribe army officers to rebel against the government.


Ethnicity and culture:

Igbos distinguished themselves by becoming the most prominent and commercially successful. They were educated, adventurous and hard working. When the expatriate British workers departed, Igbos moved quickly to fill their clerical, administrative and technical jobs. In the impoverished Northern Region, the Igbos’ commercial success, Christianity, and Westernized manner did not endear them to some of their Northern neighbors. Northerners grumbled about, and bitterly resented, the presence of huge numbers of Igbo migrants who in their view were taking all the best jobs.


Addressing the Igbo State Union in 1949, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe declared that “The God of Africa has specially created the Igbo nation to lead the children of Africa from the bondage of the ages.” Such statements fuelled fears in other regions that Igbo leaders wanted “to build up the Igbo as a master race.


1964 Elections: Many of the politicians were little more than ethnic

champions uninterested in a national outlook. The campaign was conducted not on platforms of policy or ideology, but on the basis of personal abuse and vitriolic ethnic chauvinism.


The Western Region elections of 1965 were marred by even more spectacular rigging, voter and candidate intimidation, arson, murder and thuggery. The plan to foreclose any chance of an electoral victory for the NNDP’s opponents  was multi-faceted. Opposition candidates and voters were often intimidated or prevented

from filing nomination papers or voting. Even where opposition candidates managed to stand for election and win in results declared at polling stations, radio announcements would announce a different set of results with NNDP candidates being declared “unopposed” winners.


The country now had two governments that were the product of illegitimate elections. The federal government was in power despite a partially boycotted and flawed election in 1964, and now the Western Region’s government under Akintola was in power after a spectacularly rigged election. The entire political system was corrupted from the federal to the regional level.


Military and the prospects of a coup

The pertinent question is how an apolitical professional army with less than fifty

indigenous officers at independence in 1960 became politicized and overthrew its

country’s government less than six years later. The officer corps became politicized

due to a number of factors including the introduction into the army of university

graduates, the politicians’ unwise meddling in army affairs, and the government’s use

of the army to solve political crises created by it. Although the federal government’s

use of the army to suppress civil disturbances (which required political solutions

rather than an iron fist) was partially successful, it also radicalized some of the officers that took part in those operations. Although ostensibly multi-ethnic and meritocratic, the method of recruitment into the army had created an ethnic stratification time bomb, and made intra-military conflict inevitable. Most of the officers were southern and their subalterns and NCOs were mostly Northern.

The Northern Region’s Governor Sir Kashim Ibrahim claimed that the Prime Minister had remarked  to his colleagues, “Well, we are all surrounded by Igbo officers; if anything happens they are going to kill us.


The 1964 election crisis during which Azikiwe and Balewa courted senior military

figures sensitized some officers to the potentially pivotal political role that the

army could play. The above factors, combined with inter-officer tensions regarding

recruitment and promotion, created fertile ground for increasing officer politicization.


The political crisis was a frequent topic of conversation among radical southern

intellectuals, academics and their army acquaintances. The civilians would often urge

their army colleagues to take drastic action to change the situation. At times it was

barely veiled incitement. Second Lieutenant Cyril Azubuogu recalls that:

Any army officer was being harangued by civilians because of the state of the

nation. People felt that the army should do something, that the country should

be salvaged. . . . Most army officers at that time had the same problem of people

coming to us, saying, what are you doing? The country is on fire. Why don’t you

do something about it?


Disgusted by the political mess the country was in after only six years’ independence

and by the corruption, avarice and selfishness of politicians, a group of politically

radical army officers took the bait. They decided that the only means out of the

political impasse was to execute a military revolution to overthrow the government.

At the core of this thinking was a group of young, mostly Sandhurst-trained army

officers in the rank of major. They were a combination of graduates and officers with

links to radical academics in the south west area of Nigeria. Their plan was to overthrow the government, release opposition leader Obafemi Awolowo from prison, and install him as the president.


In Kaduna, Major Nzeogwu was in full control and was facing none of the

problems encountered by his co-conspirators in the south. In the early afternoon of

January 15, 1966, Nzeogwu made a radio broadcast declaring martial law over the

Northern Region. Nzeogwu declared that the aim of the revolution was “to establish

a strong, united and prosperous nation free from corruption and internal strife.” In

that broadcast he uttered the following spine-chilling words which have acquired

near legendary status in Nigeria:

Our enemies are the political profiteers, the swindlers, the men in high and

low places that seek bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seek to keep the

country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or

VIPs at least, the tribalists, the nepotists, those that make the country look big

for nothing before international circles, those that have corrupted our society

and put the Nigerian political calendar back by their words and deeds.


I have tonight been advised by the council of ministers that they had come to

the unanimous decision voluntarily to hand over administration of the country

to the armed forces of the republic with immediate effect. All ministers are assured

Acting President Orizu:


I will now call upon the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian army, Major-General Aguiyi-Ironsi to make a statement to the nation on the policy of the new administration. It is my fervent hope that the new administration will ensure the peace

and stability of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and that all citizens will give

them their full cooperation. Shortly afterward and on behalf of the military, Aguiyi-Ironsi accepted this offer:

The government of the federation of Nigeria having ceased to function, the Nigerian

armed forces have been invited to form an interim military government

for the purposes of maintaining law and order, and of maintaining essential

services. This invitation has been accepted, and I, General J.T.U. Aguiyi-Ironsi,

the General Officer Commanding the Nigerian army, have been formally vested

with authority as head of the Federal Military Government and Supreme Commander

of the Nigerian armed forces


Soldiers were also regarded as disciplined, honest and patriotic and the public generally trusted that they would always act in the national interest and without succumbing to the temptations of corruption and avarice that so many of the politicians fell into. It is a measure of public exasperation with politicians, and yearning for good leadership, that the public were willing to put so much

faith and optimism in a group of soldiers with moderate education and no political

Explaining Coups.


 "no sooner had colonial rule ended than our new [African] rulers set about converting the revolution into one of fire and thunder against their own"  

                                                General  Obasanjo, Head of State, Nigeria, 1999.




S E Finer - The Man on Horseback (1962 et seq.)

Prior to Finer’s work, political scientists had approached coup d’etats as a set of ephemeral, exceptional and isolated experiments by the military in governmental politics. Finer approached the coup from a fresh new perspective, one which recognized the increasing tendency of military intervention as a peculiar political phenomenon that was abiding, deep seated and distinctive. In contrast to popular opinion at the time, his belief was that direct military rule was an emerging distinctive kind of regime and that the military could become an important independent political force in itself.



an exposition of the political strengths of the military in terms of its organization, coherence, virtues and structure before going on to examine the weaknesses of the military as a political organization.


He peels back the façade of invisibility and mystery which often shroud military affairs and exposes two crippling weaknesses of the military – their technical inability to govern and their lack of legitimacy – which preclude them from ruling without civilian collaboration.



He argues that military intervention is often more common when there is a concomitant increase in the dependence of civilian governments on the military and a decrease in the popularity of the civilian governments.

He categorizes military intervention in politics into four levels. The first – influence - is the case where the military merely presses the civilian government to implement policies which the military deems appropriate. The second – pressures or blackmail – is the case where the military seeks to convince civilian powers to do its bidding by threat of some sanction. The third level – displacement – is the case where the military replaces one cabinet or set of civilian politicians with another more compliant set through the use of violence or threat of violence. The last level – supplantment – completely sweeps away the civilian regimes and establishes a military one in its place. This classification was a useful construct at the time because it highlighted and neatly categorized the diverse universe of coups that were occurring at the time.


Finer also examines the modes of intervention through which these four levels of influence could be expressed. He argues that the military could use collusion, intimidation, threats of non-cooperation or violence in their quest to influence the civilian powers that be. Finer concludes his book by looking at the past and future of military interventions.



Luttwak: Coup d'etat (1969 et seq.)


Luttwak’s book, Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook, published in 1969, grapples with the mechanics of how a coup is actually organized. He goes to some lengths to distinguish the classical coup’detat from other forms of extra-constitutional overthrows such as revolutions, civil wars and insurgencies. In his conception, a coup is distinct from many of the other forms of state capture because of its lack of reliance on the intervention of the masses. He asserts that most coups are politically neutral, in the sense that there are no discernable policies that tend to be followed after the seizure of power.


One aspect of the coup phenomenon that receives almost no attention in Finer’s work is the question of what the preconditions for a coup are. Luttwak tries to answer this question by painting a picture of the kind of environment that would be favorable to potential coup makers.


He summarizes these conditions into three – the confinement of political participation to a small minority, a politically independent state with limited foreign influence in its internal affairs and a non-ethically structured identifiable political center.


Drawing on the fact that most of the officer corps in the armies were drawn from the middle classes, Samuel Huntington, in his widely read work, Political Order in Changing Societies, surmises that the source of coups and military intervention in politics in general was as a result of the struggle for dominance between the economic classes of society.


Other writers such as Jose Nun and Guillermo O’Donnell have followed in this tradition, alleging the existence of an alliance between the military and the elite and upper classes of society to monopolize power, excluding the middle and lower classes from the political processes. It is therefore the tension between the classes that leads to most coup d’etats.





There are numerous reasons for military coups, but over the years most

historians or scholars have simply assumed that the reasons are those that are

often announced by the coup plotters themselves (Huntington, 1956, 1968;

Welch, 1970; Uganda, 1971; Nordlinger, 1977; Sahlin, 1977).


Those assumptions can often be classified as following either

the development thesis or the guardian perspective.


The development thesis arrogates the title of people's representatives

to military coup leaders, who claim to have militarily intervened on the behalf

of downtrodden citizens. These types of coups occur in developing nations (thus

explaining the name development thesis), where citizen political activity is considered

weak and the military, being a strong and nationally organized group, is

left to carry out political interventions. Wiking's elaborate study in 1983 lists

various justifications that could all be considered to fall broadly under the development

thesis. These include the lack of success in nation building and economic



The lack of success in nation building includes accusations of tribalism

and the failure to unite the nation. Wiking, for instance, notes that Major General

Juvenal Habyalimana's coup in Rwanda in July of 1973 was solely based

on accusations of increased national disunity during President Gregoire Kayibanda's

rule. Idi Amin's coup of 1971 in Uganda was announced as a necessary

intervention to prevent the then Ugandan leader Milton Obote's continued ethnic

policies against the Ganda people.



The guardian perspective acknowledges the military as the unit that is

entrusted with the nation's defense and military coups are, therefore, seen as

part of the maintenance of political sanity and, thus, a necessary part of national

defense. An example is political power tussles that are usually announced as

reasons for several African military coups. Such tussles frequently emerge after

elections when the loser refuses to concede victory and claims electoral malpractice.

Rarely do presidential electoral losers concede victory in most African

countries. Moreover, there are several election frauds that take place during

these elections that it is easy to find reasons for an electoral defeat. The power

tussles that follow those elections are usually protracted and they threaten the

country's peace. There are other power tussles that are not directly related to



Wiking lists lack of law and order; unlawful acts of the government,

and the army's duty to guarantee order as additional justifications usually announced

by coup leaders. These additional justifications can all be considered

also as being part of the guardian perspective. Coup leaders often give several

justifications to support their activities and these justifications can fall both

within the development thesis and the guardian perspective.


Wiking listed numerous other reasons that cannot easily be classified as

either a development thesis or a guardian perspective. However, they all are

announced reasons, including the following: lack of democracy, corruption,

interference in military affairs, and inadequate military budgets.

Let us elaborate more on the "lack of democracy," which should be absorbed

with a pinch of doubt. Coming from the military, this accusation is incredible.

Remarkably, the Malian coup leaders of 1968 had accused President

Modibo Keita of being dictatorial and undemocratic but the subsequent military

regime hardly proved different.


Corruption is frequently used as an excuse for military coups. Coup

makers point to various and sometimes verifiable examples of government corruption.

This wins immediate support for the coup makers but does not stop

corruption. The coup makers become engrossed in corruption. Several coup

makers have led some of the most corrupt governments in Africa. For example,

Jean-Bedel Bokassa in Central African Republic, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire


Coup makers have also pointed to interference in military affairs as

well as inadequate military budgets as reasons for military coups..