The military has governed
after independence. In fact, the longest stint that an elected government has been
in power in
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
a Northerner), the Northern premier (Alhaji
top-ranking Northern military officer (Brigadier Maimalari), but inexplicably no
major Igbo politician or top-ranking military officer was harmed. The leaders
unsuccessful because they had been defeated in
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
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.
was killed and several Igbo officers were executed in
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
to Igboland in the south
Colonel Emeka Ojukwu
declared a secessionist state of
war commenced and only ended when
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
Arthur Richards who, in
1945, thought that the ensuing three regions were
natural divisions and, therefore, gave the "purely administrative arrangement"
constitutional recognition (National
Council of Nigeria and the
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
territorial administrations that coincided with the home base of each of
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
nationalist party, the
National Council of
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
The First Transition from Democracy, 1960-1966
The result of the federal election of December 1959, by which power would be
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
the western Region, 25 from northern minorities, 14 from eastern minorities,
and 1 from
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
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
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
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.
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.”
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.
...disagreement between Awolowo and Akintola led a faction within the AG to
attempt to dismiss Akintola.
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
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
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
problems encountered by his co-conspirators in the south. In the early afternoon of
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
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:
government of the federation of
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
"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
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 (
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
on accusations of increased national disunity during President Gregoire Kayibanda's
Amin's coup of 1971 in
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
Coup makers have also pointed to interference in military affairs as
well as inadequate military budgets as reasons for military coups..